Still Image: Music by Owen Underhill

Owen Underhill / Bozzini Quartet

Taken as a whole, this CD presents a solid compositional voice from Underhill and showcases excellent musicians I Care if You Listen, USA

Excellent readings by the Montréal-based Bozzini Quartet (violinists Clemens Merkel and Mira Benjamin, violist Stephanie Bozzini, and cellist Isabelle Bozzini), whose devotion to new music — particularly in their annual Composers Kitchen — is laudable. American Record Guide, USA

The four pieces for string quartet recorded here, including a quintet with trombone and clarinet respectively, span a period of 1997-2011. Separately commissioned, the compositions have their own identity. At the same time, a multitude of relationships resonate across the works, contributing to a cyclical quality to the project as a whole. The two string quartets, throughcomposed in a single movement, unfold in juxtapositions of contrasting sections. The two quintets, constructed in multiple movements, were commissioned by two remarkable musicians: Jeremy Berkman and François Houle. Their musical personalities and special skills are embedded in each quintet. Listeners may experience a variety of subtle or more powerful points of contact linking the works on the disc. Certainly for me the compositional process was cumulative, as if each successive work was speaking with and carrying further the experiences of what happened before.

I cannot say that I fell in love with composing for the string quartet from the beginning. Rather, the string quartet seemed to find me, entering into my creative life at periods of intensity in my own life-experience. The intimacy of composing for two violins, a viola and cello has been a challenge and a gift at these times, giving me the opportunity to focus and perhaps intensify the contrasts in my compositional thinking, as if shooting a film in black and white. I am thankful to the Quatuor Bozzini for joining me on this project and for commissioning a new work for the recording. Creating a quartet especially for them, taking into account their musical intelligence and potent interpretation, has made the collection of works complete.

  • Canada Council for the Arts

CD (CMCCD 17412)

  • Label: Centrediscs
  • CMCCD 17412
  • 2012
  • UCC 773811174122
  • Total duration: 69:58
  • Jewel case
  • 125 mm × 142 mm × 10 mm
  • 100 g
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In the press


David Dies, I Care if You Listen, February 13, 2013

In many ways, this is an intimate recording of intimate music. Still Image is a recording of two quartets and two quintets, which brings the obvious intimacy of chamber music. It is recorded and mastered to sound like a salon, giving the players a real presence and immediacy. These intimacies compliment Owen Underhill’s music, which draws the listener into intimate spaces made up of almost familiar gestures balanced against ear-catching and varied glimpses outside those expectations, by way of pitches, timbres, or harmonies.

New music fans may know Owen Underhill as the artistic director of Vancouver New Music from 1987-2000 or, more recently, as co-artistic director of Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble. This CD presents four works by Underhill, a string quartet (2011), a clarinet quintet (2007/11), an older string quartet (1998), and a trombone quintet (1999). The CD is anchored by the Quatuor Bozzini, a renowned quartet based out of Montréal with an extensive and impressive track record in North America, Europe and beyond. The quartet is joined by clarinetist Françcois Houle and trombonist Jeremy Berkman.

The CD opens with String Quartet #4 “The Night,” which was commissioned by the Bozzini Quartet for the recording. This is my favorite work on the album—a single movement work made up short passages of varied textures punctuated with string harmonics. This quartet evinces the balancing of the almost familiar with restive excursions that hold the ear, but the brevity of the sections brings various manifestations of those tendencies into a prismatic juxtaposition: now scurrying sul pont. gestures over simple pizzicato bass, then an aqueous passage of tremolos and ephemeral lines, then an ascetic chorale, each resolving in turn to the nearly-cadential but equally varied passages of string harmonics. At times evocative of Bartók’s folkloricism, at times fleetingly reminiscent of Black Angels, the work shows a disciplined ear behind the sectional form and kaleidoscopic surface.

The clarinet quintet, Still Image, opens with a striking use of the harmonic nodes along a single string on the violin, reminiscent of an Aeolian harp. The clarinet, played by François Houle who originally commissioned the work, blends fluidly with the strings. The first movement is infused with elegant, dolorous augmented seconds, giving an impression of a kind of slow, lacquered klezmer. The second movement features a play of timbres in the clarinet, moving into melismatic passages that reminded me of Moroccan sufi music and evolving into a cadenza in the middle of the work with some multiphonics exquisitely handled by Houle. The third movement is also inventive and restless, concluding with a high, florid meditation among the strings and clarinet.

Underhill’s third string quartet, subtitled The Alynne, was composed shortly after the birth of the composer’s daughter, Alynne, and is also a single-movement work. The piece exhibits the strongest folkloric tendencies on the disc, evoking fiddling, a kind of “Appalachian” open sound and furtive appearances of the Aeolian harp. In my notes on the work, I jotted “like Copland crossed with the Kronos [Quartet] catalog,” and while that scribble draws on caricatures of Copland and Kronos, it transmits an accurate impression of the sonic palette in the work. Even here, within these seemingly familiar sounds, Underhill surprises the ear with pitches and timbres that perturb the prevailing background. There is an exquisite viola solo in the middle of the first third of the piece. Like the fourth quartet, the middle third of the piece is bookended with sine-wave-like harmonics.

The last work is the Trombone Quintet from 1999. Here, the soloist is Jeremy Berkman, the trombonist who originally commissioned the work. The first three movements maintain a single mood throughout: the first movement presents elegiac trombone lines over a chorale in the quartet; the second offers light and playful string lines with the trombone played with what sounds like harmon mute with plunger, creating a kind of “mouth harp” effect, which is often paired with quiet humming or singing for (I suspect) the trombonist; the third returns to a hymn-like texture in the strings with the trombone uttering elegies among them. The fourth movement foreshadows String Quartet #4 in some ways, constructed from shorter passages that are juxtaposed in succession. However, the later quartet displays a confident economy and a playfulness only hinted at in the trombone quintet. This work, like the third quartet that immediately precedes it on the disc, ends quietly with string harmonics and with a (perhaps signature) Aeolian-harp effect.

Taken as a whole, this CD presents a solid compositional voice from Underhill and showcases excellent musicians out of Canada. Listeners who are excited mainly by timbral invention will probably find the disc a bit staid, but they would be missing the point: Underhill is clearly more interested in an intimate palette of pitch and formal exploration, of endlessly teasing the expectations of pitch and sometimes timbre established by almost-familiar gestures and pitch schemes. If I had any complaint, it would be that presenting the four works together brings out a proclivity for high string harmonics, which becomes slightly taxing when listening to the entire CD, but we all have ticks that are exposed when our works are presented in a concentrated dose. As this is the first review of either Quatuor Bozzini or Owen Underhill on this blog, this CD serves as an engaging and beautiful introduction to their work and I look forward to hearing more from both of them.

Taken as a whole, this CD presents a solid compositional voice from Underhill and showcases excellent musicians

Review: Sounds of America

Ken Smith, Gramophone, September 1, 2012
… textures are so transparent that light shines through and timbres are so tangible you can almost reach out and touch them.


David Gordon Duke, The Vancouver Sun, March 1, 2012

Owen Underhill is a major presence in Canada’s new music community; the launch of a new CD, Still Image, devoted to his chamber music, proved both a welcome sample of his recent work and a demonstration of his personal journey as a composer.

Somewhat unusually for a launch, at least where classical repertoire is concerned, Sunday evening at SFU Woodwards saw the live performance of all four works on the disk: two string quartets written about a decade apart, performed by Montréal’s Quatuor Bozzini, plus two quintets. Accepting the slightly artificial construct of an entire evening of work by the same composer (which invariably blurs the already wide line between superficial mannerisms and the genuine original voice) the selection of works proved a good one. Underhill’s strategies for the string quartet have a consistency, but there is also a sense of growth and discovery, revealed by the conjunction of his String Quartet No. 3 — The Alynne, written in the late 90s, and the new String Quartet No. 4 — The Night composed last year.

I’ll admit that my own firm predjudice against the combination of clarinet and strings made me less enthusiasic about Still Image, a clarinet quintet that takes the special skill set of François Houle very much in mind and ear. Yet it’s by any standard an effective piece.

My favourite work of the evening saw the rare combination of trombone and strings. There has been little written for this particular combination; Underhill’s lovely work makes one wonder why. I’ve long believed that a number of Vancouver’s finest trombone players are some of the most sensitive musicians in town. That Jeremy Berkman could reveal an enormous range of sonorous possibilities was a given, as was the inevitability of a sterling performance.

Underhill has created a showcase for the trombone, with both plenty of novelty and a rock-solid foundation of expressive and very beautivul writing for the instrument with string support and commentary. The four-movement Trombone Quintet is a composition that would grace virtually any chamber music program, and a real treasure for those trombone players who wish to participate in the rarefied world of chamber music-making.

… proved both a welcome sample of his recent work and a demonstration of his personal journey as a composer.


Elissa Poole, The Globe and Mail, February 24, 2012

Owen Underhill’s music is a sea of fluid contrasts: the busy clockwork time of action and dance and the suspended time of contemplation; bold gestures that cut across static, glassy textures; counterpoint one can see through, like a forest of bare trees, yet folded into consonances. The Bozzini Quartet provides haunting interpretations of Underhill’s third and fourth string quartets, which sneak up on the heart via the head. Superb soloists grace the two wind quintets: Jeremy Berkman, who turns phrases into characters with eloquent tone and smooth line in Underhill’s stunning Trombone Quintet, and clarinetist François Houle, whose cultivation of unorthodox techniques — liquid quartertones and multiphonics like fine sandpaper — heightens the sense of a music in which the detail is almost tactile, and none of it is expendable.

The Bozzini Quartet provides haunting interpretations of Underhill’s third and fourth string quartets, which sneak up on the heart via the head.