One 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.
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.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org.