In recent years novelists, playwrights and film-makers have revived speculation about quartets: how do the “families” that play together stay together? Flinders Quartet cellist Zoe Knighton offers an insider’s perspective that suggests it’s a marriage of true minds – with the inevitable compromises. As Zoe tells it …
When Flinders Quartet began in 2000, none of us were really prepared for the emotional commitment that comes with a permanent chamber ensemble. It began like many relationships. Swap dates for concerts and that’s how it progressed. Before we knew it, we had been on enough “dates”/concerts to organise some overseas “trips”/study.
There are no official ceremonies to mark the marriage of a quartet but I think the closest thing is a photo shoot. It’s a permanent and public declaration that we are playing together. I don’t know when it was that I realised I was married to Flinders Quartet – perhaps at my own wedding when my husband to be suggested I include the members of the quartet in our wedding vows. After two weeks of marriage FQ embarked on 10 weeks of study at the Banff Centre for the Arts and it really cemented our commitment to the group.
Like any relationship, there are arguments and reconciliations. Rather like sharing a house for the first time, the initial period is often incredibly amicable, until the permanency of the situation sets in and habits start to irritate. It’s hard enough with two people, but double that to four people in a quartet and it’s no wonder that the famous chamber music teacher Hatto Berle sends all his groups to marriage counselling as a matter of course. What we discovered was that if the members essentially respect each other and want to play with each other, any problem can be overcome.
After ten years of rehearsal, there was so much that didn’t have to be said. I could almost predict word for word the conversations that would occur in the practise room. Everyone had their role to play in the musical crafting of a piece and “OK, this is going to be conversation number sixteen and we are going with solution B”. It made for efficient rehearsals and we had developed our own language. So much so, that when people witnessed our rehearsals, sometimes it was hard for them to follow the train of thought. When playwright Adam Cass filmed our rehearsals in order to write the play Behind Closed Doors, he found it fascinating that he really didn’t understand a word we were saying.
Playing in a string quartet is an addiction. Not just for the music (although that is the primary motivation) but for the daily contact with three other musicians who become part of one’s musical identity. When The four of us sat down at Cafe Arts Vic and discussed the future of a string quartet with orchestral jobs and babies, it wasn’t looking good. It seemed far too similar to the relationships where the couple still love each other and want to be together but with changing priorities, the tough decision had to be made. Erica Kennedy and Matt Tomkins made the hard decision to leave the quartet. No more daily contact with these amazing people and musicians. Heartbreaking.
It honestly took six months before I could talk about the break up without welling up and while we had to plan for the future, I felt incredibly numb. Forced to move on, Helen Ireland and I were back in the dating game after 10 years of fidelity. Back to polite rehearsals on best behaviour and the knowledge that if things weren’t going according to plan, it wasn’t worth rocking the boat for a short term arrangement. In some ways it was exciting. Meeting new people that have no idea how I used to play 10 years ago. What does one look for in a string quartet member? Obviously amazing and inspiring playing but we knew that without commitment, nothing works. Hey – no one joins a string quartet with the intention of making their millions – it has to be for love.
Amazingly we found two inspiring violinists in Shane Chen and Helen Ayres who are completely committed to Flinders Quartet. The chances were rather slim in finding that winning combination and we still can’t quite believe our luck. Two photo shoots later, we have begun that journey towards nonsensical rehearsal conversations.
It would be fair to say that the honeymoon is over for the new lineup and we have years of marital bliss and arguments ahead.