Late last concert season, I was approached by David Dacks at the Music Gallery to curate a concert for their Emergents Series (which, notably, is funded by the wonderful Roger D. Moore). As one might surmise, it’s a series that focuses on emerging talent. I gratefully accepted, almost immediately enlisting my friends the Thin Edge New Music Collective, who are rapidly becoming one of the city’s premiere new music-oriented chamber groups, to perform one of the evening’s two sets. Little did they know they were going to be my guinea pigs.
The other half was given to Jason Doell, who since this booking went on to gain a fair degree of notoriety through his winning of the Toronto Emerging Composer Award administered by the Canadian Music Centre (with financial help from Moore and Michael Koerner). I figured (correctly) he’d have his own weird scheme to subvert his own role.
Doell’s half was initially going to be a long solo work for improvising percussionist and composer Germaine Liu, who played a prominent role in Doell’s work Delicate Triangles, a piece which made use of several rooms in the Gladstone hotel to create an immersive, frenetic sound environment using a large, mobile ensemble. But, instead of the piece going along traditional composer-performer lines, the work became a fully collaborative (compositionally and performance-wise) duo work, Wild Bengal Tigers which took over the whole sanctuary of St. George the Martyr church, the home of the Music Gallery.
The pair moved (temporally and spatially) through several stations of different instruments: thali-plate gongs, dinner plates with pebbles, guitar, vibraphone, e-bowed piano, cymbals which were tossed on the floor, paper down the middle aisle… The work brought together improvisation and fully-composed sections with nary a score in sight. Its playful irreverence and textural depth was quite mesmerizing, but the episodic shifts between different discrete ideas also gave it a strange momentum. The spatial approach was also effective, Germaine even, at one point, retreating to play drum kit in the green room. A concealed speaker also murmured back a lo-fi recording of one of their rehearsals from inside of piano at the rear of the hall.
While collaborative composition is certain very common in other fields, it’s not something you see that much in the concert music medium and nor does one see it happening so seamlessly. I’m definitely prone to this myself, but I feel like on the whole composers tend to like making it clear whose contributions are whose. It was nice to see the two of them taking equal credit and creating a work that so blended their two voices. Even knowing the two of them as people and musicians so well, I certainly couldn’t tell who came up with what, aside the brief section when Jason was playing guitar, his primary instrument.
The Thin Edge’s half of the evening, however was the site of the aforementioned experiment on my part. Essentially I paired them with five composers who had not written for chamber ensemble before, but who all maintained interesting, diverse and accomplished musical practices that related to chamber work. The premise was that they would compose 8-12 minute pieces for the ensemble (that night, a quartet of Ilana Waniuk on violin, Cheryl Duvall on piano, as well as Kathryn Ladano on bass clarinet, and Nathan Petitpas on vibraphone). Although some of the participants hadn’t even written anything on manuscript even before, I had a feeling that it’d all work out quite well.
And lo, and behold, to my ears, this inkling was correct. We ended up with a bill of five distinctive pieces that still managed to be coherent. Araz Salek, is a virtuoso tar player based in Toronto who’s deeply invested in Iranian classical music, but also has been active intermittently in experimental music circles locally. Despite being one of those more familiar with notation, his piece was likely the most open-ended of the lot. A duet for piano / violin, it mainly prescribed Ilana and Cheryl sets of pitches and some preparations in the piano. The result was a shimmering surface more reminiscent of spectral music than mode-driven improvisation.
Colin Fisher’s piece, if you’re aware of his reputation for rich, virtuosic guitar playing and ecstatic free jazz sax blowing, might’ve also been regarded as a departure from your expectations. A slow and spacious piece with large melodic leaps and a slightly-dissonant open-endedness, the work stretched out mysteriously over roughly 15 minutes. While unfolding in soft ethereal resolve, it also provided some significant moments of surprise.
Los Angeles based composer Sean McCann has been creating a variety of work over the past few years, some of which was inspired by contemporary chamber music, other pieces with a more electronic orientation. He runs the label Recital, which issued his album Music for Private Ensemble signalling toward an immersion in chamber music instrumentation. His work Victorian Wind reflected this interest and was presented as a series of interwoven lines that created both a euphonious and slightly tangled aural experience. Conveying a certain placidity, it also had a muted urgency to it which imbued the work with a sense of two strata of movement.
Liz Hysen, with whom I play in Picastro, has been employing strings and various other instruments into her idiosyncratic music since the band’s inception. The band is known for its tension, and bold, simple melodicism, aspects which featured prominently in Hysen’s Doors. The work switched gears several times between driving rectangular sternness which might recall Ustvolskaya, to sweet major key melodies, to Ilana Waniuk creating flaccid glissandi with her tuning pegs. Liz has a very strong musical sensibility which was in full evidence here. Joe Strutt’s lovely blog, Mechanical Forest Sound included a recording there.
Matthew Ramolo (who plays under the pseudonym Khôra and as a member of Bespoken and Picastro) contributed the piece If Mind Were Dream of a Greater Here which brought together pulsating, interlocking cells, ever-shifting timbres, and broad, lyrical melodies. Arguably the most animated work, it made a very suitable closing piece.
I’ve long wondered about the medium of chamber music and the history of elitism around it. It’s a topic I’ve thought about as an artist and also written about in Musicworks magazine in an article which featured three composers who came from outside of the usual University-educated trajectory into chamber music : Mark Molnar, Sean McCann and Jonathan Pfeffer. While notation poses some obstacles for self-taught composers or those without a Western-classical music education, after this evening of work, I was left heartened, feeling that this barrier can be overcome with a bit of strategy, resource/ knowledge-sharing among friends, encouragement and of course creativity, in the broad sense of the word. It also helps to have an open-minded group like Thin Edge who was willing to support that alternative creative process.
The history of classical music is full of pivotal self-taught figures or people who had a different sort of non-institutional training—Charles Ives, Berlioz, Pierre Schaeffer, Bach (apparently), Harry Partch and Richard Wagner to name a few. Recently however, it would seem that these people are not as a common within that field. It’s a shame though, because it’s my belief, as someone who works in various fields—notated music, electronic music, improvisation and the in-between world of various experimental practices (noise, weird pop/ rock etc. etc.), that there needn’t necessarily be such a rift between the two worlds. These two worlds still have a lot to learn from each other, too.
My hope is that there’ll be more of these events and that the dialogue can continue and expand.