Anchoring the Tension

Greg Caffrey in conversation at ‘Music and Musings’ at the Mick Lally Theatre in Galway.

Anchoring the Tension

Toner Quinn reviews a Music and Musings concert in Galway featuring the world premiere of Greg Caffrey's fourth string quartet.

The Music and Musings concerts run by the Galway Music Residency are an opportunity to participate in a conversation about new music as well as listen to it. Following the performance of a work, there’s a discussion with the composer, Chaired by Linda O’Shea Farren of the Contemporary Music Centre, and then the work is played again.

There were two such concerts this season, with composers Rhona Clarke (8 Nov.) and Greg Caffrey (23 Nov.). In the second event, ConTempo quartet gave the world premiere of Caffrey’s String Quartet No. 4, titled … borne back ceaselessly into the past, coupled with the first movement of Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ quartet.

Caffrey, a guitarist and Artistic Director of Northern Ireland’s new music group, Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble (HRSE), has written many works for soloists, duets and chamber ensembles. There’s diversity in his output, from the sparse opening of Garden of Earthly Delights (2016) and the atmospheric Environments I premiered by Finghin Collins and the Ulster Orchestra earlier this year, to the lighter texture of Skipping from Gerard McChrystal and Craig Ogden’s 2009 album Pluckblow; but Caffrey’s work does seem to come back to an intense core, insisting on unsettling tension through wide dissonant leaps or intense runs on solo instruments. Harmonically, the tonal centre is rarely anchored. His work can be both brooding and agitated.

Maximum tension
Caffrey’s new quartet begins with an extended passage in harmonics, starting with solo viola before the three other members of ConTempo join in with the same device. A quiet, repeating glissando – ambulance-siren-like – emerges from within the texture, and maintains this disconcerting effect. Cellist Adrian Mantu announces a transition, sprinkled with shooting fragments from all four before he launches into a rather ferocious arpeggiated section (similar to a brief central part of another Caffrey work,
…for peace comes dropping slow, premiered in May by HRSE). The full ensemble joins the cello, gradually building with syncopated strokes, increasing the temperature until the quartet reaches maximum tension – only to tumble all the way down again with a glissando and a sudden ending. The audience’s response was immediate and appreciative.

Apart from the harmonics section at the beginning, the work is quite similar in mood and approach to other pieces in Caffrey’s ouevre. The urge in his work to create tension is clear, and one can appreciate the creative devices he uses, but … borne back ceaselessly into the past didn’t go far enough into new territory to fully impact on me. I missed an additional edge and perhaps an equal amount of invention in the string writing after the harmonics. It wasn’t because of ConTempo’s performance, which was as vigorous as the work would allow.

Room for more
The discussion about the music, however, which followed the performance, was unsatisfactory. The questions tended to be focussed on rather trivial aspects of the composer’s work, such as the length of pieces, his titles and programme notes, rather than the substance of his music or his compositional journey. Caffrey did have the opportunity to discuss some aspects of his writing, such as the harmonics, but there was room for more. For example, a better introduction to the Mozart and its musical connection to the first work.

It is possible to discuss a composer’s music without getting so technical as to lose audiences, but that depth in approach was missing at Music and Musings – when members of ConTempo interjected, allowing Caffrey to go deeper into his work, the discussion became more engaging.

These concerts are a valuable way of introducing audiences to the composer and performers behind the music, and in ConTempo we have a rare jewel –  a quartet that also has great communicators – but as an overall format for an evening of music, I don’t think Music and Musings is quite there yet.

Greg Caffrey’s String Quartet No. 4, … borne back ceaselessly into the past, was commissioned by Galway Music Residency and Galway City Council Arts Office for ConTempo Quartet. Music and Musings events are organised in association with the Contemporary Music Centre. For more, visit

Published on 5 December 2018

Toner Quinn is Editor of the Journal of Music. His new book, What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music, is available now:

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