= Imperatives – Nigel Morgan


For string quartet


Imperatives are ‘doing words’ that carry with them a task, a situation, a request, a dream. Creative practitioners are keen on such words and often use them to initiate a starting point, an emotional state, a
characteristic. Their very singularity can lend an elegance, economy and directness to an artist’s thoughts and actions. Visual artists use them frequently as titles, authors too, but musicians perhaps less frequently.

In a similar spirit the composer has gathered a list of imperatives, and choosing isolate from the list, reacted to it by deciding to â€˜isolate’ one instrument from the quartet as a soloist. The structural device of the isorhythm is employed. Beloved of vocal composers of the 14th Century, Lassus, Dunstable, and Okeghem, the isorhythmic motet became a popular form. This was often based on a plainchant that acted as a thread onto which further threads (parts / voices) were stitched or woven.

Thus the first movement of Imperatives was created to feature a middle section in which the second violin holds the thread against a background weave of a string trio. The outer movements ‘look’ similar, and indeed in their rhythmic ordering they are. But the pitch content is entirely different.

The idea of a solo set against a backdrop of the remaining instruments in a quartet is the dominant theme of the entire work. Each instrument takes a turn as a solo presence against a variety of different backdrops. The movement titles, imperative words, are mostly spur of the moment inventions devised to hang the musical content, but not necessarily to drive it contextually.

The threads from which the first three movements are devised come from random generations of groups of integers. When converted to pitch, they form an asemic text of music. The word asemic is used to mean having no semantic content. The letters that make up the pitch collections are known but their ordering, as words and sonic phrases, is mysterious and seemingly beyond reason.  In this I have been much influenced by the speculative ordering of found objects into ‘a language’ by the artist Alice Fox.

The final movement departs from asemic text to that of a celebrated poem from the Chinese. This poem remembers the deceased courtesan Lu-fu-jen beloved of the Han emperor Wu-ti. In his grief he once ordered a sorcerer with an imperative: to summon her back to life. His poem is about what is missing, about silence and stillness, emptiness, dust and fallen leaves, and above all an anguished longing. The ‘thread’ is the text itself, first in Chinese (with a character by character translation) then in two translations into English, by H.A.Giles and by Arthur Waley.

Whilst solo / background is a constant this duality is amplified by a simplicity of rhythmic utterance. In each movement there are only ever two rhythmic strands present at any one time, and when the quartet do play tutti, there is usually just one strand, the music appearing to be
choral-like, four voices singing / playing as one.

The music is dedicated to the Spektral Quartet of Chicago, USA, one of the brightest stars in the firmament of quartet playing.


Imperatives full score [pdf]Imperatives parts [zip]

Imperatives reference recordings [zip]