Last September 2010 Rick Sacks became the latest director of Array music, a Toronto organization that by mandate encourages and performs works by young Canadian composers. Sacks is also a composer, a trained percussionist, and a quipster – his e-mail address begins rixax. With little provocation, Rick can slide easily into New York City hip, an endearing persona much prized by friends and acquaintances.
Rick’s solo compositions are generally quirky, sometimes slap-stick funny theater pieces suited to his upbeat temperament. But like a Charlie Chaplin film they often carry another more serious message. Rick’s Life in the Factory which he performs in a working man’s overalls behind a conveyor belt filled with found instruments is a modern percussionist’s take on Modern Times. This is all to say that Rick’s humor should not deceive. He is a man of many parts who also has a gift for promotion. In today’s economic climate, Rick’s promotional acumen may well benefit Array Music.
About thirty years ago, Canada’s federal government established a policy of Multiculturalism. All minority ethnic groups were encouraged to dress, pray, speak and act as though they were living in their native land. These groups subsequently asked for funds from government art budgets to subsidize their community initiatives.
As the government responded to their requests, the Art’s money pie was cut and served in ever smaller pieces. Here-to-for favored music ensembles devoted to a Euro-centric music tradition found themselves under funded and sometimes, in their eyes, under appreciated. Then came the added burden of the financial crisis of 2008.
Particularly sensitive to budget cuts were ensembles specializing in contemporary music. There are a half dozen ensembles in Toronto that perform four to six concerts a year. Their audiences have always been small and to a large extent government grants have kept them afloat. Ensembles such as Array Music responded to the financial crunch by reducing the number of concerts or by programming less expensive repertoire. But one of the most artistically bothersome problems inherent in government funding is a ritualized commissioning off Canadian composers.
The cycle of funding composers is simple and politically justifiable. In order to receive government money, ensembles must demonstrate a commitment to Canadian composers. They must also apply every year for funds to commission new works and every year a new batch of compositions is created. Last year’s works are filed away and the cycle begins anew. No music is put into repertoire, rehearsed and performed beyond their premieres.
One of Rick Sacks’ first decisions as Director of Array Music was to expand upon an idea of former Array director Bob Stevenson. Rick is searching through Array’s library of over 300 commissioned scores, collected during its forty-year existence for worthy, though forgotten works, and bring them once more to the public. This could ameliorate to a considerable extent the artistically frustrating and financially wasteful results of yearly commissions being relegated to file drawers.
The quality of contemporary music performance is exacerbated by the jobbing musician. Every ensemble in Toronto specializing in contemporary music is made up of players who work all over town playing all kinds of music. This and the fact that they rarely play anything more than once makes them good sight readers, but poor interpreters. If they’re part of the busy elite, they rarely have time to hone the skills that brought them this far. A sight reading mentality and lack of rehearsal time become a way of life that produces uninspired concerts.
Established in 1971, Array Music, is housed in a rather crowded second-floor room that appears to be a former factory. Stacked against its walls and hanging from its beamed ceiling are the accoutrement of a well used rehearsal space : a variety of percussion instruments, music stands, a covered baby grand piano stacked with music, filing cabinets, chairs and a desk or two. Array rents their space to other groups when it is not otherwise busy with its own projects.
Rick’s enthusiasm and commitment are infectious. There is an esprit de corps in this year’s Array ensemble that has been lacking since the death of Michael Baker, for eight years an inspiring director who died young. Today Array’s performers are communicating their commitment and, just as important, pleasure.
Composer Linda Smith has also had a significant part to play in Array Music. Ms. Smith is a composer of considerable standing in Canadian arts. She is a Jules Leger Prize winner. She too was a director of Array and her musical and administrative skills were exemplified by a concert given late in the 2009-10 season. Linda chose the concert repertoire. Each work was related in some way to other works on the program.
Along with innovations in repertoire, there were noticeable personnel changes in Array’s traditional group of seven players. It was all good and a couple of months later was followed by yet another successful concert.
Array Music has turned a corner and is now headed in a refreshed and creatively rewarding direction.
Recently Rick announced Array as recipient of an unsolicited grant of US $10,000 from the Lucerne Foundation of Switzerland. The work that attracted the Swiss was Array’s month long Young Composers Workshop. After a call for scores, Array selects four fledgling composers from anywhere in the world. They are brought to Toronto to work with Array instrumentalists and a mentor who is an established Canadian composer, and this year, Christopher Butterfield. While composing a new work, they receive feedback from the professional players of Array, the resident composer and fellow students. At the end of the month their works are performed before the public.
I attended the most recent of these once a year concerts. Rick conducted the ensemble and introduced the composers who came forward to make brief statements about their works. Of the four compositions performed that evening two of them had real promise. An extraordinary percentage of success.
Rick is something of a workaholic. Besides administrative, conducting and performing duties with Array Music, he has recently joined the board of directors of New Music Concerts of Toronto and continues his non stop composing music for theatre.
During the month of July, 2011 he will be at the Banff Centre composing music for a new dance work in collaboration with Red Sky and New Zealand’s dance company Black Grace. With Red Sky Performance he toured the 2009 Cultural Olympiad (Beijing), the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the May 2010 World Expo (Shanghai) with TONO a dance and music piece that received a DORA award in 2010 for best new music in a dance production.. Rick will be in Beijing, Mongolia and New Zealand this fall performing TONO.
Adventures of the Smoid, a new work written and composed by Rick in collaboration with the Evergreen Club Gamelan, premiered June 2011 features shadow puppets designed by Rick in association with David and Ann Powell of Puppetmongers. I went to this performance and was as usual delighted. He was commissioned by the Evergreen Club and the plot involves an astronaut, the Smoid, rocketed into space where he avoids strange asteroids, comes back to earth, falls in love, marries and has three children.
Everything Rick attempts is done with good grace , a keen imagination and a desire to entertain and inform. I’ve thought of suggesting he slow down, but a cup of black coffee is all he seems to need, that and the next project.