By Maddie Orton
It’s a unique curtain speech for a unique concert: a series of “Quartweets” presented by Princeton Symphony Orchestra and played by Signum Quartett out of Cologne, Germany. The new #Quartweet Project asks composers to create works made up of 140 notes or less.
“The initial idea was to put together a sampler album of composers from all over the world,” said Xandi Van Dijk. “Any kind of music, just short pieces to get a feel for what composers are writing nowadays.”
Van Dijk was new to twitter at the time and couldn’t resist the pun and, at first, the apparent simplicity of the concept.
“When you start thinking about it, there are so many questions that pop up,” he said.
There were questions about communication and questions about music. Like what counts as the equivalent of 140 characters? Some composers took the road less traveled, like one who created a single-line composition of 140 beats.
“140 notes is more than enough for a composer, inexperienced or experienced, to convey something,” Van Dijk said.
Princeton Symphony Orchestra brought teaching artists into elementary schools last week to work with select music students using the same format. Three of those pieces are performed in concert as well. While the quartweet’s brevity may make composing more accessible for kids, it can actually be a real challenge for professionals.
“It’s actually much harder to write something very, very short, and pithy, and to-the-point than it is to sort of be a windbag,” said composer Julian Grant.
But, as Van Dijk points out in the concert, their Quartweet composers are in good company. Through some digging, he found out that some of the greats — Bach, Beethoven and others — also created works of 140 notes or less.
In the age of Twitter though, the condensed composition takes on new meaning. Composer William Harvey based his piece on an actual tweet of tremendous personal significance.
“To honor the victims of an attack that occurred on December 11, 2014 at the French Institute in Kabul,” Harvey said. ‘There was a play that was put on for which the students at the music school where I taught were doing incidental music. And the play was criticizing the Taliban’s use of suicide bombers.”
A bomb went off. While Harvey wasn’t there, his boss and students were, and thankfully survived. He explains that in Kabul Twitter is the fastest way to reach people with this kind of information. But 140 characters can’t tell the whole story.
“It was also very difficult for me to see that on YouTube very soon after it happened,” he said. “Someone who had been there to videotape the play, uploaded a very short video that showed the moment of the attack.”
So Harvey took those sounds, an experience that a tweeted headline could never convey, and translated them into sounds a string quartet could play.
“Hopefully by coming a little bit closer to what this experience is like, it will remind them of the importance of countering violent extremism,” Harvey said.
Van Dijk hopes the concept catches on. He invites composers of all experience levels to submit their own quartweets to the Signum Quartet. The group may even play it, post the performance online, and of course, tweet it out to the music-loving Twitterverse.