Following the success of their 2017–18 collaboration (Bozzini+, Piano Quintet, HCR19), the Bozzini Quartet is reunited with composer Bryn Harrison for Harrison’s first string quartet, the three-movement, hourlong Three Descriptions of Place and Movement (2021). A first string quartet is a landmark moment for any composer, but Harrison’s feels like a particularly significant arrival: the homogenous instrumentation is ideally suited to the disorienting labyrinthine structures, intricate repetitions, and extended durations that have characterised much of his recent work.
"This is not music for the fainthearted, but for anyone with an interest in new music for string quartet, and in music that pushes the boundaries not just for performers but listeners too, this is an unusually captivating disc. Brilliantly recorded by James Clemens-Seely at Montreal’s Église St-Joseph de Rivière-des-Prairies in an acoustic that allows just the right amount of acoustic space around this experiment in time, and superbly performed by the Quatuor Bozzini, it’s a thoroughly recommendable album." -Europadisc #discoftheweek
"Once again, Huddersfield Contemporary Records presents a risk-taking artist in the best possible sound and performance conditions." -Sequenza21
Since 2008’s Repetitions in Extended Time, British composer Bryn Harrison has found fruit in increasingly longer forms. At the time of its premiere, Repetitions, nearly 45 minutes long, was twice the length of anything Harrison had written. The result was a moment of discovery. Large swaths of time suited Harrison; his idiosyncratic language of subtly shifting repetitions and monolithic textures stretched to fill the available space, confusing the listener amidst the abundance of slightly varied similarity. The auditory labyrinth Repetitionsproduced was something all of Harrison’s music before had sought, but it wasn’t until he built on a large scale that the listening body had room to properly lose itself in the maze.
In the years since Repetitions, rare is the Bryn Harrison work shorter than 20 minutes, and his newest score, Three Descriptions of Place and Movement, is no exception. At just over an hour, Harrison’s first string quartet is a mesmerizing web of patterns and circles that entangles memory and unravels perception. A first string quartet is a landmark moment for any composer, but Harrison’s feels like a particularly significant arrival: the homogenous instrumentation is ideally suited to the labyrinthine structures he has spent so long perfecting.
The title’s three ‘descriptions’ are clarified in the names of the movements. Opening, clearing, and burrow, all doubly verbs and nouns, are each embedded with simultaneous motion and stasis. Opening, an unfolding, widening, growing from a single point, as well as the aperture, the crevice, the window that frames the perception of space. Clearing, a kind of purging or scrubbing of materials down to their barren core, or a wide empty space, flat and nondescript, defined by the negative. And burrow, to carve deeper, to dig into, to bury oneself completely, or an underground cocoon, warm, enveloping, home.
I grew up beside the trunk of an oak tree which shadowed much of the yard in our childhood home. On warm, still summer evenings it became something of a family ritual to gather out back just as the sun dipped below the trees and watch hundreds of fireflies fill the darkness. For the first few moments of dusk the eye only registers chaos in the distant glimmers. Slowly, though, the bugs coalesce on some silent, internal rhythm, and without warning, the luminescence begins to pulse in perfect evenness. Flash synchrony they call it. In perfect unison the moving mass illumes, then one by one twinkles out, leaving only a few stragglers before the next great burst reforms in a new shape. For half an hour we would sit, watching the flickering light, taking great joy in the patterns that emerged and even greater joy when we would lose ourselves in the luminance.
At first, opening is disorienting in its brevity. At a mere five minutes, this introduction harkens back to Harrison’s Five Miniatures in Three Parts, tiny works that blossom into complex webs of pitch splayed out across registers and instruments before quietly disappearing into thin air. Miniature objects like these are sprinkled across Harrison’s output, forming an important contrast for a composer who has written extensively about durational extremes. Both monoliths and miniatures are disorienting. Long works are difficult to map in memory, while short works pass too briefly to be fully memorable. Opening, with its extreme instability and excess of detail, presents a significant challenge to perception.
Opening is constructed from a complex layering of information that obscures a rather simple harmonic motion: twin chromatic scales, one ascending, one descending, chasing each other in a wrapped double helix that opens, closes, and opens again. Tracing any one pattern, however, is instantly obfuscated by the displacement of successive pitches across octave and player, and by rhythmic patterns that control the speed at which each scale progresses. As a result, the location and arrangement of alignment shifts constantly. Atop all of this is a net of dynamics and bow markings that fracture the unity of four otherwise familial voices. It is already nearly impossible to remember which turns we have taken, but then the walls of the maze shift: Harrison tugs constantly at his architecture, omitting notes and doubling passages to further destabilize the internal compass. The effect is dizzying: on an intuitive, physical level, the body senses a latticed winding, but struggles to predict or articulate its progress, and as the music dissipates there is much we have yet to understand. Like an overture or prelude, opening creates the aperture through which we are to enter.
In Edinburgh at a Bridget Riley retrospective, I found myself sitting on the floor of the gallery, something I don’t do very often. Museums tend to stifle me; too many jostling people, too much to see. But something about the barren white walls framed it so nicely. Amidst so much square art, in a square room, surrounded by square people, the spiralling concentric circles of Blaze 1 had the effect of a black hole, bending the space and its occupants inward toward its pupil of white nothingness. Both the canvas and I are perfectly still; and yet we both unwind; gently, first clockwise, then counterclockwise, opening slowly from the outside in, from the inside out. Opening, closing, opening, closing, not entirely sure where the one ends and the other begins, the body drawn in pulsing spirals of light, moving not towards or away but towards and away from some unknowable, unspeakable home.
After such intense concision and density, clearing feels dangerously still. The same cross-hatched pitches, once buried by layers of complexity, are now laid bare at a permeating pianissimo. For a full 25 minutes, the quartet enters in perfect rhythmic unison—two players at a time, six times a bar, at 63 beats per minute—unfolding the same spiral of pitches as before. Once the ear has grown accustomed to traceable consistency, Harrison introduces the first repeats in the work, catching the music mid-phrase, insisting it revisit and review its pathways over and over again. Ariadne’s thread begins to unravel: all the walls of the maze, new or old, feel the same.
The extreme homogeneity of materials and the increasing build-up of repetitions begins to take its toll on the ear. The difference between new cycles and old cycles frozen in time becomes difficult to differentiate. Feldman called the magic of this crippled perception ‘the formalization of a disorientation of memory’—though Feldman would never dare something so bold as a half-hour of quarter notes. The stolid regularity becomes an impenetrable wall that hides repetitions from sight, blending them into the surrounding material and again obscuring the double helix from view.
As pitches begin to blur and fade, a different face is unveiled. Like Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Stairs) or the hanging sculptures of Pae White, both of which define their shape by what is absent, clearing’s true architecture is revealed in the negative. Though each entrance is perfectly periodic, the release point varies by player. Against the stark gridded backdrop, an invisible dance of complex rhythm is illuminated as one pitch outlasts another and dissonances disappear in alternation, like the choreographic release of an organist’s fingers (or like fireflies, bursting into flame all at once and twinkling out at their own rate).
The desk where I am writing is framed by an arched window that looks out over the Hudson. The New York skyline decorates the background of my view, while the Brooklyn Bridge bisects it on the diagonal in the foreground. All day long I watch cars cross into Manhattan, passing briefly through my window on the way, a reminder that the city is indeed in constant motion. Sometimes, though, if I stare long enough, the whole scene seems to repeat. The cars enter my field of vision on the left, cross through the overpass, and exit to the right, only to reappear again on the left in an endless stream of lights. The effect becomes doubly strange during sunrise. Something within me knows that time is passing—the movement of the sun, the light on the buildings—but the rest of the scene is stuck on loop, like a snow globe, or a decorative Christmas train. The window of my perception frames the world just so, and from the pockets of my eyes time freezes and continues, looping and progressing; circles.
Burrow, the quartet’s final and longest movement, buries slowly into the warmth of the aperture discovered in the first 46 bars of opening. Repeating the earlier pitches and rhythms verbatim but slowed now to half the original speed, the music accumulates extreme weight as two pre-recorded Bozzini Quartets, panned left and right, play in canon with the live quartet at the center. This time, though, Harrison has scrubbed the music of its knots and crevices; gone are the grace notes, gone are the bowing instructions, gone are the string specifications. By clearing away the underbrush, Harrison has uncovered the smooth center of the music and immediately submerges us in it. Extensive repetitions, absent in opening, lodge the music further, and what was once a fleeting object becomes a fixated, rotating monolith stretching out in all directions. The music almost immediately folds in on itself, like collapsing lungs exhaling air it has held for a lifetime, entrenching deeper and deeper into echoes, repeats, and canons until it loses itself in the comfortable darkness of its own being.
The triple quartet in burrow has the effect of embedding the ear so deep that it cannot make sense of the terrain. One quartet will exit a repeat far before the others, causing the ear to latch on to its freshness, only to be thrown into disarray when a flicker of previous music is heard underneath it. Did we really move forward, or am I just noticing a new detail? We stand mired in time, unable to decipher whether our ear or the music deceived us. Even in the material’s newfound clarity, there are too many layers to make sense of it all, and so we consign ourselves to burrow deeper, trusting the physical sensations that have guided us this far. Only in the final moments does a motion reveal itself, a gentle closing that encircles and enfolds the unison again and again without ever arriving.
This is the beauty of the labyrinth, locally disorienting but globally breathtaking; only by zooming out can we appreciate the stunning intricacy of design and craftsmanship that hid the center from us. Finding the exit ruins the mystery.
— Tyler Bouque