The Arditti String Quartet plays music when the ink is wet on the page.
The British quartet, which will appear at Shriver Hall tonight at 7:30, performs 20 to 30 world premieres each year, and the average age of the works in its repertory is eight years. The Ardittis -- violinists Irvine Arditti and Dave Alberman, violist Levine Andrade and cellist Rohan de Saram -- play only one work that was written before the masterpieces of Bartok: Beethoven's futuristic "Grosse Fuge," which the composer himself predicted would take nearly a century before it would be understood.
"We play the 'Grosse Fuge' because it doesn't belong in any period and it gives the strangeness of context our programs need," says second violinist Alberman. "All the great pieces of the 20th century can stand on their own terms and don't need to be excused by being surrounding with older music. It might seem at first that 20th century music sprang out of nowhere. But the more you play 20th century music you realize that there was no rupture from the past. The works we play are the responses of the composers to the age they live in, and they use and adapt the music they inherit just as earlier composers did."
There is only one other well-known string quartet that specializes exclusively in new music -- the Kronos. The Kronos players are better known, perhaps because they take such care with their hair (punk hairdos), their fancy clothes (Day-Glo colors) and their lighting effects (reminscent of the days of acid rock). The Ardittis take more care with their repertory (no transcriptions of Jimi Hendrix or the Doors) and with their playing, which ranks among the most tonally beautiful, accurate and perceptive of any quartet in the world.
The Ardittis have the reputation of digesting difficult music faster and playing it better than any other quartet. What takes other quartets months to learn, the Ardittis can often master in a little more than a week.
Alberman was delighted to hear that the Shriver audience has never before heard a program in which the most familiar work will be Bartok's String Quartet No. 5. Everything else on the program -- works by Iannis Xenakis, Jay Allen Yim and Bent Sorensen -- has been written in the last eight years.
"We like playing for virgin ears," Alberman says. "The thing to remember is this: Everyone who writes music wants to communicate with other human beings. That some of the composers we play occa- sionally communicate with their language as well as in their language never means that their language cannot be appreciated by every member of the audience."
For tickets to tonight's performance, call 338-8450.