This month’s column takes a behind-the-scenes look at two quite different upcoming events in April – the Curiosity Festival presented by the Toy Piano Composers and an upcoming concert by the independent pianist/improviser/composer Marilyn Lerner which while different in nature from the TPC event was also surprisingly similar to it, in some very interesting ways. There was the piano connection of course; but also the artists’ interest in combining different elements, influences and genres to create their own unique creative statements. This is certainly a theme that comes up regularly in this column, but I wasn’t necessarily expecting to find this commonality when I set out to interview both parties.

BBB-New1.jpgMonica Pearce: Beginning early in April, the TPC’s first festival, the Curiosity Festival, aims – in the words of co-founder Monica Pearce – to “bring together three unique musical explorations that go beyond what the collective already does.” Known primarily for their chamber concerts highlighting music written by their composer members, this festival has three strikingly different components: a series of operas performed in collaboration with the Bicycle Opera Project on April 1 and 2; a sound installation at the Canadian Music Centre created by TPC member Nancy Tam on April 6 and 7; and a chamber concert on April 9 that highlights all things metal, including the presence of metal music, that genre of rock that developed in the late 60s and 70s with the rise of bands such as Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple.

The TPC, now in their eighth season, began from a desire by co-founders Pearce and Chris Thornborrow to create opportunities for their music to be performed once they had completed their music studies. At the same time, Pearce acquired a used toy piano and started writing pieces for the instrument. They both agreed that calling their new collective Toy Piano Composers would be a playful and imaginative name. Although the toy piano does not always appear in all their concerts (a risk, Pearce admits, in terms of managing audiences’ expectations), they have decided to stick with a name that reflects so clearly the group’s spirit of playful adventure.

The first concert of the festival, “Travelogue,” celebrates TPC’s ongoing vigorous collaboration with the Bicycle Opera Project. Bicycle Opera cycles from concert to concert as a way to make the operatic art form more relevant, intimate and accessible. Their environmentally friendly approach to travel merged with their vision of showcasing emerging talent has won them enthusiastic crowds wherever they happen to go. At the Curiosity Festival, they will be performing four operas – three composed by TPC members Pearce, Elisha Denburg and August Murphy-King, and the fourth composed by Tobin Stokes on recommendation from the Bicycle Opera directors. All four pieces include aspects of travel – from the bicycle to the space shuttle – with each work tapping into the terrain of human struggle with life’s circumstances.

Playback, the sound installation by Nancy Tam at the Canadian Music Centre’s Chalmers House home, features her expertise and interest in sound art and theatre. It’s a site-specific work for ten participants at a time who will be guided around the CMC space listening over headphones hooked up to individual portable audio players. Tam’s audio walk will contain excerpts from interviews she conducted with composers across Canada, as well as recordings of Tam’s music and soundscape elements. For the interviews, composers were asked such questions as “What is Canadian music, what is your relationship to composition and to the CMC?” as well as being asked to try to remember what the Chalmers House used to look like before the renovations.

The “Metal” concert includes works by TPC members Fiona Ryan, Chris Thornborrow, Bekah Simms, Daniel Brophy, Ruth Guechtal and Alex Eddington. Both Brophy and Guechtal have incorporated the metal genre influence into their overall compositional style, and this concert will give them an opportunity to let this influence become an integral part of a chamber concert. Other thematic approaches to the idea of metal include Thornborrow’s exploration of the metals of industry, Ryan’s interest in metal at a chemical level, and of course the use of metallic instruments. And, in keeping with their name, music for the toy piano will also appear on this concert.

The inaugural Curiosity Festival takes its place among the other new music festivals in the city, and although not as big and well-funded as New Creations or 21C, it is the first festival coming from the younger generation of presenters, Pearce told me. As for its future, TPC will assess the impact of the festival to see if it has made a positive contribution and if so, how often to repeat it. Other future visions include recording, touring and collaborating with ensembles such as Chamber Cartel from Atlanta who also present music for the toy piano. And even though they now have a core ensemble made up of flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, piano, double bass and conductor, they are committed to remaining composer-focused, despite the various challenges such as lack of sustainable funding opportunities that this presents.

BBB-New2.jpgMarilyn Lerner: No stranger to collaboration with a wide variety of ensembles and individual artists, pianist/composer and improviser Marilyn Lerner decided to take a leap into solo performance for her upcoming concert at Gallery 345 on April 16. For those not familiar with Lerner’s music, she has created her own unique and dynamic blend from a variety of influences, the most central ones being jazz, free improvisation, contemporary classical and klezmer. Within her current ensemble, The Ugly Beauties, with cellist Matt Brubeck and drummer Nick Fraser, she is able to navigate these various genres and bring a compositional style that combines the notated with the improvised. This way of working is in fact, she says, a genre unto itself, with the main question being “How do we get from one composed section to another?” That’s where the improvisation kicks in. The art of lieder combined with Yiddish poetry is another love of hers and has been behind her collaborations with singers such as Toronto’s David Wall and New Yorker Adrienne Cooper.

So what to expect on April 16? I suspect it will be a fine blended soup of all of it. In our interview, Lerner told me her plan is to pull out many pieces she has previously written but which haven’t yet been performed. “I love harmony, and even though I play a lot of improvised and free music, this side of me doesn’t get to come out of the closet. I’ve written a lot of beautiful songs, and would like a chance to play them, as this seems truer to my own sensibilities.” She used the phrase “abstract lyricism” to define her approach, with an interest in an unfolding, restless harmony much like that which you find in the music of Wagner and Strauss. Influences from French impressionists Ravel and Debussy also find their way in there, as well as her love of playing Bach.

And even though these pieces have a composed element to them, she will bring her improviser self into the mix. In her preparation for the concert, she will practise various improvising approaches, but in the moment of the performance it will be a spontaneous treatment. “I strive to play the piano as a horizontal multi-voiced instrument, no matter what I’m playing. Interesting, considering that I love harmony,” she comments. No matter what style or genre she embarks upon however, ultimately, “my heart is in writing pieces that express how I’m feeling.”

Ensemble Goings-on:

New Music Concerts concludes its busy season on Apr 24 with “Flutes Galore,” a concert featuring 24 flute players performing several works and premieres by Canadian composers. NMC artistic director and flutist, Robert Aitken, has three works on the program, including the world premiere of his latest work Caracas. Other world premieres include Impulse, a NMC commission by Alex Pauk and Two Fancies by Robert W. Stevenson. Works by Bruce Mather and Christopher Butterfield complete the extravaganza concert in what promises to be a unique sound event with the presence of multiple flutes on stage.

Kitchener-Waterloo: This year marks the 40th anniversary of the music faculty at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo and the new music organization NUMUS is celebrating this milestone with orchestral concerts on Apr 2 and 3 featuring world premieres by Stephanie Martin and Glenn Buhr. In their Apr 23 concert, SlowPitchSound presents his hypnotic rhythms and unconventional uses of the turntable as an instrument in conjunction with cinematic images and the movements of modern dancer Lybido. Also in the area, Ensemble Made in Canada performs works by Canadians Omar Daniel, Apr 8, and John Burge, Apr 9, for the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society.

The Music Gallery presents “Emergents III” on Apr 8 in a show curated by Alex Samaras. The program begins with a set by the duo The Science of What? with Jessica Chen and Justin Orok performing improvisations and deconstructions of popular song. The second set presents the music of Jeremy Bellaviti, an emerging composer whose style merges contemporary classical with the rhythmical influences of folk music. The concert will also feature the premiere of his new work for violinist Sarah Fraser-Raff.

Arraymusic’s Apr 5 concert, “Four New Works,” presents world premieres by Anna Höstman, Gregory Newsome, Adam Scime and Scott Wilson, with guest soprano Carla Huhtanen. Continuum is heading west in April for a tour of British Columbia in collaboration with Ballet Kelowna and four choregraphers. Reimagined Renaissance Music is the theme that will be explored musically in works by Rodney Sharman, Jocelyn Morlock and Michael Oesterle. Toronto audiences will have the chance to see and hear this show in the fall.

Additional Listings

Apr 7: Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. Commissioned premiere by Zosha di Castri.

Apr 8: Essential Opera. Several contemporary operas, each focused on a different facet of women’s lives featuring composers Leslie Uyeda, Anna Pidgorna, Anna Höstman, Fiona Ryan, Elizabeth Raum, John Estacio and Jake Heggie.

Apr 23: mmmm Composers In Concert. New works by Michel Allard, Marco Burak, Michael Dobinson and Michelle Wells. Stratford.

Apr 27: Canadian Music Centre. Three commissions of Canadian works by Katarina Curcin, Nicole Lizée and Kati Agócs performed by the Cecilia String Quartet.

April 28 and 30: Toronto Symphony. towards Osiris (2005) by German composer Matthias Pintscher.

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

2106-New_1.pngThe month of March begins in a big way this year with the annual New Creations Festival presented by the Toronto Symphony. In last month’s issue I introduced the main features of what is being planned for the three concerts happening on March 5, 9 and 12, including the presence of guest composer, conductor, violist and co-curator Brett Dean from Australia. One of the three commissioned works for this year’s festival is a unique collaboration between composer Paul Frehner and filmmaker Peter Mettler. I had an opportunity to speak with both of these creators to find out how their piece for orchestra and film came into being and what we can expect to experience on March 9, the night of the performance.

I began by asking Frehner how the commission came to be and wondered if the two artists had worked together before. As it turned out, the project began when Frehner was approached by Gary Kulesha on behalf of the TSO with a request to be involved in the writing of a work for orchestra and film. According to Frehner, Mettler was then approached on a recommendation from film director Atom Egoyan. The two artists had never met before, so right from the beginning, they started with a dialogue that involved examples of each other’s work being sent back and forth, and engaging in conversations exploring various ideas that each were drawn to.

Writing music for film often takes a predictable path, where the composer writes to a set sequence of images. Not so with the way Mettler works. He has spent the last 12 years developing software that functions as an instrument for editing and mixing both image and sound to create a film “on the spot.” He can use this instrument to both improvise and create, providing a personal challenge that is “far more exciting than just pushing play.” In the early stages of their collaboration, Mettler sent Frehner up to 90 minutes of raw footage, some of which were extended sequences. Frehner latched onto a few of these and wrote music inspired by those scenes. Using music software to create an orchestral rendering of the music, Frehner sent his sketches back to Mettler, who then began to improvise using his bank of 2000 or more images, finding visual complements to what the music was doing. Gradually a shape began to emerge as the dynamic exchange continued and in the end, many of the image sequences that Mettler chose were not related to those that Frehner was originally inspired to write music for.

In their initial dialogues, they discovered that they shared a mutual interest in science and physics. Beginning with conversations on particle physics, they eventually decided to focus the piece on ideas of cyclical rotation – orbits, tidal rhythms, and natural cycles, ending up with the title From the Vortex Perspective. Structurally, the music has both cyclical elements and abrupt changes. Several ideas return, each time with variations in orchestration.

Frehner’s compositional style can be described as eclectic, integrating such influences as Brit and American rock, jazz pianists Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett, early music, as well as the music of a range of composers including Grisey, Vivier and Nancarrow. In this project with Mettler, Frehner chose to feature the brass instruments prominently in various places, incorporating unison writing and the low register instruments. In other places, the string section has the main idea, whereas at other times, strings provide a textural background. Visually, the film begins with images of an abstracted forest environment, moving into reflections on water. At one point when the music becomes heavily punctuated, the viewer is taken through a sequence of different grasses and reeds with the sunlight bursting through to create complementary accents. Some of the slowly evolving scenes created opportunities for Frehner to linger longer with some of his musical ideas, taking his time to explore them rather than looking for other directions.

For the performance, the images will be projected onto three screens – two smaller monitors surrounded by a larger screen, with the spatial aspect of the three image sources becoming an aspect of the overall composition. And just as the conductor and musicians interpret the musical score, Mettler has created his own guiding score as an aid for his real-time performance during which he will respond to the subtleties of the music to create a live version of the film. Thus this work is a true performance in both mediums of image and sound.

As mentioned above, Brett Dean is this year’s guest of the New Creations Festival. As it turns out, Frehner and Dean crossed paths over ten years ago on two different occasions – in 2002 at the Winnipeg New Music Festival where Dean was the featured composer and Frehner had a composition; and a few years later at the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra’s International Composers Competition where Dean was the judge and Frehner was one of the composers present. Dean’s role as curator for the New Creations Festival includes the programming of three of his own works, each substantial pieces for orchestra, as well as works by fellow Australians Anthony Pateras and James Ledger.

2106-New_2.pngNew Music for Orchestra: The New Creations Festival is not the only chance to hear new orchestral work this next month. The Toronto Symphony will perform works by three Canadian composers: Home” from New World by Michael Oesterle on March 31, Alligator Pie by Abigail Richardson-Schulte on April 2 in matinee performances, and Ringelspiel by Ana Sokolović, performed by the evening’s guest performers – the National Arts Centre Orchestra – on April 2. On March 31, Esprit Orchestra teams up with the Elmer Iseler Singers for their last concert of the season to perform two newly commissioned works with mythic themes: Soul and Psyche for choir and orchestra, composed by Esprit’s founder and conductor Alex Pauk, and Sirens by Canadian Douglas Schmidt. The program also includes Hussein Janmohamed’s choral work Nur: Reflections on Light, which weaves together Ismaili Muslim melodies, Quranic recitation and Indian ragas, and the classic orchestral dance score La création du monde by Darius Milhaud, infamous for its combination of jazz and classical rhythms from the early 1920s.

Soundstreams: Soundstreams is cooking this month with several events. Starting off in early March, they will present three concerts of the music of Scottish composer James MacMillan in three cites: Kingston (March 4), Kitchener (March 6) and Toronto (March 8). The program will highlight MacMillan’s masterpiece, Seven Last Words from the Cross, as well as selections from Schafer’s The Fall into Light. The Toronto concert will include additional works by MacMillan (The Gallant Weaver) and Schafer (In Memoriam Alberto Guerrero), along with a performance of James Rolfe’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, a Soundstreams commission from 2006 based on Walt Whitmans’s elegy written after the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.

Then in mid-month, Soundstreams will kick off a series of events being planned to celebrate the 80th birthday of minimalist pioneer Steve Reich culminating in a gala concert on April 14. Getting the ball rolling will be their second Ear Candy event on March 19 featuring Reich’s first major work It’s Gonna Rain, created from a surprise discovery made while fiddling about with out-of-sync tape loops. The phasing technique he developed from these experiments paved the way for the birth of his minimalist aesthetic. It’s also an opportunity to hear his Electric Counterpoint which has been recorded by such artists as Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, whose Water will have its Canadian premiere in the New Creations Festival on March 12. The Ear Candy evening also features a diverse array of local artists, each of whom has been influenced by the minimalist aesthetic. Four of these performers, including DJ SlowPitchSound and Brandon Valdivia, will also be performing the previous evening on March 18 at the Soundstreams’ Salon 21, which offers a historical look at the development of minimalism.

Music Gallery: The performance of Reich’s music continues over at the Music Gallery in a concert on March 17 featuring composer and performer Michael Century. In his earlier days, Century founded The Banff Centre for the Arts Media Arts program in 1988, a program that helped initiate new media practice in Canada. In this concert, Century will perform Reich’s Piano Counterpoint, an arrangement for solo piano and tape of Reich’s classic Six Pianos, as well as premieres of his own works for piano, accordion and live electronics. These works use open software and an eight-channel immersive speaker array. Additional pieces by American composers Julia Wolfe, John Cage and Morton Feldman will be heard in the second half of the evening.

The Music Gallery continues to mark their 40-year history with an installation and listening salon opening on March 11 celebrating their partnership with Musicworks Magazine. The magazine has a long tradition of including recordings with their print issues, first released as cassettes and now as CDs. Past and present editors and contributors to the cassette legacy will be speaking of their memories and experiences at the opening event.

New Music Concerts: New Music Concerts is also busy with two upcoming concerts. On March 11 (in Kitchener) and March 13 (in Toronto) in a co-presentation with the Music Gallery, the Quasar Saxophone Quartet performs music by five Quebecois composers writing for saxophone quartet and electronics, including video in one of the works. The quartet is dedicated to the creation of contemporary works with their interests ranging from instrumental music to improvisation and electronics. On April 3, the electronic theme continues with their concert entitled Viva Electronica. It will be an evening of three world premieres, all of them NMC commissions from composers Anthony Tan, Keith Hamel and Paul Steenhuisen. Each of these artists has done significant research in the world of electronics, live electroacoustics and music software programming, as well as taught the ins and outs of working with music technology at various universities.

Additional New Music Events:

Mar 6: John Laing Singers perform works by Glen Buhr and Eric Whitacre.

Mar 6: Junction Trio hosts Schola Magdalena performing works by Stephanie Martin.

Mar 10: Canadian Music Centre; “Truth North Stories” with piano works by Anhalt and Morawetz.

Mar 18 Canadian Music Centre; “Canadian Art Song Showcase” with works by Alice Ho, John Beckwith, Sylvia Rickard and Hiroki Tsurumoto.

Apr 2: Nagata Shachu with TorQ, performing works for Japanese, Western and world percussion. clip_image001.png

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

2105-New.jpgDespite chilly temperatures outside, the accumulation of new music events occurring in both Toronto and the main cities of southern Ontario, in February and early March, can be likened to a pot of water coming to a vigorously rolling boil. Bookending the dates covered by this issue are two major new music festivals – the University of Toronto’s New Music Festival (January 30 to February 7) and the Toronto Symphony’s New Creations Festival, opening March 5 and concluding on March 16. Since these festivals straddle the listings period, let’s begin with them, for those readers ready to jump in early in February and for those who are planning well ahead for March.

U of T New Music Festival: As was previously mentioned in the December-January issue of The WholeNote, the highlight of this year’s U of T New Music Festival is the opportuniuties it presents to experience the music of Canadian composer Allan Gordon Bell from Calgary, as well as one concert featuring music of his former students. A key aspect of Bell’s compositional approach is the way he maps his listening experiences of the Canadian soundscape to the acoustic world of instruments, whether that be orchestra, string quartet, opera or jazz ensembles.

It also has a fine crop of workshops, master classes and guest lectures, so I suggest perusing the listings and the festival website for the full scope of what is to be experienced. (The Land’s End Ensemble will also be performing a concert of works by Allan Bell and Omar Daniel on February 5 at Western University in London.)

New Creations: Jumping ahead into March, it’s not too early to take a peek into the upcoming New Creations Festival. This year’s featured guest is Australian composer, violist and conductor, Brett Dean, who is currently artist-in-residence with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Dean spent a good part of his career in Europe playing viola for 14 years in the Berlin Philharmonic, eventually turning to composition as he approached the age of 40. One of his signature works – his Viola Concerto – will be performed by the composer at the opening concert on March 5. Festivalgoers will hear two additional orchestral works composed by Dean, along with a piece by fellow Australian Anthony Pateras. Local DJ legend Skratch Bastid, who appeared last May at the 21C festival, will be performing, along with the Afiara String Quartet in a commissioned work by Kevin Lau; Bastid has also been commissioned to create a Festival Remix for the final concert on March 12. The festival will also offer a world premiere collaboration between composer Paul Frehner and filmmaker Peter Mettler, a composition by Australian James Ledger that pays tribute to Anton Webern and John Lennon, and a piece by Jonny Greenwood of the iconic English rock group, Radiohead. A more in-depth look at some of these artists and concerts will appear in the March issue.

Pick of the Crop: February offers a broad scope for aficionados of new music no matter what your stylistic preferences may be.

These early weeks of 2016 have seen the passing of several iconic creative people from various artistic fields, among them French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, whose artistic ideas changed the course of 20th century music. Boulez’s legacy will be celebrated in a New Music Concerts program on February 15.

At the other end of the new music spectrum, the Art of Time Ensemble offer a concert on February 19 and 20 that focuses on the music of Frank Zappa, a musician whose work ranged from rock to orchestral to musique concrète.

Somewhere in between, stylistically, Soundstreams has chosen to highlight music for instruments of the squeezebox family for their February 10 concert. This includes the accordion, the Argentinian bandoneón and the Korean saenghwang, each performed by virtuosic performers, such as Toronto’s own Joe Macerollo and Héctor del Curto from Argentina, playing compositions by several Canadian composers. R. Murray Schafer’s work, La Testa d’Adriana for soprano and accordion, for one example, features the spectacle of only the head of Adriana sitting on a table as she sings in interaction with the accordionist.

Going Home Star: The Royal Winnipeg Ballet along with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra is making a visit to the Sony Centre on February 5 and 6 to perform a new work entitled Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation, ballet, written by Joseph Boyden based on stories that emerged during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission tour of indigenous communities. 

Contradictory as it may seem to use the European art forms of ballet and orchestra to tell these stories, the creative team has worked to bring aspects of indigenous culture into the overall mix in order to push the boundaries of the form. With a score composed by Christos Hatzis, the music includes the powerhouse vocals of Tanya Tagaq as well as the Northern Cree Singers. Tagaq’s experimentalist approach to traditional Inuit throat singing combines the influences of electronica and industrial music to create an unforgettable experience. (Looking ahead to May, Tagaq will be one of the featured artists of the upcoming 21C festival – but more on that in a couple of issues’ time.)

RoundupThe Music Gallery presents their second Emergents concert of the season on February 5 with saxophone improvisations by Linsey Wellman and a song cycle by composer Lisa Conway, based on myths from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The literary theme continues the next evening on February 6 with Spectrum Music’s concert featuring works by members of their composer collective based on modern literary gems, including one work by Brad Cheesman inspired by the novel Infinite Jest, written by the acclaimed American author David Foster Wallace. On February 12, the Thin Edge New Music Collective performs a series of premieres by both Canadian and international composers at the Array Space. And on March 6, they will be performing in a pop-up afternoon concert there. Now in their fifth year, Thin Edge is currently in the midst of their ensemble-in-residence stint at Arraymusic, which will continue into next season as well.

The Array Space is flourishing as a home for improvisers, with several opportunities in February for fans of this scene to check it out, including Audiopollination on February 13, coexisDance on February 20, and various Toronto improvisers appearing on February 16, 19 and 28. In this vein, I want to also mention two Improv Soirées at York University on February 11 and March 3.

Mixed repertoire: A sure sign of the flourishing new music scene is the increasing appearance of new music within concerts of more standard classical repertoire and there are several examples of this in February. The group of 27 chamber orchestra performs the world premiere of Paul Frehner’s bassoon concerto, Apollo X on February 5. The Junction Trio will perform new works by Ron Korb on February 21 and by Stephanie Martin on March 6. Music Toronto performs a work by Schafer on February 4 and music by Oskar Morawetz can be heard performed by Adam Sherkin on March 3.

And then there is the Off Centre Music Salon, an organization with a tradition of providing opportunities for different musical traditions to dialogue and engage. Their concert on February 25 at the Music Gallery, inspired by the friendship between Vladimir Horowitz and Art Tatum, will pit jazz and classical pianists against each other, as well as singers from the improv, indie-folk and classical traditions.

To close things off, there is new music happening in concerts in various southern Ontario cities throughout the period, many of which also combine the new with the traditional. On February 6, the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra performs A Thousand Natural Shocks by Kelly-Marie Murphy. This concert also marks the debut of the HPO’s conductor and music director, Gemma New. The Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston presents Scottish composer James MacMillan’s piece Seven Last Words of Christ as well as Schafer’s The Fall into Light on March 4The electroacoustic music of Adam Tindale will be featured at the Kingston Community Strings concert on February 19. The Peterborough Symphony Orchestra will perform the violin concerto Erika’s Violin written by Elizabeth Raum and performed by her daughter Erika on February 6.

In the Kitchener/Waterloo/Guelph area there are several concerts. As part of their Mix Series, NUMUS presents emerging pianist Jason White on February 21 performing Rzewski’s De Profundis as well as a world premiere by Colin LabadieTwo members of the junctQín Keyboard Collective will perform works by Canadian composers Emily Doolittle and Martin Lachance on February 24 as part of the K-W Chamber Music Series.

And finally, if you are a fan of the theremin, an early electronic music instrument, two early-month concerts on February 3 at the University of Waterloo and on February 4 at Guelph University will give you an opportunity to hear this music as performed by Eric Ross with video art by Mary Ross. 

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

Over the past year in Toronto’s new music scene, composers working within the spectral and post-spectral composition aesthetic have been making their voices heard. First of all, in March we heard the music of Britain’s George Benjamin, the featured composer at the TSO’s New Creations Festival, followed by the music of guest composer Kaija Saariaho from Finland at the 21C Music Festival in May.

In With The New 1Philippe Leroux: And now in the early days of December, another major figure is coming to town – Philippe Leroux. Although originally from France, Leroux now calls Montréal home, thanks to his permanent teaching position at McGill University. His influence on the compositional aesthetics in North America is growing fast, with many students being drawn to working with him.

WholeNote readers may not be that familiar with Leroux, but three concerts planned for December 6 and 8 can change that unfamiliarity into an opportunity to dive deeply into the creative oeuvre of this remarkable composer. First, on December 6, New Music Concerts is performing two of his chamber works: AAA for seven instruments and Ailes for baritone and 15 instruments. And December 8 is a double concert day with the performance of his piece Total SOLo for 28 instruments as part of the COC’s free noon-hour concert series, followed by five of his works at a special concert at the Music Gallery. Leroux is this year’s Michael and Sonja Koerner Distinguished Visitor in Composition at the U of T Faculty of Music. It’s interesting to note that both concerts on December 8 will be performed by advanced student musicians: artists of the Glenn Gould School New Music Ensemble conducted by Brian Current (the COC event) and doctoral students from U of T’s gamUT Contemporary Music Ensemble, conducted by Wallace Halladay (Music Gallery concert). Not surprisingly, both Current and Halladay have been personally influenced either by their studies or performance experiences with Leroux’s music.

I got together with Halladay to find out more about that relationship and discovered the passionate commitment Halladay has for Leroux’s music. In answer to my question as to how they met, Halladay told me how he went out on a limb and contacted the composer, still living in France at the time, when he discovered that Leroux was coming to the Université de Montréal as a visiting guest artist. He had been a fan of Leroux, within a contemporary trend in European music, and wanted an opportunity to talk with him. He followed up that meeting by organizing a concert in Toronto of Leroux’s music in 2011, hiring local professional musicians.

What he discovered was a composer who was completely committed to working generously with musicians, helping them to interpret the score; and musicians, in response, absolutely stimulated by the interaction. This type of communication is, in part, what has led to Leroux’s appeal to different ensembles – performers just love working with him, resulting in many commissions. If you’d like to experience this firsthand, the public are welcome to attend a talk at the Faculty of Music on December 7 (5:30 to 7pm) as Leroux works with performers in preparation for the December 8 concert.

For Halladay, the excitement comes from the challenge of the scores, which often call for a wide range of sounds not always translatable into standard notation. This is why the communication between composer and performer is so important. Leroux is always learning and listening carefully to the sounds being made by the performers, open to how they could be notated, or other possible ways to achieve what he is imagining.

In my conversation with Leroux, he amplified this idea: “I compose to create a relationship with the listener as well as with the musicians. I write a page or two, and then try to listen as if I was the first listener. I always try to listen to my music as a normal listener, not as a composer.”

No doubt this refined approach to listening is one of the results of the years Leroux spent working at IRCAM, a research centre for sound and electroacoustic music in Paris. This research allowed him to become completely immersed in the complex nature of sound itself, and understand all the variables that make up a given sound. This knowledge of the full spectrum of the sound and how it can be used to define the compositional structure is what defines the spectral school of composition, which originated in France in the 1970s with the work of Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail.

As someone influenced by this aesthetic, Leroux continues the tradition in his own way. During my conversation with him, he spoke about how his starting place is with sounds he finds both interesting and beautiful, sounds that have the biggest potential for development and variation, whether that be in their harmonic colour or their trajectory of movement. After the computer-based analysis of these sounds, he may come up with as many as 400 different chords, each one created by the different pitch components – the spectrum – of the different sounds. He takes up to three weeks to just play those chords over and over on a piano or synthesizer, many of which will have microtunings. Finally, through an intuitive process, he selects up to ten chords to use as his structure in any given composition.

Halladay elaborates on the importance of the spectral approach to composition. Working with timbre or using extended techniques on traditional instruments “is not unique to the spectralists, but what is different is they are using timbre for the structural organization of music.” This approach contrasts with the majority of compositional strategies where melody and harmony are the mainstays of organization, even if the music itself is pushing boundaries as in minimalism, post-serialism, chance procedures, the use of extra-musical ideas, or the fusion of different musical traditions. With spectral composition, “the process opens a window to all the elements that make up a sound, especially those aspects beyond the audible range” Halladay says.

University of Toronto’s New Music Festival. As Halladay emphasized during our talk, the educational aspect of presenting Leroux’s music is important, introducing unfamiliar music to students who would otherwise never be exposed to it. They are always impressed with “how good the music is.” So it is fitting that U of T’s New Music Festival follows up this experience with Le Roux’s work early in the new year with over a week of concerts running from January 30 to February 7, centred around the music of Canadian composer Allan Gordon Bell. One of the highlights of the festival will the performance, February 2, by Calgary’s Land’s End Ensemble of Bell’s work Field Notes, a JUNO award-winning work inspired by the prairie landscape. On February 1, the Gryphon Trio will perform works by Bell’s former students – Carmen Braden, Heather Schmidt, Kelly-Marie Murphy and Vincent Ho. The final concert of the festival on February 7 will premiere a newly commissioned choral work from Bell at the Contemporary Showcase Concert. During the festival, various student ensembles – including the Wind Ensemble, the Symphony Orchestra and the gamUT Contemporary Music Ensemble – will also be performing a wide range of works by Bell and others including an electroacoustic concert.

Music and Dance. One aspect of Leroux’s music that I didn’t mention above is his fascination with the ideas of movement and gesture in his music, whether that be physical movements made by performers, or metaphorical gestures realized through sounds that imitate a real gesture created by a human body. For example, to compose one of his pieces, he worked with data generated from a Bluetooth pen with a camera inside. An old musical manuscript was rewritten with this pen, which was tracking the speed or the thickness of the lines. This information was used as material for the piece. Other ways of exploring the relationship between sound and movement are highlighted in several other upcoming concerts.

For the opening concert of the Music Gallery’s Emergents series on December 10, curator and percussionist Germaine Liu has created a multidisciplinary ensemble to explore the unique space of the Gallery’s church sanctuary. Inspired by the collaboration of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, members of the ensemble will perform, compose and choreograph a series of new pieces that seek to blend the two disciplines of dance and music into an interdependent relationship.

Similarly, four improvising musicians, a painter and a dancer will explore the possibilities of interdisciplinary improvisation and communication in the NUMUS concert on December 13 in Kitchener-Waterloo. And on February 5 and 6, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, in Toronto as part of their Ontario tour, will perform Mark Gooden’s choreography which was inspired by the stories of Residential School survivors, with music by Christos Hatzis and a performance by Tanya Tagaq.

Additional Concerts

Jan 11: Various composers’ works will be performed by Pamelia Stickney on the theremin, an early electronic music instrument, at Gallery 345. The evening will also include improvisations and a demonstration of the instrument.

Jan 14: Audiences will have a great opportunity to hear the brilliant and dynamic JACK Quartet in a concert co-presented by Music Toronto and New Music Concerts. This high-voltage quartet will perform works by John Luther Adams, John Zorn, Iannis Xenakis and an arrangement of a work by medieval composer Rodericus.

Jan 20: A celebration of American composer Nancy Van de Vate’s 85th birthday with a series of her mini-operas at Walter Hall.

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

Andrew NormanOnce there was a time when aspiring Canadian composers were discouraged from writing pieces that required large ensembles, such as an orchestra. “No one will play it” was the advice given. But in Canada, that was before Esprit Orchestra came along. Formed in 1983 by conductor and director Alex Pauk, the orchestra is still going strong after more than 30 years of programming exclusively new orchestral music. Recently Pauk was recognized for his outstanding contributions to Canadian life and was appointed as a member of the Order of Canada.

That followed on the heels of a wildly successful tour this past spring to China, where according to Alexina Louie’s blog posts, they performed to cheering packed houses, with audience members clamouring to have selfies taken with members of the orchestra afterwards. Such was the reception of Canadian orchestral music in China! To read more about the tour, I recommend reading Louie’s posts, which can be found by going to espritorchestra.com and clicking on the blog link.

Play: The opportunity and possibilities that Esprit gives composers are about to be displayed to the maximum in their upcoming concert on November 15 with the programming of a piece titled Play by American composer Andrew Norman. Play is a massive and sprawling 47-minute work originally written in 2013 for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and is described as being akin to a “Symphony No.1.” In researching Norman’s work, I came across a November 18, 2014 episode of the Meet the Composer podcast series produced by Q2, an online radio station connected to the Classical WQRX station based in New York. Luckily, the last segment of the episode (44 minutes in) was dedicated to a conversation with Norman about Play. He talked about how he was given free rein to write anything he wanted, so he decided to go “really big.”

The podcast begins with a collage of different voices, each one describing their response to the piece. “Like a roller coaster ride, a jack-in-the-box, exhilarating, expansive, breathless, frightening, frenetic, and risky” are some of the terms used. With such a description, it’s best to go straight to Norman’s own words about the inspiration for the piece: the structure of video games. Although not a gamer himself, what intrigues him the most is the idea of “trying things again and again until you get it right. You try something, and you fail. You try again, and choose another door.” For him, this gaming process is very much about structural or formal design, the architecture of a piece. He even goes so far as to equate classical symphonic form itself as sharing similarities with video games. For example, in a Beethoven symphony, several ideas are first presented, but all mixed up. The ideas return in different ways until finally they appear in the right arrangement in the finale.

A similar process happens in Play, where the listener is confronted with a vast array of ideas at the beginning, a “gazillion ideas,” as Norman describes it. As the piece unfolds, some of those ideas become important and are transformed, while others are like wrong doors and are discarded. There are even multiple climaxes – each one coming up with a different answer, which turn out to be the wrong one, until the final climax appears with the right answer close to the end of the piece. He also uses the percussionists in a fashion analogous to the different operations in a game environment – pause, fast forward, rewind, etc. For example, every time a certain percussion instrument is played, that’s the signal for the orchestra to pause. It’s actually how he wrote the piece, thinking “what would it sound like if I randomly paused the music at any moment, sped it up, or moved it fast forward?”

Norman’s other interest in the piece is to explore the human potential of the orchestra, rather than just limit himself to using the orchestra as a field of sonic resources. Thus the orchestra members become different protagonists, interacting on an interpersonal level. This also extends to the underlying meanings of the word “play,” which suggests something both fun and also something more dark, like a chain of control with the musicians being “played” by the conductor. And given the role of the percussionists, they too become more like a conductor, playing the orchestra. In all, it sounds like it will be quite the ride on the evening of November 15. Joining in on the Esprit express that night will be two other works – Tevot, written in 2007 by English composer Thomas Adès and Canadian John Rea’s Zefiro torna (Zephyr Returns) from 1994.

Seismic Waves: There are several other upcoming musical events that also promise to create seismic movement in the local airwaves. In early December, Soundstreams is launching “Ear Candy,” a new series designed to engage the audience with new forms of presentation in more intimate venues. The first one happens on December 7 and 8 and features an electrified version of the Christmas classic, the Messiah. “Electric Messiah” puts together electronic musicians (John Gzowski, Doug Van Nort), extended vocals (Christine Duncan) and sound poetry (Gabriel Dharmoo) along with the Electroacoustic Orchestra of York University. The evening at the Drake Hotel will be bookended by DJ sets. Before all this gets going though, Soundstreams will be collaborating with Canadian Stage to present the North American premiere of Julie, which runs from November 17 to 29. This chamber opera composed by Belgium’s Philippe Boesmans is an adaptation of Strindberg’s 1888 play, Miss Julie, and is an example of Strindberg’s naturalism aesthetic that sought to create theatrical characters who were more realistic with multiple motivations for their behaviour. The story pits an aristocratic and desperate Julie against the ambitious social climber Jean, who inevitably become involved with each other, but not seemingly for love or mutual attraction. The score is minimalistic with the composer’s aim being to distill the music so that the narrative shines through.

Tagaq and Pallett: To get us rock and rolling into the Christmas season, what surely will be an explosive event will be happening at Massey Hall on December 1 when two previous Polaris award winners - Tanya Tagaq and Owen Pallett – take the stage. Pallett is a Canadian composer and violinist whose creative output spans writing orchestral music and performing in the indie music scene using programmed loop pedals to send his sound into multiple speakers. Tagaq, who appeared in R. Murray Schafer’s Apocalypsis back in June, is renowned for her extreme range of primal vocal sound that arises out of her Inuit throat singing heritage. She will appear with members of her band, percussionist Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot, with a special appearance by the improvising Element Choir directed by Christine Duncan.

David VirellesGnosis: Shock waves will also spread on November 27 and 28 when Arraymusic and the Music Gallery team up to present the world premiere of Gnosis, a large-scale work created by former Torontonian David Virelles. Virelles sought out the Music Gallery as his venue of choice to present this work which offers a kaleidoscopic ride through the percussive rhythms of Cuban music. The evening will be an opportunity to hear the unique drums used by the Afro-Cuban secret society Abakuá, as well as master drummer Román Díaz performing with members of the Array Ensemble.

Thin Edge, Spectrum, Toy Piano: Three of Toronto’s younger and blossoming presenters are hot at it this month with their opening concerts of the 2015/16 season.

Founded four years ago in 2011, the Thin Edge New Music Collective begins its season with “Light Show” on November 29, including the Toronto premiere of Music for Lamps, an installation and performance work for 12 sound and light emitting lamps. Other works by Oesterle, Murail and Bolaños Chamorro complete a program that also includes visual illuminations and silent film.

Spectrum Music, founded in 2010, opens its season on November 14 with a concert delving into the complexities of colonial exploration. The program is made up of a suite of works narrating the adventures of explorers from the 15th century that left the world forever changed. As an interesting twist, each new work is paired with a reimagined classic folk song performed by singer-songwriter Alex Lukashevsky.

Kicking off their eighth season on Novembert 21, the eclectic Toy Piano Composers presents “To Be Announced III”– a program of six world premieres by emerging composers curated from TPC’s national call for new works.

Additional Concerts and Performances of contemporary music

New Music Concerts has two events this month. On November 8, an R. Murray Schafer CD benefit concert and on December 6, a program featuring two works by French composer Philippe Leroux, who currently teaches at McGill University, works by Gérard Grisey and Elliott Carter, and a newly commissioned piece by one of Leroux’s former students, Scott Rubin.

group of 27 and Eric Paetkau presents Loved and Were Loved by Canadian composer John Burge, November 6, in a novel venue: the ground floor “Garage” at the Centre of Social Innovation at 720 Bathurst Street.

New Music Kingston: Works by John Estacio, Vivian Fung and Jordan Pal, November 11, in the new but already muscally thriving Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston.

Music Toronto presents a world premiere commission by Nicole Lizée, performed by the Cecilia Quartet, November 5.

Heliconian Club celebrates the music of Canadian composer Kye Marshall, including a world premiere for harp duo, November 20.

University of Toronto Faculty of Music: Works by Christos Hatzis, Dean Burry, Julie Spencer, Dinuk Wijeratne and George Kontogiorgos, December 7.

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

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