The word “new” is a curious one, for what exactly is meant when we call something new? New in relation to what? The dictionary defines the word new as “recently made, created, or invented; recently introduced and previously unfamiliar; something that has not been used by anyone else.” In juxtaposition to this there is the age-old quote from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
Last night, Thursday March 1, 2012, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra launched the 8th season of their “New Creations Festival” at Roy Thompson Hall with an array of offerings - a pre-concert chamber orchestra performance in the lobby, the four featured symphonic works in the concert hall, and a post-concert jazz performance/party back in the lobby. The overall theme for this year’s festival is “Europe and Canada” - a broad sweeping umbrella under which Hungarian composer and conductor Peter Eötvös, this year’s guest curator, offers his selection of new sounds to Torontonian ears.
Playing with this idea of “new,” each of the four symphonic pieces presented its own set of contributions and questions. For Canadian composer Brian Current, he sees part of his role as a composer as advocacy work, creating music that reflects what it is to be alive at this time. The concert began with “This Isn’t Silence,” a composition Current wrote fourteen years ago in 1998. Since that time, Current told the audience, the title has become a mantra, a way of reminding himself and others of the importance of listening to what contemporary music is communicating and that it not be relegated to the background or considered irrelevant.
As I attuned my ears to the orchestral sounds of “This Isn’t Silence,” there was a relentless energy that accumulated as the piece progressed, reminding me of what I’ve often experienced while engaging as a concentrated listener in urban-based soundwalks. It was an orchestral city soundscape full of sudden changes, percussive attacks, and loud roars. As the work drew to its close, there was a form of serenity that emerged, yet not without the presence of a low rumbling undertone, reminiscent of the omnipresent motor drones we are all exposed to on a daily basis. If orchestral music can challenge us to become more aware of what our ears and bodies are unconsciously listening to in our everyday environment, then this is one way it can address the underlying assumptions our culture ascribes to — an indifference towards urban sonic design and an unquestioning tolerance of industrial noise. The composer’s music thus becomes a voice of awareness and barometer for the times in which we live.
The concert then transitioned into an exquisite performance of Claude Vivier’s poignant work “Lonely Child,” which was written in 1980. As Canadian-born soprano Barbara Hannigan began to sing the opening lines of the lullaby “Bel enfant de la lumière dors, dors, dors, toujours dors (Beauteous child of light sleep, sleep, sleep, forever sleep), I felt the purity of her tone penetrate right into the layers of my flesh, a reminder of the intense power that sound can have on the body and something I’ve not often experienced with bel canto singing. As the libretto transitioned from French into a sonic language created by Vivier himself, the delicate fragility of the sounds continued to create a haunting soliloquy on the yearning for love. A shift then occurred as the soloist opened up into her full-bodied and mature voice to make a fervent plea to be granted eternity.
In preparing for the performance, Hannigan consulted with the original performer of the work who worked closely with Vivier at the time. She was advised to dwell in both the child’s world and in the more passionate and “somewhat desperate world of an adult.” Her ability to use a full timbral range to delineate both these places in tandem was the brilliance of her performance. These soul-infused vocal sounds combined with the intense orchestral spectral textures brought the listener face to face with the timeless and universal human quest for unconditional love and acceptance - a story that has been told in countless ways and forms throughout the centuries. Although this work by Vivier is over 30 years old, it stands as a testament to what can happen when the human spirit opens up fully in order to communicate messages from other realms and worlds. One can only imagine what visions and innovations this Montreal-born composer would have dreamed had he lived beyond his 35 years.
The most recently composed work of the evening’s performance was Peter Eötvös’ “Seven (Memorial for the Columbia Astronauts) for Violin and Orchestra” (2003). Rooted in the traditions of European composition, this homage to the seven pioneering spirits who lost their lives while pursuing a collective dream derived its structure from various permutations of the number 7. Reaching back as far as the 16th century to the experimentations with sound and space practiced by Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieli, Eötvös chose to disperse 7 violinists within the entire space and to divide the remaining 49 musicians on stage into 7 groups, with two groups of the low register double basses anchoring each side. With the solo violinist on stage and the remaining 6 in the upper balconies, these choices were made to evoke the impression of the 7 astronauts hovering in space.
Working with space as a compositional parameter immediately sets up an acoustic experience that could be seen as unusual or innovative. However the use of massive forces arrayed in multiple, spatially separated groups was an important practice that set the stage for the shift from the Renaissance to Baroque idioms over four centuries ago. In electroacoustic music, the use of an ‘orchestra of loud speakers’ set up in multiple locations within a space is standard practice, creating a complete surround sound experience and offering the composer the possibility of creating multiple layers of movement. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare instrumental and electroacoustic music on this point, but working with spatial ideas is certainly a potent way to dynamically open up and bring change to the orchestral experience.
The European/Hungarian component of the evening came to a conclusion with the final work by György Kurtág with his “Messages for Orchestra, Op. 34.” composed from 1991 to 96. Like Eötvös, Kurtág is a leading compositional voice in Hungary, and this work exemplifies their close ties. At a turning point in Kurtág’s career, he worked with art psychologist Marianne Stein who encouraged him to develop his own personal voice. This was no doubt an influencing factor in the writing of these intimate symphonic ‘messages’, as they are a form of sonic communication to his fellow Hungarian musicians: Peter Eötvös, Alfred Schlee, Albert Simon, and Zoltán Jeney. In a style reminiscent of Webern, all the musical elements are scaled down to the essence so that we as listeners receive an imprint of each of these individuals. In introducing this work, Eötvös emphasized that the core of Kurtág’s vision was to convey ‘pianissimo’. He went on to give the audience an opportunity to hear the dynamic differences in a short sequence played first on a grand piano and then on an upright piano using the mute pedal. This concept of pianissimo however refers to more than just dynamic differences, as it is also a metaphorical way of describing a style that seeks to go to the very heart and reduce the musical elements to their core. The importance of personal intimacies and formation of community becomes a central focus in these delicate works.
The intent of the New Creations Festival is to give the citizens of Toronto an opportunity to hear the visions and sonic formations of composers influenced by our current times. We can see from these four works that while the way musical elements are treated and organized may differ, there is something universally human and elemental that unite these four composers from Canada and Hungary with the vast array of musical expressions that have motivated the human creative spirit throughout time. During the intermission, Barbara Hannigan gave us an insight into her own creative process in preparing a work for performance. For her, it matters not if the work is contemporary, classical, baroque, or any other style. What motivates her as a performer and artistic communicator is the overall architecture of the work that provides her the space to create her own images, associations and memories.
The concert also provoked for me an additional consideration to this question of what constitutes a ‘new creation’. With the multiple challenges and crisis points currently confronting our collective society, does musical practice maintain business as usual? What effect does the past year of global uprisings and desire for democratic rights have on our creative expressions? How can our new creations contribute to the current movements of change?
When asked about the reasons for why the Occupy Wall Street Movement happened when it did, New York political organizer and activist Yotam Marom stated: “It feels like something has been opened up, a kind of space nobody knew existed, and so all sorts of things that were impossible before are possible now. Something just got kind of unclogged”. With the strong winds of transformation swirling around all levels of society, it is ultimately necessary, I believe, that the creative spirit take a leading role. As the New Creations Festival unfolds, both listeners and creators alike must keep their ears attuned to the ground to see if what we are hearing and creating provides an opening for new possibilities, dreams and directions in resonance with the broader cultural currents.