Family Group with Aliens

by Piers Hellawell

for string quartet

This quartet, my third in as many decades, continues the path of the first two in exploring a structural deployment of larger and smaller pieces, like sculptures around a space. A set of six movements falls into two groups: three of the pieces – the ‘family group’ - essentially express the same piece at different magnifications (and hence different durations, i.e. short: 30”, medium: 2’30”, and long: 6’); this principle, of exploring the same musical narrative on different scales, has evolved through a number of my works since 2015. The other three pieces – the ‘Aliens’ - are like cousins to these: they all draw on the material of the ‘family’ and so act as commentaries on the main set. This split-level action mixing ‘main’ and ‘supporting’ pieces, by the way, is also found in my previous quartet, Driftwood on Sand (2002) – the work that brought me and Friction Quartet together.

The three ‘Aliens’ each bear the title Reflectaphor – a term coined by Dr John Briggs for something we recognize as being like, but at the same time distinct from, a related item. Where the ‘family group’ differ mainly in scale, therefore, the three Reflectaphor pieces, while they draw on the shared ideas, are highly contrasted in content: (a) is a brief sound-sculpture, while (b) is a passionate slow movement, and (c) is a two-minute elegy for the young Irish composer Danny Barkley, who died in 2018 – quoting, as it does, some materials from his own Belfast Quartet (2014).

The order of the six pieces is left to the performers; however, it is laid down that the two sets must be heard in alternation – like the shuffling of two hands of cards. The intention is that the listener weaves between the main narrative (the ‘family group’) and the reflections upon aspects from within it.

Family Group with Aliens was commissioned by Friction thanks to the supporters of the Friction Commissioning Initiative and was premiered by them in Old First Concerts, San Francisco, USA on 16th August 2019.