Quartet in the Quadrangle: PSQ Records Come to SFU

March 28, 2023
F-302-3-0-0-3 - Promotional photographs

From 1972-1982, the Purcell String Quartet (PSQ) was the quartet-in-residence at Simon Fraser University. They gave “peripatetic concerts” on campus, contributed to dance and theatre events, and worked with R. Murray Schafer and other local composers, helping to promote and expand the influence of Canadian string repertoires in the process. And now, through the work of Frances Dodd, their records have been added to the Archives’ holdings and are available to anyone interested in an important chapter in the history of Canadian music.

Frances took a year of study leave from her position in the SFU Library to pursue the acquisition and arrangement of the PSQ records. After the project was completed, we had the chance to ask her some questions about the experience. Here's what Frances had to say.

Frances Dodd digitizing audio tapes for the PSQ fonds

Q: Working on the Purcell String Quartet records was something of a passion project for you. Could you explain how you first became interested in the PSQ?

A: My career is in librarianship, but I am a chamber music enthusiast at heart. As a violin student at the University of California at Davis, I attended concerts given by the resident string quartet there and admired its second violinist, Anne Crowden. After graduation, she invited me to tutor at her school in Berkeley in exchange for lessons. Anne spoke highly of Ian Hampton and his work with the Purcell String Quartet in Vancouver.

So, a couple of decades later, on moving to British Columbia, I was delighted to discover former members of the PSQ still very actively engaged in music. In fact, its founding leader, Norman Nelson, was directing the Chamber Music Workshop in Sooke! I attended this workshop every Spring, and also received lessons from Philippe Etter, the PSQ's longest serving violist. Meanwhile, Ian Hampton was teaching at the Langley Community Music Centre and I was very privileged to join his string quartet there.

In conversation, and with a little research, I was impressed to learn about how the PSQ was founded from the principal chairs of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and then hired to be resident at SFU in the exhilarating 1970s, when the focus was on community outreach, taking classical music into the countryside. Both during and following their decade-long residency at SFU, the PSQ toured extensively, and were celebrated as the premier string quartet on the West Coast of Canada.

Sadly, Philippe and Norman have now died within a few years of each other but they did leave some wonderful memorabilia. By good fortune, I was invited to consult with their heirs, Jenny Nelson and Nadia Moore, and have therefore been able to facilitate the donation of their records to SFU Archives.

The PSQ on Burnaby Mountain (F-302-3-0-0-3)

Q: Is it correct to say that you were acquiring the records and arranging and describing them at the same time? Could you describe how this acquisition process influenced the arrangement and description (if at all)?

A: I approached the archiving work from many angles at once, during a year's Study Leave. Initially, I received several bankers boxes (contributions of Norman Nelson and Philippe Etter), and started sorting through their contents. Meanwhile I contacted other former members of the PSQ to solicit more material. I also approached the National Archives for a possible visit, since the bulk of the PSQ papers were sent there when the quartet disbanded in 1991. Unfortunately, it proved impossible to coordinate with them, due to pandemic closure and travel restrictions. But over the course of the year, I received further donations from individual members, notably Ian Hampton, Marc Destrube, Bryan King, and Heather Hay.

A flyer for a concert series in the SFU Theatre, 1974 (F-302-2-0-0-2)

My arrangement was based on the initial contributions from Norman and Philippe, as these covered the main activities of the quartet: correspondence documenting their formation and appointment as resident string quartet at SFU, promotional material, tour schedules, concert programs, news clippings, reviews, and sound recordings. This arrangement seemed to work as more material came in, with a few refinements during the year, such as adding a separate section to represent each individual member's activities. The description came later really, based on notes that I kept throughout.

Going forward, I'm glad that SFU is able to keep the fonds open for further receipts, as surely there's more to come. I'm still actively seeking video footage, which is known to exist in the provincial archives in Victoria, for example, but I've yet to gain access there.

Q: As a librarian, what surprised you most about how archives arrange and describe records? We talk a lot about differences between archives and libraries, but were there any similarities that stood out?

A: In libraries, we talk about bibliographic control to describe books and enable access in a given repository. Archival description is similar but it's all about managing groups of records which are generally unique. So the metrics are slightly different. Instead of the cataloguer's standard description, controlled subject headings and call numbers, the archivist is concerned with provenance and context. I was surprised to see in the archival standards a structure familiar to me from the cataloguing world. But the focus is different, which may explain why archival standards continue to be more paper-based and locally oriented. Each has its advantage however, and I should add that, while libraries nowadays freely share online metadata and follow North American rules from the Library of Congress, there are niche areas such as the collection of Indigenous publications, which demand subject and geographic analysis at the local level.

Q: Any favourite items from the PSQ fonds?

A page from Norman Nelson's scrapbook (F-302-7-1-0-1)

A: Scrapbooks, from both Norman and Philippe! Norman's scrapbook records the quartet's earliest days - including every tour and concert and review, down to congratulatory telegrams - from the formation of the PSQ until he left it for a permanent post at the University of Alberta. I digitized this in its entirety. Philippe's collection of reviews, on the other hand, had to be re-assembled from three scrapbooks which had been haphazardly maintained over the years. I'm still unsure of the sequence in some cases. However, Philippe's is the more comprehensive as it includes newspaper clippings right up until the 1990s.

Other favourites: Norman's correspondence, Philippe's diaries, Ian's informal photographs, Marc and Bryan's recordings of both classical (Mozart, Brahms, etc.) and contemporary music, which includes landmark Canadian commissions and premieres (Coulthard, Schafer, etc.), and Heather's artwork.

A photo from Ian Hampton of members of the PSQ in Havana, Cuba (F-302-3-0-0-2)

The finding aid for the Purcell String Quartet fonds is available on SFU AtoM. Visit the SFU Archives or contact us at for information about access.