69_Cage_-_Silence_for_catalog_C-300-X_1Silence: Lectures and Writings – 50th Anniversary Edition
by John Cage
Wesleyan University Press
310 pages; $30.00 US

This special edition of American composer John Cage’s Silence celebrates two milestones in 20th century music — the 50th anniversary of Cage’s first and still most influential book, and the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Throughout the writings and lectures gathered here, Cage is looking for various ways to say that all sounds are material for music. “Silence, like music, is non-existent,” he writes. “There always are sounds. That is to say, if one is alive to hear them.” When Silence was first published, the impact was explosive. Today, many of Cage’s most controversial ideas have become commonplace. But his probing questions about sound, silence and life in general resonate just as intensely, and his answers still open doors. Reading him today we realize that the opportunities for musical experiment he offers have yet to be fullyexplored.

Cage is an irrepressible storyteller, and he embellishes these writings with stories. In fact, one of the most well-known pieces here, Indeterminacy, is nothing but a series of stories. Many of his stories are exceptionally funny, some are delightfully absurd, a number are poignant, and a few are simply baffling. But they all hit home. In Edgard Varèse he describes a visit to his Aunt Marge. “She was doing her laundry. She turned to me and said, ‘You know? I love this machine more than I do your Uncle Walter.’” Then later, in Indeterminacy, he reveals that there is something more going on here when he writes, “Uncle Walter insisted, when he married her, that Aunt Marge, who was a contralto, should give up her career.”

In Composition as Process Cage takes inquisitiveness to new extremes by asking an extended sequence of questions such as, “Why do I have to go on asking questions? Is it the same reason I have to go on writing music?”. Like everything else here, these questions add up to something powerful.

For me, the actual beginningof this book is at the very end, when, in Music Lovers’ Field Companion, he describes his joy in performing 4’33” (which he refers to here as “my silent piece”) all alone in a field where he has been gathering mushrooms. “The second movement,” he writes, “was extremely dramatic, beginning with the sounds of a buck and a doe leaping up to within ten feet of my rocky podium.”

This edition has been reprinted with care, using the original typeface and layout. The only difference from the original, apart from the cover design, is the addition of a perceptive and appropriately provocative introduction by composer, critic and Cage expert Kyle Gann, who writes, “He thought his way out of the twentieth century’s artistic neuroses and discovered a more vibrant, less uptight world that we didn’t realize was there. Silence is the traveler’s guide to that world.”

Concert Note: Soundstreams presents “So Percussion: Cage @ 100” on Friday March 2, 8pm at Koerner Hall, with a pre-concert chat at 7pm. The programme includes 4’33”.

A conference on John Cage, “The Future of Cage: Credo,” will be held at the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama at the University of Toronto from October 25 until October 28, 2012. Further information is available at www.humanities.utoronto.ca/event details.

69_Illuminated-Man_00333166Antonio Carlos Jobim: An Illuminated Man
by Helena Jobim
translated by Dàrio Borim Jr.
Hal Leonard Books
314 pages, photos; $27.99 US

Like John Cage, Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim was as much an inventor as a composer. But what Jobim invented was a new style, rather than new sounds. By infusing traditional Brazilian samba with jazz rhythms, he came up with what became known as bossa nova.

Jobim’s sophisticated melodies, complex rhythms, and unusual harmonies proved irresistible, and his popularity soon reached far outside of Brazil, with songs like Girl from Ipanema, Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars) and Desifinado becoming huge international hits.

Poet and novelist Helena Jobim has written a tender portrait of her older brother, who died 18 years ago. She is able to offer insights into the anguish and self-destructive insecurities that drove him. With her special access to his spiritual life she is equally able to reveal the deep sensitivities of a man who thrived on a tight-knit family atmosphere, and who, even after the break-up of his first marriage and subsequent marriage to a woman younger than his daughter, managed to maintain professional as well as emotional ties with his adult children.

Helena Jobim sets the stage for Jobim’s disarmingly elegant and cool music of the 1950s and 60s by introducing the circle of gifted poets, musicians and intellectuals who contributed to his songs, like João Gilberto, whose 1958 recording of Vinícius de Moraes’ and Jobim’s Chega de Saudade marked the first time bossa nova was put on disc. It was Gilberto’s wife at the time, Astrud Gilberto, who created a sensation with her singing on the legendary 1964 recording of the English versions of The Girl From Ipanema and Corcovado, with Stan Getz joining Gilberto and Jobim.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this biography is the way Helena Jobim shows the direct influence of Jobim’s physical surroundings on his music, especially in Rio de Janeiro, where he spent most of his life. She describes his overwhelming need to be able to see Corcovado mountain from his window wherever he lived in Rio, and she evokes the atmosphere of the neighbourhood of Ipanema, where the family lived when Helena and Carlos were growing up.

Though Helena Jobim doesn’t overplay her own role in Jobim’s life story, she does have an essential part in it. So I was confused by the way she sometimes refers to herself as “I,” and at other times as “Helena.” Her focus is clearly on her brother, which leaves little room for a broader perspective on the development of bossa nova, the volatile political and intellectual currents it reflected, and its eventual decline. Yet Helena Jobim’s writing, here sensitively translated by Dàrio Borim Jr., resonates with the power and sweep of a great romantic family saga centred around an altogether extraordinary musician.


Concert Note: The Art of Time Ensemble, with singers Guinga, Monica Whicher and Luanda Jones, presents “Brasil,” a programme of Brazilian music featuring songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, on March 3, 8pm at Koerner Hall.

58_sallis-frontcover-colourCentre and Periphery, Roots and Exile: Interpreting the Music of István Anhalt, György Kurtág, and Sándor Veress
edited by Friedemann Sallis, Robin Elliott, and Kenneth DeLong
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
480 pages, score examples; $85.00

In 2005, István Anhalt’s The Tents of Abraham won the JUNO Award for best Canadian classical composition of the year. It was remarkable for such a provocative, uncompromising and politically ambitious piece. But it seemed even more remarkable, because for the 54 years Anhalt had lived in Canada, as William Benjamin points out in this collection of essays, his music had been almost totally neglected by performers and audiences in his adopted homeland.

Anhalt is one of the three composers, along with Sándor Veress and György Kurtág, whose relationship to the place of his roots, and the process of displacement that took him away, is looked at. But the ideas of place and displacement are treated not just as physical states. As Gordon Smith writes, “They also embody metaphorical ideas of being and dwelling, and ideas pertaining to danger, persecution, exile, adaption, and the resultant imperative discovery of others and the emergent self.”

Anhalt, Veress, and Kurtág were all born in Hungary and all studied in Budapest at the Franz Liszt Academy — Anhalt and Veress with Zoltán Kodály, and Kurtág with Veress. All left Hungary, having survived the war and the subsequent Soviet occupation of their homeland. Anhalt and Veress left soon after the war ended, but Kurtág, who is younger, didn’t leave until 1993. Anhalt and Kurtág are Jewish, and all three are haunted by a past which is memorialized in their music.

These 20 papers by various academics, composers and performers were first presented at a symposium at the University of Calgary in 2008. To set the scene, there’s a lovely musical tribute to Veress, who died in Switzerland in 1992, by his son, Claudio Veress. Kurtág, who has the greatest international reputation of the three, is recalled in an insightful reminiscence by his godson, Hungarian-born Canadian pianist Gergely Szokolay. Anhalt, now 93 years old and living in Kingston, Ontario, where he spent many years teaching at Queen’s University, contributes a brief personal memoir to complement John Beckwith’s astute portrait, and emerges as a thoroughly fascinating figure.

The strength of this probing collection lies in the way the various approaches to place and displacement offer insights into interpreting key works by these three composers. But the connection between Anhalt, Veress and Kurtág is left unexplored — only Friedemann Sallis’s introduction links them together. Otherwise, each paper deals with an individual composer and his own milieu. So in the end I was left wanting to know more about how the shared roots and experiences of these three composers influenced the development of their individual styles.

Concert Note: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra will perform Kurtág’s Messages on Thursday March 1 in Roy Thomson Hall, as part of their New Creations Festival, curated by Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös.

58_kaija_saariahocmyk_cmykKaija Saariaho: Visions, Narratives, Dialogues
edited by Tim Howell with Jon Hargreaves and Michael Rofe
Ashgate Publishing Company
238 pages, score samples; $99.95 US

Like István Anhalt, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho has spent most of her career outside her homeland. But unlike Anhalt, she left under no duress, having benefited from Finland’s supportive culture and enlightened political values.

This collection of essays charts the development of Saariaho’s distinctive voice as a composer, with its unusual sensual beauty, expressive power and emotional directness. “Harmony, texture and timbre: those three things were then, and still are, at the heart of my musical thinking,” Saariaho says in the interview with Tom Service included here. In her stage works — three operas and an oratorio so far — she creates something new and challenging, with inventive, unclichéd storytelling and innovative use of painting, mime, lighting, electronic sounds and pre-recorded materials. Yet traditional musical devices are also part of her operatic language. As Liisamaija Hautsalo writes, “The musical topics within Saariaho’s works, often modified into the musical language of our time, could be described as whispers from the past: a link between tradition and the composer’s individual expression.”

A number of writers discuss how dreams play an essential part in Saariaho’s work. While L’Amour de loin (Love from Afar) features a dream scene, the whole opera can be seen, as Anni Iskala describes it, as “an opera about dreaming of, and loving, the unattainable.” In fact, dreams have been a direct source of inspiration right from Saariaho’s earliest works like From the Grammar of Dreams, and, starting with Im Traume, she has used her own dream diaries to provide material.

While these eight essays and the interview with the composer provide an invaluable perspective on Saariaho’s music, they do not attempt to situate her music in today’s contemporary music scene. The contributors are all from either Finland or England — oddly there are none from France, where she has lived since coming to Paris as a student in 1982.

It’s certainly noteworthy that when the Canadian Opera Company produces L’Amour de loin in February, it will be the first opera by that company written in the 21st century. Even more noteworthy, this will be the first opera written by a woman to be produced on their main stage. Even though Saariaho resists being defined as a woman composer — or as any type of composer, for that matter — she has never stepped back from breaking down barriers, as this book shows.

Concert Notes: On Monday January 30, Soundstreams presents soprano Carla Huhtanen performing music by Kaija Saariaho at 7:30pm in the Gardiner Museum.

On Tuesday January 31 at 12pm, Soundstreams presents the Elmer Iseler Singers performing Saariaho’s Tag des Jahrs and soprano Carla Huhtanen performing the Leino Songs, as well as chamber works by the composer in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.

On Thursday February 2 at 12pm in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, artists of the COC Ensemble studio perform vocal works by Saariaho, including From the Grammar of Dreams and Lohn (From Afar). These performances will be introduced by Saariaho.

On Thursday February 2 and Friday February 3 at 8pm in Koerner Hall, Soundstreams presents Saariaho’s Tag des Jahrs, performed by the Elmer Iseler Singers under Lydia Adams.

73_piecesinmyhands007_1Pieces in My Hands
by William Aide
Oberon Press
87 pages, score reproductions, CD enclosed; $38.95 cloth,  $18.95 paper

Canadian pianist William Aide has spent most of his illustrious career as a performer and teacher. Yet during the past 15 years he has published a memoir and two books of poetry. In this new collection of poetry he continues to confront the “habitable pain and pleasure” of life through the prism of music. While beguiling us with his distinctive poetic voice, he creates resonant images that deepen our relationship with the music itself.

At the heart of this collection are two sets of poems based on large-scale pieces by Liszt and Schumann. B Minor Sonata probes Liszt’s fascination with the Faust legend and its various implications. Aide’s cycle closes with a moving Coda, which begins:

Who’ve lasted through the days and nights

are shriven:

The theme of peace bestowed on humankind

Restores benignity, the pact re-signed,

With one D sharp, all sinners are forgiven.

Mephisto murmurs low his final warning,

memorial tremors, epic myths recede;

each pianist plays out of his human need

for abstract music’s deep abyss of meaning.

The poems based on Schumann’s Carnaval offer pithy evocations of the characters the composer created in these short pieces. They zoom, leap, waltz and laugh, reminding us that “suffering seems unreal once it has passed.” Each poem in these two cycles is printed facing a page from the piano score on which Aide has scribbled comments such as, “Love these stentorian BLASTS!”, “This page wearies with age …” and “Hard to bear this note.”

Composers like Chopin (as always) and William Byrd, pianists like Janina Fialkowska and Claudio Arrau, painters like Delacroix and Uccello, and writers like George Eliot and Günther Grass, along with specific events from Aide’s own life, are woven into the fabric of the remaining poems.

The CD included with this book is truly a bonus, since it offers the opportunity to hear the music that means so much to Aide as interpreted by the poet himself. Yet these poems do stand on their own, able to provoke, amuse, teach and move us quite apart from the music that inspires them.

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