We can be so surrounded by a sea of music. Never has so much music been within the grasp of ear and eye. We can so easily miss new stars rising in the firmament of music composition. But for me, unexpectedly, out of the ether (of BBC Radio 3) dropped a 4-minute jewel of a string quartet, and with a title that was hard to forget, Tide Purl by Liz Johnson. It was played by the Fitzwilliam Quartet as a trailer for a concert to launch 2-CD retrospective including all this composer’s work for the string quartet medium.
I was a thoroughly captive audience at the time, quite seriously ill in hospital, and this tiny piece broke through the miasma of mental lethargy and physical discomfort. I was immediately hooked, and as soon as I could, traced the new CD set on Spotify and began to acquaint myself with what I now think (after several ‘listenings’) is a significant body of English music for string quartet. This essay will discuss Liz Johnson’s four string quartets, in particular a most ambitious and striking work for soprano and quartet.
Looking through the excellent booklet of liner notes of the CD production my eye was immediately taken by the title of Johnson’s Quartet No.4, Sky-Burial. This is the title of a narrative poem by Kathleen Jamie, a poet I have followed as much for her beguiling and beautiful prose as her award-winning collections of poetry. Jamie represents a significant voice in and beyond what has come to be called ‘the new nature writing’. In her books of essays, Findings and Sightlines, she has engaged with the natural world of her native Scotland in a powerful and very individual way.