Few top tier string quartets have been as devoted to experimental music as the Montréal ensemble Quatuor Bozzini, who routinely bring a stunning rigour to everything they play, whether the radical work of Swiss composer Jürg Frey or key Canadian figures such as Linda Catlin Smith, Cassandra Miller and Martin Arnold. This new album focuses on the music of Alvin Lucier, one of the most enduring and consequential sonic explorers of the last half-century, and the group’s razor-sharp precision and empathy helps bring the gripping psychoacoustics of his research into dynamic relief.
The album is bookended by two conventional yet open-ended string quartets, starting with the 1994 composition Disappearances originally written for Lucier’s students at Wesleyan University, and closing with the 1991 piece Navigations for Strings, previously recorded by Arditti. They feel like companion pieces. The first is built from harmonically rich, unison long tones that seem to float towards eternity, but eventually one musician slowly, almost imperceptibly, raises or lowers their individual pitch, incrementally followed by the others to produce acoustic beating with ever-changing rhythmic patterns, all contained within an immersive sustain. It’s the kind of work that could go on for hours, but this version clocks in at nearly 17 minutes, generating an immersive sonic experience at the heart of Lucier’s ongoing fascination with the science of sound.
In between the group perform two iterations of the 2004 piece Group Tapper, an adaptation of a piece written for violinist Conrad Harris — and recently featured in an hour long workout by his String Noise duo on a Black Truffle album — in which the musicians thwack at the bodies of their instruments with the butt end of a bow. Each one taps out different rhythms, but the real pleasure is observing how the percussive sounds fill the space they’re played in, as the musicians slowly move in the room, perpetually altering the sonic profile. Unamuno was written as a vocal piece, with each singer intoning a single pitch in a four-tone cluster, but the Bozzini’s complement the voice with strings. Lucier is brilliant, but his music always works best when performed by the truly dedicated.