The artists-in-residence at this year’s Now Hear This music festival, put on by New Music Edmonton from Tuesday March 14 to Sunday March 19, were Montréal’s marvellous Bozzini Quartet. Founded in 1999, they concentrate almost exclusively on new music — they have now commissioned over 180 works, and premiered some 300: quite a record. They regularly tour all over Canada and abroad, and work with young composers to encourage new composition.
I wasn’t able to attend their Thursday (March 16) mid-day performance at City Hall, where they joined with Edmonton musicians, including another string quartet, the Vaughan, to perform James Tenney’s extensive soundscape, In a Large Open Space. It’s a work they have performed before, and for those who weren’t lucky enough to get to City Hall, or are curious what the work sounds like, there is an good YouTube video of their 2016 Montréal performance.
The Quartet’s main conventional concert was on Friday evening (March 17) in Holy Trinity Church. It was a formidable program, too, much of the proceedings including long stretches of slow music with long held notes that required perfect intonation — one of the most taxing tests of a string quartet, and one in which the Bozzini excel.
The concert opened with the premiere of a new work by the quartet’s second violin, Alissa Cheung, who grew up in Edmonton, studied at the University of Alberta, and played with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, before joining the Bozzini in 2015. Titled Nyanse (Norwegian for nuance), it reflects a particular trend in contemporary music for slow-moving, largely atmospheric and meditative music that avoids overt demonstration. It is built on a series of quiet held notes centered on D. Gradually there are variations of intensity and departures in micro-tones (for example, eight tones and quarter tones) from that central D, sometimes with an individual instrument coming to the fore. These slight variations and mismatches in pitch are mesmerizing, especially when harmonic overtones start sounding from the combination of instruments.
Needless to say, Nyanse requires not only pitch-perfect playing (I gather the quartet uses pitch meters that show the microtonal variations), but also a uniformity of tonal colour to allow those overtones to appear. That’s exactly what the Bozzini achieved in this world premiere of a spell-binding piece which was an ideal opening to this concert.
For the Bozzini clearly has an affinity for these kinds of swathes of atmospheric, meditative sounds. The concert ended with the substantial 31-minute String Quartet No. 3 by Jürg Frey. Frey, now 64, is a member of the Wandelweiser group of composers, whose hallmarks are exactly those kinds of sounds: quiet music (the third string quartet is marked pp or ppp throughout), often simply textured, with silences as an integral part of the whole. The Bozzini has recorded all his quartets, on the Wandelweiser label.
At first sight, the String Quartet No. 3, written for the Bozzini, seems to occupy pretty much the same sound world as String Quartet No. 2. It starts with slow quiet chordal sound blocks interspersed with silence (for a visual equivalent, think Mondrian’s 1917 painting Composition with Color Planes), that gradually get fused into extended blocks as the silences fade away. The edifice starts to move in step-like blocks — all the instruments still moving together — until individual lines appear, as if the strands that made up the block chords were being extruded.
What makes this different from the String Quartet No. 2 are the harmonies. Nathan Thomas, writing for the UK webzine Fluid Radio, commented that “the chords sometimes fall into patterns that draw on cadences and sequences so common to Western classical music that they could have been lifted from a piece by Beethoven or Schubert — a tendency perhaps often latent in Frey’s music, but never so explicit (as far as I’ve heard) than here.”
What I was reminded of strongly during the performance was the first part of Dieter Schnebel’s 1978 Viennese orchestral masterpiece Schubert-Phantasie, which has similar slow moving block chords, and a very similar harmonic scheme — for the piece is based on the notes and harmonies of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in G major D.894. What Schnebel wrote about that piece could aptly describe the harmonies of this string quartet: “forms take on a vague shape, ramble off into the distance, approach again, dissolve into figuration…thin out into wisps.” And yet Frey toys with those harmonies: at the end, the expected resolution is deliberately left hanging in the ear by the last note dropping a tone.
The result, because of the combination of those half-tonal, half-recognized harmonies, and the huge sound vistas the slow-moving swathes of music create, is enormously attractive, and one can well understand why the String Quartet No. 3 has become something of a cult piece. This was a marvellous performance and clearly a definitive interpretation — indeed, I felt it was better than the Bozzini’s recorded version (Edition Wandelweiser Records EWR 1507), as the tonal colours were slightly richer. Compelling music, compellingly played.
Another enjoyable surprise was Ian Crutchley’s 2009 String Quartet. Crutchley is the president of New Music Edmonton, and his string quartet comes from a very different tradition. It might be described as post-post-Webern, with the constituent elements — pitch, tone, rhythm — broken down in the smallest constituents (it opens with expressive little fragments that are kernels of pitch material, joined by kernels of repeated rhythmic patterns). It was also effectively eclectic, in distinct and clear sections, with occasionally suggestions of other musics: a jig-like idea in a violin solo near the end, distant memories of whale calls earlier, in a slower section that linked, in its quieter held notes and silences, to both the Cheung piece that preceded it, and the Frey piece later. This is a difficult quartet to describe, because its effect is created by the accumulation of small ideas in a post-Webern setting, and I suspect some of its undoubted effectiveness is received essentially subconsciously (for example, there seemed to be previous material at times coming back a little more organized than on first appearance).
The other piece in this concert was again a change of tone. Canadian composer Cassandra Miller’s Warblework (2011) is a four-movement work based on recordings of bird-song slowed down to the pitch of the human voice (or a string quartet). The three East Coast birds featured (if that’s the right word) are the Swainson’s Thrush, the Hermit Thrush, and the Veery. It’s a very attractive work (much appreciated by the audience), often with the kind of sounds associated with electronic music — indeed, the song-like Hermit Thrush section might well be described as The Lark Ascending put through a ring-modulator, with some lovely choral combinations. The final Veery movement, with a very different, rather ghostly low song, saw some wonderful colours created by the Bozzini, entirely in keeping with this really excellent concert.
A few days later, On Sunday March 19, the Bozzini joined with the Edmonton dancer Gerry Morita for a very different kind of concert. During the Cheung piece on the Friday I had been fleetingly reminded of the sixties avant-garde, in the exploration of slow moving tonal blocks (Ligeti is an obvious example), but here I was pitched right back into those heady avant-garde days of the late 60s and 70s, when ‘happenings’ were all the rage. Like those happenings, here everything was improvised, and, again like so many of those happenings, the audience sat around a central space, looking slightly uncomfortable and eyeing each other.
However, there was an evident general structure, with Morita interacting with the members of the quartet, one by one, each with a slightly different tone in the dancing. Morita’s use of being silhouetted on the windowsill of an opaque window, and then half-sliding off a table like Gollum crawling down a rock, and a final interaction with Cheung, were particularly effective. The music was generally of the slow atmospheric type, but with lots of interesting extended effects using bridges, bows, and instruments in unusual ways.
However, like most happenings, it went on too long. There was a moment, at about 40 minutes, when to have ended would have been ideal — Morita had traversed all the four players, and nothing substantial in effect was subsequently added. The most ‘happening’ moment after that was — for reasons that were not clear — when Morita placed a strawberry on Clemens Merkel’s violin and he ate it. It couldn’t have been more late 60s.
It was an interesting way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and I admired Morita’s dancing, but ultimately it just made me glad that those days of improvised happenings were largely buried with the 70s. And the Bozzini had already shown what an enterprising and fine quartet they are.