04a Mariposa BookI recently read The Mariposa Folk Festival: A History by current artistic director Michael Hill, and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The first brought back memories of my own visits to the iconic festival in the Toronto Island years of the early 1970s. One of the lasting memories I have from that time is seeing Taj Mahal performing with his acoustic resonator guitar and a quartet of tubas (!) that included the iconic Howard Johnson. I believe that was the first time I heard Fishin’ Blues, which remains one of my favourite songs of the genre. Or a tuba at a folk festival for that matter.

04b Taj MahalIt seemed fortuitous then when one of the last discs that found its way to me before I sat down to write this column was TajMo, the latest from Taj Mahal and Keb Mo’ (Concord Records CRE00431). It’s a little over-produced for my taste, but there is a great horn section (no tubas though) and a host of fine musicians including a cameo guitar solo by Joe Walsh. Highlights for me are the one all-acoustic track, John Estes’ Diving Duck Blues with just the two headliners trading verses and licks, and Pete Townsend’s Squeeze Box with a rockin’ band that includes both lead and rhythm accordions. It’s also nice to hear Toronto get a shout-out in the rollcall of TajMo’s calypso-flavoured anthem Soul.

Concert note: The 57th annual Mariposa Folk Festival runs from July 7 through 9 at Tudhope Park in Orillia. Although Mahal will not be there this year I see that the calypso band Kobo Town, whose album Where the Galleon Sank was reviewed in the Pot Pourri section of June’s The WholeNote, will be (July 8 at 11:45 AM at the 150+ Stage and July 9 at 4:45 at the Mariposa Pub Stage).

04c Thien Do Not SayI often re-read books that have spoken to me in a special way, but rarely just a few months after my first exposure. An exception to this practice will be this summer when I return to Thien’s multiple award-winning novel depicting life in pre- and post- Cultural Revolution China and the days surrounding the Tiananmen Square protest and massacre. Much of the book is concerned with two generations of musicians involved with the Central Conservatory of Music and I was surprised by the music that was mentioned throughout the book. Upon next reading I plan to take the time to revisit these masterpieces which are so important to the storyline, including Bach’s Violin Sonatas, Partitas and Double Concerto, Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and Pastoral Symphony, Handel’s Xerxes Overture, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata, Ravel’s Tzigane and Shostakovich’s Symphonies Four, Five and Ten. Seems like a good use of my summer!

As always, 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 enhanced reviews in the Listening Room with audio samples, upcoming performance details and direct links to performers, composers and record labels.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

01 Adams Chamber ConcertosThis month’s adventure began with a hybrid, a melding of two honoured institutions in the new music world: WQXR-FM’s Q2 podcast Meet the Composer and New York’s renowned ensemble Alarm Will Sound. The two have come together to produce a CD entitled Splitting Adams (Cantaloupe Music CA21128 cantaloupemusic.com) which presents two works by John Adams Chamber Symphony and Son of Chamber Symphony – prefaced by extended interviews with the composer, host (and Alarm Will Sound violist) Nadia Sirota, artistic director Alan Pierson and members of the ensemble.

Alarm Will Sound (AWS) was established in 2001. It is a large ensemble comprising the instrumentation required for Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony Op.9 (1906), full winds and brass, percussion, piano and string quintet, which Adams also chose for his own foray into the genre in 1992. The podcast discusses the importance of Schoenberg in the history of contemporary music and his move to Los Angeles after the rise of Nazism in his native Austria. Regarding the relationship between Schoenberg’s influential Chamber Symphony and Adams’ own somewhat larger than life and at times parodic work, the composer states “I enjoy that kind of delicious irony of crass American commercialism cheek by jowl with very profound serious European high culture.” The 17-minute documentary is skillfully produced and cleverly edited with audio clips of historical examples and previews, establishing a context for the recorded performance that follows.

Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony was written specifically for AWS in 2007. The extreme difficulty of the work is explored in the podcast, as are some of the musical references, including the distinctive rhythms of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The musicians discuss the pit- and pratfalls of having the composer present from the first day of rehearsal. My own experience with New Music Concerts has ingrained in me the importance of the input of the composer, but members of AWS talk of how daunting it is when the composer is there before they have had a chance to familiarize themselves properly with the music. In this instance Adams wanted to conduct the first rehearsal, just a few days after the music had been delivered, and commenced to make changes to the score based on the musicians’ first stumbling attempts with some extreme passages. While one might think this would be a relief to the musicians, in a sense they felt cheated by not having the opportunity to master the more difficult original score. In one instance, with the composer’s permission, in subsequent performances the flutist has reverted to the initial version rather than switching to piccolo for an extremely high passage as suggested in Adams’ revision. Again, from my experience with New Music Concerts I know just how much effort is involved in preparing a new work for performance, especially when faced with the complexity of serious contemporary music. It has been a decade since AWS premiered Son of Chamber Symphony and only now after dozens of performances have they felt comfortable enough with the music to record it for posterity. It is a stunning work, made more memorable by the “Illuminating Introduction” (to borrow a phrase from New Music Concerts) provided in this excellent collaboration. While I will not be listening to the podcast as a preamble each time I put on the disc, I’m very pleased to have been exposed to the insights it provided.

02b Raging Against the MachineVancouver’s Redshift Music Society, like Alarm Will Sound, was founded in 2001, with “a focus on bringing the music of contemporary Canadian composers to the general public through unique musical events, mostly in public venues.” In 2007 Redshift Records (redshiftrecords.org) was established and for the past decade has been producing some of the most significant recordings of contemporary music in the country. Two such titles arrived at my desk recently: New Wave (TK448) featuring one of Vancouver’s senior ensembles Standing Wave (founded 1991) and Raging Against the Machine (TK449), a collaborative project between Montreal’s Ensemble Paramirabo (founded 2008) and Toronto’s relative newcomer Thin Edge New Music Collective (founded 2011). Both releases are diverse in their offerings, with New Wave featuring five Canadian works composed (or revised) in past four years and Raging Against the Machine with three recent works by young Canadians bookended by established words by senior international composers.

02a Standing WaveNew Wave begins with Nicole Lizée’s Sculptress, a tribute to Delia Derbyshire that incorporates sounds of her pioneering electronic compositions from the ’60s and ’70s with live ensemble performance and modern technology. Marcus Goddard’s Raven Tales is based on the work of Indigenous artist Mike Dangeli, with rhythmic marimba passages and sprightly flute and clarinet melodies giving way to a sombre second movement called Ancestral Voice before returning to a lively and playful finale. Goddard is a composer I had not previously heard of, as are Justin Christensen and Edward Top, who are also represented on this disc. As an aside, I will note here I find it frustrating that although the tripartite cardboard CD case includes program notes by the composers (not a very helpful one in the case of Christensen, I’m afraid) there is no information about the composers, the ensemble or its members. Googling Goddard took me to several long-out-of-date biographies (including one at the Canadian Music Centre) before I found the composer’s own website, and it took four or five searches to confirm that the Dutch-born Siemen Edward Top, sometime composer-in-residence with the Vancouver Symphony it seems, was indeed the Top included here. Michael Oesterle, however, is a composer whose work I have known for almost two decades. The Quebec-based, German-born (1968) composer is among the stronger voices of his generation and his music has been performed in Toronto with some regularity. Emmy Noether pays tribute to the author of Noether’s (first) theorem which states that every differentiable symmetry of the action of a physical system has a corresponding conservation law. The theorem was proven by mathematician Emmy Noether in 1915 and published in 1918. According to Oesterle’s program note this “leant proof to Einstein’s theory of general relativity and remains a cornerstone in the equations of physicists today.” I must confess that I don’t get the correlation between the theory and his composition, but I’m willing to take his word that “symmetry, conservation of energy [and] momentum” play their part. It’s a charming work at any rate with bell-like sounds from the piano and vibraphone overlaid with pointillist flute and motivic string lines.

Unlike New Wave, Raging Against the Machine comes with a bilingual booklet replete with program notes, composer biographies (although I am tired of being told that Steve Reich is “America’s greatest living composer”) and ensemble blurbs. The recording was made in the Glenn Gould Studio in January 2016, as a follow-up to a cross country tour by Paramirabo and Thin Edge the previous spring. It begins with Reich’s dynamic, if somewhat predictable, Double Sextet (2007), a work which provided the context for the project with its scoring for two ensembles of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. Patrick Giguère’s Le sel de la terre (2015) was commissioned and is performed by Thin Edge. In his note Giguère explains his identification of the “machine” in the context of the project as consumer-oriented society and dedicates his thoughtful and somewhat lyrical piece to those individuals who choose to rage against it through their life choices. Toronto composer Brian Harman was commissioned to create a work for the double ensemble and he says Hum presents “two different types of materials – machine sounds (from gently undulating to brash) and music associated with human rituals (from harvest songs to intimate shower singing). I am interested in the inherent physicality of these two musical worlds, and finding similarities between them.” The result is mostly contemplative, with occasional ventures into dense textures and a gradual building of intensity, but nothing I would identify as rage. Anna Höstman, also currently based in Toronto, created Fog at the request of Paramirabo with the support of both the Canada and Toronto Arts Councils. “Some of the most beautiful and haunting landscapes are those enshrouded in fog, a natural phenomenon where mystery is made visible.” Her sparse and somewhat blurry landscape is indeed a beauty to behold. The disc ends as it began, in a flurry of activity, with Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s iconic Workers Union. Once again the forces of both ensembles are employed to realize a work that is scored for “any loud-sounding group of instruments.” While the rhythms are strictly notated, pitches are only approximately specified. Andriessen states that “it is difficult to play in an ensemble and to remain in step, similar to organizing and carrying out political actions.” This is an exuberant performance in which a good time is obviously had by all, in spite of the built-in challenges.


03 CartographyRaging Against the Machine may be the title of the last CD discussed, but the phrase could apply equally, or perhaps even more appropriately, to Eric Wubbels’ composition gretchen am spinnrade which opens Mariel Roberts’ latest CD Cartography (New Focus Recordings fcr185 marielroberts.com). As a matter of fact I had to go online to watch a video of a live performance (at icareifyoulisten.com) to see whether or not any machine-like technology was in use. With the composer at the piano and Roberts on cello it is amazing to realize that the excruciating intensity is being generated in real time by two mere mortals. It is truly a sight, and sound, to behold, with what Wubbels describes as “alternating relentless motoric circuits with plateaus of regular ‘idling’ motion.” After repeated listening and viewing it is still not clear to me whether the microtonality in the piano part as the piece progresses is a result of the frantic banging on the keys, or if some of the notes have been specially (de)tuned in advance. Whatever the case, Gretchen is definitely pictured at a particularly post-industrial spinning wheel in this reinterpretation of Schubert’s original.

By way of respite, Aman by Cenk Ergün is a much quieter offering, but one that does involve live electronics by the composer along with Roberts’ solo cello. While it was the intensity and sheer volume of Wubbels’ scoring that made the sounds seem mechanical in gretchen, here it is the sparseness that makes them unfamiliar and somewhat otherworldly. It is as if we are “listening” through a microscope to the very structure of the sounds. It’s often hard to distinguish between the manufactured sounds and those created by extended techniques on the cello. I look forward to seeing a video of this one or, better yet, the chance to see Roberts in live performance.

George Lewis’ Spinner for solo cello veritably bursts forth after the quietude of Aman. Lewis, Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University, is also a renowned trombonist who has worked with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music for more than four and a half decades. Spinner is set in a more traditional mode for a virtuosic solo instrumental work, at least in the sense of the post-war avant-garde. It is a compendium of sounds available to the cellist using bow and fingers on the strings of the instrument, without venturing into the various extra-musical extensions sometimes called for in the context. It is a thoroughly musical work, which effectively integrates some aspects of modern jazz without compromising its status as a concert piece.

The disc concludes with The Cartography of Time by New York-based composer Davíð Brynjar Franzson. The program note includes a definition of cartography (map-making) and time (the indefinite continued progress of existence…) and a quotation from Wittgenstein, none of which sheds much light on the piece, but I do find its progress glacial and textures reminiscent of an Icelandic landscape or, in my wife’s ears, Northern Lights, perhaps linked to the composer’s birthplace, Akureyri, on the north coast of Iceland just south of the Arctic Circle.

All in all, Roberts’ disc is an incredible journey. Fasten your seatbelt and pack your parka, but be forewarned, although it begins with a bang!, it ends with a whisper…

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 enhanced reviews in the Listening Room with audio samples, upcoming performance details and direct links to performers, composers and record labels.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor


01 Plante Tango borealLet me start with a disclaimer: I don’t get opera; I don’t like tango; and cabaret is not my cup of tea. That being said, imagine my surprise to find that the disc which has been getting the most play on my system this month is a cabaret-style “tango opera” by Denis Plante. La Bibliothèque-Interdite (ATMA ACD2 2752) features actor-singer Sébastian Ricard and Plante’s ensemble Tango Boréal in a tale set in the dark days of mid-20th-century Argentina.

“The odyssey began,” Plante tells us, “with a concert […] by Les Violons du Roy, the Tango Boréal Trio and actor Sébastian Ricard. Its theme: Jorge Luis Borges. I had been commissioned to write tangos to accompany the poetry of Argentina’s great literary figure for the production. Sébastian Ricard captivated the audience as, pacing like a caged tiger, he played several roles […] One year later I suggested to Sébastian that we continue the experiment in musical theater by creating an original show, La Bibliothèque-Interdite [The Forbidden Library]. I wanted to present an impressionistic portrait of tango at the end of that Infamous Decade [which began in 1930 with the military coup that overthrew President Hipólito Yrigoyen and lasted until 1943 when another coup resulted in the rise of Juan Perón]. I have long been fascinated by this period – and by the fact that, sometimes risking their lives, it was the gaucho minstrels and tango enthusiasts, the payadores and the tangueros, who first denounced the rise of the fascists…”

Plante has created a libretto that is “a confession, a life story and ideological speech” sung by a fictional poet. Although this character sprung from the composer’s imagination, it is also based on stories told by his father-in-law Alfredo Monetta, “an Argentinian exile who barely escaped the genocide of the dirty war of 1976.” He goes on to say “Other memories are my own. I discovered the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires in dramatic and violent circumstances: blinded by tear gas during the crisis of the pot-banging protests of December 2001.”

So what does this all sound like? It begins with Eden, a languidly nostalgic song – I often dreamed of a library with secret doors…it was my childhood and my destiny: I became a poet – that gives way to Inspecteur Barracuda, a harder-edged portrait of the prince of the renegades, the nabob of tango. [Translations mine.] There are 16 contrasting movements, each with their own story from Icarus’ Descent and a Bestiary to ruminations on departures, memory, silence and life. The instrumentation is simple and clean, featuring bandonéon (Plante), nylon-string guitar and charango (David Jacques) and acoustic bass (Ian Simpson), with occasional added percussion and small chorus. Stylistically it is a pastiche, as freely admitted by Plante, with moods that vary from ballad to narrative to dance-like, including of course more than a fair share of tango.

What struck me most however was the clarity of Ricard’s vocals. I studied French throughout public and high school plus several post-secondary summer immersions, and although I cannot carry on a fluid conversation in la belle langue, I am able to read fairly sophisticated texts en français (my summers always include reading a least one French novel in the original). But listening to art songs or popular music in French I often have trouble following the lyrics. So I was immediately hooked when I realized that I could understand la plupart of what Ricard was singing, thanks to his clear diction and to Plante’s careful setting of the texts. I was reminded of the vocal writing of John Weinzweig, oh not in the musical language, but in the careful selection of words that could be clearly understood when sung.

The booklet notes include a dedication paragraph and, as quoted in part above, a “Diary of Creation” by Denis Plante, a foreword by Sébastien Ricard, a poem by Brigitte Haentjens and artists’ biographies, all in both official languages. Strangely the libretto only appears in French, leaving me glad of all those years I put in building my vocabulaire. Highly recommended.

02 All Over the MapMy next selection takes us All Over the Map with Steve Kirby’s Oceanic Jazz Orchestra (stevekirbymusic.com). Winnipeg-based composer and bassist Kirby has himself been “all over the map” having worked with such luminaries as Elvin Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Cyrus Chestnut, Abbey Lincoln and Joe Lovano, to name but a few, before re-locating from New York City in 2003. He currently serves as Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Manitoba, director of the U of M Summer Jazz Camp, artistic director of the Izzy Asper Jazz Performances and editor of dig! magazine. The disc’s production is also a well-travelled affair, having been recorded at Toronto’s Canterbury Sound and Winnipeg’s Paintbox and Musirex studios, and mixed in New York.

The ten tracks, all penned by Kirby, explore a plethora of styles and geographies but never stray from jazz’s mainstream. Assiniboine traverses the complexity of Manitoba’s famous winding river using a relatively small but lively sampling of the orchestra’s instrumentation, just eight players, with Curtis Nowosad’s drums, Warren Wolf’s vibraphone and Jon Gordon’s soprano saxophone particularly prominent. Boissevain, another Manitoba landmark, is a ballad with alto flute (Shannon Kristjanson) added to the mix and Mike Eckert’s pedal steel and Will Bonness’ piano featured in the “celestial” finale. Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster Gwen Hoebig exercises her fiddle chops in Duende’s Dance, a lively swing with high vocalise from Anna-Lisa Kirby and Heitha Forsyth.

Each of the tracks has full musician credits and a program note by Kirby, but I don’t know what to make of the title Health Sciences Hypertension Clinic which he says is part of his Winnipeg Suite. Although busy with what could perhaps be construed as hyperactivity, I don’t hear the “frenzied pressure” mentioned in the note. Be that as it may, A Change of Plans adds a mellow change of pace, nylon-string guitar and gentle lyric by Anna-Lisa Kirby over a bossa-nova rhythm. Electronic textures provided by Örjan Sandred with pedal steel, violin, soprano sax and piccolo contribute to the glacial timbres featured in Qallupilluit, which depicts an Inuit tale “in which parents terrify their children with threats of mystical sea creatures that live under the ice..” Peter Lutek’s bassoon intro to Dance of the Carapace sets the stage for a lilting rollick that includes an extended vibraphone solo and a star turn for trumpeter Derrick Gardner.

The most strident piece is the one that provides social commentary and protest, both timely and historical. Tulsa is a collage of black voices decrying the abuses and atrocities committed against African-Americans throughout history. I don’t feel it is my place to comment, but the power of the piece speaks for itself. There is a good clip on YouTube where Kirby discusses the background and context of Tusla; well worth viewing.

The disc does not end in anger, but rather with an optimistic anthem. A Speck of Dust “was inspired by Carl Sagan, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and my dream of a peace festival” says Kirby. With its lyric A speck of dust out in space/became the home for this whole human race/ […] On the surface we are different there are many of us/Deep within our hearts we are all the same “it’s an invitation to lose imaginary boundaries.” A valuable message indeed.

03 Joe Sullivan Big BandI have the one sheet (press release) and program notes for Unfamiliar Surroundings by the Joe Sullivan Big Band (Perry Lake Records joesullivan.ca) but I can’t figure out why it’s called that. Trumpeter/composer/arranger Sullivan is obviously totally at home in the context of both the band and the music, and titles of the three original suites that comprise the 2-CD set don’t suggest anything exotic. This is mainstream jazz in top form, and the dozen and a half players involved, including such journeymen as Rémi Bolduc, Al McLean, André Leroux, André White and Lorne Lofsky, all seem totally comfortable in their ensemble and solo roles.

Sullivan, a Franco-Ontarian who hails from Timmins, studied classical trumpet at the University of Ottawa before pursuing jazz studies at Berklee and the New England Conservatory. Since then (1987) he has made his home in Montreal where he teaches jazz composition, arranging and trumpet at McGill University and directs the McGill Jazz Orchestra. In addition to his own activities (which include seven previous CDs) he has served as conductor and arranger with the Kirk MacDonald Jazz Orchestra, has been a member of the Vic Vogel Big Band for some 25 years and has appeared as a trumpet soloist with the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal.

October Suite, which opens the first disc, begins with a Prelude that starts quietly before a rousing chorus from the whole ensemble that leads to extended solos by pianist White and guitarist Lofsky. Off Kilter begins with unison brass figures giving way to a tenor solo from McLean and bass solo from Alec Walkington. In Let’s Go, drummer Dave Laing gets his turn to come to the fore in a solo that swells and breaks like waves upon the shore eventually ebbing behind ebullient brass that in turn give way to the trombone of Jean-Nicolas Trottier in a virtuoso display of dexterity. After more rousing tutti choruses the trombone eventually returns to gradually calm things down and bring the suite full circle to a peaceful end.

Suite Laurentides is another three-movement work: The Grackle, featuring a delightful flugelhorn solo from Sullivan, surprisingly lyrical for a bird that is known mostly for its croak, followed by a growly tenor outing from Mclean; Nightfall, expectedly dark with musing baritone from Jean Fréchette and contemplative piano from White; and the concluding movement which gives the album its title and I suppose answers my initial question, although the upbeat closer still doesn’t break new ground. In Sullivan’s defense I will concede that “unfamiliar surroundings” does not necessarily imply uncharted territory.

The second disc contains the five movement Suite Montage: The Waiting Game; A Lullaby; Montage #3; The Captain’s Log; and Refuge. This latter features another solo by Sullivan and Lofsky’s mellow guitar over a sparse rhythm section before the orchestra enters for the quiet conclusion of a gorgeous set. I just wish there were some descriptive notes to give a clue to the intriguing titles.

04 DuffmusiqThe final disc this month sounds like vintage guitar-based R&B, although Duffmusiq’s Soulleash (duffmusiq.com) consists of 11 original tracks of (presumably) recent vintage. Damir Demirovic, a.k.a. Duffmusiq, was born and educated (classical violin, piano and theory, and later guitar and saxophone) in Serbia before moving to Toronto in 2002 to study music production and studio engineering at the Harris Institute. Since that time he has worked as a producer and studio musician and has developed a successful career composing for film and television.

Soulleash is his first solo album and on it he displays a multitude of talents, composing both the music and lyrics, producing and mixing the recording and playing a host of instruments. Most prominent is his distinctively smooth guitar style, reminiscent of George Benson and Wes Montgomery. He is joined by some fine musicians including Alexis Baro (trumpet), Anthony Brancati (keyboards), Alex Sekulovski (drums) and Sam Heineman (Hammond organ). Of special note however are the vocalists who are featured on several tracks, a vocalise by Vania Margani on the opening Interlude Solitude, Christine Hamilton on After Midnight, Wade O. Brown on My Only Love and Party People where he is joined by Quisha Wint and Gyles, Lisa Michelle on the title track, plus Jeff Eagar and rapper Jin Brown on Solace. It’s kind of a retro offering, but I mean that in a good way. It takes me back to my clubbing days in the 1970s grooving to Billy Reed and the Street People, Dollars (Mary Margaret O’Hara’s band) and Rough Trade. Nice memories. Thanks Duffmusiq!

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 enhanced reviews in the Listening Room with audio samples, upcoming performance details and direct links to performers, composers and record labels.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

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