For the first time, women outnumber men among the nominees in this category.
Miller’s string quartet About Bach won the 2016 Jules Léger Prize, Canada’s highest honour for new chamber music, giving it serious momentum. It’s the centrepiece of Bozzini Quartet’s 2018 release Just So, an album devoted to Miller’s music.
The five-minute excerpt, above, gives a sense of the 24-minute work’s non-developmental nature. Pervading the entire composition is a repeated ascending scale, a Bach fragment, played alternately by the violinists two octaves above the rest of the ensemble. Meanwhile, the other three musicians play, in homophony, a sort of chorale whose rhythm has run amok. The repeated motif first fascinates, then hypnotizes and ultimately serves a devotional function, focusing the listener’s attention. The piece seems to go nowhere while also taking you everywhere on a self-reflective, meditative journey.
Most music aims to engage your mind; Miller’s manages to free it, which leads to a whole new type of listening experience.
Martin (b.1975), a new name to this listener, is a Québecois composer. His Musique d’art pour quintette à cordes is for string quartet plus a double bassist, here Quatuor Bozzini (Clemens Merkel, violin; Alissa Cheung, violin; Stéphanie Bozzini, viola; Isabelle Bozzini, cello) augmented by bassist Pierre-Alexandre Maranda.
The piece is in five sections, each lasting between ten and fifteen minutes. Although almost entirely consisting of long-held notes, I don’t particularly hear the music as drone-related. Martin seems much more concerned with timbre and very physical textures, reminding me a little of the string music of Helmut Lachenmann. The opening section is all whispers, bows drawn lightly across either damped strings or portions of the instruments’ bodies (I think). Gradually, the tones gain substance, sliding up against one another microtonally, grain against grain. Even so, the first movement is fairly relaxed, with an implicit, soft rocking back and forth. The next section introduces the darkly growling bass that will feature throughout the work’s remainder, but also even rougher, harshly vibrating strings where the vibration of the cords is a palpable presence, though Martin also injects a substantial amount of “air” into the proceedings, ensuring that the overall effect isn’t claustrophobic. It dissolves into drips and drizzles by the movement’s end. The next portion is somewhat eerie, with sliding tones oozing past each other, undergirded by heavy bass lines, the higher pitches popping like bubbles towards its conclusion. This aura is picked up in the fourth section, soon developing into staggered, quasi-rhythmic short bowings from bass and cello beneath high chirps — a kind of ungainly, but charming, march. In the last few minutes, the music wallows around an A, a cloudy, rich tuning session, vibrating intensely, casting off all manner of particles. Martin pulls all these strands together in the final section: the rich, thundering bass, the ethereal high microtones and even an underlying sense of near-Romantic melody, just a touch, as though a guiding spirit might have been Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead all this time (far more likely only this listener’s takeaway).
Very impressive, super-solidly played by the Bozzini plus one — a heady outing.
In 2017, Switzerland’s Cyril Bondi, German Christoph Schiller and Montréal-based Pierre-Yves Martel came together as the trio Tse (which means “here” in a Swiss mountain dialect) with Bondi playing harmonium and pitch pipes, Schiller spinet, and Martel on viola da gamba. Despite the early musical instruments, extemporization plays its part, as all three players are experienced improvisers. Their first music was improvised but soon became more structured by using pieces of paper with two, three or four pitches written on them to determine the form of their improvisations.
In November 2017, employing the methods described above, Tse recorded an album that was released on Another Timbre in May 2018, to enthusiastic reviews. At the end of a short European tour, Tse played London’s Café Oto in October 2018; after an opening performance by the trio, their guest violinist Angharad Davies played solo and then joined the trio to form a quartet which played the final set of the evening. The music on Awirë is that quartet set, recorded live that evening.
Because of its source, there were a couple of issues with the recording. Firstly, it picked up street noise from outside Café Oto (a common occurrence at the venue) which had to be cleaned up; fortunately, with Simon Reynell on the job, the sound quality is superb and bears no traces of such distractions. Secondly, as the quartet performance on the night ran for just over half-an-hour, that is the album length; as always in such cases, it is important to remember that quality always outweighs quantity, a view proven out by (too) many reissues that have been padded with unreleased takes of dubious quality. More does not necessarily mean better, nor does less equate to worse.
Although the quartet performance was a one-off—so far unrepeated and maybe likely to remain so—the four clearly clicked straight away, sounding as if they regularly played as a foursome. In particular, Davies readily took to the trio’s use of notes on pieces of paper to shape their improvisations—although that evening two of the pieces were blank, to encourage free improv. The end results feature all four players equally, with no-one leading or dominating unduly. The instruments’ sounds meld together into a blend that is very easy on the ear, with enough happening to keep it interesting throughout but not so much that it becomes cluttered. As the range of instruments played by the four suggests, there was plenty of scope to keep the soundscape fresh and varied—in Davies’ and Schiller’s cases by employing different playing methods.
As a whole, the piece is such a success that it is possible to envisage more improvisers adopting the ’pieces of paper’ methodology in future. For now, the only remaining mystery is why this quartet has not recorded together again, maybe in a studio, with more time at their disposal. On the evidence of Awirë the results should be quite special.