Often in this column I write about what’s happening in the world of new contemporary music from the composer and presenter perspective – their ideas, visions and inspirations. However, this month I want to focus on those who undertake to bring these ideas to life – the performers. New Music Concerts’ event “Concertos” on December 3 provides the perfect context for this conversation as it will feature three works designed to highlight the role of the solo performer. The concert will present concertos written for soloist and chamber ensemble by composers Robin de Raaff (Netherlands), Linda C. Smith (USA/Canada) and Paul Frehner (Canada), featuring percussionist Ryan Scott, pianist Eve Egoyan and clarinettist Max Christie, respectively. Frehner’s piece, Cloak, is a newly-commissioned work for clarinet and chamber ensemble, so I contacted Christie to find out more about the work from his perspective and also about his extensive career performing contemporary music for a number of the new music presenters in the city.

Christie began by explaining how he sees his role as a performer. “My job is to observe the language of the composer and then utter it. Every voice is unique, whether a performer’s or a composer’s. I don’t try to make my voice suit the music, I just try to hear and understand the piece and bring it out from the potential into the actual. That is often fun for me. I love puzzles. A new piece is a puzzle to solve. I don’t think that’s the composer’s intention, it’s just part of learning music of any era.”

Christie says that the musical language in Frehner’s Cloak makes sense to him. “He’s done a good job of choosing the multiphonics for the opening section, which is extremely mysterious yet approachable from a performance standpoint. The title, Cloak, is a hint; it’s word play really. There’s a masked quality to the opening, whereas the thematic material from the later movements could almost be from a noir thriller soundtrack What’s mysterious for me right now is what’s going on with the ensemble while I’m playing these long, held notes. Sometimes you get something to work on and it’s really hard, and you’re working on the hope that you hit 60 to 70 percent -- and if I can’t get 90 to 100 percent of this piece, I’m just bad. It’s definitely the kind of writing that makes you realize how wonderful it is to encounter a composer who writes that well for your instrument. It makes you look good and therefore you have a better chance of making him look good.”

Christie has been an active performer within the contemporary music community over the years as an ensemble member of Continuum, Esprit Orchestra and New Music Concerts. I asked him what it was about new music that sparked his interest and had him pursue a career with such commitment. “A huge part of what used to be my profile in so many groups was just my willingness to try stuff, and my flat-out refusal to give up on the hardest pieces. As you keep working in a particular area you get pegged as a such-and-such type of player. I’m pretty much at home with any era of music where the clarinet is involved, but I’ve come to accept this designation because it’s at least partly true.”

Max Christie - photo by Daniel FoleyThere is often a lot of additional pressure performing new music due to the usual constraints of limited rehearsal time being compounded by the challenge of the music itself. Christie enjoys rising to the challenge. “If something is difficult, I work hard to get inside the piece. I’m not so good at faking it.” Asked what he meant by “faking,” he explained. “Faking is doing things not being asked for, and most players do it. Sometimes it’s a necessary evil or skill to be able to come up with something. I once played a piece with a passage that was so hard that by the concert I realized I was never going to play it exactly right. So I composed something myself that took on the character of what was written. Not that what was written was impossible or wrong. What matters is that the character of what you’re playing reflects what the composer was after. A few years ago NMC played a concert of music by Jörg Widmann, an excellent clarinetist, composer and conductor. He realized how difficult a certain section was that had a large number of notes per second. During rehearsal, he admitted it – there was a recognition from this great musician that [while] we were mimicking an effect he had written out in great detail .... in fact he was just asking for an effect that was similar to what was written. That’s a good composer – when they recognize that what they’ve written is beyond the possible. It stretches you towards the impossible and makes you creative enough to solve some of the issues. That kind of faking is totally legitimate.”

Currently, Christie is only performing contemporary music with New Music Concerts, an ensemble that over the years has given him many opportunities to work with some of the great composers of our era. I asked him what experiences have stood out, and even though there have been so many, he immediately mentioned Elliott Carter. He had performed Carter’s solo clarinet work, GRA, and due to this experience, he had the opportunity to record it for the Naxos label. “Carter signed my copy of the piece and thanked me for the performance. Being able to record it was me putting a stamp on a particular piece – here’s one of the standards of how the piece can go. I hope it has had some influence, because it’s a great piece.” He also mentioned working with Pierre Boulez, commenting on how clean and crisp he was as a conductor, as well as with Michel Gonneville. “Being part of NMC has meant working regularly with Bob Aitken. He has tremendous knowledge and experience and his patience with me is all part of what makes NMC great.”

The “Concertos” concert includes a performance by Eve Egoyan of Path of Uneven Stones by Linda C. Smith. Egoyan has had a busy summer schedule and has just returned from a European solo recital tour. A recent residency in Quebec City gave her the opportunity to be involved in the creation of an intuitive interface for the piano that “explores the frontiers between notes played, those heard and those transformed until they meet the imaginary.” Elliott Carter’s 2011 String Trio is also part of the program, along with Ryan Scott performing the Canadian premiere of Robin de Raaff’s Percussion Concerto.

Beyond his role as an outstanding percussionist, Scott is also the artistic director of Continuum Contemporary Music, which will be launching its new season with “Urgent Voices” on December 8 and 9. This event is Continuum’s contribution to the commemoration of Canada 150, and they are doing so with a series of compositions by Anna Höstman, James Rolfe, Ann Southam and Scott Wilson that combine stories, reflections and dreams using song, spoken word and multimedia. They are also weaving in the honouring of Glenn Gould’s 85th birthday. While film is shown of Gould performing music from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Steinway’s latest player piano innovation called the Spirio will interpret Gould’s finger depressions and releases to recreate a live rendition of the original performance.

Additional Highlights

Esprit Orchestra’s November 19 concert offers an opportunity to hear Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by French composer Marc-André Dalbavie, with a performance by Véronique Mathieu. Mathieu is another performer who has made the performance of contemporary music a priority, particularly music by Canadian and American composers. The program also features works by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason, as well as by Canadians Douglas Schmidt and Ana Sokolović.

The Thin Edge New Music Collective presents “Sensing” with three shows at the Canadian Music Centre on November 11, featuring music by composers Höstman, Scime and Morton Feldman. Arraymusic has two events coming up – the first on November 22 is a celebration of the music of Wilhelm Killmayer, an underappreciated German composer whose surreal music is ardently supported by Array’s artistic director Martin Arnold. Then on December 2, American Sarah Hennies will perform her piece Gather & Release for vibraphone, sine waves, field recordings and bilateral stimulation. Her music is an immersive psycho-acoustic experience often realized by an endurance-based performance practice.

And finally, as we prepare to enter that ambiguous state of “holiday time,” Soundstreams presents a more edgy twist to the usual stream of music one hears. Their Electric Messiah returns for the third year December 4 to 6, with a special performance on November 24 by their resident artist, sci-fi turntablist SlowPitchSound. This will be part of a behind-the-scenes look by SlowPitchSound and other Messiah performers at what goes into the making of this fast-growing holiday favourite.

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

Kelly Marie Murphy - Alan Dean PhotographyPart of the life of being a composer is filling out grant applications and submitting proposals. Living with the uncertainty of not knowing the outcome of all this work is part of the lifestyle. So imagine the feeling when you find out you just won a major prize, a $50,000 prize – the largest one available for Canadian composers. This was the experience that Ottawa-based composer Kelly-Marie Murphy had recently when she got the phone call from the Azrieli Foundation informing her she had been chosen as the winner of the Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music. Murphy was recently in Toronto attending the rehearsals and world premiere performance of her work Curiosity, Genius, and the Search for Petula Clark by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on September 22 and 23, so I was able to sit down with her and talk about this exciting new development in her life.

To enter the competition, composers are required to submit a proposal as to what they would write if they received the prize. The only requirement is that the piece of music is to reflect Jewish culture in some way. Murphy began by asking friends and associates for ideas. Her daughter’s singing teacher suggested she look at Sephardic music, and once she began listening to the music that originated from the cultural mix of Jewish, Arabic and Spanish cultures from the Iberian Peninsula during medieval times, she was hooked. She loved the expressive quality of the music, the ornamentation, and the pitch bending similar to that in blues and slide guitar music, which she also has a passion for. After the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, the music also travelled with them, picking up influences from Morocco, Argentina, Turkey and Bulgaria for example. The question of how music changes in different contexts is what fascinates Murphy. The wonderful thing about winning this prize, Murphy says, is that it’s an “open invitation to explore the music of this culture, and to make it into something new and different with my own understanding. This is what makes me grow.”

As part of the process, she is consulting with music scholars who are experts in the field of Sephardic music traditions. One such person is Toronto-based Judith Cohen, who has carried out extensive fieldwork and research among Sephardic Jews in the Mediterranean, Portugal and Spain. Murphy sees her role not as a collector of sources however, but rather preparing herself to allow these musical influences to become part of her consciousness and eventually become part of her sound. Early on in her life as a composer, it was the music of Stravinsky and Bartók that really woke her up to different possibilities. She allowed the essence of that music to mix with jazz, bebop, and slide guitar influences to create her own expression. “Influences are a wonderful thing,” she says. “I like to bring it all in, let it steep, live with it and see what happens.”

She acknowledges that working with materials from cultures outside one’s own is a hot topic of debate in the cultural community. However, she states “I’m not appropriating, I am acknowledging and learning something and isn’t that a good thing? I’m learning about a culture I wouldn’t have known about.” The open invitation from the Azrieli Foundation is a perfect opportunity for this type of exploration. It also gives composers such as Murphy a chance to keep her orchestral writing skills in shape, which she admits is a challenge these days with limited opportunities to take on writing a lengthy work for orchestral forces. Murphy’s completed composition will be a 20-minute double concerto for cello and harp, premiering October 15, 2018 in Montreal and featuring the McGill Chamber Orchestra.

This has turned out to be a golden year for Murphy, as she is the winner of two other composition awards – the Maria Anna Mozart Award from Symphony Nova Scotia, as well as being selected by the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto as their annual commissioned composer. For the WMCT commission, Murphy will compose a piece for eight cellos for a performance on May 3, 2018 at Toronto’s Walter Hall. This piece will be inspired by a story of painter Jackson Pollock who “went off the rails” during a Thanksgiving dinner, sending food and dishes flying. His wife’s response was simply: “Coffee will be served in the living room.” Murphy is intrigued by the dramatic and emotional possibilities of this scene, and will use the various combinations of duets, solos and quartets amongst the eight cellists to play out the tensions and dynamics suggested by this story.

Murphy’s curiosity and sense of musical adventure can be summarized by this question she poses: “If you don’t explore, don’t connect outside of yourself and your own experience, how can you move on? Wouldn’t you just keep creating the same sound?”

Canadian Electronic Ensemble

It’s a new look for the Canadian Electronic Ensemble, which can proudly boast of being the oldest continuous live-electronic group in the world. Formed in 1971 by David Jaeger, Larry Lake, Jim Montgomery and David Grimes, the CEE is gearing up for “New Look CEE,” their October 13 concert at the Canadian Music Centre. This concert marks their new configuration as a quintet, with the addition of David Sutherland to the current ensemble membership made up of founders Jaeger and Montgomery, Paul Stillwell (who joined in 1995) and John Kameel Farah (who joined in 2011) – fellow current member Rose Bolton is not playing in the October 13 concert.

In the early days when it wasn’t so easy to use synthesizers in live performance, members of the group would design and build their own instruments. Performing concerts of their own music as well as works by other composers became their focus, with their first Canadian tour happening in 1976. Other activities in the 1970s included being consultants for a sound synthesis project at the University of Toronto, as well as coordinating a research project on the work of electronic music pioneer Hugh Le Caine. Browsing through their website, one gets a strong impression of life as a pioneering electronic music ensemble, and all the rich experiences and professional associations that were had.

With improvisation being their standard mode of performance, the instrumentation is varied, using both old and new analog instruments, laptops, acoustic instruments, found sound and field recordings. So what will the new look sound like? Impossible to know at this point, but the group is excited to welcome Sutherland aboard. He brings expertise from both the digital and analog worlds, including a mastery of the EMS Synthi AKS (the iconic 70s analog synth). Definitely worth checking out this enduring ensemble whose activities span four and a half decades.

Spectrum Music

Heavyweights Brass BandOn the other end of building ensemble legacies, Spectrum Music continues its energetic agenda of bringing audiences a series of themed concerts that combine diverse traditions and intriguing cultural issues. This collective of composers and curators came together in 2010 with a mission to celebrate difference, inclusivity and community. Their October 28 concert is organized around the topic of legends and lore, combining mythologies about the lost city of Atlantis, Dutch folklore about the mermaid and stories of the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl. The Heavyweights Brass Band are the featured performers in this concert, which aims to bring jazz, classical and pop audiences together.

Worthy Mentions

Flipping through the pages of this month’s issue of The WholeNote, the reader will no doubt notice the abundance of events celebrating the music of Claude Vivier, an important Québécois voice who left behind an enduring body of musical works after his untimely death in 1983. I just happened to be in Montreal studying composition at McGill University during that year, and this devastating news shook the musical community there profoundly. Fortunately, his powerful and compelling music lives on, and the month of October will be an excellent opportunity to hear and experience the magic of his musical imagination with concerts by both Esprit Orchestra and Soundstreams.

Finally, an important reminder of two events I wrote about in my September column – the Music Gallery’s X Avant XII Festival (October 11 to 15), organized around the theme of Resistance, and New Music Concerts’ first program of the season featuring the Meitar Ensemble from Tel Aviv (October 22). The X Avant festival offers a variety of approaches and soundworlds created by artists who seek to combat the various threats currently facing the world – from oppressive regimes (including the USA) to climate disasters. Check out the listings for a full menu of what is on the agenda for this hot and cutting-edge festival. The Meitar Ensemble is a virtuoso group dedicated to commissioning and performing new works. Five players from their core membership will be visiting Toronto to perform compositions by Philippe Leroux, Ofer Pelz, Ruben Seroussi and Uri Kochavi. This concert will be a great chance to hear some leading-edge music by stellar performers.

Welcome back to another season of auditory excavation and resistance. For isn’t that what diving deep and creating new expressions using sound is all about? During the upcoming X Avant Festival produced by the Music Gallery – which takes resistance as its theme – this is definitely what will be occurring. Using this theme as a lens for this month’s column, I will be taking an overall survey of what you can expect both in the upcoming season and also during the month of September.

The Music Gallery

The big news at this hotbed place of sonic experimentation this fall is their change of venue. Due to renovations both at their usual home at St. George the Martyr church and in the neighbouring church lot, the Music Gallery’s programming will be happening at a variety of different venues for the foreseeable future. In my conversation with artistic director David Dacks about what sort of impact this change in venue will have, he noted that the Gallery’s Departure Series has already been creating programming in different venues for the last few years. The goal of this series is to make sure that the MG isn’t just identified with one place and to highlight their role as a presenter.

Man Forever aka Kid Millions - photo by Lisa CorsonFor the fall of 2017, the Gallery’s programming will be happening at 918 Bathurst, a not-for-profit arts and culture centre located in the heart of Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. Dacks mentioned that this location is actually closer to where many of the gallery’s patrons live, and this new location will provide opportunities for audience outreach in a more residential area of the city. And so it is fitting that the first show of the season on October 11 at 918 Bathurst will be a concert in the Departures Series with a performance by Man Forever aka Kid Millions touring a new album, Play What They Want. Joining the bill on that night will be Toronto-based percussionist, performer and composer Germaine Liu and her ensemble, along with Luyos MC/Reila. Expect an evening of indie rock, water-based music, electronic soundscapes, traditional chant and frequency art.

While changing location could pose a potential hazard for audience attendance, Dacks isn’t too worried. Last year was the MG’s biggest year to date where attendance was up by 40 percent, with seven sold-out concerts within the year. Each of those seven events was a partnership, thereby boosting audience numbers and reaching out to new communities. As I mentioned above, “Resistance” is the theme of this year’s X Avant Festival running from October 11 to 15. “It’s the thing to do right now, for obvious reasons, and more artists are exploring ideas that fit into this theme,” Dacks said.

One of the festival concerts will feature the music of composer James Tenney, who lived and taught in Toronto from 1976 to 2000 and had an important influence on many local composers during his time here. The program will include Pika-Don, which Tenney composed in 1991, a piece that features the voices of many local artists, including my own, which was a surprise to me when Dacks mentioned it. Rusty memory! Preceding the concert will be a panel discussion on questions such as what it means to be a socially conscious composer now as opposed to 20 to 30 years ago, and what audiences expect from socially conscious music in the concert hall.  The festival is also hosting another Deep Listening workshop led by Anne Bourne, taking place at the Tranzac Main Hall. In last year’s festival, Deep Listening pioneer Pauline Oliveros was a featured guest, and her sold-out concert was the last time she appeared in Toronto shortly before her passing in November.

Meitar EnsembleAnd of course the Music Gallery will continue its tradition of co-presenting with various partners. One such concert to note coming up on October 22 is the New Music Concerts’ season opener. It will be an opportunity to hear Tel Aviv’s Meitar Ensemble, whose membership comprises quite an array of virtuoso performers specializing in contemporary music.

Indie Opera

Tapestry Opera: Bandits in the ValleyToronto is becoming known as a major centre for contemporary indie opera. In the recent summer issue, I wrote about one such opera, Sweat, performed by the Bicycle Opera Project. I had an opportunity to experience the performance of this work of “resistance” this past summer and one of the highlights for me was the ensemble singing, which composer Juliet Palmer spoke about in our interview. The stage dynamics between the a cappella singers intermixed with their interlocking rhythms made for a stunning and compelling performance. The mere fact of giving such a prominent role to an ensemble of singers breaks operatic traditions while laying new ground for a different approach to this older art form.

Sweat was originally workshopped by Tapestry Opera, a major player in the current indie-opera scene, who are starting their season early this year with a performance of Bandits in the Valley. This opera is set in 1860s Toronto, and will be performed at Todmorden Mills, located, appropriately enough, in the Don River Valley. The story brings together a local bandit group with a troupe of travelling Gilbert and Sullivan singers who conspire to steal a mysterious object from a wealthy home situated in the valley. This story is reviving part of Toronto’s history by highlighting the fact that the valley was a haven for smugglers and bandits during the late 1800s. The work was composed by Benton Roark with libretto by Julie Tepperman, and features six performers moving throughout the various locations at the Todmorden site while singing and playing a variety of instruments. It will be an intimate setting with limited space, so audiences must reserve tickets. The good news is that the performances are free and run throughout the month of September.

Gallery 345 with Arraymusic

Quatuor BozziniGallery 345, located at 345 Sorauren Avenue, is another hotspot of performances spanning many genres. This month sees them partnering with Arraymusic on September 19 to present Montreal’s Quatuor Bozzini performing Cassandra Miller’s Jules Léger Prize-winning piece About Bach. Miller began this work as a solo piece for viola specifically for violist Pemi Paull. She focused in on Paull’s musicality, first creating a transcription of his performance of Bach’s Partita No. 2. She then added her own harmonies to create something akin to a chorale, while setting up a process that takes the musical materials through a meandering journey. This version for string quartet is the result of many years of working with Quatuor Bozzini. The evening will also include a performance of Bryn Harrison’s new Piano Quintet by English piano virtuoso and experimental music champion Philip Thomas.

Toronto Symphony

Later in September, the TSO will be performing two newly commissioned works by Canadian composers. First of all, on September 22 and 23, their “Tribute to Glenn Gould” concert will include the world premiere of Kelly-Marie Murphy’s Curiosity, Genius, and the Search for Petula Clark, a work that the composer wrote based on the impact that Gould had on her creative life. The evening will begin with a performance of Wīhtikōw, composed by Yannick Plamondon, another in the series of "Sesquies" that have been occurring all year. A few days later, Alexina Louie’s Triple Concerto will have its world premiere. This piece was co-commissioned by the TSO, the Montreal Symphony and the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and will feature the concertmasters of all three orchestras. The Sesquie for that evening is Hyacinth, by composer Rolf Boon. I will be writing more about Murphy and Louie in upcoming issues this season, so stay tuned to hear more about these pieces as well as what is currently, and coming up, on the composing plates of these two dynamic and innovative creators.

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

2209 NewExperiencing music and sound in different places and environments is increasingly becoming a regular part of the summer experience. Starting things off this year in early June will be a new collaboration between Continuum, Jumblies Theatre and Evergreen Brick Works in their event Four Lands, which combines both a concert and an interactive installation on June 3. The concert will feature three new works by composers Jason Doell, Erik Griswold and Juliet Palmer. Palmer is also involved in a few other intriguing projects and collaborations this summer, so I contacted her to find out more about what was new and upcoming. Her piece for the Four Lands project is titled Quarry, an homage to the large quarry hole on site at the Evergreen Brick Works where the performances will occur. At one time in Toronto’s history, stones from this quarry were excavated for both city homes as well as iconic buildings such as Queen’s Park and Massey Hall. Palmer’s piece is created from a series of texts written by participants from Jumblies community projects across the country, as well as Toronto-based participants, with the theme of excavating memory to envision possible worlds as well as describe the current worlds they live in.

Sweat: Envisioning change in one’s life and living circumstances is a theme that carries through into another of Palmer’s works that will be widely performed this summer – her opera, Sweat, with libretto by Anna Chatterton. Originally workshopped in 2013 by Soundstreams and performed in New York in the fall of 2016, the piece has undergone several rewrites, including changes of perspective in the storyline and the addition of more characters. This summer, it will be the intrepid Bicycle Opera Project that takes the piece to the next level, performing the work in eight communities throughout the province, starting in Hamilton on July 15 and 16 and concluding in Toronto from August 3 to 6. The company distinguishes itself by cycling from one performance to the next and is committed to bringing Canadian-written opera into smaller communities in intimate spaces.

Sweat takes on a critical global issue, weaving stories from around the world of women’s experiences working in the garment industry. Palmer was inspired by the questions “who makes my clothes, and what are the dreams and ambitions of those whose hands created the clothes I’m wearing?” It’s a diverse cast, representing the different communities impacted by the garment industry, and is written for nine performers – a chorus of five plus four soloists, with libretto in English, Cantonese, Ukrainian and Hungarian. During the performance in New York, Palmer realized that the “main character” of the piece is really the workers who are portrayed by the chorus – an approach outside the usual expectations for opera, where the focus is typically on soloists. Palmer elaborates: “The chorus is where you experience the sense of collective action and cooperation and the strength that comes from building on each other’s sound. Musically, there are a lot of patterns, some machine-like, reflecting the idea that you’re part of a big process which can be depressing, and then on the other hand, when you’re working for change, your small action builds on the small actions of others, which make a compelling voice that is impossible to ignore.”

Unsilent: The third summer project for Palmer is her involvement in the Unsilent Project, a new work being created through a collaboration with the National Youth Orchestra, Signal Theatre and its artistic director Michael Greyeyes (Plains Cree) and the family of the late Piikani Blackfoot spoken-word artist Zaccheus Jackson. Palmer is writing a piece using one of Jackson’s poems to be performed by two spoken-word Indigenous artists from Saskatchewan, while the other composer, Ian Cusson (Métis), is also creating a piece from one of Jackson’s poems. The project is inspired by the vision that there can be no reconciliation until we all work together, one of the important principles that came from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. Orchestral performances will be interpolated among the spoken word compositions, and together with projected images, the end result will be a performance piece celebrating the life and creative power of Zaccheus Jackson and the themes so important to him – healing, empowerment and hope. Palmer is eagerly anticipating the outcome of combining orchestral traditions with Indigenous spoken-word performances. The piece is part of the NYO’s summer tour, with the Toronto performance happening on July 25 at Koerner Hall.

Barbara Croall’s Wiikondiwin: Another opportunity to hear the worlds of Indigenous performance traditions and European musical forms coming together will be in a new opera written by composer Barbara Croall of Odawa First Nation. The work is entitled Wiikondiwin, which means feast or feasting. The idea originated with Valerie Kuinka, one of the directors of the Highlands Opera Studio. In our conversation, she told me that after listening to a lecture by Peter Schleifenbaum, owner of the Haliburton Forest reserve, on the impacts of climate change on the forest, Kuinka imagined an opera that would portray the forest environment of 150 years ago, of current times, and of 150 years into the future. She approached Croall with the idea, as well as production collaborators L’Atelier Lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal. The first workshop performance will take place this summer on August 19 in the Haliburton Highlands area, with a full premiere to take place in Montreal on December 5.

Croall proceeded first by writing a story from these initial ideas from Kuinka, out of which came the libretto and music. It is set for a core of six performers – three opera singers (drawn from participants in the Highlands Opera Studio Program) and three Indigenous performers who will perform vocally and play drum. One of these performers will be Croall herself, who will also play the pipigwan, an Anishinaabe cedar flute. The libretto for the opera uses Odawa, Métis French and English. The other main performing component will be community choirs: for the performance in August, choirs from the Haliburton Highlands area will participate, with choirs from the Montreal area joining in for the December performance. The story of the opera revolves around the response of forest animals to the earth’s suffering due to the abuses caused by humans. They hold a feast, a wiikondiwin, and decide that their solution will be to infiltrate the human world to effect change. Short excerpts from the opera will be presented as a sneak preview on July 29 at the Elora Festival at the “With Glowing Hearts” concert and at a special private event on June 28 hosted by the Lieutenant Governor.

Stratford Summer Music: Croall will also be appearing at Stratford Summer Music, performing a work titled Morning during the “Music for an Avon Morning – A First Nations Experience” event happening from August 4 to 6. During a lecture she will give on August 4, she will also perform and discuss how the history of the pipigwan guides her creative work. Another intriguing performance at Stratford Summer Music will be the work 100 Very Good Reasons Why_for 100 Spatialised Electric Guitars on July 23, an experience created by composer/guitarist Tim Brady. For this event, 100 local electric guitarists, both amateur and professional, will be joining Brady in an installation-like concert, where the audience is invited to walk amongst the performers on the floor of the Allman Arena.

 

Other Summer Festival Highlights

Luminato: Continuing with the theme of new music created by Indigenous performers, there are two works at the Luminato Festival that deserve mention. On June 16, Jeremy Dutcher, a Toronto-based composer and vocal artist with Wolastoq First Nation roots will be performing his unique compositions created from melodies he transcribed from the oldest known field recordings of the Indigenous peoples along the St. John (Wolastoq) River basin. Then on June 22-24, Signal Theatre will present a dance-opera entitled Bearing, with Michael Greyeyes (Plains Cree) working as co-director alongside Yvette Nolan (Algonquin) and librettist Spy Dénommé-Welch (Anishnaabe). The music will include works by Claude Vivier, as well as a commissioned work from Dénommé-Welch and Catherine Magowan. The National Youth Orchestra will appear as performers, along with mezzo-soprano Marion Newman (Kwagiulth and Stó:lo).

Ottawa Chamberfest: At the Ottawa Chamberfest, Sweat will be performed twice, on July 23 (Almonte) and 24 (Ottawa). On July 25, the Architek Percussion ensemble will explore the sounds of minimalist electroacoustic music using a range of percussion instruments. On July 31, the festival’s annual New Music Now series returns with three concerts, including works by composers Current, Schafer, Sokolović, Llugdar, Schmidt, Palej, Daniel and others. Performers include the Canadian Art Song Project, Penderecki String Quartet, Land’s End Ensemble and VC2. The Cris Derksen Trio performance on August 1 will include master hoop dancer Nimkii Osawamick and percussionist Jesse Baird. The Canadian premiere of Stewart Goodyear’s Piano Quartet will be performed on August 2 by Ensemble Made in Canada.

Harbourfront and Westben: Summer Music in the Garden at Harbourfront features two concerts of new music. On June 29, cellist Elinor Frey will perform Ricercar by Linda Catlin Smith and, on August 17, the Taktus marimba duo will play arrangements of music by Ann Southam and Philip Glass. On July 21 at the Westben Festival in Campbellford, the emerging pianist Rashaan Allwood’s interest in birdsong will be highlighted. This will include his own interactive performance adaptations of two of Messiaen’s piano works, with further inspiration drawn from artworks he commissioned from Avery Kua. These images will be projected along with other photos and videos during the performance. In addition, on July 21 and 22 the festival will also offer an opportunity to experience a soundwalk led by Parker Finley, an activity focused on listening to the environment.

Music From Scratch: Contact Contemporary Music, in partnership with the Canadian Music Centre, is once again offering Music From Scratch, their free creative workshop for youth from July 10 to 14. This year, guest facilitator Tina Pearson will join Jerry Pergolesi and the Contact ensemble to delve into creative listening, writing, vocal performance, movement and improvisation exercises, with a final concert on July 14. Pearson brings her work influenced by the Deep Listening tradition of Pauline Oliveros and her unique explorations in Biospheric Art Practice and Sonic Mimicry to the participants. She will also lead a Deep Listening workshop for members of the public at the CMC on July 8 and perform on July 16 with the Contact Ensemble in a collaboration entitled Without a Net. Also, come Labour Day weekend, you’ll want to check out Contact’s lineup for their annual INTERsection event.

Additional Summer Quick Picks

June 3: Spectrum Music presents Tales from Turtle Island. Spectrum composers create music to playwright Yolanda Bonnell’s pieces. Performers include members of the Métis Fiddler Quartet, DJ/electronic artist Classic Roots, who will also perform a solo work with Pow Wow dance, and violinist Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk performing an excerpt of her own work Memere Colibri.

June 10: Blythwood Winds presents “Voices of Canadian Women,” with works by Höstman, Beecroft, Catlin Smith, Raum, Richardson-Schulte, Simms and Sokolović.

June 17: Canadian Women Composers Project. She’s In the House! Works by Coulthard, Weaver, Sokolović, Duncan, Skarecky and others.

July 10, 17 & 31: Church of the Holy Trinity. Music Mondays. Concerts include works by Canadian composers Burge (10th), Murphy-King (17th) and Doolittle (31st).

Jun 22: “Crossroads.” Works by Ivana Popovic and Michael Gfroerer.

Jun 23 & 25: Jumblies Theatre’s Touching Ground Festival, featuring Under the Concrete composed by Martin van de Ven.

July 5: Music and Beyond Festival. The Kronos Quartet performs original and arranged works including pieces by Canadians Nicole Lizée and Tanya Tagaq (arr. Jacob Garchik).

August 4-6: Electric Eclectics: an outdoor festival with an eclectic program of avant-garde and crossover musicians, as well as art installations, DJs and films.

August 9-12: Toronto International Electroacoustic Symposium (TIES), 2017. The featured artist is Quebec sound artist Chantal Dumas, whose work encompasses production of audio fiction and docufiction, sound installation, composition and sound design.

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

 

2208 In with the New 1The month of May brings a full blooming spring along with a packed 21C Music Festival, now in its fourth year. Running from May 24 to 28, the festival has had a significant impact on bringing new music to a wider audience, with five days of a wide range of musical voices and approaches to sonic experimentation spread over nine concerts, including 31 premieres. One of the themes this year, Canada 150, will be marked through collaborations with the Canadian Opera Company, the Canadian Art Song Project and Soundstreams.

Another is the festival’s strong focus on women composers and performers, with Korean-born Unsuk Chin as the featured composer. This focus makes for a perfect follow-up to my last two columns in which I explored stories about how issues of gender, race and musical diversity are impacting both large festivals such as the TSO’s New Creations (March issue) and individual projects, such as the work Century Song (April issue) performed and co-created by Neema Bickersteth.

Cecilia String Quartet: One of the 21C concerts that caught my attention is “Cecilia String Quartet Celebrates Canadian Women” on May 25 by the Toronto-based Cecilia String Quartet. In a conversation with the Quartet’s cellist Rachel Desoer, I discovered that the vision for the project began three years ago when the all-female quartet was inspired to encourage the representation of women’s music within their own genre. After looking at some of the existing string quartet repertoire, they decided to get involved in the curating process and commissioned four different composers as a way of encouraging these talented women to write for string quartet. The composers they chose were Katarina Ćurčin, Kati Agócs, Emilie LeBel and Nicole Lizée.

There has been much conversation over the years around the pros and cons of creating concerts that feature only women composers, but that is not the topic I particularly wish to delve into here. Rather, as I took a look at each piece on this program, I saw something else emerging that I hadn’t noticed so distinctly before in other women composer concerts. The pattern I noticed here was that the focus each composer chose for their piece harkened back to topics that characterized earlier movements of feminist art practice. Back in the 1970s, American women such as visual artist Judy Chicago and performance artist Suzanne Lacy, for example, began creating work organized around specific feminist principles. Their goal was to create work that influenced cultural attitudes so as to transform stereotypes. Strategies they employed included bringing awareness to women’s experience and history, as well as incorporating traditional forms of women’s creativity into their own work. This may seem not so revolutionary now, but at the time it was a bold departure from accepted practices. This movement however did not create strong inroads into the contemporary music world, although there was definitely a movement to research and perform music by women composers from the past.

So it was through this lens that I observed that each of the four works on the Cecilia String Quartet concert program shared something in common with these earlier feminist practices. When I asked Desoer if the quartet had given any guidelines for the pieces, her response was: “At the beginning of the project we wondered about creating a theme or having another piece of art for the composers to respond to. But instead, we let the artists decide, and were curious about what they would choose.” The quartet was delighted to discover that each composer found their inspiration in other art forms, texts and other women artists without any direct request.

Katarina Ćurčin’s String Quartet No.3 is based on a folk-song melody from her Serbian roots. The song tells the story of a young woman who feels trapped inside the house, expressing outrage at her mother for keeping her housebound. In Ćurčin’s quartet, her characteristic vibrant and rhythmic style aptly captures the song’s strong emotional journey, beginning with expressions of anger and finally dissolving into resignation. This work captures well the sense of limitation that has characterized women’s lives over millennia.

Kati Agócs’s music has been described as encouraging audience members to listen and be changed. In Tantric Variations, she bases her musical explorations on the word tantric, which means woven together. Using a one-bar motive as the basis, she weaves “a landscape that really goes everywhere you could imagine,” Desoer said. Desoer was originally drawn to Agócs’ music when she performed her Violoncello Duet (I And Thou) and was inspired by all the sounds she didn’t know her instrument could make. Starting with a word referring to the practice of weaving, Agócs is able to both reference the traditional craft as well as evoke the universal idea of weaving strands together to create a unified whole.

With Emilie LeBel’s Taxonomy of Paper Wings, we get a glimpse into one aspect of the work of writer Emily Dickinson, who lived a mostly introverted and confined life. Dickinson wrote a series of poems on fragments of used envelopes, using the shape of the paper to influence her placement of words on the page. LeBel uses the shape and structure of one of these envelope poems, which resembles the hinged wings of a bird, to inform the musical structure of her piece. The bird element translates into an ethereal texture in the music and as Desoer describes it, LeBel “explores the subtleties of softer sounds on string instruments in a way that is rare.”

Risk-taker and fashion designer Isabella Blow is the figure behind Nicole Lizée’s work entitled Isabella Blow at Somerset House. The composition is a response to a posthumous Blow photo exhibit of disembodied mannequin heads wearing Blow’s designs. These macabre images inspired Lizée to translate techniques from her background in vintage technologies and looping into instrumental gestures that “ride a beautiful line between roboticism and humanity,” says Desoer. This is a rare acoustic work for Lizée and yet she manages to expand the sound world of the string quartet with a few additional sources.

For a project that began with a search for repertoire by women, it’s inspiring to see how each of the composers addresses themes important in the early days of feminist art practices. For the quartet, the project has blossomed into something for which “it’s hard to see an end date” Desoer said. It certainly has inspired them with a desire to commission more repertoire for string quartet by women composers and to encourage other quartets to do so as well. (The quartet will also be performing both the Lizée and Ćurčin works on May 6 as part of a program presented by the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society.)

2208 In with the New 2Unsuk Chin: There will be plenty of opportunities at 21C to hear the music of featured composer Unsuk Chin. On May 24, the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra will perform her work snagS&Snarls in Koerner Hall and on May 27, her Piano Étude will be performed in a concert in the Temerty Theatre that also includes works by Alexina Louie, Raphael Weinroth-Browne, Kotoka Suzuki, and Aaron Parker. Chin will also join Canadian composer Chris Paul Harman as mentors for Soundstreams’ Emerging Composers Workshop with the final concert featuring world premieres by the six composers on May 26.

The showcase concert of Chin’s work will be on May 28 in a co-presentation with Soundstreams with performances of her Advice from a Caterpillar and Cantatrix Sopranica. (The concert will also include Harman’s works Love Locked Out along with the world premiere of It’s All Forgotten Now.) A major theme that emerges in Chin’s music is her fascination with word play and word games. In a written correspondence, I asked Chin to describe the relationship between the music and the projected text one sees during the performance of Advice from a Caterpillar. This piece for bass clarinetist is “part of my opera Alice in Wonderland, in which the performer is dressed up as a caterpillar” she replied. “In my opera, the caterpillar, one of the grotesque characters in the Wonderland, questions Alice, who is in the midst of an identity crisis and seeks advice. Instead of replying to her questions, he talks to her in bizarre riddles. By playing the bass clarinet, the Caterpillar ‘speaks’ his lines and the musical gestures are inspired by the Caterpillar’s words.”

In speaking about her work Cantatrix Sopranica, she expands upon her fascination with “the threshold regions between music and language. The piece was inspired by the ideas of OULIPO (a loose group of French-speaking writers and mathematicians), and the texts, which I wrote during the process of composition, mostly consist of palindromes, acrostics, anagrams and other wordplays. I used the texts as totally flexible musical material – just like pitches, timbre or rhythm. The piece is “about the act of singing itself, and plays with all kinds of clichés about singing. There is a good dose of black humour in it.”

Regarding questions of identity of gender or race in music, she responds that she has not “pondered [the subject] during the 30 years I’ve been in the business since that would have been stifling for my compositional work.” However, she did bring up a more pressing concern for her – “that young musicians (female, but also male) who refuse to play the glamour game are easily disadvantaged. There is the problematic tendency that the focus is less and less on music and more on marketed image.” She did note too the growing number of excellent female conductors, “one good example being the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s new principal guest conductor Susanna Mälkki.”

The question of gender in contemporary music is varied and complex and I’ve tried to shine a light on some aspects of the issue within the context of the 21C Festival offerings. There is much more to explore in the festival programming than is possible to cover here, so I encourage you to check out the listings. As for other goings-on in May, here is a quick look at upcoming concerts by local new music presenters:

 

QUICK PICKS

May 17: The Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan will be celebrating their new double CD release, performing arrangements of Indonesian songs as well as Translating Grace, for gamelan, voice, cello, organ, bass clarinet and film.

May 19: Contact Contemporary Music is back with two programs: “Without a Net” with works by Tina Pearson, John Mark Sherlock, Anna Hostman and Jerry Pergolesi; and Jun 2: “Feeling Backwards” with works by Christopher Reiche, Allison Cameron, Nephenee Rose, Annette Brosin, and Julius Eastman.

May 24: The Thin Edge New Music Collective also has two upcoming programs with their “Keys, Wind and Strings Festival, works by Allison Cameron, Gregory Lee Newsome, Solomiya Moroz, Uroš Rojko and Marielle Groven; and May 25 works by Jason Doell, Germaine Liu, Fjóla Evans, Kasia Czarski-Jachimovicz and Tobias Eduard Schick.

Jun 3 and 4: Continuum Contemporary Music presents Four Lands in collaboration with Jumblies Theatre.

Jun 3: Spectrum Music presents “Tales from Turtle Island” featuring new compositions along with storytelling.

Additional events:

May 10: Burdock. “A Strange Impulse.”

May 12: Anne Mizen in concert: “Celebrating Canada” includes Schafer’s Snowforms.

May 12: Gallery 345. “From Sea to Sea: A Celebration of Canada 150 in Poetry and Music.” David Jaeger, composer.

May 14: Orpheus Choir of Toronto. “Identities: Glorious and Free,” with compositions by Kuzmenko and Estacio

May 27: Array Ensemble. “Young Composers’ Workshop Concert.”

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

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