01 RadulescuAs I have had occasion to mention before, my day job is general manager at New Music Concerts, an occupation with brings me into contact with some of the finest musicians and composers from across Canada and around the world. So in the spirit of full disclosure I will say that I have had professional dealings with the artists involved in the project Horațiu Rădulescu – Piano Sonatas and String Quartets. Pianist Stephen Clarke has been a frequent performer on our series over the years and in January we had the great pleasure of presenting JACK Quartet in conjunction with Music Toronto. Rădulescu (1942-2008) was a Romanian composer active in the French school of spectral composition. He wrote six piano sonatas and six string quartets during a career which saw him based in France, Germany and later Switzerland, after leaving his homeland in 1969. Volume One of this series (Mode Records 290), which will ultimately include all of the sonatas and quartets, presents us with three very contrasting works, Piano Sonata No.2 Op.82 (1991), String Quartet No.5 Op.89 (1990-95) and Piano Sonata No.5 Op.106 (2003). As this is my first exposure to Rădulescu’s music it is hard to know whether the difference in approach between the keyboard and string writing has more to do with the nature of the instruments themselves or if it is simply a matter of different concerns in the different works.

Each of the pieces has a subtitle taken from the Tao te Ching of the sixth-century BC Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. The Second Piano Sonata “being and non-being create each other” is in three movements: Immanence, Byzantine Bells and Joy, in decreasing durations of Fibonacci proportions (we are told in the excellent notes by Bob Gilmore). The overall feel of the piece is contemplative, with even the “Joy” of the third movement seeming contained rather than exuberant. We are even treated to echoes of Beethoven’s “fate-knocking” theme from the Fifth Symphony in the closing moments of the sonata. While in his earlier years Rădulescu had treated the piano in a number of unconventional ways – turning it on its side and bowing the strings with rosined cords; retuning the piano spectrally to free the natural harmonics hampered by tempered tuning – with the Second Sonata he seems to have reconciled his language to the use of a conventional concert instrument.

This is not the case with the Fifth String Quartet “before the universe was born,” which uses a number of extended techniques to expand the palette of the strings in some unimaginable ways, which is to say that there are some sounds produced that I can’t begin to understand the origins of. The 29-minute work is in 29 brief sections, each with a quote from Lao Tzu beginning with “The unnamable is eternally real (darkness, the gateway to all understanding)” and ending “The world is sacred (it can’t be improved).” Again contemplation is the mood of the piece, with clouds of quiet sounds, but just past the halfway point things get more aggressive and there is an extended section of quite abrasive sound. Although there are moments of respite along the way, the work ends with insect-like buzzing and gnashing.

The Fifth Sonata “settle your dust, this is the primal identity” returns to modal melodic material. It is based on Romanian folk music and its drone- and bell-like passages are a genuine relief after the dark journey of the Fifth Quartet. Perhaps the subtitle of the third movement tells it all: “Use your own light /and return to the source of light. This is called practicing eternity.”

Stephen Clarke, who we know is comfortable in many modern idioms from the gentle, sparse music of Linda Catlin Smith to the aggressive complexity of Pierre Boulez, seems well at home in this largely unknown repertoire. And with their extensive work with Helmut Lachenmann I can’t think of another group better suited to the extended demands of Rădulescu’s string writing than JACK.

02 Reich RainIn keeping with the full disclosure of my opening paragraph, it was New Music Concerts who first brought Steve Reich to Toronto back in 1976 and was responsible for my initial exposure to his music. In recent years it has been our colleagues at Soundstreams who have been Reich’s premier sponsors in the city and this month they will pay tribute to “Steve Reich at 80” with a performance of, in my opinion, the jewel in the crown of his oeuvre, Music for 18 Musicians.

In October 2014 the Ballet de l’Opéra national de Paris presented choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rain (BelAir Classics BAC126), a setting of Music for 18 Musicians as performed by Ensemble Ictus and Synergy Vocals under Georges-Elie Octors’ direction. I admit to being out of my zone of comfort here, not being well versed, or even particularly interested, in modern dance. But the ten athletic dancers running gazelle-like (or is it Giselle-like?) around the stage in patterns reminiscent of a Samuel Beckett play on speed proved to be almost as hypnotic as the music. The focus of the film is understandably on the dancers, with only occasional tantalizing glimpses of the musicians, but the 5.1 Dolby digital sound is immaculate and the performance is compelling.

Concert Note: On April 14, Soundstreams presents a very ambitious program at Massey Hall, including Reich’s iconic Clapping Music, the large choral work Tehillim and Music for 18 Musicians.

03 Claire ChaseSteve Reich provides the bridge to the next disc, Density, featuring flutist Claire Chase (clairechase.net) which has been waiting patiently on my desk for the past year. It opens with Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint for 11 flutes (piccolos, flutes and alto flutes), conceived as a work for flute “choir” or to be overdubbed by one player (as first performed and recorded by Ransom Wilson). As with all the works on this disc, Chase plays all of the parts in studio recordings in which the layers blend seamlessly. All are by living composers with the exception of the title piece Density 21.5 which Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) composed for a solo platinum flute in 1936 (21.5 grams being the approximate density of a cubic centimeter of platinum). The other works all involve multiple flutes and/or electronics.

Of particular note for its rich sonorities is Marcos Balter’s Pessoa for six bass flutes. Alvin Lucier’s Almost New York for piccolo, flute, alto, bass and contrabass flutes, and pure wave oscillators, takes some getting used to. The pure electronic sounds are quite harsh in comparison with the warmth of the natural flutes, but eventually our ears adjust and the contrast is quite effective. That being said, Philip Glass’ homage to Erik Satie, Piece in the Shape of a Square for two flutes, comes as breath of fresh air after 25 minutes of the sterile sounds produced by Lucier’s oscillators.

Luciform for flute and electronics by Mario Diaz de León presents a very different electronic soundscape: synthetic layerings and contrapuntal accompaniments to the rich sounds of the flute in its lower register. Again, to my ears, the purely acoustic sounds produced by the platinum flute in Varèse’s Density 21.5 are more interesting by far. Nevertheless, Chase is to be congratulated not only for her dexterity throughout the full range of flute family but also for her diverse choice of repertoire, producing a 75-minute homophonic program that holds our interest from start to finish.

Concert Note: To hear all the members of the conventional flute family (contrabass to piccolo) combined in a live flute orchestra I recommend (conflict of interest duly noted) “Flutes Galore,” a concert of contemporary music for 24 flutes presented by New Music Concerts on April 24 at Saint Luke’s United Church.

04 Mike HerriottIf Claire Chase has shown mastery in combining all the members of one instrumental family through “the magic of the studio,” what is to be said of Mike Herriott? On Isn’t Life Grand (mikeherriott.com) this consummate musician is responsible for not only the entire horn section (piccolo trumpet, trumpets, flugelhorns, French horns and trombones), but also basses and piano. He is joined by frequent collaborator Richard Moore on drums and percussion throughout, with a (very) few other guests on several tracks. The overall sound is rich and warm and takes me back to the great horn arrangements I heard in my formative years from the likes of Chicago, Lighthouse and Blood, Sweat and Tears. Herriott penned all the tunes and, with the exception of the extended Free at Last arranged by the late, great Canadian flugelhorn icon, Kenny Wheeler, did all the arranging too. Fittingly, Herriott provides a lush flugelhorn solo on Free at Last and is joined by Dave Reid for a bass trombone solo. The style is quite mainstream, and I am left thinking that with some lyrics and a singer like David Clayton Thomas this music could have been top of the charts back in the day. I mean that in the nicest possible way though and am in awe of this one-man big band that is Mike Herriott.

05 Taylor CookAnother disc that spans mainstream jazz and pop sensibilities is Taylor Cook’s The Cook Book (taylorcook.com). In this instance though, the composer/leader has some fine Toronto players contributing to his ensemble. This is not to say that Cook is a one-trick pony by any means. The basic tracks see him on alto sax, flute and clarinet, with bandmates Jack Bodkin, keyboards, Brandon Wall, guitar, Justin Gray, acoustic and electric bass, and Robin Claxton, drums. This is complemented by a host of horns and woodwinds on such tracks as the rollicking Biker’s Dozen and the sultry Lilia which also includes string quartet. Another track where the ranks swell is Cook’s effective arrangement of On the Sunny Side of the Street which features a horn sextet. All of the other tracks are composed and arranged by Cook, including Splainin’ with lyrics by Neil Surkan and plaintive vocals by Alex Samaras, with the exception of the closing, soulful Testifyin’ by Fender Rhodes-playing Bodkin. In all, The Cook Book provides some tasty recipes, prepared to perfection.

06 Alain BedardAs noted with modern dance above, I confess to being somewhat out of my comfort zone in the world of serious modern jazz. In my formative years however, I did spend quite a bit of time combing the shelves of John Norris’ Jazz and Blues Centre down on King St. West and building a collection of the standards of the time: Monk, Coltrane, Hawkins, Rollins, Davis, Parker, Coleman, MJQ, Brubeck and, as mentioned in last month’s column, even the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. Montreal bassist Alain Bédard and his acoustic Auguste Quartet take me back to those exciting years of discovery. Circum Continuum (Effendi Records FND 144) features Félix Stussi on piano, Samuel Blais on saxophones, Bédard on contrabass and Michel Lambert on drums. The music is old fashioned in the sense that is reminiscent of the music I was listening to in the 70s and 80s from the pioneers of post-bop jazz: uncompromising yet cohesive, melodic without being tuneful. Often busy in its undercurrents, but overlaid with long lines, and with nothing extraneous – all four members of the machine integral to the process. Bédard composed nine of the 13 tracks with the other members each contributing one of their own. The only “outside job” is Oelo by Gilles Bernard, inspired by Sonny Rollins’ Oleo. Lambert’s Blue Mitch begins with an enervated extended drum and saxophone duet, eventually tamed by the bass and piano before reestablishing their dominance in a harmolodic-style ending. Blais’ Noirceur Passagère features a haunting saxophone melody that gives way to a pizzicato bass solo that segues into Stussi’s Garissa evoking a Night in Tunisia sensibility. Bédard’s Le Gras Mollet with its block chord melody in the sax, piano and bass over a walking drum and cymbal line brings this excellent disc to a very satisfying conclusion.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

It was my mother’s record collection that whetted my appetite for a broad spectrum of music at a young age, from the warhorses of the classical repertoire on her Reader’s Digest boxed set of LPs, to such “modern fare” as Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, through the New Orleans jazz of Louis Armstrong and Pete Fountain (my introduction to St. James Infirmary Blues), and a gamut of what we now call roots music. Of particular note were albums by Carl Sandburg (including the memorable My name is Yon Yonson), Burl Ives (Goober Peas), Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (Rock Island Line), Pete Seeger with and without the Weavers (too numerous to mention), Woody Guthrie (ditto) and Lead Belly (Pick a Bale of Cotton). Mom is now well into her ninth decade and still an active concertgoer and “record” collector, as well as a devotee of public television.

01 Eric BibbIt was this latter that provided her introduction to the late Leon Bibb and his son Eric some years ago. She spoke so enthusiastically of this blues duo that when I realized Eric Bibb was coming to Hugh’s Room in January, accompanied by Michael Jerome Browne (whose CD Sliding Delta I discussed in this column last March), I knew it was time for a family outing. Now as I mentioned, mother is getting on in years and mostly prefers matinee performances, but that evening she happily stayed for both sets. Bibb is a storyteller-singer-songwriter who picks a mean guitar – fingerstyle, no actual picks – and has a powerful and gruff, yet melodic voice. His own compositions span a variety of styles but his repertoire also encompasses acoustic blues and roots standards of the last century from field calls to gospel (and he does a mean James Brown).

Bibb’s most recent project focuses on the seminal work of Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. On Lead Belly’s Gold (Stony Plain Records SPCD 1387 stonyplainrecords.com) Bibb is joined by French harmonica wizard JJ Milteau whose credits include work with Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour but whose main focus is the Blues, an idiom in which he is very well versed. What strikes me most about his playing is the way he incorporates a world of styles into these classic tunes, from the blue note-bending that we’ve come to expect in the genre to sounds that mimic Zydeco accordion produced on his tremolo harmonica.

There are a few Bibb original tunes dedicated to Lead Belly in the mix, but mostly we are presented with songs written by or associated with Lead Belly, including Grey Goose, Midnight Special, Pick a Bale of Cotton, Rock Island Line, Goodnight Irene and House of the Rising Sun. The CD features both live (at the Sunset) and studio recordings, with Bibb and Milteau joined on some tracks by drummer Larry Crockett and bassist Gilles Michel with backing vocals by Big Daddy Wilson and Michael Robinson. If you didn’t have the opportunity to hear these songs thanks to your mother in your formative years – thanks, Mom! – or even if you did, this tribute to one of the true originals of roots music is a great introduction/reminder of where it all began.

02 Duane AndrewsOne of the discs to cross my desk over the holiday season was the latest from Newfoundland jazz and swing guitarist Duane Andrews entitled Conception Bay (duaneandrews.ca). The shadow of Django Reinhardt looms large, as it always does in Andrews’ repertoire, both in the form of Reinhardt covers and original compositions in the Hot Club style. I was delighted to find Reinhardt’s Swing 39, which I first heard on a Quintet of the Hot Club of France LP some 40 years ago, in a lively and convincing rendition which sees Andrews in duet with fellow Newfoundlander, violinist Mark Fewer. As a matter of fact all four members of the string quartet who make up the band here are originally from Newfoundland: Lynn Kuo, violin; Angela Pickett, viola and Amahl Arulanamdam, cello.

Not all of the music is in the swing style and fittingly there are some Newfoundland-inspired tunes including Andrews’ Gigues plus traditional Reels and Otto Kelland’s Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s. The quartet members all have strong careers in classical music (although not to the exclusion of other musical forms – they are remarkably eclectic) and we find nods to the world of composed music in the form of the Lullaby from Stravinsky’s Firebird and a suite of Improvisations on Chopin’s Op.64, No.2. The darkly impressionistic title track, another Andrews original, is a stark portrayal of the landform, presumably in the dead of winter. But we are not left out in the cold – the disc ends with a sunny, breakneck version of Sweet Georgia Brown. Highly recommended!


03 Valerie MilotQuebec harp virtuoso Valérie Milot’s latest CD Orbis (Analekta AN 2 9880) is an eclectic release of 20th century fare. Minimalist offerings by Marjan Mozetich and Steve Reich are featured along with works of John Cage and Antoine Bareil plus Bareil’s arrangements of music by Gentle Giant and Frank Zappa. Mozetich’s El Dorado for harp and strings opens the disc in a dramatic performance with Les Violons du Roy under Mathieu Lussier’s direction. The quiet, almost ominous, opening gradually builds like an ancient steam locomotive coming into town – you can almost see the smoke chuffing into the sky on the horizon – but over the 15 minutes of the work the textures gradually lighten and change into what Mozetich describes as a dreamscape. Commissioned by New Music Concerts for Erica Goodman back in 1981, El Dorado has become something of a modern classic and this is the third recording that I’m aware of. Goodman’s performance with the Amadeus Ensemble and Caroline Léonardelli’s with the Penderecki String Quartet are available from the Canadian Music Centre (musiccentre.ca).

The locomotive relentlessness of the opening of the Mozetich is mirrored in a gentler way in Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. Originally written for jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, the work is scored for solo guitar, 12 guitars and two bass guitars. As in many works by Reich it can be played by an ensemble or by a single musician overdubbing the multiple parts. In her arrangement for harps, it is this latter approach taken by Milot, giving her an opportunity to showcase “the distinctive colours of the harp’s different registers and its exceptional resonance.” The result is very effective and the hypnotic rhythms are tantalizing in this performance.

John Cage’s In a Landscape is hypnotic in a different way, with dreamlike arpeggiated melodies spiralling gently and only occasionally punctuated by belling chords in the bass. Composed in 1948 for the choreography of Louise Lippold it was conceived for performance on either piano or harp. Milot’s depiction of the meditative landscape is exquisite.

Composer/violinist Antoine Bareil’s Castille 1382 continues the mood with a meditation on Jacob de Senleches’ fourteenth-century virelai La harpe de mélodie. Bareil’s title recalls the year of the death of Eleanor of Aragon, Queen of Castile. It is in two sections, an extended harp solo in which the medieval melody is presented unadorned and then in a harmonized rendition; and in the final minutes the haunting soprano voice of Marianne Lambert joins the harp in canon. It’s otherworldly.

At this point the disc takes a hard left turn and we are immersed in the world of pop music. But the transition is seamless as the solo harp introduction of Bareil’s arrangement of the Gentle Giant song As Old as You’re Young is in a lilting folk idiom. Harp is soon joined by an edgier violin statement of the melody (played by Bareil) and as the piece develops it gets harder and harder with the addition of marimba and raunchy bowed double bass. This sets us up for the culminating storm, Frank Zappa’s iconic G-Spot Tornado. Zappa initially conceived it as an electronic piece for his album Jazz from Hell because he felt that live musicians could simply not perform its complexities at the desired tempo. He was later proved wrong and there is YouTube video of an athletically choreographed performance with modern dancers and the Ensemble Modern conducted by Zappa in 1992. Since that time G-Spot Tornado has received myriad live performances and here it is vigorously and very effectively played by Milot and Bareil with Jocelyne Roy, flute, François Vallières, viola, and Raphaël Dubé, cello, providing a tornadic finale to a very fine disc.

Concert Note: Valérie Milo and Antoine Bareil can be heard in recital on March 18 at Convocation Hall, McMaster University in Hamilton. On March 19 at 5pm they will give a free performance at the Consulate of the Republic of Poland, 2603 Lake Shore Blvd W. here in Toronto (limited seating, first come first served). Soundstreams will present a performance of Electric Counterpoint and other works by Steve Reich on March 19 at the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W.

04 Southam Glass HousesGlass Houses Volumes 1 & 2 (Centrediscs CMCCD 22215) is a simple repackaging of two previous releases featuring Christina Petrowska Quilico. As I said in my original review in 2011,Glass Houses Revisited is a reworking of Ann Southam’s ‘fiendishly difficult etudes’ the pianist was working on with the composer at the time of her death in November 2010. Originally composed in 1981, the title Glass Houses refers to minimalist composer Philip Glass, the best-known proponent of this style at the time of writing, and to choreographer Christopher House with whom Southam worked extensively. The mostly ebullient, busily joyful pieces were revised in 2009 for Petrowska Quilico and further edited by her with the composer’s permission for this recording in 2010. The disc features nine ‘favourite’ selections from the set, arranged with four lively pieces on either side of the solitary ‘broody and moody’ track, Glass House No.13. Overall they are a weaving and embroidering of various melodic motifs that, in Ann Southam’s words ‘reflect the nature of traditional women’s work – repetitive, life-sustaining, requiring time and patience.’ One can only imagine the patience and diligence required of Petrowska Quilico to master these complex and exhilarating gems, and master them she has.”

While the first disc purports to comprise Petrowska Quilico’s “favourite” selections, no less care or enthusiasm is given to the remaining six etudes on Glass Houses Volume 2. Here’s what Dr. Réa Beaumont had to say in her review in June 2014: “The pianist and production team have given careful thought to the order that the pieces appear on the album. From a shimmering opening to intense, driving movements, there are also playful moments with unexpected jazz riffs. Petrowska Quilico’s recording exemplifies the artistry and physical endurance that are required to create this seamless musical vision for one of Ann Southam’s masterpieces.

If you didn’t take our word for it first time round, this new edition is a cost effective ($20 at musiccentre.ca) way to rectify that and to get the whole collection.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for online shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

The column this month has been, even more than usual, a personal journey for me. A week ago when I should have begun, I found myself wondering what there was to write about. I had assigned the discs that were of most interest to me to other writers for a full treatment rather than glossing over them here. Of particular note were the Dutilleux recordings, and I must say that Elliot Wright’s appreciation of them later in these pages confirms that to have been the right decision. But it left me nearly empty-handed and I warned publisher David Perlman at The WholeNote’s early January gathering that there might not be an Editor’s Corner this month. So much has happened since then that it is hard to imagine that just one week has passed.

The first event was a kitchen party at my friends Michael and Mary’s house, an annual affair to welcome in the New Year with a wealth of pickin’ and grinnin’. In addition to the usual plethora of guitars in various tunings, fiddles, mandolins and octave mandolins, there were hand drums, harmonicas, a keyboard, an accordion and more than a dozen voices lifted joyously in song. It was a magical evening, as so often these gatherings can be. I took particular delight in the opportunity to play with the accordionist, who was adding myriad colours and rhythms to the mix. As I was leaving – earlier than was my wont due to the tail end, or so I thought, of a lingering chest cold – I mentioned my pleasure to Mary who told me to hang on and went to grab me a copy of the accordionist’s new CD, “hot off the press.” It seems she was the graphic designer of the package (altdesign.ca) and had a box of discs on hand, and so I left the party knowing my journey had begun.

01 Tom LeightonLeighton Life is a wonderfully eclectic recording that showcases the writing skills and musical dexterity (piano, synths, accordion, organ, jaw harp, whistle, trombone, percussion, bouzouki and bodhrán) of Tom Leighton (tomleighton.ca). Not content to rest on his own laurels (and the mixing skills of producer Paul Mills), Leighton surrounds himself with a marvellous array of musical friends too plentiful to name, to create horn sections, string arrangements, cello solos and string band accompaniments as required. The opening track All Thumbs is a playful Penguin Café Orchestra-style minimalist moto perpetuo with the ostinato provided by the ticking of a mechanical clock and a triangle (at least that’s my guess). A Summer Jig features the accordion in the lead role of a warm, lush instrumentation. A Letter Found is a haunting ballad with violin and cello in unison and harmony on the memorable melody over piano and accordion accompaniment. Hank Dances is a rhythmically propulsive swing tune with horns, extrapolated from music Leighton wrote for a production of Hank Williams, The Show He Never Gave by Maynard Collins. The 12 tracks included here – all instrumental – run the gamut from old timey, to R&B, Scottish traditional to The Hurdy-Gurdy which Leighton says was “written for the hurdy-gurdy … by a non-player. Alas, it doesn’t play well on a hurdy-gurdy but conjures my image of the player.” Quite convincingly I might add. The album comes with a “Warning! Listening to instrumental music activates emotional, motor and creative areas of the brain!” It also includes the notice that all compositions are available as sheet music from the composer, so as spontaneous as much of the music feels, it is obviously conceived in its entirety by this wonderful musician. I look forward to having the opportunity to play with him again.

02 Bela FleckThe next steps on the journey began just a block from Michael and Mary’s house, at the Dufferin bus stop at Davenport. A few minutes after I arrived at the stop another man carrying a guitar case came to wait alongside me. I asked if he was going out to play, or like me, coming home from doing so. He said he was coming from a friend’s house where they had been playing bluegrass music all evening. Long time readers of this column will know that I am enamoured of the “new grass” band Joy Kills Sorrow that was active from 2005 to 2014. I asked this guitarist if he was familiar with the band and he said no, but that he knew “the song.” Not knowing the song myself, I said “Oh?” “Yes,” he said, “it’s a great song by Béla Fleck.” And so my next quest began. It turns out that When Joy Kills Sorrow appeared on the 1999 CD The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales From The Acoustic Planet, Volume 2 (Warner Bros. 9 47332-2), where Fleck’s cronies from the 1987 album Drive reunite and are joined by legends Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements and John Hartford and contemporary stars Vince Gill, Tim O’Brien and Ricky Skaggs, for a number of Fleck originals and several traditional and classic tunes. Since this CD is old news and only new to me I won’t dwell on it other than to say it’s been in heavy rotation on my player since it arrived last Wednesday from Amazon (HMV couldn’t locate the one copy their superstore’s computer said they had). Highlights of the disc are the above-mentioned Joy Kills Sorrow, an old Flatt & Scruggs tune Polka on the Banjo and a two-banjo arrangement of the Clarinet Polka by Fleck and Hartford. Having grown up with the George Barnes solo guitar take on the latter as the theme to the Max Ferguson Show and now hearing this banjo version, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t ever heard it played on the clarinet. Hats off to YouTube, I didn’t have to look far ….

One disc that crossed my desk this month, an arrangement of Brian Eno’s Discreet Music performed by Toronto’s Contact ensemble, turned out to be a timely release, but not for the reasons one would hope. The news of David Bowie’s death last week brought many memories and realizations. Bowie’s chameleon-like career affected audiences and artists across the spectrum, me among them. I was not much aware of the glam rock era, but became drawn to Bowie at the time he started collaborating with Eno. Already a fan of Eno’s ambient approach to composition and sound, I was curious to see how he would interact with the “space oddity” that was Bowie.

04a David Bowie LowIn Francis Whatley’s 2013 film David Bowie: Five Years, Eno says that Bowie was drawn to his “longest, slowest, quietest” work, Discreet Music, and that their projects grew out of this interest. This was at a time when Bowie was tired of the rock-star lifestyle that had brought him perilously close to death by overdose and misadventure in L.A. His subsequent move to Paris and then Berlin, where he undertook a Spartan low-profile existence, ultimately resulted in a trilogy of Bowie-Eno albums beginning with the 1977 Low (RCA LP CPL1-2030). In 1991 Rykodisc would reissue Low on compact disc (RCD 10142) with bonus tracks. Not being in the habit of replacing my vinyl collection with CDs, I was unaware of the extra material until I revisited the Low Symphony by Philip Glass (POINT Music 438 150-2), which was inspired by two tracks by Bowie and Eno and one by Bowie alone. I was confused when I was unable to find Some Are, one of the duo compositions, on my LP and eventually ended up downloading the missing title from iTunes last week …. Three music platforms later I now have the full picture!

05 Erickson These DreamsBut that picture was further enhanced by These Dreams of You (Europa Editions ISBN 978-1-60945-063-2), a 2012 novel by Steve Erickson, which I found myself reading for the third time over the past few days (which may have set a record for frequency of rereading for me). Erickson, whose eight previous novels number among my favourites – a shout out to Jowi Taylor for turning me on to Arc d’X all those years ago! – frequently incorporates pop culture, particularly music and film, into his novels. Although These Dreams of You is nominally speculative and surreal, as are most of his books, the narrative strands are fairly linear, albeit many layered. The protagonists are a family of four in contemporary L.A. in danger of losing their house as a result of the economic crisis and the nefarious machinations of the banks. The father, Zan, has recently been let go from his position as professor of literature at the local university and is the sole DJ on a low-wattage radio station broadcasting without a license from a local Mexican restaurant in the Valley. His wife, Viv, is a freelance photographer whose work is drying up and whose one claim to fame, stained glass butterfly art, has been co-opted by an infamous commercial artist. Their children are Parker, a 12-year-old whose namesake is Charlie Parker but whose musical interests favour gangsta rap, and Sheba, a precocious four-year-old orphan adopted from Ethiopia, who is seeming wired internally to a certain unnamed “red-headed British alien who wears dresses.” The not-so-veiled references to David Bowie continue as he permeates the story, in particular with tales of his time in Berlin with roommates The Professor (Eno?) and Jim (Iggy Pop?), which lead to the album Low. Erickson cleverly weaves his tales – another one including presidential hopeful Bobby Kennedy in the months leading up to his assassination, and a third, an aspiring 1970s author, who after being beaten and left for dead by German skinheads, wakes to find himself in 1919 Berlin with a paperback copy of a novel that will shape the literature of the coming century but won’t be published until 1922 – through three eras and three continents. The convolutions are eventually resolved, and although there are no particularly happy endings, it does make for a very compelling read. Part of the fun is identifying the myriad historical characters that are never actually named. A great read indeed, and a great tribute to David Bowie.

06 Contact Discreet MusicBut back to Contact’s rendition of Discreet Music (Cantaloupe Music CA21114 cantaloupemusic.com). Eno’s original LP side was an electronic intertwining of some very simple melodic material according to some basic programming in Eno’s synthesizers. Four decades later Toronto percussionist and founding member of Contact Contemporary Music, Jerry Pergolesi, set out to make a live performance version of the iconic work. In the booklet notes he says: “In keeping with the spirit of the original, my ‘arrangement’ consists of seven mutually compatible melodies (the result of Eno’s original two melodies being occasionally altered) and instructions that render the band itself into the looping apparatus that Eno describes as the ‘score’ for the original. The ‘arrangement’ sets parameters for the musicians to follow, while giving them some leeway to make decisions with regard to what they play and when. Once the performance starts, however, the resulting sound is out of anyone’s hands.” The members of Contact – Mary-Katherine Finch, cello; Sarah Fraser Raff, violin; Wallace Halladay, soprano sax; Rob MacDonald, guitar; Peter Pavlovsky, bass; Jerry Pergolesi, vibraphone; Allison Wiebe Benstead, piano; complemented here by Emma Zoe Elkinson, flute and Dean Kurtis-Pomeroy, gongs – perform with real conviction – tone and intonation are warm and consistent – and they manage to hold our attention throughout the hour-long take in which “nothing happens.” I can’t imagine what it is like to take part in such a static performance, but congratulations are due to all concerned for realizing a viable live presentation of an electronic classic.

07 Bowie Black StarIt has been a month of losses in the musical arts. Canadian-born jazz icon, Paul Bley, and French father of avant-garde concert music, Pierre Boulez, are honoured elsewhere in these pages, although their passing garnered little attention in Toronto’s mainstream media. In contrast, much has been said about the death of David Bowie across all media and all platforms – including 24 continuous hours of programming on Much Music as I write this column – so I will not say much more here. He was a unique artist who constantly reinvented himself and touched more lives than most. His final offering Blackstar (ISO Records 88875173862) was released on his 69th birthday, two days before his death, and once again we are presented with a new man, seemingly from beyond the grave. Indeed one of the songs and videos is called Lazarus. I was lucky enough to purchase a copy of Blackstar before they all disappeared from the shelves (and online catalogues) but it will take me some time before I’m able to assimilate it. It’s a journey I am convinced is worth undertaking.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

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