The Imagist poet William Carlos Williams wrote “so much depends upon a red wheel barrow”. Modern music composed in Canada “so much depends upon” John Weinzweig, who first brought modern compositional techniques to Canada in the 1940s and taught them to virtually everybody until his passing in 2006. One work from the “Then” category we heard tonight was Weinzweig’s Trio Interplay (1998) – twelve dialogues between the elephantine tuba, the agile piccolo, and the ubiquitous piano. Individual dialogues have titles like: “Clang, Clang!”, “Flippant”, “Soliloquy”, “Repartee”, “Pas-de-deux”, and “Theyʼre off!” Some of their interplay is argumentative, some belligerent, some friendly. All are artful and many, being anthropomorphic, are funny. A few images that came to mind as I listened were: a clown walking like a camel, a hippo, a hipster, a flamingo balancing on one leg and falling forward to chase its centre of gravity like M. Hulot on Holiday. At the core of these dialogues is a sense of intimacy that appears most concentrated in the quiet, serene, slightly blue Dialogue 3, entitled “Reverie”. Much of Interplay’s creativity depends on Weinzweig’s gentle nature, which caused him to be remembered as Dean of Canadian Composers.
We heard a second Trio, this one by a composer from both the “Then and Now” categories: Trio for flute, viola and harp (2011), by R. Murray Schafer. Schafer, who studied with Weinzweig, may be Canada’s most internationally known composer. Schafer’s musical imagination depends on limitlessness. His immense musical-theatrical production PatriaCycle postions groups of musicians in canoes, at night, scattered across a lake in the North Ontario wilderness. Performances last upward of ten hours. While the “orchestra” plays “somewhat dissonant, very motoristic” music, a choir of amateurs Shafer has trained near his home sing wolf chants that, when performed successfully in the wild, occasion a chorus of returning sound from the animals themselves. The Trio we heard last night was tame by comparison, but exceedingly lovely. In three movements, the blend of flute and harp bring associations of Debussy’s evanescent pastoral world; the minorish rhythmics of slightly dissonant lamentation suggested by the viola bring the intensity of Bartók to mind, as do the pervasive folk motifs. Trio’s sonorities range from opulent to otherworldly and undergo many interesting transformations, appearing in a range of tones from reverential hush, through whimsical capers, to bacchanalian frenzy.
The complement of senior composers who studied with Weinzweig includ the prolific Brian Cherney. Cherney is fascinated by timepieces. We heard his 1994 work Die klingende Zeit, for flute and small ensemble. As the title implies the work is based on the sounds of time. The sounds are specific: time toots in the flute where it also whistles and utters steamy screams; in the busy hands of Rick Sacks on percussion, time chimes, rings, booms, and ripples outward from gongs. Time sighs in strings and winds, ticks like a metronome in the piano, and tocks pizzicato in the cello. Cherney’s score also suggests time generalized into movements: sonic cycles, hypnotic iterations, pleasant flows and penetrating moments. The music suggests that time can appear as unpleasant, as sheer beauty and in moments that are magical. Cherney’s work concludes in the jingle of bells.
The two purely “Now” composers, Adam Scime and Brian Harman, were born in the 80s. Scime’s In the Earth and Air (2013), for soprano and ensemble, was commissioned and premièred this evening by New Music Concerts. This work depends on texts of early 20th-century Imagist poems by James Joyce and Ezra Pound that relate to Scime’s compositional approach. Scime’s four movements favour precise musical imagery, comparable to Williams’ red wheel barrow, but on the theme of love expressed in the poems. The first movement moves through conflicting squeaks and squawks into sounds that melt into each other. The second movement is luminous and moves like it has no bones. The third is cacophonous like a voice in a storm, and the finale, about the sleep of an unquiet heart, is remarkable for loud discord. Carla Huhtanen, a peerless soprano, was in fine voice, and more than equal to the demands on her fine ear and vocal power, though the sounds she made were not always pleasant.
Brian Harman’s En Masse (2013) for ensemble, also a commissioned première of New Music Concerts, had the most interesting instrumentation, because it included a saxophone (Wallace Halliday). The sax opened Harman’s celebration of ritual and ceremonies in music with some lovely blue tones expanded by gongs, thinned into the sigh of strings that move in soothing undulations. Later energized by flute and reeds, pierced by percussion, the music gets stretched in elastic riffs, while bass and cellos groan, reeds intone, then finish is a silent hiss.
To connect the “Then” and the “Now” of Canadian music, much depends upon New Music Concerts’ Musical Director, the composer and master flautist Robert Aitken. Since the 70s, on the strength of his global reach, Aitken has been giving a voice to Canadian composers from Then and Now. He has also invited the world of new music to perform in this country. A few of his guests include: Elliott Carter, Barbara Pentland, Toru Takemitsu, Conlon Nancarrow, Witold Lutosławski, Magnus Lindstrom, Sophia Gubaidulina, Péter Eötvös, John Cage, Steve Reich, George Crumb, Kaija Saariaho, Karlheinz Stockhausen. The list goes on. New Music Concerts goes on in March with the John Weinzweig Centenary Concert.