Summer and Music Festivals make great partners. Now that concert life appears to be fully alive after the past few years of the enforced doldrums, the summer festivals are alive with several offerings of new music and Canadian compositions. I’ve picked out some of the upcoming highlights, both local and further afield.
I began by reaching out to Yellowknife composer Carmen Braden to speak about her upcoming performance at Ottawa’s Chamberfest as well as her interest in soundscape composition. My initial encounters with her musical work were through our connections in the world of acoustic ecology and her past participation in CASE (Canadian Association for Sound Ecology). As she explained to me during our phone conversation, she had initially encountered the writings and ideas of R. Murray Schafer in her composition classes at Acadia University. “Instantly I felt I had found a community I didn’t know I was looking for,” she said. “It resonated so strongly with my love of my home environment and the outdoors and I had been trying to find a way to marry those interests with music. To find these people (both at CASE and in the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology) who had been creating and working as sound activists for years, developing the ideas of soundscape, soundmarks, and the power that sound has through history and memory – I felt like I was finding real community.” Braden subsequently joined CASE, served on its board and was active in the organization for several years. Even though she’s not as active currently, she regularly returns to these ways of listening and finding community as part of her practice as a composer.
Braden was born in Whitehorse in the Yukon, but her family moved back to Yellowknife when she was quite young and it is where she currently lives, raising her own young family. Her past experiences of listening to the endless repetition of sounds of nature such as waves on the shore or bird calls, have now come together with the different environment she is currently experiencing – the daily rhythms and patterns of life as a parent. Melding these two life experiences together is the inspirational force behind her new piece, You Know What’s Coming, You Just Don’t Know When. Says Braden: “Within repetitive patterns, there is usually something happening to break the cycle or shift things whether it’s gradual or dramatic. The time I’ve spent looking for those patterns and listening for variations in nature has opened my ears to how kids are endlessly repetitive.” Commissioned by violinist Mark Fewer, it received its premiere on May 4 at a concert presented by the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto, and will receive its second performance as part of Ottawa’s Chamberfest on July 25. It will be paired in the program with Ernest Chausson’s Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, composed between 1888 and 1891. It was the instrumentation of Chausson’s work that set the path for the creation of Braden’s piece.
Continuing to talk about the influence of soundscapes in her compositional work, she mentioned her piece See the Freeze, Hear the Thaw that was performed in October of 2022 in Yellowknife by pianist Megumi Masaki, the new director of music at the Banff Centre. Using video and audio, the piece explores ice, using a series of recordings gathered in 2021 combined with people talking about ice, including Elders speaking of the changing climate and interviews with young Yellowknife-based climate activists. Away from home at the time, Braden was feeling nostalgic for the sounds of the spring ice breakup. She shared that many people from home, knowing of her love for these beautiful sounds, were sending her recordings they’d made on their phones. “It feels like some of the work I did with CASE and in my own music has started to come back at me from others which is a really rewarding feeling.”
Braden has a busy summer ahead of her. In June, at the time of the summer solstice, the Longshadow Music Festival, a festival she organizes and calls her “little passion project” will take place in Yellowknife June 15-17. With three days of concerts, it’s a chance to allow for musical exploration while including works from the musical traditions that stand behind those pieces “that are more on the weird spectrum,” Braden said. The Biglake Festival in Wellington, Prince Edward County, will premiere a work titled The Crossover + The Exodus Suite on August 21. This piece was commissioned by the Ensemble Made in Canada from Wesley Hardisty, a fiddler and composer from the Dene First Nation in the Northwest Territories. In this project, Braden takes on the role of arranger to bring the EMIC Quartet’s classical background into his fiddle world.
The Tone Festival
Among the many summer music festivals happening in Toronto will be the Tone Festival which runs June 2-28 and features an eclectic mix of experimental musics curated by Karen Ng and Tad Michalak. Among them, on June 18, there will be a celebration of Jason Doell’s latest album entitled Becoming In Shadows ~ Of Being Touched which was released in late April. In my conversation with Doell, he explained that the June 18 performance will be similar to the music on the album, but not identical – an interesting detail which has everything to do with his creative process.
The initial stages of the project took place while he was at the Banff Centre in early 2020, working on an entirely different project. Each morning he would improvise at the piano as a way of beginning his day. When it came to lockdown time, he listened to what he had recorded during that time and decided it wasn’t something he would want to release on an album. Instead, he began working with those sound files using a computer programming language called ChucK, and in the process created his own composition assistant tool, designed to make decisions about the ordering and layering of the sounds. The results were “interesting and strange, weird and kind of beautiful,” he said. After some editing and “composerly nudging,” the album was born. In the Tone Festival however, Doell will perform live on the piano, with the software recording in real time and “giving back in unexpected ways something for me to improvise with,” he explained.
Doell has plans to take these experiments further with a series of collaborations with other artists “whose practices aren’t quite the same as mine and who have different relationships to sound. We’ll explore how we as collaborators interact with the system and what sort of results it yields.This could take the form of music for recordings, for use in installations, or the basis of a live performance. If I tried to write a chamber work for some of these folks I don’t think we’d be as successful or as fulfilling for my relationship to music.”
The Tone Festival will also include performances by White People Killed Them on June 24, a trio made up of electronic noise artist Raven Chacon, guitarist John Dieterich (both of whom are part of Doell’s collaborative project) and drummer Marshall Trammell. The festival closes on June 28 with the Sun Ra Arkestra, renowned for music that combines big-band swing, space-age jazz, singing, dancing and chanting, as well as its bright colours and Afro-pageantry.
This year’s Luminato Festival highlights the world premiere of Dragon’s Tale with music by Chan Ka Nin and libretto by Mark Brownell (June 15-18). Celebrating the origins of Dragon Boat racing, the piece intersects two different timelines and their protagonists as they struggle for freedom and independence: Qu Yuan in ancient China and Chinese-Canadian Xiao Lian in present-day Toronto. The setting, on Toronto’s waterfront, will include the beating drums of dragon boat racing, a sport that emerged 2500 years ago among fishing communities along the Yangtze River in South-Central China. There are a number of origin stories related to the Dragon Boat Festival, among which the legend of the poet Qu Yuan is the best known.
Collingwood Music Festival
On July 13, at the Collingwood Music Festival, the Montreal-based string ensemble collectif9 will perform RITUAELS which brings together works ranging from the Middle Ages to the 21st century – with music from Hildegard von Bingen to Arvo Pärt to Canadian composers Nicole Lizée and Jocelyn Morlock. On the following day, July 14, Olivier Messiaen’s epic work Quartet for the End of Time will be performed by the Gryphon Trio joined by clarinetist James Campbell. This spiritually moving work premiered at the Nazi prison camp Stalag VIIIA in 1941, and explores Messiaen’s relationship with the divine. This same work will also be performed by Mark Fewer (violin), Angela Park (piano), James Campbell (clarinet) and Thomas Wiebe (cello) at Stratford Summer Music on August 12.
The Elora Festival
On a final note, I couldn’t resist mentioning a special July 8 program from Confluence Concerts, curated by Larry Beckwith. The story of the 19th-century virtuoso pianist and composer Clara Schumann will be brought to life with performances of her solo piano music and songs, narration by Tom Allen, and a performance of Clara’s letters and diaries by actor Alison Beckwith.
Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.