Classical Music Explorations North of the 49th

The stage is set, March 3, 2011

A colleague, New York City avant-garde cellist and composer, recently posted an inspired youtube video on his facebook page of renowned American composer, saxophonist and flautist Henry Threadgill.  In a class lecture for the School for Improvisational Music, Threadgill passionately declares, “Music is made in an atmosphere, not just any atmosphere, but a magical atmosphere.”  This is where I choose to begin the first article of my series for Canada Arts Connect Magazine. 

The ever-present question of the relevance of classical music in the 21st century serves as the backdrop to our monthly explorations. North American classical musicians, spanning from large orchestras to individual performers, are actively searching for solutions to the current problems of sustainability within the classical music scene. Scholars and journalists have devoted the last decade and more to reporting on the subject- Greg Sandow and Alex Ross to name a few.  Together we will take a journey into the experiences of performing artists, looking at concerts and musical events that make a direct impact in this search for new paradigms in classical music performance. We will also branch into the overlapping areas of jazz and world music genres.

Pemi Paull, postconcert @ The Music Gallery, March 3, 2011

Let’s begin with “The New Synthesists”.  Jerry Bowles on his blog, Sequenza21, takes this term (as of April 2011!) to describe what may be, dare we say, a new movement in classical music.  He describes the “synthesists” as young-conservatory grad, do-it yourself-er, mish-mash artists who are creating concerts for both the concert hall and café.  “They are all searching for the same Holy Grail:  a blend of classical, rock, electronics, pop and world music that is both serious and fun and will build an audience for the future. They frequently work in collectives designed to bring players and composers–quite often they are both–together. What they write and play is mainly a new form of chamber music that is often amplified, played on ‘hybrid’ instruments, and has a contagious melody, or hook, and a backbeat you can’t lose.”  Many of the performers cited in Bowles’ article are working in New York City. As an ex-pat New Yorker who has both observed and participated in the ongoing development of the “new synthesists” scene, here are some examples of Canadian artists who also seem to be channelling a similar confluence of influences. 

Meet colleague and friend Pemi Paull. His March 3rd, 2011 solo viola concert at Toronto’s Music Gallery was a successful experiment in such a search for the “Holy Grail”.  Paull, who spent the last decade exploring a range of performance practices (i.e. early music performance practice to 21st century styles) presented an extremely varied and masterfully designed programme spanning from 1676-1723 and then again from 1989-2011.  The programme: 1. The four-note descending bassline groove: Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s Passacaglia, 2. Modern zen-computer sounds meets odd-meter folk dance: world premier of Montreal composer Michael Oesterle’s Garrowby Hill, 3. The Renaissance through the Dali /Picasso lens: UK composer Michael Finnissy’s Obrecht-Motetten III, 4. Modern Chaconne and other gymnastics: Gyorgy Ligeti’s Solo Sonata for viola, 5. Top 40 classic: J.S. Bach Chaconne as arranged for viola, playing a counterpart to the Biber and informing the Ligeti.

Nicole Lizée driving the turntables

Paull’s “hybrid” viola- a high bow hold and wound gut strings on his modern-make viola- offered a large palate of appropriate sound choices for the broad timespan of the programme. The Music Gallery provides an all-in-one, casual open-workshop performance space and formal church setting; the perfect arena for the breaking of the fourth-wall between the performer and his audience.  That coupled with the simplicity of the understatedly dressed solo performer left me in a state of reflection, creativity and intellectual stimulation.

With the “magical atmosphere” and “synthesists” seemingly hovering at the Music Gallery, I attended another concert this past weekend featuring Toronto’s Array Ensemble.  Attracting the heavy-weights like the great painter and musician Michael Snow, who I had the good fortune of meeting, professors from York University and University of Toronto, and a crowd of off-beat experimental artheads, the concert left me swarming in a world of “Naomi Cummings meets peyote rituals.”  But what the heck?  The layers of crossover were most certainly a meaningful exploration in composition and sound.

The Music Gallery, Toronto

The programme presented a world premier performance of Mallet Walk, a new work for Malletkat MIDI controller, Stefan Smulovitz’s Kenaxis sampling and audio processing software, and Array ensemble percussionist Rick Sacks, by New Adventures in Sound Art’s Director and Toronto composer Darren Copeland; Traumnovelle, a new work by Montreal composer and turntablist Nicole Lizée; and a lesser known work, Cactus Rosary, by the grandfather of minimalism, Terry Riley. The concert was appropriately curated on the same day as National Record Store Day, and centred around electronic elements and exploring new sonic voices including Lizée’s signature sound the notated, not improvised, turntable mashed with acoustic instruments, and sampled sounds of the local environment in Copeland’s work.  In addition to an already full experience of sounds and sights, I was happily stimulated by the added video projections and the throw-back sounds of a jerry-rigged synthesizer from the 1980s. 

I’ll subsequently be making a quick trip down to Art Metropole to pick up a copy of Michael Snow’s recently released CD entitled 2 Radio Solos.  In the meantime, I encourage you to leave your suggestions, comments and look forward to reading about your personal encounters with the “magical atmosphere.”

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