Villiers String Quartet Composer Spotlight #5: Niccolo Athens and “Et in Arcadia Ego”

The Villiers String Quartet talks about Niccolo and his piece, Et in Arcadia Ego (which can be found under “Chamber ensemble” on the Works page):

As four musicians who have come together to perform as a quartet, we often look back at our collective experiences as working musicians in the UK.  London in particular is a unique city for music, unrivalled anywhere else in the world for the extreme variety of musical opportunities, jobs and gigs.  West end musicals?  Check.  World-class symphony orchestras? Check.  Pop recording sessions?  Check.  Solitary cellist in the basement of a club performing Ligeti by candlelight?  Check.  For us, chamber music is our panacea, a remedy for the busy days of running from gig to gig as part of the industry.  It is a moment when the four of us can take time to explore our own ideals in music together.  Searching for that ideal is a continuous process, as we try to find the right balance between our lives, music, and the future.

We were drawn to Niccolo Athens and his piece Et in Arcadia Ego – Meditation for String Quartet because his music addressed the notion of searching for such an ideal.  In many ways, Niccolo’s piece is a nod to the traditional sounds of a late-Romantic string quartet—after coming out of a sustained high C in the violins, the line descends into the lower registers of each instrument, creating a warm, lush, romantic view of sound.  Niccolo throws the quartet into a melee of rich harmonies, with the music constantly searching for a resolution.  Despite these opportunities, however, we never find our answer, only to return back to the question posed in the beginning of the quartet:  What are we searching for?

Like Niccolo’s work, music is constantly evolving and re-defining itself (as is the way that it is being shared with audiences).  Although the 6 semifinalists from this competition have written new works for string quartet, they were also bound by a formidable genre of tradition.  With so many great works in existence, how much further can the string quartet develop?  It is difficult to put one’s voice forward without being compared to giants of the past, and we were inspired by these young composers who rose to the challenge.

Niccolo is a doctoral candidate in composition at Cornell University, studying under Steven Stucky and Roberto Sierra.  He completed his undergraduate degree at the Juilliard School under the instruction of Samuel Adler, and he is a recipient of the BMI Student Composer Award.