The TIME:SPANS festival, presented by the Earle Brown Music Foundation Charitable Trust, is compact but mighty. The festival annually brings in the finest contemporary ensembles to play concerts that, though modest in duration, are packed with consistently well-chosen works with a heavy emphasis on 21st century music.
This year’s festival opened Tuesday night at the DiMenna Center with a one-hour performance by the Montréal-based Bozzini Quartet that was a rich and beautiful experience.
The quartet played music by two Canadian composers, Linda Caitlin Smith and Cassandra Miller. Though each composer took a different approach in their pieces, their shared aesthetic values made them opposite sides of the same solid and luminous coin.
Both were quiet pieces, with plenty of space, and both shared the same view of time. Rather than the standard marking of linear time through leading consistent beats and rhythms, the pieces presented themselves as tableaux — the music sat in the middle and asked the listener to circumnavigate its dimensions.
This has been a developing style in contemporary music since Morton Feldman, but it only fitfully makes its way into the concert world as a whole. The most prominent practitioners are the Wandelweiser group of composers, and although Smith and Miller are outside of that, the Bozzini is one of the most important interpreters of that music.
So no surprise at all that the quartet’s playing throughout had a warm, woody, grainy sound, with excellent intonation, even in extended passages in the violins’ highest range. Their concentration and focus were precise and solid yet with a soft touch, like raw linen stretched taut.
Written in 1999, Smith’s Folkestone was inspired by a series of watercolors JMW Turner made of environs around the city of Folkestone. Turner made twenty-four paintings, all from the same vantage point, and Smith followed that method, taking her material and recreating it twenty-four times. That would seem to outline variation form, but rather than take an idea and transform it cumulatively, Folkestone — Smith’s third quartet — gave a vivid impression of the core material being re-written each time, in the manner of Turner’s paintings.
The music was a series of sliding chords played by the ensemble without vibrato. Pulse had primacy over rhythm, and the chords balanced on the edge between consonance and dissonance. The music drifted like the wind, shifting clouds through sunlight-the sound was dappled with light and strayed, and gently swayed.
There were enough alternate note tunings that at times the style sounded like just intonation, at others like something more ancient, the phases shaped like plainchant. The effect was something like 21st-century William Byrd — earthy, communicative, with subtle depths and urgencies. At thirty-five minutes, the listening experience seemed to pass in less than half that time. When the playing stopped the audience seemed slightly stunned by their return to reality, as if it took some time to accept that the music was over.
After a short pause, the quartet returned with Miller’s About Bach (2015). Her inspiration was Bach’s Chaconne, specifically a phrase from that piece as played on a recording of violist Pemi Paull. Miller extracted Paull’s playing of the first major key phrase, and then transcribed it. The distinction of using Bach as mediated by performance and recording meant that along with the notes Miller was also capturing tiny variations in timing, dynamics, attack, and, crucially, the upper partials coming off the viola’s strings.
Another not-quite-variations piece, the resulting music was startling. With history in one’s ears, Bach was not a clear presence, but the material — something like a fragmented, harmonized chorale — had phrase lengths and cadences with an unmistakable Baroque foundation. Like Folkestone, About Bach used one core idea repeated as a series of slightly altered tableaux — the feeling of Miller’s composition was that of origami paper being folded, unfolded, then re-folded with small differences, until the first object was ultimately transformed into something very different.
About Bach had one additional element, a descending line played at the top of the violin register that accompanied the main material. Unmistakably derived from the harmonics on the original recording, this was a commentary that haunted the music, and its insistence coalesced into a lament that added poignancy to the beauty of the music.