It's a quiet afternoon off at BISQC, and I'm sitting at a computer easier to use than the one I've been posting at before, one that won't be available in the evening, and I've finished the work I came here to do, so why not describe the remarkable events of this morning?
For every BISQC, a Canadian composer is commissioned to write an "imposed piece," that is one that all the contestants are required to play, so that they may be judged on their ability to perform new music that neither they nor anybody else has ever heard before. They have, at least in this case, about 2 months to learn the work, and the composer to consult on questions, and then they all play the work, all ten of them, in one marathon concert.
The only requirements on the composer are that the work be for string quartet with no embellishments (no requiring the players to move around on stage, no electronics or other additions) and that it be about 9 minutes long. Style is entirely up to them.
The imposed piece at BISQC three years ago was a piece of fearsome modernism full of the most complex playing and busy notation. For this year, however, they commissioned Matthew Whittall, who is a minimalist, and curiosity as to what he'd write was a large factor driving me to attend this year. Though Whittall intended his piece to be something of a surprise for the audience, I found out what he wrote when the score was made available to the audience yesterday. I'd hardly have dared to review ten disparate performances without it to follow along and take notes on.
The piece, "Bright Ferment (String Quartet No. 2)," begins with a long sequence of fast repeating minimalist chugging chords, shifting harmonies and back again at regular intervals, and jumping their rhythmic tracks at irregular intervals. This continues just long enough, as the composer says, to fool the listener as to what kind of piece it's going to be. It's succeeded by a wild sequence of contrasting styles, including fragmented atonalism, chromatic Romanticism, and even a bit of tango. The idea is to give the performers a chance to try out differing styles and show their individuality, and Whittall hopes that the sequence forms some kind of coherent whole. (It did, but despite the fact that I enjoyed the idiom more than I did the piece 3 years ago doesn't mean I was really eager to hear it ten times. Though the hall begin fairly full, a good number left halfway through at intermission.)
Most of the performing groups had no trouble assimilating the opening minimalist chord sequence. The most imaginative performance was by the Viano, who were not only flexible, but they were the only group to develop differences in dynamics for the different sets of harmonies. The Agate played it well enough, but they clearly didn't sound comfortable or familiar with the idiom. On the other hand, not everybody could play it perfectly. The Omer, which had the misfortune to begin the concert, was the only group which really couldn't hack it. The Vera slipped up just a little, and the cellist of the Ulysses actually dropped out for about a bar in the middle.
That's unfortunate, but she also gave one of the better performances of a lengthy cello pizzicato/arco solo later on. However, my first prize for that sequence goes to Tate Zawadiuk of the Viano, who was the only cellist to figure out that the pizzicato section was actually a jazz solo and to play it in the appropriate heavily-vibratoed style.
This was immediately preceded by a chromatic violin solo, and this time it was Maryana Osipova of the Eliot who was the only one to give it a blues flavor.
These solos were preceded by a sequence of cascading pizzicato notes in all four instruments. The Elmire did the best job of giving this a cascading style, and the Viano gave it a good push. The Ruisi played it slower and more gently than others, while the Vera were a little stiff here.
A bit further on is the tango, a slow one of a kind Whittall learned while living in Argentina. (He's now in Finland, though we're assured he is by origin Canadian.) This features another violin solo, and this one has slides marked on the notes. Now, genuine broad glissandos elsewhere in the piece are something the players had no trouble with. As Christina Bouey and Colin Brookes of the Ulysses pointed out when I talked with them afterwards, they all learned that from Bartok. But the slides in the tango are not real glissandos, but portamento, and that's a style that's often anathema to modern players. Some ignored the instruction altogether. Others, including Bouey, followed it but a bit hesitantly. Only Alessandro Ruisi of his namesake quartet really gave those slides their full Piazzolla-like value.
A passage of weird atonal fragments sounded totally different from everyone who played it (notes like "weird", "intense", "cries", and "squeals" in my notes aren't much help). A following passage of "intense, obsessive" (I'm quoting the score's instructions now) heavy chords sounded pretty much the same from everyone who played it, except the Marmen who somehow managed to sound rougher than anybody else.
Listeners knew they were getting near the end when they came to the passage where the viola is required to play the note D over and over again in a "rhythmic, driving" (the score's instructions again), and stuttering fashion (mostly sixteenth notes, but with accents and interspersed with eighth notes). A few of the violists sounded awkward at doing this; whenever they did, their second violinist, to whom they passed on the responsibility after a dozen bars of this, had less trouble. First prize in doing it well goes to the bounding viola of Eva Kennedy of the Callisto.
As the second violin takes the repeated D (the one note now played double-stopped on two strings) quietly on for an unbelievable seven pages, the other three instruments play, interspersed by pauses, quiet sequences of chords over it. These again sounded amazingly different, depending on the group. Ruisi's were dissonant. Callisto's were very consonant. Ulysses and Viano had them consonant but tangy; Vera's were consonant but fuzzy. Elmire's were so consonant they were even sweet. Eliot's were soft and sighing.
The piece ends with soft harmonics from all four instruments, briefly sounding like a quote from the introduction to Simon Jeffes' "Music for a Found Harmonium," though I don't know if it is.
And that's it, ten times over.