Three weeks to the day after attending Chalmers House (home of the Canadian Music Centre) for the launch of John Beckwith’s book Musical Annals, I was back in the same space (though arranged in a more intimate horseshoe pattern for the attendees), for the return of Edana Higham and Zac Pulak, aka SHHH!! Ensemble, who had come in from Ottawa to perform at the Beckwith launch, and were back to launch their own opus – SHHH!! Ensemble’s first CD, Meanwhile. I’m sure I will find myself at more Chalmers House events like these as things continue opening up. The otherwise obscured work of many fine composers and performers of Canadian music needs this kind of shelter, immune to the vagaries of public demand.
Chalmers Hall, added to the main floor of the House in 2012, is perfectly sized for the kind of events like the two launches in September: events that are great for listening and also for meeting and mingling among players, writers, composers and the interested public. The usual business of the CMC contributes to the ambience: upstairs, the ever-growing library (25,000 scores and counting) is being updated and digitized daily; and the CMC’s recording arm, Centrediscs, boasts just under 300 releases.
as it happens, is on the Analekta label, and the title track, by John Beckwith, is the piece they played in his honour at the book launch. I’m starting to get familiar with the work now, and like it more and more as I do. I also like that this virtuoso duo are so agile and inventive in the promotion of the composers they commission. And what’s not to like about the fact that Meanwhile was their very first commission. A family connection gave them the courage to ask Beckwith to write for them (Higham’s parents and John are old friends), they told me, and we can all be glad he agreed. Meanwhile reveals something new every time one hears it. I wrote of their performance at the earlier event that they play it like they own it, and as Pulak put it, they keep finding new depths in the music as well. That’s the mark of a great piece: we all “own” Meanwhile, once we’ve heard it, and can make of it what we will on each successive listen.
During the “meeting and mingling” I mentioned earlier, Higham and Pulak shared anecdotes – about the music on the disc, about their activities before, during, and since the Covid shutdown, and their plans for the next project, soon to get off the ground, in collaboration with Frank Horvat. Expect a single piece, possibly in linking segments, concerning itself with the end of the current geological period! Someone suggested a nod to Carrie Fisher’s memoir with the title “Postcards from the Edge of the Holocene,” but I don’t imagine that’ll fly.
As for the listening part,
around 30 of us were treated to selections amounting to about half the material on the disc. Left out were Kelly-Marie Murphy’s solo percussion work Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine and Micheline Roi’s Grieving the Doubts of Angels. Much of Pulak’s work on the other pieces involved metals, and the wood of the marimba, so it was great to get to hear Murphy’s piece on the disc, all booming skin and rattling bone. (They had transported all their gear for the launch from Ottawa in their own vehicle, and since drums fill a lot of space, they left them at home, they explained.)
They had released Meanwhile in their home base of Ottawa a few nights before, and seemed at ease at the CMC; it’s more cozy and intimate than the auditorium at the NAC. I loved being so close to all of the instruments: to hear prepared piano effects under Higham’s’s careful hands, then watch as she yanked a leather strap free of the lower strings where it had dampened them till then, in a violent gesture eliciting a harsh whoosh. She finished by winding it into a roll as the piece ended. That was in Leather, by Monica Pearce, which also features a new metal instrument: a hybrid of cowbell and crotale and cymbal, characterized by both splash and pitch. Pulak is above all a melodist, in this piece in particular, in the Beckwith, in general, and in spades.
They played Noora Nakhaei’s Echoes of the Past, a piece commissioned jointly by the Ottawa International Writers Festival and Ottawa New Music Creators. The piece responds to the difficult and beautiful collaboration between Martha and Christina Baillie in Sister Language (Pedlar Press), a compelling and idiosyncratic co-autobiography. A very gentle, understated and sweet response it is. They also played Spirit Gradient, by Jocelyn Morlock, featuring a rocking left hand from Higham and a hint of Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown theme. They played Like a Fist to the Jaw, from John Gordon Armstrong’s The Angel’s Share, which shares a thematic reference to spirits with the Morlock, but in this case not those enclosed in a carpenter’s level but rather imbibed from a glass. Scotch Whisky is the reference point, specifically tasting notes for Ardbeg. I got the reference, especially once the high punchy opening pitches give way to a slow rolling tidal effect evoking the pitching seas off the Isle of Oban.
Poised: when I interviewed SHHH!! in the early days of the pandemic,
they seemed well-positioned to survive the shutdown, and they’ve since hit the ground running as live performances return. Alison McTavish, who serves as their agent, says “They work so hard; it makes my job easy,” which seems like equal parts modesty and truth. They’re ready to carry the momentum through the end of the current geological era, or at least for the foreseeable future. I doubt anything short of a geological cataclysm will shut them down.
For them, and others like them, places like the CMC’s Chalmers House, and all too few others like it, provide vital and hospitable shelter along the trail.
Max Christie is a Toronto-based musician and writer. He performs on principal clarinet of the National Ballet Orchestra when restrictions allow, and otherwise spends too much time on Twitter.