Photo credit: Jordan Browne.

Photo credit: Jordan Browne.Photo credit: Jordan Browne.Photo credit: Jordan Browne.Photo credit: Jordan Browne.“Dance Brain is a highly innovative performance work in which brainwaves are converted into music in real time, which is then danced to. It interfaces neuroscience and performance practice, and takes advantage of the state-of-the-art technology in the LIVELab at McMaster University, Hamilton.”

That description, from the Facebook page for an event at McMaster on September 20 this year, certainly piqued my attention – yet I had a feeling for what may be brewing at the LIVELab. As an undergrad studying electronic and many other music genres at York University in the very early to mid-1970s, I witnessed and also participated in pioneering brainwave music experiments and performances under the direction of noted composers, musicians and sonic explorers David Rosenboom and Richard Teitelbaum.

Teitelbaum was the first to use a synthesizer to sonify his alpha brainwaves, along with other biological signals such as heartbeat and breath, in his composition In Tune (1967). Five years later, Rosenboom’s Portable Gold and Philosopher’s Stones incorporated the brainwaves of four “biofeedback musicians” into a unified musical work. While both Americans, they were teaching then at what was considered Toronto’s “other” university, making York for a time in the ’70s a centre of brain wave music.

Last week I spoke with Monahan, the 2013 Governor General’s Awards winner for Visual and Media Arts and the composer/sound artist behind the project, about the ambitious-sounding Dance Brain concept.

“McMaster neuroscience professor Steve Brown received a research grant to explore the intersections of music, dance and neuroscience,” said Monahan. “He was joined by Dan Bosnyak, neuroscience professor and the technical director of LIVELab, an advanced acoustic space and PA system at McMaster University, Hamilton. After a lengthy search for suitable artistic collaborators, he found dancer Bill Coleman and me last January.”

The process began with Brown and Bosnyak sending Monahan samples of recordings of alpha and delta brainwaves in the 8 to 16 Hz range (sub-audio for many of us) that they had produced at the lab. Monahan then transposed those samples up a few octaves using the software program Reaper, so they could be audible.

“Upon arriving at the LIVELab to begin work [in June], however, Prof. Brown pointed out to me that straight transposition resulted in a very compressed audio spectrum, which distorted the signal,” Monahan said. “Rather than additive transposition, as happens in music notation (when say transposing up an octave), in consultation with the scientists we tried a multiplication process which results in a full sound spectrum. Invoking my composer’s prerogative, I then made the decision to choose to use both processes (additive and multiplicative), resulting in the possibility of more and richer musical variation.”

This led to the development of several discrete compositions, each of which uses a different technological strategy. These pieces will be heard in Dance Brain’s premiere performance on September 20.

“The first work uses frequency analysis of transposed live brainwave audio brainwave audio which triggers midi notes,” says Monahan. “I then developed a patch in Max [a visual programming language for music and multimedia] to perform notes on a Yamaha Disklavier [a midi-controlled keyboard] combined with sampled sounds of an orchestral harp.

“The second piece uses brainwaves generated live by the dancer while performing, as do all the works on the program,” he adds. “These signals are hooked up to a motor which plays a snare drum, as well as to another motor which plays a long wire attached to another snare drum acting as an acoustic resonator.”

The third work uses aspects of Dollhouse, a work that Coleman and Monahan have already been performing for a few years. “It uses multi-channel spatialized dispersion and reverberation controlled by brainwaves generated in real time by the dancer,” says Monahan. “During the course of Bill’s performance he strips down to reveal the source of some of the acoustic sounds the audience hears: a number of plastic cups attached to his clothing. There’s certainly an element of slapstick humour in this part of the performance.”

What are the roots of this kind of performative-scientific exploration? Monahan immediately replied: “To me, this work shows a direct influence of Alvin Lucier’s pioneering Music for Solo Performer (1965).” Many consider the piece to be the first musical work to use brainwaves to directly generate the resultant sound.

“I bought a copy of David Rosenboom’s book Biofeedback and the Arts: Results of Early Experiments (1975) at the Music Gallery around 1980-81,” continued Monahan. “That text was a point of departure for me when starting Dance Brain.”

Are there future plans for Dance Brain? “In the scientific experimental tradition, we’re aiming to learn something from this development and performance process,” noted Monahan.

He has found working with the McMaster scientists in this project a productive challenge. “For one thing, it appeared surprising to one of our scientific collaborators when I referred to my individual Dance Brain works as ‘compositions.’ It seems to me that it can be a challenge to establish a protocol between composers, choreographers and scientists. In any case, we work together well and there are many promising aspects to the work that we've developed.”

It’s the kind of negotiation artists have to conduct when taking a major creative risk, particularly one which involves working with other disciplines. I invite you to join me for the premiere of Dance Brain on September 20 and explore this fascinating inner-outer sound-body landscape for yourself.

The premiere performance of Dance Brain takes place on September 20 at 8pm, at McMaster University, Hamilton. For details, see https://www.facebook.com/events/1087454958072962/.

Monahan and Coleman perform their work Dollhouse on September 22 at 8pm, at 201 Geary Ave., Toronto. Details at https://www.facebook.com/events/1867792106667915/?active_tab=about.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.

Nicolas NamoradzeCALGARY – My previous Honens competition report closed with the jurors’ choice of three finalists to compete for the title of Laureate. The winner receives a first prize of $100,000 CAD plus a three-year Artist Development Program that includes recitals in prestigious international venues, professional management, and a recording on the Hyperion label. In it, I lamented the elimination of Austrian pianist, Philipp Scheucher, 25, from the final round. His artistry and musical insight reminded me of a young Lars Vogt or Piotr Anderszewski, both of whom I heard at the 1990 Leeds (UK) International Piano Competition.

But now we have a 2018 Honens Laureate: Georgian pianist Nicolas Namoradze, 26, won the title at the triennial competition on Friday night (or early Saturday morning, depending how you count it). Namoradze saved his very finest playing for the last, when the stakes seemed highest in terms of making an impact on the seven-member jury (Alessio Bax, Ingrid Fliter, Wu Han, Annette Josef, André Laplante, Asadour Santourian and Minsoo Sohn) – and the audience which filled Jack Singer Concert Hall.

To be sure, the Jury Guidelines stipulate the final concerto performance counts as only 15% of the final result. The official mathematicians who tabulate the scoring weight the jurors’ votes according to this designation: 30% from the solo and 30% from the collaborative rounds in the Semifinals; 15% from the chamber music and 15% from the concerto round in the Finals, and 10% from an interview seen by the Jury before the results are tabulated. (Honens might want to rethink those proportions, and also make room for a Mozart or Beethoven concerto in the Finals; concertos by these two composers were proscribed this year.)

These numbers notwithstanding, Namoradze delivered when the psychological stakes were highest: the final concerto round. Partnered by the Calgary Philharmonic and guest conductor Karina Canellakis, his rendition of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 (one of the longest and most demanding in the repertoire) was etched in long lines and executed with an apparent ease that in the moment erased thoughts of the work’s reputation as a beast to be tamed.

Not so for Namoradze, who looked and sounded as comfortable playing this work as he had been with three of his own virtuosic Etudes in the Semifinals.

The two other finalists – Han Chen, 26 (Taiwan) and Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, 21 (US) each received Raeburn Prizes of $10,000 CAD (named for the late Andrew Raeburn, first artistic director of the Honens – a position now held by pianist Jon Kimura Parker). Sanchez-Werner also won the Audience Award of $5,000 CAD.

Namoradze is far from a novice in the concert world, having appeared as a soloist in Europe and the US. Performances in Hungary, Georgia, Spain and the US have been broadcast; his own compositions have been commissioned and played at US festivals; and he will perform a series of recitals with violinist Rolf Schulte, a highly-respected interpreter of contemporary music.

In addition, Namoradze has composed and produced soundtracks for feature films, including one made in association with the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France. He studied in Budapest, Vienna and Florence, then moved to New York to earn a Master’s degree at Juilliard. He now pursues a Doctorate at the CUNY (City University of New York) Graduate Center, studying piano with Emanuel Ax and Yoheved Kaplinsky, and composition with John Corigliano. Namoradze himself serves on the faculty of Queens College, CUNY.

And what of Philipp Scheucher? At 12 noon last Friday, roughly 12 hours before the Laureate was announced, he played another superb solo recital, for an audience that nearly filled the lobby of Jack Singer Concert Hall. On a Steinway baby grand, he presented a different program than the one he had given in the Semifinal round six days before.  This time we heard Beethoven’s little-known Fantasy in G minor, Op. 77, and the famed “Appassionata” Sonata; then Liszt’s late, quasi-impressionistic Nuages Gris, and the Transcendental Etude No. 4, “Mazeppa”. It was wonderful – all of it.

Philipp Scheucher. Remember the name, along with that of Nicolas Namoradze.

Archived video recordings of all Semifinals and Finals performances at this year’s Honens International Piano Competition can be viewed at www.honens.com/livestream.

Stephen Cera, a pianist, journalist and concert programmer, played recitals with Jacques Israelievitch not long before the untimely death of the late TSO concertmaster. He lectures widely about music, writes about international classical music events for MusicalAmerica.com, and maintains a blog at www.stephencera.com.

Han Chen (Taiwan / age 26), Nicolas Namoradze (Georgia / age 26), and Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner (United States / age 21), will vie for the title of Honens Prize Laureate.CALGARY—This sun-splashed city, with dry air and moderate temperatures, has been opening its arms to the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition. We now enter the home stretch, with the winner (“Laureate”) to be declared late Friday night. In the meantime, the ten semifinalists from nine countries have been narrowed to a field of three finalists by a seven-member jury.

The standard of piano-playing has been extremely high throughout.

I attended every round of the semifinals: 10 in all, beginning August 30. Competitors were obliged to play 65-minute solo recitals, plus 65-minute collaborative recitals with baritone Phillip Addis and violinist Jonathan Crow.

The competition is engaging a devoted audience that listens intently in the Jack Singer Concert Hall, quietly exchanging views in the lobby at intermissions. Is there something about Calgary and virtuoso piano-playing? After all, this city’s Mount Royal College is where the young Yuja Wang, keyboard phenomenon from China, first studied in North America.

Meanwhile, related events of the Honens Festival, including a series of masterclasses, have attracted young people to educational events and to piano recitals across town. The finals on Friday evening will enlist the Azahar Ensemble, a woodwind quintet.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson, this year’s “Mentor in Residence,” played a substantial recital of Brahms and Chopin Tuesday evening. Ohlsson is now working with the competitors, sharing musical and professional wisdom. His playing remains masterly, allying technical brilliance with mature expansiveness.

Of course, competitions by nature invite disagreement with the decisions made, and this edition of the Honens has been no exception.

The announcement of the three finalists late on Labour Day didn’t include the name of the competitor who struck me as the most eloquent, musicianly and promising: Philipp Scheucher, 25, from Austria. Given the nature of these events, I assumed he might not emerge as the ultimate winner of the $100,000 CAD first prize, plus an Artist Development Program whose details have yet to be revealed. But I was quite sure he would at least advance to the finals. In Liszt’s B-minor Sonata, Scheucher negotiated the sprawling rhetoric with virtuosity, poetry, individuality and abandon. The final section – from the fugato to the concluding bass note – was delivered via an unassailable musical impulse.

Before that, his haunting account of Ravel’s “Oiseaux Tristes” from Miroirs, and some stylish Mozart, to me spelled “finalist.” In the collaborative round, a stimulating program of Beethoven, Schoenberg, Webern and Schubert reinforced the impression.

But it was not to be.

The three finalists?

Han Chen (Taiwan), 26, delivered a staggeringly brilliant account of Liszt’s Reminiscences of Don Juan. He confirmed his sterling credentials as an exponent of contemporary music by juxtaposing the Liszt Don Juan Fantasy with four concert paraphrases by Thomas Adès (b. 1971) on his opera Powder Her Face. Despite some over-the-top arm and hand gestures and a rendition of Schubert’s late C-minor Sonata, D. 958 that could have shown more in terms of structural articulation and lyrical impulse, Chen’s playing was sensational.

The collaborative round showcased Chen’s wonderful performance of a Britten suite with Crow.  They also essayed the early Sonata for Violin and Piano (1963) by John Corigliano, a piece that, for me, even expert advocacy couldn’t quite “sell.” Still, the collaborative performances entailed very limited rehearsal time, underlining the quality of what was achieved.

Of the other two finalists, Nicolas Namoradze, 26, from Georgia, offered three of his own études, displaying a keen grasp of the instrument’s capabilities and plenty of imagination. As a composer and film soundtrack producer as well as pianist, his intellect and gifts are in no doubt.  But I found his solo Bach (E-minor Partita) and stage presence uncomfortably tentative, and his collaborative round was less assured than the solo.

The youngest (at 21) finalist, Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner (U.S.), boldly tackled Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Opus 111. This followed his brilliant performances of five Liszt Transcendental Etudes, and a contemporary piece. Few pianists manage to scale the heights of Opus 111 at such a tender age, and Sanchez-Werner was no exception, indulging in some odd distensions of tempo and caressing and emoting over individual notes, which weakened the structure. The ineffable Finale also needed conceptual tightening. Was it worth the risk of taking this piece in its current state of readiness to such a high-stakes competition? The jury clearly thought it was.

The Honens’ choice of a “Laureate” will be an updated self-definition of how it sees itself on the world stage, since the eventual winner will carry the competition’s reputation internationally.

The performances are all archived at www.honens.com/livestream. Stay tuned…my next report will come after the jury announces its verdict late Friday.

Stephen Cera, a pianist, journalist and concert programmer, played recitals with Jacques Israelievitch not long before the untimely death of the late TSO concertmaster. He lectures widely about music, writes about international classical music events for MusicalAmerica.com, and maintains a blog at www.stephencera.com.

Honens' 2018 Mentor in Residence, Garrick Ohlsson. Photo credit: Dario Acosta.This month in Calgary, one of the most prominent international piano contests enters its last laps...and you won’t need to be onsite to take it all in.

Beginning Thursday, August 30, the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition – a triennial event – will livestream the Semifinal and Final rounds [see schedule below]. The winner will receive a First Prize of $100,000 CAD and an “Artist Development Program” valued at half a million dollars, including a recording on the Hyperion label. Other elements of the program have yet to be confirmed.

During the Semifinals, the competition will showcase ten pianists, ages 21 to 29, from nine countries. The hopefuls hail from Austria, Belgium, Georgia, Hong Kong, Italy, Romania, South Africa, and the U.S., plus two from Taiwan.

The ten selected to perform were culled from dozens of contenders who recorded auditions last March in Berlin or New York. A preliminary jury selected those who would advance to the Semifinal round in Calgary. Beginning August 30, a second jury – Alessio Bax, Ingrid Fliter, Wu Han and Minsoo Sohn – will decide which three candidates make it to the Final round.

The Honens jurors won’t rely exclusively on solo playing in their decision-making. Each semifinalist must also perform a 65-minute collaborative recital with baritone Phillip Addis and violinist Jonathan Crow, the Toronto Symphony’s concertmaster. The quality of ensemble playing will be a factor in determining who advances to the Final round on September 6 and 7. The 2018 Honens Prize Laureate will be announced on Friday, September 7.

The three finalists will perform concertos with the Calgary Philharmonic, conducted by Karina Canellakis. Canellakis, a 37-year-old American, is the newly-appointed Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in Amsterdam, and herself the winner of the 2016 Solti Conducting Award. The three pianists who make it to the Finals will also perform chamber music with a woodwind quintet, and submit to interviews with arts journalists to show their “…willingness and ability to communicate effectively with audiences of today.”

Honens prides itself on an educational component, including masterclasses with jury members. Significantly, this year’s “Mentor in Residence” will be Garrick Ohlsson, the towering American pianist whose omnivorous repertoire and blazing virtuosity have been drawing audiences for decades. A veteran of the competition circuit himself, Ohlsson first won the Busoni International (Italy) and the Montreal International competitions, before taking First Prize in the 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw.

His thoughts – musical, pianistic, and career/professional – will prove valuable to the Honens competitors this year. As well as offering coaching sessions to each semifinalist who does not go on to the Finals, Ohlsson will share his insights with the three finalists after hearing each of them perform with the Calgary Philharmonic. Ohlsson will also present a solo recital of Brahms and Chopin works on September 4 in the Jack Singer Concert Hall.

The Honens International Piano Competition & Festival, founded in 1992, is named for the late Esther Honens, a Calgary philanthropist who in 1991 donated $5 million to endow a major piano competition in her hometown. The event also boasts an array of corporate presenting partners. The artistic director this year is Jon Kimura Parker.

The schedule of livestreams from the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition (log on to www.honens.com) is as follows:

Livestreams of the Semifinals will air at 2:30 pm and 9:30pm (EDT) on:
Thursday, August 30
Friday, August 31
Saturday, September 1
Sunday, September 2
Monday, September 3 (Labour Day)

Livestreams of the Finals will air at 9:30pm (EDT) on:
Thursday, September 6
Friday, September 7

Stephen Cera, a pianist, journalist and concert programmer, played recitals with Jacques Israelievitch not long before the untimely death of the late TSO concertmaster. He lectures widely about music, writes about international classical music events for MusicalAmerica.com, and maintains a blog at www.stephencera.com.

L-R: Dan MacDonald, SATS students, Deb Jones. Photo credit: Mark Rash.Each year that enough donations are secured means another year of free traditional fiddle and guitar camp for Indigenous children at the Parry Sound Friendship Centre. The camp is part of Strings Across the Sky (SATS), initiated by former Toronto Symphony violinist Andrea Hansen in 1987, and led by her niece Deb Jones since Hansen passed in 2014. The not-for-profit organisation works with Indigenous youth, both to reinvigorate a long history of fiddle playing (brought over from the Orkney Islands) in Canada’s Northern communities, and provide a fun week of fiddling and playing guitar for approximately 30 students between the ages of 6 and 17.

Jones organises the SATS week, working with contacts in Northern communities. In addition, she leads the teachers and students, animatedly singing and playing the guitar – with an occasional expert yodel thrown in – at the open-plan rehearsal space nested in the Centre’s sky-blue barn-like structure on the outskirts of the Sound, away from summer tourists.

The Parry Sound Friendship Centre is an Indigenous-led, membership-driven space dedicated to serving Indigenous people living in urban communities – one of 121 such volunteer-run centres across Canada. Emerging from a grassroots movement in the early 1950s, this network of Friendship Centres provides off-reserve services for Indigenous communities. The Parry Sound location, founded in 1966 under the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres (OFIFC), was one of the first in the province.

“Any time I’ve walked into a Friendship Centre, they’ve treated you like they’ve always known you. They just want to help in whatever way they can,” says Samantha Depatie, a fiddling instructor at the camp who also teaches at the year-round SATS program at the North Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre administered by Michele Longshaw.

The will to push ahead with the SATS program, despite limited resources, is thanks to years of volunteer teaching up north by Andrea Hansen. While on tour with the Toronto Symphony in 1987 in Aklavik, she met future SATS co-founder Frank Hansen, who coincidentally shared both her last name and a desire to revive the fiddle tradition, being himself a fiddler of Danish and Inuvialuit origins. SATS has since run programs in 17 High Arctic communities and transported over 450 donated violins, free to students be they involved in programs at Algoma University, one-week workshops in Indigenous schools, or at the annual summer camp.

The SATS instructors are attuned to the importance of learning by watching – despite the challenges that sometimes-limited access to instruments can present. Andrea introduced a method that supports this, with wooden spoons standing in for fiddles, dowels for bows, preparing hand positions for the rapid experiential learning session that culminates in a performance just five days after – for many – picking up a violin for the first time.

And it works. I arrived two days before the concert, shocked to see the students’ progress. While several students, not more than 6 or 7, struggled to pay attention, most stared bright-eyed as Depatie, classical violist Ann Armin and fiddler Dan MacDonald positioned themselves among littler kids, while Niagara Symphony violist Marlene Dankiew attended to the older students.

MacDonald hails from Cape Breton and has several decades of fiddling and teaching under his belt. “It’s a way to help out in this community,” says MacDonald of his experience teaching fiddle at SATS since 2016. “This gives me a chance to make a difference hands-on. The kids are mostly here because they want to be here.” In June, Depatie’s North Bay class played with esteemed Canadian fiddler Scott Woods and a full band in what she described as a Don Messer-type setting. “For a lot of the kids the fiddle is in their blood. It’s such a Canadian instrument,” she says. “The fiddle is basically the sound of fun.”

Around 2005, a number of guitars were donated to the program, bringing with them a place for guitar teacher and prominent Toronto jazz guitarist Graham Campbell. Seventeen-year-old Ravin has been in Campbell’s “guitar orchestra” for eight years, starting first on fiddle and later adding guitar. “I was drawn to Andrea,” she says. “I like playing and then having the guitar match my voice, and just being able to create something.”

The full house at the Saturday 28 July concert in Parry Sound’s Stockey Centre seemed to like the results. Students have been receiving (generally, and certainly this time) standing ovations. MacDonald and Campbell opened with a rousing Mason’s Apron. Juniors and seniors all had their turn, playing the basic finger routines with patterns sung by Jones accompanied by five guitarists. Frank’s Delta Dream was played, homage to Frank Hansen and its composer Andrea Hansen. A young boy kept the beat on an Anishinaabe hand drum during the Canoe Medley. And they Walked the Line before launching into the eponymous Orange Blossom Special, key to the Sound given the sonorous whistle of the trains that blast through it nightly, precisely mimicked by festival director and renowned clarinetist James Campbell who jumped in on whistle.

“The Festival of the Sound has a long-term commitment to Strings Across the Sky,” says James Campbell. “Their program fits perfectly into our mandate of community outreach and education.” Jones recounts former student and gigging fiddler Charlie Wabano’s desire to take the program to his hometown of Fort Hope, saying, “There’s a real lightness of spirit that comes through. I know the difference it can make with these kids.”

Strings Across the Sky presented its final summer 2018 concert on July 28 at the Stockey Centre, Parry Sound, as part of the 2018 Festival of the Sound.

Janine Armin is a writer and organiser based in Amsterdam.

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