Interview with the Cypress Quartet

October 8th 2009
By Tobias

For a long time, multitasking and classical music seemed like contradictions in terms. Quite obviously, then, the times they are achanging: "There was a CD release party for our first volume of Beethoven Quartets this past week and we are about to head into the recording studio again", the members of the Cypress String Quartet enthuse, "plus we're madly rehearsing for our upcoming season! Never a dull moment..." Never a dull moment - it seems like the perfect description of their latest album, the first of a trilogy of releases documenting Beethoven's entire repertoire for String Quartet. As with previous CDs and, in fact, their entire career, the Quartet have taken care of every single piece of the puzzle: From deciding upon the repertoire and organising concerts to recording the album at Skywalker Studios. To them, all of these tasks, often dreaded by most of their colleagues, are an integral part of the creative process. It is only by dealing with them personally, that they are truly expressing themselves fully as artists. In San Francisco at the time of this interview, the Cypresses are currently busy finishing up their second Beethoven disc, which is scheduled for next summer and will feature the Opus 130 Quartet with both the Grosse Fuge ("Op. 133, for those of you keeping score" as they point out) and the revised Finale movement. But there's more: "We're also learning and rehearsing music for the upcoming season, including FOUR new commissions! It's exciting to play the masterpieces, AND be ushering new music into the world." Does that sound like a lot on their plate? Even if so, the Cypress Quartet have learnt to deal with multitasking long ago.

You were very eager and confident to play the Beethoven String Quartets early in your career. Why did it take ten years before you recorded them? Did the large horizon of the project seem intimidating at first?
Actually, we plunged into the center of the late Quartets when we formed thirteen years ago. In the summer of 1996, one of the first pieces we learned together (and performed a lot) was the Op. 132 Quartet. At that time, people told us we were crazy --- that we had to be more mature to even APPROACH these pieces, but the four of us loved this music so much, it's probably what made us want to form a quartet in the first place. We didn't want to have to wait! „Forged in the fires of Beethoven" is a way that someone once described us. Why not jump right in and take the risks together? It was so important to us to take the time to explore these works, put them away and then rework them. The large scale of the project is exciting to all of us; we WANT to be playing this music all of the time, to have a real relationship with the pieces.

What makes these pieces so fascinating to you and so much fun to perform?
There is so much to discover in each of these works, and every day brings new ideas. We love the way Beethoven uses harmony and rhythm, and how he develops Haydn's conversational style. We love talking about voicing and trying each other's ideas. And there is so much variety in this music! Take the Op. 131 Quartet, which is incredibly forward looking: he uses techniques like ‚ponticello', which composers don't really start using until MUCH later! Or the Op. 135 Quartet, which seems like Beethoven has taken the ideas of Haydn and DISTILLED them into something perfect. Just as it feels when you reread a book that you loved years ago, and notice new things, this music is like that too. Each day, each performance venue and the energy of each audience bring new aspects of this music to life. It is rich music, worthy of devoting a lot of time and energy.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau claimed one could learn a lot about a composer by looking at their works for smaller formats ...
It's great to have you frame a question about late Beethoven quartets in the context of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It's his voice that the four of us discuss when we're working on Schubert quartets. There's much in common between the genres of Lieder and quartets. They both inhabit the world of musical metaphor and poetry. Where in an orchestral work or in an opera, a composer depicts the sound of a chime literally, in lieder or a quartet a chime has to be created metaphorically through the sound of another instrument. It's much more subtle and suggestive. This is part of what makes chamber music so creative for the performer and listener. It's also what makes a composers voice so exposed and alive. In Beethoven's quartets you live inside of Beethoven's soul and everything extraneous is stripped away. We think that in his quartets he abandons his self consciousness and scales unbelievable heights of inspiration and creativity.

You mentioned you wanted to focus on „Beethoven's general humanity, rather than just his drama and idiosyncrasies". Was this approach possibly inspired by the fact that even though his late life was certainly tragic, he did not appear to descend into complete darkness with regards to his composing?
You capture one aspect of our motivation in your question. We agree with you that Beethoven's last quartets don't descend into total darkness. They retain light-hearted humor, warmth, optimism, silliness, hope and many other positive qualities. As a quartet, we're very interested in how pre-conceptions shape an audiences hearing of an interpretation. The impact of Beethoven's suffering and deafness can't be overstated. On the other hand, if you clear your mind of this knowledge when looking at his late quartets, we don't think a deaf composer enduring incredible suffering and social isolation is a fore-drawn conclusion. We would go so far as to say that clearing your mind of his life circumstances and engaging the music on its own terms gives one the opportunity to appreciate how astonishing his heroism is. When our quartet approaches this music strictly on musical terms Beethoven's positive and lighthearted nature overshadows his willfulness and idiosyncrasies.

Ten years are a long time. How has your view on the quartets changed over this decade?
Our view of the quartets seems to be changing daily. We don't know where our views will ultimately lead, but suspect they won't ever stop evolving. We're in the midst of surveying recordings of the Grosse Fuge as we prepare to go into the studio. Many of the recordings we're revisiting we have listened to many times over decades. Despite our familiarity with these recordings, now we hear them in a completely new way. For example, the Budapest recording from a live concert at the Library of Congress has incredible nobility that we failed to appreciate years ago.
Spending over a decade with these quartets has given us an appreciation for the huge range of meaningful musical approaches. It is clearer now how the music benefits from so many points of view and simply can't be captured from a single angle. Our point of view has never been represented before and our hope is that it glorifies this tradition. Our quartet has developed a collective intuition for the organic nature of the structure of these pieces.

Did you adjust your performance with regards to the studio situation, which is never quite like playing in a concert?
Not really. We would say that it has gone in the other direction for us- our experience recording has impressed on us the importance of sound in performance. Theatrics and histrionics don't carry to a microphone or to the ears of a concentrated listener in our audience. If recording has taught us anything, it is to play every phrase as musically, colorfully and creatively as possible and to trust in the ears of our audience. Ultimately, it has to be the sound that transports musical expression to their imagination.

As you've performed these pieces regularly, you can benefit from a wealth of experience. Was this possibly also a danger at any time, in the sense of not questioning the pieces enough any more?
We wish not questioning the music was a danger for us; it would be refreshing! We really feed on each other's ideas and are always challenging and digging- in a nurturing way. It would be a strange rehearsal where one of us wasn't egging on the others to look at something in a new way or questioning whether or not we are realizing our musical ideals.

You recorded at Skywalker Studios. Most people who've been there describe it as a unique experience. How do you look back on your sessions there?
In a way, Skywalker is our favorite concert hall! (we're spoiled!) It's such a sensitive room, we can bring to life every sound in our imagination. We've only ever made our recordings at Skywalker. It's an unbelievable space to play in, and a beautiful spot to be (when we have a break to enjoy it!). We can really work together at each session with the engineer to‚ find our voice' in the space.

Your recording engineer Mark Willsher is a jack-of-all trades, but predominantly active in the soundtrack department. Why did you feel he was the right man for the job?
Again, we're spoiled! Mark has been our ONLY recording engineer, starting with our first explorations in the studio, just six months after forming. We were at the Banff Centre in Canada, doing a residency for a few months (some VERY cold winter months!!) and Mark was researching mircophone placement techniques there. He moved to San Francisco the following summer, and now we plan our recording schedule around his schedule as well as ours. Mark has traveled with us, has heard us in all sorts of spaces and rehearsals; he really works to find the sound that we like and that he hears in a ‚live' concert setting. We really trust him and his exceptional ears. And he's not afraid to experiment and take risks. The Beethoven disc is an example: he recorded us with something like 13 mics, but ended up deciding to use only two of them for the final sound on the disc. Of course, we should also mention that Mark is married to Cecily, our first violinist, and that the two of them are the production team on all of our recordings. (So, in a way, Mark is our ‚in house engineer'! ) This is an incredible asset to our group, the uniqueness of their teamwork! Having someone who is a musician and an engineer behind the glass and someone who is a great producer in her own right in the Quartet work together on the post-production is simply amazing.

How extensively did you plan the session and study the score with Mark before getting down to work?
The sessions are carefully planned before we go into the studio, which helps us decide how many days we'll need, and how we want to use the time. As mentioned above, Mark is involved in that process , and has heard us rehearse and perform the works multiple times before we begin.

Did you record all String Quartets in one go?
We started at the end of the quartets, and our first volume includes the final two Quartets that Beethoven wrote. It looks like we're working backwards! Next up, as we mentioned, will be Op. 130 and 133, to be released in 2010. And the final two late Quartets will be released in 2011. We wanted to have time to savor this experience with these pieces and continue to grow as a quartet.

You are now hitting the road again. Will you be performing the Beethoven Quartets in their entirety on this tour?
No, but we will perform a few of them, in specially chosen programs! We're performing at least 25 works this season (including those four new commissions mentioned earlier).

You insisted on taking the business aspect into your own hands. How right, would you say, has that decision been in hindsight?
It was absolutely the right decision for us, and we think it speaks volumes about who we are as musicians: We are fiercely independent, and like to be in charge of our lives (and the music we play!). We also arrived in the music world at a time of great change; the old models were just not working for musicians anymore, so in many ways, we worked to create a model for a new age. It would be hard for us to say now how it would have worked the other way, but the decision has been a really good one for us, as it has taken us to where we are today!

By Tobias Fischer
Haydn, Ravel & Schulhoff (CSQ) 2002
Debussy, Suk & Cotton (CSQ) 2005
Dan Asia: TrilogyJay Cloidt: Spectral Evidence (MinMax) 2007
Benjamin Lees: String Quartets 1, 5 & 6 (Naxos 2009)
Beethoven Late Quartets, Volume 1 (CSQ 2009)