The Chiara String Quartet: Playing by Heart

September 3, 2014, 5:56 PM · Members of the Chiara String Quartet weren't just being romantic (or Romantic) when they named their latest album Brahms by Heart. They actually played all three of Brahms' String Quartets, plus one Quintet -- by memory when they recorded it.

Not only that, but this fall they will perform a full cycle of Béla Bartók’s six string quartets from memory, at Bargemusic in Brooklyn, on Sept. 26 and and Oct. 17.

"We now have 10 pieces in our repertoire that are memorized, and we're adding to them," said violist Jonah Sirota, who spoke to me earlier this summer about the quartet and its newfound enthusiasm for memorization. Other members of the Chiara are Rebecca Fischer, Hyeyung Julie Yoon and Gregory Beaver. The group, which won First Prize at the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition in 2003, currently serves as artists-in-residence at Harvard University and at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "Chiara," pronounced "key-ARE-uh" is an Italian word for "clear, pure, or light."

Though the Chiara String Quartet has been together for nearly 15 years, the idea of memorizing quartet music came to them only recently.

"We'd wanted to record the Brahms Quartets for a long time," Jonah said. "We started that six or seven years ago, but when we listened to the playbacks, we just weren't happy." They wanted their recording to be more inspiring, more unique. "So we ended up deciding to scrap it and start over," he said. This led them to a new question, "How can we make this special?" That was when Hyeyung suggested the idea of a recording session with musicians and microphones only, no sheet music on stands. In other words: memorizing the whole cycle.

"We were a little bit apprehensive at first," Jonah said, "then we tried it out in rehearsal, and it was a powerfully different experience for us." They committed to memorizing the Brahms, which also included doing the Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111 with violist Roger Tapping, whose guest appearance with them came right after he retired from the Takács Quartet and right before he joined the Juilliard Quartet.

Memorizing the music had a profound effect on their group dynamic, Jonah said.

"It's a different feeling, and it's a great feeling," he said. For four intensely analytical people, this process gave them plenty to think about, just remembering the music. That helped get them out of their own heads and into the process of making music together. "We find that it helps us to hear each other better and to respond to each other in a much more immediate way," Jonah said. "It's been a positive change. The process has been challenging for each of us in different ways, but it's been a very equal challenge; it's hard work for everyone. It also keeps us off of each other's backs a little bit."

But how do they stick to the score, with no score?

"We have to memorize all of the markings," he said. During rehearsals, "we keep the parts and score right next to us -- it's just that when we're playing, we don't look at them. We'll often play a passage, immediately go back and look at our part or the score, to get a better understanding of what's going on."

After memorizing all the Brahms quartets, they tackled an even bigger task: memorizing the six string quartets by Béla Bartók.

"The Bartók quartets were challenging to memorize because there's so much detail and so many seemingly random patterns," Jonah said. "We had to really grapple with what the composer wrote. You can't memorize something you don't understand, so we had to spend a lot of time working with the score and getting to the point where we understood."

Coming to that understanding was almost a process of "de-composition."

"Composers have this incredibly rich notational system, but it's still not perfect, it doesn't really show everything the composer is hearing," Jonah said. "For us, we have to memorize just about the whole score, not just our own parts, and that memorization process is almost like doing the composition process in reverse. The composer took what he heard in his head, somehow translated it into notation -- we have to re-translate it back into something that makes sense as a musical idea, beyond the page."

"Ideally, that's what music-making is about," he said. "(Memorizing) absolutely forces us to get to that place." For example, in discussing a dynamic marking, quartet members find that nowadays the discussion often moves straight to the philosophical level. Instead of simply pointing out, say, that a passage is marked "piano," the conversation may sound more like: "Well, the composer wants a piano, but obviously there's kind of a deeper character that he's looking for, it's not just a dynamic change, it's a character shift..."

"We do start to think along those lines more immediately as we're working, more quickly in the process," he said. Performing by memory demands a deeper understanding than performing with the aid of the sheet music. "We can't go on stage and play by memory before doing that work, whereas you can totally go on stage and play through a piece that you've rehearsed but maybe don't have a rich understanding of yet."

Is it nerve-wracking, a live performance with no music?

"At first we were really nervous to go onstage without the music, but in the long run, I think it's made it easier," Jonah said. Quartet cellist Greg Beaver has pointed out that members tend to be much more nervous for rehearsal than they ever used to be, because they have to be extremely prepared. "If we say that we're going to practice the exposition of Mozart K. 590 tomorrow, from memory, you're either ready to do that or you're not," Jonah said. "So it front-loads that kind of pressure. But it's nice, because it means that by the time you get to the concert, you've already been through what seems like a series of high-stakes situations, in rehearsal. We still get nerves, but the nervous energy is more like excitement and less like fear. It's freeing: we're going to go for it, no net."

After all this memorizing, do they have any advise about the memorization process?

"Once you start memorizing something, you make a commitment not to be playing and looking at the music at the same time," Jonah said. "That sounds like an obvious thing, but it took me a while to get to that. I was still trying to glance at the music and test myself and see -- but that doesn't really work. If you're going to send your brain the message that you're not going to be using the music, then having the music anywhere in front of you while you're playing really messes that up."

For example, maybe you are trying to memorize something, but you keep the music on the stand, and you keep it turned to the page you need. You are still turning pages, still tracking with the music, still occasionally glancing over. "It can throw you off, and it can get confusing."

"If there's one thing that we've figured out, it's that the parts of the brain that you're using to play without music and the parts that you're using to play with music are different," he said. With the music, you are interpreting the visual, then converting it to sound and musical ideas. For Jonah, playing by memory is not visual at all. It could be different for the others -- "I know that at least two of my colleagues have pretty good visual memories, so they may be basically looking at the page in their brain."

In the beginning stages of memorization, first look at the music, mentally play through it, imagine it, stare at it, then go away from the music and play it. "It's as simple as that," Jonah said. "You start with little chunks. When we prepare for rehearsal, and we're saying we're going to do this from memory, we usually memorize about 80 to 100 measures in a rehearsal."

"We"?

"We have to memorize our own parts first, absolutely," he said, but there is also a process of memorization together, as a group. "Once you play with each other, you may get a little thrown off, even if you've done a pretty good job memorizing your part." You may not fully know how the score works, or you may be thrown off when you hear the counterpoint. It requires practicin as a group.

"We'll often do slow playing; we basically drill. We want to be playing it correctly and playing it well, most of the time," he said. When it comes to practice, "whatever you do a lot, is what happens. So if you play something well half the time and not-well half the time, then you have a 50 percent chance of it going well at a concert." The more times you execute something correctly, the more you improve your odds of playing it well in performance. And this takes time -- a lot of time.

"You write it to the short-term memory, but it takes a while for it to sink into a more lasting memory," Jonah said. They don't want every performance to sound the same, but when it comes to the work of a rehearsal, they are trying to master the things that need to be there no matter what: notes, pitch, dynamics and phrasing.

The entire process may seem antiquated, in this day of instant access to everything on the Internet.

"I think that, as human beings, our memory used to be stronger," Jonah said. Before the smart phone or Internet, before the television, before recorded sound, before the recorded word -- we stored our ideas, knowledge and histories in our memories, which were highly evolved. "We've lost that sense of memory," Jonah said. For example, "I'm traveling all the time, but I don't really learn the geography of most places I go, I just punch it into Google maps, I don't think about it." For Jonah, the memorization projects have been like an antidote to this culture of the throwaway mind. "It's so not-a-modern-thing-to-do, to spend all this time stuffing these notes into our brains. But we wanted something that spoke of who we are right now, and I think that we got that."

* * *

Here is the Chiara String Quartet playing the Ravel String Quartet by memory:

Replies

September 4, 2014 at 03:08 PM · I'm sure many will have that "late quartet" movie in mind here, and I imagine most professional quartets are playing mostly from memory as it is. The sheets are only there to prevent one player from screwing it up for the rest. I'm not sure the quality of the music is affected much one way or the other. These are people for whom memorization is already an organic, even automatic, part of preparation. Still, the experiment is a welcome one, and worth repeating by others. For my own sake, though, I hope memorization doesn't become the standard for chamber music too. Will orchestras be next?

And the two women are the violinists! You still don't see that all the time, good for them!

September 4, 2014 at 04:59 PM · There's playing by memory, and there's playing by memory. If you still have the music in front of you, even if you know the piece very, very well, it is completely different from performing without the music. To say that a group "could" play something without the music, they know it so well .... that's nice. But they aren't playing it without the music unless the music is not there. I have not seen that on any kind of regular basis, but if there are other groups actually playing without the music (literally, not theoretically), it would be interesting to talk about that.

September 5, 2014 at 03:17 AM · Laurie, that distinction is not lost on me, and I think the point can simply be made that reading from the sheets is a bandwith-consuming distraction. That's how it is for soloists and it should be the same for chamber musicians too. But just because a quartet feels differently when they play without music doesn't necessarily mean the audience hears something different. The experiment is an intresting one already but would be better with a blind control.

September 6, 2014 at 06:33 PM · I've been told that the old Kolisch Quartet played from memory until they had a few "train wrecks". That evidently put a stop to the performing from memory. I myself like to play everything from memory, but to have four people equally secure is another thing. Almost anything can be a distraction, even a momentary one. My wife and I play sonatas, both of us from memory.

Aaron Krosnick

September 8, 2014 at 09:25 PM · Regarding "The Chiara String Quartet: Playing by Heart": When my young teenage student, learning the first movement of Mozart's Bb Concerto no. 1 from a small urtext study score -- playing at lessons from memory --comes tomorrow, his assignment is to play the "transition" and "retransition")and to point out where and how these two quasi-parallel sonata-form passages diverge, the exposition passage to "F the V" and the "recapitulation passage" to Bb the tonic". We'll see it goes. Like the Chiara quartet, I am interested to learn how the "ear" perceives when the input is not only the "eyes" reading notes. Charles Heiden, Salem, Or.

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