Canadian Creations

August 4, 2009

Today, for a change of pace, I attended the noon-hour installment of a marathon of the New Music Dialogues. I rarely get a chance to listen to music by Canadian composers that isn’t written for flute, so this was a new experience.

The first piece, “Leviathan” for Accordion and Electroacoustic Playback, was composed by Erik Ross, who spoke to the audience beforehand. It was inspired by avant-garde composers of the ‘40s who took sounds from the world around them to incorporate in their works. When Ross composed this piece, he had in mind sounds you would hear underwater and dealing with the fear of something which might come at you from below.  “Leviathan” was reminiscent of Edgard Varese’s approach in the use of pre-recorded elements which had been electronically modified. Darkness in the tone of the music suddenly giving way to a lighter character would remind one of a stray beam of sunlight momentarily illuminating the dark of the water, with 16th notes bubbling through the texture. I had the opportunity to speak with the composer after the concert about the challenges of the soloist in playing against a prerecorded track, to understand how the soloist’s freedom is confined by the accompaniment track and how such ethereal music is cued on the soloist’s score. Mr. Ross explained that the cues in the soloist’s part were primarily based on the dynamically predominant sounds of the recorded track, and that as they worked towards a live performance, they had found more cues were needed in the soloist’s music.

The second piece, El Duo by Norman Symonds (1920-1998) is, in compositional terms, defined as “third stream” music, which means that jazz elements have been added to a concert composition. In fact, one of Symonds compositions, Nameless Hour, is for orchestra with any soloist. The orchestra part is written out, but the soloist improvises on top of it based on their reactions to the orchestra. El Duo was composed for accordion and marimba. It began very dissonant, the accordion playing quick notes, like shivers, as the marimba played lower, more melodious chords. The two instruments conversed, often mimicking one another, at other times in a syncopated dialogue. The use of these instruments together is interesting because the timbres are so different. The marimba has a dark, resonant sound, while the accordion plays with a lighter, more vivacious energy. The two together created a great contrast, and I very much enjoyed how Symonds used this to add tension to his piece.

Evolving Elements by Alice Ping Yee Ho is a tribute to the four elements of light, water, air and fire.  This piece for marimba and string quartet provided yet another great blend of colours. Each movement symbolized a different element, representing its unique passion and energy. For example, the water segment had fast marimba passages, like bubbles, and string sections that reminded one greatly of Smetana’s The Moldau; in the fire segment there were lots of tremolos, 16th notes, and harshly articulated low notes, capturing the energy and the danger of fire. This piece was inspiring, and I was pleased to see it was included on Ho’s new CD, available for purchase at this venue and which I have now added to my collection!

The final piece of the program was “Refuge” for Accordion, Marimba and Harp by Alexina Louie. This piece, I found, was very much based on the texture created between the instruments. Ms. Louie described it as a journey to truth. The texture at the beginning was very coarse and thick, with many fast notes alternating between the instruments, but then gradually became more ordered and light. It was interesting to listen to the shift between colours as well, because as the subject became more enlightened and closer to the truth, the chords became less dissonant and there were fewer flurries of notes, symbolizing the subject’s growing understanding of his/her life.

Much of the flute music I’ve listened to by Canadian composers has been very modern – atonal and dissonant.  While I enjoy contemporary music generally, there are pieces I find difficult to relate to, and I didn’t know what to expect with my introduction to these composers.  I was happily surprised that I greatly enjoyed the palette of colours and textures I heard, as well as the mix of different timbres of instruments. The fact that three of the four composers presented were there to speak with the audience gave us a particular insight into the meaning of the pieces and made it easier for us to connect. It was a very unique and educational experience for me, and I intend to make a conscious effort to listen to more from these and other contemporary Canadian composers.

Lindsay Bryden, flutist


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