Corie Rose Soumah. Photo by Nell PfeifferAs we continually lurch our way (back) towards some form of concert life in the midst of this seemingly neverending pandemic saga, how composers and musicians find solutions remains an ongoing story of adaptation, ingenuity and perseverance.

Take the 21C Music Festival for example, originally scheduled to happen from January 15 to 29. In my last column, written for the December-January issue, I spoke with composer Cecilia Livingstone about her Garden of Vanished Pleasures, slated to be programmed at the festival. As conditions grew more dire during December, with Toronto facing a lockdown, the festival was scaled down in response, with plans shifting to a series of livestream-only concerts in place of the previously planned livestream with a limited live audience. Then, on January 14, when a state of emergency was declared in Ontario, even livestream-only concerts from Koerner Hall were precluded – a blow for them and for other music organizations in the city planning to present their livestreamed events there as well. 

So now what? Another event planned for 21C I had been curious about was a concert titled FLIPBOOK: Music and Images, featuring the Glenn Gould School New Music Ensemble, which is now a free online concert scheduled for February 18. Curious to know how the plan for the event has had to change, I spoke with the ensemble’s conductor, composer Brian Current, and discovered a whole other layer of postponements and reinventions. 

Read more: What Happens When Your Art Skips a Beat?

CECILIA LIVINGSTON. Photo by Daniel Alexander DeninoI’m always curious to see what the Royal Conservatory of Music’s 21C Festival will be offering each season; this year being unlike every other performance season, I was even more curious as to what we could expect from this annual offering of new sounds and the latest in contemporary music creation. I was pleased to see that the festival will be moving ahead despite the complexities of producing concerts for limited and virtual audiences. Running from January 15 to 29, this year’s offerings will be a scaled-down version of previous years, but still filled with premieres and outstanding performers, both local and from further afield. 

We will hear concerts by two Toronto-based pianists: Eve Egoyan will perform pieces written for her imagined piano that combines original piano sounds with an extended software-based piano; and Royal Conservatory alumna Morgan-Paige Melbourne will perform two of her own compositions along with pieces by several other composers, including one by Brian Current, the director of The Glenn Gould School New Music Ensemble. The GGS New Music Ensemble will also have a concert of their own with several works combined with projected images. The well-loved Kronos Quartet will make a return visit with three different events to choose from. Their multimedia performance piece, A Thousand Thoughts, blends live music by Kronos, narration, as well as archival footage and filmed interviews. Kronos’ Fifty for the Future initiative, designed to create a repertoire of contemporary works for young string quartets they introduced to 21C audiences in 2016, will be the focus of a concert featuring four quartets from the Glenn Gould School after a two-day mentorship with Kronos. 

Read more: Cecilia Livingston’s Vocal Pleasures

trioMethod for the Madness

Toronto weather the third week of October is still comfortably moist and mild. In the park across from my midtown street, mature deciduous trees are still tenuously holding to a blend of burgundy, flaming red, orange, yellow and green – a reminder of the kind of weather that used to signal the fall live music harvest in the times before. Sadly all live concert bets are off during this last quarter of the current year, but The Music Gallery (MG), proudly billing itself as “Toronto’s Centre for Creative Music,” is an example of an organization that continues its programming by all available means. 

Going on 44 years, presenting and promoting “leading-edge contemporary music in all genres,” the MG has its current sights set on an ambitious project involving 15 musicians, six video artists, plus audio and video mixer technicians. Receiving its webcast premiere on November 20, Exquisite Departures is curated by Tad Michalak; the work is part of the MG’s Departures Series which Michalak has been running since 2014. 

The Exquisite Departures title and structure derive from what began as a 1920s Surrealist game – and which is variously seeing new life these days as a way of bringing creative methods to distance madness. As described in “Exquisite Corpse” and Other Coping Strategies in the July/August 2020 WholeNote, the basis of the original Dadaist game was for players in turn to write something, folding the page to hide part of what they had written before passing it on to another player who would have to continue it without seeing all of it. The (sometimes) enriching fun came when the whole thing was presented, with the missing parts revealed. 

And also recently in The WholeNote, in Lessons Learned from the CEE’s COVID-Era Experiences, David Jaeger reported on a Canadian Electronic Ensemble project titled  “Pass the Track” –devised by the six-member CEE in response to not being able physically to meet to make music. Using a process similar to exquisite corpse, Pass the Track relied on a process of layering audio tracks digitally sent from one CEE member to another, each adding another audio layer. It was all mixed and edited by the CEE’s Paul Stillwell who also enhanced two of the pieces with captivating digital animation. (For more details please visit canadianelectronicensemble.com.) 

Read more: Exquisite Departures in trying times

Debashis Sinha. Photo by Shigeo GomiIt was quite a pleasant surprise this month, after months of inactivity when I received the October listings to see that there is a variety of different performances coming up in October. If you are a fan of new and experimental music, you will once again be able to indulge in listening to what’s currently going on, even though these events will be limited to livestream. One of the upcoming concerts that caught my eye was a performance by Debashis Sinha, a sound-based artist comfortable working in a variety of media. He combines his experiences as a South Asian Canadian who trains with master drummers from various world music traditions with a love of electroacoustic music and technology. His work, Adeva (version000_01), will be performed via livestream on October 24 in an event produced by New Adventures in
Sound Art and Charles Street Video. 

I began my conversation with Sinha by inquiring into how his South Asian Canadian identity has impacted his creative work. Growing up in Winnipeg within the context of a very small Indian community that itself was a mixture of different Indian cultures meant that they all shared a hodgepodge of cultural expressions. “For me growing up, everything was all mixed up together. This has fuelled a lot of the work and the exploration that I do with mythology and storytelling by imagining aspects of my culture, its deities and trying to fill in the blanks.” 

Read more: Adventures in Sound Art: Machine Language and Livestreams

The writer, sounding to a tree on the Toronto Island. Photo by Margaret IrvingIn these days of limited performances, for this month’s column I decided to take up a suggestion made by my ever-inventive editor at The WholeNote, and write a story related to some aspect of my own creative work during this time.  

On New Year’s Day of 2020, I had awoken with the inspiration to start a video-audio blog, something that is very new for me. Titled Earth Soundings, my original vision was that for each blog entry I would select a particular natural environment in which to take photos and videos, andf then create the soundtrack in response to the images and my experiences in each specific environment. My overall intention in creating these short nature-based videos was to invite people to take a brief pause in their day to remember and attune to their connection with the Earth, the elements and all beings. A short time of reflection or meditation. At the heart of the project: my desire to contribute in one way toward the restoration of our relationship with nature, for I believe that one of the root causes behind our climate crisis is due to our cultural disconnect from nature.

The guideline I set for myself for these blog posts was to take the photo and video footage on specific days of celebration, connected to either cultural holidays or days on the Earth calendar related to the passing of seasons or phases of the moon. For the music I would select various members of the wider community to collaborate with me.  Initially, I released these videos on my Facebook page Earth Soundings (facebook.com/wendalynvoice), again on days significant in the calendar. The videos are also available on my website soundingherwisdom.ca/earth-soundings

Read more: Creative (E)mergings in these days of isolation

The consequences of a pandemic are, as we have all experienced, incredibly far- reaching. The near complete closing down of life as we had known it has had such a sweeping effect on us all, we barely have any tangible evidence of what we might otherwise have accomplished in the spring of 2020. And of course, the projects we had proposed for this period of time all have roots in the past, with planned steps leading, one after the other, towards the completion of works of art we would have been proud to share with our public.

In my particular case, a unique project, several years in the making, was to have seen light of day in both Toronto and in Halifax late this past April. Poetry and Song was designed as a touring program in which I was to join two poets, a soprano and a pianist, to reveal not only recently composed art songs, but also to share the usually hidden processes used in the collaboration that led to the creation of these works.

Read more: Personal POV on the Pandemic

Self-isolation, social distancing, stay at home, connected isolation, the new normal, flattening the curve – all phrases that are becoming the latest updates to our current vocabulary. But as I along with everyone else take all this in, I am also listening to those who speak about how what’s also emerging are new levels of global co-operation, and that this is a time for societal reset, even a time that offers a choice for humanity to change or die. 

In a sense we’ve all known somewhere inside us that this was coming, in some form; living in a culture that was killing off the very planet our lives depend upon was not sustainable. It’s almost as if the Earth is presenting a challenge to us to let go of our old and familiar ways. Now is the time to slow down and listen, and to sense what might be emerging and arising out of the old. When a caterpillar forms a chrysalis around itself, everything that once was disintegrates and turns to goo. The only things left are the imaginal cells that come together to form the new template – the emerging butterfly. This image gives us a model for the evolutionary process we are currently in the midst of. 

Although it is early days for this new reality, I found myself looking to the ongoing Emergents Series at the Music Gallery for some hints as to what these emerging changes might forecast for the future of music-making. Flutist Sara Constant (who also does editorial work for the WholeNote website, but has no role in assigning or editing print magazine content such as this) has been the curator of this series since 2018, taking over from Chelsea Shanoff. Even though the April 25 Emergents Series concert, featuring the two string ensembles Vaso and unQuartet has been cancelled, this felt like a good time to find out more about her curatorial vision for the series.

Read more: Emergent and Evolutionary: The Challenge to Let Go

Peggy Baker Dance Projects
Collaborations between choreographers and composers have played a significant part in the creation of some of the most loved pieces of contemporary music. The classic example is, of course, the partnership between composer Igor Stravinsky and Serge Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes that resulted in the scores for The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. Among the first of the contemporary dance companies to form in Toronto were Toronto Dance Theatre in 1968 and Dancemakers in 1974, and both companies quickly began to work with contemporary composers, many of them local. One of the early company members of Dancemakers was Peggy Baker, and in 1990 she went on to establish Peggy Baker Dance Projects. Over the years, she has received much praise for her collaborative partnerships with composers such as Michael J. Baker, John Kameel Farah, Ahmed Hassan and Ann Southam as well as with performers Andrew Burashko, Shauna Rolston, Henry Kucharzyk and the Array Ensemble, among many others. Over the last five years, contemporary vocalist innovator and music creator Fides Krucker has collaborated on all of Baker’s new works, bringing to their collaboration her expertise in the creation of non-verbal human sound textures and her commitment to an emotionally integrated vocal practice.

Anne BourneBaker’s latest work, her body as words, will be performed March 19 to 29 at the Theatre Centre. For this piece, Baker has drawn together a unique intergenerational ensemble of dancers and composer/musicians who have taken up the challenge of addressing questions of female and gender identity. I invited one of the composer/musician members of the ensemble, Anne Bourne, who herself has collaborated on past projects with Baker, to have a conversation with me about her contribution to the piece as a composer and how her distinctive performance style of combining vocal toning while playing the cello will contribute to the overall musical score.

Read more: Gender Fluidity in Music and Dance

Juliet Palmer. Photo by Dahlia KatzHave you spent much time wondering about those mysterious things going on inside your body, and especially those processes that your life is utterly dependent upon such as your heart and circulation system, or your breath and the entire respiratory system? Ever been curious about how a hospital trauma team works together in such a coordinated and precise way while working to save a life?

Whether you have or not, you may now be wondering whatever does all this have to do with music? These are the questions that Toronto-based composer and interdisciplinary artist Juliet Palmer recently pursued during a research residency at Sunnybrook Research Institute in 2018. Arising out of this period are two works that will be performed in a concert on February 9 produced by Continuum Contemporary Music, that will also include a Continuum-commissioned work by composer Martijn Voorvelt from the Netherlands entitled Frederick’s Doctor. I talked with Palmer to find out more about her compositions and how the residency in a hospital informed her creative process.

Read more: Juliet Palmer at Continuum: The Body, Trauma and Trees

One thing that has been consistent with the University of Toronto’s annual New Music Festival over the years is the presence of a visiting composer from another country or Canadian city. During last year’s festival in January 2019, it was Toshio Hosokawa, a leading composer from Japan, and the year before that in 2018, Canadian Nicole Lizée was given the honours. This visitorship is named the Roger D. Moore Distinguished Visitor in Composition, and was established by Roger Moore, a longtime supporter and philanthropist of new music. Sadly, Moore passed away in March of this year, and there will be a concert, as part of the festival, to honour him on January 21. More about what is on the program for that night below. This year’s visiting composer is André Mehmari, a leading Brazilian composer, pianist and arranger in both classical and popular music. Because of his diverse artistic accomplishments many of the events of the festival span both the jazz and contemporary music worlds, with the opening concert on January 12 combining electronic jazz, visuals and live electronics.

Read more: January's Distinguished Visitors - U of T New Music Festival

For this month’s column, I’ll be taking a look at two different events during the month of November that involve large-scale forces. The first involves the mainstay of communal soundmaking – the symphony orchestra, while the second is a significant new amalgam of voices coming together to create two operas.

Emilie LeBel. Photo by Phillipa C PhotographyI’ll begin with what’s happening with the Toronto Symphony and their affiliate composer, Emilie LeBel, who is currently in the second year of her position. One of the benefits of this position is that she is given the opportunity to compose one new piece each year for the orchestra. This year’s work, unsheltered, will receive its Toronto premiere on November 13, after performances on November 11 in Ottawa and November 12 in Montreal, part of an upcoming TSO tour. I spoke with LeBel about her new work, as well as another of the projects she is involved with at the TSO, titled Explore The Score.

Currently living and teaching in Edmonton, Alberta (when not engaged in her TSO commitments), LeBel says that she began composing unsheltered during the spring of 2019, while all around her wildfires were blazing north of Edmonton, amidst various public conversations and controversies about building more pipelines. She spoke about the general uneasiness and tensions that exist right now everywhere in the world and how her composition took on that atmosphere. She stressed that “the piece is not about politics or climate change in an overt way, rather I’m picking up on an uneasiness that feels very palpable right now.” In juxtaposition to this, LeBel said, is the natural beauty of the area she is currently living in, how different that environment is for her personally, and how it helps her aspire to be hopeful as well.

In her own note on unsheltered, she quotes a poem by Joanna Doxey as inspiration – speaking, as it does, to the importance of human connection during those moments we have with people, as well as to our experience of time, particularly when we look back on such moments in a more nostalgic way. The poem is from Doxey’s Book of Worry and begins  “…in this humming and doubled land, hold worry, only me”.

It is the word humming that LeBel frequently referenced while speaking of the piece, to describe the overall atmosphere being invoked in her composition. Musically, it started off as a bass line from a Baroque piece that she has been studying with her students. “I was thinking about Baroque bass lines and how everything on top of it is like a textural landscape. This is often what I do in orchestral pieces. There are sections with slippery glissandos and high string harmonics that create an atmosphere where things feel tenuous.” The poetic except from Doxey continues: “and I get older or I grow farther from myself and I always most love the moment before now…” It is a  sentiment that is also reflected in LeBel’s piece; she chooses to end it on a note that, while part of the humming atmosphere, is both nostalgic and hopeful.

LeBel’s responsibilities as TSO affiliate composer have also entailed involvement in another hopeful venture. This year is the eighth season in which the TSO has supported opportunities for composers to have their works read by the orchestra. Last year, along with Matthew Fava from the Canadian Music Centre, they devised a new approach to the project. They changed the jury process from being anonymous to asking people to send in their scores, along with informational statements outlining what they wished to get out of the program. This way, composers who would get the most from this opportunity would be selected, regardless of age or stage in their career. Around the same time, there was a conversation at the TSO about opening up the process to the public, to offer them an experience of how a new orchestral work is rehearsed. A new name was given to the program – Explore the Score – and they have received great feedback from both the public and the composers about the experience. This November 30 will mark the second year for this new approach, and will include works by composers Ian Cusson, Matthew Emery, Fjóla Evans, and Jared Richardson. In advance, the composers will have received guidance from the orchestra’s librarian on how to prepare the score and parts, with the new compositions being conducted by Gary Kulesha – the TSO’s composer advisor. After the performance, feedback from both Kulesha and LeBel will be given to the composers and during a lunch with representatives from the different sections of the orchestra, the composers will receive additional feedback from the musicians’ point of view. They will also have access to LeBel for a follow-up session for both compositional and/or career advice.

Beyond her TSO commitments, LeBel remains an active composer within the Toronto music community and she will be premiering a new work with Continuum on November 3 as part of their 35th anniversary celebration concert, alongside works by Canadians Jason Doell, Christopher Goddard, Cassandra Miller and Michael Oesterle.

Two Odysseys

The second project that caught my eye this month is the upcoming production of Two Odysseys: Pimooteewin/Gállábártnit running from November 13 to 17 at Daniels Spectrum. Produced by Soundstreams with partners Signal Theatre and the Sámi National Theatre, the performance will present two operas that are the first such works to be sung and narrated in the Indigenous languages of both Cree and Sámi (the language of the Sápmi people, whose territory today encompasses large northern parts of Norway and Sweden, northern parts of Finland, and the Kola Peninsula within the Murmansk Oblast of Russia. Both works will be directed collaboratively by Michael Greyeyes from Signal Theatre and Cole Alvis from lemonTree creations.

Britta ByströmPimooteewin (The Journey) was first premiered in 2008, a performance that initiated a collaboration between Soundstreams and Greyeyes. Since that time, through a series of performances, connections, meetings and creative thinking, the initial venture has now evolved to the current production that has expanded to include a second companion opera, Gállábártnit, written in the Sámi language. The libretto for Pimooteewin was written in Cree by the celebrated Indigenous playwright and novelist Tomson Highway. Canadian composer Melissa Hui was selected to compose the music for the libretto and this task demanded her full commitment to understanding how to work with the Cree language. The librettist for Gállábártnit is Norwegian and Sámi playwright/author Rawdna Carita Eira. Swedish composer Britta Byström, who received the Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award for Female Composers in 2015 from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, was selected to bring her unique artistic language to bear in the creation of the music.

In the casting of Two Odysseys, great care was taken to reflect diverse Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives. The performers include two narrators—Yolanda Bonnell and Heli Huovinen, each fluent in their respective languages of Cree and Sámi, as well as vocal soloists Melody Courage, Asitha Tennekoon and Bud Roach. The musical performers also include a choir assembled by Soundstreams as well as a chamber ensemble. Métis soprano soloist Melody Courage provides a quick peek into her experience of the rehearsal process in a short excerpt from the promotional video available on the Soundstreams website, in which she reflects on “…the amount of pride I feel performing with so many ridiculously talented Indigenous artists that I’ve met for the first time … It’s in the stages of coming together and it feels very magical.”

Both works examine the question of how we live together as a human community on this earth, and how we journey on to the land of the dead. Each piece is based on ancient stories from the two traditions. The Cree story tells the tale of the Trickster character Weesageechak (coyote) and Migisoo (eagle) and their desire to be reunited with loved ones. The Gállábártnit of the Sámi story are the “sons of the son of the sun,” hunter/inventor star beings who come to earth from the “belt” of the constellation known in European cosmology as Orion. This mix of Indigenous stories, languages, directors, librettists, narrators and soloists intermingle here in an art form with European roots, in music created by two composers who bring their own sensibilities and artistic voices to the project. It is a dialogue that explores the edges of the possibilities available when people of diverse cultures are able to work collaboratively with sensitivity, respect and a willingness to listen to each other. Soprano Melody Courage sums it up this way: “You can expect to be moved and transformed, musically and spiritually.”

IN WITH THE NEW QUICK PICKS

NOV 12, 8PM: New Music Concerts/Faculty of Music, U of T. Kasemets@100. Palestrina: Tu es Petrus; Kasemets: Trigon; Märt-Matis Lill: When the Buffalo Went Away; Kozlova-Johannes: Horizontals; Kasemets: 4’33” Fractals; Future is past…is…now. Ensemble U:; Stephen Clarke, piano. Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building.

NOV 17, 8PM: The Music Gallery. History Series: Celebrating Casey Sokol. An evening with one of the Music Gallery’s co-founders as he moves on from a storied career teaching improvisation at York University. The evening will be part improvised soirée/part interview with food and drinks.

NOV 24, 8PM: The Music Gallery. Emergents I: Sarah Albu & Mári Mákó + Anoush Moazzeni. Blend of electronics, improvisation and notated works. Sarah Albu, vocalist; Mári Mákó, composer/sound artist; Anoush Moazzeni, piano/improvisation/composer.

Casey SokolNOV 24, 8PM: Toronto Improvisors Orchestra. TIO Celebrates Casey Sokol. Casey Sokol, piano; Eugene Martynec, laptop; Rod Campbell, trumpet; Bill Gilliam, piano; Ambrose Pottie, percussion. Array Space

NOV 26 AND 27, 8PM: Confluence Concerts. “An Evening with Marion Newman: What Is Classical Indigenous Music?” Marion Newman, mezzo; Rebecca Cuddy, mezzo; Evan Korbut, baritone; Gordon Gerrard, piano; Ian Cusson, composer. Heliconian Hall.

DEC 1, 8PM: Esprit Orchestra. “Sustain.” Andrew Norman: Sustain, for orchestra; Adam Scime: Afterglow, concerto for violin and orchestra; José Evangelista: Accelerando, for orchestra. Véronique Mathieu, violin; Alex Pauk, conductor. Koerner Hall.

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

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