Bath International Music Festival 2009
The string quartet has become arguably the most naturally malleable of musical instrumentations over the past twenty-five years or so, thanks in no small measure to the pioneering work of one group. Indeed, with the Kronos Quartet expanding their catalogue of twentieth century pieces by Bartok, Webern and Philip Glass to include such lesser spotted chamber music creators as Thelonious Monk and Jimi Hendrix, to say nothing of their embracing of world music of many a stripe, it becomes difficult to justify labelling any other outfit as a string quartet with a difference.
By Kronos standards, even the wonderful Italians the Arke String Quartet, who actually are a string quartet with a difference, substituting double bass for cello, would cause few eyebrows to be raised in partnering Indian percussion master Trilok Gurtu on their Arkeology venture.
So step forward, Methera, who do qualify for a SQWAD certificate. Their difference lies their playing of fiddles rather than violins. Fiddle was once seen, by some, as a suitably derogatory term, reflecting a style of playing an instrument that was primitive and unsophisticated. There have been fiddles played on these islands for five hundred years and more – in the Scots language they were fydills; in Irish Gaelic, fidils – and they may well have been primitive. They were almost certainly simple instruments, made from wood and kitchen cast-offs and may have been limited in scope and ruggedly played but when they were supplanted by the Italian model towards the end of the 17th century, players embraced all the possibilities for expression that this new, streamlined arrival offered.
One hundred years later, a golden age of fiddling in Scotland found players and composers such as Niel Gow and William Marshall in the service of the landed gentry, writing skilfully evolved tunes in their honour that are still played today and are sometimes passed off as traditional. Hector MacAndrew, heir to Gow and Marshall, was revered by no less a violin authority than Yehudi Menuhin and nobody in their right mind these days would refer to the playing of, say, Paddy Glackin, Martin Hayes or indeed Emma Reid and John Dipper as unsophisticated. To hear these musicians play is to be reminded of traditional music’s dignity as well as its depth and integrity.
In uniting the depth and integrity of traditional English music with the rich texture of the string quartet, Reid, Dipper and their colleagues are presenting music that respects tradition and yet breaks convention. One wag, hearing Methera and bearing the Kronos in mind, described the concept as not so much Different Trains as Different Haywains. That was to overlook, however, the thoroughly in the moment nature of what Methera are creating. Theirs is music that draws on melodies, some of which may well have been around when Constable was painting, but it belongs just as much to the MySpace era as does a wii.
Methera’s repertoire is inspired by the social and ceremonial dance music of England and beyond. Thus you’ll hear them celebrating Apple Scrumping, actually a composition by the group’s violist, Miranda Rutter, but a tune with a character in keeping with any melody from the Marrowbones and The Wanton Seed collections of songs so valued by traditional singers down the years. And like the songs in those books, Methera’s music tells a story, with each voice within the group giving its version of the narrative.
The musicians of Methera have stories of their own, of course. Although still youthful, each has amassed considerable musical experience and knowledge. John Dipper, for example, grew up steeped in the traditions of Southern England. His unique playing style, and his traditionally-spirited compositions convey a deep understanding and passion for the indigenous culture of England, which he now also passes on to students across the world.
Emma Reid is similarly well travelled, featuring in groups that focus on Scandinavian traditions as well as repertoire from the British Isles, and has performed in such well received projects as May Monday, with accordionist Karen Tweed and Finnish pianist Timo Alakotila, and John McCusker’s Under One Sky.
Violist Miranda Rutter was a member of Pro Corda throughout her teens and, having developed a love of traditional music, became a member of Jabadaw and Fika and now teaches at traditional music courses all over the country, including the University of Newcastle, the Sage Gateshead and the English Acoustic Collective summer school. With cellist Lucy Deakin, a graduate of Leeds College of Music and much in-demand chamber musician, they are playing and composing music of substance that simultaneously draws on the past, lives in the present and looks to the future.