Miller’s music has opened up new spaces with incredibly imaginative use of quotation, repetition, and traditional instrumental colours. Truly mind-expanding music.
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Miller’s music has opened up new spaces with incredibly imaginative use of quotation, repetition, and traditional instrumental colours. Truly mind-expanding music.
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.
Cette récente parution rassemble des œuvres de la compositrice canadienne établie à Londres Cassandra Miller, écrites entre 2008 et 2015. Le Quatuor Bozzini, qui en a créé la plupart, est sans doute le mieux placé pour nous ouvrir la porte de cet univers délicat. Les quatre œuvres au programme révèlent la manière de Cassandra Miller qui, à l’image de l’écrivain puisant son inspiration dans des coupures de journaux, est à l’affût du matériau musical ambiant comme base de son travail de composition. Ainsi, Warblework part de chants d’oiseaux pour nous offrir un univers aux textures changeantes avec un traitement du silence et des intervalles justes d’une remarquable efficacité. About Bach, qui a remporté le prix Jules-Léger en 2016, reprend des motifs d’une chaconne à travers une évolution linéaire empreinte de nostalgie, superposition d’une lente plainte au violon dans les suraigus et d’un socle stable et durable dans les graves.
Si la compositrice appose son empreinte grâce à ses emprunts, elle nous propose un univers aéré, méditatif et sensible. Elle arrive, en peu de notes, à capter toute notre attention et à nous plonger dans sa perception du temps. Le Quatuor Bozzini épouse cette musique avec un naturel déroutant. La subtilité des nuances et la cohésion du groupe sont des éléments essentiels pour traduire fidèlement le discours de Cassandra Miller. Si l’absence de livret est regrettable dans une optique de transmission et de médiation, Just So reste une très belle réussite et une invitation à repenser le temps et l’écoute musicale.
The Canadian music series on Another Timbre is a thing of multifarious wonders. Ten portrait CDs championing music by Linda Catlin Smith, Martin Arnold, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Christopher Mayo and several others. The scope, the focus — it’s all compelling. No blunt conclusions are drawn about what Canadianness might mean in music, but I’m intrigued by Martin Arnold’s suggestion that it might have something to do with “slack” — by which he means a loose relationship to tradition, an open space upon which to make things new. Many of the discs in the series deserve mention here but Cassandra Miller’s music has knocked me sideways. Bold, kind-hearted, wistful, brave, simple, sophisticated… her string quartet About Bach is miraculously beautiful, with a bright, lonely violin drifting resolutely above the most gorgeous shapeshifting chorales.
Last but not least, the series is completed by two contrasting albums credited to British Columbia-born Cassandra Miller, one featuring commissioned and other pieces played by Apartment House musicians, the other string quartets played by Montréal’s Quatuor Bozzini. It is pleasing to note that both albums feature cover paintings by Lance Austin Olsen.
Miller has twice been the recipient of the Jules-Léger Prize for New Chamber Music, Canada’s highest honour for composition. For years, her works have been performed across the world. In September 2018, she took up the post of Associate Head of Composition (Undergraduate) at London’s prestigous Guildhall School of Music and Drama. All of which makes it quite remarkable to discover that these two albums are the very first recordings to be issued featuring her music.
Taken together, the two albums illustrate exactly why Miller has been honoured and heard around the globe. Across the spectrum, from Mira Benjamin’s solo violin piece For Mira, through the enchanting string quartets, up to the duet of Charles Curtis’ cello with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Miller’s music gets it right; it feels like it is part of a tradition without being unduly shaped by that tradition or kow-towing to it.
The Canadian Composers Series is such a significant event that it makes sense to appreciate it as a whole without drawing comparisons between the ten albums in it. Hopefully, this series has opened doors for the eight composers in it and for the many more who could just as easily have been included. On the basis of it, there is a strong case for further album releases by Canadian composers, either as another series or as one-offs. History has been made.
Miller’s music is absorbing for any number of reasons. She makes use of aspects of various branches of modernism including minimalism and, in some pieces, a kind of structural stasis but almost always also references traditional forms and techniques, from Bach to folk songs to Ives and more. Just So collects four pieces for string quartet, performed in typically beautiful and rigorous fashion by the Bozzini Quartet, two shorter works bracketing two longer ones. The title composition is a lilting affair, recalling some kind of village gig or reel, the strings pitched high, dancing, the rhythms just this side of irregular, the cello coming in for some wonderful underpinning in the final few moments. A bracing, joyous number to open the set. Warblework, as the title implies, concerns itself with birds: three thrushes and a veery. To my ears, not birdsong as much as tracing the paths birds make in flight and very movingly so. The strings swirl and skitter in brief bursts for the Swainson’s thrush, alight for a moment, then take off once again while the hermit thrush swoops a bit more, stays lower to the ground and the wood thrush grunts and pushes its way through the underbrush before standing still to survey its surroundings, which are filled with lovely, dry harmonies. The veery, another kind of thrush, does seem to make a doleful call amidst grainy streaks, the calls multiplying, a little anxious as though espied. Here, as in other pieces, Miller makes subtle use of approximately iterated cells of music, a near repetition of clusters that nods to minimalism without ever falling into rote usage — this is an especially fine work.
About Bach is the longest work presented here and kind of a centerpiece, illustrating the sort of structural tack that Miller seems to enjoy and that, in a way, she elaborates in her marvelous composition, Duet for Cello and Orchestra, commented on below. Here, if I’m not mistaken, one violin (maybe sometimes both?) plays a very highly pitched, seven-note ascending “scale” throughout the piece. Readers with more musical knowledge than I might identify it, but I was reminded, oddly enough, of the scale sung by the lead tenor at the conclusion of Glass’ 1979 opera, Satyagraha. It’s very poignant in and of itself, gathering strength and weight and, indeed, poignancy as it’s repeated again and again. The lower strings, in an almost conversational manner, reflect with phrases that seem obliquely derived from Bach, though with an entirely modern hesitancy and questioning aspect. Toward the end, it attains a clear dimension of solemnity. There’s a type of stasis in effect, pinioned by the violin (s) but also enhanced by the general self-similarity of the interposed phrases, though they in fact vary at all times. The sense of overhearing snatches of discussions in a large room pervades, dreamlike. Just a deep, marvelous and affecting work, brilliantly performed. The disc concludes with Leaving, another work that appears to have folk song roots, maybe a sea shanty, lolls in place like an old docked boat gently buffeted by small waves. Each of the strings seems to carry a related tune, melding together at times, drifting apart at other moments. It’s an immensely satisfying, soft kind of almost-lullaby, a fine ending to a superb recording.
The second disc, Just So, consists of string quartets played by the Quatuor Bozzini. The major work here, About Bach, is a fitting companion to the Duet for Cello and Orchestra: viola and cello play in the manner of baroque viols, a chorale that crosses over itself again and again until it finally exhausted. Against this, the violins play endlessly rising harmonics in the stratosphere, ethereal and remote. The effect is sublime at first and then strangely affecting as the elegaic implications of the music embed themselves in the consciousness, the harmonics continuing unperturbed by the cadences below. Miller talks about this piece being shaped by Bach transcriptions, Jewish music and computer glitches, bringing order out of the messy circumstances of life. Quatuor Bozzini make the fiendish technical requirements of playing this piece with finesse all but invisible. The other pieces contain elements of the folkloric, to varying degrees. Warblework names its four movements after species of birds, mixing up the mimetic, programmatic and impressionistic in an idiosyncratic way that deftly avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of Messiaen and John Luther Adams. The disc is topped and tailed by two brief works, the smart and sweet almost-a-solo Just So which sounds like a folksong transcription, and the more serene and sonorous Leaving which is, in fact, a transcription. It’s been worth the wait.
The Sheffield-based label Another Timbre specialises in experimental music, from the postwar US generation of John Cage and Morton Feldman to the present day. Lately, it has made a special feature of Canadian composers, and among its latest releases are two discs devoted to the music of Cassandra Miller, who grew up in British Columbia and is now based in London. Her teachers have included Michael Finnissy and Richard Ayres, but, as the eight pieces on these recordings show, her music is hard to categorise, its starting points unpredictable and wide-ranging.
In Quatuor Bozzini’s survey of Miller’s quartet pieces, the four movements of Warblework are based on the songs of four north American thrushes, while About Bach, as its name signals, is a homage, with a solo violin spiralling high above fragments of chorales derived from the famous D Minor Chaconne. In Philip the Wanderer, composed for the indefatigable pianist Philip Thomas, the source is a recording of a Mozambican musician, while the solo-violin For Mira is based on a computer transcription of Kurt Cobain singing Where Did You Sleep Last Night. In every one of these pieces, though, Miller’s response is totally her own. The music never seems second-hand or derivative in any way.
Perhaps the most striking of all is Duet for Cello and Orchestra, from 2015. It began, Miller says, as a homage to the composer Vincenzo Bellini, and also makes extensive use of an Italian folk song. But the solo cello (played with wonderful restraint by Charles Curtis in this performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov) is mostly limited to a scarcely changing sequence of alternating fifths, while the orchestra has a frieze-like succession of increasingly dense flourishes above it. The soloist only breaks free in the final moments for a brief cadenza in harmonics, which seems to belong to another musical world altogether. It’s a strange but profoundly haunting piece.
Another Timbre launched its Canadian series last year with Drifter, a two-disc collection of pieces by Linda Catlin Smith, New York-born but now based in Toronto. The most recent batch of releases includes another album of her quietly unassuming and entrancingly beautiful Feldman-esque music.
On Smith’s Wanderer, there are eight works played by members of Apartment House, each of them using a single musical idea to devastating effect — shared melodic lines in the ensemble pieces Knotted Silk and Stare at the River, gradations of touch in Velvet, for two pianos — and all totally beguiling.
“… ‘method’…. I don’t know what that is!” states Cassandra Miller in an interview on Another Timbre’s site. “Isn’t the fun of composing making up your own particular method for whatever piece you’re writing?” No better summation could be offered for her music as represented by this excellent disc in the label’s Canadian composers series, performed by Montréal’s Quatuor Bozzini.
On one level, Miller’s work manages the astonishing task of evoking various points in music’s history while calmly, often quietly but willfully eschewing them. Even the first few violin gestures of Just So conjure the modal ghosts of neoclassical Stravinskian harmony and Heinrich Biber in full-on arpeggiated fantasy mode, but the jagged rhythms just won’t square up to either conception. Every hint at steady rhythm is diced and discarded before coming to fruition, and every suggestion of Baroque cadence is thwarted. The tempo does finally steady itself in a blaze of exuberance only to have the piece end, abruptly, like that fabled unfinished Bach fugue, but with a smile. The longer works seem to encourage similar behavior. If the first part of Warblework affords slippery glissando-filled and metrically free visions of prime Penderecke, the fourth brings back fond memories of the opening sliding mysticisms of Terry Riley’s Salome Dances for Peace, but of course, the references are covert, if they exist at all. That fourth section opens with a slowly ascending gesture that somehow defenestrates any conventional notion of pitch or history, an authoritative but calm dismissal, stunning in its understatement and just as effective in repetition. There are Romantic flourishes that then give way to gorgeous sustains that circumvent academic time and temporal perception.
It could be that sense of temporal redefinition, or abnegation, that sets Miller’s music apart. She does it so well; just listen to the nearly 25 minutes of About Bach to hear it in full effect. Yes, the historical element is in play, as the composition emerged from one of Bach’s solo violin works, and that crazily high-register scale throughout demonstrates that Miller’s whimsy resides front and center, but a glacial change occurs. Focus gradually moves from the scale, a nearly complete B-minor repeated throughout, played at the very top of the poor violinist’s range, to the often subdued but complex and rhythmically transient harmonies below. The multileveled structure comes into sharp focus as the monochromatic scale recedes into a tremulous background, something akin to a sonorous clock against which the constantly shifting and dynamically varied pointillisms of domesticity or work-place mundanity accent the time being kept just below the surface. The two experiential levels intersect in gorgeous harmonic resonance, and in the moments when the lower level disappears, the scale takes on the shimmering qualities of silence.
There has been so much music striving for novelty and effect but failing or reaching for the heights and depths of beauty but achieving only shallow sentimentality. Miller manages both, as heard in the rapt but glistening colors of Leaving, an absolutely perfect way to end the disc. Quatuor Bozzini was a stellar choice; their long relationship with the composer, and their ability to make every swell and timbral juxtaposition count in music where they are paramount, renders their interpretations second to none. A close but suitably resonant recording brings this alternately spare and sumptuous music to life.