Commissioned by Shobana Jeyasingh for the Balanescu Quartet

  • String Quartet
  • 22 min

Programme Note

Sometime in the mid-eighties I saw a performance of a Bharata Natyam dancer at the Riverside Studios in London. I was particularly excited by the fact that all the choreography seemed to derive from the very audible rhythms of the foot movements. In 1988 Shobana Jeyasingh, having heard of my interest in South Indian dance, asked me to compose the score for a solo dance work she was planning. Miniatures thus originated in our common interest in number systems and rhythmic structures. I instantly decided that the string quartet was the ideal medium: partly because it is quintessentially European to be rooted in Indian rhythms (it should in no way sound Indian); partly because the different rhythmic functions ascribed to each of the instruments in the Indian ensemble which traditionally accompanies Bharata Natyam were most successfully transferred to stringed instruments; but mainly because I wanted to write a new work for the recently-formed Balanescu Quartet (who would play live during the dance performance by, more importantly, take String Quartet No.2 into their repertoire as an autonomous concert piece).

I approached the task of composing Miniatures as a virtuoso challenge in that my taste and invention were not involved in the choice of the basic rhythmic world that we were dealing with (rather like the pre-compositional 'rhythmic structures' that John Cage allowed to dominate the scores he wrote during the 30s and 40s, with the important difference that Jeyasingh's rhythms were very specific and closely related to a centuries-old musical/dance tradition). My (choreographer-imposed) task was to remain totally faithful to the given rhythmic information - specific rhythms, cyclical structures and speeds (all of which had to be audibly present for the dancer), while my (composer-imposed) pride obviously required the work to make an individual statement by means of overlaying personal melodic, harmonic, structural, dynamic textural and iconographic vocabularies over the given (and openly accepted) rhythmic information. And occasionally an accidental misunderstanding of the rhythmic principles of Karnatic music would bring about a musical enrichment: most notably in the fifth movement, where the regular 9-beat(2+3+2+2) rhythmic pattern is permanently contradicted by a constantly-repeating 8-beat first violin melody.

String Quartet No.2 is cast in six movements, each governed by its own rhythmic cycle: 4-beat, 5-beat, 6-beat, 7-beat, 9-beat and multiple cycles in the final movement.

The quartets were written with amplification in mind, and it is my preference that they be performed as such.

Michael Nyman

String Quartet No.2 was commissioned by Shobana Jeyasingh as a solo dance work: Miniatures. It was first performed by her with the Balanescu Quartet on 15th September 1988 at the Palace Theatre, London. A three-dancer version, under the title Configurations was first performed the following year. A four-dancer version of Configurations was first performed on 2nd May 1992.


String Quartet No.2: 1. I
String Quartet No.2: 2. II
String Quartet No.2: 3. III
String Quartet No.2: 4. IV
String Quartet No.2: 5. V
String Quartet No.2: 6. VI


Score sample