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.
This album places Bondi in a more intimate context with the Quebecois Pierre-Yves Martel and the German Christoph Schiller. The instrumentation on this album is notable in its own right. All three musicians play early musical instruments: Bondi the harmonium and pitch pipes, Martel the viola da gamba and pitch pipes, and Schiller the spinet. Most of the tracks on this disc are based around a framework of pre-selected pitches. Others are freely improvised, though it is difficult to distinguish which these were. The result is a series of intricately textured and meditative tracks. In ways, this ensemble resembles a stripped-down IMO.
As Martel notes in an illuminative interview posted on the Another Timbre website, the title, Tse, is a Genevan word that simply means “here.” He then explains that this may reflect the suddenness and happenstance of the meeting of these three musicians. However, there seems to be more to it than that. The tracks almost bleed into each other. Each has its nuances and unique beauty, but one must listen closely to find this repressed dynamism. “Here” may also reflect the nuances of place and music. The pieces resemble each other in their slow, subtle, droning beauty. They also, however, represent discrete moments of musical inspiration and creation. In that sense, they reflect the singularity of being present in any moment, setting, or piece. The effect is entrancing and, at times, disconcerting. Tse actually offers six “heres,” and shows that even the superficially mundane or old can be pregnant with new and provocative possibilities.
“… ‘method’…. I don’t know what that is!” states Cassandra Miller in an interview on Another Timbre’s site. “Isn’t the fun of composing making up your own particular method for whatever piece you’re writing?” No better summation could be offered for her music as represented by this excellent disc in the label’s Canadian composers series, performed by Montréal’s Quatuor Bozzini.
On one level, Miller’s work manages the astonishing task of evoking various points in music’s history while calmly, often quietly but willfully eschewing them. Even the first few violin gestures of Just So conjure the modal ghosts of neoclassical Stravinskian harmony and Heinrich Biber in full-on arpeggiated fantasy mode, but the jagged rhythms just won’t square up to either conception. Every hint at steady rhythm is diced and discarded before coming to fruition, and every suggestion of Baroque cadence is thwarted. The tempo does finally steady itself in a blaze of exuberance only to have the piece end, abruptly, like that fabled unfinished Bach fugue, but with a smile. The longer works seem to encourage similar behavior. If the first part of Warblework affords slippery glissando-filled and metrically free visions of prime Penderecke, the fourth brings back fond memories of the opening sliding mysticisms of Terry Riley’s Salome Dances for Peace, but of course, the references are covert, if they exist at all. That fourth section opens with a slowly ascending gesture that somehow defenestrates any conventional notion of pitch or history, an authoritative but calm dismissal, stunning in its understatement and just as effective in repetition. There are Romantic flourishes that then give way to gorgeous sustains that circumvent academic time and temporal perception.
It could be that sense of temporal redefinition, or abnegation, that sets Miller’s music apart. She does it so well; just listen to the nearly 25 minutes of About Bach to hear it in full effect. Yes, the historical element is in play, as the composition emerged from one of Bach’s solo violin works, and that crazily high-register scale throughout demonstrates that Miller’s whimsy resides front and center, but a glacial change occurs. Focus gradually moves from the scale, a nearly complete B-minor repeated throughout, played at the very top of the poor violinist’s range, to the often subdued but complex and rhythmically transient harmonies below. The multileveled structure comes into sharp focus as the monochromatic scale recedes into a tremulous background, something akin to a sonorous clock against which the constantly shifting and dynamically varied pointillisms of domesticity or work-place mundanity accent the time being kept just below the surface. The two experiential levels intersect in gorgeous harmonic resonance, and in the moments when the lower level disappears, the scale takes on the shimmering qualities of silence.
There has been so much music striving for novelty and effect but failing or reaching for the heights and depths of beauty but achieving only shallow sentimentality. Miller manages both, as heard in the rapt but glistening colors of Leaving, an absolutely perfect way to end the disc. Quatuor Bozzini was a stellar choice; their long relationship with the composer, and their ability to make every swell and timbral juxtaposition count in music where they are paramount, renders their interpretations second to none. A close but suitably resonant recording brings this alternately spare and sumptuous music to life.