The Montréal-based Quatour Bozzini, formed in 1999 and expert proponents of new music, programmed two contrasting process-based work by the Canadian composer Cassandra Miller and by the American composer James Tenney (1934-2006). The former teaches composition in London at the Guildhall School while the latter spent much of his teaching career at York University in Toronto. Both quartets have roots in earlier solo string pieces, displaying different approaches to string playing and to temporal process as an approach to musical form.
Miller’s About Bach (2015) is her second composition to win the Jules-Léger Prize for new chamber music. Written for the Quatour Bozzini, it expands on a previous work for solo viola based on a close analysis of the micro-timing and timbral spectrum of a performance of Bach’s Chaconne by violist Pemi Paull. Miller describes the work as following ‘a somewhat inaudible process that is simply let to run, until it runs itself out. It’s a constant meandering, a non-developmental piece in an extreme sense.’ The piece is ‘about Bach of course, and in the end, about the Quatuor Bozzini,’ and indeed the players brought sensitive imagination to their performance, allowing the piece to resonate on its own terms. The texture throughout consists of a slow ascending modal scale played in continuous rotation in ethereal harmonics by one of the violins, while the remaining three instruments quietly play jagged but still graceful homophony reminiscent of English viol music, but crenulated with extreme leaps. The two violinists seamlessly exchanged the scalar component in cycles, like passing a precious chalice in a slow ritual, against the almost dangerously serrated fragility of the trio texture, likewise performed with a relaxed precision that allowed tiny nuances to emerge with each extreme-but-delicate gesture. As Miller suggests, the long slow compositional process, gradually rotating and truncating the material, isn’t the main point. What is most attractive about the piece — and was vivid in the Bozzini’s performance — is the sense of veneration it creates and sustains in an extended processional state of extreme poise and evocative sounds.
Tenney’s Koan for String Quartet (1984) was the oldest piece in the entire festival, and is in fact based on a solo violin piece he wrote in 1971. Tenney was interested in extended tuning systems such a 53-tone equal temperament, which brings out novel and beautiful micro-intervals, and also perfectly-tuned harmonic triads. Koan’s process was simple but captivating to hear: the first violin plays tremolos grouped in slow fives, while the other instruments play repeated tones, intervals, or chords in homophony; each part gradually ascends or descends by tiny intervals, 53 per octave. Although the parts move in unfamiliar tiny intervallic gradations, they meet periodically in perfect consonant triads, creating a wonderful fabric stretching into and away from these moments of resonance. For most of the piece, these triads occurred with every 5th or 7th cycle, but they came more frequently and with greater variety as the piece neared its end. Tenney’s composition involves a simple rigorous process, but one that he planned with impeccable taste for the beauty and mystery of its inexorable unfolding geometric expansion, like a blossoming crystal. It was a rare pleasure to hear the vividly incremental tonal inflections and pure triads that emerge from this extraordinary tuning system, and the Quatour Bozzini played with superb discipline and sensibility for the music’s sensations and textures. With over 200 commissions and 300 premieres, their commitment to new works was in full evidence in their ability to make Miller’s and Tenney’s pieces resonate richly on their own terms.