Sens(e) Absence
Daniel ROTHMAN (b.1958)
Sense Absence, for string quartet (2003) [37:18]
Ernstalbrecht STIEBLER (b.1934)
Sehr Langsam, for string quartet (2005-6) [30:36]*
Bozzini Quartet
rec. Sendesaal, Bremen, 1-2 October 2007; *17-19 May 2010. DDD

The Montreal-based Bozzini Quartet, named after the sisters who founded it in 1999, Isabelle (cello) and Stéphanie (viola), have now released a dozen CDs, mostly on the label they set up in 2004. Their dedication to new music is unwavering: according to the liner-notes, they have commissioned an incredible hundred-plus works, and premiered more than 150 - including the two on this disc, which here receive their first, and in all likelihood, last recording.

There is little current information available about veteran German composer Ernstalbrecht Stiebler on the internet; his works list in the online version of the New Grove Dictionary has not been updated since 2003. What is clear is that Stiebler was at the Darmstadt summer schools in the late 1950s, where he apparently took Karlheinz Stockhausen's composition course and came under the influence of the musical style - if that is the right word - of LaMonte Young. Nearly fifty years on, Stiebler is still evidently fascinated by those ideas - of sustained sounds and minute changes over time. If it is nothing else, Stiebler's Sehr Langsam is honest - it is indeed very slow. It begins with a drone that sounds a lot like the quartet tuning up in slow motion - and then carries on in similar fashion for half an hour, ending more or less as it began.

Stiebler says that the title Sehr Langsam gives both the tempo indication and "characterizes the music itself, asking the listener for patience, for calm concentration, and for abandoning himself to the sound." He adds: "In order to enhance the musical experience of this piece, it is suggested to listen to it at a reduced volume level." Some, perhaps many, may be inclined to take that advice to its extreme and switch the CD off. There is no sense of development or narrative - this is the hardcore end of uncompromising!

There is even less information about American composer Daniel Rothman readily available. His Sense Absence is in some ways similar to Stiebler's work - those who are not impressed by this kind of avant-garde soundscaping will find it all too similar, especially confronted with the fact that it is even longer. It could also just as easily have been titled Sehr Langsam. What initially sets it apart, however, is that every now and again, the long drone, which is higher-pitched - reminiscent of a loud tinnitus, perhaps - breaks off to allow several seconds of silence to intervene. Rothman likens the work to "a building whose rooms always seem different as light changes throughout the day and through the seasons", but the listener must also factor in Rothman's "unusual tuning system" which gives an effect that is both spectral and relentless - until at 23 minutes, that is, when the instrumentalists suddenly take to plucking. Two minutes later the drone tries to start up again, failing at first, but ultimately forcing the sound on to the end which, as with Stiebler's work, is quite a lot like its beginning, although by now the sonorities are almost electronic in their mesmeric effect.

Rothman writes that "Composing for strings has always been, for me, a process of discovery, with their infinite tuning possibilities that produce subtle harmonies and timbres of great nuance and beauty", but the beauty in this work is so subtle that most listeners will look for it in vain. Nevertheless, within very narrow constraints, there is more variety here than in Sehr Langsam, more interest.

The notes suggest that these two works create "a luminous space in which our thoughts can be reflected, can wander and explore freely", but it is hard to believe there is anything but a minuscule market for this kind of experimentalism - a strong liking for Stockhausen or LaMonte Young is probably a prerequisite in any prospective listener.

On the other hand, for artistic freedom's sake, the Bozzini Quartet deserve credit for making it available. Sound quality is very good. There is no jewel case or CD booklet as such, however. The disc is housed in a cardboard sleeve which folds out. All information - in French and English, but in fairly short supply - is printed straight onto the card.

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A strong liking for Stockhausen or LaMonte Young is probably a prerequisite in any prospective listener.