A quartet of six

It’s a dream combination. A composer in the mainstream of her creativity handpicks a string quartet to make the premiere recording of her music and then coaches them in the way she wants to the music to sound. Add to this, a recording producer who understands implicitly what the composer wants and who has the formidable reputation as one of the best in the profession, and you have a team with a synchronous vision. For the purposes of this recording at least, it seems as though there are six members of this quartet.

For much of the last six months, the Acacia Ensemble has been learning, performing and recording the string quartets of Elena Kats-Chernin. The label behind this venture is Vexations 840, a Sydney based enterprise established by Lyle Chan, Anna Cerneaz and Ken Nielsen in 2010, that aims to assist and encourage music-making and recordings that would otherwise not be.

The first CD in this anthology of music for string quartet by Kats-Chernin has already been released. Fast Blue Village contains 11 of her compositions performed by the Acacia Ensemble. The second recording is already underway, featuring compositions mostly written in 2006 and 2007, amongst them, Blue Silence, Kwong Song, Grotesk, and A Suite of Australian Images: Silver Eucalypt, Silver Pearls, Silver Poetry and Burnished Silver.

I spent a wet May morning ensconced in the sound booth of an Alexandria recording studio as the tracks for this second volume were laid down. Recording producer Lyle Chan and his team sat at a console more awesome than a concert grand. Nestled together in the studio sat the Acacia Ensemble, four musicians meticulously recording and re-recording phrase after phrase. Even perfection, or so it seemed, wasn’t enough.

Violinists Lisa Stewart and Myee Clohessy, violist Stefan Duwe and cellist Anna Martin-Scrase make up the Acacia Ensemble. Whilst they took a well deserved break for a very late lunch, I spoke to Lyle Chan about the responsibility of being the composer’s ‘ears’ in creating this recording – a recording that is more permanent than the ephemeral moments of a live performance, that is open to far greater scrutiny and which will reach audiences far beyond the concert hall and into posterity. “It helps that we’re good friends” he says, with a self-effacing shrug. “But it is a responsibility that I take very seriously. Bear in mind though that recordings too are just a snapshot – the ensemble may well play this differently in a month’s time – but it is important that they have rehearsed it extensively with Elena and have performed it many times.”

“The producer’s role” , he says, “is to bring out the best in the musicians and to provide the environment in which they can shine. It requires a mix of technical expertise, a knowledge of their personalities and strengths, as well as a degree of armchair psychology.”

In a further conundrum of the recording studio v the concert hall, he acknowledges that in performance, a string quartet is completely self reliant. During the recording however, he is the additional musician with a role akin to that of the conductor in shaping, balancing, correcting and cajoling. Lyle Chan’s empathy with the composer is palpable as he shapes the sound. “When there is a line being repeated, she wants the counter melody more prominent” he instructs, “It should sound like somebody opened the door to the room and there’s already music going on”.

Do recordings, with their opportunities to create perfection misrepresent the performer? Lyle Chan reflects on the question. “Recordings are assembled, so they are artificial in a sense, unlike a live performance. The musicians have to pace themselves carefully because the time frame and the demands are so different. In many ways though, a recording is more honest because no audience is as close or as sensitive as a microphone, and so standards sometimes have to be higher”.

Lyle Chan was interviewed by Shamistha de Soysa for Sounds Like Sydney©

Read our review of Fast Blue Village at


Fast Blue Village is available as a digital release, produced by Vexations 840.

Visit http://www.fastbluevillage.com/site/products-page/cd/fast-blue-village-cd/ for details of how to purchase or listen to tracks.





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