James TenneyJames TenneyOn the evening of October 15, I attended the last event of the Music Gallery’s X Avant Festival 2017, a concert titled James Tenney: Resistance. Preceding the concert was a panel discussion on the topic of socially conscious music and a lively conversation related to the evening’s repertoire. The concert was entirely dedicated to Tenney’s music, which was presented as one continuous stream of sound, punctuated with commentary before each piece from the Music Gallery’s artistic director David Dacks.

Jim, as we all called him, lived and taught in Toronto from 1976 to 2000, and was very active in creating community among both practitioners and lovers of contemporary music in the city. His own compositional focus was dedicated to understanding how we perceive music and sound, and he was committed to creating sensory-based listening experiences. One might think that these interests might be a contradiction with composing “socially conscious music.” However, the pieces we heard demonstrated how brilliantly Jim wove his theoretical concerns with a strong message on culturally relevant issues. Even though I had heard many of Jim’s pieces in the past, the combining of these five pieces into a coherent whole powerfully shone a light on this aspect of his work.

The concert began with Viet Flakes, a film by Carolee Schneemann for which Tenney composed a tape collage. The piece was originally created for a New York City arts festival in 1965 designed to bring awareness of the American involvement in the Vietnam war. Tenney used pop song recordings to create his tape collage, highlighting the contrast between carefree American lives and the horrors being inflicted thousands of miles away. Tenney’s tape piece Fabric for Che from 1967 followed, a dense and continuous stream of sound composed as a “scream of frustration” in response to the way the liberation movements of Central and South America were being portrayed by the US government.

Timbre Ring, composed in 1971, received its world premiere at this concert, and is a perfect example of Tenney’s intention to bring awareness to listening and perception. The eight performers from diverse musical and cultural backgrounds surrounded the audience and passed between them one single pitch, using fluctuations in timbre, dynamics and rhythmic pulsations. Behind the choice to program this work is another important story.

Tenney’s work Ain’t I A Woman (1992), based on an 1851 speech by Sojourner Truth that combines anti-slavery resistance and women’s suffrage – what we would now call an intersectional feminist text – was considered for performance. However, after a lengthy consultation process with the community, the decision was made not to program the piece. Since no black women were involved in the original creation process, one concern was that if nothing was changed for this performance then it would be problematic. In addition, some in the community felt it inappropriate to program a work of white art based on black pain.

Interestingly, during the panel discussion earlier that day, all three of the panelists expressed their disappointment with this decision. Sci-fi turntablist SlowPitchSound, himself a member of the black community, felt that in this case, it’s really about the “message being made and trying to get more ears to hear things. Sometimes it gets stuck at race, and goes no further. With art you’re supposed to be free to come up with things, but yet you can’t.” Performer and scholar Parmela Attariwala expressed her desire to have had the conversation and then heard the piece. “I wish we could do that with more pieces. There are a myriad of western classical pieces that are controversial and we haven’t thought about it.” Lauren Pratt, who was married to Tenney from 1988 until his passing in 2006 and currently manages his archives, pointed out a potential contradiction between the ‘no’ decision regarding this work and the programming of Pika-Don, which uses texts of Asian women and children who survived the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki spoken by white women. Dacks acknowledged this in his program remarks, but felt that since this work used texts recounting several sides of the story, including texts by American scientists, this was an example of “reportage turned into artistic expression” and “was illustrative rather than exploitative and doesn’t speak to a larger history of exploitation as had been pointed out about Ain’t I A Woman.” Many more important points were made in this conversation, which can be viewed in full at https://www.facebook.com/events/1474084846013659/permalink/1532822040139939/

Listening to Pika-Don, composed for four percussionists and pre-recorded spoken text, was challenging – simultaneously hearing familiar voices amidst reminders of the utter devastation caused from the dropping of the atomic bomb. The first half is based on quotations from the scientists involved in the creation and testing of the bomb, with the texts for the second half as noted above. The horrors of this event were profoundly captured in the percussion part while the texts, densely layered at times, also added to the cacophony. Tenney wrote the piece in 1991 and invited members of the Toronto community to record the texts, myself included. It was uncanny listening to the very intimate sound of people’s voices that one knew, juxtaposed with the catastrophic realities of nuclear war.

The evening concluded with Listen…! composed in 1981/84 and performed at the concert by three female singers with piano accompaniment. The text for the piece was written by Tenney and reminds us that it’s really up to us in how we respond to the injustices of the world. Despite the seriousness of the words, the music was set in a light-hearted manner, as a sendup of popular music.

The final events of the Music Gallery’s X Avant XII Festival, titled “James Tenney: Resistance,” took place at the 918 Bathurst Centre in Toronto on October 15, 2017.

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

The Tallis Choir’s Bach buffetJohann Sebastian Bach was the premier Masterchef of his time. By using the musical ingredients of his era in extraordinary ways, Bach was able to concoct an infinite number of deep and complex masterpieces, usually under a significant time crunch. His cantata cycles are legendary, his passions profound, and his motets magical. It was these motets that were on display in the Tallis Choir’s Bach: The Six Motets performance on Saturday, October 14 in Toronto: a smorgasbord of Bach’s smaller liturgical choral works, composed outside the regular cantata cycles.


Nothing produces an immediate feeling of penitence like a wooden Catholic Church pew, and the seats at St. Patrick’s Church are no different – within minutes of sitting, one’s back end starts to ache. The venue is nonetheless a striking one, ϋber-Catholic in its setup but beautifully decorated: each wall covered in a kaleidoscope of icons, murals and statues, the walls painted a luminescent white, a rather paradoxical spot to hear the pinnacle of Lutheran musical theology. The acoustic at St. Patrick’s, with its immense ceilings, is incredible – lively, robust and perhaps, at first listen, better suited to the homophonic chromaticism of Bortniansky or the expansiveness of Tallis and the Renaissance masters than repertoire featuring rapidly-paced contrapuntal intricacy.

Each of Bach’s six motets are works unto themselves, and the program (featuring excellent notes by the musicologist Doug Cowling, who passed away at the beginning of this year) was well-structured, providing contrasts in character and affect that provided aural relief without changing composers or styles. With only a basso continuo line (played by cello and organ) as accompaniment, the chorus is unleashed in its full expressive and technical capacities, the motets serving as micro dramas, mini multi-sectional cantatas with their own dramatic arcs. There is a certain danger with Bach, in that a Bach-only concert can (continuing our buffet allegory) be too rich and overwhelming for the palate, especially when presenting a collection of related works. There was no such problem this evening, the thoughtful order of the motets making the concert conceptually straightforward and aesthetically appealing.


There are a number of approaches one can take when interpreting Bach, but a standard characteristic of the modern approach to baroque music is an idea known as ‘conjunct/disjunct motion’: the concept that notes which are close together, stepwise passages for instance, are sung more smoothly than notes that are separated by larger intervals. ‘Legato’ as we understand it today is to be used sparingly and as an expressive item, a sauce that finishes the dish rather than the broth it sits in.

The choir’s first offering, the tripartite Lobet den Herrn BWV 230, has an opening which is described in the program notes as shooting upwards “like a rocket.” The choir’s smooth phrasing of this rising theme, coupled with the venue’s cavernous acoustic, made this interpretation rather muddied and texturally ambiguous – we knew it was a fugue from the written notes, but many of the characteristic features of the fugue were obscured.

This was a pervasive conflict within the first half of the concert, the choir and their smooth articulations battling the voluminous void of the space. In the multi-movement motet Jesu meine Freude, in which Bach combines and contrasts affects and styles to great effect, a number of the more energetic passages, particularly those with repeated notes (‘die nicht nach dem Fleisch wande’, for example) likewise lacked clarity.

Peter Mahon, the Tallis Choir’s conductor, effectively resolved the issue in the second half of the program, which came off splendidly. Throughout the concert, the choir seemed to grow stronger as they went on; when the final motet, the fearsome Singet dem Herrn, was sung, one wondered how the choir was still standing! By this time the ensemble and its venue had melded, and even the fleet-footed ‘Halleluja!’ was clear and energetic.


An example of a five-string piccolo cello. Image via stringking.net.Interspersed between motets were movements from Bach’s Cello Suite No.6, a brilliant programming move that evoked a similar-yet-different soundscape from the German Baroque master. Bach’s sixth cello suite is unique in that it was written for five-string piccolo cello, a smaller and higher-pitched cousin of the standard four-stringed cello.

Cellist Kerri McGonigle, playing a piccolo cello on loan from Tafelmusik cellist Christina Mahler, executed the suite with panache, although the programming that worked so well for the audience made her evening into an athletic performance! In addition to switching back and forth between five- and four-stringed cellos multiple times, there was the additional issue of temperamental gut strings which, left unchecked and untuned for extended periods of time, made her forays into solo repertoire fraught with tenuous tuning. Even one brief tuning break in each half would have helped the issue, which was made most apparent when open strings were played. This was, however, a logistical issue, not a musical one, and did little to hamper the beauty of the suite, particularly the sensuous Sarabande.

Final Thoughts

In this remarkable Olympiad of a concert, the primary issue was ultimately one beyond anyone’s control: that of a venue mismatched to the music performed therein, an acoustic too wet for the contrapuntal commotion that Bach composed. The weather, which was also too wet that evening, undoubtedly contributed to the occasional cello tuning issues.

A performance of a Bach work is a project, an entire concert of Bach works nothing less than a monumental undertaking. Despite the countless hours of rehearsal and labour involved in this concert, part of a season celebrating the Tallis Choir’s 40th anniversary, the music came across as effortless, enthusiastic and organic. Bravo to all involved!

The Tallis Choir performed “Six Bach Motets” on Saturday, October 14 at 7:30pm, at St. Patrick’s Church in Toronto.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

UntitleBannerAgainst the Grain artists in performance on Friday, October 13, 2017.Who knew that an album launch could become a unique theatrical experience? Yes, all right, the stars of pop music with mega-budgets and production companies do, but experimental mixed genre pop singers and small opera production companies don’t usually seek each other out for projects. Singer Kyrie Kristmanson invited the team of Against the Grain Theatre to create a theatrical component to the Canadian launch of her songs from Modern Ruin, and Friday night’s delightful do “Une rêverie musicale,” at the small theatre space at the Alliance Française, was the result.

Amanda Smith directed the first act. The little fantasy with a dancer (Mary-Dora Bloch-Hansen, in her own choreography) and a baritone (Adam Harris) had few props – some chairs covered with shiny metallic paper and some balloons. Music was a combination of purely instrumental and vocal, mostly French except for a bit near the end from Philip Glass’ Glassworks. It all sounded like one atmospheric piece thanks to the instrument that carried it all, marimba (Nathan Petitpas). Satie’s Gymnopedie 1 started the proceedings, and we got to meet the androgynous dancer (with glorious face make-up) first. The baritone entered as a late audience member and joined her onstage. Their interaction had, refreshingly, nothing to do with a potential seduction or couple formation. They were, more imaginatively, like two creatures from different planets trying to communicate through play.

Petitpas also played Satie’s Gnossiennes 2, 3 and 5, and accompanied Harris in Poulenc’s Hôtel and the final Après un rêve by Fauré, which I’ve never before heard in baritone register. A lot of sopranos perform this song, but it’s obvious to me now that it’s more appealing in a lower voice. Marimba added a dream-like quality.

It’s how opera as an art form began, really – as an intermedio between something else, between the acts of a theatre play for example. “Une rêverie” reminded us that it can still work perfectly fine like that – in this case, as an album launch with an operatic interlude of its own.

Kyrie nikon f801 89 JPGThe second half of the show was Kyrie Kristmanson’s set. Kyrie Kristmanson is a new artist to me, but I’m glad I discovered her. The labels “folk” or “pop” or “baroque” don’t quite do her justice. Friday night she performed a set with the amplified Warhol Dervish string quartet. Among her singer-songwriter interests are recomposing and arranging what’s left of the songs of the trobairitz, the Occitan female version of the troubadours, and some of the songs in the program did have a distant medieval musical ring to them. Mostly the numbers they performed were musically more complex than medieval music, and more complex than any of the stuff performed by folk or pop or cabaret musicians. Few songs had a predictable danceable beat prevalent in pop concoctions. At first I thought I had finally found a Canadian version of what Rosemary Standley does in her baroque/folk work, but the music that Kyrie and the Warhol Dervish quartet play is more contemporary instrumental, with none of the simple and immediate appeal of pop songs. Kudos to them for smuggling in quite a bit of demanding listening into the popular song form and taking the road less travelled but more adventurous.

Kyrie Kristmanson, the Warhol Dervish quartet and artists from Against the Grain Theatre presented “Une rêverie musicale” on Friday, October 13 at Alliance Française, Toronto. Kristmanson’s next concert is at the NAC in Ottawa (October 19), after which she is off to Regina, Montreal and to a festival in France.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

rev revcropElisa Citterio. Photo credit: Monica Cordiviola.rev cropTafelmusik, Toronto’s best-known period performance ensemble, played the first concert of their new season from September 21-24 at Koerner Hall. The program included concerti by Handel, Corelli and Vivaldi and a suite by Rameau, all led by their new music director, Elisa Citterio. The playing was incredible throughout, but I also experienced an unexpected revelation during the show: rather than seeing the performance as merely a gathering of musicians onstage, stuck in a static, determined and immovable formation (pairs of players sharing a music stand, ancient in its acoustically optimal strategies), I became aware of the subtle physical communications that took place between the orchestral players as they moved through the music. It occurred to me that they were dancing as well as playing, not just as individuals but also as a group, realizing the innately dance-based structures of the composers’ works through their bodies as well as their violins, violas, bassoons and flutes. They were, in essence, dancing a tango for us there onstage.

The orchestra is onstage, dancing a tango; the leader is moving her hips, arms, legs, head, torso, clavicles heading the charge. Everything is vital and exciting but always in control, and the players behind her are feeding off her energy. Smiles are traded back and forth between players; the violinists smirk and wink and giggle (one misses the occasional entry, he’s having so much fun! He always recovers admirably.)

Everyone onstage is dressed in black, or close enough. A violinist downstage left, sparkling in a silvery, glittery dress, bops to the music like a go-go dancer on roller blades while cellists play solos like Dizzy Gillespie, riffing like Hendrix, fingers flying like Jimmy Page. A cadenza is improvised and for a moment the sounds of the prescribed, notated music on the page are overtaken by the vibe of an impromptu jam session. You forget that you’re in one of the city’s finest concert halls and get taken to that place all performers remember as the purest form of the art, spontaneous and free extemporization, that place where things happen that can never be repeated, although this performance has been and will be repeated throughout the week.

Bassoons look like saxophones boxing as they bob and weave, taking the bass line then the melody, oboes and violins and horns trading solos – a great feeling, a great vibe (and this is only the beginning!) and it seems for a brief moment like you’re the only one in the hall.

But you’re not. The man in the row behind seems unaware that he is whispering, more than audibly, throughout the concert:



And, once a movement or work is over,

“That’s the end.”

He whispers with delight at a skillfully executed cadenza or flourish even when others in the crowd look bored. Listening attentively takes a lot of different forms.

At intermission there’s a reception for the younger crowd (hosted by Tafelscene, the under-35 club that has intermission parties at certain shows throughout the year) in a bustling cordoned-off area with free beer and wine. Everyone seems to know each other, breaking into cliques and groups like a high school reunion or an office lunch break around an alcoholic water cooler, and it’s good to see so much support from and for a younger demographic, still underrepresented in the classical world. Some of the performers step out onto the mezzanine and mingle with these young concertgoers, exchanging looks and smiles and conversation, welcoming them and encouraging them in their exploration of this ancient music and its age-defying wonders.

Later in the evening the final suite jives along, lively and sprightly and ebullient, vivid in its characterization. You can imagine the first performance in 1763 Paris: powdered wigs, ridiculously voluminous gowns, collars, gold and palatial scenery as the gentry dance and the performers perform.

The drummer hammers a beat and the players stomp through the Airs gay:


The string players’ fingers move frantically but uniformly, choreographically, on their fingerboards as the Contredanses sprint past our ears – if they had ribbons, the bows would look like gymnastic wands:


As the last notes are played, the audience stands in rapture:

“That’s the end.”

Onstage these masterful musicians possess dual powers – part black-collar courtiers playing the baroque folk’s jazz, entertainers like Counts Basie, Bernstein, Brubeck and Barenboim – part mythical gatekeepers, opening our ears and minds to the wonders of the past. Where else can someone with no everyday musical, artistic, or spiritual knowledge suddenly become enlightened by and immersed in previously unknown cultural wonders? Such is the beauty of this music, a time capsule opened before our eyes and ears. For two short hours that Saturday night all sense of the present was lost, overwhelmed by the energy put out by that group of dancers that took us all for a ride through some of the great songs of long ago, and we are the better for it.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

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