Piazza Pia, improvisations with piety and love of the past
A sweet, serene harbour. Fishing boats to the left of the pier are busy moaring. To the right houses, palazzotti, four or five stories high, even some modest apartment buildings. Welcome to Anzio, a small Italian city 60 kilometers south of Rome. A place where sunsets are burnt orange and the water flows sparkling silver. Legend has it that it was founded by Anteo, the son born of Odysseus and Circe after their one night of love for which the sorceress relinquished her magical powers.
This fishing village sets the scene for a first Cd by the Henneman String Quartet in its new formation. Ig Henneman (1945) coined the improvisational concept for her new ensemble here. It is also here that she wrote the composed pieces found on Piazza Pia, named after the main square in Anzio, a place dominated by a Renaissance church structured by two tympans and a modest row of columns.
Italy, Renaissance Italy in particular, plays a crucial role in Henneman&Mac182;s works. First and foremost metaphorically, due to her appreciation of music history in its entirety. As a classically trained string player as well as a passionate improvisor, Henneman respects cultural history not merely for its museal worth but rather in its own vital and timeless element. She accentuates her respect by using ancient music as the very heartbeat for her own contemporary concepts.
Compare this to Renaissance man, conscious as he was of clinging to the coatails of the giants of antiquity, this to further his own contemporary horizons. Thereby, quotes and paraphrases of Italian Renaissance repertoire afford music history an even literal role of great importance in Henneman's work.
The string quartet has often been compared in romantic notion to a conversation between four rather stately gentleman. Listening to the Henneman String Quartet one rarely hears anything verbally distinguished. Rather, a restless discourse of emotional turbulence and percussive intensity, quickly followed by moments of loving sentiment and harmony: breaking up, making up. This music seeks the synthese sought by Claudio Monteverdi in his 8th volume of madrigals: Madrigali, guerrieri et amorosi, madrigals of love and war.
It is therefore far from coincidental that one of the numbers of the Cd, Non Oso <track 9>, is directly inspired by one of the profane madrigals in the aforesaid volume; Ardo, e scoprir ahi lasso, io non ardisco. But Monteverdi is not instantaneously evident in this piece for double bass, cello and viola. It is only after a handfull of descending flights of notes that the historical contours of Monterverdi become clear. There is a peep into his world in Non Oso, a slight parting of the curtain of centuries, followed by a somewhat cynical wink before the curtain sweeps shut. Once again we stand in the present time during a busy pizzicato bass solo by Wilbert de Joode.
Spolia <4> presents a typical example of the Henneman Quartet method. Its name is a term taken from Roman architecture for the recycling of elements from fallen or damaged buildings. Although the original musical material does not date from the Renaissance, the seed here is historical, the form and timing of a Byzantine melody which Henneman recyles, integrating it into notes from the hand of the Russian composer Galina Oestvolskaja. These historical elements weave their way through the remaining largely improvisational musical fabric.
Both Vivo Son <5> and the swinging, drumming Ecco <11> are also firmly rooted in the past. The first of these is borrowed from the madrigal of like name, one from the 6th volume composed by the passionate and murderous Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa, published near his death. Ig Henneman focuses on the word doloroso which here forms the departure point for a very actual, mournful, completely improvised musical journey. Ecco is an augmented paraphrase of the dancing song Ecco la primavera by composer Francesco Landini from Florence. Its role here is to bring a last bit of nostalgia to the final cadences of this Cd.
Considering its birthplace, it will come as no surprise that this Cd has a mediterranean flavour. Marranzanata <2> for example. Based on a Sicilian folk lament usually performed with a harmonica, in Ig Henneman&Mac182;s version the sound of the harmonica has become obstrusive harmonics. This is slightly reminiscent of Guus Janssens's string quartet Streepjes which incorporates the sounds of a glass harmonica in like harmonics. But wheras fellow Dutch composer and improvisor Janssens&Mac182;s quartet is a slight of hand, Henneman's work is far more than a mere house of cards. For example Satiras <7> which is based on a type of tenor singing particular to Sardinia. Here cellist Alex Waterman steers the other three instrumentalists through an intriguing maze of musical twists and turns.
Notes played by double bass player Wilbert de Joode once again form the grillwork in Cassettone <3>, a hop scotch game for the remaining string players, culminating in an unraveling viola solo by Ig Henneman herself. Pizzicato chords are the fundament of a paraphrase of a sensual San Remo melody in Semipiaci <8>, a popular tune, a hit about forty years ago. In it a woman sings of the waves of alternate attraction and hesitation used in the seduction of a new love: one kiss is not enough to know if I want you or not. I need to taste yet one more to really know if this love is mutual and true.
Palpito <6> is drenched in melancholy. It is an adaptation of a song from the northern Italian mountain regions. Here violinist Oene van Geel is the virtuoso. In stretching unisons the story unfolds of a brick layer forced for work to warmer regions as winter approaches. His beloved asks in forboding: Will you spare me even a heartbeat upon your return?
Time and again Ig Henneman deals deferentially with history. No difference for her if the era in question is the nineteen sixties in San Remo or as far back as Francesco Landini&Mac182;s fourteenth century Florence. Piety and love of the past are never lost. On the contrary. Yet despite this, Henneman is always true to her own time and self.
There is sometimes a slight resonance audible of the more ponderous of string quartet traditions, but beginning even in the fact that the Henneman String Quartet vies from the standard of two violins, viola and cello it is evident that Henneman stresses the contemporary in her stance. At best the Henneman Quartet parallels the full scale of string voices (violin, viola, cello and double bass). Also often performing with two violas, the ensemble is heavily slanted towards the timber of lower strings.
In either formation of the quartet, it is not only the past which is glorified to then be made actual by the adaptation of historical structures. The Henneman Quartet also emphasizes the transitory, stresses one-offs. This is not surprising coming as it does from such experts of improvisation.
Either as an ensemble or individually, their improvisational work naturally seeks a confrontation with musical standards; at other moments, the musicians just go their own free ways. Via Roma <1>, the pulsing, beating yet etheral bowed opening statement of this Cd is a good example of one of their free improvisations, as is the titel track Piazza Pia <10>. This piece has a binary form beginning with a series of pizzicati in lower registers and repetitions on higher strings. Suddenly all this is revealed as a mere upbeat to what seems like an intimate hommage to composer Morton Feldman.
With the exception of course of the renowned sum of exemplary musical capacities of its individual members, the strength of the Henneman String Quartet lies in the structural dualism between compostition and improvisation. The composed elements represent the planned, pre-calculated, the directed as well as life&Mac182;s blood flowing forth from century old musical traditions. The improvised elements, however, welcome inspiration from spontaneity, the temporary, the here and now. Is there a better combination feasible in any music?
Translation Cynthia Wilson