Composer expresses the origins of the universe using string instruments

4 minutes, 22 seconds Read


The Takács Quartet is on a 13-city tour to premiere Nokuthula Ngwenyama’s “Flow.” We look at how music can express natural phenomena.


A composer tried to write a single piece that would use just a few instruments to tell the story of everything, going back to the start of the universe. Nokuthula Ngwenyama wrote for two violins, a viola and a cello.


INSKEEP: The composition is called “Flow,” and the Takacs Quartet gave it its world premiere in November. It’s now touring the country. NPR’s Olivia Hampton met the quartet at a performance in Baltimore.

OLIVIA HAMPTON, BYLINE: Nokuthula Ngwenyama’s “Flow” starts with the beginning of everything, that moment when the universe gradually filled with ionized gas.


HAMPTON: To get that effect, Ngwenyama had the musicians do something they weren’t accustomed to.

NOKUTHULA NGWENYAMA: I asked the Takacs Quartet to begin on the other side of the bridge, on the short strings between the bridge and the tailpiece. So they’re getting kind of overtones of their strings, pushing the instrument to its maximum amplitude in a way that maybe they hadn’t done before.

ANDRAS FEJER: This was the very first time for me I couldn’t see what I’m doing on the instrument.

HAMPTON: That’s Andras Fejer, a founding member of the quartet.

FEJER: It was a shock. Then it was a scare. Then I could relax somewhat because the violins, they actually had some visual point, but not for me.

NGWENYAMA: Oh, that’s so interesting. I hadn’t thought about it that way, that you have to look over the bridge down into this abyss.

FEJER: And then you were asking me for a double stop, which just added to my paralysis.

NGWENYAMA: But it sounds so good (laughter).


HAMPTON: If that reminds you of a gong, it’s no accident. The cello is imitating traditional Balinese gamelan music. Ngwenyama is unafraid to draw on the entire range of musical forms, and the Takacs Quartet are kind of her ideal collaborators. Founded by a group of students in Budapest nearly 50 years ago, they moved to the U.S. in the early 1980s and became known for their recordings of Beethoven, Schubert and Bartok. But with this piece, the musicians are pushing their instruments – and themselves – to the limit. Here’s second violinist Harumi Rhodes.

HARUMI RHODES: There’s nothing more exciting – nothing more exciting – than creating new things together and making sure that that’s always a joyful process. Whatever we do to keep that human, joyful, collaborative spirit, I think, is something that our quartet really embraces.


FEJER: How can we give more character to a phrase so that it would be absolutely clear for the audience how they can listen to it. Then they are more open to really enjoy it and act like a sponge for her music.

HAMPTON: Here’s Rhodes again.

RHODES: Throughout time, composers are often their most experimental when it comes to writing for string quartets. I mean, there’s something about the string quartet that’s so flexible and intimate, being a family of four, but also the fact that we can also sound like a symphony, you know, we can also be mighty and strong.


HAMPTON: In this case, the composer is a violist herself. Ngwenyama says these musicians’ willingness to push boundaries gave her the freedom to experiment as she collaborated with them on bringing it to life.

NGWENYAMA: It’s really a collaboration, something like this, because the piece doesn’t live until it’s played and performed.


HAMPTON: This freedom shines through in the quark scherzo movement. That musical term, scherzo, is Italian for joke. The quark is the smallest unit of matter. Here, Ngwenyama explores these subatomic particles. She sends them into a giddy waltz.


HAMPTON: The piece ends with an image of huge flocks of birds in flight. The two violins chase each other and dovetail like starlings, twisting, turning, and slicing through the air…


HAMPTON: …Before landing. Ngwenyama says her composition is all about how we’re connected to one another – and to nature – in irreversible ways. She says particle physics offers us lessons in how to live in harmony.

NGWENYAMA: It’s hard not to be influenced by the way people are treating each other in the world. We’re building walls between each other instead of celebrating our commonalities and the fact that we are of the same stuff, and we should value and treasure each other.

HAMPTON: It’s a physical and chemical concept, but it’s also a spiritual one.


HAMPTON: Olivia Hampton, NPR News.

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