Trois approches, trois défis, parfaitement assumés. — Revue & Corrigée, France
Here the Bozzinis demonstrate their impressive range, playing together, apart and indifferently. — La Folia, USA
A new vision of John Cage, via his complete works for string quartet. Spanning forty years of the artist’s activities, these three masterworks illuminate the different stylistic periods in the output of this 20th century icon.
- Composer(s): John Cage
- Performer(s): Bozzini Quartet, Clemens Merkel, Mira Benjamin, Stéphanie Bozzini, Isabelle Bozzini
- Author(s): Malcolm Goldstein
- Cover image: Christian Brand
- Graphic design: Fabrizio Gilardino
CD (CQB 1414)
- Label: Collection QB
- CQB 1414
- UCC 771028371426
- Total duration: 79:25
- 125 mm × 125 mm × 6 mm
- 40 g
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Download (CQB 1414_NUM)
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- Label: Collection QB
- CQB 1414_NUM
- UCC 771028371488
- Total duration: 79:25
The three string quartets span across approximately the last half of John Cage’s life. The first of these, String Quartet in Four Parts (1949-50), was composed in a time when Cage was beginning to turn away from the image of a composer as one who creates works of art that are vehicles for self expression to a radically different function of the composer as one who arranges frameworks of time in which sounds occur without any personal, emotional, dramatic or narrative intentions.
String Quartet in Four Parts is evocative of the four seasons; these are not presented as personal expressions but rather as impressionistic qualities of sound and movement. It is written out traditionally in full score. As Cage says: “The subject is that of the seasons, but the first two movements are also concerned with place… Summer in France; fall in America. The third and fourth movements are also concerned with musical subjects, winter being expressed as a canon, spring as a quodlibet.” He describes the composition as “a melodic line without accompaniment.” Each instrument is allotted a specific gamut of sounds that Cage then composes with as building blocks to construct the melodic line, as well as to sustain the overall harmonic cohesion. There is also a specific rhythm structure for each movement; the flow of sound unfolds within this measured, proportional organization of time as pre-set by the composer.
In the late seventies he began to notate the music within flexible time brackets, sometimes almost traditional in appearance, sometimes using a time-space notation. Time brackets indicated a period of time in which the music should be realized but allowed for the musician to determine the exact placement and speed of the given music in performance. Cage describes it “as a process that includes structures, can last any length of time, can begin and end at any time within the time bracket. I like flexibility… our relationship (to and between musicians) is apolitical and anarchic.”
Thirty Pieces for String Quartet (1983) is composed this way. Each part is independent of the others, all with thirty time brackets of approximately one minute. As Cage says, “it is a coincidence of solos. There is no relationship of the four parts in a fixed score.” Each solo is either microtonal (a pulse rhythm of tones and harmonics), tonal (slower more sustained lines), or chromatic (complex, active, almost virtuoso activities). Each musician is given musical materials consisting of these three possibilities, each part with its own particular sequence of activity within a time bracket. What occurs is a kind of mobile kaleidoscope of textures and activities suspended in the time-space of thirty minutes. As Cage says, perhaps with his usual smile: “Its flexibility of structure makes it a music that is, so to speak, earthquake-proof.”
Four (1989) is part of a series begun in 1987 and continued until Cage’s death in 1992, referred to as the “Number Pieces” because the naming of the pieces is determined by the number of performers. Flexible time brackets are indicated as before, but the sonic material in these later years of his life is much simplified, sometimes only one tone or perhaps two or three and, in this piece, always played softly. By contrast to Thirty Pieces for String Quartet, all of the parts are available to anyone; there is no individual virtuosity but rather an ensemble of shifting tonal densities. Commenting on the “Number Pieces” Cage reflects: “A performance of music can be a metaphor for society… no conductor… no score.” It is as if Cage, near the end of his life, has simplified and clarified his music as an enactment of “a soundly organized society.”
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In the press
As a collection, Cage’s string quartets permit an ensemble to explore different ways of collaborating. The String Quartet in Four Parts was written just before Cage’s plunge into chance. It’s traditionally notated and organized akin to the micro and macro structures Cage explored in his early percussion music. The Bozzini pivots expertly between delicate antique and dissonant chords. Thirty Pieces and Four are from the same decade, however are separated by a divide. Thirty Pieces consist of essentially 120 one-minute solos delivered four at a time. Each player prepares independently and in performance they coordinate as little as possible and spread themselves at far distances around the audience. It’s an accidental quartet; modern, aggressive, and lightly sprinkled with extended techniques and microtones. Four operates at a low threshold with neutral singularities. Chords and coincidences are expected but details are unpremeditated. Tones appear, unornamented, nearly expressionless and ugly. There’s a passage starting around 22:13 hinting at Mozart’s Dissonant. Here the Bozzinis demonstrate their impressive range, playing together, apart and indifferently.
While new recordings of music by John Cage are always likely to find a rather niche market they are always welcome as far as I’m concerned. This is partly since performances of many of his works have to be unique events by the very nature of the ways they have been conceived and composed, and so the potential for surprise is always present.
The three works for string quartet come from intriguing moments in the last half of Cage’s development as a composer, and it is nice to have them all together on one disc. The Bozzini Quartet has been a quality purveyor of contemporary music for string quartet since 1999, and their other titles, including Sens(e) Absence, are all worth seeking out. This recording can easily be had as a download, the CD otherwise arriving in a colourful but environment-friendly cardboard foldout envelope with texts in French and English.
As ever, the information from Cage’s own site sums up the content of each work very neatly. String Quartet in Four Parts “… consists of four movements: Quietly flowing along - Slowly rocking - Nearly stationary – Quodlibet … It is a work of great simplicity, reminiscent of Érik Satie and in a way a further step toward Cage’s abandonment of self-expression. As in his Sonatas and Interludes, it deals with the nine permanent emotions of Indian philosophy (see Sonatas and Interludes), as well as the Indian notion of the seasons, i.e. creation, preservation, destruction, and quiescence. In the first movement, the subject is Summer in France, in the second it is Fall in America. The third movement is about Winter, and the fourth, about Spring, is a welcome and quite sprightly quodlibet.” This is enigmatic but relatively approachable music with a feel of melodic shape and tonal resolution, even where there are dissonant clusters. Everything is pared-down. There are no wasted notes, and not as much stretching of time as will be found as a feature of the later works. It’s hard not to experience the first three movements as emotionally barren, but with their open intervals you can easily place them as in a line from something medieval. In these times of austerity the bare-bones approach is as relevant as it has ever been. The final Quodlibet is like an ancient and formal dance, Cage playfully concluding his piece with his sparing notes compacted into something with a smile.
The Cage website entry for Thirty Pieces for String Quartet is also revealing: “This work comprises four parts without overall score. Each player rehearses alone. During performance, they sit far apart at points surrounding the audience. This work takes its title from Cage’s Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras. Cage says of this work: ‘Just as that work is a coincidence of chamber orchestras, this is a coincidence of solos.’” These solos have tonal, chromatic, and microtonal typed of music, and this is an early example of Cage’s technique of organising each piece into a time brackets. The result is a more extreme ‘squeaky-gate’ kind of music – the sort of thing which has most people running for the hills, and certainly the sort of work which delivers a different kind of value in live performance than with recordings. The Bozzini Quartet players enter this musical game with gusto however, making as convincing an argument as I’ve heard for this as a set of chance elements. These come together to catch us in their radically expressive and philosophical nets. Do we accept Cage’s world of pure-sound, or are we being hoodwinked by spectacular intellectual fakery? As Frank Zappa said, “without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible”, which gets us into that whole debate about the perceived reality of ‘progress’ as opposed to ‘change’. It’s all very interesting and stimulating, but the Thirty Pieces remain a tough nut to crack.
Four is an example of Cage’s Number Pieces, the number being determined by the number of performers; bringing us firmly into his late period. Cage’s instructions for the work are that, “the players sit in the conventional relation to each other”, followed by details about proportion with regard to repetitions and options for duration, including exchanges of parts between players. A live performance will always involve a certain amount of kerfuffle with this kind of moving around of pieces of paper, and I always wonder if Cage intended this to be part of the soundscape. The Bozzini Quartet is respectfully soundless in this regard, and their performance shows where the arc of enigmatic severity of writing landed from the earlier period to the late works, with admirably controlled sustained notes creating a wonderful sense of stillness.
John Cage’s string quartets are not unknown on recordings, and as you would expect, the Arditti Quartet — dedicatee of String Quartet in Four Parts was in there first with their complete edition in on the Mode label in the early 1990s. In general the Arditti version has a more introverted feel to it, making the Bozzini version of, for instance, the Quodlibet from String Quartet in Four Parts sound positively effusive, though this is also a side-effect of wider dynamic range and a more detailed and etched recorded sound. With a piece like Four the atmosphere is all-important, and the Arditti Quartet does a good job of making time stand almost still, the musical landscape emerging and receding with gradually evolving nuances. The more closely recorded Bozzini Quartet is also very good, exploring breathy and woody sonorities in their instruments, and the overall result being a little more edge-of-the-seat rather than basking in enigmatic beauty, but none the worse for that.
Montreal’s Quatuor Bozzini has been together for 16 years and has recorded 15 CDs of the kind of challenging contemporary music that they specialize in, including works by Canadians Malcolm Goldstein, Tim Brady and Jean Derome and international figures like Steve Reich and James Tenney. The experience tells as they take on John Cage’s three works for string quartet, realizing distinctive versions in the process.
The earliest of the compositions, String Quartet in Four Parts (1949-50), is a work descriptive of the four seasons with the composer’s notes encouraging light string contact and no vibrato. The work’s structure and minimal harmonies create an unlikely resemblance to the melodic purity of medieval music. Leaping ahead to 1983, Thirty Pieces for String Quartet presents the musicians with both demands and choices: each piece lasts about a minute, with each musician given a sequence of notes to be fitted into the “time bracket.” The musicians individually choose between microtonal, tonal and chromatic options, but the parts are not directly related to one another except for the coordination of segment lengths. The music that emerges within these configurations is rich in complexity and convergence, a kind of collaboration between composer, performer and listener.
The final work, Four, from 1989, is the most radically reductive of these works, still employing time brackets but offering choices from its sparse materials to all the performers. The result is spacious but continuous with tonal structures that may gently evolve or appear transient. The cumulative work is a serene landscape in which mysterious elements emerge and disappear.
Quatuor Bozzini assumes the substantial demand that this music makes on its performers: to at once realize the work in shaping its form while allowing the components to maintain their distinct, non-structural identities. If the Arditti Quartet’s recordings of these works (on Muse from the early 1990s) have long stood as masterful readings (they worked closely with Cage on Four), Quatuor Bozzini does a fine job of traversing this music, inevitably creating new works in the process.
Niezwykle ceniony kanadyjski kwartet smyczkowy Quatuor Bozzini: Clemens Merkel (skrzypce), Alissa Cheung (skrzypce), Stéphanie Bozzini (altówka), Isabelle Bozzini (wiolonczela), sięga po trzy różne nagrania Johna Cage’a. Pierwsza kompozycja to String Quartet in Four Parts (1949-50). W tamtym okresie Cage odchodził od typowej funkcji kompozytora i jednocześnie wcielał się w postać, która pozwoli mu przedstawić swoją twórczość bez większych emocjonalnych i narracyjnych intencji. Kilka dekad później stworzył Thirty Pieces for String Quartet (1983), z kolei w tym utworze Cage położył spory nacisk na określone sekwencje działań w określonych ramach czasowych. Zaś w 1989 roku Amerykanin napisał Four — prace nad tym dziełem rozpoczął już w 1987 roku i prowadził aż do śmierci w 1992 roku. Znakomite interpretacje tych kompozycji znajdziecie na albumie John Cage: Four. Materiał zarejestrowano w kwietniu 2014 roku podczas koncertów w Montrealu.
The Quatuor Bozzini are a national treasure, shining on the international scene for several years now, and have more than a dozen quality albums to their credit. They deliver here a recording that deserves a lasting spot in one’s record library, three masterpieces for string quartet spanning 40 years of the composer’s career. Of a sometimes disconcerting clarity, Cage’s music, far from any romantic effusion, is admirably served by the clear and crystalline style of the quartet. Necessary and timeless.