AMN Reviews: Quatuor Bozzini – Alvin Lucier: Navigations[2021; CQB 2128_NUM]

There have been many technical and technological innovations in music since 1945 but one of the most important aesthetic innovations has been in new ideas that focus on listening. Innovators like Pierre Schaeffer proposed the idea of reduced listening – an attitude in which sound is listened to for its own sake as a sound object, removed from its source. John Cage invited listeners to hear any sound as music. Pauline Oliveros encouraged listeners to actively experience all sounds through a practice she described as “deep listening”. These ideas all contributed to contemporary music’s focus on the experience of sound itself.

Alvin Lucier’s compositions and installations make use of sounds that are often the results of acoustic phenomena. His work focuses our attention and perception on the physical presence of sound interacting within a particular space. Performing Lucier’s compositions requires performers to learn to recognize, activate, play and interact with acoustic phenomena. The Quatuor Bozzini were clearly up for the challenge when they recorded “Alvin Lucier: Navigations”. The album opens with “Disappearances”, a piece that is a single note. That description may sound like it is minimalist to the extreme but to my ears it is a piece rich with development. You hear changes in weight and timbre as each string joins together in unison. The controlled motions of the string’s bows cause phasing and filtering of the sound. The tiny subtle changes in pitch causes beating which reveals pulsating difference tones. Each of these phenomena disappear into one another creating a feeling of movement and making the listener aware of the tiniest changes in pitch and timbre.

The album contains two realizations of “Group Tapper”, a piece that explores room acoustics by having the instrumentalists treat their instruments as percussion. The performers tap on their instruments in various places and reflect the sound coming from their instruments around the room. The recording engineer does a great job of making the room present on this album so that you can really hear how the group’s performance interacts with the room. Placed in between the two realizations of “Group Tapper” is for me the most striking piece on this recording, “Unamuno”.  The piece was inspired by early twentieth century Spanish writer  Miguel de Unamuno and it was originally written for voices. “Unamuno” is based around four pitches that are continuously arranged into different patterns. It has a probing and questioning kind of vibe to it. The Bozzini’s perform the piece with both strings and their voices. The result is absolutely stunning. 

The album finishes with “Navigations for Strings”. At a high level “Navigations for Strings” and “Unamuno” share some of the same types of ingredients. Both pieces are based on four pitches and both make use of slowly changing combinations and difference tones. However, despite these high level similarities the two pieces sound very different.  “Navigations for Strings” is a somewhat dark piece in which continuous changes in microtonality, dynamics and tempo create a sound mass that feels like it is becoming a stasis, but it’s continuous changes never allow it to rest. It is a very haunting piece.

With “Alvin Lucier: Naviagtions” the Quatuor Bozzini have gone well beyond the surface of Lucier’s scores and have totally embraced his challenge to performers to be sonic explorers. “Alvin Lucier: Naviagtions” is a wonderful album with captivating performances of one of the most original and innovative experimental composers of our time.

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: Salvatore Sciarrino – String Quartets

Salvatore Sciarrino, Italian composer, at the ...
Salvatore Sciarrino, Italian composer, at the piazza of Città di Castello, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Salvatore Sciarrino: String Quartets [Kairos 0013212KAI]

The context for this collection of string quartets by composer Salvatore Sciarrino is directly addressed in the excellent booklet accompanying the CD. In a set of reflections on the string quartet as a genre, the composer remarks that the quartet represents a convergence of intimacy of expression with the elevation of style. And that observation provides an excellent point of entry into the works presented here.

The single-movement Quartet No 7 begins the program, with an emphasis on the expressive as conveyed by an adaptation of more-or-less conventional technique. Sciarrino writes that the quartet arose from his long involvement with works for voice, and the characteristic sound here is decidedly that of the inflections and phrasing of the human voice. The piece is marked by generous use of glissandi and a balance of ranges which, taken together, produce passages that one could almost recognize as the distinct speech acts of asking, imploring, admonishing, etc. Quartet No 8, also a one-movement piece, features a parallelism of voices matching the violins’ high harmonics to the cello’s middle range. The 8th quartet’s emphasis on extreme high harmonics foreshadows the predominant sound of the six short quartets that follow. Like the 7th quartet these pieces, written between 1967 and 1992, often embody a vocal quality, whether in the dialogue-like phrasing in the first and second quartets, the prolonged shrieks passing from voice to voice in the third quartet, or the urgently “spoken” microtones of the fifth quartet. The cycle ends with a kind of quiet anticipation, which seems to correspond to Sciarrino’s thoughts on the survivability of art through historical continuity and interruption. The performances, by the Quartetto Prometeo, rise to the interpretive challenge this music undoubtedly poses.

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