Adding to its stellar reputation for commissioning and performing experimental notated works, Montréal’s Quatuor Bozzini (QB) interprets five compositions by American composer Alvin Lucier on Navigations. Barbed, dissonant and compelling at the same time, these variants on works by the 90-year-old sound explorer have as much in common with traditional string quartet repertoire as Cecil Taylor has with Lang Lang. Formed in 1999, QB’s members — violinists Alissa Cheung and Clemens Merkel, violist Stéphanie Bozzini and cellist Isabelle Bozzini — have fused into a single unit of multiple moving parts. There are no soloists per se, and faithful to Lucier’s vision the timbres often resemble those from a percussion ensemble rather than a string quartet.
This is especially true on Group Tapper where the resonations appear to be created from combining smacks from the bows’ frogs, col legno string slaps and raps on the instruments’ wood to create call-and-response. As hammering moves from one to all players, tempos accelerate, first to presto and vivace, then to metallic sounding prestissimo until the soundfield is crammed with percussive ruffs. While other tracks are devoted to more conventional string strategies, the jagged and near impenetrable tones remain, encompassing hints of detuned scordatura. Detours into wispy and near-vocalized expositions are there, although the concluding Navigations for Strings offers the most bellicose challenges. As the players’ parts combine with layered and thickened tones a horizontal, undulating theme is revealed that becomes a near static, almost unbreakable drone. The climax and respite arrives when the unison strained buzz gives way to single string vibrations.
Formerly QB has created exemplified programs of composition by Ana Sokolović and Phil Niblock among others. Navigations is another defining work.