[ autofocus ] (2018)

for string quartet


c. 6'


August 2018, Dartington Hall, Totnes, England

Heath Quartet — Oliver Heath (violin), Sara Wolstenholme (violin), Gary Pomeroy (viola), Chris Murray (cello)

Score & parts available upon request; preview score here

Programme note

In this piece, I explore the notion of focus in the process of taking a photograph: What constitutes the foreground, and what forms the background? In the first place, what makes the foreground the foreground? (i.e. How did this hierarchical relationship arise?) What happens to the viewer’s perception of depth when the qualities respectively attributed to foreground and background are exchanged?

I juxtapose two distinct entities—pizzicato harmonics (initially the ‘foreground’) versus sul ponticello tremolo (the ‘background’)—and follow their manifestation through, eventually allowing them to exchange places. At every point, the specific compositional decisions I am making (identifying and clarifying the foreground, distancing the background) are analogous to the automated processes within a camera’s autofocus mechanism—hence the title. More significantly, in a metaphysical sense, this is also how a listener might process what one sees and hears—intuitively ‘autofocusing’ on entities which are more visually or aurally prominent, mentally relegating the less prominent to the background.

Furthermore, the performative intimacy and immediacy offered by a string quartet allows a viewer’s focus to be easily transferred from the instruments to the performers’ physique, from the aural to visual (theatrical), and back. As the piece progresses, I allow the ‘foreground’ focus to shift naturally from sounds made on instruments to vocal sounds, and subsequently to silent bodily movements. In this sense, the spatial-temporal aspects of music-making transforms the notion of focus (with its foreground-background hierarchy) from a image-bound concept into something that is dynamic and experiential.

This piece was written for the 2018 Advanced Composition Course (with Eleanor Alberga) at Dartington International Summer School, and was premiered by the Heath Quartet at Dartington Hall.