“… ‘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.