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.”
There 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.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org.