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Tetras, for string quartet (1983)

Arditti String Quartet

Tetras stands as one of the very finest chamber compositions of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. It is also one of the most original, profoundly challenging contributions to the string quartet genre. "Tetras" means "four" in ancient Greek, and the composer treats the four players as a single entity throughout most of the sixteen minutes of the piece. This multi-bodied, many-stringed organism vibrates with intense energy, the strings oscillating at lightning speed as glissando contours take shape across the registral continuum. It is no coincidence that Tetras was written for the Arditti String Quartet, a group that sealed its reputation as the leading proponent of challenging new repertoire with its exhilarating, awe-inspiring performances of such demanding works.

While the glissando is the primary compositional element of this piece, others are important as well. After the opening section, in which the texture of the initial violin solo is gradually filled in, there is a long passage made up of a shifting timbral kaleidoscope: short grinding noises, bowing behind the bridge, knocking on the body of the instrument, extremely high harmonics, and the like. These strange sounds interrupt the texture at various other points in the piece, creating moments of surprise and theatricality. A later passage is built from scales; while the avant-garde aesthetic often avoids such banal material, Xenakis offers a new approach by creating intervallic patterns that do not repeat at the octave as expected. Instead, the configuration is unique from bottom to top, producing tension and new harmonic color. As the scale passages begin racing up and down at high speed, Xenakis shifts back to glissandi, drawing attention to the relationship between the two (one tracing contours by sliding, the other by running stepwise).

It is this multi-dimensionality that makes Tetras so fascinating a work of musical architecture. The interplay among different elements that occur throughout the piece build up a network of connections that establish structural depth. Beyond the individual and collective virtuosity that Xenakis demands of the players, this formal complexity, balanced by clear, concentrated musical expression, makes Tetras an intriguing and worthy addition to the literature of the string quartet. [allmusic.com]

Art by Hans Hartung

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