Years ago, when the Composers Quartet and Concord Quartet were the leading interpreters of American string music and before the Kronos Quartet was a twinkle in its first violinist’s eye, a name was reverently whispered in new music circles: the Arditti. We had heard that this avant-garde quartet from England seemed capable of anything and played the most fiendishly difficult music with such force and perfection that every major composer hailed their performance of his music as definitive.

Every now and then a record by this quartet would surface on a hard-to-find European label, only to disappear into unavailability. I taped a friend’s recording, on the aptly named Raretone Records, of the amazing, mystical quartets of the Italian Giacinto Scelsi, but never found that record in a store. Then the Kronos Quartet arrived, mixing rock and jazz arrangements with more difficult contemporary works in a successful bid to make the contemporary string quartet fashionable–and temporarily appeasing us.

But at last, the Arditti Quartet, the group that many composers and string players consider the world’s finest contemporary-music quartet, is embarking on its first American tour. Boston, Middletown, New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Montreal, Buffalo, Toronto, and–thank goodness, for it almost didn’t happen–Chicago will each hear a selection from the quartet’s 400-work, 160-composer repertoire, couched in the brilliant technical and mental virtuosity that has made them a legend–a legend that in America has hitherto remained underground.

The quartet takes its name from first violinist Irvine Arditti, who founded it in 1974 while studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. “We were working with Krzysztof Penderecki, preparing his Second Quartet for performance,” Arditti recalls. “The performance went well, and we wondered, why not continue as a quartet for contemporary music? My interest in contemporary music went way back. At 15, I went to Darmstadt (this was in 1968) for the courses in new music. I was aware that contemporary music was not something that was foremost in string players’ minds.” Of the original quartet, only Arditti and violist Levine Andrade remain. Rohan de Saram, whom some Chicagoans will recognize from his performances with the AMM improvisation ensemble, replaced the original cellist in 1977, and second violinist David Alberman joined two years ago.

The Arditti’s repertoire list reads like a contemporary music dictionary: Bartok, Berio, Bussotti, Cage, through Xenakis and Ivan Wyschnegradsky, the Russian mystic whose terribly difficult quarter-tone quartets the Arditti recorded last January. In their 1985-86 season alone, the Arditti played 30 world premieres, many of them commissions. They have by far the longest contemporary discography of any string quartet, and several of their discs have won awards. That list is increasing rapidly, for the Arditti is scheduled to make at least seven records in 1988, including all four quartets of Elliott Carter.

The Arditti has worked closely with Brian Ferneyhough, the British composer whose residency two years ago at the University of Chicago brought him some local attention. Ferneyhough’s scores, which typically include detailed instructions for the production of every note, are easily among the most terrifying a musician can face.

“We gave 60 hours of rehearsal for Ferneyhough’s Second Quartet, which is a tremendous amount for us,” says Arditti. “We broke it down not only bar by bar, but beat by beat. You can see from the score that it’s terribly difficult, but you don’t actually hear the complications, because there are all these lines that are very clear. Someone watching the score at rehearsal afterward said, ‘What you were playing sounded very simple.’ And yet, sometimes music gets so hard that it becomes easier again. It’s an interesting phenomenon.”

The Arditti’s hope in coming to America is twofold: to bring new European music to America and to take American music back. In honor of their Chicago audience, they’ll play the 1965 String Trio of University of Chicago composer Ralph Shapey. “We had the pleasure of meeting your Mr. Shapey last year,” says Arditti. “We introduced him to London. We were amazed that there was this important musical figure living in Chicago, completely unknown in Europe. We want to record one of his quartets, possibly the Seventh, and introduce him to Europe.”

Giacinto Scelsi, the Italian recluse who’s been called the Charles Ives of Italy, wrote his Fifth Quartet, which will be included on the program, as an Arditti commission. Scelsi’s works, meditative and obsessively focused on a few sounds, are nevertheless forbidding for the performer; the Fourth Quartet, for example, is notated on 16 staves, a different line for each string on the four instruments. “The Fifth Quartet,” Arditti notes, “is simpler than the Fourth. Scelsi calls it a ‘galactic explosion,’ and it’s a very lovely idea: stars exploding into simple lines, with varying lengths of decay. Very beautiful.”

Perhaps the most virtuosic work in the Arditti’s repertoire is Iannis Xenakis’s 1983 quartet Tetras. “Xenakis’s music pushes us to extremes, mostly of loudness,” says Arditti. “There are a lot of glissandos and all sorts of various scale passages, and some interesting problems of synchronicity, since there are no bar lines. Xenakis has gone the furthest in transforming the string quartet; one has to learn how not to sound like a string instrument. This is the work that would suffer the most from a quartet not used to contemporary music, because it would seem very unnatural. Some of the sounds are almost barbaric.”

I mention that the Kronos Quartet just played Wolfgang Rihm’s Third Quartet in New York, and that their repertoire is beginning to overlap with the Arditti’s. “Yes, it’s very interesting to now have colleagues who share some of our repertoire,” Arditti says. “Before, it was unusual for another quartet to have even ten works in common with us. Kronos’s repertoire is a larger percentage American than ours; ours is very mixed. It’s good that audiences can now hear different interpretations of these works. The Kronos goes for a very smooth sound. With us there’s more of a rough edge. We concentrate on the individual personalities of each player. They concentrate more on the overall unity–very American.”

Arditti has no doubt that plenty of room exists for further contemporary quartets. “Ten years ago someone came up to me and asked, ‘How can you play only contemporary music?’ I don’t think anyone would ask that today. There are so many styles around, from Cage to Xenakis to Glass, that there’s no end of variety.”

That the Chicago concert is happening at all is due to the superhuman efforts of local composer Frank Abbinanti, who months ago launched a one-man campaign to get the city on the tour. A triumphant Abbinanti beams, “I told them to get their tickets to Chicago before I’d even found a space to play in. Arditti finally said, “We’re coming. We’ll play in Chicago even if we have to play in the street.”‘ They don’t. Southend Musicworks came to the rescue. The Arditti will be at the Arts Club of Chicago, 109 E. Ontario, Monday at 8. Besides Shapey, Scelsi, Xenakis, and Ferneyhough, the program will include Ligeti’s Second Quartet and the Third Quartet of Rihm, who, at 35, is Germany’s most influential young composer. Tickets are available at Rose Records on Wabash, 897-9044, or call 283-0531 for info. The concert is sponsored by Southend Musicworks, with additional support from the Goethe Institute, the University of Chicago music department, and the Italian Cultural Institute.