Tom Johnson has referred to himself as more of a list maker than composer and any survey of his work will at least partially bear this out. He often devises patterns, sometimes relatively simple or cyclic, sometimes complex, a little like aural presentations of a diagram of a mathematical sequence, and the musicians trace the resultant patterns. As one might expect, this can lead to music that is occasionally a bit on the dry side. But often enough, as with deterministic but highly detailed math sets, the result can be wondrous, even deeply moving. Sometimes it seems that this can depend on the interpreter. For example, the original recording of Johnson’s The Chord Catalog (XI Records, 1999), accurately subtitled, “All the 8178 Chords Possible in One Octave”, played on piano by the composer, was an impenetrably dense and regular iteration of the premise, an oppressive experience. Johnson conceded that his own limited pianistic prowess was an impediment, however, and when Samuel Vriezen tackled the work (Wandelweiser, 2013), the outcome was revelatory, the composition blooming into a hitherto unheard sound world of endless fascination. As the notes on this disc state, “Tom Johnson uses numbers as base material, turning formulas, combinations and other mathematic phenomena into music. And somehow, this music becomes poetry.”
Happily, the pieces on this recording are performed by perhaps the single most exciting and innovative string quartet now extant, Quatuor Bozzini (Alissa Cheung, violin; Clemens Merkel, violin; Stéphanie Bozzini, viola; Isabelle Bozzini, cello). Four works are presented: a stand alone piece (Tilework for String Quartet (2003)) and three sets of compositions, ranging from five to fifteen elements and consisting of relatively short pieces, several below a minute in length.
Combinations for String Quartet (2003) has five sections, the first coming as close to “standard” minimalism as anything here, reminding this listener of Reich’s Violin Phase. Four sets of four repeated notes are played, initially by one member, joined gradually by the others playing slightly augmented versions of the first line. After all four members are sawing, three drop out and a single member returns with a slightly different melody and the process continues. It’s a good example of a fairly “simple” process yielding fascinating results that lie just beyond the listener’s ability to confidently predict what comes next. After a sparse, lovely second section, part three arrives with a wonderfully bewildering set of six note phases that alternate as a sort of round followed by an interlocking pattern; again, easy enough to parse apart, difficult to keep it all in your head. And quite impressive. A drier, spare section (with some, to these ears, surprising echoes of Shostakovich), leads to the final portion, a kind of elegiac music, with somewhat mournful iterations of an eight-note melody played by all members. Tilework also plays with phrases of six and twelve notes, but interspersed among other compositions; as tiles, this is a complex set of tesserae, forming patterns here, dissembling them there, re-emerging in slightly different form at still another point. The basic pattern is rather jaunty, perhaps even reflecting Baroque motifs, disassembled.
Four-Note Chords in Four Voices (2009) consists of fifteen short parts, with durations of between 0:14 and 2:18. They’re taken slowly, the harmonies once again possessing a dirge-like aspect, with a mix of hymnal sweetness and Ives-ian atonality. There’s a general downward trend in the patterns, reminding me of a series of falling leaves, very moving, including the last movement, an abrupt ending with but three notes that leaves one a bit shaken. The final work, Formulas for String Quartet contains eight brief parts. The first section is light in tone, with a seesawing three note pattern repeated over a high, rhythmic six-note phrase scurrying beneath; fairly “traditional” sounding in this context. The next two parts are softer, more melancholy, before the fourth movement stirs things up again, with active, agitative layers of rising notes that assume a struggling, even romantic character. In much of this music, any mathematical or formulaic underpinnings are well hidden; coming in blind, I’m not sure the innocent listener would suspect anything of the kind, though it’s doubtless there, working its magic. Parts V and VII again evoke older forms of minimalism, here perhaps a slice of John Adams’ Shaker Loops. The work, and disc, ends on a questioning note, with ascending phrases that never quite attain purchase, fittingly.
A wonderful document, superbly played by Quatuor Bozzini, and a fine example of Johnson’s very unique approach to… list making.
Quartetski was formed in 2007 by Pierre-Yves Martel “as a vehicle to rethink and reinterpret the works of great composers through the lens of creative improvised music”. So far, Martel and his companions realized projects focused on the works by Prokofiev (2007), Stravinsky (2013) and Bartók (2016). Choosing Cage for their new project, the decision for a very different kind of a composer compared to the three predecessors. They chose two compositions belonging to a body of about forty works called Number Pieces composed by Cage in his last years. Each work is titled after the number of performers that are involved. One7 is the seventh work for one performer, Four6 is the sixth work for four performers, etc. Both are not written for specific instrumentation and are dedicated to composer and accordionist Pauline Oliveros, a.o. I don’t know any other recordings of these works and can’t make any comparison. But the fact that they perform One7 as a quartet may be one of more decisions that make their approach different from others. Anyway, we have Isaiah Ceccarelli (percussion, synthesizer), Philippe Lauzier (bass clarinet, synthesizer); Pierre-Yves Martel (electric bass, sine waves) and Bernard Falaise (electric guitar) at work here in an intriguing rendition of both pieces. They play a limited set of patterns interspersed with pauses of different lengths, which evokes the impression of a random-like sequence. Pointillistic, non-intentional dots of sound pass by, but it is evident that something is at work in these works that gives them a fascinating (dis)continuity. The movements are fragile and delicate, always very modest. The performers’ sounds, timbres, and colours are well-chosen and make a beautiful spectrum.
Émilie Girard-Charest is a rising star from the Montréal-scene. So far, this Canadian cellist, composer and improviser is most known for her work as a performer, being a member of various ensembles, and being involved in the premiere of many new compositions from diverse composers. Her compositions have been performed by ensembles like Zukan trio, Thin Edge New Music Collective, SuperMusique, a.o. Also she has several albums out. All of them are collaborations with artists like Violeta Garcia ( Impermanence ), Sergio Castrillón ( Enthousiasme viscéral ), a.o. Intimités is the first album with compositions solely by Émilie Girard-Charest. Four works are presented here: Asyndètes (2017), Épanchements (2014), Heurts (2019) and Intimités (2018). Asyndètes (2017), is written for a quartet, performed here by violinists Lyne Allard, Geneviève Liboiron and Jean René, plus
Girard-Charest herself on cello. An interaction of short attacks and movements with changing dynamics gives a constant suggestion of discontinuity. Épanchements (2014) is written for a trio lineup. Again we hear Liboiron and Girard-Charest joined by pianist Daniel Anez. Often the music is close to silence here, interrupted by high-pitched and long-stretched noisy sounds. Heurts is a work of more joyful and playful movements for violin and cello accompanied by piano (Daniel Anez) and percussion (Noam Bierstone). Intimités (2018) is written for an ensemble performed here by the Montréal chamber ensemble Novarumori. This microtonal work has penetrating dissonant passages resulting from slow evolving movements. Her strings-dominated works are accessible and stripped down in a way. Girard-Charest seems to work from a limited set of ideas and with a clear focus. On the other hand, the works aren’t accessible at all and need careful attention before they reveal why they are there. Interesting work!
Montréal’s Ratchet Orchestra, Vancouver’s New Orchestra Workshop, and Toronto’s Association of Improvising Musicians are evidence that Canada’s largest cities have robust improvisation scenes whose participants occasionally coalesce to play works composed for larger ensembles. It is perhaps even more impressive when smaller communities pull off similar feats. Rimouski, a town with a population of 50,000, located 315 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, has Le Grand Groupe Régional d’Improvisation Libérée (GGRIL), led by bassist Éric Normand. Covering music created from 2013 to 2021, this sprawling three-CD set is a retrospective of Le GGRIL’s collaborations with twelve renowned composer-improvisers from Canada, the U.K., and France. Compared to the aforementioned ensembles, Le GGRIL tends to place less emphasis on individual virtuosity and detailed notated scores, and more on group direction and interaction. The works here display the orchestra’s flexibility in adapting to a variety of improvisational approaches.
Each CD is centred on a different theme, the first being “long and intense pieces.” Frédéric Blondy contributes the minimalistic drone of Îlots Turgescents, consisting of slowly shifting textures that build to a dense climax near the twenty-minute mark, followed by a few minutes of sparser rattles and clatters. Robert Marcel Lepage’s Alice has the orchestra trading rapid-fire short bursts of sound reminiscent of the musique actuelle genre that the composer helped originate in the 1980s. Lisa Cay Miller’s To Love That Well–Ruined Choirs is more orchestral, with small fragments of melody weaving around bubbling bass rumbles. The second CD is meditative, typified by the brief sound gestures that combine to realize Malcolm Goldstein’s Rivers and Mountains Remain, the atmosphere evoking the peaceful nature surrounding the group’s hometown. Allison Cameron’s In Memorium (Robert Ashley) is appropriately contemplative and respectful, while Martin Arnold’s Éistphéist spotlights the extended string techniques of the Bozzini Quartet. The third CD focuses on the power that a group of twenty-one improvisers can conjure, although there are moments of tranquility interspersed between the orchestral summits. Sprinkled amongst the longer improvisations on each CD is a series of short solos excerpted from Alice. Comparing these with the full version and contrasting the two takes of Caroline Kraabel’s Une note n’écoutant qu’elle même, demonstrates how different two improvisations of the same work can be.
The above outlines do not convey the improvisational details contained within each of the seventeen tracks, where much of the interest lies. Perhaps this collection will inspire other towns to form their own collectives, especially since this music must have been at least as satisfying to perform as it is to listen to.