Canadian Composers Series
( at105 - at109

Linda Catlin Smith – Drifter
Apartment House; Bozzini Quartet

Martin Arnold – The Spit Veleta
Philip Thomas; Mira Benjamin

Isaiah Ceccarelli – Bow
Various Artists

Chiyoko Szlavnics – During a Lifetime
Konus Quartet; Apartment House

Marc Sabat – Harmony
Jack Quartet

01a Another Timbre bookletTradition is a wonderful reality, but not understanding that the inner dynamic of tradition is to always innovate is a prison. This is eminently true in the case of music produced by the Canadian artists on the imprint Another Timbre. Beginning with Linda Catlin Smith, every one of the group under review has chiselled uniquely beautiful, but defiantly provocative works from out of the bedrock of contemporaneity. And although familiar forms such as the Piano Quintet (from Linda Catlin Smith) pop up in these performances, the music flies in the face of all conventions.

Indeed, these artists force listeners to reconsider what tradition is. For example, Marc Sabat, on Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery, positions himself in creative conflict with age-old protocols about how a string quartet ought to work. Likewise with Chiyoko Szlavnics, whose Reservoir sends strings rippling against flute, accordion and percussion. It becomes clear, then, that having actively thrown overboard melodic, structural and harmonic hooks that have been expressively blunted through misuse, these artists seem to build from what might– or mightn’t-be left.

01b optional Linda SmithJust as Frank Zappa once famously asked, “Does humour belong in music?” one feels compelled to also pose the question: “Does mathematics belong with art?” The answer in the architectural geometry of Smith’s Drifter is a most emphatic “Yes.” Its resident geometry, however, seems to have been informed by French curves rather than by set squares. As a result her spacy Piano Quintet seems to defy definitions of beauty, which although essential to Smith’s credo, is bereft of perfumed listener-ingratiating beauty and resplendent in the natural sounds of tuned percussion, bowed strings and plucked guitars.

The emerging members of Apartment House and the Bozzini Quartet float effortlessly over Gondola and Far from Shore seemingly tracing their fingers delicately over the contours and hachures of the map of a priceless treasure without compromising the location of its secret world. In all of this and other music on the double disc Smith makes use of time and space as well as championing the cause of her singularly poetic approach to the all-important beauty of the melodic line.

Meanwhile Martin Arnold’s music for Points and Waltzes, Slip Minuet and the title work of his album The Spit Veleta comes alive in the silvery tonal purity and exquisite subtlety of phrasing by its interpreters who bring fresh ears to these radiant gems. Similarly, Isaiah Ceccarelli’s seven pieces on Bow are designed to extract the maximum tonal depth from strings, reed organ, organetto and percussion; as does Chiyoko Szlavnics from strings and reeds and woodwinds, and the Jack Quartet with violin, viola and cello on the exquisite narratives on Marc Sabat’s Harmony.

It all bodes rather well for the future of this Canadian Composers Series and for Sheffield, UK-based Another Timbre, a label whose presence in contemporary music is doing yeoman work to shine a brighter spotlight on new music that is being beamed by across the world.

02 Worlds ApartWorlds Apart
Christina Petrowska Quilico
Centrediscs CMCCD 23717

Canadian pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico unleashes the eight works here with such immediacy that she creates a special kind of pianistic excitement. Her technique is brilliant, and her imagination boundless. But it’s not just the thrill of the keyboard that drives her – above all you feel the fierce conviction that underlies her vision of each composer’s score.

This is the latest release in Petrowska Quilico’s ongoing recording project covering works from the Canadian piano repertoire. It’s as though she’s out to singlehandedly show just how rich it is. These works were written during a period of just over 20 years, from 1969 to 1992. They all, more or less directly, invoke historical sources – musical, literary or visual.

Peter Paul Koprowski’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Brahms and Steven Gellman’s Fantasia on a Theme of Robert Schumann take full advantage of Petrowska Quilico’s virtuosity. Koprowski gives the elements of Brahms’ Lullaby a Chopinesque treatment, only gradually revealing the familiar theme, while Gellman introduces his theme, from the slow movement of Schumann’s Piano Quintet, then lavishes embellishments.

In Las Meninas, John Rea follows the structure of his source, Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood. But he filters it through his viewing of Velázquez’s iconic, complex painting, Las Meninas by recasting Schumann’s 13 movements in various composers’ styles – Romanticism, impressionism, minimalism, jazz, and so on. Petrowska Quilico has a field day.

Her energy infuses Patrick Cardy’s mythologically based The Masks of Astarte with narrative force. In contrast, her incisive control allows a sense of space to envelop Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux’s lyrical yet monumental Assemblages like a multidimensional sculpture (I thought of Anthony Caro’s works currently on display at the AGO).

In Quivi Sospiri by David Jaeger (who produced this set, and whose writings appear in this magazine), Petrowska Quilico is joined by computer-generated sounds. The rhapsodic yearnings of the piano confront the ominous electronics, then blend in a moving evocation of the sounds that swirl around the hopeless souls condemned to darkness in Dante’s Inferno.

Diana McIntosh’s atmospheric Worlds Apart, which gives this collection its title, weaves a shimmering fabric of intricate patterns. But it’s Geste by Michel-Georges Brégent, Petrowska Quilico’s first husband, who died in 1993, that forms the spiritual heart of this set – especially in the way he invites the performer’s interventions in shaping what happens and when. Brégent’s own description likens his score, mounted on a scroll, to a Calder mobile. In PQ’s hands the sense of urgency never lets up, even in the contemplative passages.

This set certainly showcases Petrowska Quilico’s talents, including her talent as a painter. The painting by her on the booklet cover, called Other Worlds – Light and Dark, beautifully sets the tone for this terrific collection.

03 Golijov Yo YoGolijov – Azul
Yo-Yo Ma; The Knights; Eric Jacobsen
Warner Classics O190295875213 (

The Knights is a collective of younger generation New York-area musicians specializing in programs that encompass received classics of Western music as well as embracing vernacular and world-music genres. The orchestra is led by artistic directors and brothers, Colin and Eric Jacobsen.

This CD begins with Ascending Bird, a reimagining of a Persian instrumental folk tune by Iranian musician Siamak Aghaei and The Knights’ principal violinist Colin Jacobsen. Jacobsen’s initial solo evocatively imitates the Persian kamancheh’s ornaments and melodic gestures in a languid rubato before the drum section kicks in. The second half of Ascending Bird is marked by straightforward harmonic changes elaborated by swooping melodic fragments and highly saturated orchestration.

The title track of the CD is Osvaldo Golijov’s Concerto for Cello “Azul” (2006), composed for and performed by master cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Partly inspired by a poem by Pablo Neruda, it’s a major statement extending over four movements lasting over 26 minutes. The first movement Paz Sulfúrica evolves from a falling minor second interval in the strings, elaborated by Ma’s beautifully rendered sustained cantabile tonal cello melody, flecked with instrumental birdsong.

The work’s last movement Yrushalem, initially recaps the first movement, but eventually explodes in two brass-heavy climaxes, twin codas titled Pulsar and Shooting Stars. The second coda is perhaps the most cosmic-sounding and impressive moment of the work, in which the eerie denatured music very slowly disappears into the sonic ether.

04 Boyle clarinetRory Boyle – Music for clarinet
Fraser Langton; James Willshire; Trio Dramatis
Delphian DCD43172

Composer Rory Boyle should be a better-known quantity than he is. Music for Clarinet, presented by Fraser Langton on clarinet, (with pianist James Willshire and violist Rosalind Ventris) on the Delphian label, frames Boyle as creative and crafty, thoroughly versed in the capacities of the instruments, free to generate an easy and broad spectrum of mood and character. Boyle’s modest bio in the liner notes hints at what his music makes explicit: he is a musician who became a composer by thorough study and application, with commendable results.

Listen to the aptly named Burble (2012), a brief and hilarious bit of nonsense for solo clarinet. Part mad dramatic monologue, part exploration of the extremes of range, volume and articulation, loaded with fascinating extended techniques, not a single second of these seven-plus minutes is wasted. Tatty’s Dance (2010) is a lyrical and loving ode to the composer’s wife, reworked as a duet from the original for solo piano. Dramatis Personae (2012) gives a compelling psychological triptych portrait in sound, in a three-movement sonata form. Earlier works (the Sonatina and Bagatelles both date from 1979) show the composer influenced by structural classicists like Paul Hindemith. Arthur Honegger is evoked in the final work, Di Tre Re e io (2015), a challenging and substantial trio that draws reference to that composer’s Fifth Symphony.

Throughout, the performances are rewarding and equal to the composer’s musical demands. For the most part I felt the sound engineering was perfect, but on my system the mic placement for the trio seemed to put the voices into distinct rooms rather than enhance the blend.

05 Amirkanian LexicalLexical Music
Charles Amirkhanian
Other Minds OM 1023-2 (

Composer Charles Amirkhanian’s Lexical Music, originally released as an LP in 1980, was quickly recognized as a milestone in the emerging American text-sound poetry scene. Its roots can be traced to the European Futurist and Dadaist movements whose participants first pioneered several forms of sound poetry after World War I. In the late 1960s and 1970s this work was further developed in electronic music studios across Europe, especially in the well-equipped Swedish public-radio studios.

The performance genre trolling the borders between music and poetry also had a few key early American practitioners. William S. Burroughs’ audio cut-ups and the early tape loop experiments of Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros come to mind. California-native Amirkhanian was also an early adopter. He participated in the 1972 Text-Sound Festival in Stockholm where he was introduced to the European sound-poetry scene. He soon adopted the moniker “sound-text composer.” Amirkhanian’s support of the genre through his position as music director of Berkeley’s KPFA-FM Radio helped enrich the ground for the production and reception of text-sound work on the West Coast.

I should add that Canadian poets also played an early and significant role in the genre. For example, Steve McCaffery and bpNichol were among the local poets instrumental in organizing the ambitious seven-day Eleventh International Sound Poetry Festival (1978) held in Toronto.

Amirkhanian’s landmark recording Lexical Music, sensitively remastered from the original analogue tapes, is accompanied by two informative critical essays in the 31-page booklet. Amirkhanian also serves as the primary vocalist on the album. His percussionist training coupled with his mellow, articulate, radio voice lends rhythmic precision, polished tone and a sense of gravitas to his recordings.

Through extensive repetition and stereo-channel (dis)placement, individual words are bleached of their usual meaning. Non-sequitur text-phrases are transformed into hypnotic washes of pure music. Amirkhanian masterfully challenges and plays with the borders between intelligible text and organized sound throughout the six works here. Just try to get the 2’02” Dutiful Ducks (1977) out of your mind once you’ve heard it.

02 Adam SchoenbergAdam Schoenberg – American Symphony; Finding Rothko; Picture Studies
Kansas City Symphony; Michael Stern
Reference Recordings RR-139 SACD (

Another Schoenberg? Anyone who thinks even one is too many can relax, as Adam Schoenberg (b.1980) bears no relation to Arnold, genealogically or musically. Currently teaching at Occidental College in Los Angeles, he’s a rising star, his tonal, tuneful, colourfully scored music performed by orchestras across the US.

Schoenberg composed Finding Rothko (2006), depictions of four Rothko paintings, while a doctoral student at Juilliard, mentored by John Corigliano. The music successfully mirrors Rothko’s art – atmospheric, meditative and imposing, with shimmering colours that effectively play against each other in unexpected ways.

Schoenberg’s five-movement American Symphony (2011) begins and ends with buoyant optimism, powered by quasi-minimalist ostinatos. Two solemn, slow movements, built on sustained Coplandesque pastoral harmonies, frame the jazzy, syncopated middle movement. Schoenberg says, “I set out to write a modern American symphony that paid homage to our past and looked forward to a brighter future.” Indeed, it all sounds very “American.”

In 2011, the Kansas City Symphony and the city’s Nelson-Atkins Museum commissioned Schoenberg to compose “a 21st-century Pictures at an Exhibition,” based on pieces in the museum’s collection. Picture Studies (2012) depicts paintings by van Gogh, Kandinsky, Miró and Albert Bloch, a Calder sculpture and three photographs. The brilliantly orchestrated music is variously perky, sentimental, vehement and exultant.

Conductor Michael Stern elicits playing with rhythmic brio, precision and wide dynamics in these audience-pleasing works. Whether Schoenberg can create music that digs deeper than “audience-pleasing” still remains to be heard.

Back to top