So you missed this double effort, you say? Contributor Mathieu Bélanger provides a full rundown from a remarkably distinct evening of music.
On June 3rd, the Quatuor Bozzini with special guest Malcolm Goldstein performed at La Sala Rossa as part of the 8th edition of the Suoni Per Il Popolo. The concert happened in two parts. The first part featured two compositions of Malcolm Goldstein. The evening began with A New Song of Many Faces for in These Times, a string quartet the Quatuor Bozzini commissioned in 2002. Goldstein himself then played his Hardscrabble Songs. The second part saw the Quatuor Bozzini perform the North-American premiere of Jean Derome and Joane Hétu’s Le Mensonge et l’identité.
Malcolm Goldstein’s musical practice could be described as two-folded. The first aspect of his work relates to improvised music, that is music where no decisions are taken in advance in order to leave the sound follows its own path. The second aspect would encompass composition and scored pieces. Yet, such a distinction would be too simple for it would overlook one crucial fact: composition and improvisation, as a sound production method, are indissociable in Goldstein’s pieces. Indeed, these are structured improvisations. Here, a structured improvisation would be best-described as a piece whose overall structure is fixed through a score and is hence composed, but whose actual sound material is up to the musician and produced through improvisation.
Based on the above considerations, A New Song of Many Faces for in These Times is genuine Goldstein. As stated in the program notes, this string quartet comprises four sections (I. a gently flowing song; II. a brutal song; III. an agitated song; IV. a song of inner vision) and a coda. The score specifies the global development of the piece in addition to the sound signature of each section, but the specific sounds are left for the musicians to decide within the prescribed frame. The sections suggest various melodic lines and, through their sound signature, show them in different colors in accordance with their respective titles. Pizzicato notes and strong attacks and bow pressure give its brutality to the second section while the extensive use of sustained tones, muted strings and harmonics give a contemplative color to the fourth one. The coda, which amounts to about a quarter of the 19-minute piece, is a long rendition of a melody to which other segments taken from Ives and Beethoven — according to the program notes again as one can’t really identified them — are incorporated.
As a composition, Hardscrabble Songs is a series of four songs, each evoking aspects of the history and politics of the United States since the 1940s. It is of course no coincidence that the covered time frame goes from Goldstein’s youth up to now. Moreover, the word “song” is appropriate since they feature extensive lyrics and melodies although most of them are fractured and deconstructed through Goldstein’s unique style. For example, the first and last songs respectively reference Frank Sinatra’s The House I Live In (That’s America to Me) as well as The Star Spangled Banner and Jimi Hendrix. Interestingly, this particular interpretation of the Hardscrabble Songs put forward the words as they were pronounced with greater clarity than in previous times. In conjunction with the large space that is La Sala Rossa, it contributed to make Hardscrabble Songs softer.
Le Mensonge et l’identité, a 60-minute composition for string quartet and tape by Jean Derome and Joane Hétu, was premiered last April as part of the Forum Neuer Musik in Köln and was a commission of the Quautuor Bozzini and the Deutschlandfunk (that’s a radio by the way). As mentioned above, the Suoni Per Il Popolo marked its North-American premiere.
Le Mensonge et l’identité clearly puts forward a reflection on the notion of identity. This reflection happens on two levels — the identity of the individuals and that of the entity — and participates both to the form of the piece and to its musical content.
On the formal side, the composition is in three parts, each representing a step in the unraveling of the string quartet. In the first part, the music is strictly notated and the quartet plays a single entity, that is according to its traditional conception. The second part marks a certain departure from this unity while the third part irremediably breaks the string quartet as an entity into four singular entities: two violinists, a violist and a cellist. At this point, the musicians are no longer performing a common score through individual parts. Actually, they are no longer playing a part, but are simply playing individually. Not only could they choose to go to one of the 20 or so lecterns placed on the floor, but each presented them with a score made up of general indications. An improvisational component thus entered the picture.
This unraveling reflects itself in the scenic organization. In the first part, the musicians played side by side, faithfully to the traditional configuration of a string quartet. In opposition, during the third part, the four individuals were moving around on the “scene” — which was the floor of La Sala Rossa for the occasion — carrying lecterns from one point to the other, sometimes turning their back to the audience, etc.
On the content side, the individuality of the musicians is emphasized. On the tape, each introduced himself, both as a person and as a member of the Quatuor Bozzini. This statement included biographical information such a name, date and place of birth, civil status, ownership of domestic animals — Nadia Francavilla has two cats for example — reasons for playing in a string quartet, administrative role in the Quatuor Bozzini as a organism — Clemens Merkel is in charge of concerts abroad to mention but one —, etc. Moreover, each member used a different language: Italian for Isabelle Bozzini, French for Stéphanie Bozzini, German for Clemens Merkel and English for Nadia Francavilla.
Musically, the string work was on the soft and airy side. It actually was strangely reminiscent of Feldman’s later piece for strings in terms of touch and continuity, although without the perpetual permutation of patterns so typical of the late American composer. Strange because Derome and Hétu’s esthetics usually have little in common with Feldman’s, but nevertheless were pleasantly surprising. Speaking of Feldman, it is interesting to note that, at one point during the third part, violist Stéphanie Bozzini played for a few minutes a melody that was very reminiscent of the famous one that closes Rothko Chapel. On the other hand, the first part featured some quotes from the likes of physicist Hubert Reeves, comedian Brigitte Poupart and writer Madeleine Gagnon. Those inscribed themselves in an exploration of everyday nature quite prominent in Hétu’s work, and to a lesser extent in Derome’s, but proved to be less convincing in this particular composition for their effect withered quickly and their pertinence failed to establish itself.
According to the program notes, in Le Mensonge et l’identité, the string quartet, as an entity, is considered a microcosm of society. The exploration of identity that occupies the piece thus inherits a social dimension. Yet, the one question that is not addressed directly through the form and content of the piece, or at least the one that is not resolved explicitly, is that of the lie, of the “mensonge”. In the end, Le Mensonge et l’identité tends to suggest that the lie is the one we, as a society, have been building for ourselves and comforting ourselves in for the last 40 years by refusing to identify ourselves through society, that is by believing one’s identity can be independent of that of a more global ensemble to which we participate and which partly defines us…