Memory and freedom
For several years now my group the Chiara Quartet has been memorizing our repertoire and playing string quartets by heart. No, not a gimmick, not a feat, but a genuine practice which has made a huge difference to our working relationship in rehearsals and performances; something that makes us feel a renewed excitement and trust in our playing.
Our performances of memorized repertoire began cautiously: we started with one piece on a program which was exhilarating but scary, then two pieces, and then finally an entire evening with no stands. I still remember the palpable energy of our first concert completely by heart—program: Haydn Op. 20 No 2, Bartok 4th quartet, and Schubert “Death and the Maiden”—there was a ridiculous and terrifying freedom about that performance with nothing between us onstage.
So why memorize as a chamber group? My answer: memory allows us to release the things that don’t matter. My group is made up of four very analytical, philosophical, and driven people; part of the reason we’re still playing together after 16 years is the shared and constant striving for depth of understanding and cohesion in our group. No one in the Chiara Quartet is satisfied with “ok,” which is a great thing, except when no one is satisfied…
This dissatisfaction is what inspired us to start memorizing. We were unhappy with a recording we had made of the complete Brahms string quartets. Something was missing, a lack of openness and abandon in the sound. We made the bold decision to scrap the entire project and rerecord the 2-album set, this time experimenting in rehearsal with getting our noses and brains out of the part. Rehearsing from memory had an incredible effect on our group: all of that healthy left-brained energy was kept in our heads remembering the composer’s intentions, and the focus in our actual playing became about connection and electricity, what we had been searching for.
Memorization forces us to truly grapple with what the composer was trying to say. It is a window into the miraculous world of each composer's language and a game of sorts, resulting in a balance between recalling the score and releasing it in performance. Questions like: “why would Bartok write 9 ½ iterations of that particular motive instead of 8 (which would be easier for me to memorize)?” Realizations like: “Oh, that’s because the viola melody sings a little bit longer than expected, creating more awesomeness (Bartok=genius)” etc. Memorization also equalizes the difference between working on old and new music. Mozart’s music is no easier to memorize than our dear friend Gabriela Lena Frank’s.
It also turns out we can’t commit to memory anything we don’t understand. We make signs, we make maps, we learn in solfege, we sing our parts and others’ parts, we do an immense amount of score study. And if we can’t figure out the composer’s logic, then we need to create a new one for ourselves. For example, “the shape of this line in Ravel quartet has an extra “tail,” it looks like a monkey, so it’s a monkey phrase!” Insert mnemonics and the practices that help us all to commit even the thorniest passages to memory. What better way to get inside the composer’s head?
Here is a performance of Bartok’s 5th quartet, 5th movement that we gave in October 2014 after recording Bartok quartets 1, 3, and 5 for our upcoming CD “Bartok by Heart.”