‘Northern Connections’ Fundraising Campaign

At its core, Northern Connections is a concert about bridging international gaps, fostering relationships between musicians and composers from different countries, and introducing audiences to new and exciting music. In programming Northern Connections, I will be choosing works by emerging composers from Canada and Finland. Our two countries and  their inhabitants share many similarities: landscapes, weather, a love of outdoor activities, and a thirst for new art. Having experienced it firsthand, I can also say that the quality of talent coming from both our countries is nothing less than impressive.

In order to successfully present this concert, we need your support. The fundraising goal is $1600, which will be used to provide musician honorariums and balance production costs that include venue rental, rehearsal time, and more. Our commitment is to the music, and we want to be able to present the music to the public in a manner that highlights the skills of our composers and musicians.

Please consider becoming a donor for Northern Connections and supporting this concert in its effort to advance the future of new music and cultural exchanges. To learn more, please visit http://www.pgriffinmusic.com or you can donate by clicking going to our IndieGogo fundraising page: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/northern-connections-concert/x/3598605

– Paolo Griffin

Preview: Week of December 9th

Three concerts this week! Here they are.

Tuesday December 10th:

8:00 PM: Bespoken releases their new tape ‘plays Nick Storring and Daniel Brandes’. Both Storring and Brandes are quite talented composers, and this show will combine live performances, some wild visuals, and a tape launch.

Thursday December 12th:

8:00 PM: The Music Gallery presents the first Emergents concert of the year (Emergents I: Strange Strings). Works by Canadian composers Margaret Ashburner and Anthony Wallace are on tap, as are two works by Mike Smith, formerly of Muskox (and other local bands)

8:00 PM: Spectrum Music puts on another show at the Annex Theatre. A long list of Canadian composers will be performed, along with the talents of the Spectrum ensemble. This isn’t a normal venue for these types of concerts, so if you’re curious, visit their site: http://spectrummusic.ca/.

I’ll see you all out there this week.

– Paolo Griffin

Review: Array Displays Tenney

Arraymusic James Tenney Retrospective Portrays Rich Sonic Image of Composer

On Friday night, Toronto’s Arraymusic paid tribute to composer James Tenney, an influential American composer who taught at York University in Toronto for many years. Tenney, who died in 2006, studied with such American composer greats as John Cage, Edgard Varese and Harry Partch. He wrote a wide range of experimental music, and was an important music theorist, accomplished pianist, and a conductor. His compositional output explored indeterminacy, computer-assisted composition, electronic music, algorhythmic composition and many other realms of music creation, all centered on a keen interest in sound and human perception.

The incredible diversity of Tenney’s work was clear in Arraymusic’s programming. The concert began with Three New Seeds, written in 1991 for Array. This piece, composed of three short pieces were almost expressionistic in style, reminiscent of Anton Webern’s music in their brevity, melodic expression, and economy.

This contrasted starkly with Harmonium #7 (2000), a work exploring intonation, composed for an indeterminate number of sustaining instruments. The piece slowly expanded from a single pitch, moving through various slow moving harmonic fields based on the harmonic series, and foregrounding differences in intonation between similar notes in different spectra. The shifts in harmony were very gradual and subtle, pleasantly transporting the listener through pitch space in a stretched temporal framework.

Maximusic, one of Tenney’s brief ‘Postal’ pieces dating from 1965, was a text score for solo percussion. It asks the performer to begin the work with a very long cymbal roll crescendo, and end with a similarly long diminuendo on the tam-tam. In between, the performer is to improvise as loudly and quickly as possible on diverse percussion instruments chosen by the performer. It’s clear that Tenney was investigating human perception and the different modes of listening associated with these very different types of music. The resulting contrast is shocking. During the slow, long rolls, our listening is ‘zoomed in’ as we pay attention to every subtle sonic change, but the faster music aggressively forces us to ‘zoom out’. Rick Sacks performed the work with great care, bringing out amazingly rich subtleties of sound in the cymbal and tam-tam.

Ergodos I (1963) has an open instrumentation and duration, and was dedicated to John Cage. It illustrates Tenney’s search for musical formlessness, or ‘ergodicity’. The composer here applied principles of statistics to small- and large-scale musical decisions, seeking a truly static musical form for the work. The two pre-recorded tapes can be combined in a number of ways, and ‘responded to’ (or not) by live instruments using a graphic score. In both the pre-recorded part and the percussion ‘responses’, the music exploited contrasts between pitched sounds and noise, and between long tones and faster constellations of sounds. Percussionists Rick Sacks and David Schotzko used diverse percussion instruments to create a fascinating interaction with the pre-recorded music, and effectively generated the contemplative, static musical environment that Tenney sought.

Written in 1971 for solo double bass, Beast is another of Tenney’s ‘Postal’ pieces. The performer is directed to retune the lowest string of the double bass down to E-flat, and the piece begins with a unison between the instrument’s two lowest strings. The work explores the expansion of this interval through various glissandi slowly moving away from the unison, creating powerful beating between these low pitches that is not only heard but also physically felt. Through the regular repetition of these gestures, Toronto bassist Adam Scime seemed to make time stand still.

Prelude and Toccata, for solo piano, was commissioned and premiered by Arraymusic’s Stephen Clarke in 2001. It employs a piano tuned according to the F harmonic series. The Prelude is a slow progression of crystalline sustained chords that gravitate around F, but that remain elusive in nature because of their high register. The following Toccata featured a rapid machine-like stream of notes reminiscent of Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano, works that Tenney wrote about extensively. Tenney emphasizes the piece’s F tonality within a complex harmonic world by sustaining only this pitch amid an onslaught of short notes. Unfortunately, in the middle of an excellent performance of this work, Clarke got a hand cramp that prevented him from completing the performance.

The final piece on the program was Spectrum I (1995), written for the Array ensemble. Like John Cage’s late number pieces, the performers use a stopwatch, performing musical material somewhat freely within allotted time brackets. The music featured flowing melodic lines, at first slow and pensive, later more active and imitative, all the while delicately punctuated by subtle unpitched percussion sounds. The piece’s clear arch form is based on a slow increase then decrease in temporal density and dynamic level, and its pitches are based on a single harmonic spectrum.

The Arraymusic ensemble gave excellent performances of all pieces presented; it is clear that the musicians have great respect for Tenney’s work. This is music that requires great care, subtlety and precision, and that is wide-ranging in its demands. The sonic environments created in Harmonium #7 and Spectrum I were especially magical.

This varied concert demonstrated plainly Tenney’s diverse compositional interests. The great contrasts between works also allowed the audience to make connections between his music and that of other composers with similar interests (for me, Giacinto Scelsi, Gerard Grisey and Morton Feldman came to mind during the concert). While the composer employed many different theories and algorithmic techniques in his works, it was evident from attending this concert that the composer was interested most of all in the sounding of these ideas, and in our perception of them in performance.

Tenney lived in Toronto for many years and spurred musical experimentalism in the city through his interaction with the community. After attending such a rich concert, one has to wonder why his thought-provoking music isn’t performed more often in this city.

– Brian Harman is a Toronto-based composer and teacher. You can find more information about him at http://www.brianharman.ca/

The Coming Month

As most people know, mid-December to mid-January is a time of rest and relaxation, when people go on vacations, celebrate their respective holidays, and generally have a good time. It’s also a time when the number of concerts drops considerably (there aren’t any new music concerts happening in Toronto after the week of the 20th of December leading right up until mid-January).

So, in the interm, I will be presenting you with new music CD reviews, and short pieces from a number of guest writers on any number of topics that I think apply broadly to the idea of new music in our city (and in general). Keep your eyes open for the next month to see opinion pieces, reviews, and maybe some history lessons on new music in Toronto and in Canada.


– Paolo Griffin

Review: Singing the Earth

I think I’d be able to write quite a bit about Singing the Earth, last night’s new work by Toronto-based composer Anna Höstman, if I had the chance, however I only have about 600 words or less to talk about it  so that will have to do.

Singing the Earth’s purpose was to “offer fragments and glimpses into this very special place.” That place was the Bella Coola Valley in the Central Coast area of British Columbia, where Höstman spent her childhood. The work, which was written for Continuum music and mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, and conducted by Gregory Oh, was split into eleven parts and combined with video recordings of the natural features of the valley, as well as interspersed interviews with its residents.

Höstman, who has an extensive resume already, displayed her skill in creating music that was delicate, yet had something of a backbone to it. In particular, Höstman’s piano writing was (and is) very impressive. Lonesome Lake, the ninth movement (which was for solo piano), was reason enough to attend. The fifth movement halling, which was an arrangement of an old Norwegian Slått (a folk music piece for fiddle), was also a favourite of mine. A mix of melancholy and something else, the arrangement was smooth and very lovely.

The work wasn’t without its odd or unsatisfactory moments. Höstman mentions in her program notes that a song she had worked on, only made it to the final product of the final movement in the form of a three minute ‘introduction’, wherein only the instrumental accompaniment was heard. I also wasn’t as keen on the film and video installation that was being projected behind the musicians during the work. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of things like this. Not that it wasn’t nice to see images and video of the valley and its contents, but I’ve usually been more distracted from the music by the images in these sorts of works, and in that way, I think it takes away from the music and the work that the composer put in.

The tenth movement, Glossary was also an odd piece. Accompanied by the ensemble, the mezzo sang not a poem or a story, but instead, a list of all the flora and fauna found in Bella Coola. This text came from Thomas Mcilwraith’s appendix to The Bella Coola Indians, an anthropological study from the 1920s. The notes mention that the effect of industry has been devastating to the valley over the years, and no doubt it has, but without having read those notes, I don’t think I would have fully grasped why someone was listing off everything in the valley in song.

Above and beyond what I liked or didn’t like, Höstman clearly displayed her skill as a composer. Technically speaking, I found no problems with the work. The text was set beautifully, especially in the last movement, and the music took on an appropriately atmospheric tone for the material at hand. Marion Newman’s singing was something to be admired, as was the skill of the musicians and conductor. This didn’t seem anything like a simple piece which most people could pull off; The music pulsed and moved along in complex lines, being tossed from instrument to instrument or in other places had a subdued, delicate feel to them. Talented hands were certainly needed for this work.

There is one last performance of the work tonight, same time, same place (the Wynchwood Barns up near St. Clair West), and I’d suggest taking a look. With so much on display, you’re sure to find something you like.

– Paolo Griffin

Preview: Weekend of December 6th

There are three concerts happening this weekend in Toronto. Friday and Sunday, which means you can see Friday’s concert, and then reflect on what great music it is for the entirety of Saturday.

Friday December 6th:

8:00 PM: Array Music presents the works of American composer and theorist James Tenney. Tenney’s work with tuning systems and non-traditional sounds made him a great figure in the American school of music, and his work is certainly to be admired. Takes place at Array Space.

Sunday December 8th:

3:00 PM: Pianist Ishay Shaer presents an impressive piano program that includes Canadian great, Harry Somer’s Piano Sonata No. 1. This concert takes place at Heliconian Hall.

8:00 PM: Contact presents music for the guitar. New works for guitar and instruments featuring works by Andrew Staniland, Jimmie LeBlanc, and other Canadian heavyweights. Takes place at the Music Gallery.


So? Why are you still here? Go go go!

– Paolo Griffin

Lunchtime Treats

A Tuesday afternoon is usually an odd time for a concert, isn’t it? The answer is yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad time. The Glenn Gould School’s New Music Ensemble certainly provided worthwhile listening this afternoon, when they tackled three contemporary works from American and Canadian composers.

Brian Current led the ensemble through a work by Montreal-based composer John Rea titled Accident, Tombeau de Grisey (2004), while composer Scott Good conducted his own piece, a work titled Three Movement for Chamber Orchestra (2013) which was a mish-mash of different styles. American Martin Bresnick also had a work on the program. The poignant My Twentieth Century (2002) for six players, and incorporating a bit of acting and narration.

My favourite work of the afternoon belong to Bresnick. A very passionate piece, written in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the work at first made me lower my guard with its pleasant tonalities and catchy rhythms, reminiscent of Reich, mixed with Glass, and tossed around in a bowl of something else thoroughly American in style. Each of the musicians in turn, as the piece was being played, would come up to a pair of microphones in front of the audience, and recite a line of poetry about an event that occurred. Each line ended with “….in the twentieth century”. A very passionate piece that had more depth than one would be able to hear in one listening, this is a piece I would very much like to hear again.

Scott Good’s piece Three Movement for Orchestra was also very charming in its own way. Each movement had a completely different feeling from the last, and so the movements didn’t blend together as seamlessly as one would think (or in my case like), but the result was still impressive. The first movement was a dense, almost aleatoric trip through dense sounds and clusters of notes. The second was a very Steve Reich-esque (the composer admitted that Reich was his influence with this movement) straight line, driving towards a final point. The third movement had a rich, lush, almost Neo-Romantic sound that took influences from Indian raga.

Rea’s piece Accident…. was good, however I felt that it was too long, dragging in the middle, and the final minutes of the piece just didn’t have the payoff I felt was necessary fort sitting through a piece of this length or style. From a technical standpoint, it was very well done. It contained fantastic uses of the instruments, and the piano and percussion acted as shading to the already present picture. Too often, composers feel obliged to overuse these two sets of instruments. Their use in and of itself is not a bad thing, but having them dominate a 13-instrument ensemble seems like a waste sometimes.

Here I must make a quick note: I really enjoyed the venue and casual atmosphere of this concert. A lunchtime concert in the Four Seasons Centre, where one could watch the concert, but also glance out and see the traffic, people, and everything else that goes on on University Ave. really made the experience for me. I wish more concerts could be like this. Maybe I’ll have to write another article on this issue.

I enjoyed the concert quite a bit. I advise you to go to another noontime concert at the COC or see the GGS New Music Ensemble in concert. They’re well worth it.

– Paolo Griffin