Samson Young – Brahms String Quartet no. 1 Mv. 1


From the website:

Pitches and the organisation of pitches are possibly the most studied (and the most mystified) features in the tradition of western classical music. Academically-trained composers take years to perfect their chops in pitch organisation, harmony and counterpoint. Music is obviously more than just pitches, yet we habitually rely on melodic features alone when referring to particular compositions. In Brahms String Quartet No. 1 Mv. 1 I wanted to see how much of a musical work’s identity may be retained when pitch materials are discarded. I asked four singers to perform the opening movement from Brahms’ first string quartet. I coached them throughout the progress, and I gave them the following rules: exact pitches are to be ignored, but otherwise all other musical instructions including rhythm, dynamics, phrasing, articulation, and general ensemble co-ordination must be adhered to as strictly as possible.

Link to Samson’s Website (scroll down for audio link)


Brahms String Quartet No. 1 Mv. 1 (undated) is a work for four classically trained singers and microphones. The singers each correspond to one of the four instruments in the first movement of Brahms’ String quartet Op. 51 no. 1. They are instructed to perform the piece exactly as written, but to disregard indications of pitch. The result is a performance that, because of the “amputation” of its pitch- elements, becomes focused on elements such as rhythm and counterpoint. The subtraction thus produces a work that allows the listener to view the work by Brahms in an entirely new light (Young, Brahms String Quartet No. 1 Mv. 1 ).

One is reminded here of Romeo and Juliet by Carmelo Bene, and Deleuze’s analysis of the work. To quote Deleuze at length:

It is not a question of “criticizing” Shakespeare […]he subtracts something from the original. […]For example, he amputates Romeo, he neutralizes Romeo in the original play. So the whole play, because it now lacks a part chosen nonarbitrarily, will perhaps tip over, turn around on itself, land on another side. If you amputate Romeo, you will witness an astonishing development, that of Mercutio, who was no more than a potentiality in Shakespeare’s play. (Deleuze and Bene 204-205)

Young is thus, in the very same way as Bene, able to, through reduction, transform and add to Brahms’s work, a piece which, like that of Shakespeare, has been performed countless times before. This method of dealing with the standard repertoire is interesting because of the hidden layers of the piece that it can reveal to the audience. It is not as much a critical work, as much as it is a work that pays tribute to Brahms’ exquisitely crafted piece.

This being said however, an element of critique still remains. Just as Bene’s surgical cuts remove the main arbiter of power (Hamlet, Romeo), Young removes pitch, and with it harmony. By removing harmony, Young could be said to be undermining the tradition of western classical music, and bringing Brahms, in a certain sense, onto a more universal playing field with other types of music. The listener, for instance, could perhaps suddenly compare other minority elements much more easily, such as the rhythms with the complex polyrhythms of the music of certain sub-Saharan African musical traditions.

Source: Deleuze, Gilles and Carmelo Bene. One Manifesto Less. 1979.