Transculturalism: All Music is from Planet Earth

BBB-New`1As the writer of this column over the last year and a half, I’ve often brought to your attention how “music of the new” straddles all sorts of boundaries and traditional genres, moving beyond a Eurocentric concert music focus. The word “genreless” has popped up more than once. And now this month, the Music Gallery’s X Avant series is challenging us to consider the term “transculturalism” as a way to understand what’s happening with musicians from diverse backgrounds and influences who share a love and passion for playing on the edges of sound experimentation. In the previous story Andrew Timar explores how artistic director David Dacks defines transculturalism and how that sits within the evolution of the Music Gallery’s mandate. Here in this column, we’ll dig a little deeper into how this vision translates into the actual programming choices for this years’ X Avant festival, now in its ninth season.

X Avant IX:  The festival’s challenge to all of us as listeners and audience members is to look again at how and why we put music into various boxes – to question how we listen and make sense of the music before us. Beginning with the first concert on October 16, we are introduced to the music of zither and autoharp virtuoso Laraaji and his fusion of thenew age and world music categories. The description on the Music Gallery’s website for this concert speaks about the similarities between these two musical categories and also notes that new age music is on the rise while world music is on the decline. Two provocative statements, I thought. So what are the similarities between world and new age music? Laraaji’s music provides one perspective.

Laraaji first rose to international attention through his collaboration with Brian Eno, who released the strumming rhythms of Laraaji’s music on the 1980 album Day of Radiance, part three of Eno’s groundbreaking Ambient series. By introducing the sounds of hammered dulcimer and open-tuned zither we’re already moving into an acoustic soundworld distinct from the typical European concert experience and one often associated with folk or world music traditions. From this initial collaboration with Eno, Laraaji has gone on to become one of the major voices of the ambient/new age genre, but he’d rather use the term “architectonal music.” For him, it’s all about how music affects our consciousness, or the “architecture of the imagination” and how the power of sound and music acts as a “carrier wave of our intention.” These themes of a more spiritual focus are also present in the underpinnings of world music. (As for the decline of world music, I’ll get to that later.)

Laraaji will be performing solo and in collaboration with local musicians Brandon Valdivia and Colin Fisher (aka Not The Wind Not The Flag) and Scott Peterson. The entire evening, which also features Montreal kora player Diely Mori Tounkara, is co-produced with the Toronto-based Batuki Music Society, whose mandate is to promote African music and art and provide career assistance to local African-heritage artists.

BBB-New2The ambient/new age theme continues on October 17 with “Drums and Drones,” the name of a project between Brian Chase and Ursula Scherrer that was originally inspired by the light and sound installation Dream House created by minimalist icon La Monte Young and his colleague Marian Zazeela. Chase’s music explores the power of drones to affect and change brain wave states using the sound sources from drums and percussion and altering them through electronic processing and the use of the just intonation system. Scherrer’s images contribute to creating altered states of perception with abstract architectural forms created from light and shot footage. The drone state of mind is the ultimate goal of this union of sound and image. Also performing on the same evening will be Phrase Velocity, whose music combines tabla rhythms, synthesizers and pure waveforms.

It’s the events of October 18 that really bring home the theme of transculturism and the mixing up of musical styles. Beginning at 3pm, a roundtable discussion will address the question of how Canadian ethnocultural diversity affects contemporary musical composition. Then at 5pm, an interview with a key figure in the musical transculturism movement, DJ/Rupture, will uncover more about the global musical exchange between pop and classical music. These two dialogues will set the stage for the main evening concert event – the Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, a 70-minute performance piece for two pianos, live electronics and voice focused on the music and life of Julius Eastman, a NYC-based gay African-American composer, pianist and vocalist.  Eastman’s minimalist-inspired music spanned the late 1960s into the 1980s and he was one of the first to integrate improvisation, classical quotations and pop music into his work. The performance is the brainchild of Jace Clayon (aka DJ/Rupture) who has taken on the telling of Eastman’s painful life story by reinvigorating two of Eastman’s largely forgotten compositions, and adding to the mix theatrical vignettes and material of his own. The evening concludes with a chance to dance out the cross-cultural vibrations with DJ Ushka at the Mojo Lounge.

BBB-New3Getting back to the assertion that world music is on the decline: it’s really more that the term itself is being rejected as culturally biased, highlighting as it does a distinction between the European tradition and the rest of the world. As Talking Heads founding member David Byrne argues in a New York Times article “I Hate World Music” back in 1999, all music is from planet Earth. This cause of distancing oneself from colonial notions of world music is one passionately embraced by Colombian-Canadian trickster and priestess Lido Pimienta, whose concert on October 19 will close out the X Avant festival. Pimienta promises to push the edges with her fiery orations on the issues of equality, gender roles, motherhood and cultural stereotypes: “Toronto is an international place, we are still segregated and not integrated. Patriarchy in Canada has it so we’re next to one another but not with one another,” she states. She will be joined by her musical- and visual-artist collaborators to create a hot-house evening of ritual-like performance art.


Sound and Image:
Many of the performances in the X Avant festival go beyond the blending of musical genres to also include projected images as an essential ingredient of the artistic message. Sometimes this way of working has a staggeringly long gestation period. Such is the case with Toronto experimental filmmaker Gary Popovich and his work Souvenir, which will be premiered on October 19 and 20 as the opener for Continuum Contemporary Music’s new season. Twenty years in the making, the film began with the commissioning of six Canadian composers to write music based on Gary’s ideas of the seasons of natural and human evolutionary history. Images were then selected, researched, shot, processed and finally edited all in response to a diligent and committed listening to the music by the filmmaker. This way of working with music is an acknowledgement of the power of sound when put alongside image – and a turning of the tables in the way films are usually created, with the music serving as accompaniment or support to the supremacy of the image.

Eager to hear more about this huge undertaking, I asked Popovich to walk me through the six seasons. Beginning with Winter to mark the coming into being of our universe, the film then takes the listener/viewer on a journey through the explosion of life in the Cambrian age (Spring) to the flourishing of agriculture and writing (Summer), the evolution of imperialism and conflict (Fall), a tribute to the cultural markers of the 20th century - both creative and destructive (Winter 2) – and concludes with allusions to present and future possibilities, including the birth of other universes (Spring 2). The music includes live performance by the Continuum ensemble, as well as electroacoustic composition. In all, the film is a souvenir of life on planet Earth, and what has been left behind.

NAISA: This month also welcomes the 13th annual SOUNDplay series produced by NAISA(New Adventures in Sound Art), a festival that highlights the interplay between sound, image and other new media artforms. On October 18, the theme of life cycles will be the focus of the night, offering video music screenings, interactive mobile performances and live electronic improvisation. On October 25, there will be a chance to experience how different artists respond visually to abstract sounds. Other events of the series occur on October 10 with special guest Dutch sound artist Jaap Blonk and on November 1 with a noise art performance by the live electronics duo Mugbait. On November 3, NAISA will participate in the New Music 101 series at the Toronto Reference Library, with a mobile performance walk exploring the acoustics of the library’s five-story open-concept design.

Additional Concerts and a Final Footnote:

For the early birds who see this on or before October 4, the following new music events will be part of Toronto’s annual Nuit Blanche festivities: Canadian Music Centre– a showcase of artists who integrate global traditions with new music with Suba Sankaran, Parmela Attariwala, TorQ, Deb Sinha, Ernie Tollar. NAISA Space – Hive 2.0 – a sound sculpture by Hopkins Duffield.

Esprit Orchestra opens their new season withworks by composers Thomas Adès and Charles Ives with the performers positioned in different areas of Koerner Hall, alongside works by Canadians Paul Frehner and Chris Paul Harman. October 16.

Musideum concerts: experimental turntablism (Cheldon Paterson) on October 12; two improvisation events – October 16 (Two Ninety Two) and 21 (curated by James Bailey); works by Bill Gilliam November 6.

Toronto Masque Theatre presents Stravinsky’s classic work The Soldier’s Tale October 25 and 26.

TorQ Percussion Quartet celebrates their tenth anniversary with a concert featuring repertoire favourites on November 1.

Art of Time Ensemble includes music by George Crumb in their “The Poem/The Song” performances on November 7 and 8.

Final Footnote: As I complete the finishing touches to this column, it has just been announced that Tanya Tagaq has won the Polaris Music Prize. Transculturalism and sound experimentation is alive and raising mainstream eyebrows. So much more to say on this timely topic.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. She can be contacted at sounddreaming@gmail.com.

 


Listening Spaces

 

bbb - new musicMusic is like a creature that needs certain conditions and ingredients in order to thrive. Two essential components to create a sustainable environment for musicmaking are a space for the sound to exist within and a community of receivers open to listening in that space.

In the summer issue, I spoke about the upcoming visit to Toronto of composer Pauline Oliveros and her longstanding practice of “Deep Listening.” Having recently witnessed her keynote address, performance and deep listening workshop at the various events organized by New Adventures in Sound Art (NAISA) in mid-August, I was struck by how much her work as a composer, both in the pioneering days of electronic music and in promoting an awareness and practice of listening, has had a wide impact on the musical community.

One event I was able to experience was an outdoor participatory performance of her piece Extreme Slow Walk, a piece I had experienced back in the late 1970s at the original Music Gallery space on St. Patrick Street. The piece requires an opening up of one’s awareness to the vibratory resonance of the earth, the electrical sensations in the body and the pull of the gravitational field – all while listening to the surrounding soundscape and slowly placing one foot in front of the other. Not only did each participant experience something personally meaningful but as Oliveros commented after we completed the walk, the whole environment was responding and sounding back in its own way because of our listening. This is an example of what she calls “quantum listening.”

Arraymusic: A few years back, Toronto’s Arraymusic produced a concert of some of Oliveros’ music. In a recent interview I had with Array’s artistic director and percussionist Rick Sacks, I asked what it had required of him as a performer to realize the intentions of one of Oliveros’ pieces. His answer (that it was a process of “revelation”) underscores the difference of perspective that deep listening is built upon. Revelation, he explained, was the experience of allowing things to unfold while playing, instead of relying on the traditional performance practice of having things under control (as much as one ever can). It was an opportunity for personal growth beyond ego by following an intuitive process. Oliveros’ entire aesthetic points towards a holistic approach to life, Sacks said: when sound is given a chance to live and breathe, it follows its own course and we are taken along for the ride. But it requires the professional musician to trust that all the learned musical impulses and skills will be there when called upon by the unfolding music.

As I mentioned above, though, music also needs a supportive and thriving environment within which to do its living and breathing. Since the 1970s, Arraymusic has been an important contributor to the creation and performance of new music in Toronto and the rest of the world. With its recent change of location, Array is now uniquely positioned to offer its new venue at 155 Walnut Street as one such living space. During my conversation with both Sacks and Array’s administrative director Sandra Bell, they talked about the vision that the new space has enabled. One of the major results of the re-visioning process has been an expansion of their participation with other organizations in a series of co-productions. As well, they are equipping their space as a DIY (do it yourself) studio environment, where community members can rent the space and record audio or video on their own without having to hire a technical assistant. This keeps the costs low and accessible, helping to support young and underemployed artists. And building on their current online YouTube channel, the space will be equipped with a high definition video system to offer live streaming of concerts and events to a worldwide audience as well as creating a musical archive.

This conveniently located and great-sounding space has also expanded to incorporate other arts organizations, including plans for a future rooftop deck. It’s becoming a hub that can foster a growing community, which will in turn generate artistic synergies that arise from a common meeting space.

Although Array has always been a grassroots community organization, that trend has now snowballed, and the space come alive, with many community events. These include regular improvisation jams with local and visiting guests, lectures and composer talks (Allison Cameron, October 18 and Tamara Bernstein, November 20), a collaboration with the Evergreen Club Gamelan that includes evenings for people to gather and play the EGC instruments now housed in the Array Space, co-presentations with other music organizations, free outreach community workshops and participation in the New Music 101 library series. On Toronto’s improvising scene, Array is teaming up with both Somewhere There (September 20) and Audio Pollination (September 9 and 13). The first of Array’s own improvisation jams happens on September 10. The days of September also offer two opportunities to participate in community events: September 21 launches the first Gamelan Meetup event and September 27 provides an opportunity for a free percussion workshop.

Array is of course more than a space, for at its roots, it is a performing ensemble. Now able to enjoy their own performing space, this season’s concert series includes works by Gerald Barry, Udo Kasemets, John Sherlock, Michael Oesterle and Linda Catlin Smith. Beyond the Walnut Street address, the Array ensemble will be performing a series of miniatures composed by Nic Gotham at the book launch of Martha Baillie’s novel The Search for Heinrich Schlögel on September 16 at the Gladstone. Gotham’s miniatures were originally written for an online installation of postcards written by Baillie and read by members of the literary community.

INTERsections: Earlier in the month, Array along with other new music ensembles will participate in Contact Contemporary Music’s annual new music event “INTERsection: Music From Every Direction” from September 5 to 7, which will include a day of free performances and interactive installations at Yonge-Dundas Square on September 6. Also included in INTERsection are concert performances at both the Tranzac Club (September 5) and the Music Gallery (September 7).

Other “intersections” also occurring in September feature two of the new music groups who are also participating in Contact’s weekend event. On September 28 the Thin Edge Music Collective performs at the Array Space with guest artist Nilan Perera, and the Toy Piano Composers present a night of “inventions, oddities and hidden treasures” on September 20 at the Music Gallery. In a bit of a space switch-up, the Music Gallery is presenting an event at the Array Space on September 5 curated by Tad Michalak as part of their Departures series featuring Battle Trance + King Weather + Not the Wind Not the Flag.

bbb - new music 2Canadian Music Centre: Alongside Array and the Music Gallery, Toronto is fortunate to have the Canadian Music Centre as a space that supports new musical sounds. September events include a concert of North American music for flute and piano on September 13; an evening of words and music (texts by Gwendolyn MacEwen and Linda Hogan) on September 27; and a special event for Culture Days entitled “Create Your Own Graphic Score” with junctQín keyboard collective on September 28. The CMC has also announced their Nuit Blanche event on October 4, which will showcase the integration of global traditions into Canadian new music.

Guelph Jazz Festival: Jumping over now to the annual Guelph Jazz festival that runs September 3 to 7, there are a few performances that will no doubt be strong draws for musical experimenters. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of pioneering jazz artist Sun Ra’s arrival on planet Earth, the Sun Ra Arkestra offers a free performance at 2pm on September 6, followed by an evening performance of “Hymn to the Universe” along with the Coleman Lemieux & Company dance ensemble. The Ugly Beauties, featuring Marilyn Lerner, Matt Brubeck and Nick Fraser perform on the same day at 4pm, followed by a show on September 7 at 10:30am by renowned composer and keyboard genius Lui Pui Ming performing with Korean composer and vocalist Don-Won Kim. See also Ken Waxman’s Something in the Air column on page 73 in this issue.

On a final note for this month, the good news is that the possibilities and opportunities for the nurturing and growth of new and experimental music through thriving musical spaces is well underway. Now it’s up to the listeners to go out and experience the feast.

Additional Concerts:

Scott Thomson and Susanna Hood: “The Muted Note.” Premieres of new music, dance and poetry based on P.K. Page poems. September 5 to 7 and 27. (See next page.)

Composer Barbara Croall performs original works for traditional First Nations flutes, piano and other instruments. September 12 at Musideum.

Soundstreams: Violinist Daniel Hope is the soloist in Max Richter’s reinvention of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, September 30. See this month’s Classical and Beyond column, beginning on page 20.

Groundswell Festival with Nightwood Theatre: workshop production of Obeah Opera by composer Nicole Brooks. September 10 to 14.  See GTA Listings for details.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. sounddreaming@gmail.com

 

Sound, Music and Nature's Song

1909 NewMusicAs we head into the summer season, spending time outside in the natural world is the one thing most of us eagerly look forward to after enduring the long winter months. And even though we are now witnessing the incredible enduring force of nature bursting with new growth all around us, we also know deep in our guts that life as we know it on the planet is in trouble. Already many places are experiencing the effects of climate change, super storms, rising sea levels, drought, and on and on. It has been argued by many that one of the reasons that we are in this situation is that collectively as an industrialized culture, we have lost our sense of deep respect for being in relationship and communion with nature. Our technological and unlimited growth ideologies have led to widespread misuse of the earth and its resources. So, one of the questions that I ask in response to these difficult issues is how can musical practice and sound itself cultivate a restored relationship and connection with the earth, with the land, with the natural world.

June: Since the early 1970s, Canadians have been pioneers in the field of acoustic ecology and soundscape studies, beginning with the groundbreaking work of composer R. Murray Schafer and his colleagues at the World Soundscape Project. So it is no surprise that Schafer is one of the keynote speakers in the upcoming “Sound in the Land – Music and the Environment” festival at the University of Waterloo’s Conrad Grebel College. Running from June 5 to 8, the festival/conference is the brainchild of composer Carol Ann Weaver, who is part of the music faculty at Conrad Grebel.

During a conversation I had with Weaver about her vision and motivation for creating a series of Sound in the Land festivals (2004, 2009, 2014), she spoke passionately of her love for the stillness and beauty of the wilderness. From these experiences she has cultivated a creative practice focused on listening to the soundscapes of nature and composing music in response to what she hears. It is this quest to recreate the magical moments in nature that inspired her to pull together this uniquely focused multi-disciplinary event in order to delve more deeply into the relationship between music and the natural world. The festival will combine concerts, workshops, keynote speakers and academic paper presentations to create a cross-pollination of ideas, sounds and people and the music of many musical cultures so that the “bruised and broken planet can yet be sung back into new birth.” Appropriately, Schafer’s keynote address is titled “Hearing the Earth as Song.”

Although the conference occurs early in the month after many WholeNote readers may have received their summer issue, the festival provides an important context for these larger questions of how musical practice can participate in the restoration of the planet.

The festival concerts range from soundscape music to European-based chamber, orchestral and choral, alongside African-themed, Korean, Balinese, Argentinian and First Nations music. For early risers, there will be a dawn soundwalk on June 7 and on June 8, a dawn concert at Columbia Lake that will include some of Schafer’s music specifically written to interact with the natural environment. It will also include works by composers Emily Doolittle and Jennifer Butler, both of whom have been profoundly influenced by their longtime involvement in Schafer’s wilderness collaborations. These words by Schafer sum it up: “Sing to the lake, and the lake will sing back!”

The African Kalahari Desert is also featured prominently in the festival and is the focus of the main evening event on June 7, which combines African traditional songs, African-influenced composed music and the second keynote address, “Hearing Songs from the Earth – Kalahari Soundscapes and Visuals,” by Gus Mills. Mills has spent many years researching African large carnivores and will use recordings and visuals to demonstrate the interaction between the behaviour of these species within an acoustic ecological framework. Earlier in the day, the concerts include a series of compositions created from soundscape recordings as well as the Grebel Gamelan performing traditional music from Bali.

The “Sonic Convergences Concert”on June 6 will feature four orchestral pieces, each highlighting natural themes. Included is Weaver’s piece Kalahari Calls, influenced by her experiences in Africa.  The evening will conclude with Earth Songs by Korean artist Cecilia Kim, a five-part multimedia piece combining music theatre, visuals and Korean traditional music. Texts for two of the songs are from the poetry book Where Calling Birds Gather by Canadian poet John Weier.

One final observation I’d like to make about this festival is to draw attention to the Mennonite legacy of the host college Conrad Grebel and its commitment to promoting nonviolence and justice. It is Weaver’s vision to expand that perspective to include peace and balance for the earth that makes this festival such a landmark event.

Open Ears: It seems that Waterloo is the place to be this June with the return of the Open Ears festival. Now in its 16th year, it runs from June 5 to 15 offering ten days of performances, discussions and installations presented in a range of different venuesand programmed around the overall theme of “Open Stories.” This year, the festival will be running concurrently with an exhibition of contemporary visual art organized by the Contemporary Art Forum Kitchener and Area (CAFKA) which runs through to June 29. Some of the Open Ears highlights include Griffin Poetry prize-winner and sound-artist Christian Bök (June 7); a concert combining viola da gamba and the hurdy gurdy (June 9); the Penderecki String Quartet with music inspired by T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (June 10); the Nexus percussion ensemble appearing with Sepideh Raissadat, the first female vocalist to publicly perform in Iran after the 1979 revolution (June 13); a performance of Steve Reich’s epic work Drumming (June 14); and an opera marathon, featuring five new Canadian operas (June 15). There’s so much more in this festival; I urge you to check out the Open Ears website.

July: Moving into July and continuing with our theme of music in the environment, we arrive at Stratford Summer Music and onto Tom Percussion Island. From July 15 to July 20, the island will be filled with nine percussion-based instrumental exhibits on display for audiences to engage with, including a tongue drum made from a hollowed-out apple tree trunk, fire drums made from cut and tuned fire extinguishers, a piano dulcimer made from a 110-year old piano flipped on its side and a Dream Gong Maze for you to get lost in. At various times during the week, members of the percussion quartet TorQ will be on the island to perform their own “pop-up concerts” or join with the public in exploring the sounds of these instruments in the outside environment.

The TorQ quartet is in residence this year at SSM; in addition to their presence on Percussion Island they will be offering three concerts as well as running their annual Percussion Seminar designed for university percussion students. Seminar participants will offer outdoor “BargeMusic” performances and will join TorQ and guest faculty member Nebojsa Jovan Zivkovic on stage for the three concerts. Zivkovic, who now resides in Germany, is world-renowned as an expressive marimba and percussion artist and as a masterful composer. His works will be showcased on the July 25 concert, including his piece Tak-nara that features more than 75 instruments on stage. On July 20, TorQ will join with the Larkin Singers to perform works written for choir and percussion by Eric Whitacre, Riho Maimets and Colin Eatock. Their final concert on July 27 will include the Canadian premiere of the 99-percussionist version of environmental composer John Luther AdamsInuksuit.

Other new music events at Stratford Summer Music include a panel discussion on percussion music at the annualHarry Somers Forum and a return visit bythe Bicycle Opera Project, who will have pedalled from Waterloo after their performance in the Open Ears opera marathon earlier in June. The bicycle performers provide a car-free alternative to touring along with two collections of short operas and excerpts, including pieces recently talked about in this column: L’Homme et le ciel by Adam Scime and Airline Icarus by Brian Current and Anton Piatigorsky.

August: As mentioned earlier, the process of listening is of utmost importance in fostering this deeper relationship with nature. And one of most accomplished proponents of the importance of listening is American composer Pauline Oliveros, who has evolved a unique approach to not only music and performance, but also one that has influenced literature, art, meditation, technology and healing. She calls this process “Deep Listening,” and describes it as “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear, no matter what one is doing.” This requires a heightened consciousness of the world of sound and the sound of the world, encompassing the sounds of daily life, nature, one’s own thoughts, imagination and dreams.

In one of my first personal encounters with her many years ago, she took a small group of us out into a forest to engage in this more expanded experience of listening. Not only did we listen to the soundscape, but she introduced a simple vocal composition (Sonic Meditations) during which we sang and intentionally directed our sounds to the trees around us. “They need to hear our sounds,” she said simply. This experience not only opened up a world of possibilities for my own work with sound, but this paradigm establishes a template for how we can communicate nonverbally with all living beings. It creates a model for a co-existent and reciprocal relationship, using sound and its vibrations as a vehicle for connection. In a recent correspondence I had with her, I asked specifically about her process of attunement with the environment. She stated that “the connection with all things happens through listening. When I perform it is my intent to listen inclusively to all that I can possibly hear. Inclusive listening seems to be magnetic. I have had many experiences with birds and insects gathering around me in outdoor concerts.”

Her work also challenges traditional artistic values by subtly moving the focus away from the artistic work as a separate entity and inviting each of us to open up how we are perceiving all layers of any given soundmaking or artistic experience. Her goal is to “balance out, and come to a different understanding of what can be done.” These ideas are central to cultivating our relationship with nature and expanding how we imagine sound as a significant ingredient of this connection.

In August, Toronto audiences will have an opportunity to experience her Deep Listening work. She will be delivering a keynote lecture at the Toronto International Electroacoustic Symposium on August 15 and will be giving a solo performance on August 16. She will also be doing an artist talk as part of the Sound Travels Intensive that begins on August 19. All these events are organized by New Adventures in Sound Art (NAISA) and more details can be found on their website.

QUICK PICKS

Toronto Music Garden concerts: Kahnekaronnion (The Waters): Original songs by the Akwesasne Women Singers and compositions by Barbara Croall, July 3.

Bach to the Future: Cello music by Bach, Piatti, Britten, and the world premiere of a work by Michael Oesterle, August 28.

Soundscapades: An exploration of the diverse sounds, landscapes and people of the city of Toronto with TorQ Percussion, September 7.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. sounddreaming@gmail.com

21C – Beauty and Courage

1908-InWithTheNew-WeiweiLanSomething new is coming to town in May – a festival of music unlike any other. Aptly named 21C, this 21st century music festival produced by the Royal Conservatory spotlights new creation across the musical spectrum. The brainchild of Mervon Mehta, executive director of performing arts at the RC, the festival offers eight concerts over five nights, with 20 premieres, and runs from May 21 to 25. I sat down with festival composer-consultant Brian Current to get a first-hand overview of what awaits the listener and why this festival is so unique. Put simply, he describes it as a festival of “beauty and courage.” The combination of concerts offers an opportunity for the people of Toronto to come and listen to who we are musically, and to hear our city proudly reflected back. It’s a celebration of what’s alive and vibrant in our collective lives at this time.

Many of the performers and composers involved in the festival are people whom Mehta has brought in to perform inside the acoustical wonders of Koerner Hall, which opened its doors in 2009. Mehta approached many of these artists to either write something new for the festival or to come as guest performers. His vision is to reach out to many different musical communities and in so doing, offer each audience the opportunity to hear something familiar and something unexpected. Thanks to its main benefactor, Michael Koerner, the festival is scheduled for a five-year run and over that time will be an extraordinary opportunity to build trust with the listeners of Toronto. The concerts will also be live-streamed online so it also offers an opportunity to generate an international audience.

Read more: 21C – Beauty and Courage

Spring’s Synesthesia

inwiththenew gavin-bryars-credit nick-whiteAs I sit down to write this month’s WholeNote column, the date (March 20) tells me that it’s the first day of spring. Even though I see snow falling outside my window, I know that a completely different sensation is waiting in the wings: a mingling of the smells, sounds and colours of emerging spring. And with the arrival of April comes a plethora of in-with-the-new performances that promise to take the listener into a multiple-sensory experience.  

Back in 1827, the German philospher K.F.E.Trahndorff coined the term “Gesamtkunstwerk” to express the idea of a synthesis of the arts. About 20 years later, the (in)famous composer Richard Wagner used this term to describe his vision of the unification of all forms of art into one expression. This ideal became the foundational principle of his operatic style.  A companion to this idea is the phenomenon of synesthesia, a word created from the combination of two ancient Greek words meaning “together” and “sensation.” The word describes the experience that some people have when the stimulation of one sense creates an involuntarily response in one of the other senses.  An example would be someone who automatically sees colours while listening to music, or vice versa. So while the sensory world of spring begins to awaken around us, inside the concert hall the listener will have several opportunities to experience a variety of approaches to the combining of art forms, with or without an accompanying dramatic component. 

Art of Time Ensemble: The WholeNote’s cover story last month talked about the symbiotic relationship between dance and music in the work of Peggy Baker and how crucial her collaboration with pianist Andrew Burashko was for how she works with live music. This collaboration was equally formative for Burashko, who states that Peggy gave him “a whole new universe” in exposing him to a range of theatrical elements. And that without this infusion of new approaches, his ensemble, Art of Time, could not have happened. In fact his ensemble’s reputation has been built on the daring and innovative interaction with outstanding artists in many different artistic disciplines, including dancers, writers, actors and non-classical musicians. Their production running from April 9 to 12 is titled “I Send You This Cadmium Red: Meditations On Colour And Sound.” This exploration of the senses will combine music, theatre and visual projections to create a kaleidoscopic effect, which can best be described as a film, a painting, an essay, a play and a concert —all at once. In fact the whole becomes larger than the sum of its parts, and promises to be mesmerizing. 

The music of composer Gavin Bryars will provide the score for the evening. Two of his works will be performed by the ensemble: After the Requiem and the title piece I Send You this Cadmium Red.  The latter work by Bryars is based on a correspondence between the visual artist John Christie and Booker award-winning writer John Berger, who wrote The Ways of Seeing. To begin their collaboration Christie sent Berger a square of colour along with a letter that ended with the sentence “I send you this cadmium red.” John Berger’s reply was a musing on the cadmium red as well as many other colours, and the ensuing correspondence began a series of meditations on the essence of individual colours, while also delving into poetry, art history and memory. The correspondence eventually became both a book and a radio broadcast for which Bryars wrote music to underscore the colour themes in the texts.  Performing the text taken from these letters in the Toronto production will be actors John Fitzgerald Jay and Julian Richings.  To get a sense of the stunning explosion of colour and sound of this piece, I highly recommend viewing a short video from a 2011 performance of the work co-produced by Art of Time and Canadian Stage.

Toronto Masque Theatre: Even before the term Gesamtkunstwerk was coined, the art of masque existed. Tracing its origins back to the 16th and 17th centuries, this European form of interdisciplinary entertainment involved music, dance, song, acting, stage design and costumes. The Toronto Masque Theatre is dedicated to reviving this art form both through the performance of early works and the commissioning of new works.  On April 25 and 26 they will present two pieces exploring the Greek myth of Europa, after whom the continent of Europe was named.  Alongside a baroque-era work by Pignolet de Montéclair will be the premiere of Toronto composer James Rolfe’s  Europa and the White Bull.  With a libretto written by poet/novelist Steven Heighton, this 21st century masque will expose the darker sides of the myth: power, sexuality and ethics.  There are many versions of the original, but at the heart of the story is an encounter between Europa (sometimes equated with the goddesses Astarte and Demeter) and a bull, an animal sacred to the Cretan Minoans.  (As a side note, I recommend a unique take on this story set in Ontario:  the novel entitled Europa in the Wilderness written by Christopher Malcolm and published by Augusta House Press. )

Contemporary Opera: Then there is contemporary opera, a world that continues to imbue the traditional form with new elements. Last month, I introduced the FAWN opera company and their new workshop opera productions.  On April 11, they are premiering a new chamber opera by award-winning composer Adam Scime, L’Homme et le Ciel.  Based on sources from the second century, the libretto by Ian Koiter recounts one man’s struggle to live righteously. Scime introduces electronics into the score as both an enhancement of the orchestral colours and to further the narrative. On May 3, FAWN presents an event in their Synesthesia series: a showcase of eight short films by emerging Canadian filmmakers with live soundtracks by Toronto composers. 

Back to opera: the Essential Opera company will be premiering three new one-act operas by three composers from the Toy Piano Composers collective on April 5. Monica Pearce’s Etiquette combines music and speech to present various opinions about the role of etiquette in society.  Elisha Denburg’s Regina is based on the story of the world’s first female rabbi – Regina Jonas. Chris Thornborrow’s Heather explores the issues of cyberbullying.  Just a week later, on April 12, these co-directors/composers of the Toy Piano Composers group will be presenting a concert entitled “Tension/Resolution: New Music for Harp and Ensemble” featuring soloist Angela Schwarzkopf and the TPC Ensemble. All works on the program are composed by TPC composers, who represent an eclectic range of interests and aesthetics – from chamber music to improvisation to sound installations and noise art.

Soundstreams: The groundbreaking Australian Art Orchestra has evolved their own way of blending and reinventing by breaking down barriers between disciplines, forms and cultures.   On April 15, Soundstreams will present the Canadian premiere of their jazz-infused piece Passion After St. Matthew, a reinvention of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Five of the ensemble’s composers were asked to write new pieces inspired by five movements from Bach’s masterpiece and these are linked together by chorale passages.  However, the piece is a constantly evolving structure, and the Toronto performance will put together six members of the AAO with a 12-person ensemble of acclaimed Canadian musicians to create a unique new hybrid of the piece. The program will also feature a new work by Montreal-based composer Nicole Lizée, Hymns to Pareidolia, which will combine instrumental textures and turntable-based sounds in Lizée’s exploration of Bach’s themes.

inwiththenew rick-sacksMusic Gallery: Lizée pops up again this month in the Continuum/Music Gallery co-production “By Other Means” on May 4.  In a concert that explores non-traditional techniques and new musical devices, Lizée will combine her turntable techniques with the sounds of Atari video games. She will be joined in this evening of sonic experimentation by international composers Salvatore Sciarrino, Hugo Morales Murguía, Erik Griswold, and Canadian Thierry TidrowExtended techniques are highlighted also at the Music Gallery’s April 12 concert featuring Toronto-born musicians Noam Bierstone and Bryan Holt performing an evening of avant-garde Scandinavian works for cello and percussion, including two by Finland’s Kaija Saariaho.   This season the Music Gallery has been spreading beyond the walls of their home at St. George the Martyr church and producing events in other Toronto venues.  On April 16, they venture into the heart of Kensington Market and its fringe-arts haven Double Double Land to bring Brooklyn-based vocalist Julianna Barwick to Toronto for an experience of spiritual ambience from a one-woman choir. She will be joined on the bill by another Brooklynite, Vasillus, as well as Castle If and Toronto’s Christian Duncan with her astonishing five-octave voice.

Additional concerts to bring in the spring:  April 22 pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico celebrates the CD release of Glass Houses Volume 2 featuring compositions by Ann Southam. Diana McIntosh presents works arranged for piano, toy piano, mouth percussion, voice, live electronics and tape on April 16.  The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents the Canadian premiere of Vivian Fung’s work Aqua on April 11.

Works by contemporary composers are increasingly being programmed by more traditional concert presenters and ensembles.  Here’s a quick look at what’s available this month. Works by Arvo Pärt can be heard in concerts by INNERchamber Concerts in Stratford, April 6 and by Masterworks of Oakville Chorus & Orchestra on April 12 and 13.  The Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society presents works by Michael Coghlan on April 6 and Claude Vivier on April 23. The New York Chamber Music Festival presents a world premiere by Michael Oesterle along with other Canadian premieres by various composers at the Heliconian Hall April 18.

And speaking of world premieres, at noon on April 24 in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, percussionist Rick Sacks presents a recital on MalletKat/keyboard, titled Polar Bears and Lullabies, that includes the premiere of a new work by Sacks titled “Necessary Outcome: A Meditation on Richard Dawkins” along with other works.

The end of the academic year in April provides an opportunity to hear what’s cooking among the students of the various music programs.  On April 10, Brian Current conducts the Glenn Gould School New Music Ensemble in Behind the Sound of Music, another world premiere by the prolific Nicole Lizée.  April 25, the Royal Conservatory Orchestra performs Murray Schafer’s Adieu Robert Schumann.  Up at York University, a concert of new compositions from the students of Matt Brubeck (April 1) is followed by a concert on April 2 by York’s New Music ensemble.

Quick Picks:

Canadian Music Centre:  April 13 “Microexpressions: The 21st Century Virtuoso”; April 24 “Lunch Time Concert.” Beckwith, Beauvais and Uyeda; April 25 “Mid-Atlantic: A Voyage in Song.” Works by Branscombe, Coulthard, Morawetz and others.

Musideum:  Association of Improvising Musicians (AIM): April 3, 10, 17

Larkin Singers: “Modern Mystics.” Works by Tavener and others, April 5 

Syrinx Concerts Toronto:Walter Buczynski Birthday Celebration,” April 13

Symphony on the Bay. “Celebration of film composer Mychael Danna,” May 4 

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. sounddreaming@gmail.com


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