Circuit, musiques contemporaines / CIRC 16_1 / 2006
Robert Everett-Green, The Globe and Mail, August 11, 2007Classical music as we know it only came into its own when people stopped moving or talking while listening to music derived from dancing and the performance of ritual. The repressed movement behind the sounds is still evident in terms such as andante (which indicates a walking pace) and passacaglia, which comes from the Spanish for strolling in the street.
Robert Everett-Green, The Globe and Mail, December 18, 2003Aparanthesi is a profound and surprisingly dramatic work.
Robert Everett-Green, The Globe and Mail, January 18, 1993Vaillancourt is superb, in a piece created especially for her talents…
Robert Everett-Green, The Globe and Mail, November 26, 1990… snaps suitable for framing.
Classical music as we know it only came into its own when people stopped moving or talking while listening to music derived from dancing and the performance of ritual. The repressed movement behind the sounds is still evident in terms such as andante (which indicates a walking pace) and passacaglia, which comes from the Spanish for strolling in the street.
So what happens when that kind of music is reanimated with dance, and thrown back into the street, or at least very near one? Thursday’s show at the Music Garden was all about finding out.
The Music Garden is a leafy retreat sandwiched between Queen’s Quay and a waterfront walking trail. Violinist Linda Melsted, dancer Julia Sasso and bass clarinetist Lori Freedman convened there in front of an attentive crowd to expose a passacaglia by Heinrich Biber to the wind, the passersby (including a very curious Great Dane) and to Sasso’s and Freedman’s choreographed and improvised responses.
The passacaglia as a form seems to have originated as a guitar vamp between verses of a song, probably as support for a few dance steps. By the time Biber got hold of it in the late 17th century, it had become a way of showing off one’s ability to spin melodic variations over a repetitive bass line.
We know from the difficulty of his music that Biber was an ace violinist, and not afraid to show it. His passacaglia is a real virtuoso piece, which I was almost sorry not to hear first as a completely solo item. Melsted is a fluent and sensitive violinist, and the piece rippled easily from under her fingers. But as Sasso started to dance, the novelty of seeing someone move to such a rigorously centripetal piece made it hard to notice everything Melsted was up to.
Sasso, beginning from a seated position on a rock, laid out her vocabulary in the opening minutes, in a series of clear, poised movements that flowed together into phrases or seemed to throw queries back at the music. She followed her own rhythm, not necessarily becoming more animated as the music flew into speedy elaborations. I got the feeling she was engaging Biber’s work not as a finished thing, but as something permeable and alive.
Periodically, she would walk back to her rock, and each time that walking gained resonance from everything that had happened. It was an explicit way of acting out the genre’s origins, of responding to Biber’s ground bass, and of gracefully reintegrating his rarified music into the kinetic patterns of ordinary life.
Freedman’s solo improvisation began with a deep guttural growl that also seemed to stem from the passacaglia’s bass obsession, and that fit pretty well with the throb of a passing helicopter. Her spiky, gestural sounds chipped and scraped at the edge of pitches, often slithering away as if she were playing an unkeyed instrument, like a trombone or violin. Her performance was an engrossing mixture of the sharp and the smooth; even when she attacked the sound hard, it often had a smudgy, evasive appearance.
She and Sasso closed the show with a long joint improv, built partially from their responses to the Biber, but also quite evidently from what they got from each other. Freedman threw out little mottoes from different spots around the stepped audience area (perhaps recalling Biber’s music-in-the-round experiments in Salzburg), before playing a more continuous music that included a virtuoso section for mouthpiece alone. Sasso reprised part of her Biber choreography en bloc, and at one point made a witty leap over the low cord separating her space from the audience, as if to show that no formal barrier was going to get in her way.
All in all, it was an intriguing experiment that stopped a number of passersby in their tracks. As we know from the experience of the past few centuries, classical music has a way of doing that.
Ad Reinhardt used to claim that his all black canvases were the last paintings anyone could make. By the same serious/playful reasoning, you could say that John Oswald’s 65-minute Aparanthesi marks the end of the line for recorded composition, because it contains only one note.
But what exactly is one note? Apart from pure sine tones, every sound we hear is a messy conglomerate of vibrations that determine not only the fundamental pitch but also the density and flavour of the sound. They are the reason a mosquito sounds different from a violin, though a recording of either can be tuned electronically to one pitch, or subtly altered until the bug seems to be morphing into the fiddle. Apply that kind of manœuvre over a range of 10 octaves, and throw open the studio door to any and all sounds that can be recorded, and you begin to understand why it took Oswald three years to edit his one-note composition down to two versions of roughly half an hour each.
Aparanthesi is a profound and surprisingly dramatic work. Its open octaves claim a kind of cosmic scale, though many of the constituent sounds are minute, or deliberately camouflaged by other sounds. Each transition remains tethered to the core pitch, which in time takes on the grounding quality of a monotone chant. Even before a group of monks made a cameo appearance in aparanthesi B, the piece has enacted the unity of motion and stillness, and hearing it can be a mystical experience.
The two versions cleave to two slightly different pitches: 440 kHz (the A used by orchestras and piano tuners) for aparanthesi A, and 480 kHz (the undertone emitted by electrical equipment) for aparanthesi B. The second version, originally developed for a live performance, is the more theatrical, and the more revealing about its source materials. Both exploit the ear’s tendency to preserve a fuzzy zone of acceptability around a given pitch. The relationship between “in tune” and “out of tune” fascinates Oswald, who has made several tuning pieces for live and recorded sounds, and whose music celebrates perfection and deviance with equal fervour.
Aparanthesi is ultimately about paying attention, to sounds and their qualities, and to the mysterious interrelation of unity and difference. It’s the practical realization of a metaphor coined years ago by R Murray Schafer: the tuning of the world.
More information about Aparanthesi can be found at www.electrocd.com.
Montréal composer Alain Thibault’s first opera is a tour-de-force for solo soprano, based on the dream-like text of René-Daniel Dubois. Thibault makes the most of restricted means, and gives Dubois’s jagged, multi-character text (wich culminates in a meeting of Stalin and Santa Claus) a surprisingly lyrical form. It’s a welcome break from the slick electroacoustic music Thibault spent most of the eighties polishing and repolishing. Vaillancourt is superb, in a piece created especially for her talents and produced two year ago in Montréal by the small but important music theatre company, Chants libres.
Twenty-five composers, three minutes each: that’s the rate determined in advance for this attractive compilation from Montréal of “electroacoustic snapshots.” The shutter speed may be a bit fast for the average serious composer, but the snaps featured on this disc capture a fairly wide segment of the scene. Included are works commissioned from composers across Canada, a few Americans, and one senior trans-Atlantic figure (Francis Dhomont).
The methods and materials used in these sound-bites could hardly be more diverse. Some fabricate a world from a few sounds and timbres, a practice pioneered in Canada by the late Hugh Le Caine. Craig Harris’s Somewhere between teases a symphonic essay from piano tidbits, while John Oswald’s Bell Speeds conjures a hefty carillon from a single pea-sized bell.
Others play with language and its voices, carrying on the two-fronted assault that busies musicians and “sound artists” alike. Zack Settel’s jivey Skweeit-Chupp, for instance, is synthetic skat; as is Robert Normandeau’s dreamier, grander Bédé, in which a child’s voice is split right across the audible spectrum. Dan Lander’s rougher I’m looking at my hand is an audio equivalent of the language-laden “personal films” that turn up at alternative film screenings.
Others pick up a thread of musical journalism that has been pretty much invisible since Paul Hindemith wrote Neues yom Tage (The Daily News). Yves Daoust lards his intriguing Mi bémol collage with politically-charged clips from last summer’s Oka broadcasts, Christian Calon patches indpendentiste speeches and open-line exchanges into his Temps incertains.
Still other entries defy classification. Dhomont commits self-cannibalism in Qui est la?, plundering a decade’s work in a fiercely protean essay that whips past like a high wind. Gilles Gobeil teams up with guitarist René Lussier for the partly improvised Associations libres, by far the most aggressive item on the disc. Hildegard Westerkamp, one of only two women on the album, shapes her Breathing Room with exhalations and heartbeats, a strategy that seems more interesting in theory than in her practice. And Bruno Degazio transforms a formula of fractal geometry into the amusing Humoresque 901534, the closest Electro clips comes to danceable, pop music.
All in all, it’s a stimulating collection, with half a dozen snaps suitable for framing. The disc booklet includes a set of 25 commissioned black-and-white photographs by Quebec City photographer Joanne Tremblay.