The 32nd edition of the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville began with a performance of new compositions by Norwegian guitarist / composer Kim Myhr with Montréal’s Quatour Bozzini in the town’s new cultural space, Carré 150, an impressive $28 million structure that stands on the site of the former Cinema Laurier, one of the performance homes for the festival for many years.
If we’re looking for themes, the first two days’ concerts featured the human voice and by extension, the notion of breathing and the breath mechanism. Both the Bozzini / Myhr ensemble and the Julie Tippetts / Martin Archer Ensemble that followed included vocalists who incorporated poetry and song into the performances. The music of Bozzini and Myhr, who did two pieces, one by Christian Wolff and the other by Myhr, was spare and slow-moving, but insistent and hypnotic, with Angell reciting the poetry of the British poet Caroline Bergvall. The following performance, the Montréal-based vocalist Erika Tippetts / Archer group was performing live for the first time ever, despite the fact that they have been making music in the studio for a decade and a half. Their music is very much in the prog- rock sphere, with elements of the blues, a big bass sound and electric keyboards underpinning the group sound and providing a strong foundation for Tippetts’ soaring voice. (…)
The three performances on Friday evening all featured Quebec and Canadian musicians. Electric bassist / composer / educator Eric Normand lives in the small town of Rimouski, Quebec, where he leads a group called GGRIL, comprised mainly of amateur musicians from the Rimouski area. In starting GGRIL a few years ago, Normand has created an enormously important community music project that is reinvigorating the improvised music scene in Quebec. GGRIL were joined at Victo by veteran Montréalers Jean Derome and Joane Hetu and Ensemble SuperMusique, for an improvisation conducted by French guitarist / composer / improviser Olivier Benoit. There was no vocalist; it was the music itself that breathed and vibrated to the rhythm of the breath and beating of the heart. Benoit’s choice of moves for the musicians was impeccable, as the hour-long piece built up slowly to two climaxes, the tension palpable throughout. This was easily the best improvisation by a large Quebec ensemble heard here in many years. (…)
Our Artistic Associate Kyle Brenders recently spent a week in Montreal, participating in Quatuor Bozzini’s Composer’s Kitchen. He wrote a blog post for us about his experience, and how he composes.
Beyond what I do here at Soundstreams, I attempt to have a life as a practicing composer (and performer, but that’s a story for another blog post). I am constantly searching to find a balance between my own artistic practice, and that which I’m working to put on stage at Soundstreams. Some might say that my work as a creative musician is my second job, because I do it after I get home from Soundstreams. But I sometimes feel that Soundstreams is my second job, there to support my habit as a musician! All kidding aside, I recently participated in an emerging composer workshop—a departure from being the workshop designer, which is part of what I do at Soundstreams.
I created a new work for string quartet as part of the Quatuor Bozzini’s Composer’s Kitchen. The Composer’s Kitchen is an annual musical “laboratory” conceived as an artistic “playground,” where composers workshop their new composition with direct support from the Quartet, as well as two composer mentors. The Composer’s Kitchen happens in three stages:
1) A workshop in Montreal and performance of the new work;
2) A few months of private revisions;
3) Another workshop in London, UK, and concert of the final works.
The workshop had four participants that were selected through an application process: two composers from Canada and two from the United Kingdom, supported by the amazing UK organization Sound and Music (you can read about the other participants here). The two mentor composers were Christopher Butterfield from Victoria, BC, and Christopher Fox from London, UK.
This workshop reminded me of how intense the process of creating a new work really is. In my own compositional practice, I know I’ll be performing much of the music that I write. Because of this, I tend to leave a lot of musical information out of the score. Dynamics, articulation, bar-lines, time signatures, instructions for improvisation, and sometimes even the duration of notes, are aspects of the score that I leave out, and figure out either in real-time during the performance, or through the rehearsal process.
I wasn’t going to be performing this new work, so I needed to create something clear and precise. However, I don’t believe in creating a score, handing it over, and expecting the piece to be performed directly as it appears on the page. I love openness, which requires the performers to make their own decisions. I love facilitating surprises for the performers as they play the music, and also for me as the composer of the work. This can create complications when working with musicians used to scores that have the composer’s instructions clearly written on the page. I knew this would a challenge going into this workshop, but I also knew that the members of Quatuor Bozzini would be game for anything.
I had a breakthrough on my piece when another workshop composer mentioned that she views the compositional process as “creating an article of clothing”—composers have to put the pieces of thread together for the performers. I am slightly different in my work—I provide the performers with the buttons and thread, but they have to create the shirt. The materials I provide the performers with create specific musical events, but how each event progresses through time will be determined in each performance. This idea is also where my piece got its name: sewn.
You can see a section of the score below and listen to how it’s all put together. There is a main set of materials that begin the section, and then each player is free to move through their own musical materials. Each player receives only their subsections, separate from the other four players.
My music has a quirkiness that I encourage. I recently played with Bobby McFerrin at Roy Thomson Hall, and one thing he stressed was that everyone needs a level of quirkiness in their everyday, and suggested 10%. I think I’m there with this piece. The Quartet really explored the material with curiosity and wit. But remember, this is only one performance, and one way through the material. Each time the Quartet performed my piece, they created a new version. My music isn’t about capturing a final, flawless performance, but capturing the moment the musicians are presently in.
Another amazing aspect of this workshop was collaborating with the other participants. They each created incredible pieces that inspired me to work harder (you can hear one of them here). Seeing another composer’s music being work-shopped is one of the joys of this process. I love watching how people put music together, hearing them describe what they’re doing, and seeing how the performers respond. It’s this joy of creation that made me first want to make music, and continues to drive me every day. Luckily, this workshop has a second stage, where we all come together again. I’ll write again in February after the third stage of the workshop, which will include a performance of the work in Aberdeen, Scotland.
As many composers continue on a mad dash to ensnare audiences in a spiral of novel sounds, fantastic visuals and complexity, it is rare to find a composer who is interested solely in investigating the phenomena of sound itself. Musical trends have come and gone over the course of the 20th century, and yet composer Alvin Lucier has continued to produce works focused on a single idea related to sound production and the act of listening. This past Sunday, Montréal hosted Lucier as he, the Bozzini Quartet and other musicians performed his works of the past two decades.
At the age of 84, Lucier is a pioneer in the field of experimental music in post-war America. He often makes use of the properties of sound, room acoustics and the experience of hearing in his compositions. Of particular interest in this concert was the phenomenon of “sound wave interference”. This occurs when two sound waves which are very close in frequency approach the ear. The two slightly out-of-sync waves interfere with each other, and we hear this as a sort of ‘beating’ – imagine two instruments playing slightly out of tune. Though undesirable in other forms of classical music, Lucier draws our attention to this and other naturally-occurring acoustic phenomena, often with the use of technology.
Performing pieces of this nature requires painstaking concentration and hard work on the part of the player; pitches must be executed with absolute precision in order to create the desired effects. The first three pieces on the program presented sound wave interference through the context of a soloist in interaction with electronics. The first piece, Wind Shadows, featured trombonist Felix Del Tredici’s careful microtonal playing. Different rates of beating were created as he played long tones in unison with two pure sine oscillators. This was followed by Violynn, in which the Bozzini Quartet’s Clemens Merkel created a similar effect, this time against a series of six sine waves. Cellist Isabelle Bozzini then performed Charles Curtis, carefully executing double stops against long sine waves to form interference. The performers each paid close attention to detail, displaying fine control of their instrument through careful microtonal inflection.
Lucier himself performed the piece Bird and Person Dyning, in which an electric bird call interacted with feedback between speakers and a binaural microphone. ‘Dyning’ refers to heterodyning, a term from early radio transmission in which the addition and subtraction of two tones creates two new tones. With the performer required to wear the binaural microphone, the frequency of the feedback was dependent on Lucier’s position in the room. The composer moved in the space slowly and deliberately, able to create uncanny effects through even slight changes in the position of his body. At times, this included the strange experience of difference tones that seemed to form and vibrate right within the ear. The effects of space and resonance were also dealt with in the charming piece Nothing is real, in which pianist Daniel Áñez first recorded fragments of the Beatles song Strawberry Fields Forever with a wash of damper pedal, then replayed the fragments on a speaker housed inside a teapot. By raising and lowering both the lid and the teapot itself, Áñez was able to isolate particular partials within the wash of recorded piano.
The final piece of the evening, Small Waves, brought all of the members of the Bozzini Quartet to the stage as well as Del Tredici and Áñez. In this piece, the performers played long, sustained clusters tuned closely to pitches of the feedback between speakers and six microphones. These microphones were inserted in glass vessels partially filled with water and placed around the space. On occasion, stage hands would pour water between vessels, thereby changing the pitch of the feedback. At 50 minutes in length, this piece was a display of endurance. The Bozzini Quartet’s care and precision was essential to the execution of the piece; the subtleties of the work were perceptible due to their exact microtonal tuning and synchronous ensemble playing. The quartet confronted the challenges of this music with confidence, their dedication to the work evident in their effort to bring these acoustic phenomena to fruition.
In many ways, Lucier’s music can be just as challenging for the listener as it is for the performers. Little of Western art music as single-minded and static, particularly when compared with the emotional journeys in the tradition of Beethoven, Wagner or Mahler. What Lucier’s music lacks in turbulence and cinematic grandeur it gains in quiet contemplation; rather than an elaborate structure built from many parts, this music is a monolith chiselled from a single block of marble. Lucier’s music forces us to slow down, reminding us of the quiet wonder found within the everyday act of listening.
Quatuor Bozzini is poetry, sweat, talent, idealism, determination, love, survival, fate, and a wonderful wild dance with the spirits. For fifteen years, the Montreal ensemble has steadfastly explored the notion of what contemporary music means today. The players are irrepressible creators and innovators, whether working in the far lands of experimental sound art, the close weave of musical miniatures, or the collaborative dynamic of multi-arts projects.
Sitting around a large dining table with cellist Isabelle Bozzini, violist Stéphanie Bozzini, and violinist Clemens Merkel — the family and founding core — one immediately senses the shared pulse and fine-tuning of this intimate creative unit. Violinist Mira Benjamin, who joined in 2011, is filing scores downstairs in the combination archive-office-rehearsal-space of this ever-expanding, contemporary-music cottage industry. Sunlight slashes through a kitchen window, and the table is crowded with notes, scores, portable computers, and glasses of water. We take a breath, wait for the beat, and begin our conversational stroll.
“Do something you have never done before and never dared to do.” This is a key directive the quartet gives undergraduate composers attending the annual Bozzini Lab at Simon Fraser University, which is organized in collaboration with Owen Underhill and Christopher Butterfield. It could just as easily be the mantra the players recite in the mirror each morning. It also reveals their dedication to cultivating new sources of creative stimulation in a blossoming network of collaborators. Provocation and industry fit together nicely for these new-music explorers. In the lab, Isabelle Bozzini notes, “You have ten people trying different things in a variety of directions.” Crazy exercises and experiments become studies and departure points for future pieces the quartet might play in its annual Composer’s Kitchen, created in 2005 to facilitate a hands-on approach to furthering the development of new string-quartet compositions. The Kitchen is the opposite of the master class, where established values and forms are the models; it is a space where, as British composer and 2013 Kitchen participant Seán Clancy observed, in an email to the quartet, “There is no such thing as a silly idea.”
A determination to work outside the box and pursue a radical agenda is only part of what powers the players. Merkel is adamant about the inseparability of music and daily life. “Our radicalness is our position in a social context,” he says. “I am trying to shape the milieu and society around us by questioning all aspects of my music, not just accepting that things are a certain way and you just have to sell your concert and play. Playing music for me is about shaping my society.” This attitude expresses the very essence of how the music Merkel plays sounds to the listener. In an article discussing the history of the string quartet and its parallels with social evolution, published in the University of Montreal journal Circuit, Merkel notes that after 250 years little has changed in string quartets, unlike other musical formations and society in general. Collectively, the players focus on influencing the traditional model.
Radical or not, this level of engagement permeates everything the quartet does, and is another cog in the mechanics of its success. The members share rehearsal leadership roles and work collectively on programs and on developing ideas. Aesthetics and musical interpretation are discussed freely. They support, critique, and explore together, and this creates the quartet’s unique sound. “We have invested a lot in a certain sound and approach,” Isabelle Bozzini explains. “We are looking for a direct, raw quality affecting the music’s flow and intentions.” Some of this sensibility comes from the influence of Bozzini’s work in early music — for example, basso continuo playing.
Stéphanie Bozzini calls the quartet’s aesthetic “an uncompromising approach to sound — a hit-or-miss situation.” The focus is always on the music, on making sound, and never on the romantic notion of the virtuoso musician. No one bows to the first violinist in this quartet. For Merkel, letting go of this custom has conscious social implications, and is one example of how daily life and music fuse.
“We can’t fit everywhere… only in very particular places,” explains Isabelle Bozzini. “There is no flexibility in our engagement with the flow of the music.” This is evident the moment you see the quartet on stage.
Dim blue sidelights fade up and four string players appear in ghost-like disguises: powdered faces, barefoot, rumpled clothes, dishevelled hair, and skin marked with cuts, bruises, and dirt. The centres of their hollow eyes are glassy white, as if their eyeballs had flipped backwards to see within. This was the scene that opened the theatrical version of George Crumb’s 2011 work Black Angels, just one of the quartet’s plunges into the kind of cross-genre experimentation so prevalent in Montreal’s contemporary arts scene. Une idée sinon vraie, which had its world première in 2012, was created by dancer-choreographer Marc Boivin in collaboration with composer Ana Sokolović and the quartet. In various scenes from these two hybrid creations, the violist is carried across stage by a dancer, violins are played upside down, and the cellist is carted around on a mobile platform. The music remains intense, precise, evocative, and imperatively immediate.
The quartet has also been exploring sound and image through several video — music projects. In Les petites portes (2011), a series of short films exploring the interaction between music and video projection, twenty-four tiny doors open like an Advent calendar to reveal playful sound and visual worlds. In 2014, the ensemble plans to create a “tri-alogue” in collaboration with video artist Nathalie Bujold and Canadian composer and Kitchen participant Taylor Wood, deriving sound from images and vice versa.
Make yourself available as a human being. Idealism paired with a do-it-yourself approach make Quatuor Bozzini both contemporary and traditional. The players ask, “What do we need now?” and then search for answers. The array of seasonal, recurring workshop projects for which they are recognized bears witness to this process: the Composer’s Kitchen, the Bozzini Lab, and the new Performer’s Kitchen (launched December 2013).
Ever since it began, the Composer’s Kitchen has attracted international attention, and it recently spawned a three-year collaboration with the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Mentors Michael Oesterle from Montreal and Laurence Crane from London are coleading the 2013-14 Kitchen. In Crane’s humorous daily “menus,” contemporary composers were introduced as chefs: Philip Glass prepares melon sorbet served with fluted hazelnut Twizzles; Sir Harrison Birtwistle, a boiled egg. But what happens in the kitchen day-to-day is even bolder. “There is no head-chef-sous-chef relationship. We are all explorers working towards the same end result, to create the best possible music we can create,” Séan Clancy asserts. “As composers we can continually ask, ‘Can I borrow a shirt?’ and the quartet will always reply, ‘Yes.’ ”
“We don’t know what will happen or how it will work, but we are inviting musicians into our world,” Merkel says of the ensemble’s newest Kitchen, which shifts the focus to performance, shaking up the string quartet formation and encouraging young musicians to take risks. Montreal guitarist Marc Olivier Lamontagne participated in the first edition, which involved two weeks of exploratory workshops that included improvisation and sound exploration beyond scored notation, followed by a series of performances at La Sala Rossa.
Whether you call the quartet’s development model “sustainable,” “organic,” or “cottage industry,” it holds few mysteries. Philosophical musings on how to keep a contemporary string quartet vital are coupled with conscious planning and incessant labour. Everything ticks, thanks to rigorous discipline, dedication, endurance, flexibility, vision, and talent. Now entering its fifteenth anniversary year, the quartet exhibits the maturity of a singular identity.
Montreal composer Nicole Lizée, winner of the 2014 Jules Léger prize, is composing a new work for the quartet. She told me the ensemble “brings a commitment to depth and transcendence that goes beyond the ‘notes on the page.’ To work with them is to engage with a cohesive, passionate, and adventurous entity that is greater than the sum of its considerable parts.”
All rooms connect in the Bozzini musical home. Music simmers in the kitchen and lab. The 2013-14 season of their annual curated Montreal concert series, Salon, included new work by some of Quebec’s most talented young composers: for starters, Simon Martin’s homage to painter Jean-Paul Riopelle Icebergs et soleil de minuit — quatuor en blanc, and the première of a new quartet by Maxime McKinley.
Critical commentary and recognition for the ensemble accumulates, but this is secondary to the day’s rehearsal, renovating new office and rehearsal space on the second floor of their building, or waiting for confirmation of a tour of Japan and Korea in the autumn of 2014. Still, the modernist caveat of “make it new” continually inspires their efforts. A conservative tradition in performance doesn’t question things, Merkel says; it’s as if “the truth comes from higher up.” Perhaps for Quatuor Bozzini the truth comes from inside the circle rather than elsewhere. Merkel’s intention is for the music to flourish creatively, by taking the liberty and responsibility of consciously opposing some common- sense notions. “In some ways it is old-fashioned… the power and audacity to take decisions on your own, instead of just repeating what other people have told you.” It seems ironic and noteworthy that inspiration for renewal is so often found in the past.
Our conversation is suspended but not finished. They must break and rehearse for the Huddersfield Festival soon. Someone is sanding a wall downstairs, and the sound of renovation hastens the end of our conversation. This discussion of their work triggers waves of musical references, names, texts, and images, plus a flood of forwarded documents, links, recordings, and videos. The November sunlight has softened and shifted through the house. Everyone bustles off to tasks that must be done before rehearsal: phone calls, emails, scores to verify. The intricate human machine clicks forward. Soon, in the downstairs practice space, Quatuor Bozzini will tune, discuss the day’s practice, open scores, and shape, explore, and play.