Miller’s music is absorbing for any number of reasons. She makes use of aspects of various branches of modernism including minimalism and, in some pieces, a kind of structural stasis but almost always also references traditional forms and techniques, from Bach to folk songs to Ives and more. Just So collects four pieces for string quartet, performed in typically beautiful and rigorous fashion by the Bozzini Quartet, two shorter works bracketing two longer ones. The title composition is a lilting affair, recalling some kind of village gig or reel, the strings pitched high, dancing, the rhythms just this side of irregular, the cello coming in for some wonderful underpinning in the final few moments. A bracing, joyous number to open the set. Warblework, as the title implies, concerns itself with birds: three thrushes and a veery. To my ears, not birdsong as much as tracing the paths birds make in flight and very movingly so. The strings swirl and skitter in brief bursts for the Swainson’s thrush, alight for a moment, then take off once again while the hermit thrush swoops a bit more, stays lower to the ground and the wood thrush grunts and pushes its way through the underbrush before standing still to survey its surroundings, which are filled with lovely, dry harmonies. The veery, another kind of thrush, does seem to make a doleful call amidst grainy streaks, the calls multiplying, a little anxious as though espied. Here, as in other pieces, Miller makes subtle use of approximately iterated cells of music, a near repetition of clusters that nods to minimalism without ever falling into rote usage — this is an especially fine work.
About Bach is the longest work presented here and kind of a centerpiece, illustrating the sort of structural tack that Miller seems to enjoy and that, in a way, she elaborates in her marvelous composition, Duet for Cello and Orchestra, commented on below. Here, if I’m not mistaken, one violin (maybe sometimes both?) plays a very highly pitched, seven-note ascending “scale” throughout the piece. Readers with more musical knowledge than I might identify it, but I was reminded, oddly enough, of the scale sung by the lead tenor at the conclusion of Glass’ 1979 opera, Satyagraha. It’s very poignant in and of itself, gathering strength and weight and, indeed, poignancy as it’s repeated again and again. The lower strings, in an almost conversational manner, reflect with phrases that seem obliquely derived from Bach, though with an entirely modern hesitancy and questioning aspect. Toward the end, it attains a clear dimension of solemnity. There’s a type of stasis in effect, pinioned by the violin (s) but also enhanced by the general self-similarity of the interposed phrases, though they in fact vary at all times. The sense of overhearing snatches of discussions in a large room pervades, dreamlike. Just a deep, marvelous and affecting work, brilliantly performed. The disc concludes with Leaving, another work that appears to have folk song roots, maybe a sea shanty, lolls in place like an old docked boat gently buffeted by small waves. Each of the strings seems to carry a related tune, melding together at times, drifting apart at other moments. It’s an immensely satisfying, soft kind of almost-lullaby, a fine ending to a superb recording.
The second disc, Just So, consists of string quartets played by the Quatuor Bozzini. The major work here, About Bach, is a fitting companion to the Duet for Cello and Orchestra: viola and cello play in the manner of baroque viols, a chorale that crosses over itself again and again until it finally exhausted. Against this, the violins play endlessly rising harmonics in the stratosphere, ethereal and remote. The effect is sublime at first and then strangely affecting as the elegaic implications of the music embed themselves in the consciousness, the harmonics continuing unperturbed by the cadences below. Miller talks about this piece being shaped by Bach transcriptions, Jewish music and computer glitches, bringing order out of the messy circumstances of life. Quatuor Bozzini make the fiendish technical requirements of playing this piece with finesse all but invisible. The other pieces contain elements of the folkloric, to varying degrees. Warblework names its four movements after species of birds, mixing up the mimetic, programmatic and impressionistic in an idiosyncratic way that deftly avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of Messiaen and John Luther Adams. The disc is topped and tailed by two brief works, the smart and sweet almost-a-solo Just So which sounds like a folksong transcription, and the more serene and sonorous Leaving which is, in fact, a transcription. It’s been worth the wait.
The Sheffield-based label Another Timbre specialises in experimental music, from the postwar US generation of John Cage and Morton Feldman to the present day. Lately, it has made a special feature of Canadian composers, and among its latest releases are two discs devoted to the music of Cassandra Miller, who grew up in British Columbia and is now based in London. Her teachers have included Michael Finnissy and Richard Ayres, but, as the eight pieces on these recordings show, her music is hard to categorise, its starting points unpredictable and wide-ranging.
In Quatuor Bozzini’s survey of Miller’s quartet pieces, the four movements of Warblework are based on the songs of four north American thrushes, while About Bach, as its name signals, is a homage, with a solo violin spiralling high above fragments of chorales derived from the famous D Minor Chaconne. In Philip the Wanderer, composed for the indefatigable pianist Philip Thomas, the source is a recording of a Mozambican musician, while the solo-violin For Mira is based on a computer transcription of Kurt Cobain singing Where Did You Sleep Last Night. In every one of these pieces, though, Miller’s response is totally her own. The music never seems second-hand or derivative in any way.
Perhaps the most striking of all is Duet for Cello and Orchestra, from 2015. It began, Miller says, as a homage to the composer Vincenzo Bellini, and also makes extensive use of an Italian folk song. But the solo cello (played with wonderful restraint by Charles Curtis in this performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov) is mostly limited to a scarcely changing sequence of alternating fifths, while the orchestra has a frieze-like succession of increasingly dense flourishes above it. The soloist only breaks free in the final moments for a brief cadenza in harmonics, which seems to belong to another musical world altogether. It’s a strange but profoundly haunting piece.
Another Timbre launched its Canadian series last year with Drifter, a two-disc collection of pieces by Linda Catlin Smith, New York-born but now based in Toronto. The most recent batch of releases includes another album of her quietly unassuming and entrancingly beautiful Feldman-esque music.
On Smith’s Wanderer, there are eight works played by members of Apartment House, each of them using a single musical idea to devastating effect — shared melodic lines in the ensemble pieces Knotted Silk and Stare at the River, gradations of touch in Velvet, for two pianos — and all totally beguiling.