Named as the RTE Quartet-in-Residence as recently as May, the RTE ConTempo Quartet have a hectic schedule of high-profile gigs around the country, and on Wednesday 19th November they performed in the Project Arts Centre as part of the Irish Composers Collective 10th Anniversary festival. Amidst this busy schedule, I found time to talk with cellist Adrian Mantu.
The RTE ConTempo Quartet performed no less than eight new works for string quartet as part of the Irish Composers Collective's 10 year anniversary. Mantu explains how this collaboration has been in the offing for quite a while: "The Irish Composers' Collective first got in contact a few months ago, actually before beginning the new position as RTE Quartet in Residence, so it's been a long time coming. Our name, 'ConTempo', comes from 'contemporary'. This is how we started to play string quartets almost 20 years ago, with the aim of performing contemporary works. But also, 'con' and 'tempo' are two Italian words which mean 'in time', and when I say 'in time' it means two things: We are in time with contemporary music, but also in time when we are performing great classical composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, performing them in a 21st century way, in 21st century venues and to 21st century audiences. One of our main aims as a string quartet is to perform as many new modern composers as we can, and here's why: There is this debate about how the musicians in Mozart's or Haydn's or Brahms's time performed, whether they were better than we are nowadays. I think the answer is yes they were better musicians than we are, technically speaking, and the reason is very simple: they were playing only contemporary music. In Brahms's time they were playing only Brahms, in Mozarts time only Mozart, and Haydn had an orchestra at Esterhazy to play only his music. So it is not only our aim, but our duty to try to perform contemporary music. For the ICC10 concert, there is eight different new pieces. Usually in a concert with three or four new pieces, there are at least two in a similar style, but these eight pieces are all completely different, I think it's great for the audience especially."
The place of composition in Ireland has changed a lot in recent years, and composers face an ever-changing landscape. Mantu believes that "It's always a good time for composers; in a way I envy the composers because they get to express themselves. We, as performers, have to obey the composers rules, and usually when you play Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms, all the directions are in the music, you can't change too much. But playing Baroque music actually, and here contemporary music is going back to tradition, is where the performer gets freedom to experiment, to improvise. It's an interesting thing because nowadays, if you think even twenty years ago it was very difficult for a composer to 'make it' as a composer, they all have to teach, do other things to survive, that's the way it is everywhere unfortunately. But I think now in the 21st century, contemporary composers are going in a different way, because interaction between arts are more important nowadays; so for example, you often see theatre players asking composers to write modern music, you see contemporary dance companies always asking for contemporary composers, and many new interactions between composers and poets or writers. So there is a good bit of work, composers don't have to go down the traditional way which is just writing a piece, (which of course is also part of the package!), but I think it is brilliant. Also for us as performers, we are trying to experiment. We live in the present so we have to operate in all the musical channels around us, and in a way this makes us more creative than we would have been ten or fifteen years ago."
The quartet are about halfway through their first year as the 'RTE ConTempo Quartet', though Mantu believes that the 'RTE' tag has not fundamentally changed their approach to music. "It hasn't changed drastically from the point of view that, we are the same people, we practice as we did before, we try our best. Saying that of course, having the RTE tag means that we have bigger publicity for our events, and more people coming to our concerts (which is a good thing). Even in Galway where we have our residency, and where we have a lot of educational and community projects, the number of people doubled coming to our events just because of these three letters attached to our name. It's also very exciting because there are lots of changes, such as the new artistic director at RTE. Everybody there is very positive. We're trying to do two things: to keep the traditional quality, and to experiment and play more contemporary music from Ireland and abroad and interact with other genres. And yes, for our quartet is it very rewarding to know that you were chosen in an international competition to become the national string quartet of Ireland."
Being part of the 'national' string quartet, however, means that finding time for other ventures can be difficult. "We do try to have our own projects; obviously we have to focus more on the quartet, with both of our residencies and international concerts. As I said, in order to play really well as a quartet, you have to decide to do some individual concerts where you push yourself from a technical point of view, let's say. Also, meeting other people, other artists, can only be good for you. Even with bad artists, you learn what not to do; it's very important to collaborate and meet other people. Diversity is the word! Our quartet is always trying to develop and do these things. For example, at the moment we are doing a project with the Opera Theatre Company, which is a project we really like doing because as string players we are always trying to imitate the human voice in our playing."
If he was to pick a favourite composer of string quartets, "of the classical composers, the obvious choice is Beethoven, because he was breaking the rules and the barriers, and was the only one to link to a new era. All the other composers are brilliant geniuses, of course, but they more or less were keeping the same format, the same patterns as their era…" When pressed about living composers, however, Mantu was not so forthcoming about his favourite: "Nowadays, we are always looking for interesting things. In the last 2 or 3 years, we have premiered more than forty new works for string quartet written by Irish composers, and that's something we are enjoying very much. Also, we are trying to play works by world composers, and when I say world I mean not only European or American, but from Egyptian or Chinese composers for example, which we are doing at the moment."
After the success of ICC10, the RTE ConTempo Quartet resume their busy schedule around the country, and can be seen regularly performing in Galway City Library as part of their residency.