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What did the beginning of time sound like? A new string quartet offers an impression

The Takács Quartet — left to right: Edward Dusinberre, Harumi Rhodes, Richard O'Neill and András Fejér — collaborated with composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama (center) to premiere her composition "Flow."
Cal Performances
The Takács Quartet — left to right: Edward Dusinberre, Harumi Rhodes, Richard O'Neill and András Fejér — collaborated with composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama (center) to premiere her composition "Flow."

Updated January 19, 2024 at 5:04 PM ET

Abrasive, intense and about to erupt at any moment. So begins Flow, a new piece by Nokuthula Ngwenyama for the Takács Quartet. Coaxing peculiar sounds out of centuries-old string instruments, the composer is trying to express nothing less than the dawn of the universe, when ionized gas filled outer space leading up to the Big Bang.

Ngwenyama asks the musicians to play on the other side of the bridge, usually a no-man's-land near the tailpiece of the instrument where the strings are short, taut and barely resonate. "So they're getting kind of overtones on their strings, and noise," she explains midway through the quartet's 13-city tour. "They're pushing the instrument to its maximum amplitude in a way maybe they hadn't done before." The musicians have to play close to their faces, except for the cellist, who has to reach far down, near the ground.

"This was the very first time for me. I couldn't see what I'm doing on the instrument," says cellist András Fejér, a founding member of the quartet. "First, it was a shock. Then it was a scare. Then I could relax somewhat because the violins actually had some visual point of entry for me."

Ngwenyama's task for the piece, commissioned by Cal Performances and eight other presenters, was to make music inspired by the natural world. She spent more than a year researching topics as varied as carbon reclamation, animal communication and black hole collisions. Ultimately, she focused on patterns in nature.

In the music, Ngwenyama assigns the note B to hydrogen and the combination of B and E to helium. As the two elements stabilize, there is light, followed by stars and galaxies that begin to form. The piece also conjures subatomic particles known as quarks, which the composer sends into a giddy waltz. The finale mimics giant flocks of starlings, twisting and dancing through the air in a great murmuration as violins chase each other in an unrelenting drive before coming to a soft landing. Ngwenyama also borrows from other musical traditions, such as the gong of a Balinese gamelan ensemble, heard in plucked notes on the cello.

Pushing boundaries suits the string quartet format. "Throughout time, composers are often at their most experimental when it comes to writing for string quartets," Takács violinist Harumi Rhodes explains. "There's something about the string quartet that's flexible and intimate — just being a family of four. But we can also sound like a symphony, we can be mighty and strong."

Ngwenyama and musicians fine-tuned Flow together ahead of its November premiere in Berkeley, Calif. Rhodes says there's nothing more exciting than creating new work together like this, with the composer in the same room. The music demands versatility and virtuosity and the Takács Quartet is an ideal partner.

The Takács Quartet performs Nokuthula Ngwenyama's "Flow" during its world premiere at Cal Performances in Berkeley, Calif. on November 12, 2023.
/ Cal Performances
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Cal Performances
The Takács Quartet performs Nokuthula Ngwenyama's Flow during its world premiere at Cal Performances in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 12, 2023.

A tension runs between the experimental and the highly stylized throughout Flow, which is Ngwenyama's first string quartet. But ultimately, the central theme is connection — between humans, between various elements in nature, and between humans and nature.

"It's hard not to be influenced by the way people are treating each other in the world, which is sadly not with the kindness that I would hope we could treat each other with," Ngwenyama says. "We're building walls between each other instead of celebrating our commonalities and the fact that we are of the same stuff. On top of that, we are today the 4.6% of matter in our own universe. So we are the anomaly with our chemical selves, and we should value and treasure each other."

The radio version of this story was edited by Jacob Conrad and produced by Adam Bearne. The digital version was edited by Tom Huizenga.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Olivia Hampton