In conversation with Irvine Arditti, founding member and first violin of the Arditti Quartet:

UChicago Presents: The Arditti Quartet has been a constant in your career. Talk about the quartet’s early years. Was its raison d’etre always to champion twentieth century and/or living composers?

Irvine Arditti: Well, in the beginning, we were studying at the Royal Academy of Music at the time—I say “we,” but I was really the one fascinated by contemporary music. There was no great vision to conquer the world and have lots of pieces written. In fact, I had no concept of composers writing pieces for us; I was kind of meek and mild.

I formed [Arditti] to have a quartet in the U.K. that would play the sort of contemporary music I’d been listening to and would take it seriously. A lot of string players didn’t take that music seriously—even players in the new music ensemble that had just started [at the time], the London Sinfonietta. Generally, among musicians teaching at the Royal Academy and most places, the attitude was very conservative—I mean, in some conservatoires, it still is. In fact, I never learned anything from my teachers past Bartók or Shostakovich. So, I kind of worked on things on my own.

I formed the quartet, actually, to play one of the pieces on our concert, Ligeti’s Second Quartet. It was piece that I’d heard and loved. My colleagues in the LaSalle Quartet, who are several generations further on, had premiered that piece as well as some others. I was very fond of their performances and I wanted to have a group in the U.K. to do that. We didn’t play the Ligeti in the first concert, but it was probably in the first year, year and a half. But it was quite a tough program, the first concert. We played the Lutoslawski Quartet, and Berio’s Syncronie, a really difficult piece. In fact, there was no material available at that time for it, so I cut up the score and made the parts myself—that’s a kind of dedication.

So, we started in 1974. At the time, I was in the London Symphony Orchestra and I was appointed as [fourth chair] first violin, and quickly came up the ranks; I think the last two years I was there I was co-leader. For one year, there was no leader, so I was concertmaster for many programs. So, I was busy with that, and fascinated also with having great conductors and soloists in front of me: Claudio Abbado was the principal conductor, and André Previn before that. I remember leading one concert, and Isaac Stern was in front of me, playing two violin concertos. I think he played the tutti in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, because he seemed to know it better than I did, and he stared at me all the way through! So, I had this other life for a short while—and I can’t say I didn’t like it, because I enjoyed it very much.

The quartet was still ticking along, but it was my hobby; we weren’t playing extremely seriously. But then, in 1977, a colleague and composer, Jonathan Harvey—who is sadly no longer with us, and who was a great friend of mine—said, “I’d like to write you a quartet.” It never occurred to me that someone would want to write us a string quartet. And other people said, “Oh.” We played Ligeti with Ligeti, in a very important concert, then we recorded those pieces. We worked with Hans Werner Henze and recorded all his quartets with him, and then we worked with Ferneyhough, and so it went on, like a snowball effect. We were in great demand, and now it’s—I don’t know—what, 43, 44 years later, and we have a huge repertoire of music that was written just for us.

I guess you could say that the Arditti Quartet changed the face of contemporary string quartets in the last half of the 20th century and 21st century. Other people have said that; I don’t need to say it. I think that’s why we won the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, which is given to famous classical artists and composers. It was never given to a group; we won it in ’99, and it has never been given to a group yet. They felt that what we were doing was very important.

UCP: You mentioned several things I want to ask more about. The first is the LaSalle Quartet. [First violinist] Walter Levin passed away last month, but before that, he lived here in Hyde Park in the last years of his life, and his son [David] works at the University of Chicago. Did Arditti ever work directly with LaSalle?

IA: No, we never had lessons with anyone. I guess you could say we had lessons with composers, because they instructed us on how they wanted us to play their music. I believe our present second violin had lessons with Walter at some stage when he was studying in Germany, but he wasn’t in the Arditti Quartet then, he was a student.

But I very much admire the LaSalle Quartet, and I’ve never hidden that. Once the [LaSalle] Quartet stopped playing, Walter really became a friend, and we led some master classes together. When we played in Cincinnati, I did an open interview with him, and the title of our preview concert was “Arditti Pays Homage to LaSalle.” Walter wasn’t there, but we met two or three other members of the group who came to the concert, and we had dinner with them afterwards. It was a very nice event.

UCP: The quartet was the dedicatee of Ligeti’s Andante and Allegretto for string quartet, as well as his unfinished String Quartet No. 3. Talk about what it was like working with Ligeti.

IA: Well, actually, the String Quartet No. 3 was never started, I believe. He had some sketches for it, but the piece itself was never started. He spoke about it for 25 years, and he brought sketches for us to try out. But I think we took over the role of performing [the String Quartet No. 2] after the LaSalles stopped playing, and I’ve played the piece hundreds of times.

The first time we had an important concert in London—I believe it was in ’77, though I’m not sure, it might have been ’78—an organization wanted to put on a concert of Ligeti’s string quartets in one-half of the program. They were trying to find an established string quartet that could play both of them, and they couldn’t; they asked many well-known quartets at the time that would play one or the other, but not both. [The concert promoters] actually suggested to Ligeti that there was this young English quartet that would be very good at doing that. So, Ligeti said, “I’ll come to London six months before and listen to them and rehearse with them, and we’ll see.” He came to London, we had a few rehearsals, he was ecstatic, and everything was wonderful. He loved us. We did the concert, he asked always for us to play his music, and I think within a year we did the first recording. Funnily enough, it was done in the Beatles studio, in Abbey Road! This put us on the map, and Ligeti was very kind to us and very enthusiastic.

We rehearsed with him from time to time as we changed players over the years, and he was a great friend. Towards the end of his life, I performed his violin concerto several times. He was there once, and he thanked me very much for giving my enormous contemporary music experience to his violin concerto. He was one of the many composers who were close to me and the quartet, but I feel he was very special and one of the most, [if not] the most, important composers in our career.

UCP: It’s a difficult question, but looking back on your career, is there a piece that stands out as being a turning point, or being particularly daunting—like, “Oh my God, I’m not sure how we’re going to pull this off?”

IA: I don’t think there was ever a great technical challenge. I mean, there were many, many great technical challenges, but I think blindness and youthful enthusiasm took us through those moments. We spent time working on each piece that was difficult, and we solved the problems. If we thought about it beforehand and worried about it, like some people do, maybe we would have never done it so well.

But I suppose starting to play the music of Brian Ferneyhough, which is very complex. A lot of people don’t want to go anywhere near performing his music. There are several of his quartets that no other quartet has performed—quartets that have been written for 15, 20 years. It’s a bit sad, really, because we like the repertoire we created to be performed by other groups, and there are quite a few modern music quartets that play the repertoire. But, in answer to your question, there was no major piece, but you could say Ferneyhough’s music was daunting.

Ligeti, I just love his music, so I inspired my colleagues and we went ahead and did things. Now, I have great colleagues who are inspired themselves by contemporary music. I suppose over the years, members of the quartet—for whatever reason, usually wanting to stay in London and start a family—usually leave the group. But I think now I have a group that is a really enthusiastic group of people who understand contemporary music as well as I do. Life is slightly easier now than it was in the beginning.

UCP: Who are some composers whose works you’ve recently been turned on to, or what recordings are currently in the works?

IA: We’re working on pieces all the time; I just have to remember them! One need only go to our website and go to “Premieres” and see all the pieces we’ve premiered since 2000. One can get an idea of the volume of pieces we’ve composed over the years. I mean, we’ve played a new quartet by Hugues Dufourt, a French composer, quite recently… A young lady called Clara Iannotta has written us a quartet, and we’ll be premiering it next week in the Festival d'Automne in Paris. She’s been studying at Harvard for the last three years; she just left a few months ago. She’s becoming known, but sometimes we work with composers who aren’t known at all.

UCP: As you’ve gained prominence over the past 40 years, do you find it’s more often that composers approach you, or is there an equal exchange with you seeking out composers?

IA: I don’t think it was ever an equal exchange, because once we got going and composers knew about us, we were in great demand and everybody wanted us to play their music. Of course, there are great composers who we’ve commissioned and need to persuade them to fit in a string quartet at some stage. Harrison Birtwistle is like that; he wrote us a new quartet a few years ago, and immediately [after] we premiered it, he said he wanted to write another one!

But I think it’s mutual collaboration. We want pieces from composers and we have to tell them; some composers are shy. Some composers have written us two or three pieces, or more, and we say, “How about another one?”