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"The string quartet has been unchanged for 200 years or so," considers Alexander Balanescu,
"but the format seems to be infinitely flexible." Having worked with
Michael Nyman, The Pet Shop Boys, John Lurie and Kate Bush, Balanescu
has made it his business to utilise that flexibility and apply the
ingenuity of The Balanescu Quartet to explore uncharted territories.
"We were looking for a new generation of composers, and we could not
find them! So we said to ourselves, 'Why should we be restricted to
what is called serious classical music?"
Alexander Balanescu was born in Romania, the son of a University
lecturer, who moved his family to Israel in 1969 to escape the regime
of Ceaucsecu. Alexander lived the globe trotting life of an exile,
studying the violin in London and at the Julliard school in New York.
Upon his return to London, he joined the Arditti Quartet, who, renowned
for their commitment to new composers, would perform up to 100 new
works a year. "During the three years I spent with them, I got to play
the music of Ligeti, Xenakis, Carter and many others," Balanescu
recalls. "I learnt a tremendous amount. But I also realised this type
of contemporary music is addressing itself to a very small circle of
people, really. In fact, mainly critics and other composers! So I left
the Arditti Quartet to create my own, in order to do music that can
immediately communicate with people."
Attracted to jazz and the work of composer Michael Nyman (who scored
for many of Peter Greenaway's films, including The Draughtsman's
Contract, Drowning By Numbers and The Belly Of An Architect), Balanescu
formed his Quartet in 1987 with Clare Connors (violin), Bill Hawkes
(viola) and former LSO cellist Nick Price. They soon formed a close
working relationship with Nyman and Gavin Bryars. They chose to use
amplification and unconventional costumes when playing live, and their
shows soon started to sell out. Their first collision with pop culture
came in 1989, when Neil Tennant hired the Quartet to play his own
choice of Stravinsky, Webern and Shostacovich on The Pet Shop Boys'
first tour, and then had Balanescu arrange their 'October Symphony'.
The Quartet went on to play strings for Kate Bush, and work with Lounge
Lizards frontman John Lurie and former Talking Head David Byrne.
Balanescu wanted to go further than Nyman or Bryars.
An opportunity arose when, having signed to Mute, Balanescu turned his
attention to the music of Kraftwerk, for 1992's 'Possessed' LP. "I feel
they're a very important name in new music, " he commented at the time.
"In a sense they are electronic composers in the same way that Berio
and Stockhausen are. Actually, I think Kraftwerk's music has even more
power than Stockhausen's; because of its simplicity. Their sound world
is enormous. They've never worked for art's sake; they're also
commentators on modern life. The music is tied in with ideas about our
society, and that's what really attracted me."
Clare Connors was given the task of arranging Kraftwerk's Top 20 hits
'The Robots', 'The Model', 'Autobahn', 'Computer Love' and 'Pocket
Calculator' for the string quartet. "There is a classical quality about
these songs," enthused Balanescu. "They are almost mechanistic in terms
of harmonic and melodic structures. And a string quartet itself is a
very finely tuned mechanism. Perversely, I did not want to use any
electronic effects to recreate their sound world. We had to develop a
special way of playing to find new sounds and translate this music into
string language. We wanted to emphasise the hardness of their sound as
well as its romantic side."
Together with a reappraisal of David Byrne's 'Hanging Upside Down' and
three of Balanescu's own compositions 'Possessed', 'Want Me' and 'No
Time Before Time', the 'Possessed' album was released in September
1992, and crossed the pop and classical critical divide as effortlessly
as Balanescu had envisaged. "Balanescu isn't alone in marrying
contemporary sounds with a more sophisticated presentation, but he is
the most imaginative," said NME. "Kraftwerk's electronic blueprints
have made the jump to the rarefied chamber format with consummate
elegance," agreed The Guardian. The Quartet performed their Kraftwerk
set at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall in May 1993, and after an
enthusiastic response from Kraftwerk themselves, with the German
pioneers on two consecutive evenings at the 1993 ARS Electronica
Festival in Linz.
The Quartet's touring schedules took them back to Romania, where the
genesis for their next LP took shape in Balanescu's mind. 'Luminitza',
meaning 'little light' in Romanian would become partially an expression
of feelings for his old country and more significantly, "a little bit
of hope in the darkness that, even after the downfall of Ceaucescu's
totalitarian regime in 1989, still shrouds Romania," he would explain.
"It started from a strong but vague desire to express something about
what is happening in Eastern Europe. The older I get, the more I
realise how much I owe, musically, to that part of the world. When we
went to Romania to play, it was clear that daily life is very, very
difficult, perhaps more difficult than before the so-called revolution.
There are tremendous shortages; food, electricity, sometimes water.
Inflation is incredible. Romania's case is further complicated because
Ceaucescu was shot. Because he was not put on trial, people still don't
know what really happened. In Romania there has been no cleansing
process, no catharsis."
'Luminitza', released in January 1994, was entirely self-penned, and
combined the powerful emotional charge of traditional Romanian music
with the advanced playing techniques the Quartet developed for their
Kraftwerk pieces. It also contained hints of a history of oppression
that still colours Romanian art. "There is a folk poem which makes an
analogy between death and liberation," Balanescu elucidated. "The
philosophy is: be like a willow. When the wind blows, bend with the
wind. It's a fatalistic philosophy. In Romania, everyone dresses in
black when there's a birth and in white when in mourning. Life is
suffering and death is liberation from suffering. Oppression is the
grain of daily life. It is very deeply ingrained." The results, once
more, struck a deep chord with the Quartet's listeners. "The second
Balanescu Quartet album is a minor masterpiece," stated the NME.
"'Luminitza' is like learning a rich new musical language." "A piece of
overwhelming emotional power, subtly and beautifully constructed,"
added The Wire.
The Balanescu Quartet appeared on two contrasting albums in 1995;
'Bryars: The Last Days: String Quartets Nos. 1&2' was their
rendering of Gavin Bryars' compositions, while 'Spread Your Wings' saw
them teaming up with contemporary psychedelic space rockers
Spiritualized Electric Mainline. Jason Pierce, SEM's mainman, had heard
the Quartet on 'Possessed', and asked them to contribute to his album.
"It was very much common ground," Pierce said at the time. "Kraftwerk
were never cold, it's soul music but constructed with machines." The
Quartet also performed in a televised Channel 4 contemporary opera
'Camera' and accompanied Campagnie Philip Saire at the UK premiere of
'La Nebuleuse de Crabe', then consolidated their versatile appeal by
backing ABC singer Martin Fry at the 1995 Dream Ball at London's Le
Alexander Balanescu had also been working on the score for Philip Haas'
film Angels And Insects, based on the AS Byatt novella of the same
name. Upgrading to a 15 piece orchestra and produced by Claire Connors
he composed and performed the entire soundtrack. The Quartet also
appeared in two scenes of the film, dressed in full Victorian costume.
"Balanescu shows himself a composer who manipulates his cues so deftly
that the joins become imperceptible," wrote Ikon, "while the Quartet's
music is lyrical, fluid and subtle." The album 'Angels And Insects' was
released in February 1996. For the present, Balanescu's aim is to be
equally at home in the conservatory, at a pop concert or on MTV.
Possessed (Mute Records, 1992)