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Jörg Widmann. Deja vu all over again.

30 Apr

During the 1960s and 70s, the good ole days(?), I was playing a great deal of contemporary music. Perhaps it was the best of times and the worst of times. After all, a revolution was in progress.

Many of the contemporary composers and performers who came to Toronto were experimenting with new techniques for instruments and forms of composition. This sometimes required local musicians to learn 3 or 4 new systems of notation for each concert and find their way through a veritable maze of unfamiliar manuscripts. It was a communal experience organized by Bob Aitken’s New Music Concerts.

The notation didn’t affect percussionists very much – we only had to deal with an enormous amount of instruments, but it certainly did affect oboists, trombonists and flutist’s. That was because of Holliger, Globokar and Nicolet the French teacher and flute virtuoso. Those were the beginning days of the so-called extended techniques. Usually the sounding of 2, 3, or 4 notes at once and making sounds they’d never heard a day earlier. The player not only had to hear differently, or hear different things, but had also to learn the new notation for these things. Multi-phonics and other techniques had entered our lives.

I grew tired of hearing our local players squeak and squawk as they tried to play these extended techniques in rehearsals. In fact, I actually feared the possibility of hearing them trying over and over again. I worked on developing a feigned nonchalance. Put simply, their struggles were not worthy.

These memories were revived when I went to hear Jörg Widmann  play and conduct his music on 18 April, 2014 in the Betty Oliphant theater. The most lengthy work was titled Dubairische Tanze in nine movements. Each movement concentrated on the sounds, extended techniques I’d heard Heinze and Vinko play 30 or 40 years ago, but then, only in moderation.

Jörg Widmann took all of those sounds, and more, and put them together into a complete language for his compositions. It was exciting stuff and he used many techniques our jobbers – people who played contemporary music together only a few times a year, could play convincingly. If memory serves, Widmann had written one very brief violin passage that could pass muster as a traditional melody. The work was terrific and the orchestration was exquisite. Those things I’d heard long ago had developed new expressions and new players in my absence.  It was akin to greeting someone you’d not seen for 40 years and perhaps had mixed feelings about.

During the 1970s Heinz Holliger and Vinko Globokar appeared in Toronto 3 or 4 times, Heinz playing his oboe and Vinko his trombone. Both of these men were at the forefront of music exploration. They were finding new ways to play their instruments and producing new sounds. Our comprehension was of a level so low, they often had to teach us their compositions by rote, note by note. Globokar was particularly good at this.[1.]  The venue of choice at the time was Walter Hall in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music.

I remember sitting in Walter Hall with Toru Takemitsu as Toronto harpist Erica Goodman played one of his solo works. During a short break Toru turned to me and said, “She’s a perfect harpist”. Toru had similalyy praised the playing of Heinz Holliger and Vinko Globokar.

After Widmann’s large work, he played one of his clarinet solos. He is after all a clarinetist of no mean reputation. The solo he chose to play on the 1st half was for B-flat clarinet and quite frankly I’ve not heard that kind of control and fluidity on any instrument in years. He began multi-phonics as smoothly as a common Bflat and slid from fortissimo to pianissimo as easy as pie. My goodness.

I’m sure if Toru had been sitting next to me in the Betty Oliphant Theatre a week ago he would’ve turned to me and said,” He’s a perfect clarinetist”.

[1.] In 1970, Lukas Foss (1920-2009) organised a concert involving all the performers and composers Toru Takemitsu had invited to the Space Theater at Expo 70 Osaka, Japan. Lukas paired us up and gave each of us  wrist bands with directions for an”improvisation” he had devised. I brought a large cow-bell, a mallet and a cello bow to this party and Vinko, his trombone. After a few minutes I had expended my repertoire of sounds and sat listening raptly to Vinko who was making sounds I had never associated with a trombone. He then begam dissassembling the trombone and playing even more facinating sounds. After all that, Vinko gestured  for me to give him my cello bow. He started bowing all the trombone parts ending with the bell, sometimes a most mellifluous sound, others screechingly dissonant. A few years later, Vinko came to Toronto with some of his chamber music compositions. He and I had stayed in touch during the interval and this time I was ready for him. Besides being a great trombonist, Vinko for some time was in charge of IRCAM in Paris.

 

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