June 6, 2020
Stellari String Quartet
Ana Sokolović: Short Stories
Melting faster than the climate-change affected polar-regions are the boundaries separating so-called classical music and improvised sounds. No better corroboration of this is these CDs which arrive from opposite sides of the divide. While widely dissimilar in presentation each attains an equivalent elevated destination.
First convened in 2006, the Stellari String Quartet (SSQ) consists of four veterans who are involved in panoply of other ventures from playing with the London Improvisers Orchestra to smaller bands usually involving horn players and percussionists. They are Ugandan-British violinist Philipp Wachsmann, Swiss violinist Charlotte Hug, British-Brazilian cellist Marcio Mattos and British bassist John Edwards. Vulcan’s 11 tracks are completely improvised. Meanwhile Montreal-based Quatuor Bozzini (QB), which was formed in 1999, specializes in performing and commissioning new works for its traditional string quartet configuration: violinists Clemens Merkel and Alissa Cheung, violist Stephanie Bozzini and cellist Isabelle Bozzini. Among the 400 pieces QB has commissioned are these Short Stories by Serbian-Canadian Ana Sokolović, who teaches composition at Université de Montréal. Centrepiece of the disc is the 10-part Commedia dell’arte, I-II-III, with the additional tracks composed by Sokolović, inspired by visual art or used as a National Film Board of Canada soundtrack.
Means to personify some of the archetypal Commedia dell’arte characters, QB’s interpretation of the suite ranges from the full-fledged corybantic string rubbing on “Capitano”, the first “story”, to the harmonized and lyrical outpouring which defines “Colombina”, the subsequent track. From that point on every variety of conventional and extended technique is put to exceptional use. High-pitched jitters squeeze out skittish variations at points, while compelling surges from the lower-pitched strings sometimes reference a sense of high-powered modern swing. Through QB members perform the equivalent of tightrope walking, swaying and stretching timbres, but with enough safety net-like fusion so that there’s no chance of them failing. When personifying “Isabella” for instance, sawing reflections of one low tone face a pointed counter melody that eventually combines to express multiple tinctures on the color scale. Meantime the lively “Zanni” is probably the most Balkan of the tracks with its reed-like suggestions. The piece combines rhythmic cello plucks and dynamic violin squeaks to create a slipping and sliding terpsichorean feel. Overall, while cellist Bozzini sometimes fulfills the double bass function with string slaps, angled off-centre and off-key variables from all QB members mean that bouncing col legno emphasis frequently cements the performances. While spiccato string acceleration may dominate the final “Ruzzante” the dissonant pitches fade into tremolo overlapping signaling the end of the piece and the suite finale. Bagatelles which depend mostly on speed and col legno thumps, only an earlier composition, the multi-part “ Blanc dominant” seems sufficiently fleshed out. Expressive with thinner squeals, the chamber music continuum is challenged throughout with a sneaky sectional counter motif.
With Wachsmann and Hug at least having extensive experience with notated music, and Edwards and Mattos often working with the likes of Eddie Prevost and Evan Parker, SSQ members are as technically adroit as the QB. But on Vulcan’s 11 tracks, there’s no score to interpret. Instead the four use dissonance and power for expression. Unlike a conventional string quartet as well, there are no virtuosic solo passages per se. The idea is to meld individual skills into collective narratives.
A definition of this in miniature occurs on “Dallol”, the penultimate and at nearly 9½ minutes, Vulcan’s longest track. Digging into their string sets with rugged pulls and dynamic stretches, Edwards pumps and Mattos shrills as the higher-pitched strings propel a range of disconnected sweeps and whistling rebounds. Still the multiphonic narrative is resolved two-thirds of the way through with a post-modern smoothness that includes swing but doesn’t stint or extended technique interjections. Finally the double-and-triple stopping variations move past double bass plucks to sweep to silence. Varied strategies are also used for flexible string creativity throughout. For example, strained hand string-stops and col legno slaps that bring in wood echoes destabilize the exposition of “Tujle”. But the thin, atonal squeaks are later stabilized into an ambulatory theme by cello and bass groove creation. On the other hand, beneath the jittery string affiliations on “Kilauea” there’s a tinge of arco romanticism that finally draws each SSQ members into an unfolding near-impressionistic theme. Although some parts of the weaving and whamping program maybe almost inaudible and others shatteringly raucous, these sonic negotiations between thesis and antithesis continue. Asides may encompass guitar-like or even mandolin-pitched facility in atom-sized plinks; or four-part bow-directed unison output may swell to passionate moderate timbres, but expressiveness remain constant.
Likely blindfolded few could define which sounds were composed and which were improvised. That way the idea of stylistic melting is a proven activity as part of the creativity of both quartets.
Track Listing: Stories: 1. Ghost 1 2. Commedia dell'arte, Capitano 3. Commedia dell'arte, Colombina 4. Commedia dell'arte, Dottore 5. Commedia dell'arte III, Brighella 6. Commedia dell'arte II, Pantalone 7. Commedia dell'arte II, Isabella 8. Commedia dell'arte II, Zanni 9. Commedia dell'arte III, Signora 10. Commedia dell'arte III, Innamorati 11. Commedia dell'arte II, Ruzzante 12. Ghost 2 13. Blanc dominant 14. Troisieme page apres le soleil
Personnel: Stories: Clemens Merkel and Alissa Cheung (violin); Stephanie Bozzini (viola) and Isabelle Bozzini (cello)
Track Listing: Vulcan: 1. Mauna Kea 2. Pulvermaar 3. Yasur 4. Kilauea 5. Popocatépetl 6. Erebus 7. Tujle 8. Bardarbunga 9. Batu Tara 19. Dallol 11. Ambrym
Personnel: Vulcan: Philipp Wachsmann (violin); Charlotte Hug (viola); Marcio Mattos (cello) and John Edwards (bass)