My rehearsal room - on programming and performing with Acacia Quartet

It took us a year or two to find our identity as a string quartet. We fairly quickly realised that we needed a point of difference if we were to become known as more than just a “gigging” quartet. And apart from this, we found ourselves playing quite a bit of new Australian music and loving it. Right from the start, we programmed in composer Lyle Chan's music. Lisa and Stefan, our first violinist and violist (as well as our married couple) had heard his music performed by pianist Benjamin Martin and thought it was absolutely gorgeous, so contacted Chan to see if he had anything for string quartet. From that point on (2010) we programmed something of Chan's in almost every concert.

Our big break came in 2011 when we performed some of Elena Kats-Chernin's works as part of a Conservatorium teachers' concert. Kats-Chernin was present at the rehearsal and concert and approached us afterwards with a project she had been wanting to do - to record her complete works for string quartet in a double CD - and she felt we were the right group to pull it off. 

This project (our CD Blue Silence was released in 2012) really set us up for our identity as a new music quartet. Now, we tend to play melodic compositions, beautiful or fun pieces, because as an ensemble, we are best at emotional compositions. Since that first project, we have been approached by Australian composers to record or perform their works. We feel extremely lucky to be in this position and have enjoyed performing and recording pieces by Joe Twist, Sally Whitwell, Moya Henderson, Gordon Kerry (coming up in 2018), Nick Wales, Nick Vines and of course, Lyle Chan.

When programming concerts, we program mainly what we like to play. This has ended up being a mirror reflection of your typical quartet program: mostly new works with one standard repertoire piece (rather than mostly standards with something new thrown in). We love playing Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel, Debussy but specifically program them in also because we feel we need a drawcard for our audience. The audience may come away from the concert raving about the Golijov or the Chan, but they don't always come to a concert for those names first and foremost. This concert, for example, has the draw-card of Ravel's string quartet, but we've paired it with a brand new composition by Lyle Chan, a funky rhythmic piece by Alvarez, a short Shostakovich and Golijov's gorgeous Tenebrae

When it comes to our preparation schedule, we have always rehearsed weekly rather than being project-based. Up until this year we rehearsed three days a week, something we have not been able to sustain this year. We've reduced to two days a week with the optional third day as concerts approach. We do anywhere from 5 to 7 hours per day, careful to take breaks when we notice tempers fraying or hunger setting in.

Lisa is very good at planning and sets us specific pieces or movements to rehearse each day: it is easy to get bogged down in a difficult movement and completely forget to rehearse something which feels easy, but none-the-less requires work!

We have also learned to do as many run-throughs as possible, ideally in front of an audience, even if it's only an audience of one. It's only in a concert situation like a run-through where weak spots really show up and we learn which parts are likely to give us trouble.

The other very important piece of advice we were given is to pace ourselves on the day of a concert. Rest, and even naps, help to prepare us. Soundchecks should be taken literally – to check the sound but not to rehearse or change anything. By the time you get to the soundcheck, your rehearsal time is over. 

Posted on November 1, 2017 .

Behind the scenes of a string quartet

You know that photo that is making the rounds on facebook? The one of the iceberg with the tip showing above the water's surface labled "performance" and the huge mountain below the surface labled "rehearsal"?  Well, it's absolutely true. But what most people don't realise is that the amount of admin necessary for a successful group is another mountain. 

How have we solved this issue? It has taken us a good six years to figure out the best way of handling this amount of work. Composer Lyle Chan, Acacia's staunch supporter and close friend, gave us some very good advice at the start of our career as Acacia, but it has taken us years to truly understand what he meant. He advised us to play to our strengths. Use each person's individual strengths and divide up the work that way. 

Embarrassingly it didn't take us long to realise I was the one good with money. So I became treasurer. And Stefan is great at networking. He loves meeting new people. But some strengths are not so easy to identify, and some skills necessary to our group were skills none of us had tested out before. Like speaking in front of a large audience. Yikes! The musicians who do this well make it look so easy, but it's not until you stand up without your instrument (without the thing that is normally your voice on stage) that you realise how difficult public speaking actually is. I discovered if I use the skills my 6th grade teacher (thank you Ms V!) taught me about taking notes and dot points, I can speak on stage, but I certainly can't wing it like Myee can!


One memorable concert in Newcastle we all climbed up on stage, bowed and sat down, only for me to realise with a sinking feeling that I had forgotten my cello stop. You know, the little black rubber thing that stops my cello spike slipping on a hard floor? After a split second of wondering if I could play without and hold the cello between my knees like I do with a Baroque cello, and then wondering if I would do my cello damage if I jammed the spike into the wooden stage floor, I realised there was nothing for it but to run back to the dressing room and grab my cello stop. I quickly told an astonished quartet what I was doing and then ran past an even more astonished audience who had no idea what had happened. And when I say run, I mean run. We were performing in a museum and the dressing room was literally at the opposite end. It would have taken me at least 4 minutes to run there and back. I arrived back on stage with the silly little rubber stop in my hand and poor Myee improvising her talk and searching frantically for more to say (before we had even played one note)!

Publicity is another huge word in the admin category. Unfortunately the conservatory I studied at didn't go into much depth in terms of publicity. I think we were taught how to make a flyer using WORD... And so much has changed since then anyway (and I'm not that old!!). A lot of publicity is online  - this blog for example! And posters and flyers are almost a thing of the past. So we are all still on a very steep learning curve.  I hugely admire the Australian Haydn Ensemble. Their latest gimmick has gotten them heaps of publicity in the form of a hand written thank you card  "from Haydn" for anybody who donated to their campaign. I love this! So many receivers of these cards have proudly put them up on facebook. 

So let me know! Any ideas for crazy gimmicks to put us out there in the vortex of the inter-webs?


Is it really music if it's performed by a machine?


I've been thinking about this topic for a while now. My colleagues, students, students' parents, composer friends and non-musician music-lovers are equally divided yet fervently adamant that their view is the only possible answer. My music-lover friend feels that music is something almost holy that requires emotion, where my computer-tech friend has read all about software that creates music, changes tempo, pitch, etc. and assures me that of course music can be performed by machines.

But what is music anyway? Is it simply a collection of sounds made by a human being? Can a machine make music? Are bird calls music? Or is music a collection of sounds notated by a human being? Composed music? But that leaves out improvisation... Harmony, melody, rhythm? All three combined? I decided I had better look it up.

The definition posted at is an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color. 2. the tones or sounds employed, occurring in single line (melody) or multiple lines (harmony), and sounded or to be sounded by one or more voices or instruments, or both.

So, by this definition, music needs an emotional element and is produced by a voice or an instrument. Can a machine show emotion?

The Websters Online dictionary is more open in its definition of music: "the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity" (Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, online edition). 

I suppose a machine could be programmed to "order tones and sounds in succession, combination and temporal relationship to produce a composition".

My computer-tech friend assures me that a machine is necessarily designed and made by a human, so the human would leave their imprint on the machine. So a machine could be the tool used to produce music composed or made, or even emotionally felt by a human. Now what about computer programs that have been developed to compose? This topic brought me frighteningly close to the topic of artificial intelligence so that I decided to leave it. But for those who are interested, see this BBC article here.

Even before the digital age we had mechanical machines that made music. Think of wind-up music boxes, or carousels that "cranked" out music with a mechanism similar to a player piano. This is all music, but played by a machine. I doubt that many would argue that the sounds we hear from a music box or a carousel are not real music, although arguably emotion is missing and the instrument is mechanical.

I was doing some online research about Elena Kats-Chernin's works for string quartet when I came across a YouTube clip of a machine playing Fast Blue Air. As you may know, Acacia was very lucky to be offered the chance to record Elena's complete works for string quartet under the Vexations840 lable in 2012. We worked closely with Elena for this recording and loved every minute of it. Our double CD Blue Silence earned us a place as finalists for the APRA AMCOS awards and seems to still be a favourite on ABC Classic FM.

One of the most exciting pieces we learned for this CD was Fast Blue Village. It is a frenetic piece in 5/4 time. The speed of it meant that we all had to ditch our normal metronomes and download electronic metronomes that would actually go fast enough (240 beats per minute)! When I googled Fast Blue Village I discovered that its original title was Fast Blue Air and Elena had been commissioned to write this piece by FESTO, a company that makes very fine and intricate electro-pneumatic instruments. It was performed by such a machine at the Hanover Fair in 2007 to show off the fine mechanics of their electro-pneumatic instruments.

The youtube clip of this machine is fascinating (and I was pleased to note the machine had not played the piece at 240 bpm!!).

For comparison's sake, our youtube clip of Fast Blue Village is here:

So what do you think? Does a machine do Elena's composition justice? What is music anyway? Is it music if it's performed by a machine? Created by a machine? This topic has proven to be so huge, it's as if I've opened Pandora's box. Too much to think about in just one post. But please leave your comments if you have thoughts on this subject.