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