With the arrival of warmer weather, it’s time to dive into the world of summer music festivals. One that caught my attention this year is Festival of the Sound, located in the heart of vacation country, the town of Parry Sound. This year’s festival, which runs from July 20 to August 11, is offering two unique contemporary music events, both of which focus on themes related to cultural identity, history and place. I’ll be concluding the column with a summary of a few new music events happening this summer within the city of Toronto.

Ensemble Made in Canada (from left) Elissa Lee, Angela Park, Sharon Wei and Rachel Mercer - Photo by Bo HuangThe piano quartet Ensemble Made in Canada will be premiering their unique and ambitious Mosaïque Project at Festival of the Sound on July 26. The ensemble got their start in 2006 at the Banff Centre for the Arts, when Angela Park (piano) and Sharon Wei (viola) were inspired to begin a chamber music ensemble that would enable the two of them to play together – thus a piano quartet was formed rather than the usual choice for chamber ensembles, the string quartet. Additional members of the current quartet include Elissa Lee (violin) and Rachel Mercer (cello), and it was Lee who I had a conversation with about Mosaïque.

A few years ago, the quartet began brainstorming about future projects, and had the vision of travelling across the country by train. Not able to physically manage it – since until recently taking a cello on VIA Rail was not allowed – they came up with the idea of commissioning a piece of music that would do it for them.

The original idea was to commission 13 composers (one for each province and territory), but later this increased to 14 composers, who were then selected based on the quartet’s attraction to their individual compositional styles rather than on where they lived. After the composers were on board, the quartet then came up with a strategy to allocate a specific province/territory to each composer to serve as the initial starting point for their compositions. As things turned out, even though each composer was given free reign to find their own inspiration related to the assigned province/territory, a majority of them chose the theme of water as their point of departure. In our conversation, Lee remarked how nature is “so close to our hearts as Canadians,” so it’s no surprise that this would emerge as a common thread amongst the creators. Each of the pieces is four minutes in length, and in the premiere performance in Parry Sound, all 14 of these miniatures will be woven together. An extensive tour is planned across the country after the premiere, with dates and locations scheduled into the fall of 2019 and a changing set list of Mosaïque selections for each show. Audiences in Toronto will be able to hear the complete set of 14 works on November 15, as part of Music Toronto’s concert season and their full touring schedule is available on their website.

One of the distinctive features of this project is a visually based component that will engage the audience. During the concert, audience members will have the opportunity to doodle or draw while listening. Lee explained that many audience members only want to experience familiar music and are more skeptical of contemporary pieces. Based on Lee’s own practice of doodling while talking on the phone, she had the inspiration that if people were doing something more unconscious like doodling, “they could abstract the music and be less apt to judge it. By engaging in a drawing experience, people are able to tap into their own creativity and draw something based on what they’re hearing to inspire them. It opens up a different approach to how you digest the music and is much more friendly. People may find themselves hearing something in the music they would otherwise miss,” Lee said. The other goal of the visual element is to concretely capture how the music is inspiring the audiences. “Canada is inspiring the composers, the composers are inspiring the ensemble, and since the concert is travelling throughout the country, the music is inspiring a nation-wide audience. We can capture what is being created and put it on our website, creating a visual mosaic as another layer to how we celebrate and represent our country.” Through the Mosaïque Project, Canada’s diversity and richness are celebrated not only through the music, but also through the eyes and ears of its people.

Francis Pegahmagabow (1945)Sounding Thunder

The second contemporary music event at the Festival of the Sound is the world premiere of Sounding Thunder: The Song of Francis Pegahmagabow, composed by Timothy Corlis and written by Ojibwe poet Armand Garnet Ruffo. Corlis explained that the work is not an opera, but rather a story that includes a narrator, a chamber ensemble of instrumentalists, three Ojibwe singers and an actor who plays Pegahmagabow. Performing this role is Brian McInnes, the great grandson of Pegahmagabow and writer of an extensive biography of his great grandfather. Other direct descendants have acted as advisors for the project. Pegahmagabow was born in 1889 on the Parry Island Indian Reserve (now the Wasauksing First Nation), an Ojibwe community near Parry Sound, Ontario. He was considered the most effective sniper of World War I and was decorated with various military medals. The writer Armand Ruffo took great pains to reference real events in the script, Corlis told me, using either things commonly talked about in the family or documentation from books.

Timothy CorlisThe instrumentation of the music was designed to be a copy of what is used in L’Histoire du Soldat, Igor Stravinsky’s piece about World War I. Corlis’ vision is that for future performances, excerpts of Stravinsky’s work will be performed on the same program, thus presenting different viewpoints of this cataclysmic world event. Sounding Thunder is divided into three acts, with the first focusing on Pegahmagabow’s childhood and formational spiritual experiences, including an encounter with the spirit of his clan – the Caribou. In the music, Corlis has created a Caribou motive using interlocking patterns invoking the sounds of a large herd. One of the singers will portray the spirit of the Caribou throughout the work, which opens with Pegahmagabow acknowledging the four directions while vocables are sung. At another point, the instruments foreshadow the war with rippling gunshot sounds on the drum. Act Two takes us to the battlefield in Europe and musically, the score has many references to European music and its harmonic traditions. Corlis said that the music even sounds a bit like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, yet there is another unmistakable component – the presence of the drum, which is played with great force underneath the European-based music. This was one way Corlis brought together references to both cultures, as the drum is a significant element in Ojibwe culture and customarily resides in the home of its owner.

Armand Garnet Ruffo in his office at Queens University CREDIT Julia McKayAct Three focuses on Pegahmagabow’s life after returning to his home after the war. Despite his many accomplishments on the battlefield and his ability to gain loyalty and trust in his role as an army sergeant, when back on the reserve, he had to once again face the systemic racism towards First Nations people. Much of the third act portrays his struggles with the Indian agent, fighting for the rights to receive his military pension and for all Indigenous people to have access to legal advice. Writer Armand Ruffo is a strong activist for Indigenous rights, and this is very evident in the script. The work ends with Pegahmagabow’s death, with the instrumentalists surrounding him onstage while playing gentle light trill motives to represent the ascension of his spirit, with the finale being the performance of a traditional Ojibwe song.

City Summertime Listening

Somewhere There: On June 10, at Array Space, Somewhere There will present the first screening of Sound Seed: Tribute to Pauline Oliveros, a performance by Vancouver-based integrated media artist Victoria Gibson. The piece draws on Gibson’s 2009 encounter with composer Pauline Oliveros and members of the Deep Listening Band, who invited her to document their 20th anniversary that took place in the underground cistern in Fort Worden, Washington with its spectacular 45-second reverberation. This was the site of the groundbreaking 1989 recording Deep Listening, which launched both the term and concepts of Deep Listening, Oliveros’ signature work which invites us to engage with and contribute to the sonic environment from a place of inner focus and awareness. The concert includes a launch of the DVD along with two sets of music. Vocalist/composer Laura Swankey opens the evening, with the closing set featuring Gibson performing with Heather Saumer (trombone) and Bob Vespaziani (electronic percussion), a version of Gibson’s variable-member project, Play the Moment Collective.

Contact Contemporary Music: A unique concert on June 14 co-presented by ContaQt and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, “Many Faces: We Are All Marilyns,” will explore the themes of vulnerability, strength and defiance, topics that are particularly relevant in light of recent issues of violence within Toronto’s queer community. Music by Eve Beglarian, Amnon Wolman and John Oswald will be performed, along with choreography by Laurence Lemieux. Fast forwarding to the Labour Day weekend, Contact’s annual multi-day festival INTERSECTION takes place from August 31 to September 4, and is a co-presentation with Burn Down the Capital. This year’s event offers an extensive lineup of musicians, with their opening concert featuring NYC-based experimental metal guitarist and composer Mick Barr, the Thin Edge New Music Collective, and heavy metal band Droid. The day-long event on September 2 will take place as usual at Yonge- Dundas Square, with music performed in the midst of an intense urban scene. By contrast, the final concert will take place at Allan Gardens, with another opportunity to hear Laura Swankey, amongst others.

Luminato: An exciting new work which combines sound, image and an unspoken narrative, Solo for Duet: works for augmented piano and images, will be performed by pianist Eve Egoyan on June 19 and 20. I refer you to my April column, which features a more detailed description of this work, along with a look at Egoyan’s performances of long-duration works. On June 24, Icelandic composer and musician Ólafur Arnalds premieres his new work All Strings Attached, featuring a wired ensemble of string quartet and percussion, with Ólafur performing on an array of pianos and synthesizers. A highlight of this work will be Ólafur’s use of intricate algorithm software, which he designed to control two self-playing pianos acting as one.

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

Keeping apace of new music events in the city is like a never-ending discovery of new ideas, initiatives and opportunities to expand one’s horizons on both the local and international scenes. The Royal Conservatory’s annual 21C Music Festival, running from May 23 to 27, provides an opportunity to experience all this within a five-day span, with eight concerts and 37 premieres. The Kronos Quartet, along with composer and multi-instrumental performer Jherek Bischoff, will open the festival, followed by concerts featuring a number of different international and national pianists, including Anthony de Mare with his special project Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From the Piano, Sri Lankan-Canadian composer and pianist Dinuk Wijeratne performing with Syrian composer and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, and the French sibling pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque.

As is customary for 21C, one of their concerts is a co-presentation with an established Toronto new music presenter – in this case, New Music Concerts, who will bring a Claude Vivier-inspired program to Mazzoleni Hall on May 27. This year, however, a second co-presentation also caught my eye: Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble Vox Clamantis with Maarja Nuut & HH, presented on May 26 in collaboration with Estonian Music Week, running concurrently in the city from May 24 to 29.

The Estonian Music Week co-presentation is one of two concerts at 21C that combine music by contemporary composers with music of the past – thus creating a blurring of time, as it were. Vox Clamantis will offer both Gregorian chant music alongside contemporary works by primarily Estonian composers – while in another 21C show on May 25, pianist Simone Dinnerstein and the A Far Cry chamber orchestra will combine two works by J.S. Bach and two by Philip Glass.

Vox ClamantisVox Clamantis

I had an opportunity to speak with Jaan-Eik Tulve, the conductor of Vox Clamantis, about the ensemble, the connections between Gregorian chant and contemporary music, and the legendary singing tradition in Estonia. Vox Clamantis was formed 20 years ago by Tulve as a way to continue singing the Gregorian chant he had studied in Paris in the 1990s. However, it quickly expanded into an ensemble that embraced the music of contemporary Estonian composers, who were keen to write music for them. One of the key reasons for this desire to compose for Vox Clamantis, Tulve told me, “was because they found that our musicality, phrasing and voices are different from classical singers. Even though Gregorian chant is the basis for classical music, the differences are that it is unmetered and monophonic music, so you must pay close attention to phrasing and listening to each other.”

Jaan Eik Tulve. Photo by Bartos BabinskliOne of the composers the ensemble has a very close working relationship with is the esteemed Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Back in 1980, Pärt was forced to leave Estonia, which was part of the USSR at the time, in order to have his creative freedom. He lived in Berlin for 30 years, only returning to Estonia in the late 1990s after the country regained its independence. A strong relationship between Pärt and Vox Clamantis was quickly established, strengthened by the fact that Pärt had studied Gregorian chant when he was young. “We found a lot of similarities in our musical expressions and understandings of music, and little by little we sang more and more music that he wrote for us. He also often comes to us with new compositions while he is working on them so he can hear what they sound like,” Tulve said. The program at the 21C Festival will include five pieces by Pärt, all of which are on The Deer’s Cry CD, an album fully dedicated to performances of Pärt’s music by Vox Clamantis. As well, one of the repertoire programs that the ensemble regularly performs is comprised of a mixture of Pärt’s music with Gregorian music, a program designed by both Tulve and Pärt.

Other contemporary composers whose works will be on Vox Clamantis’ 21C program include the music of Helena Tulve, Jaan-Eik’s wife, who also studied Gregorian chant along with contemporary composition. “It’s a very short but concentrated monophonic piece which is quite different from most of her other instrumental compositions,” Tulve said. It will be paired with Ave Maria by Tõnis Kaumann, who is also a singer in the ensemble. And finally, a work by American composer David Lang will round out the concert, demonstrating Lang’s ability to write in a wide range of styles. When I asked Tulve about the connection between the ensemble and Lang’s musical language, he remarked that Lang’s music “was perfect for our ensemble as it is quite close to our musicality. It’s minimalist music, and we find minimalism in Pärt’s music, Gregorian chant and Lang’s music. Minimalism is the one common point.”

I concluded my conversation with Tulve by asking him to speak about the relationship between singing and the Estonian national identity. In what’s known as the Estonian Age of Awakening, which began in the 1850s and ended in 1918 with the declaration of the Republic of Estonia, the Estonian Song Festival was established in 1869. It is one of the largest amateur choral events in the world, held every five years, bringing together around 30,000 singers to perform the same repertoire for an audience of up to 80,000. “This festival was very important during the Soviet occupation” Tulve told me, “and helped Estonians survive this period by strengthening their own national identity. To preserve this strong link between singing and the Estonian identity, every child learns to sing in choirs at school, and the singing is at a very high level throughout the country with many good amateur choirs.”

Two other Estonian performers will also take to the stage that same evening – Maarja Nuut, performing on vocals, violin and electronics, along with Hendrik Kaljujärv on electronics. For the evening finale, the choir and these two young experimental performers will come together with a work performed by Vox Clamantis with improvisations by Nuut and Kaljujärv.

Simone Dinnerstein with A Far Cry

One of the pianists the 21C Festival is programming is Brooklyn-based Simone Dinnerstein, who burst onto the international scene with her self-produced recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 2007. Since that time, she has performed internationally, with repertoire spanning from Baroque to select 21st-century works especially composed for her. Recently, she entered into a creative collaboration with composer Philip Glass, whose Piano Concerto No. 3 for piano and strings will receive its Canadian premiere at 21C along with pieces by J.S. Bach and Glass’ Symphony No.3. The concerto was a co-commission from a consortium of 12 orchestras; it was premiered in Boston in 2017 with string orchestra A Far Cry.

Simone Dinnerstein. Photo by Lisa Marie MazzuccoIn my recent phone interview with her, Dinnerstein spoke about how this came about. The idea arose in 2014 when both artists discovered that they had a mutual interest in the music of Bach. Glass was interested in writing a work for her and Dinnerstein proposed that it be a concerto for piano and string orchestra. “I thought it would be interesting if the performance of the piece was paired with a Bach concerto,” she said. “All of Bach’s keyboard concertos are for keyboard and string orchestra, and there haven’t been many pieces written for that combination since Bach’s time. Glass liked the idea and from there, along with A Far Cry, we all decided it would be interesting to create a whole program with music by Bach and Glass.” At the May 25 concert, the first half includes Glass’ Symphony No. 3 followed by Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in G Minor BWV1058, and in the second half, Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor will be followed by Glass’ new Piano Concerto. And just in time for the festival, the two keyboard concertos on the program will be available on a CD titled Circles.

Glass’ concerto is written in three movements, with some parts more flowing and others quite dynamic. Dinnerstein said that in the second movement, some parts remind her of rock music in terms of sonority and rhythm. “At times the orchestra almost sounds like one of those 1970s synthesizers and it’s a really amazing sound. The third movement is definitely what I call transcendental music.”

In a an accidental but striking instance of synchronicity between 21C and Estonian Music Week, this third movement is dedicated to Arvo Pärt. “I can see why he dedicated it to Pärt,” Dinnerstein commented, “because there is a stillness to it that is present in a lot of Pärt’s music. But to me, it still sounds very much like Philip Glass. It’s a very slow-paced movement and is extremely difficult to rehearse because you need to be an active listener all the time. Everybody in the orchestra and the pianist have to be really aware of each other and of the music moment by moment, which takes a great deal of focus. I’ve now played this with a number of orchestras and one of the things that is wonderful about playing it with A Far Cry is they are an ensemble that really spends a lot of time listening to each other since they have no conductor. It’s part of their artistic personality to be able to respond to each other in a very instantaneous way, so we’ve tried different things with that movement. I might suddenly change something I’m doing and they have to respond to it without having a plan, so it’s much more improvisatory. That kind of thing is very hard to do with a larger orchestra and a conductor, but with them, it’s really possible.”

Dinnerstein went on to describe the commonalities between the music of Glass and Bach. “Both of their writing deals a lot with sequences of patterns and they have a common interest in the larger architecture of a piece. As well, they have written relatively very little regarding the interpretation of a performance. Their use of tempo, articulation and dynamic markings is quite bare, so that leaves a great deal up to the interpreter to try and delve into the music and see what the music is saying to them. I love that about those composers. As a result, when you hear different people play their music, it can sound wildly different.”

As for commonalities between Baroque and contemporary music, Dinnerstein commented: “I’ve always thought there’s a stronger connection there than between Romantic music and contemporary music. There’s a kind of abstraction to both Baroque and contemporary, and if you listen to Chopin for example, it feels very much of its time. You’re very aware of Chopin the artist. With Bach and Glass, the expression is less tied to the composers themselves – I don’t feel a sense of them as people. Rather, I feel that whoever is playing their music can bring out something quite different. The personality of the composer feels less dominant and there is a wider spectrum that lies within the music itself.”

What is striking about both these concerts I’ve highlighted here is the way contemporary music is linked with the sensibilities of both medieval Gregorian chant and Baroque music. It will definitely make for some fascinating listening – and an opportunity to experience music in all its timelessness. 

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

Bekah Simms - photo by Bo HuangOne of the inspiring things about the new music scene in Toronto is the plenitude of presenter organizations and collectives that are constantly springing up, each one with their own unique vision and mandate. One of the newer players in this trend is the Caution Tape Sound Collective, formed in the summer of 2015 by composers Bekah Simms and August Murphy-King. On March 24 in Array Space, Caution Tape will present “Spark to Stone” in collaboration with the Association of Canadian Women Composers (ACWC).

The concert features the work of seven Canadian composers, including five world premieres and two Toronto premieres. I invited Bekah Simms to have a conversation about the concert, the collective and her own compositional work.

Caution Tape has a unique combination of elements in their artistic mandate. One focus is on repertoire development for both underused combinations of instruments and instruments that don’t have a lot of solo works. Another strong aspect of their vision is the incorporation of electronics and influences from sound art and drone music into the repertoire they support. As Simms pointed out: “Toronto doesn’t have much concert activity of electroacoustic music, unlike Montreal for example, so Caution Tape seeks to make the technology more available for younger composers, as well as offering mentoring and pedagogical support for those who wish to combine the worlds of sound art and concert music.”

The core membership of the collective is made up of Simms, Murphy-King, Julia Mermelstein and Patrick Arteaga. They also support a rotational membership, since bringing in new voices is important. There is no core performer ensemble, but they generally draw from the same pool of people interested in new and experimental music, with the key goal being to experiment with creating unusual instrumental combinations. An example of this was an ensemble used in their last season that was made up of bassoon/contrabassoon, synthesizer, piano, percussion and viola. “It sounded really great,” Simms commented. And not least, they are committed to representational programming. Simms explains: “If you are working with living composers in a city like Toronto, the demographics of your concert programming should roughly represent the demographic of your city. This includes gender, race, experience, age, emerging and early career.”

Their upcoming March 24 concert is one example of their focus on representational programming as they join forces with the ACWC, which was formed in September of 1981 with the aim of addressing the lack of women composers being programmed in the Canadian music scene. The Caution Tape/ACWC collaboration is a natural one: Simms has served on the board of the ACWC, and together they put out a call for works – both existing as well as proposals for new pieces. As a result of this call, the Spark to Stone concert will include works by composers Amy Brandon, Sarah Reid, Ivana Jokic, Hope Lee and Lesley Hinger, along with Caution Tape core members Simms and Mermelstein.

Mermelstein’s work is an acousmatic piece, a form of electroacoustic music that is specifically created as a listening experience using only speakers, as opposed to a live instrumental performance. She has used the mundane and background sounds of everyday life and through various forms of digital processing brought this world to the forefront of an intriguing listening experience. Brandon’s work uses a soundscape created from unique piano preparations – nylon fishing wire attached to the wall and woven into the lower strings of the piano. Jokic’s piece uses the concept of the palindrome, a sequence of events that reads the same backward as forward. There is an allusion to matryoshka dolls, the Russian nesting dolls, as the snaking palindromes weave their way throughout the ensemble. Reid, a trumpet player who is both an improviser and composer, created a piece for prepared piano, cello, and amplified objects performed by a percussionist. This includes the playing of the grain of a piece of wood that has been covered with contact mics, a pair of vampire-like chattering teeth and a cassette player. Lee’s work …I, Laika…, composed in 1996, will finally receive its Toronto premiere. A 20-minute work for flute, cello and piano, the piece is based on the idea of doomed flight, referencing Laika, the first dog launched in space by the Russians, as well as the loss of Lee’s father who went missing in a military plane in China.

Hinger’s participation is an example of the value of putting out a call and connecting with unfamiliar voices. Once the jury for the concert heard her music, they unanimously agreed that her work must be selected. Hinger’s piece for solo violin is informed by her current studies in spectralism and focuses on slow microtonal unravelling over time.

The concert will also present the world premiere of Simms’ piece Granitic, a word she was initially exposed to a few years ago when used by her composition professor to describe one of her compositions. Surprised by this unfamiliar word which means “unyielding firmness and aversion to soft emotions,” she decided it resonated with her and wanted to explore more of what was stylistically emerging for her. Granitic is her Toronto Emerging Composer Award-winning composition, and is scored for a large ensemble including electric guitar, electric bass, percussion, synthesizer, violin, viola, cello, clarinet, trumpet and flute. In this piece she explores the world of just intonation, a tuning system based on pure or just intervals between the notes of the scale, rather than the standard equal temperament system that uses the same or equal distance between intervals. For the performers, this means playing in microtones, something that is difficult and challenging to do when playing on instruments designed for equal temperament. Simms described her emerging style as “event and sound based. I don’t map out harmonies or melodies, but rather focus on timbre, colour and the unravelling of initial ideas. I’ve become interested in distortion, quotation and using degraded allusions to other styles of music, using noise-based techniques on instruments and transitions from noise to sound. Electronics also help to obscure the original source material.”

As for future directions, what drives her is to integrate more complex and intricate technologies into her music. In a recent mentorship with Montreal acousmatic composer Martin Bédard, she was able to learn a variety of electroacoustic techniques, and had an opportunity to work with live diffusion, the process of moving the sound amongst a multi-speaker system. The next step for Simms will be to work in partnership with a programmer to create an intuitive interface to perform live processing of instrumental sounds. The composition she is creating will be scored for solo cello, electronics and orchestra, and is scheduled to be performed by Esprit Orchestra in February 2019 during their New Wave Festival. Having a skilled electronics performer working alongside her is her ideal situation, for it allows her to focus on composing the electronic component, which can then be realized externally by an expert.

Representational Programming

As mentioned above, Caution Tape is committed to representational programming. One reason for this is that “we found the local programming disappointing” Simms acknowledges. As an example, she mentions the upcoming 21C Music Festival that promotes itself as bringing forward fresh new sounds and ideas. Looking at this year’s press release, of almost three dozen premieres being programmed (which includes both world, Canadian, Ontario and Toronto premieres), there is only one work by a woman composer. (I noted in my February column a similar thing occurring in this years New Creations Festival happening from March 3 to 10, with only one composition by a woman being programmed, despite last year’s festival having highlighted diversity.)

Simms notes the tendency for presenters to be satisfied with having had one successful experience and then to stop thinking about it. “You have to be actively questioning your programming every step of the way. It’s so easy to find good and interesting work by women that if you’re not programming it, you’re just being lazy.” She mentioned a 1990s article in the Toronto Star that noted the lack of programming of works by women amongst the new music organizations – and that was 25 years ago!

Caution Tape attempts to “be steadfast about our programming. If one concert ends up being a 70/30 mix between male and female composers, we shuffle things around in the overall season to get closer to 50/50.” She noted that it’s easier for chamber music groups to have more diverse programming, and that many local groups regularly program music by women on every concert. “The problem is with the larger ensembles, that’s where the numbers are the worst. You hope that your efforts in the chamber music realm will bleed into the larger sphere of orchestral music,” Simms says, mentioning as an example, that the rising star of orchestral composition globally is Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir who was chosen in 2015 as the New York Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer. The Philharmonic will give the world premiere of Thorvaldsdottir’s latest commissioned work, Metacosmos, on April 4 to 6.

(Coincidentally, during the writing of this column, I received a press release regarding the Chicago Sinfonietta’s concert on March 11 celebrating women composers. This orchestra is dedicated to modelling and promoting diversity, inclusion and racial and cultural equity in the arts. In light of these initiatives, it feels like Toronto is lagging behind; all the more reason why the Caution Tape Sound Collective is a much-needed voice in the city.

Vivian Fung

An important footnote to this conversation about orchestral programming: I would be remiss not to mention two upcoming orchestral performances of works by composer Vivian Fung. On March 24, the National Arts Centre Orchestra will give the Toronto premiere of her newly commissioned piece Earworms, and on March 3, Fung’s 2011 piece Dust Devils will be performed by the TSO as part of the New Creations Festival. 

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

The year 2017 was one in which women broke barriers in speaking up against abuse, particularly within the powerful corridors of the entertainment industry, political institutions and the media. Time magazine honoured this historical breakthrough by naming their Person of the Year for these women who dared to speak up, calling them “The Silence Breakers.”

Yoko Ono Revisited

In the autumn of 1961, Yoko Ono created her Voice Piece for Soprano, a conceptual score with instructions to “Scream
1. against the wind; 2. against the wall; 3. against the sky.” In the late 50s, Ono was part of a constellation of creative people connected to composer John Cage, and began experimenting with what she called “instruction works,” meaning “paintings to be constructed in your head.” Her Voice Piece for Soprano was one of these works, and was published a few years later in 1964 as part of her book Grapefruit. She speaks of this work as giving her an opportunity to express her rebelliousness as a woman and the need to scream against certain situations in life. She also saw it as an act of resistance, stating in a 2015 interview connected to a performance of her Voice Piece, that if women don’t express their emotions, they can become ill.

This coming February 23, in a co-presentation between the Music Gallery and the Gardiner Museum, Ono’s Voice Piece for Soprano will be explored by three local artists who have been invited to respond to Ono’s instructions for screaming. These performers include Lillian Allen, a pioneering voice of dub poetry in Canada; the Element Choir, an improvising choir directed by Christine Duncan; and Mamalia, the former lead singer of the JUNO-nominated contemporary jazz troupe Sekoya. The concert, titled “Voice Pieces,” is being held as a companion event for the Gardiner Museum’s exhibition Yoko Ono: THE RIVERBED, running from February 23 to June 3.

Ono’s resistance piece remains as timely now as when first created, since the need for women to speak out with force against how they have been treated within patriarchal institutions has reached a tipping point. However, I’m certain that Ms. Ono would not concur with the descriptive phrase used in the Music Gallery’s press release, describing this voice as the “out of control female voice pushed to its supposed limits,” nor with using the word “hysterical” to describe the type of voice that engages in therapeutic screaming. It’s time to reframe how we think of the female voice, long held in contempt, mistrust and suspicion from the days of early Christianity up to the present.

Lillian Allen

I approached Allen to speak about her work as a leader in spoken word and dub poetry, her understanding of the voice, and of her plans for the Voice Pieces concert at the Gardiner Museum. Back in 1988, I had interviewed Allen for Musicworks magazine, and so I began with asking her how she would describe the evolution of her career over these past 30 years. She described her work as “helping to innovate, motivate and originate the form of spoken word which has become so important in the worlds of hip-hop and rap.

“I went out into the culture, combining words, music and experimentation and this influence can be traced in the work of many people, including Canadian rappers Saukrates and Drake. This hidden influence has given me great satisfaction. As Leonard Cohen says in his song: ‘There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’ I helped to make a crack in a few things. I could have gone the pop commercial route myself, but I stayed with my own work of writing, performing and touring, and also went into teaching at OCAD, which gives me an opportunity to be out there and to give back. I’m still involved in initiating and supporting groups, individuals, and the whole movement of putting voices out in the world.”

Lillian Allen. Photo by Karen Lee.Allen continues to be both excited and challenged by her work. In 2012 she released her album Anxiety, created through a process of working in her living room with various audio devices to create layerings and sonic manipulations of her voice. She explored pre-language sounds and misconfigurations of the voice while also staying close to language in order to bring out a narrative message. She did it for the love of exploration, and not with any preconceived ideas of whether it would become a product or if it would sell. “I was just grooving with it, listening to it, having a conversation with it, and being there with the totality of it.” Her approach was to simply “work and experiment, and out of that I could then pull something.”

On Voice

We then turned to speaking about the voice and I asked her to comment on the voice itself and her relationship to her own voice. “Voice is the thing that gives you motion, gives you vibrational motion. It is vocalized emotion that makes you larger than whatever moment you are in, both in sound and in what you have to say. There is a time to be still, and the inner voice is there. But the voice itself is so full of life, it’s almost a symbol for life and growth. It is that channel inside the unknown, it gets into things we don’t know we know, or that we know but forget. It’s like a path in a forest that you either cut or make. In your psyche, the voice makes that path for you, and you can journey with it, see things and go into imaginary places. It’s the power of YOU, its part of your heartbeat, it’s the power of your lungs, your muscles, it’s not just your fingers on a keyboard. You connect with it, it’s floating in and out of you.

“The physical resonance of the voice is something I love. The resonating voice is almost like beings existing, as if you are creating beings and they are existing in each note, in each sound. You can feel that vibration in the room, in your body. It’s a beautiful thing, and is the reason I love performing and being out there. It creates real magic. Everybody connects to sound. They might not connect to a phrase or image in the English language, but they’ll connect to sound. That was so evident when I did a tour in the UK and France with my CD Anxiety. People connected to the sound – it needed no interpretation.”

She then spoke about the fears people have around the voice. “I do find that people are scared of sound, scared of hearing their voices, scared of messing with language. They need permission. I find adults to be more like this. They feel confronted because they wonder – what does this new territory mean, where will it take me? But once they get into it, once they’re in the water and the waves are there, they can’t help but smile and be happy.”

We spoke about Yoko Ono’s Voice Piece for Soprano, the scream, and so-called uncontrolled sound. “This is an artist construction, highly crafted, highly controlled. There’s a sophisticated thought process in even arriving at that concept, it’s a breakthrough. Then to shape it, to rehearse it at different levels – in your mind, on a mic, in a room – you want to know what the impact is, you want your artistic vision to land in a certain way. Women have always gone outside the strictures of language and the hierarchy of various language forms to express themselves. Maybe that’s where the original scream comes from. Do not control, do not get us to conform to your realities and your knowledge that shapes that reality. We know that more exists and that the emotive parts of our existence are essential and important to our lives. We know it’s important to create and communicate something more meaningful and textured that people can connect to.”

Allen is still reflecting on the nature of her contribution to the Voice Pieces concert but plans to include some pieces from her Anxiety album. She will also likely bring in either students or young people from the community to join her, something she now does regularly when performing. She also envisions layering and texturing the sounds, pushing the sound and the conversation into different aspects. “Right now as I prepare, I’m listening and working with my concept, bringing in materials from my own experience as well as researching history.” I may place the students in the space to echo or reverb what I’m producing, and the performance could also include creating a sound improvisation with the audience.”

I expect that this event will be another important moment in the reclamation of the female voice. All three invited artists will add their own unique perspective on the power of vocal expression, and in particular, “the scream.”

Not So New Creations

John Adams

Other upcoming events include the Toronto Symphony’s New Creations Festival, running this year from March 3 to 10. In a departure from previous years, there will be no featured guest composer or curator. Instead the programming will feature three concerts of TSO music director Peter Oundjian’s personal favourites as a way of celebrating his 14th and final season as music director, which has included the successful New Creations Festival. We will hear works by Vivian Fung, Larry Alan Smith, Daníel Bjarnason (March 3); Wolfgang Rihm, James MacMillan and the festival composer competition winner (March 7); and Esa-Pekka Salonen, Gary Kulesha and John Adams (March 10).

Last year’s festival curated by indie musician Owen Pallett highlighted a diverse array of composers and performers, attempting to address issues of race and gender inclusion. Alas, I note that it appears this initiative was not continued in this year’s offerings.

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

Nicole Lizée - Photo by Steve RaegaleEach year at the University of Toronto’s New Music Festival, a composer is invited to be the Roger D. Moore Distinguished Visitor in Composition. This year the festival, which runs from January 21 to 28, will host Canadian composer, sound artist and keyboardist Nicole Lizée. I’ve been fascinated by Lizée’s unique approach to working with technology and instruments, so this felt like a perfect opportunity to learn more.

One of the key features of her work is the use of what she calls “glitch.” In our recent interview she offered an inspiring description of her unique relationship to working with media-based technologies and what it is that fascinates her about malfunctioning machines.

“I was born into that world. My father is an electronics repairman, salesman and collector who was always repairing or beta testing new technologies and devices. During the 1960s, 70s and 80s there was a lot of experimentation, and many of the machines didn’t always work at first. I grew to love these machines – the way they looked and smelled, as well as the sounds and visuals they would produce.”

Lizée’s parents were huge fans of music, including classical, soundtracks and easy listening, and had an extensive LP collection. Old films were also a favourite, and she grew up watching films on video by Hitchcock, Kubrick and Bergman. “We would watch on repeat, repeat, repeat, and inevitably the tapes would melt or malfunction. This is when those movies became the most interesting to me. The version of The Sound of Music that I know is not the version most people know.”

Nicole Lizée - Photo by Murray LightburnLizée’s passion for both music and film led to a desire to merge these worlds. This, in combination with her strong emotional connection to the malfunctioning analogue technologies of her childhood, inspired her vision to bring this world into the concert hall and to mix it with live instrumental performers.

The main source of fascination was the glitch – machines malfunctioning and not behaving as planned. “Analogue devices have a life beyond what they’re intended to do. They continue to live. The tapes would become chewed or worn down, but would still play back. Their material would then become altered and new rhythms would emerge.” She gives the example of a video game machine that would play, “but if you pushed a certain button in a particular way, something else that wasn’t supposed to happen would start happening. It was crazy – and like going into a portal. I wanted to capture those sounds and those visuals, and compose with that in mind. Capturing glitch means capturing the malfunction, the stuttering, the rhythms and sounds that would be produced.”

Many of her works also use video, but not as accompaniment to the music – rather, the video becomes an instrument itself that the performer engages with in a synced-up dialogue. Even the glitches themselves become instruments.

On the stage, Lizée uses both malfunctioning technologies such as reel to reel tape recorders and old synths, as well as “behaving ones” – usually performed on by others. The glitching devices are unpredictable, so she needs to perform with that in mind and often she has no idea what will happen with them. It requires keeping an open mind and working with whatever happens. Using such devices gives new colours such as hums and hisses, and even when they don’t work properly, other things will be present. Despite the glitches, the analogue machines will always offer her something to work with. They won’t shut off or fail to function – unlike digital devices. “I have never come across an analogue device that completely shuts down. It may go crazy and be unpredictable in a concert, and sometimes there will be a malfunctioning cable, but it will never shut down. It just keeps going.”

Nicole Lizée - Photo by Chris HutchesonWhat enables Lizée to use these glitch features in the composing process is the notation system she has devised. And she doesn’t just approximate the sound, but rather employs great precision to accurately translate what is occurring within the glitch. Using changing time signatures for example, rather than adjusting everything to regular 4/4 time, is one outcome of her approach. Spending years developing her transcription process was essential to developing her perspective on composing music.

And yes, she admits, it is labour intensive, but “ultimately it has pushed me in many ways, and performers tell me repeatedly how it has made them play differently. They all have their stories and it’s extremely interesting to hear how their relationship to this element has pushed them. It taps into different emotions and requires a spot-on precision. The stops and starts, changing tempos, metres, volume extremes, this all requires a player to completely commit to delving into this world.”

Working with glitch brings up emotions in players that are of a different order than usual. The glitch often creates a “forlorn and plaintive sound which gets into the ears and head of the player. People tell me how they’ve gone through shock, fear and sadness, and that’s because of the source material and the way it is dealt with. It is being torn apart, hacked and taken into a different direction than originally intended.”

At the U of T New Music Festival, Montreal’s Architek Percussion will be joining forces with Lizée’s ensemble SaskPwr on the evening of January 25 to perform selections from Lizée’s The Criterion Collection. These short works are an homage to both glitch and to her favourite film directors, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. While watching these films growing up, “I was getting into the language and techniques of the director, but also while watching it, the tape was deteriorating and this whole other world was being created by the glitch and malfunction. The sound and image are completely synonymous and intertwined. When the glitch happens, it happens to both. The performance will be one hour long, nonstop. Everything will be live and synced, with heavily glitched scenes.”

Another of her works, Malfunctionlieder, will be performed during the festival’s noon concert on January 25. This piece was commissioned as a test piece for voice and piano for the 2017 Eckhardt-Gramatté Competition, which is designed to encourage the performance of Canadian and contemporary music. Lizée’s piece includes an accompanying soundtrack and video and represents the first time in the history of the competition (which began in 1976) that the repertoire has included the worlds of both acoustic music and technology. This work also represents a more recent direction for Lizée – to write works for voice. Writing for the voice “opens up the possibility of a whole other world where the live human voice engages with the glitched characters on the screen as well as with the audience.”

And finally, her work Isabella Blow at Somerset House will be performed on January 24 by the Cecilia String Quartet, who played the work earlier this year at the 21C Festival in May. Lizée wrote the piece as an acoustic representation of fashion designer Isabella Blow and what her impact on the fashion industry might sound like. If you are intrigued to experience more of Lizée’s fascinating work, I encourage you to attend not only the concerts, but also her composition masterclasses on January 24 and 26, and the composers’ forum on January 23.

The festival will also feature concerts from the Faculty of Music’s opera, chamber music and orchestra series, a night of improvising music from the jazz department and a concert devoted to electroacoustic music. In addition to Lizée’s Isabella Blow, the Karen Kieser Prize Concert on January 24 features Tyler Versluis’ 2017 prizewinning work 3 Unuttered Miracles for accordion and percussion, along with past prize winner Riho Maimets’ Three Movements for Marimba.

Nicole Lizée - Photo by Steve RaegaleWhat's New? In the New Year (and Previously Mentioned)

On January 26 in the Array Space on Walnut Ave., The Array Ensemble performs four new works by four Canadian composers: Rebecca Bruton (Calgary), Marielle Groven (Montréal), Stephen Parkinson (Toronto) and Holger Schoorl (Toronto). Bruton’s work happens in the intervening spaces between avant-pop, experimental chamber music and noise, and one of her current projects is co-creative producer of Tidal ~ Signal, a Vancouver-based festival dedicated to increasing representation of women and transgender artists within the fields of sound art and experimental music. Groven’s work draws on raw and emotionally charged sounds, with attention to connections between evocative human and instrumental sounds. Parkinson is a composer and performer with the Drystone Orchestra. His work, Desires Are Already Memories, is part of Arraymusic’s New World CD. Schoorl is a guitarist who is an active participant in Toronto’s improvisation community. The day following the concert, all four composers will re-gather and spontaneously compose together in various combinations.

Many of early December’s events of new music were mentioned in my November column, including the “Urgent Voices” concert presented by Continuum Contemporary Music on December 8 and 9 at the Daniels Spectrum Aki Studio, ...as well as New Music Concerts’ “Concertos” on December 3 at the National Ballet School’s Betty Oliphant Theatre.

Upcoming New Music Concerts productions in the new year include “Kammerkonzert” on January 14 at the same venue, with a focus on music by the primary composers of the Second Viennese School, Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Michael Oesterle’s Chamber Concerto will also receive its world premiere there. Then on February 4, NMC presents Calgary’s Land’s End Ensemble at Gallery 345 on Sorauren Ave., performing compositions by Canadians Hope Lee, Sean Clarke and Matthew Ricketts. Anton Webern’s 1922 chamber arrangement of Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie Op.9 will round out the program.

And finally, the Music Gallery presents their first Emergents Concert of the season on December 7 at the the 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media and Education, with four contemporary song cycles created as part of the Sounds Of Silence Initiative. After just one year, this initiative has brought together over 50 composers, poets and musicians to create new Canadian art song that tells the story of a diverse Canadian cultural identity, and supports, in particular, artists from Indigenous, immigrant, black, refugee and LGBT communities.

For details on all these and other performances of interest, consult our comprehensive concert listings in this December-January double issue of the magazine, or online at thewholenote.com/just_ask, where you can filter the listings by genre to simplify your search.

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

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