Hambledon Hill

Hambledon Hill

For amplified string quartet and tape (1985)

Writing a string quartet has been a daunting prospect. For several years I tried to find a way of coming to terms with that magnificent tradition which I had come to know not just as a listener but, to a certain extent, as a performer too. (I played the viola in string quartets quite extensively as a student.)

But rather than making a futile, ‘head-on’ attempt to ‘enrich the tradition’ I opted for getting back to basics. I tried to find an approach to string quartet writing which grew out of some kind of fundamental archetype in the medium. In contemplating the relationship between the acoustic sound of the instruments, their amplified sound and the modification and extension of their sound on tape, I stumbled on my ‘basic shape’, or archetype: three concentric circles.

I immediately realised, to my great delight, that this was the basic layout of ancient structures which still haunt the countryside of Britain, the Iron Age hill forts. Of those I have visited, Hambledon Hill in Dorset is by far the most imposing and even though its sinuous contours are by no means exactly circular, the strong parallel lines of its massive ramparts give the structure an almost elemental power. Its atmosphere, at the same time both barbaric and melancholy, is quite unique. Perhaps it has something to do with the way in which an essentially military structure has been worn down by the centuries until it is now like a part of nature.

In this quartet, the concentricity governs not only the layout of the players, who here form a closed circle, surrounded by two further rings of loudspeakers. This concept also determines the harmonic and melodic structure (inter-related meters), the instrumental groupings within the quartet (monophony, duophony, and triophony) and, in a sense, too, the overall registers of the whole work (a circular progression from high to low and back to high again).

The work was commissioned by the Arditti String Quartet with funds made available by the Arts Council of Great Britain. The tape part was realised in the composer’s own studio. Hambledon Hill is dedicated to Dame Elisabeth Frink and Mr Alex Csaky.

© 1985 Tim Souster