FourPlay String Quartet – An Xperience Interview
Written by Staff on February 3, 2024
FourPlay String Quartet – An Xperience Interview – by Liam Sweeny.
Being a fiction writer in this gig economy, I, like many, admire the work and overall demeanor of author Neil Gaiman. So to find out that he collaborates with FourPlay String Quartet was a treat. And the quartet is by no means second fiddle. (I’ll be here all night; tip your waiter)
So I had a chance to chat with Lara Goodridge of the Quartet, and through the transitive property, so do you.
RRX: You recently released a collaborative album called “Signs of Life,” and to top that off, put out a very cool pink album. I don’t like to ask people what an album is like, because people say “It’s really grungy, but it has soft spots,” which could be anything. I’ll ask this; minus the first song, what song do you think “sells it?”
LG: Ha! Well, I’m kinda pleased to say that when I talk to people who have listened to the album, they all have different favourite pieces. I think that’s a great sign that the album touches people in different ways and that each piece has its own strength. But I’m not really answering your question yet, am I?! Or maybe I just did! If I was going to choose a favourite, I’d say “In Transit”. But we all have different favourites!
RRX: Neil Gaiman performs the vocals, and he is a wordsmith known far and wide. So I think his fans are going to put the lyrics together to try to find a bigger story. Is it there? Or is it more disconnected? Is each song a micro of some macro, or are they universes unto their own?
LG: Initially we had come up with the concept of a stage show that was based around the 12 signs of a horoscope, only with our own new set of signs. A few pieces from that concept are on this album, Clock, Möbius Strip, and the ‘almost’ title track, Signs of a Life. In that sense, they were part of a body of work that tied together meaningful symbols that touch on themes of the passing of time, the cyclical nature of life, aging and death.
There are also more whimsical moments, like Bloody Sunrise about a lovelorn vampiress, but Neil also tackles such things as miscarriage, freedom of thought and the theory of relativity… well, at least, the man who proved the theory was right, in a very intimate story of Sir Arthur Edington. So, yes, they are universes to themselves, but like everything, they too are connected.
RRX: I like asking about how bands form. I’ll never get tired of the 2 a.m. fights at Denny’s or Waffle House that end up with a four-piece jamming out in someone’s basement. With Neil Gaiman and Fourplay String Quartet, I don’t imagine any fights occurred or Waffle Houses visited. But it had to be interesting. Did Neil reach out or did the band?
LG: So, our illustrious manager, Jordan Verzar and his friend Ben Marshall had come up with a wonderful idea for a festival, bringing together graphic novelists, illustrators and musicians to create new collaborations. They sold the idea to the Sydney Opera House and thus Graphic Festival was born. In that very first year, Jordan reached out to Neil Gaiman, one of his all-time favourite writers, and invited him to perform. He said, ‘I have this string quartet who I think you might get along with…’ Neil said yes to this crazy idea. He sent us a novella called The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, and FourPlay set about writing music to it. We’d send Neil snippets and themes through email over the course of a few months and we only got to meet Neil the day before a sold out show in the Concert Hall. Neil had invited his friend Eddie Campbell illustrate the story as well, and these were then projected in time with the narration and the music. We rehearsed the day before the show, and it was a bit nervous and awkward at first, and then, it just wasn’t! It all came together really well, and we just got along so well. Neil is just so collaborative. He’s very open and nurturing, whilst being clear about what works for him and what doesn’t. So, that is how it all began about 14 years ago!
RRX: I’m both a writer and a musician, so I know that sometimes my writing builds the song, sometimes the opposite. I imagine it’s similar for you, but with Neil providing vocals, does that bring the writing more to the forefront? How does having a writer for vocalist affect the mix?
LG: Yeah, so that’s a great question, and the answer is that each piece came together differently! Some pieces were written, as I mentioned around a theme. So, for example, Signs of a Life was written with FourPlay in a room jamming on an idea, and Neil was in an armchair in the next room listening and writing with our music swirling around him, writing words on the same theme. Neil might then read some bits to us, and we might then adapt what we were doing to his words. They were the most in-real-time collaborations, like Signs of a Life and Möbius Strip.
Other pieces, Neil would give us a written piece of his and we would then set about writing music to it. For Song of the Song, we played Neil the groove and the melody, and he said, hey, I’ve got this poem I wrote that I think might work well with that! When we wrote Clock, we set a metronome to 60 beats per minute like the ticking of a clock, and just started improvising. We wrote that whole piece of music in its entirety as a free improv (and thankfully recorded it). When we played it to Neil, he said, ‘I think I will read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12.’ And so, as you see, each piece has a slightly different genesis, but with the result a collaboration that is distinct from its previous form.
RRX: Collaboration is a great thing because it takes from two different worlds. From this collaboration, we have Neil Gaiman’s fan world combined with FourPlay’s music fan world. How do you think these worlds connect?
LG: Yeah, isn’t collaboration neat? Neil has often collaborated with different illustrators, and with musicians as well. In the case with us, it has certainly been amazing to collaborate with Neil who is so globally renowned. He is. We’re not! But the crossover of audiences I think is a perfect fit. Peter and Tim, our cellist and one of the two violists have been huge fans of Neil’s for their whole lives. So that brought an extra understanding to the collaboration. There is no doubt a meeting of minds between us all. And so it’s no surprise that our two audiences would have a simpatico. Of course we hope that people who are not familiar with us will love what we do with Neil’s words, and present this new intertwined thing of words and music. And for our fans, well, of course they love getting to see us do our thing with the legend that is Neil! For any few out there who don’t know Neil’s writing well, well this is a wonderful opportunity for them to discover his genius.
RRX: This is where you answer the question I forgot to ask. Remarks? Comments? Educate, enlighten, emote – the floor is yours.
LG: Oh boy! Well….
This has been a really organic collaboration, which started with that first concert in Sydney, and then just casually, and gradually, kept going. Neil would kindly invite us to jump on stage with him when he was in Australia, and we started building a little repertoire and then decided to deliberately carve out more time to write and create. And it just grew over the years – fitting in with Neil’s superhuman schedule. They’re the best projects, ones that have a life of their own. Projects that are challenging and fun, but totally easeful and natural. This is one such project.