The Bozzini Quartet: an epicurean approach to sound

Interviews 05.10.2022

The Canadian quartet returns to the GMEA in Albi with two concerts on October 8 and 9, one as a quartet, the other with the ensemble Dédalus and soprano Peyee Chen. Between America and Switzerland, the program brings together three of the Bozzini quartet's favorite composers: Alvin Lucier, Tom Johnson and Jürg Frey, whose music the quartet has extensively documented on disc. With this diptych, the Bozzini Quartet invites us to share a profound and singular listening experience.

Interview with Isabelle Bozzini, cellist and Clemens Merkel, violinist

How did you build your two concert programs at the GMEA within the framework of the riverrun festival; the first one dedicated to the American composers Alvin Lucier and Tom Johnson, the second to the Swiss composer Jürg Frey?
Isabelle Bozzini
We share a lot of musical affinities with Didier Aschour and Dedalus, both in spirit and in the way we work. We've been following each other from afar for about fifteen years, and we've been collaborating more directly for four or five years. We invited each other (them in Montreal, us in Albi). Moreover, we have been playingAlvin Lucier 's music since the early 2000s. Clemens and Jürg Frey have known each other since the 1990s. Dedalus and I have these composers in common, and they are also friends.
Clemens Merkel Dedalus: The concert around Jürg Frey was supposed to take place in 2020, and then at the Archipel festival in Geneva in 2021, but this was not possible. Fortunately, there was the creation in Nantes and Huddersfield in 2019, with Dedalus.
Isabelle Jürg Frey 's music only gets better with time. I am thinking of the piece in the program of October 9 with Dedalus, Grounds of Memorybut also his octet with saxophonists. He also composed a fourth quartet for us, which also lasts an hour: nothing but fantastic works!
Clemens: These works are the result of a long collaboration. I have known Jürg since 1993, when I was still in Germany and had no experience with quartets. In those years, no one was talking about Jürg Frey. Outside the small circle of Wandelweiser, he was an unknown!

What attracts you most to this music?
: The peacefulness. It's a music that brings peace and such a quiet beauty! We need that in a time when everything is so deafening. We are all submerged in noise, information, images... This music takes the time to exist and brings us back to the essential. We perceived it from the beginning. When we released the first tracks of Jürg Frey, at the beginning of the year 2000, we were talking a lot about slow food . We said to ourselves: "this music is slow music", in the sense that we take the time to savor each sound. Why should there be a drama in music every ten bars? It is not necessary... For me, the current Wandelweiser is a very important current. In our society, we need to refocus, to calm down...
Clemens : The starting point of the Wandelweiser collective is a bit like John Cage's work, first of all because, like all experimental avant-garde music, it's music whose outcome you can't necessarily predict, but also because there is no narrative aspect. Narrative is omnipresent in contemporary music (the idea of drama, emotions, surprise...). This does not mean that in this music there is no emotion, but it is in a different place.
Moreover, Jürg Frey's music has evolved a lot. In the 1990s, it was more static in a sense. Today, there is more movement, one could even find it almost narrative!
Jürg Frey once commented on the evolution of his music: "In the past, it was as if I was in a place and looking around, whereas today I explore this space by walking.

Does it seek to put the performer and the audience in a state of receptivity?
Clemens: Not exactly, I think it's more the idea of: "don't push the music around"! There is no prescription for the audience or the listener: he doesn't give any key on how to feel his music.
Isabelle : In fact, this music, you just have to let it exist ! It unfolds by itself; you just have to leave it alone! Hence the importance of silence, especially in the early works, which places it in the heritage of the New York school.
Clemens: When you play, when you listen to the music of Beethoven, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, in a way, the composer takes you by the hand, a bit like a tourist guide; he takes you from one place to another! In this type of music, on the contrary, you are dropped off at a place, and you have to explore the space yourself.

Is the concrete space of the concert important for playing this music?
: It's a delicate music, which we like to play in a space that is both intimate and resonant. What counts is the space that we create and that the audience creates with us: it is really a common listening. We could talk about "community"! We try to introduce another way of listening, we take time...
So riverrun , is the ideal space, because it gathers all that this music needs; reflection, listening, calm, beauty...

Does Jürg Frey think about this idea of "community"?
I think Jürg thinks about it, but he doesn't talk about it directly. This idea is present in the Wandelweiser movement, that goes without saying!
Clemens: The important thing for him and the other Wandelweiser composers is that the musicians and the audience are "in it", and it doesn't matter if it's five people or three hundred! The listening must be there, and no one must be forced; that's the most important thing.
Jürg will turn 70 this year, and the development of his career over the last ten years surprises him! For thirty years he had been writing exclusively for friends and colleagues, and now all of a sudden he's getting commissions from musicians he doesn't know. This is difficult for him; he needs to know the musicians! Receiving too many commissions is also destabilizing, because he has always composed just what he wanted to write, often without receiving a commission, for the musicians who inspired him. 

The piece Grounds of Memory for soprano and chamber orchestra features a text sung by the formidable Peyee Chen: one of Emily Dickinson's famous envelope poems?
: Yes, and this work with the text is very interesting, because precisely in this type of music what happens to the expression, in other words, how do you manage the expressiveness of the text? In a sense, it acts with the text as it acts with the music. The text does not control the music, one does not "follow" the text; it is not an opera. On the other hand, there is this very touching moment in the score, a great singing solo; it is the only moment where one can say that Jürg "reacts" to the text. It is really beautiful! The strength of the composition also comes from the fact that the poem chosen by Jürg Frey here is a poem that can be read in thirty seconds and that he stretches over an hour of music!

Can we now talk about your concert on October 8 around Alvin Lucier?
: We will play all his quartets, except Group Tapper, and we will combine pieces by Tom Johnson, whose quartets we have just recorded. Both are long-time collaborators. When we recorded Alvin's pieces for the last CD, we had a lot of telephone conversations with him, and he had come to Montreal before, so we were able to play in front of him: it's a very nice collaboration!
In Albi, we play Navigations, a very written quartet, and Disappearances, a text score with a certain freedom for the performers. In both cases, we navigate between microtonality, beats, tension and resolution.
Clemens: In these two pieces, we find the same acoustic phenomenon. Navigations is a small cluster that becomes a unison (we go towards something smaller and smaller...), and the writing is really precise.
In Disappearances, we go from the unison to something more open; it's a happier piece in a way, but it's a similar process.
Unamuno, composed in 1994, is a vocal piece arranged for quartet and voice; so we sing and play at the same time.

I suppose one is in a different state when playing Alvin Lucier's music than when playing Jürg Frey's?
Isabelle: Yes! Playing Alvin Lucier's music requires a very intense and sustained concentration; it's fifteen minutes of flow (so that in the recording, there is no editing possible), with the added technical challenge of glissandi.
But as it is music that solicits inner listening, we are not so far from our exploration of the music of Jürg Frey either.

Have you played pieces by Alvin Lucier with electronics?
: Yes, but more solo pieces, and also Small Waves, a sextet with bottles and microphones. Alvin had sent us his bottles by mail for this project. We tried to play it in Amsterdam, but the band there didn't have the right bottles, nor the right microphones. So it was hard to get the right micro-intervals. It was very complicated and it didn't completely work, but when he came to Montreal in 2015 it was fantastic! I remember his own performance of Bird and Person Dyning, in which he moves in space for twenty minutes: it was really magical, a piece of anthology!
Clemens: Indeed, for the Small Waves sextet , he sent us a package with six bottles, and we realized that they were really cheap bottles: one of the bottles was broken and he had glued it back together with a piece of tape! The microphones too, it was a bit of a mess; at least not quality microphones... In the end, it's really the ear that decides what's right or not; the super-equipment has nothing to do there!

It's also a way of looking at things from a distance, and also probably a form of humor?
: Yes, Alvin looked at everything with a smile on his face... I think he was like a kid, when he finds something. All of his pieces eventually came from effects or phenomena that he found; he made music with it!

He composed until his death?
: He had a very bad fall in the summer of 2019. Little by little, he was able to get back on his feet. I guess he continued to tinker, and he still thought about music. He was 89 years old... Of course, we would have been very happy to create a new piece by him, but the important thing is to have known him, to have played his music: the four quartets are a sum!
Clemens: Yes, we are very lucky: we already have so much music! Eliane Radigue has composed for us, Christian Wolff and Tom Johnson keep writing music for us... it's so precious!

You will combine the music of Alvin Lucier with that of Tom Johnson in this program on October 8?
: Indeed, we will play two pieces by Tom Johnson.
On the program, Formulas, a quartet from 1994, which he composed for a Swiss quartet, a rather classical piece. The score is rather "open", it does not include any tempo indication. So we made our choices on the nuances and the speeds. It's nine movements "à la Tom Johnson" with cyclical developments, canons, speeds... It's very interesting; it sounds almost "classical" - it's almost Debussy at times - but at the same time, it's Tom Johnson!
We will also play Four-Note Chords in four voices, composed in 2009. This piece was added to the CD because of the brevity of the three quartets. It was his suggestion that we add this one. It's a fantastic piece, based only on chords.
Clemens: The thing about Alvin Lucier is that Tom always builds on phenomena that are already there. He often says that you don't have to compose the music, it's just there! In this page, the chords are there, he wrote the minimum: no tempo, no official order, no duration of the chords.... it's up to us to find the right balance, to propose a version that makes sense, to make it sound!
Isabelle: We have to find the mood, a certain flow. We have to have time to hear each chord, but without playing too slowly...

In this type of situation where the game is open, do you always agree with each other?
: Not at all! That's where the work is. If you ask the musicians in a quartet how they feel, there are always at least five answers! But we always end up agreeing, by dint of hard work.
Isabelle: The difficulty is this. How should a work sound? How do we, the Bozzini Quartet, sound? And how do we make this music sound? These are the questions we have to ask ourselves.
Clemens: Because what is interesting in this type of "naked" pieces is to find a balance: to install a certain flow and at the same time leave enough time to taste each chord! It's a lot of work and time.

Interview by Anne Montaron


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