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Work of the Week – Peter Eötvös: The Sirens Cycle

Work of the Week - Peter Eotvos The Sirens Cycle

On 1 October, Peter Eötvös’ new work The Sirens Cycle (2015-2016) for string quartet and coloratura soprano will be premiered at London’s Wigmore Hall by Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet.

The addition of a soprano part to a string quartet was pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg with his 2nd String Quartet in 1908 establishing a groundbreaking variant of the modern string quartet genre. This innovation was continued in works such as Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite (1925-26) and Egon Wellesz’s Sonnets for Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1934) and still echoes in contemporary works such as Jörg Widmann’s Versuch über die Fuge (2005) and Brett Dean’s 2nd String Quartet (2013).

The Sirens Cycle: The Silence of the Sirens

Eötvös draws upon three versions of the Odysseus myth for The Sirens Cycle using texts from very different authors – Homer, James Joyce and Franz Kafka – and keeps each text in its original language (Greek, English and German) to create three distinct sections within the structure of the work. The first section is by far the largest at seven movements and uses fragmented thoughts, phrases, and words from James Joyce’s unstructured stream-of-consciousness novel Ulysses. In contrast, the section from Homer’s Odyssey depicting Odysseus’ confrontation with the sirens, as well as Kafka’s short story Das Schweigen der Sirenen (The Silence of the Sirens) are used in full. Musically, Eötvös uses an expressive arioso-like style for the Joyce section, while Homer and Kafka’s sections are dominated by characteristics of lied and recitative, respectively.

Additionally, there are two optional interludes consisting of electronic sounds. For these sections, the Paris IRCAM and Centre Pompidou, both co-commissioners of the new work, used spectral analysis to translate Eötvös’ selected texts into pitch, duration and colour representations.

The negation of song in Franz Kafka’s ‘Das Schweigen der Sirenen’ inspired me to compose a work reflecting on song itself. I undertook some research to find examples for the connection of soprano and string quartet and found very convincing solutions by Arnold Schoenberg and Jörg Widmann. Peter Eötvös

After the world premiere in London, the Calder Quartet will tour The Sirens Cycle throughout Europe with soprano Audrey Luna. National premieres will take place in Switzerland (Zurich, 2 October), Spain (Madrid, 3 October), and Germany (Frankfurt, 5 October). The version with electronic interludes will be first performed in Paris on 12 October and will also feature at the Donaueschinger Musiktage on 15 October.