Affairs of the Heart: The Life and Music of Marzan MozetichA film titled Affairs of the Heart: The Music and Life of Marjan Mozetich, produced and directed by Jamie Day Fleck, and in which I make an appearance, was given its premiere showing March 1 at the most recent edition of the Kingston Canadian Film Festival. The title of the film borrows from what is arguably Mozetich’s (b.1948) most successful composition, the violin concerto Affairs of the Heart, composed in 1997/8 for the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra and violin soloist Juliette Kang, with the support of a commission from CBC Radio Music. Filmmaker Fleck told me her story of hearing a broadcast of the concerto on CBC Radio Two while driving, and her need to remain in her car after reaching her destination in order to learn the identity of this stunning work.

Affairs of the Heart: Violin Concerto (1997). Photo by Jamie Day FleckMozetich says that Fleck’s story is similar to those of scores of CBC Radio listeners he’s heard from. The so-called “driveway experience” is even mentioned in the CD’s liner notes.

Early in the film, Mozetich remarks, “The music I write has this kind of spatial quality to it: distance and landscape.” On his website, he also applies the term postmodern Romanticism to his style. These are characteristics that have helped to make his music immediately appealing, so much so that he has become the most frequently broadcast Canadian classical composer. But it had not always been the case.

Prior to 1980, Mozetich had been struggling to conform with the aggressively modernist approach embraced by his young composer colleagues. In fact, in 1978, the year I created the CBC FM Radio network contemporary music series, Two New Hours, I chose an emphatically modernist Mozetich work, his Disturbances for solo viola – a piece we had recorded for broadcast on Two New Hours – as one of the CBC Radio submissions to the International Rostrum of Composers (IRC) in Paris. The IRC is a contemporary music meet-up sponsored by public broadcasters from some 35 countries, and organized by the International Music Council. It has been running with the participation of public broadcasters since 1954. Mozetich’s dramatically dissonant Disturbances was broadcast in several counties as a result of its presentation by our CBC delegation in 1978. He might have used this opportunity to advance his reputation as one of the emerging new voices in advanced contemporary composition. But he didn’t.

At a crucial point in Fleck’s film, I recount how a work I commissioned in 1979 for CBC Radio supported Mozetich’s decision to change his artistic direction. On the heels of his presentation at the IRC, Mozetich and I began a series of frank discussions in which he questioned the modernist approach. He complained that he was fed up with musical modernism and declared his intention to do something about it. We offered him a commission for Two New Hours to prove his point. The work he created, a delightfully tonal and exuberant composition titled Dance of the Blind, did more than offer a new approach. It was, for Mozetich, a watershed composition that strikingly displayed his new Romantic, accessible style, redefining his artistic voice. Accordionist Joseph Petric was the featured soloist in the work. “He had a lot of courage to do that,” Petric remarks in the film, “because it wasn’t a very popular style. And yet he’s become, in time, the most performed composer in the country.”

Dance of the Blind was recorded and broadcast on Two New Hours in 1980. “After the national network broadcast,” Mozetich said, “there was no turning back.” It didn’t take long before many more commissions were offered. In 1981, the Canadian Electronic Ensemble (CEE), the live electronic music group I co-founded in 1971, commissioned him to compose a work called In the Garden. In the process of our working together on the composition with Mozetich, he shared some rather candid thoughts about his working process. He confessed that, as his bedtime reading material, he would bring the great Romantic orchestral scores. He read Dvořák, Mahler, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky avidly. “You can learn a lot from those guys,” he remarked. He responded to our commission with a virtuosic display for electronic keyboards. The CEE members decided to digitally sequence the entire score, for both ease and accuracy of performance. The work became a core composition in the CEE’s repertoire, and was performed frequently on tour.

In 1984 the Music Gallery in Toronto invited Mozetich to prepare a retrospective concert of his music. It was a mixture of music from the early 1970s, and three works in his new postmodern Romantic style. We recorded the concert for broadcast on Two New Hours. Listeners to the broadcast were struck by the individuality of the music. It was another significant watershed moment, one that many people noticed. A 15-year-old Chris Paul Harman, a loyal Two New Hours listener even as a teenager, and now one of our leading contemporary composers, and a professor of composition at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University, listened and was impressed. Harman remembered the program: “The first sounds I heard consisted of abrasive scratch tones played by a string quintet; these eventually gave way to vigorously bowed passages outlining clustered pitch collections, in turn leading to a plaintive modal chant and finally, an austere dissonant chorale. When finished, the work was identified as Serenata del nostro tempo (1973) by Marjan Mozetich. There followed an interview in which Marjan explained how he had eschewed such sensibilities to embrace a lighter and more whimsical style in works such as Fantasia...sul un linguaggio perduto (1981). I was absolutely intrigued. How does one reinvent one’s self in such a manner? Is one such ‘self’ more authentic than another ‘self?’”

In the course of producing that concert recording and broadcast, I had mentioned to Mozetich that his quartet, Fantasia...sul un linguaggio perduto (...on a lost language), might work well in an adaptation for string orchestra. He subsequently did just that, and his string orchestra adaptation has become one of his most performed works. Not too many years later, in 1989, CBC Records accepted my proposal to make a CD of Mozetich’s music on their Musica Viva sub-label. The CD, titled Procession, included the Amadeus Ensemble, a string ensemble led by Moshe Hammer, joined by guest soloists Joseph Petric, accordion, and harpist Erica Goodman. The recording included several important pieces in Mozetich’s developing style, such as Dance of the Blind, the string orchestra version of Fantasia... sul un linguaggio perduto, and his 1981 work for harp and strings, El Dorado.

It was this latter work which revealed the special feeling that Mozetich had for the harp. As Mozetich told me: “It all started with El Dorado and my friendship with harpist Erica Goodman. It was with this work that it all gelled with me and the harp. Over the years Erica commissioned three other works with harp which have all been recorded. I think it is the unique resonance and visual allure of the harp that attracted me to it. Subsequently I wrote four quintessential harp pieces, Songs of Nymphs, that are performed by numerous harpists around the world. To date I’ve written seven works with significant harp parts.” One of those harp pieces, The Passion of Angels, actually includes two harps: Mozetich wrote the work in 1995 on a commission from CBC Radio Music, for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and harp soloists Nora Bumanis and Julia Shaw.

Mozetich moved to the Kingston, Ontario area in 1990, initially to find the solitude he needed to compose. The move was just what he needed, and many of his most successful scores come from the post-1990 period. In 1992, he wrote the imposed Canadian work for the Banff International String Quartet Composition, supported again by a commission from CBC Radio Music. The quartet, Lament in the Trampled Garden helped the St. Lawrence String Quartet win not only the Banff competition overall, but also the award for the best performance of the imposed work that year. In Fleck’s film, Barry Shiffman, one of the founding members of the St. Lawrence says: “After winning the competition we went on to share that piece that he wrote in concerts all over the world.”

Jamie Day Fleck with Marjan Mozetich.  Photo by Perry WalkerAll the repertoire on the CD, Affairs of the Heart, was composed during this period. Besides the violin concerto that gives the CD its title, there is the double harp concerto, The Passion of Angels, and a set of short pieces for string orchestra, Postcards from the Sky, composed in 1996. Vancouver producer Karen Wilson, who was managing the CBC Radio Orchestra at the time, had met Mozetich while serving on an arts council jury. They hit it off, became friends, and when that fateful broadcast of Affairs of the Heart created scores of “driveway experiences” and CBC switchboards lit up all over the country, she knew she would have to quickly get a proposal together for the CBC Records selection committee. The recording with the radio orchestra under Mario Bernardi, and soloists Juliette Kang, Nora Burmanis and Julia Shaw, went flawlessly, and by the summer of 2000, the CDs were being scooped up by the truckload by thousands of consumers who couldn’t get enough Mozetich into their listening lives. Randy Barnard, who was the managing director of CBC Records at the time, said: “A Canadian composition outpacing core repertoire was a rarity, never mind becoming a bestseller in the catalogue.” The original CBC Records CD has been out of stock for years, but it’s now available as Centrediscs catalogue number CD-CMCCD 21815. For ordering information, see: cmccanada.org/shop/CD-CMCCD-21815.

Mozetich has made an impact in the Kingston community since settling there almost 20 years ago. In the film, Glen Fast, conductor emeritus of the Kingston Symphony notes: “I think Kingston knows they’re lucky to have him here, in this position as a composer, as a real music maker, as a substantial composer with his own voice.” Mozetich also taught as an adjunct professor of composition at Queens University most of those years. He retired from that position last June. John Burge, who, along with his teaching at Queens, is also in charge of the Queens Faculty Artists Series, commented in the film: “I know that if I can find a way to integrate Mozetich’s music into the concerts that we put on in Kingston it’ll make everyone happy. And I can tell you, that if we present a concert that has Marjan’s music programmed, there will be people that will come because they just want to hear Marjan’s music. They just want to see him walk up onstage and talk about his music.”

As for hearing live performances of Mozetich’s music this month, the Niagara Symphony Orchestra and music director Bradley Thachuck will perform his Postcards from the Sky on Saturday, April 27 at 7:30pm and Sunday, April 28 at 2:30pm in the recital hall in the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines.

David Jaeger is a composer, producer and broadcaster based in Toronto.

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, led by Masaaki Suzuki in their performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Photo credit: Jeff Higgins.It is the challenge of any conductor of early music: how to take works with innumerable minute sections and transitions, and smooth them into a cohesive performance. This challenge becomes particularly demanding when the individual sections themselves are complex and technically formidable, requiring an elevated level of focus from each performer and precise control from their leader. Within the corpus of such works, J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion reigns supreme: almost three hours in duration and scored for two choirs and orchestras, the immensity of every aspect of this piece makes it the apotheosis of Baroque religious music, the pious parallel to Handel’s great operas.

To the delight of Bach fans across the city, Tafelmusik presented the St. Matthew Passion, led by the renowned Japanese Bach specialist Masaaki Suzuki, on March 21 to 24 as part of their 40th anniversary season. Expectations were understandably high as Toronto’s premier early music ensemble joined forces with their legendary guest director – but this performance surpassed them all, providing an experience that made both a musical and spiritual impact. By neither losing the musical details in favour of dramatic effect nor neglecting the dramatic elements in favour of the musical, the Tafelmusik musicians reached a balance that resulted in a fulfilling, complete performance.

Central to this success was Suzuki’s incredible knowledge of the score and control of the ensemble, whom he guided with assuredness and precision. From beginning to end, each recitative was led with intention, looking ahead to what followed, providing innumerable transitions that felt logical and organic. The chorus was in top form throughout (their blend and tuning perhaps the best it’s ever been), and their agile maneuvering of Bach’s complex counterpoint conveyed both clarity and affect in perfect balance. The orchestra was magnificent as well, leading the chorus and soloists through their retelling of Christ’s passion with a wide range of expression, and following Suzuki’s leadership and interpretive ideas with precision.

The continuo team and strings deserve particular mention in this regard, as they had the task of accompanying a vast amount of recitative, from the secco narration of the Evangelist to the accompagnato words of Christ. Their unity and control lent a support that helped the audience to forget the technical difficulties and potential pitfalls of accompanying recitative and focus instead on the drama as it unfolded, guided through our journey by the stunning Evangelist, tenor James Gilchrist.

All of the soloists were in superb form, providing sublime reflections on the narrative unfolding within the Passion story. Of particular beauty was the final bass aria, ‘Mache dich, mein Herze’, which connected soloist and orchestra in such a way that they existed as one, an alchemic moment that set up the tranquil and introspective conclusion in which the choir is taken to ppp, the very bottom of their dynamic range, bringing the performance to rest.

If it is impossible to find a perfect live performance of this work, this one came incredibly close. Everything and everyone worked together in synchronicity to realize the musical vision of one of the world’s great Bach interpreters and, ultimately, what one hopes was the vision of the composer himself.

Signing his contract as Thomaskantor in 1723, Bach had to agree not to write in an excessively operatic style; despite this apparent stylistic restriction, Bach’s score is incredibly fertile, spanning the gamut of human emotions in three short hours, and reflecting his own theology in musical form. We are exceedingly fortunate to have such gifted interpreters in our midst, who provide their audiences the rare opportunity to hear such extraordinary music performed in an extraordinary way.

Tafelmusik presented Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, led by Masaaki Suzuki, March 21 to 24, 2019, at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

clock radio cover web bannerMichael Davidson and Dan Fortin’s duo album Clock Radio.On Saturday, March 23, vibraphonist Michael Davidson and bassist Dan Fortin will perform together at the Canadian Music Centre in celebration of their debut duo album, Clock Radio, which will be released the previous day (Friday, March 22). This event marks a confluence of the new: a new project, with a fresh book of tunes; a new label, Elastic Recordings, helmed by Davidson and Fortin, of which Clock Radio will be the first release; a new direction for the CMC, which, until relatively recently, has primarily hosted performances by classical musicians. But it also marks a point of convergence in an ongoing history of collaboration shared by the two musicians, who experienced an immediate rapport when they first played together as students in the mid-2000s. Since then, they’ve appeared together with a wide variety of different projects, notably the band Stop Time, whose album Twice was released in 2011, and on the Fortin-led album Brinks, released in 2015.

The material that would form the basis of Clock Radio was primarily composed in the summer of 2017, during which time Michael Davidson spent two months in Berlin, studying with percussionist David Friedman. Following an inspiring first lesson, Davidson went to a coffee shop, wrote about the experience, and then started sketching out a musical idea on score paper. After his second lesson, he repeated the process. “Pretty soon,” as Davidson told me, he “had maybe 10 or 12 pieces, and an entire notebook worth of stuff.” As his time with Friedman came to a close, Davidson decided that the logical next step would be to actually play his pieces with other people, both to honour the music he’d written and as “a lovely way to document the experience of living in Berlin and studying with this person who was one of the people responsible for getting [him] into the vibraphone.”

Knowing that he had a significant collection of new work, Davidson booked a recording session at Canterbury Music Company as soon as he returned to Toronto from Berlin. But the music needed rehearsal time, and Davidson needed an ensemble that would be committed, as Stop Time had been, to a collaborative workshopping process that would give his sketches the necessary time and space to develop naturally into more structured pieces. The idea of playing in a duo format with Fortin occurred to him near the end of his stay in Berlin; when he got back, Davidson called him, saying “I have this idea, and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’ve got to meet every week” to make it work. Fortin agreed, and they organized a series of intensive rehearsals leading up to the recording session. Davidson returned to Toronto in early September; by the end of October, they’d recorded Clock Radio.

Duo albums have long been part of the recorded jazz tradition, from the 1962 Bill Evans / Jim Hall recording Undercurrent to Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden’s Last Dance, released in 2014. There are, however, few duo recordings of vibraphone and bass. Hotel Hello, the 1975 Gary Burton / Steve Swallow album, is perhaps the best known, but, replete with keyboard overdubs, it is as much a showcase for Burton and Swallow’s studio prowess as it is for their improvisational abilities. With Clock Radio, Davidson and Fortin were working with a relatively blank slate, and few pre-conceived notions about what they should sound like. “Certain instrumentation,” says Fortin, “can come with certain baggage. With a piano trio, for instance, people come to expect certain things.” Without the pressure to contend with the conventions that attend a large body of work in a given instrumental format, the duo felt free to let the natural rehearsal and recording processes guide the album’s development.

Of the many qualities that make Clock Radio special, two stand out in particular. The first: the depth of the sounds on the recording. A duo recording, particularly one without any drums, invites a different kind of listening than a larger ensemble does; a larger range of an instrument’s timbral qualities suddenly become audible, as do the sounds of a musician’s hands moving through the air of the studio. With the freedom to hear more from each other, Davidson and Fortin felt an increased ability to engage in deeper, collective improvisation. “With a larger group, the ‘moment before something happens’ isn’t necessarily there as much, whereas in duo playing the moment before it happens is right there with you,” Davidson told me. “It’s beyond feeling it coming; you can actually hear the beginning of the sound. I can hear Dan’s finger just starting to touch the strings; my mallets are making a sound as they approach the bars. All this stuff is intense, and it gives me goosebumps as it’s happening.”

The second standout quality that makes Clock Radio special: the places where composition and improvisation overlap, and the blurred boundary between the two. Beyond each player’s considerable technical ability and their shared commitment to group improvisation, this particular aspect of their music speaks to Davidson and Fortin’s trust in each other’s musical sensibilities. Playing together for so long, terminology has emerged to explain certain aspects of their connection. A URO, I learn, is an ‘Unidentified Rhythmic Object’; as Fortin tells me, “we kind of feel time the same way. If the time is moving, we can follow each other really easily.” IBS, on the other hand, refers to the duo’s shared sense of harmony; it’s something that “you know is there, although you can’t always identify it, but it disrupts things and results in interesting choices.” Clock Radio’s mixing process was also a point at which the intersection of composition and improvisation was explored. Influenced by Toronto drummer/producer Jean Martin – whose label, Barnyard Records, serves as an influence for Elastic Recordings – and with the help of mix engineer David Hermiston, Davidson and Fortin used a number of post-production effects to highlight and extend their improvised material. This process was not ‘production,’ in the conventional sense, but rather one in which the duo followed, according to Davidson, “the wake of the potential thoughts and feelings that might have been involved in the improvisation.”

Clock Radio, as both Davidson and Fortin tell me, is not meant as a monument, but rather a snapshot – a tribute to a particular moment in time, and to the living history that the two share. Much like their approach to music-making, it is as much about has been as what is to come.

Michael Davidson and Dan Fortin’s Clock Radio will be released on Elastic Recordings on March 22, followed by a CD release on March 23 at 8pm, at the Canadian Music Centre, Toronto.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached through his website, on Instagram and on Twitter.

Oliveros cityhall TerryLimbannerThe February 17 performance of To Valerie Solanas And Marilyn Monroe In Recognition Of Their Desperation at the Toronto City Hall Council Chambers. Project initiated by Christopher Willes. Contributing artists: Anne Bourne, Allison Cameron, Victoria Cheong, Ishan Davé, Prices Easy, Ellen Furey, Thom Gill, Claire Harvie, Ame Henderson, Brendan Jensen, Germaine Liu, Bee Pallomina, Liz Peterson, Heather Saumer, Brian Solomon, Anni Spadafora, Evan Webber, Christopher Willes and others. Rehearsal direction: Kate Nankervis. Produced by Public Recordings and Christopher Willes. Photo credit: Terry Lim.In mid-February, the Music Gallery and other presenting partners created a weekend of events focused on the work and legacy of Pauline Oliveros and her partner IONE in a three-part form: a reading, a workshop and a concert.

The experience of Deep Listening, Oliveros’s core practice, was at the heart of all three activities, so I will begin with a look at the middle event of the three: a Deep Listening workshop presented by the Music Gallery and 918 Bathurst on February 16. Offered by Anne Bourne and special guest IONE, this opportunity for a hands-on experience of Deep Listening involved the creation and performance of a selection of Oliveros’ best-known scores, pieces she called Sonic Meditations earlier in her career. She later coined the term Deep Listening to mean “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing.”

The scores we performed are one way to experience this way of listening, as they invite the audience to collectively create the piece while simultaneously listening and sounding. The workshop opened up with both body and vocal warmups, including intoning on different vowel sounds while being aware of different areas or energy centres of the body. The group began to cohere as one sounding body, within one resonating place – and this awareness of collective listening and sounding deepened throughout the afternoon as we moved from one score to another.

One of my favourite scores we performed that afternoon is entitled Extreme Slow Walk, one of Oliveros’s first pieces that I had experienced many years ago in the late 1970s when the Music Gallery was located on St. Patrick Street. This time, we were instructed to walk very slowly around the room, being aware of each micro movement necessary for placing one foot in front of the other. While walking, we were also to sing a favourite childhood song, sustaining each note of the song with each step. What emerged in the listening space was a full sonic texture of shifting pitches and harmonies that created a tapestry that one’s own sound was a part of. As discussed a bit later in the workshop, most participants found it almost impossible to hold the melody intact, even if the song were as simple as “Row Row Row Your Boat.” Despite this sensation of dislocation, it didn’t seem to matter so much, as the more collective goal of creating a shifting harmonic texture took precedence. Something else was at play.

Appropriately, it was Valentine’s Day when IONE offered a reading from her book Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color, a memoir that is clearly a work of passion and love for the astonishing and accomplished women in her family’s lineage, including her mother, grandmother, great-aunt and great-grandmother. Reading at A Different Booklist on Bathurst Street, at an event co-presented with Art Metropole, the Music Gallery, and Public Recordings, IONE began the evening talking about the important role that both Toronto and the Bathurst Street area played during the days of the Underground Railroad, and shared that one of her uncles used to own a railway, a history she’s currently researching. She began working on Pride of Family in the late 1960s, around the same time that Pauline was composing the piece that was performed on the February 17 concert – To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation – an interesting detail given that the two had not yet met one another. IONE had been very involved in the burgeoning feminist movement of the late 1960s and 70s and published some of her research in Ms. Magazine. She spoke about the how these feminist gatherings helped change her “from a negro girl to a black woman, going from wearing bangles to combat boots.” She began raising questions of whether she felt at home as a black woman in America and realized that the lives of her female ancestors were shrouded in mystery.

In the preface to her book she wrote: “From the moment I read the words [my great-grandmother] Frances Anne Rollin wrote in Boston on January 1, 1868 – ‘The year renews its birth today with all its hopes and sorrows’ – she became my beacon, the foremother who would finally share with me our collective past.” And so she began her search for the stories of these foremothers, a term she coined as she researched and wrote. What she would eventually discover was a lineage of extraordinary, educated and accomplished women. Her mother was a journalist, actress and composer; her grandmother was a proprietor and chef of a well loved restaurant; her great-aunt was one of Washington’s first black female physicians; and her great-grandmother played a significant role in the feminist and abolitionist movements of the late 19th century, writing the biography of black statesman Major Martin Delany, the first full-length biography written by an African American, with her own diaries being the earliest known diary by a southern black woman.

IONE’s book was published in 1991. She remarked during the Q&A that this was during the same time period that Pauline released her Deep Listening CD (1989), recorded in a water cistern located in Washington State. The term ‘deep listening’ began as a joke when Oliveros reflected on the music she and her colleagues had just completed several feet below the earth’s surface. As IONE and Oliveros embarked upon their life journey together, IONE became a regular performing partner, at first by reading poetry as part of the musical performance, and later on allowing words and sounds to spontaneously arise in the moment.

That Sunday, February 17, I was honoured to sit beside IONE during the performance of Oliveros’s To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation, a collaborative effort from Public Recordings and the Music Gallery that took place at the heart of Toronto’s political life – the City Council Chambers.

It is difficult to find the adequate words to describe the experience, as was often the case after listening to Pauline perform. She wrote the piece in 1970 after reading the Scum Manifesto by Valerie Solanas, who argued that men have ruined the world, and that it is up to women to fix it. In a note passed on to me by Christopher Willes and Anne Bourne, who were both involved in the city hall performance, Oliveros stated: “Intrigued by the egalitarian feminist principles set forth in the Manifesto, I wanted to incorporate them in the structure of a new piece that I was composing. The women's movement was surfacing and I felt the need to express my resonance with this energy. Marilyn Monroe had taken her own life. Valerie Solanas had attempted to take the life of Andy Warhol. Both women seemed to be desperate and caught in the traps of inequality: Monroe needed to be recognized for her talent as an actress. Solanas wished to be supported for her own creative work.”

The concert performance of this work on February 17 lasted well over an hour, yet time passed as in the blink of an eye. In my own experience, I felt as if I had entered into a sonic trance, the sound acting as a carrier wave to create a gestalt-like experience. Instead of listening to lines of activity as in many musical performances, I experienced being within a solid sphere – a space defined by sound and awareness that encompassed and surrounded me, with a continuous invitation to enter within. The 20+ instrumentalists gathered for this particular performance included violin, cello, double bass, several percussionists, voice, flute, trombone, electric guitar, electronics, synthesizer, and an orange traffic cone. With no conductor, the piece’s three sections were marked out using lighting cues, and other key points in the score were demarcated using strobe-like white flashes. Each performer came prepared with five chosen pitches which were to be played as very long tones, at times with modulations or changes to volume, timbre, or other possible ways within the instruments’ abilities. (In preparation for the performance, there were two public rehearsals held, one at OCAD university and the other at U of T’s Faculty of Music.) And the chosen performance space – a place where democracy is played out (in varying degrees of success) – was the perfect setting for this work of high-stakes politics.

Oliveros once said, in response to being questioned about what musical ideas she was working on: “Well, I haven’t been working with musical ideas for a while, but I’ve been working on my consciousness, on my mode of consciousness, and the result of the mode is the music.” For me, this is the essence of her work – to offer the opportunity for people to experience another paradigm or way of being with sound that stands in stark contrast to the traditional Western European classical music model. Given the conflicts currently playing out on the world stage, it is my opinion that any form of resolution or movement forward can only be accomplished through the act of listening – and how we participate in and deepen our skill with listening, and with understanding our modes of consciousness, is a critical aspect of being and living within the present.

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

Article and photo credit updated on March 15 at 3:20pm to better reflect the participating artists and intent of the author.

plastic babies bannerPlastic Babies at Burdock on March 11. Photo credit: Bea Labikova.There is a strong do-it-yourself ethos in the improvising music community in Toronto, and a dearth of venues that regularly book free jazz. When more open shows do occur – such as the recent Tony Malaby/Nick Fraser performance at The Rex – they tend to feature older, more established musicians, or artists from the United States or Europe. In many ways, the free improvisation audience has more in common with the audience for contemporary classical music than it does with mainstream jazz listeners; as such, it isn’t surprising that a number of the more frequent presenters of free improvised music in Southern Ontario (including Somewhere There and Arraymusic) are not-for-profits presenting classical-style series, or established festivals (such as the Guelph Jazz Festival & Colloquium) that are, at least in Guelph’s case, connected to academic programs at postsecondary institutions. (The Tranzac also provides regular space for improvised music, often in the form of artist-curated residencies with monthly slots.)

On Monday, March 11, I went to Burdock Music Hall to attend the last of four evenings of music hosted by a new venture in the creative improvised music community: the inaugural Women From Space Festival. Women From Space aims to “celebrate women’s artistic voices and achievements and to draw attention to an underrepresentation of women in free improvisation and jazz,” and took place from March 8 to 11 at four different venues (in chronological order: Wenona Craft Beer Lodge, The Tranzac, Arraymusic and Burdock Music Hall).

With no fixed venue and minimal sponsorship, co-organizers Bea Labikova and Kayla Milmine – both of whom are active performers, and played in the festival – did an admirable job fulfilling the festival’s mandate. Women From Space presented 16 acts and over 30 individual musicians in total; each evening featured four acts, and each act played a 30-minute set. Happy Apple, Allison Cameron and Joe Strutt’s duo project, kicked off the festivities at Burdock on Monday. With the use of found objects (including the titular apples, which turned out to be apple-shaped bell shakers with painted-on smiles), contact microphones, a tape machine, a ukulele, and a variety of pedals, Happy Apple referenced both experimental music and noise band traditions. Cameron performed primarily on ukulele, and used a number of effects – from long delays to jagged, gated fuzz – in single-line passages, while Strutt tended to create more atmospheric sounds.

Vocalist Laura Swankey was in the second slot, presenting her solo voice project (Swankey’s recent EP, Once More: for solo voice and electronics, was covered in the October edition of The WholeNote EP Review). While Happy Apple’s performance was open and exploratory – they played one continuous set that came, eventually, to a natural conclusion – Swankey’s was tightly-composed, and was made up of a handful of individual songs. Most of Swankey’s solo compositions are built on minimal lyrics, that repeat, build on themselves, and transform throughout the course of a song; they resemble the work of a singer/producer such as James Blake as much as they do mainstream jazz, free or otherwise. Fresh from a residency at The Banff Centre, Swankey displayed an admirable command of her voice and her pedals throughout her carefully-crafted, technically accomplished set.

Prices Easy and New Chance at Burdock on March 11. Photo credit: Bea Labikova.Prices Easy and New Chance – also known, respectively, as Aisha Sasha John and Victoria Cheong – performed in the second-to-last set, presenting several medium-length pieces that featured Cheong on creative DJ duty and John on voice. Each piece was built around a first-person narrative sketch, which John performed with spoken word, singing, and a variety of vocal effects, deployed to add emphasis and create unique texture throughout. The narratives followed a certain kind of dream logic, moving quickly from scene to scene and interlocutor to interlocutor, and were deliberately difficult to parse; near the end of the set, as part of the performance, John spoke about the power of illegibility, and the important role that illegibility can play in artist/activist resistance to cultural hegemony.

Following Prices Easy and New Chance, the trio Plastic Babies – comprising Swankey on voice, Patrick O’Reilly on guitar and Christine Duncan on voice – performed the final set of the evening. Plastic Babies has been playing together for some time, and, of the evening’s four acts, worked most within the framework of the free jazz tradition. Duncan is, probably, one of Canada’s leading improvised music vocalists, and is able to access an incredible range of vocal devices, from rapid-fire machine-gun stuttering to rounded operatic vowels. Plastic Babies’ set ended with a round of enthusiastic applause, and, judging by the full house, a very satisfied group of festival attendees. Though still in an early stage of development, Women From Space has established itself as a valuable festival with excellent potential for future growth; it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.  

The Women From Space Festival ran from March 8 to 11 at multiple venues (Wenona Craft Beer Lodge, The Tranzac, Arraymusic and Burdock Music Hall) in Toronto.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer, and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached through his website, on Instagram and on Twitter.

Sting and the cast of The Last Ship – Toronto Production, 2019. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.The Princess of Wales Theatre was full of the buzz of excitement on February 19 for the official opening of multi Grammy Award-winning musician Sting's musical The Last Ship, starring Sting himself in the critical role of union foreman Jackie White. This is a story of industrial action, of workers bonding together to defeat the  government-mandated shutdown of their shipyard, the main source of livelihood for their town. It’s also the love story of a boy (Gideon) who runs away to sea to escape the trap of the shipyard – leaving behind his girlfriend (Meg) who, unbeknownst to him, is pregnant with their daughter. When Gideon returns 15 years later, he finds a girlfriend who doesn't seem to want him back, a rebellious daughter who wants to leave as much as he did, and the shipyard, the backbone of the town, in desperate straits.

Based on real events in the 1970s and 1980s – particularly the attempted shutdown of the Upper Clyde Shipyard in 1971 – and on Sting's own childhood in the ship-building town of Wallsend in the north of England, the show clearly has strong personal meaning for its creator. In the program notes he is quoted as saying: “I wanted to give the community where I was born a voice, to tell a narrative in this form because it's a story that hasn't been told. In a way, it's a kind of debt that I feel I owe. [...] I abandoned my town [...] I didn't want to be a part of it, so now I want to go back and say thank you for what (it) gave me.”

This feeling of emotional resonance is strongly present throughout The Last Ship – particularly in the wonderful music. Powerful choral numbers form the backbone of the score, songs full of rich harmonies and deep full-voiced singing. Equally strong and engaging on a personal level – interwoven with the community's choral voice – are the lovely clean and clear melodies of the solos and duets, particularly for the lovers meeting again, but also for (Sting's role) Jackie and his wife Peg.

There is much in the book to grab the interest and emotions of the audience, but also much to frustrate. The opening sequence, for example, takes too long to set the scene and yet seems to rush the time transition from the departure of Gideon to his return. There is also a rather clumsy use of a narrator (played by the same actress who plays the daughter), who speaks in mythic generalities rather than specifics. Once this opening sequence is out of the way, the plot does become clearer, but the book still needs work. This is a new version of John Logan and Brian Yorkey's original script (as seen on Broadway) by new director Lorne Campbell, but it feels at times as though words have been cobbled together to fit around the songs, rather than songs and scenes making an organic whole.

This is particularly the case with the shipyard plot, where, after deciding to face down the forces of government industrial privatization by taking over the shipyard to complete the last ship of the title, the characters never really seem to reach the anticipated climax. The interwoven love story plot, on the other hand, works much more smoothly and had all of us in the audience sitting forward in our seats, totally involved in the intricacies of the former lovers reconnecting and the “new” dad and daughter starting to navigate their newly discovered relationship. All three actors were very strong, particularly Frances McNamee as Meg, who is extraordinary. She had us in the palm of her hand throughout, completely magnetic in quiet moments and tearing up the stage with her defiance in the song “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor.” Sophie Reid as the daughter, Ellie, also lit up the stage in the glorious “All This Time.” Here was Sting's past in a nutshell but in the person of a rebellious girl – which somehow made it even more powerful to watch. (Interestingly, in the original version of the show, this character was a boy.) It is, of course, rather a thrill to see Sting himself live onstage as part of this strong cast, though he seemed so much less at ease without a guitar in his hands.

The set by 59 Productions has some great elements, including some magnificent projections, but seems underused in the new staging, which often groups the actors statically on the main level rather than taking advantage of the possibilities of the set's scaffolding. The choreography, or movement direction, also seems lacking in imagination in the group scenes. One of these scenes does stand out for excellent staging because of its simplicity and symbolic placement of the singers: a wonderful song set in the town's church, complete with stained glass windows depicting the shipyard workers and one of their finished ocean liners. Movingly focused on the dying Jackie White with his wife Peg at its centre and using every level and nook and cranny of space for the rest of the cast, this caught at the heart.

This is the North American premiere of the newly revamped version of The Last Ship, which began at a workshop at Sage Gateshead in the UK in late 2017 before heading into a very successful run at Newcastle's Northern Stage and tour of the UK in 2018. While there must be some speculation about this being a test run before another trip to Broadway, I would say that the show isn't ready yet. It has great potential in its beautiful score, and great heart in the aim of its story, but could do with another concentrated workshop period to fulfill that stirring potential.

The Last Ship opened on February 19 in Toronto and continues at the Princess of Wales Theatre until March 24.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare, and new Canadian plays.

JNorman 1 banner Alexander Neef and Jessye Norman in conversation. Photo credit: Kenneth Chou Photography.The newest laureate of the Glenn Gould Prize, legendary soprano, activist and educator Jessye Norman brought her regal countenance to TIFF Bell Lightbox on February 12 for an engaging 90-minute conversation with Canadian Opera Company general director Alexander Neef.

Neef began by asking about Norman’s early memories of music in her life.

Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam was my big number when I was four [and singing in the church choir],” she said. At nine, she was given her own radio and the chore of cleaning her room (“What drudgery!”) on Saturdays. But she had just discovered Milton Cross and the Met broadcasts, so cleaning her room lasted as long as the opera.

“I was very lucky that I didn’t have my first voice lesson until I was 17 at Howard University,” she said (although she did take piano lessons when she was younger).

Hearing Marian Anderson singing Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody with Charles Munch impressed her deeply: “I had never heard a voice so low with such timbre.”

By age 24 she was onstage with Deutsche Oper Berlin as Elisabeth in Tannhauser; it was her professional debut. Notified in the spring of the coming December date, she spent five months at Duke University in between studying conversational German. It was an early indicator of her devotion to the importance of text in singing: “I don’t sing a language I don’t speak.”

In her extraordinary masterclass at U of T on February 15, she put that axiom into practice by going over the pronunciation of the text of each of 12 songs with the six U of T singers who performed for her. Sometimes she would speak a word into her mic just before or just after it was sung; occasionally she would have the singer say each word of the text for her after the first run-through. As she pointed out in her introduction to the capacity crowd: “What we’re doing is a work in progress; we’re correcting, thinking, improving … to make music.”

She was an active participant in the process, mouthing the words of an aria, conducting with her left hand (or both hands), moving her fingers as if she were the collaborative pianist, even letting a word or two escape into the Walter Hall air through her mic. Frequently she would exhort the singer to “Go on!” or “Take your time.” Or comment in French: “C’est pas facile ce phrase.” Or German: “Wunderbar.” Her joy was infectious; sometimes it felt as if she were performing the piece herself.

She learned from Laurence Olivier no less, to keep the opera’s drama on the stage and leave it behind once you’re off the stage. Questioned by Neef about how she saw her legacy: “I hope I would inspire artists to step beyond our professions – to be concerned with the welfare of other people. I cared,” she said. “And it showed.” In answer to a question from the audience about how to deal with the onset of a career: “Preparation is the first part of success,” she said. “Learn a new piece; preparation and opportunity will give you success.”

U of T masterclass participants and faculty with Jessye Norman. Photo credit: Kenneth Chou Photography.At the conclusion of the three-hour masterclass, and before she was greeted by scores of admirers who filled the Walter Hall stage in search of a few words or an autograph, Norman answered questions from that audience. “Take a deep breath to relieve tension,” she told one singing student. As to how she dealt with negative criticism, she brought down the house: “First you have to consider where the criticism is coming from. As my grandmother used to say, ‘Consider the source.’”

Her advice to a young dramatic soprano: “Sing a lot of Handel and Mozart to keep the oils running and keep the weighty voice agile,” she said. “Mozart and Handel will save your life.”

And finally: “Sing truly what suits you, what you love. Don’t allow someone to label you. Listen to other singers.”

“Be brave,” she said.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Never Look Away bannerTom Schilling as Kurt Barnert. Photo credit: Caleb Deschanel, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away – nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography Oscars – paints a vast canvas chronicling the turbulent times in Germany from 1937 to the mid-1960s. It’s loosely based on the life of famed German artist Gerhard Richter but as it hits some major historical notes of the mid-20th century – Nazism, Communism, master-race eugenics and the Berlin Wall – it does so in the context of its central character Kurt’s love for two women, both named Elisabeth.

Saskia Rosendahl as Elisabeth May and Cai Cohrs as Young Kurt Barnert. Photo credit: Caleb Deschanel, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.As a child, Kurt was under the thrall of his aunt, Elisabeth May, who encouraged his love of art. Indeed, the film opens in 1937 when the two of them attend the Dresden exhibit of decadent art (immaculately and beautifully rendered by the director and his legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel). Kurt once watched his aunt play Bach’s lovely Sheep May Safely Graze (from Cantata No.208) on the piano in the nude. (Not since Luis Buñuel’s Phantom of Liberty has the instrument been so artfully exploited.) It was her last moment of freedom. As she is taken away to be institutionalized, composer Max Richter’s post-minimalist score picks up on the Bach for an apt variation, recurring later when Kurt is at art school. The second Elisabeth, a fellow student at the Düsseldorf Academy, is the daughter of a notorious gynecologist, Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) who was responsible for the death of Kurt’s aunt.

Sebastian Koch as Professor Carl Seeband. Photo credit: Caleb Deschanel, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.Koch, who was one of the key cast members in Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 Oscar-winner The Lives of Others, plays the villain in the new film. Koch’s relationship with the director is highly collaborative and he has described his character Professor Seeband as a monster. “He is ice-cold and domineering. But what is truly monstrous about him is that he is convinced he is doing the right thing. There is no feeling of wrongdoing, no sense of guilt. He does what he does because for him there is absolutely no alternative.”

Henckel von Donnersmarck’s work with Richter was crucial. “[Richter’s] orchestral piece November [from 2002’s Memoryhouse] was the leitmotif for the film,” the director said. “It accompanied me throughout the entire filming and editing… He is a man of deep knowledge and great wisdom. His music has true healing power and is always incredibly beautiful.” By 1940, Elisabeth’s impending sterilization is underlined by a wrenching, ominous moment in the score. The end of WWII is played out to Handel’s Dixit Dominus.

Though nothing in Never Look Away rises to the level of November, Richter’s post-minimalist shards of emotionalism serve to buttress the complex relationships between the painter, the eugenicist and the two women who link them.

While Never Look Away is just now (February 22) opening in Toronto, two other Best Foreign Language Film nominees I profiled in The WholeNote’s September issue are still going strong in local theatres as the Academy Awards loom on February 24.

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig in Cold War. Photo courtesy of Mongrel Media.Pawel Pawlikowski’s epochal love story Cold War, nominated for three Academy Awards – Foreign Language Film, Cinematography and Direction – stands out for its cinematic artistry and fervour. Cold War begins and ends in Poland, with stops in Paris, East Berlin and Split, Yugoslavia as it journeys from 1949 to 1964. Wiktor and Zula’s love is deep and true but subject to the political vagaries of the era it inhabits. Both are musicians who meet through music (of which there is a wide variety, from traditional Polish folk to 1950s jazz). Pawlikowski depicts it with rigorous attention to detail. Filmed in stylish, enhanced black and white, with compelling performances by Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot, Cold War succeeds at every level.

The music credits for Cold War are a treasure trove of traditional Polish folk music, with almost two dozen excerpts; the jazz side features Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Kulig and Kot doing Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy. What wraps up this musical odyssey? A few moments of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It’s all a not-to-be-missed cinematic experience, due in large part to its crucial musical component.

Zain Al Rafeea (right) and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole. Photo credit: Fares Sokhon, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.Nadine Labaki’s emotionally potent film Capernaum, about a 12-year-old Lebanese boy who sues his parents for giving him life, won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year. It’s another worthy nominee contending for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Labaki’s husband Khaled Mouzanar produced the film and composed the score. To fit what Mouzanar called “the poverty and rawness of the subject,” he wrote a “less melodic score than usual using dissonant choral melodies that seem to disappear before they can be grasped, as well as synth-based electronic sonorities.” Crucially, he chose not to “underline or highlight emotions that were already sufficiently intense.”

Any one of these Oscar contenders would make for ideal viewing in the days leading up to Sunday’s awards ceremony. And for months and years in the future for that matter.

Never Look Away opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on February 22. Cold War and Capernaum continue their Toronto runs.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Sir Andrew Davis with the TSO and TSYO on February 6. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.Sometimes an email subject line helps a bunch of different ideas to fall neatly into place. Such was the case a day or so ago. Old meets new as Tafelmusik unveils 2019/20 Season” the subject line read. More about the Tafelmusik spin on the “Old Meets New” theme in the upcoming March issue, but for now, upcoming February concerts by Toronto Consort and Art of Time Ensemble, and a recent evening at the TSO, all fit the theme rather nicely.   

February 15 and 16 at Trinity-St. Paul’s, Toronto Consort’s "Love Remixed" features only 20th- and 21st-century music for early instruments and voice, the first time in the ensemble’s four-and-a half decade history that the ensemble has presented an entire program such as this. The concert features Juno-nominated James Rolfe’s Breathe with text by librettist Anna Chatterton, followed by David Fallis’ Eurydice Variations, the story of Monteverdi’s Orfeo told from the point of view of Eurydice.

Breathe Front CoverWriting for period instruments is not a new adventure for Rolfe. He dipped his toes in these waters as far back as 2003, for Toronto Masque Theatre, in partnership with André Alexis (the 2010-11 Giller Prize winner for his novel Fifteen Dogs). Their first collaboration was a piece titled Orpheus in the Underworld, paired up with Charpentier’s La Descente d'Orphee aux Enfers. Their next was Aeneas and Dido (paired with Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in 2007). Their Orpheus then returned to Toronto Masque Theatre in 2011, to close Toronto Masque Theatre’s season that year.  

The creation of Breathe has also taken place in layers, over time. It had its premiere performance in 2011, in St. Anne’s Anglican Church, as a Soundstreams commission for the  Norwegian a cappella ensemble Trio Mediaeval and the Toronto Consort. In it, Chatterton’s libretto is interwoven with the writings of 12th-century poet and composer Hildegard of Bingen. Rolfe’s music also has a medieval bedrock. As Globe and Mail writer Robert Everett Green described it at the time, “with voices and instruments attuned to medieval sonorities (or what we think they were), [Rolfe] used drones, interlocking patterns and melodies as simple as plainchant, sometimes running them as live loops against each other … [finding] a distinct gait and tone for each section of the text. … Between Hildegard's visionary, sensual description of "divine mysteries" and Chatterton's breath-centred evocations of love, the text exuded the same kind of sexy spirituality as the biblical Song of Songs.”

Since then the work has seen life as the opening track of an eponymous  Centrediscs release of James Rolfe’s music, Breathe, nominated for a 2018 JUNO Award. In her review of the disc in The WholeNote in October 2017, Dianne Wells described it as “in its performance here, by far one of the most extraordinarily beautiful recordings experienced in recent memory.”

As for David Fallis’  Eurydice Variations, “the story of Monteverdi’s Orfeo told from the point of view of Eurydice” which closes the program, for many in the Consort’s audience whose oldest memories of the group are inextricably interwoven with David Fallis’ recently concluded 28-year tenure as artistic director, it will be really intriguing to hear what he’s been doing with all that new-found time since relinquishing the reins at Toronto Consort.  

Art of Time, February  22 at Harbourfront Centre Theatre, has dedicated itself to playing off old against new, and vice versa, for all of its 20-year history under the artistic direction of Andrew Burashko. This particular concert, titled The Classical Program, is sandwiched between two performances, Feb 21 and 23, of a complementary, more contemporary,  program titled “The Songs Program.” This one, for me, gets to the heart of Art of Time’s mission to break down artificial, genre-bound barriers among music lovers. It’s innovative “Source & Inspiration” format “pairs a Franz Schubert piano trio with songs written and performed by Danny Michel, John Southworth, and Martin Tielli, along with performances of chamber music by Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, and more.”

Danny MichelAudiences for whom the core Art of Time ensemble (Andrew Burashko, piano; Jonathan Crow and Mark Fewer, violin; Shauna Rolston, cello Barry Shiffman, viola) are already old musical friends may will meet three new ones  in singers Martin Tielli, Danny Michel, and John Southworth, whose respective songs, inspired by the Schubert Trio, are at the heart of the program. And for those who come precisely because they know who Tielli, Southworth and Michel are, the bridges will be built in the other direction.

Postscript: Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Wednesday February 6: I was sitting in the RTH  balcony with music writer Robert Harris, 20 minutes before showtime. (Harris is mentoring this year’s  Emerging Arts Critics enrolled in a joint TSO/COC National Ballet program, where they write and submit reports and reviews to The WholeNote, Opera Canada, and Dance Umbrella magazines, for publication on our respective websites.)

Anyway, Harris and I were scratching our heads looking at the sea of chairs on the stage – twice as many as one might expect for the Brahms concerto for violin and cello, or the Dvořák sixth symphony to follow. Even for a pizzing contest between Strauss and Wagner it would have been a hell of a lot.

All was revealed when Sir Andrew Davis, the TSO’s interim artistic director, and conductor for the evening, mounted the podium and explained that if we were wondering about the chairs this was the occasion of the TSO’s annual “side-by-side” performance where members of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra and the TSO, rehearse and perform together. (Not the whole concert, but in this case Oskar Morawetz’s crackling Carnival Overture which kicked off the evening’s proceedings.)

Old meets new? Davis made his TSO debut in 1974, the year before commencing a 13-year tenure as the TSO’s music director; the TSYO was founded, by Victor Feldbrill, in the very same year. And ten of the current members of the TSO were, at one time or another, members of the TSYO. (Toronto Consort was two years old at the time!)

A big deal? No. But nice. Very nice.

The Rolston String Quartet performing Reich’s Different Trains on February 2. Photo credit: Claire Harvie.From Chicago to New York
One of the fastest trains
From New York to Los Angeles
Different trains every time

As artistic director Lawrence Cherney said from the stage on Saturday February 2, the concert we were about to hear was “the hottest ticket in town.” It was going to be another one of those epic Steve Reich nights reminiscent of when Reich’s music was performed at Massey Hall in April 2016. This time it was the stunning Rolston String Quartet performing his work Different Trains, along with R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet no. 2 waves, and pieces by the mentoring composers for Soundstreams emerging composers workshop Dorothy Chang (Vancouver) and Rolf Wallin (Norway). Seamlessly accompanying the musical performance of Different Trains was a film by Beatriz Caravaggio, who used a wide range of archival material primarily of trains from the late 1930s and into the mid-1940s.

Reich wrote this work in 1988 for string quartet and pre-recorded tape for the Kronos Quartet, and it received a Grammy Award in 1989. It was Reich’s first foray into what he called “documentary music video theatre” and was built on compositional ideas he had experimented with in the 1960s—melodic and rhythmic ideas generated from speech rhythms. The opening text I’ve quoted above comes from Part 1 of this 3-movement work, inspired by Reich’s early childhood experiences of riding trains from New York to Los Angeles as he visited his parents who lived separately in each of these cities. Being Jewish, he wondered what his life would have been like, and more specifically what riding a train would have been like, if he had been born in Europe during the Second World War. The texts were derived from various interviews: his governess who accompanied him on the train rides, a retired Pullman porter, and the memories of Holocaust survivors who were close in age to him.

The Germans walked in
Walked into Holland
Lots of cattle wagons there
They were loaded with people
They tattooed a number on our arm

Reich’s music is particularly important for me personally: when I was introduced to his work in 1976 at a student composers workshop he gave at U of T’s Faculty of Music, it felt like a breath of fresh air had just blown in. He spoke about slowing down the unfolding musical process so that the musical changes could be fully perceived. His music offers the listener an experience of being fully saturated with repetitive rhythmic patterns and simple melodic and harmonic textures, with the totality creating an impact that is mesmerizing and trance-like. As American composer John Adams has explained, Reich’s music arose at a time when Western concert music had reached an information saturation point. Hyper-complex musical abstractions had prevailed, but Reich’s approach brought back sensuality and pleasure into the listening experience. I certainly experienced this while listening to Different Trains, despite the intense subject matter of the Holocaust.

The originally-recorded text fragments, some of which I’ve quoted here in this report, were audible on the pre-recorded tape in the February 2 concert, and one could hear quite plainly the connection between the nuances and inflections of the speaker’s voice with the melodies and rhythms being performed by four string quartets in total—three prerecorded quartets and one live. The music progressed from one text phrase to the next, with each fragment receiving focused attention to create interlocking rhythms and resulting melodies. At times, the movement from one text section to the next created quite contrasting rhythms that served to amplify the meanings of the text itself. Reich also included archival sounds from American and European trains of the ’30s and ’40s on the pre-recorded tape.

Then the war was over
Are you sure?
Going to America
From New York to Los Angeles
One of the fastest trains
But today, they’re all gone

The accompanying film was brilliantly suited to the music, providing startling and vivid images on a 3-part screen: the patterns of multiple train tracks, spinning train wheels, people boarding and disembarking—some onto comfortable passenger cars, others stuffed and locked into box cattle cars.  The visual editing rhythms, both for each separate screen and between the three screens, complemented the rhythmic changes and juxtapositions of the music.

Throughout the evening, the Rolston String Quartet captivated their audience with deeply passionate and committed playing. Formed in 2013 at the Banff Centre for the Arts, the quartet has a busy touring and teaching schedule worldwide. Their performance of Schafer’s String Quartet no. 2 waves (1976, rev. 1978) was breathtaking, bringing to life this piece that Schafer composed using his study of the ebb and flow of waves to create both phrase lengths and large-scale proportions. The work ended with the two violinists and violist leaving the stage one by one, taking the music off into the distance with them. We also hear in the music the call of the white-throated soprano—all the more poignant now that this particular birdsong is rarely heard. Rolf Wallin’s two works on the program provided both humour and an enchanting palette of unique sonic textures and timbres.

It was indeed a hot ticket on a winter’s night that provided a provocative sonic ride through history, memory and nature.

Soundstreams presented “Different Trains on February 2, 2019, at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto.

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

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