Sitting down to listen to an album of improvised music is like sitting down to a dinner prepared by guest chefs given artistic license. You never know exactly what you’ll get and the surprise element is a significant pleasure factor in the experience.
Putting together three musicians like guitarist Arthur Bull, trombonist Scott Thomson and drummer Roger Turner can yield unpredictable results. Bull and Turner have played together on occasion since 2002, but Thomson is a recent addition to the mix and the end product is a series of fresh and unexpected tracks of creative improvisation of the textural and conceptual kind that evolve organically into coherent and delightful compositions.
Bookshelves, which opens the set of six tunes on the Musique Actuelle Montréal label Ambiances Magnétiques, sets the tone for the experience, with its gentle progressing sound drips and bubblings, with a percussive emphasis, threaded by the cooing of Thomson’s trombone as he makes judicious use of mutes and provides some varied articulations that are as expressive as they are imaginative.
In contrast to the silk tones of the trombone, Bull’s guitar weaves some slinky lines of surprising variety, as in The Meadows where he works a nice tremolo effect, along with smooth sliding and thin pizzicato sounds from various manipulations of strings and articulations of the outside-the-box variety.
The set ends with Murray Street Skins, a piece that alludes to the Montréal Griffintown neighborhood street that was home to local legendary free jazz drummer John Heward who passed away in 2018. Standing, perhaps, as a tribute to his artistry, which is reflected here in the focus on percussive sounds, from guitar and drums, while Thomson improvises a sort of uplifting dirge with smears and gutturals with fetching lyrical elasticity.
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.