Archive for Writing (other)

Lori Freedman and the beauty of extremes

LoriFreedman-banner

If there were some sort of measuring tool that could compare Classical music with cheeses of the world on a one-to-one basis — where Pachelbel’s Canon would be Cheez Whiz and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps would be some strain of blue that took you twenty years to work up the nerve to try — well, Lori Freedman’s “Virtuosity of Excess” tour would have to be well off that scale out beyond the farthest margins of Epoisse (a curd so odorous, it was banned from public transport in France), or perhaps even further — can one make cheese from platypus milk?

That’s not in any way to suggest that Lori’s music has anything malodorous about it. Pas du tout. It’s more a comment on her audience, which for deeply nuanced individual reasons has come to revel in her extremes.

It’s arguable that what she’s doing isn’t Classical music anyway. But it draws from many of the same roots, and being a fellow clarinet player who once played bass clarinet alongside Lori back in the last century (it was Le Sacre, which is scored for two bass clarinets), I know her roots. Now I’ve come to get to know her routes.

What is virtuosity?

LoriFreedman-side

photo credits: Jan Gates

I had the good fortune to sit with flautist Mark McGregor who’d come out to the Fox Cabaret to hear, above all else, the Brian Ferneyhough work. He explained Complexity music, which I paraphrase here broadly: The composer, without going beyond the instrument’s physical capability, employs myriad layers of complexity (such as assigning individual contrapuntal lines to different fingers) in an attempt to present to the audience a picture of the performer either breaking down or breaking through psychologically. “So, it’s sort of like a snuff film” I asked and Mark snorted with laughter, “I guess you could put it that way.” The title of Lori’s tour “The Virtuosity of Excess” is a quote from the French composer Raphaël Cendo, referring to the exploration (and sometimes exploitation) of the beauty of extremes.

Enter the “Virtuosity of Excess” tour

And then, before anyone could say, “Release the Kraken”, onto the stage strode Lori brandishing her contra-bass clarinet like a kalashnikov.

As we listened to Brian Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study #2 for bass clarinet, I started to get the full measure of Lori’s virtuosity. She puts her entire body, voice, and being into her playing. It’s so immediate and raw because what she’s after is emotional virtuosity.

Paul Steenhuisen’s Library on Fire for bass clarinet followed in what was by now an established pattern of extremes. This multi-movement, multi-music-stand work again showed how Lori transcends the cerebral by laying bare her humanity. Steenhuisen is a deep thinker able to layer complexity with the best of them, so it’s to Lori’s credit how she also brought warmth and humanity to the work — whether mumbling feverishly sotto voce or sucker punching us from the stage.

Steenhuisen’s Library on Fire as performed live in 2015 at The Music Gallery in Toronto

There’s something funny about Lori’s stage presence too—on account of its emotional ferocity. After screaming, squawking, and committing every excess imaginable, she always finished with a perfect little smile and thanked us all for listening. The contrast suggests some sociopathic older sister who’d just strangled her kid brother and now stands before us with one of those can-we-go-for-ice-cream-now smiles. Perhaps that’s why her own composition, Solor for bass clarinet (which she played from memory) lined up best for me. It certainly had its wild and raw moments, but overall I think it came from a more meditative place in her.

What is excess?

Raphaël Cendo’s Décombres for contrabass clarinet and live electronics was the coup de grâce of the evening. It was also the death knell for my ears, but I stood there anyway basking in the sheer monstrosity of it all like I was taking on Niagara Falls full force. To be in the presence of someone so beautifully uncompromising, so committed to her art — what glory!

After the show when people were mobbing her, I went up with the intention of saying something all-encompassing about what it means to be that emotionally revealed in art, but I couldn’t find the words and instead blurted out some nerdy clarinet-player nonsense about how “underneath everything, I could still hear a solid good clarinet sound”. It was entirely true of course — so always tactful — she laughed kindly as if I’d said, “Gee Mr. Pollack, you shure know how to mix them colours good.” It’s probably the most douche-baggey thing I’ve ever said…

Hey Bird! You’re Beautiful

HeyBrid

As many animals cannot recognise themselves in a mirror, it’s extremely helpful to them if you tell them how great they look. Don’t just walk by and say nothing.

 

Say something reassuring like…

“Hey bird, you’re beautiful!”,

or…

“Way to go Mr. Rat. I like the look. Very edgy, very edgy.”

 

This is tremendously helpful to their self esteem and you’ll probably feel good just saying it too.

rats3.0

Listening to Mark Dresser

MarkDresser-listens

What does it take to let go of the past and embrace pure potential? Billions are shuffling about — fearing. Fearing! Clearing the mind takes courage. It takes fortitude.

Not long ago at the Western Front, I heard a great musician—Mark Dresser. I could tell he knew implicitly that we weren’t there for the notes—so he didn’t play any—he was concerned with following the Muse.

The Muse is real. I saw him once at the Safeway. He stared at me with dark eyes. He was holding a roll of waxed paper and some bananas, looking frankly dazed in the bright neon. I won’t forget those dark imploring eyes though. It was as if they were asking me ‘Why?’ ‘Why do you shop here?’ I don’t know. Maybe the farmers’ market is only opened Saturdays and in any case, it’s overpriced. When I looked up he’d vanished. —JH, 2014

The Muse always seems a little sad when I encounter him. Sometimes I think it’s my influence—on account of his devotion to the present—that causes his sadness. The Muse has difficulty understanding the human obsession with planning and the constant need to gather up our past possessions. To him, we must seem like idiotic squirrels—burying, then searching.

But Mark Dresser’s contrabass would not sadden the Muse as others do. Why? First, Mark listens—he waits until he can hear the whispers—and then he goes. He clearly has years of experience and technique to draw on, but he didn’t drag any of that out on stage like a bag of old chestnuts. When Mark played, I sensed how my mind would work were it freed of its feverish thinking. As I followed Mark, instead of the usual memory-anxiety machine, my mind became a finely tuned astrolabe constantly adjusting for those moments of inspiration.

Mark’s playing is instructional too. It provides a working example of how to think creatively and spontaneously. Mark follows phrases of his own making only so far as they’re fresh and then, whenever their trajectory hints at turning into stock patterns or set clichés, he abandons them in favour of another direction. I learned (again) that this is how creation works. Let go of cleverness. Let planning go. Defer your inevitable fame and trust that the next impulse is the right one.

But how quickly we’re drawn out of that shaft of light and descend into our infernal calculations. For me they go something like, “Will they like it?”, “Will they like me?”, “I must prove I’m not a fraud.”, “I’ll show them!” So you see, the Muse is frequently sad. He sees all that distraction right away and in that, little hope for anything new or authentic.

Lucky for us though, the Muse is ever hopeful of an opening—he’s the ultimate optimist. Even in the most formulaic calculating turgid undertaking, he’s there, waiting to be called upon. Who knows? With our human knack for calamity, something could go wrong forcing a desperate act of improvisation—and that’s his opening.

“Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.”

—Leonard Cohen

We all know our endless planning is little more than a buttressed attempt to avoid that opening. That’s why a sincere artist knows to let go of his craft. First, he knows he doesn’t have anything to prove (something yet to be learned by the unseasoned artist), but more, he learns that the tools (of his craft) are but a means to the end.

I found Mark Dresser a great player because he listens deeper than mere impact. He’s listening to the Muse’s whispers and making visible (or in his case, audible) those whispers for us. With Mark, we can witness the Muse at work and, of course, that’s ultimately why art matters.

Laughter. How did all that get started?

LaughingHands-sm

There’s much talk about the theory of how fire was harnessed,
And of the wheel, of who got killed first, and of Caan and Abel.
But what about laughter? How did all that get started?

Did something rise up out of the depths of endless time,
Having within it, already formed,
The seed of humour?
Like it was tickled into existence.

From what pool of primordial mirth did laughter emerge?
The eye was a blob that evolved to see, of course,
But when did it first twinkle with inner merriment?

Was the first laugh a howl or just a little chuckle, like a spark.
Did the first spark emit a giggle or a chortle?
Then, over millennia, did the little smirks and titters grow and spread.
Until they blazed into guffaws and cackles?

In the time of stones, what foolery ridded men of their ancient hours?
Long before the first civilization arose and fell,
What little tribe of wanderers collapsed
Into gales of laughter?
Before there was slave and master,
What hilarity first captured the people?
Until tears streamed down their rough-hewed cheeks
(now chiseled also with laugh lines).

Who first slapped a knee?
Who was the first joker?
The first clown?
The first wise guy?
Who first discovered the punchline?
Who first laughed at a fart or a funeral?
Who’s belly first ached from laughing?

And when were we first given over entirely to this great mirth?
Like we were tickled into existence.

Sigh.

You had me at gravitas — two concerts

St.-Andrews-Wesley-Church

Every Wednesday, three musicians hold a little performance of improvised music inside the cavernous St. Andrew’s Wesley United on Burrard. I went because I’m curious to hear Classically trained musicians who are willing to improvise. The constriction of their music training is such that, when improvising, many highly skilled Classical musicians can do little more than eke out a few trills.

These three musician could clearly do more than eke out trills — despite their Classical training — particularly the pianist Craig Addy who had the capacity to create vast landscapes of sound enough to fill the church and parts of Burrard street as well. Unfortunately for the three, they’re trapped in a new constriction even more asphyxiating to improvisation than Classical music — New Age music.

I listened patiently waiting for something to happen. My mistake. The entire point of New Age music is that nothing should ever happen, and to that degree it was a success. Here’s the core problem. New Age music is already “there”. There’s no getting “there” because it’s already “there”. So it has nowhere to go. New Age Music merely sits in its self-satisfied beauty doing nothing. Occasionally, it’ll glance about and change from a state of serene beauty to beautiful serenity, but that’s about all it can do. It’s a downright infuriating experience if your life contains other hues, which is the case for most people still claiming a pulse. Or in Dorothy Parker’s words, “a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B”.

PuSh2016_Limmediat2_credit-Cyrille-Cauvet-675x449

The other performance, L’Immédiat (part of the PUSH Festival), was something of a circus. There are really no words to compare the two performances, except that I have a few extras so I’m going to try anyway.

L’Immédiat plays in the diametrically opposite court to Craig Addy’s group. Instead of well-worn clichés of peace and serenity, L’Immédiat plays with chaos and to a certain extent tragedy — although not in a way you’d recognize it as such because it’s so absurdly funny.

Mostly, L’immédiat is about gravity. Not the concept of gravity, but the reality of gravity. Spoiler alert: Everything falls down. The sets fall down. The actors fall down, climb up again, then ultimately fall. It’s pure inspired (brilliantly choreographed) chaos.

And the gravity of the thing is that here I could recognize myself. Witnessing the wrenching futility of life pushing against gravity relaxed me in a way that was paradoxically the most uplifting experience I could imagine.

Grammar NAZIs! Meet your Nuremberg Trial

Or…When good grammar just isn’t good enough…

Vancouver’s suburban Lougheed Highway wends its way through Burnaby with predictable consistency. At each Skytrain station paralleling the route you’ll find a rhythmic punctuation of corporate conformity — a London Drugs, a Starbucks, a Buy-Low Foods, a capping glass condo tower. Then repeat to the horizon line. Monotony enough to put envy into the heart of any Cold War-era urban planner. So much for Capitalist diversity.

How gratifying to know then that there are a few cells of non conformity hiding within the corporate state. Take for example, the copy editor. While much of the literate world has long since parsed out the difference between “its” and “it’s”, how refreshing to come upon a non-conformist writer who dares to shake up the rules of grammar a bit. Otherwise, explain these gems.

With its jazzy use of “it’s”, I find this subtitle scintillating. It jumps out like a tangy note of peppercorn in an otherwise grey merlot. “It’s top business sectors” or more accurately “It is top business sectors” connotes authority in a way the correct form just can’t.

Don’t be fooled — the clever writer of this next one knows how to get eyeballs on paper.

Amphibious

Compared with the worn-out tricks of social media gurus and their endless listicles (“OMG – The 7 Things you need to know about nose hairs that will completely change your life forever!”), I’ll choose the well-placed malapropism every time!

There are corporate disruptors; then there are the outright anarchists. The latter I believe to be behind this next masterpiece of subject/pronoun mixology.

Ambiguous pronoun reference error magnum opus

Ambiguous pronoun reference error magnum opus

Putting aside the grey imagery of office furniture representing not a company and most certainly not people, it would be so simple to just change “company” to “companies” and put an end to this vertiginous dance between the pronoun (“them”) and its potential suitors (the two nouns in the sentence). But isn’t “company” a “them”, which has people in them? Yeah I s’pose, but it’s a collective noun so it should be singular…but wait, it’s people we’re talking about…them is people. Inside people? You see. That’s why I prefer the roller coaster whiplash Magna Search Group unleashed to the pedantic approach favoured by textbooks. It’s far more exciting.

And can you imagine yourself a fly on a wall at the Marketing think tank when they came up with such a slogan? Okay start again, “Only a company is good, if they have people in them.” No, “Inside of a company, they is people, good ‘uns.”, No wait, I’ve got it. “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read”, um…

This next one is just pure anarchy and needs no further comment.

It's raining cats and dogs, with a chance of lizzards this evening...

It’s raining cats and dogs, with a chance of lizzards this evening…

How it ends…not with a bang, nor a whimper…

Scientists speculate sometimes that an asteroid impact would be what it would take to throw us all back into the Stone Age. But no one ever imagines that the end of modernity could actually turn out to be something much less dire…

How it turned out was a coronal mass ejection.

With our power grids destroyed, modernity as we knew it came to an abrupt end. Lacking satellite communications, international travel, automated traffic systems, and mobile phones, we could do nothing but gather with our friends around the piano, singing by candlelight.

Instead of the Stone Age, we’d been thrown back into the Biedermeier.

“They all agreed that they could scarcely remember the time when ceaselessly checking their iPhones seemed so important.”

Nu:BC Collective unmasks madness fit for a king

The following is a review written for publication in The Vancouver Observer.

Masque-19-VO

 

“I’M NERVOUS!!!!! If you want to know what is the matter with me I AM NERVOUS!!!”, quoted tenor Will George on his Facebook profile just hours before his title role performance in Eight Songs for a Mad King. Will was justifiably nervous: Eight Songs, based on the real-life madness of King George III, is a tour-de-force treatise of modern vocal techniques­ spanning a mighty range of over four octaves.

It’s not just for the madness I’d come. (Sir) Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs ranks, along with Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring,among the top twentieth-century works of contemporary concert music.

“Who has stolen my key?”

Sadly for UBC-based hosting ensemble Nu:BC Collective (flutist, Paolo Bortolussi; cellist, Eric Wilson; and pianist, Corey Hamm), the first part of the programme was arguably more maddening than the featured work. Like falling dominos, each of the electronic pieces fizzled making nervous geeks out of respectable UBC composers Bob Pritchard and Keith Hamel. While they strained over their laptops, the audience stared expectantly forward at idled musicians who for their part stood helplessly clutching perfectly functioning acoustic instruments. Finally, pianist Corey Hamm rescued the moment with a little Bach-Gounod arpeggiation and the audience filed out for an extra intermission.

“Blue-yellow-green is the world like a chained man’s bruise.”

On our return, the stage was set for the entrance of the king even though Diane Park’s inventive set design, a triumph of economy, looked as if she’d done it on a budget of no more than $75. I have no idea the actual cost but after the performance, Diane said how much she’d enjoyed the challenge of designing Eight Songs  because of how it sits in the nearly uncharted waters between chamber music (“No sets required if you please”) and music theatre (“My dad’s got a barn—let’s put on a show!”).

8Songs-cages

 

The trick in all this is making musicians—who in a strict sense can’t act—be part of the action. To accomplish this, Diane enclosed each of the four front musicians in bird cages and dressed up their formal concert attire with brightly coloured neck scarves and feathers making them look vaguely like late eighteenth century birdmen. There, they could go about their music-making business while doubling for theatrical purposes as sets.

The remainder of Diane’s budget was reserved for Will’s regal purple robe (with genuine thrift store ermine) and of course that extra violin that would later become pivotal to the action. At key junctures in the performance, Will disrobed revealing a little more of the history of the period—most effective was his recoiling horror on discovering the lining of his robe was sewn in with an anti-royalist American flag.

8Songs-costume-fitting

“Sometimes he howled like a dog.”

Singers, unlike musicians, are expected to be able to act and sing and all the rest. For this performance, singer Will George was at his best. After the performance, Will described his preparation for the role: “When I started preparing the piece, I wasn’t sure how I was going to produce all the sounds and extended techniques required. As I started listening to modern recordings and watching YouTube videos, I noticed that almost none of the performers were attempting these techniques, much less the pitches. This took a little pressure off, but I did want to be as faithful to the score as possible.”

Masque 16

During the performance, Will took some opportunity to interact with the audience and particularly with the musicians, but otherwise his actions all seemed to precipitate from his inner mental anguish. Perhaps the blocking was a little jerky but I hardly noticed for the fact that Maxwell Davies’s music is so endlessly interesting. From the opening chords, which disassembled from rhythmic unison into chaos to Corey Hamm’s rapid transitions from harpsichord to piano to play a few baroque flourishes here followed an instant later—and several decades musicological speaking—with corresponding flourishes in Mozartian classical style there. Even when referencing earlier composers, his music never sounded referential. Indeed, it provided us with the context needed to appreciate the unfolding drama.

“Poor fellow, he went mad.”

There’s a long tradition of on-stage musical instrument destruction but they’ve occurred mostly in rock and jazz circles, not so much on the classical concert stage. In fact, Eight Songs may be the only such work. Most audience members last Thursday would likely have known of this scene, so as Will George snatched Mark Ferris’s violin and then smashed it to pieces on the stage right there in front of us, there was an air of quiet that seemed downright pornographic. This sort of behaviour is to chamber music what CGI is to the movies—both for titillation and expense.

Sadly, there was only one performance of Eight Songs but, hey, if you’ve got an old violin you’d like to sacrifice, Nu:BC and company might be willing to mount it again.

Smash-violin

Masque

Nu:BC Collective’s performance of Eight Songs for a Mad King is part of a series of new music concert continuing throughout April. I can’t say for sure if any violins will meet their end, but the line up is otherwise very promising.

Upcoming in the Masque series:

  • Apr 17 & 19 – Turning Point Ensemble – featuring works by Benjamin Britten, jazz artist Tony Wilson, Bradshaw Pack, and arrangements of medieval and renaissance music by Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle.
  • Apr 24 & 25 – musica intima – featuring music befitting a Venetian Carnival – masks, theatrics, and salon-style seating, and vocal works by Adriano Banchieri, Orazio Vecchi, Giovani Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi.

Vancouver Chamber Choir explores spring’s veiled splendours

The following is a review I wrote for The Vancouver Observer.

 

Vancouver Chamber Choir - Orpheum, 2015

When it comes to springtime, redemption is a less marketable commodity than, say, bunnies and chocolate eggs, so on a blossom-filled Good Friday, I was surprised to see that the promise of crucifixion, mortal sacrifice, and death was enough to pack the Orpheum with an audience enthusiastic to try a bout of the Vancouver Chamber Choir’s darker fare.

After the opening work, VCC Conductor Jon Washburn revealed his enthusiasm, “Isn’t it a gem?” he said. The gem, Heinrich Schütz’s Die sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz (The Seven [Last] Words of Christ) was indeed a gem—hidden in a jewel box, shrouded in velvet, and encased in solid seventeenth century solid German cabinetry. I revelled how, with clockwork precision, it unveiled its beauty layer by layer.

Vancouver Chamber Choir

Photo courtesy Vancouver Chamber Choir

Next up was Schütz’s Italian contemporary, Giacomo Carissimi, who took us back much further to the early days of the Old Testament. Maestro Washburn told us the tale concerning the tragedy of Jephthah, an Israelite general who made a vow that if God would deliver them from their enemy, the Ammonites, Jephthah would offer up the first who greeted him on his return as “a burnt offering”. Tragically, that turned out to be his beloved daughter, Filia. Carman J. Price, tenor, sang Jephte and Catherine Laub, soprano, captured Filia’s fall from girlish innocence to condemned outcast in a way that to me felt as contemporary and horrific as anything on the evening news. Although her role was relatively small, Fabiana Katz, alto (historicus) also picked up on the horror in a way that made my ears snap to attention.

Even though the Requiem is sung in Latin (duh, it’s a requiem), there is something so innately French and nineteenth century about Fauré’s treatment of it. Fauré’s Requiem seems synonymous with Gustave Caillebotte’s Rue de Paris par temps de pluie, the way it portrays everyday life (and death) as a gentle thing.

"Gustave Caillebotte - Paris Street; Rainy Day - Google Art Project" by Gustave

Photo courtesy Wikipedia/Chicago Museum of Art

Fauré is masterful in his reduced orchestra, replacing violins with the throatier violas, decimating the woodwind section but for a couple of bassoons, and retaining only an echo of brass (2 horns, 2 trumpets) enough for one or two volleys, but more in the sense of Haydn and Mozart than the resources his contemporaries had at their disposal.

While the performance was fine and reverent and all, it didn’t really congeal until soprano Siri Oleson captured our attention with Fauré’s indescribably gentle Pie Jesu. With that, I think many audience members succumbed to very personal reflections and, in some cases, even tears.

For the Fauré, the Vancouver Chamber Choir was joined by the Pacifica Singers and the Vancouver Youth Choirand their inclusion added much to an already full programme. Now we see all the faces of Vancouver— many cultures young and old come together­—singing.

If you missed this concert, springtime is full of singing:

  • 24 April, the Vancouver Chamber Choir presents Youth & Music 2015 – New Choral Creators at Ryerson United Church in Kerrisdale
  • 1 May to May 3, The Vancouver Youth Choir participates in Canadian Cantando Music Festival up at Whistler.
  • Also, for those of you whose interest in choral music goes beyond mere listening, the Vancouver Chamber Choir is holding auditions for professional-level singers on April 25 and May 23. Contact Grant for an appointment at grantwutzke@live.com

Nothing Exceeds Like Excess

HotelScribe

Somewhere in the back of my head, Ernest Hemingway cautions me to avoid excess. I’m usually attentive to the perils of excessive adjectives, and in fact, that’s mostly what gets cut in the first edit. I admire his terse style, although to write like Hemingway is to risk becoming a parody of brevity.

Last week, I wrote one of the longest sentences ever. In a story I wrote for Webtech Wireless, I needed to pull together several disparate ideas in as few words as possible. To reinforce the sentence, I put the punch at the end, echoing the point made in the title.

Last week at the 2013 Management Conference and Exhibition, Bill Graves’ “State of the Industry” keynote address quoted from Bob Dylan’s classic song, “The Times They Are a Changin’”, and this year’s Critical Issues in the Trucking Industry – 2013 report by The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) gives further fuel to idea that the trucking industry is in the midst of profound changes.

Read 2013 ATA Critical Issues and the Road Ahead

Another way I curb my writing is to search out the verb that most efficiently coins the action. As a rule, the verbs “to be” and “to have” describe action least effectively. Usually, replacing them with more descriptive verbs moves the story along nicely. In the sentence quoted above, I use “to be” like brakes on a train. “To be” only appears at the end to stop the forward movement of the sentence.

And then this week, I reviewed a concert for the Vancouver Observer and wrote an article with a series of long sentences. Here there was another reason for long sentences: Sometimes they give a sense of breathlessness to writing. Especially, when pierced with a few short sentences that once again stop the action dead in its tracks.

Pianist Anna Levy took a few moments to describe how the relative thaw in artistic expression in the Soviet Block countries during the 60s allowed for Fantasia’s creation. What’s all the fuss? Well. It has jazz in it.

Read Colin MacDonald’s Orchestra: A Pocket Full of Fun
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