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Byline: Holly Harrison

Written for the 2018 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, Balderdash is inspired by the electric guitar. Think amplifier feedback, power chords, divebombs, whammy bars, overdrive and distortion, face-melting solos, slap-bass, and plenty of attitude to boot. Balderdash brings together sounds from punk rock, bluegrass, disco, grunge and metal, and asks the string quartet to engage in a battle of one-upman-ship. The work is highly percussive and theatrical, channelling a rock band energy, and encourages the quartet to play with grit and take risks.   

Writing the work for a competition greatly shaped the way I approached it and was the inspiration behind the sonic tug-of-war throughout Balderdash. I wanted to write a work that embraced an ensemble virtuosity but also tested the players stylistically, leaving ample room for interpretation.  I found it fitting (and perhaps a bit amusing) that the competitive nature of MICMC could be mirrored in the set work itself. I aimed to challenge the traditional hierarchy of the string quartet, and in doing so, the cello emerges as the true victor of the work.

The compositional process involved high amounts of improvisation and testing out rhythms on my drum kit. As a drummer, I’m drawn to rhythm and colour first – it’s important to me that there’s a physicality about my music and the way that it moves forwards and garners momentum. At one point, I remember loading up pizzicato samples and assigning these to my electronic drum pads, allowing me to ‘play’ multiple parts at once. Towards the end of the writing phase, Flinders Quartet workshopped Balderdash to iron out any potential hazards and to test how the competitors might approach the work.

There’s nothing quite like hearing your own work eight times across three days! It was fascinating to hear how each of the eight quartets interpreted Balderdash and the creative decisions that were made. The tempo indications in the score were marked as guides only, and so it was thrilling to see some quartets take a funkier, relaxed approach, and others absolutely full-throttle it! The cellists, in particular, displayed creative slap-bass and strumming techniques, and was it exciting to see some play with objects like plectrums and credits cards, while some stayed au naturel! I love this collaborative aspect of new music-making, where players have the opportunity to take ownership of the work as there is no one accepted or ‘right’ way to interpret it.

A handful of the Silo Collective members were in the audience for the competition, so we had a great time discussing each performance afterwards and sharing the different things that we had heard across the renditions. Ultimately, the Goldmund Quartet from Germany won the string quartet division and were awarded the prize for best performance of my work. We all enjoyed their costume change before their performance of Balderdash too! This received much spontaneous applause.

I’m thrilled that the Partridge Quartet are performing Balderdash in two upcoming concerts at the Melbourne Recital Centre. As one of Australia’s most dynamic quartets, I’m looking forward to hearing them play with vigour and flair. I’m also curious to see how they will shape the work and how they will unleash their inner rockstar!   

Book your tickets to see the Partridge String Quartet & James Morley live on Saturday 5 March at Melbourne Recital Centre.