Review: NMC and Motion Ensemble Get It Right

New Brunswick-based Motion Ensemble. From left to right: Nadia Francavilla, D'arcy P. Gray, Andrew Miller, Karin Aurell, Richard Hornsby, and Helen Pridmore

New Brunswick-based Motion Ensemble. From left to right: Nadia Francavilla, D’arcy P. Gray, Andrew Miller, Karin Aurell, Richard Hornsby, and Helen Pridmore

I’m always in a good mood the day after a great concert – something intangible carries over to the next box on the calendar. And the performance by New Music Concert last night was one of those shows. Taking place in the Music Gallery, a cozy venue a stone’ throw from the Art Gallery of Ontario, NMC’s show featured music by east coast Canadian composers played by New Brunswick-based Motion Ensemble and guest bassist Roberto Occhipinti.

The concert, titled From Atlantic Shores, featured the works of well established east coast Canadian composers (with one exception, but I’ll get to that).

Jérôme Blais’ piece Le Miroir d’Argent (2012) kicked off the night with a melody drawn from an old east coast folk song. Composers have, for centuries, been inserting folk themes and ideas into their music with varying degrees of success, but I can say, with utmost conviction, the Blais’ piece was one of those successes. The jaunty melody was carried along by the vocalist (Helen Pridmore), and versions of the melody that were less ornamented were carried along by the other instruments. There were almost certainly sections of the piece that were inspired by Steve Reich, and it was nice to see that the enjoyment that the musicians were drawing from the piece carried over to the audience; I saw more than a few heads bobbing along.

Paul Steffler’s Book of Manners (2009) was a smoother little piece, with some nice textures and colours coming from the combination of violin and vibraphone. It was a little dry though, and while I liked the first two movements well enough, it was really the third movement –  Benevolence and Peace with Many – that caught my attention.

Kevin Morse’s The Unnamed Lake (2013) combined a vocal part reminiscent of Danish composer Per Norgard (a favourite of mine), with instrumental writing that reminded me of a less crystalline George Crumb. It was really quite lovely.

Newcomer Lucas Oikle, who has just started his M.Mus in Composition at UBC, had the only premiere on the concert: Skyglow. The piece, a Japanese-inspired piece based on the idea of light pollution emanating from urban centres. The piece had the potential to be better than it was. My biggest complaint was that it was too stuffed with ideas. New material was constantly appearing when there hadn’t even been the chance to absorb what had come before, and I ended up feeling very unsatisfied with what I’d heard.

Derek Chark and Sandy Moore’s piece for voice and clarinet titled Blizzard; Between the Ships and the Shores (2009) and Tout Passe (2009) were an example of perfect programming on the part of Motion. Both pieces were beautiful, and were, by themselves worth coming to the concert. The transition between works was so smooth, and that they fit so well together stylistically, that it really felt like they were movements of the same piece. That is how concerts should be programmed.

Anthony Genge’s Motion (2005) was a delightful work that was a combination of things. Fun, catchy, quick, and just the right length meant that this piece, for me, was a highlight of the night.

Without a doubt though, the most interesting piece of the night was  WL Altman’s Variations on a Theme by McCartney (2009). Grating at times, beautiful at others, and definitely catchy (it’s a theme by McCartney, so what else would you expect?), this is one of those pieces that we, in the new music community, have to throw out there to the general public, because people will respond.

If I may be allowed a short digression: I would honestly like nothing more than to see this programme put on again in Toronto (or anywhere else in Canada) and aimed more at members of the general public outside the sometimes cloistered sphere of new and classical music lovers. Attract them with Variations, keep them here with Le Miroir and Motion. Have them listen to what great song writing sounds like with Blizzard and Tout Passe. I am convinced that this concert has everything needed to draw in people from outside our community.

With so many concerts happening throughout the year, it’s easy to get disheartened about the state of new music, but certainly Motion Ensemble’s choice of programming lived up to its province’s motto: Spem reduxit or Hope Was Restored.

– Paolo Griffin

New Sounds for 2014

Last night’s concert at the Music Gallery, featuring Montreal-based Ensemble Paramirabo, as well as quite a few others, was definitely one of the most interesting concerts I have been to in a long time.

It started with Canadian sound artist and composer Christopher Willes, who has had exhibitions in Finland, New York City, and Toronto, to name a few. The only piece on the first half of the concert was Willes’ immersive Blow/Draw. The performers, and there were many of them, positions themselves around the hall and began to play long sustained tones. I’m told the direction of the piece resulted from following the harmonic series, but I wish I could’ve had a chance to talk to the composer about this piece. It seemed everyone had a different reaction to the piece, given that it was those long notes for almost 45 minutes. I’m not the first to admit that my mind wandered off for a while in the middle of the piece, but, then, maybe that was the point. Different colours, textures, and effect kept appearing, and the overall impression I got was that of the world’s most colourful slinky.

After an intermission, Ensemble Paramirabo stepped up to performer Willes’ Receding Background. A work made of seven miniatures featuring the instruments and electronic sounds via speaker. Most were good, some were fantastic. There was a constant shift in mood between playful, serious, exciting, and back again.

Canadian Scott Rubin’s interestingly titled work the Torn Cubist felt like a piece that progressed from abstraction into something more or less solid. In the later parts of the piece especially, when the music adopted a driving rock and jazz derived set of rhythms, did I feel like this was a piece that I would like to hear again.

Composers Robert Hansler and Rodrigo Bussad had brand new offerings. In the former’s case, a work titled In Every Place, Incense and in the latter’s, Loin.

In Every Place, Incense felt like a piece whose name really fit. It was a great combination of fragility and strength. The musicians seemed to really be in their depth during this piece, and it came out in the music.

Loin was another interesting piece. Perhaps not my favourite sort of work, but it had its definite moments. Roaring at a rapid pace through sections, with dark textures and a fantastic use of the instruments and their less conventional techniques, I would very much like to hear this piece again, as I don’t feel ready to give a complete opinion on it with just one listening.

There were also two Frank Zappa arrangements,  I’m the Slime and Fifty-Fifty,  on the program (arranged very well by Symon Henry). I’m not convinced that they were completely necessary for the concert, and they did stand out a little bit, but I enjoyed them nonetheless, and so did the audience and the performers.

This was my first concert of 2014, and casting aside the fact that I’m pleased to finally get back into things, the concert was enjoyable and a success. A full house with an enthusiastic audience and great performers is great to see, and it’s always nice to see familiar faces.

A final note. A word of advice to the man and woman who were lying spread eagle in the aisle during the concert: Don’t. It’s incredibly unbecoming, makes the audience look bad, and makes you look even worse.

Have a good weekend.

– 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

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

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

Review: Thin Edge’s Unusual Show

At the beginning of the concert last night, Cheryl Duvall, one of Thin Edge New Music Collective’s co-founders, and its pianist, said that the program was intended to showcase pieces of music that didn’t fit into other ‘themed’ concerts. That is, pieces that are too unique, or strange, or quirky, to have a place in a typical concert program.

The fact is, that last night’s concert did have a fairly odd program, however I still found it thoroughly enjoyable, and perhaps it was this uniqueness that added to its charm.

The first half of the concert shone the spotlight on bass clarinetist, composer, and improviser, Kathryn Ladano. Starting with a solo improvisation, she carried right on into a work for bass clarinet and electronics titled Open Strain (2007). Thanks to the work on the electronics, the piece had many great colours and textures, and was not at all tiring to listen to. A solo improvisation using looping equipment followed, displaying Kathryn’s skill as an improviser, followed by two more works. Avoiding the Answers (2013), and I Told You So (2012). Avoiding the Answers contained an electronic recording that was then accompanied by the live bass clarinet, and I Told You So was a fast, rhythmic, and fun ride through a number of riff-like sections, as well as a few great melodies.

I Told You So was my favourite piece of the first half, however something else that I found very endearing was that none of the pieces were so long as to outstay their welcome. As I’ve mentioned before, the length of a piece is a tricky thing. Too long, and audiences get bored. Too short, and audiences don’t have time to get a grip on the material. Here however, Ladano seemed to know just how long audiences would be willing to listen to a solo bass clarinet. It was refreshing to see things so well timed.

The second half  of the concert had two more works by Canadian composers: Toronto composer Gary Kulesha’s trio Mysterium Coniunctionis (1980), and Edmonton-based Colin Labadie’s Strata (2012) for solo saxophone.

I had had the pleasure of hearing Mysterium (scored for clarinet, bass clarinet, and piano) a few weeks earlier at the University of Toronto. The same things that struck me the first time struck me the second time: an impressively stringent use of material. The name of the game in music is repetition of material. Eventually though, most composers have to change material to avoid becoming boring, however these days, many composer stuff as many ideas into their music as possible, and the result can be a little dizzying. Kulesha’s piece contained a few ideas, that were worked, and then reworked, and changed so that nothing stayed the same. In addition to some nice sounds and textures, I found that I enjoyed this piece even more the second time.

The most energetic piece of the night was Strata by Colin Labadie. Strata contained two layers of sound. A constantly present pattern on the bottom and shots and riffs by the saxophone that interrupted this pattern. I was reminded of the solo string works by J.S. Bach, where Bach implies the underlying bass harmony by making the musician cross strings to play one or two notes on the lower strings  though he may be playing the melody high in the instruments register.

Ending the concert was American composer George Crumb’s Dream Sequence (Images II) (1976). Crumb is known for unconventionally beautiful music, and this piece wasn’t any different. The ensemble for this piece is joined by glass harmonic (wine glasses filled to different levels with water), and the resulting effect was both haunting and yes, very dream-like. The key, I think, in much of Crumb’s music, is to have competent performers who know how to deal with the material and also follow the often extremely complicated scores. Thankfully, Thin Edge has more than enough talent to pull something like this off, and it sounded wonderful.

I enjoy concerts that step away from trying to have a regular program and introduce new things. I had no idea that such a thing as a bass clarinet improviser existed, but last night changed that for me. That alone would have been worth the ticket.


– Paolo Griffin


Review: Esprit Visits Bali

Sunday night’s Esprit concert had its ups and downs, but thankfully, there was more good than bad about it. The concert theme was a tribute to gamelan, a traditional music ensemble from the Indonesian islands. Esprit conductor Alex Pauk presented a work of his that had been re-tooled for orchestra Echo Spirit Isle (1983), as well as works by Canadian composers Chan Ka Nin, Andre Ristic, Claude Vivier, and Spanish composer Jose Evangelista.

Despite the impressive line up, I found more than a few of the works on the programme wanting. The highlight of the night, surprisingly, was presented by traditional Balinese dancer Putu Evie Suyadnyani, who performed a complex and entrancing dance accompanied by a recording of the music. Wearing a traditional dancers outfit, the dance consisted of hundreds of subtle movements that made up a larger picture. Think of a painter, whose individual brushstrokes may not look like much, but when you step back, you can see the whole picture as it’s intended.

Echo Spirit Isle suffered from the same problem as Chan Ka Nin’s Eveil aux oiseaux (2005) and Vivier’s Pulau Dewata (1977), which is that they dragged a bit in the middle. I actually liked Ka Nin’s piece most of all the pieces on this concert, but it still had some small issues. Pulau Dewata, originally intended for any combination of instruments that can fit the scoring, was arranged by composer Scott Good for this concert, and I must say, he did an impressive job. Using an orchestra to its full potential is a difficult thing for many composers, but Good managed to do that, with bright and interesting sounds, as well new textures and colours that kept everyone’s attention fixed on the stage.

The title piece of the night, Jose Evangelista’s O Gamelan (2013) was a pleasant piece that made some interesting (and ultimately positive) choices in its use of the orchestra, however I found that there wasn’t too much going on below the surface. I still enjoyed it, so there’s that I suppose.

American composer Lou Harrison’s Threnody for Carlos Chavez (1978), was a piece that I’d have to listen again in order to really come up with an opinion. I can say though, that the melodies that Harrison produced were quite lovely, and the often static background gamelan (provided by the Evergreen Contemporary Gamelan from Toronto) against the moving viola was a pleasure to listen to. It also wasn’t too long (a problem with many new works). So yes, I think I’d have to give it another listen before I cast my stone in one direction or the other.

Overall, I enjoyed the concert. The Esprit musicians played the programme with their usual expert touch, and Esprit certainly reminded us again why it is a leader in the world of Canadian new music.

Also, if you get the chance, do look up some Balinese dance on the internet. It really was spectacular.

– Paolo Griffin.