I’m an enthusiastic but not very musically sophisticated attender at new music events so sometimes I end up stupefied, not knowing what I am supposed to be listening to or for. In the good old days I could at least pick up a couple of newspapers the following day to find out whether or not I had a good time, or if I did to feel mortified at the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed something that no-one with real taste would have. But those days alas are no more. Now I have to rely on my own judgment (or go out to the Duke of York or equivalent after the event with one or another person whose judgment I value.)

I did just that last night after Austrian composer GF Haas’ IN VAIN performed by the RC New Music Ensemble (that’s RC for Royal Conservatory, not Roman Catholic) under the spirited direction of Brian Current, who is developing a loyal following among audience members, no matter what the repertoire is.

And last night’s repertoire was pretty daunting for players and audience alike – a single work, 65 minutes long, of which fully thirty minutes (in two chunks) was played in complete darkness. My greatest fear was of being discovered sound asleep when the periods of darkness lifted, but happily a well known Toronto stage and production manager/stage fighting coach sat down next to me. With the assurance that a well placed nudge in the ribs would be forthcoming if my deep attentiveness became too sonorous, I relaxed and had a wide-awake wonderful time.

Haas’s piece (as I told readers in my December In With The New column) is, to quote director Brian Current a “spectral wonder.” Happy to say, I have more appreciation of what he meant by that today than I did 24 hours ago, thanks in part to a great lecture Haas gave an hour before the concert, but also because, right away, I got to listen for the things he was talking about. “Spectral” as I now better understand it refers to music based on the physics of sound, the sound spectrum, and the precise scientific relationships between the different wave lengths. Hit someone over the head with a two by four of a precise length and it will not only produce a lovely A440 (concert A) but also a series of overtones, with the intervals between overtones diminishing, octave by octave, according to very precisely calculable rules. So, cutting a long story short, music based on true overtones would, if played on a modern piano, require keys not just capable of half tones, but quarter tones, sixths and twelfths – and VERY skinny fingers.

The modern piano by the way is the great villain of the piece, because it is grounded in something called “equal temperament.” That is to say it divides the tonal universe up into half notes, splitting the difference, agonizingly, between what are for people with musically way better ears than mine necessarily different sounds. To give one simple example, the black key between A and B must serve as both A sharp and as B flat. If you can hear the difference you can spend a whole evening, metaphorically, searching in vain for your auditory contact lenses, quite sure you played or sang or heard a wrong note. (Singers are often the greatest victims in this regard, sounding sharp or flat when all they were doing was matching the 88-key tonal antichrist they were leaning on.), or counting, on. Spectral composers have no such worries. They simply do the math and then put the players (and tuners) through whatever hell is necessary to reproduce the resulting “consonant” sounds.

Haas’ “In Vain” plays with both kinds of “harmony.” The “dissonance” in his terms of the world ruled by the piano (which sounds pretty good to start with to a three chord guitar man like me) is gradually overtaken by a world of true “consonance” (which sounds less and less strange as the piece progresses and the ear becomes more attuned), only to succumb at the end to the old regime again. The struggle for consonance, as the piece’s title suggests, has been all “in vain.” Perhaps not, though, because the stuff that sounded pretty good the first time through, sounds somehow less convincing in the reprise once the listener has had their ears washed out with consonant soap.

Well, at any rate, the great big verbal muscle that passes for my aesthetic brain soaked up enough of the theory ahead of time, that I was thoroughly convinced by what I heard, as were many others in the audience. Not so convinced were some of the aforementioned “people whose judgment I value” with whom I retired to the post-concert do at the Duke, but I have to fly off to Globokar at the Music Gallery right now, so that will have to be grist for another day.

In short, I had a lovely stimulating evening. Kudos to Current and co. for taking on the piece. For all concerned a rare and glorious chance to learn to listen a little bit differently.



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