Brecht’s String Quartet: an early example of conceptual music?
George Brecht (1926-2008) is considered as one of the most creative precursors of conceptual music, a highly sophisticated genre that had a significant impact on the artistic life of the 60s and 70s.
His “String Quartet” is affected by the influences of various artists such as Duchamp and Cage, which nurtured his curiosity for a composition process based on chance and focused on paying attention to everyday objects and all those types of daily gestures that are so common that end up to go unnoticed.
While Brecht was an active member of Fluxus he designed what he called the “event score,” that is, a music composition whose content consisted in only two elements: the title and a line of text printed on a small white card.
It’s important to point out that these small cards were created by Brecht to be mailed to his friends, in an attempt to stimulate and provoke their brilliant minds.
The work called “String Quartet“, published 1963, is a clear example of an Event Score.
In this case, the line of text provided by the composer to the reader/performer reads simply: “shaking hands.”
This provocative piece of conceptual music, also known as the “Shaking hands” String Quartet, invites us to question and reflect on the characteristics of what we usually call music.
You can see how the event card related to this piece looks like by visiting Moma museum’s dedicated page.
Can we include the String Quartet into the realm of music?
What did Brecht have in mind when he decided to invent the Event Score?
I think that his event scores aim to let us meditate on a fragment of reality, a small portion of our daily lives, that gets artistically highlighted every time a group of people gather on stage to perform it.
As I said before, the event score consists of a title, followed by a set of eccentric instructions.
In other words, Brecht provides a text containing the basic instructions to perform the piece and, at the same time, leaves room for interpretation.
This means that an event score is both prescriptive and open to personalization.
It’s also interesting to note how the event score named String Quartet is “musical” only for its textual allusion to the instruments.
There’s no music notation for Brecht’s string quartet, only a set of words that stimulate the creativity of the musicians or emphasize its absence.
In fact, no sounds are produced during the performance of the piece.
The members of the string quartet are not required to actually play their instruments, they just have to shake their hands.
Considering the indeterminate structure of Brecht’s string quartet, I think you would agree with me in saying that this piece is open to a huge variety of possible interpretations, all perfectly valid.
By leaving us with only one instruction, “shaking hands”, the composer invites us to give life to a concept, to materialize the dynamic process of shaking hands in any way we want, adopting the level of complexity that we prefer.
Analysis of some performances available online
I’ve tried to look for online versions of the String Quartet and, quite unexpectedly, could not find anything relevant to share with you except for a couple of short clips performed by young students.
In the first video you can see a violinist, sitting on a chair, who’s about to start playing when a big white fake hand appears out of nowhere and gets closer to the performer.
Surprised, the young musician looks at the huge hand with suspicion and then decides to shake it:
The other clip is more in line with what I said before when I talked about the different dynamics that a sequence of shaking hands can reproduce.
Have a look for yourself:
The lack of videos produced by professional ensembles seems to suggest that this piece of conceptual music has been snubbed by professional string quartets.
Perhaps because this work doesn’t require any instrumental performance whatsoever and, as a result, is considered as nothing but a sort of silly provocation, a joke, whose only raison d’etre is to disorient the audience.
And yet, I’m of the opinion that the best interpretation of Brecht’s String Quartet has to come from an ensemble of chamber musicians, who know each other so intimately to be able to reproduce their musical interactions without relying on their instruments and through a purer kind of medium, which is the naked hand.
Besides, if sound is generated during a string quartet, it is primarily because of a set of hands that move in the space, giving rhythm and intensity to the bow that comes into contact with the violins, viola and cello, isn’t it so?
The hidden musical potential of Brecht’s String Quartet
Playing Brecht’s String Quartet is not easy at all even though (or precisely because…) the only instruction given to the performers is “shaking hands”.
Sure, you don’t have to be a classical string player to perform it but you need creativity and a great amount of musical sensitivity to transpose the musical richness and rhythmic variety showcased by a string quartet on a group of shaking hands
In fact, what we usually see on stage while listening to an ordinary string quartet is, first of all, the constant interaction between four human bodies.
If you think about it, alternation, overlapping, tremolos, change in tempo, rhythmic variations, moments of silence, all these phenomena can be transposed from the realm of sound to the world of hands.
This is why the musical culture of the performers is crucial in staging this quartet.
Yes, everything goes one might say, we just need hands that shake one another!
Why do we have to employ, and bother, talented musicians to play a score that does not even exist?
Obviously, since there’s no notation to decode or musical parts to execute this quartet has clearly been designed to be performed by anyone, regardless of his or her musical skills.
And yet, I think the level of complexity that can emerge from performing a conceptual piece like this can be astonishing if we take it for what it is:
an occasion for us to meditate on the similarities between the varying mechanics of our social gestures and bodily actions, and the language of music.
Therefore, if you want to make the most out of Brecht’s String Quartet you definitely need a group of human beings that are open to explore and discover the hidden musicality of reality, someone who has the sensitivity to go beyond the surface of things and detect the small variations in rhythm, tempo and intensity that unite a music performance and a sequence of hand shakes.
It is also true, though, that the whole idea behind this string quartet can be reduced to a random sequence of hand shakes, something similar to what we do in our daily lives, when we meet people we’re not interested in.
The “Shaking Hands” String Quartet acts like a mirror, reflecting the mindset, personality and level of creativity of the performers.
It can be treated as a sort of silly joke, a provocation, or as a deep meditation on the nature of music and the structure of reality.
It’s this ambivalence that makes Brecht’s string quartet a wonderful example of conceptual music, a score for the mind not necessarily for the ears.