The five pieces on this disc span roughly twenty years: Lullaby was written in 1991, and fall in 2013. Lullaby for string sextet and beach whistle (1993) for solo cello, both more or less through-composed, are mostly very quiet except for occasional irruptions. Clinamen (1999) for solo violin is made up of eighty cards, each containing a short phrase, to be combined at will by the performer. Trip (2008) is a four-movement string quartet with a lopsided form in which the last movement is more than twice as long as the first three together. The instructions for the radio that appears briefly in the first movement are simply that it be tuned to “talk radio” and that it be “slightly more than unobtrusive.” fall may be the richest piece conceptually and the hardest one to grasp in a recording. Based on the chromatic rotation of a fournote row, with an audibly cumulative structure, it uses six specific dynamics, from very quiet to very loud, assigned to each pitch in each voice using chance methods. This creates an unpredictable “voice leading” and a sense of undependable harmony: the chords keep repeating in randomized dynamics, so one finds oneself in a landscape in which everything is the same, but not. Both Trip and fall were written for the Quatuor Bozzini. What a joy it is to work with them.
— Christopher Butterfield, August 2016
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Over the course of its three centuries’ long existence, the string quartet has shown itself to be a highly resilient medium well-adaptable to changing developments in music. Traditionally weighted toward the contrapuntal, the string quartet in contemporary hands is equally effective in presenting texturally — or timbrally-oriented work, as shown in fine recent recordings of compositions by Scott Wollschleger, Lewis Nielson and Richard Karpen, among many others. But it also serves as an apt vehicle for composers concerned with questions of alternative architectures and pre-compositional structures. With Trip, their latest recording, Montréal’s Quatuor Bozzini present this latter side of the string quartet and its derivatives at the present moment.
Founded a few years before the turn of the century by sisters Isabelle and Stéphanie Bozzini, cellist and violinist respectively, the Quatuor Bozzini — originally called the Quatuor Euterpe — began with a focus on the traditional string quartet repertoire. Violinist Clemens Merkel joined the ensemble in 1999 and has been with it ever since; the remaining violin chair has been filled at various times by Geneviève Beaudry, Nadia Francavilla, Erik Carlson, Mira Benjamin, and most recently, Alissa Cheung. Along with changes in personnel, the quartet’s artistic direction shifted to modern and contemporary music.
Trip is a collection of work for string quartet, sextet, and solo cello and violin by Canadian composer Christopher Butterfield (b. 1952). Butterfield, who is director of the University of Victoria School of Music, comes from a musical family, his brothers Paul and Benjamin both being classical tenors, the former a conductor as well. His own artistic background is eclectic though reflective of the times in which he grew up — when young he was a chorister for the King’s College Choir in the UK, and later was a performance artist and a rock guitarist. He has expressed an interest in treating composition as a kind of “puzzle” whose realized form derives from the operation of rules or analogous pre-compositional structures; several of the pieces on Trip fit that description. Much of his work has been created for chamber ensembles, dance and multimedia environments and, with the late librettist John Bentley Mays, includes Zurich 1916, an opera premised on the chance meeting, in Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire, of Dadaists Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings and exiled Russian revolutionary V.N. Lenin.
One of the works included in Trip, in fact, draws on music taken from Zurich 1916’s chorale. This is Lullaby, a string sextet composed in 1991. Butterfield sets the lullaby — a simple melody gently rocking back and forth — within a frame of drones, glistening harmonics and silences. In the closing section, the piece turns to a repeated and strangely vertiginous ascending motif made all the more affecting by the performers’ restrained urgency. The quartet, supplemented by violist Jennifer Theissen and the fine Baroque/early music cellist Elinor Frey, bring out an understated but real richness in the piece.
The quartet fall (2013), written for the Quatuor Bozzini, is a work both aleatory and serial. The pitch material consists of the four-note row AABA which Butterfield then subjected to chromatic rotations and randomly-generated dynamics. For most of its length the piece floats on long tones overlapping into dissonant chords; the emergent minor-second harmonies, made even more astringent by the quartet’s eschewing of vibrato, in places recall John Cage’s 1950 string quartet, which Quatuor Bozzini in fact recently recorded. Another aleatory piece, 1999’s Clinamen for solo violin, is a composition made up of 80 cards, each of which containing a brief phrase, to be played in the performer’s order of preference. As realized here by Merkel, the piece is an essay in unpredictability and immersion in the moment, in that no single event foreshadows anything that follows, and no subsequent event explains any that preceded it. Nor does any need to. Instead, there is a concatenation of short, independent and non-accumulating events separated by silences and differing from each other in pitch, phrasing, mood and tempo.
The recording’s title track, a quartet composed in 2008 for the ensemble, is an asymmetrical work of three short movements followed by a much longer closing movement. The piece opens with a polyphonic flourish playing out against a background wash of talk radio, followed by a driving, rhythmically dense second movement and a third movement that breaks the individual voices out into arco and pizzicato lines. The final movement is a reflective adagio of long, suspenseful harmonies sporadically scuffed by rough timbres.
Butterfield’s pieces suggest an unschooled or outsider’s approach. In actuality, we hear an unsettling union of chance and specificity. Titled deceptively, the string sextet Lullaby starts quietly, almost atmospherically, and suddenly stumbles upon a descending sequence which elsewhere might serve a harmonic function but here seems to be purely decorative. Clinamen requires that the solo violinist navigate at will across 80 short phrases printed on cards. The brief gestures, some immediately repeated, make for nearly 15 minutes of ambiguous restlessness. Evidently Butterfield rails against form and traditional logic.
Written for the Quatuor Bozzini, fall repeats chords derived from a four-note cell, except the players have randomly chosen dynamics which disturb the voice leading and create an illusion of harmony and motion. Trip, also written for the Bozzini, serializes pitches but applies durations using chance. Dynamics and structure were finalized later. A radio broadcast emerges in the first movement, and the final movement dwarfs the preceding three. If the first three were perky bagatelles, the finale is slow and disconsolate. The Bozzini deliver with aplomb, and yet it’s hard to know what to make of it all.
In Japan there is a tradition of women pearl divers (ama). The sound they make as they return to the surface to breathe is called isobue or beach whistle, in a loose translation. The solo cello alternates slowly between high and low (like the divers), held tones, and rasping pizzicato. Most of the other pieces give off motion and end unexpectedly, but stay rooted to the same place. Beach whistle is uniquely descriptive among this curious collection.
For its 23rd CD, Quatour Bozzini has produced a monograph recording with an almost-chronological retrospective of music by Christopher Butterfield. Spanning more than 20 years, it contains three pieces for solo strings and two string quartets. Clinamen (the Latin name Lucretius gave to the unpredictable swerve of atoms), for solo violin (1999), is made up of 80 cards, each containing a short musical phrase, combined according to the free will of the performer. Intentionally inchoate, the piece is bound together most prominently by the honey tone of Clemens Merkel’s playing, and yet, there are whispers of its compositional technique, as though related materials were sketched, bent through historical filters from classical music to modern, and then splayed by means of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique.
Fall (2013), written for the full quartet, is the perfect vehicle for the Bozzinis’ signature non-vibrato playing. At times haunting and tense, their sound is also unadorned, unaffected and exquisite. Engaged in material processes of rotation and accumulation, the ensuing tone of the piece is plaintive and distantly evocative of Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts. The eponymous Trip (meaning possibly all of: excursion, to dance or run lightly, to stumble or fall, to release and raise an anchor, and to hallucinate) is an outlandish journey from a short Scorrevole movement augmented by a random talk radio broadcast, through a moto perpetuo, to a swaying, recapitulatory Scherzo. The last movement, marked Adagio molto, is longer than the preceding movements combined, and sounds not simply slow but like a time-stretched recording, where the smallest, usually ordinary timbral deviation is magnified and burnished, while notes, lines and harmonies are expanded into tranquillizing beauty.
Butterfield (b. 1952) is a long-time teacher and composer, operating largely in Toronto and Montréal. As a teacher, he has a number of students working in various contemporary areas, including Wandelweiser-influenced, who assign him a great deal of credit for their development.
The Quatuor Bozzini, which also works out of Montréal, presents five of his works ranging in origin from 1991 to 2013: two quartets, a sextet and two solo pieces, all of them bracing and enjoyable. Lullaby (1991) adds an additional viola and cello. It’s a somewhat disorienting lullaby, broken up at times by nightmarish shrieks, but by and large it wafts along with luscious, quavering harmonics, sometimes entering surprising, perhaps dreamlike song formations, reminding this listener of Ben Johnston’s work. Maybe some Tenney as well. Generally, Butterfield’s music, as represented here, often goes off in unexpected, delightful directions where one can hear (or think to hear) this or that reference but still comes away with more of a Butterfield-ness than anything else. Lullaby is an excellent example of this. beach whistle (1993) and Clinamen (1999) are solo works for cello and violin, respectively, the former a sober conversation of sorts between high and low, plucked and bowed, the later portions strangely melancholy and evocative while Clinamen is something of a dance, flitting from one light form to another (it’s constructed from 80 short phrases which the violinist can combine in any sequence he/she chooses).
The final two pieces are for string quartet proper. As per the composer’s notes, fall (2013) is “(b)ased on the chromatic rotation of a four-note row” with a randomized dynamic range. The result is a hymn like structure but, as Butterfield says, “unpredictable ‘voice leading’ and a sense of undependable harmony.” One experiences a vivid spatial effect, the louder chards seemingly “nearer” than others, an otherwise self-similar landscape where perceived distance is the sonic qualifier. Additionally, the overall meditative aspect of the music itself permeates this landscape, somber and disquietingly beautiful. Trip (2008) is in four sections, the first three short (each less than 2:30) while the final lasts some 13 1/2 minutes. The three brief movements are brisk and rich (the first incorporating a talk radio capture), rather Neo-Romantic in flavor while the final (marked Adagio molto) is dark, scratchy, agitated and brooding, though not discarding an underlying tonality; I found myself thinking of Arnold Böcklin’s paintings.
Overall an extremely satisfying release — absorbing music incisively performed by Quatuor Bozzini.
Since forming in 1999, Montréal’s Quatuor Bozzini have steadily ascended to become not only one of the most daring string quartets in Canada, but in the entire world. The consistently bring both an exquisite touch and a refined sensibility to music that demands invisible rigor. In recent years, they’ve earned acclaim for their peerless readings of music by Swiss Wandelweiser Collective composer Jürg Frey, but they’ve also been key proponents of lesser-known composers from their homeland, including Martin Arnold and Simon Martin.
This new offering focuses on the music of Christopher Butterfield, an influential Canadian figure whose position at the University of Victoria has impacted scores of young composers over the last few decades. His own work isn’t as well known as it should be, but Trip certainly provides a good opportunity to catch up. The five pieces here span over two decades — the two most recent compositions, Trip (2008) and Fall, (2013) were written specifically for Quatuor Bozzini. The earliest piece here, Lullaby, is a piece for string sextet; its tightly-controlled moods are conveyed at a hush except for some bracing, hair-raising interruptions that subside as suddenly as they appear. Over time, Butterfield has embraced chance in his process: the solo violin piece Clinamen, for example, is shaped largely by short phrases printed on eighty cards to be mixed at will by the performer, while the aleatoric nature of the four-movement title piece produces unpredictable harmonies within a relatively fixed structure, changing the nature of the work with every new performance.