The Partridge Quartet - FutureMakers On Film

According to Jos Jonker, violinist with the Partridge Quartet, if you ever want to play on wine glasses, you need to buy the best. Crystal, she says, is amazing. 

How does she know? Because Jos and her colleagues Mana Ohashi (violin), Eunise Cheng (viola) and Daniel Smith (cello) have tried them all. ‘We raided every single glass in South Melbourne,’ says Eunise. ‘We bought over 100 to try out different shapes and sizes.' 

But why is a string quartet using wine glasses in the first place? Because, of course, they are playing George Crumb's string quartet Black Angels. The work, which is subtitled 'Thirteen Images from the Dark Land' and dated 'Friday the Thirteenth, March 1970 (in tempore belli)', is a passionate threnody for troubled times, written in the shadow of the Vietnam War. The work was made famous by seminal performances from the Kronos Quartet, and has appeared on many soundtracks (and Halloween playlists!) In it Crumb calls for the amplified string quartet to use a range of extended techniques involving thimbles, paperclips, glass rods, maraccas, tam-tams and bowed water-tuned wine glasses.  

The Partridge Quartet came to Black Angels when they were searching for a focus for their major project as Musica Viva Australia FutureMakers. The challenge was clear: to create something which went beyond a conventional string quartet performance, using extra-musical elements not just for audience appeal but as a way of communicating ideas.  Black Angels, with its fascinating, palindromic structure, its ground-breaking score and its subject matter, still sadly relevant today, drew them in.  

The result of their deep dive into the world of George Crumb and his iconic work is encapsulated in filmed performances of two contrasting movements.  

'Black Angels!’ is the seventh movement, which places it at the very centre of the work. It's an intense, nightmarish threnody for all four players who, as well as playing their instruments, shout out 'Thirteen', in different languages. The movement ends with two players each striking a tam tam. The Quartet worked with a videographer and movement coach to create the frenetic atmosphere.  

'It's chaotic, with a lot of different shots,’ says Eunise. ‘We told the videographer to go to town. And he did!’  

'God Music', by contrast, is for solo cello, accompanied by glass harmonica. After much research into the historical background and numerical symbolism which Crumb uses, the Quartet came up with the idea of creating a triangular performance space, with walls of wine glasses at the edge and Dan at the centre. The video is one continuous shot, circling the triangle as Dan plays cello, with Eunise, Mana and Jos using bows to make the glasses resonate.    

The two videos are a stunning demonstration of the possibilities of a string quartet.  

‘Musica Viva Australia really challenged us to create something more than a concert,’ says Jos, reflecting on the FutureMakers program. ‘The video was for us a way to explore working with a videographer, working with people in lighting, in make-up, building a stage. It gave us the best possibility to work in all those areas while also having something that we could showcase to potential programmers.   

She continues: ‘I think that will help us for the rest of our lives, as well as on stage. We talked so much about movement and presence, not just in "God Music" but also in general. For example, there was a moment when we got to play the tam tam, right at the end of ‘Black Angels!’ How do you walk? How do you put your instrument down so that it looks convincing?’ 

The Partridge Quartet's two year tenure as FutureMakers has come to an end but, as Paul Kildea, Artistic Director of Musica Viva Australia, says, ‘once a FutureMaker, always a FutureMaker'. For the Quartet, this means ongoing plans to keep pushing the boundaries of traditional chamber music.  

'It would be amazing if we could bring this as a whole show to an audience,’ says Jos. ‘A creative dream.’ 

In the meantime, the Quartet continue to develop plans for performances in Australia and beyond in 2024. Watch this space. It's sure to be interesting.