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.
Concerts in Toronto – No. 2, October 27, 2015.
Some years ago a concert presented by New Music Concerts in Toronto’s Betty Oliphant Theatre featured the music of the German clarinettist Jörg Widmann. Hearing his music was a déja vu experience for me. Widmann’s compositions used many, if not all of the instrumental dtechniques my colleagues and I had struggled with in the 60s and 70s. Yet that night they were comfortably played and sounded fresh and natural. In a few rehearsals, Widmann had taught a group of Toronto ‘pickup’ musicians to play his works with authority. The techniques demanded by Widman had not been played regulalry in Toronto for nore than 50 years, but had been if you will in the air, allowing succeeding generations to absorb them as if by osmosis. Perhaps this transference defines Array Music’s programme title, Redefining the 20th Century.
ARRAY MUSIC Artistic Director Rick Sacks, stepped forward to welcome the audience and introduce the concert. He was dressed in slacks, dress shirt, tie and jacket, clothes which for him, seemed almost formal. This attire, however, proved to be appropriate given the gravitas of the evening, its music, its performers, guest artist violist Vincent Royer, cellist Émilie Gerard-Charest,* and Toronto’s perennial new music pianist, Stephen Clarke, and the acoustically superb venue of Saint Andrew’s Church, built in 1876 in the Romanesque Revival style, on the corner of King and Simcoe streets in downtown Toronto.
Royer began the concert with Canto del capricorno l and Il by Giacinto Scelsi (1905-88). Playing moderately loud and irregular strokes on a small gong, he entered from just off stage, that is to say, via an open door located mid chancel. After a brief procession, Royer put aside the gong and began a kind of sprechstimme consisting of multi syllabic nonsense constructions. I first experienced these ceremonial or ritualistic devices in the latter third of the 20th century, though at that time, the notation was sometimes of equal or more importance to composers than the effect. There were no programme notes attending, so I am not sure exactly what Royer was vocalizing.
However, I had recorded in Paris some of Scelsi’s songs with my former Nexus colleague, Russell Hartenberger and Japanese soprano, Michiko Hirayama. She had sung Scelsi’s “Capricorno” with 2 percussion, saxophone and electronics at Walter Hall, Toronto in 1981 and had asked us to record with her the next year after a lengthy NEXUS tour of England. As I recall, similar speech sounds dominated the Scelsi songs as sung by Michiko.
As a concert opener, Scelsi’s music and Royer’s rendition were moving and completely convincing. The sprechstimme, was delivered unselfconsciously and without undue labour.
Following were individual works by Royer – a solo titled O Souffle and the duet S’offrir by Gerard-Charest. Played without a pause between them and lasting about one half hour, they were similar in style and content. With the exception of col legno (wood of the bow), these works showcased many traditional bowing techniques.** The works also proved to be subtle tests in ear training. Within the sustainations were sometimes delicate and slow strisciata, up or down slides in pitch. These, among other devices, maintained one’s attention which might otherwise have drifted, so simple the works seemed to be.
During an extended cello ‘coda’ , Royer, who had been seated attentively and directly in front of Gerard-Charest, moved to a group of music stands in order to play the final work on the first half, Manto for solo viola, also by Scelsi. In this 12 minute work, a brief, but startling series of pizzicati, their first appearance on the program, provided a surprising and delightful contrast to the evening’s long tones. A memorable and evocative first half.
After intermission, an exploration of the church catacombs was needed to unearth soloist Stephen Clarke who finally appeared, unruffled and took his seat at the helm of a giant Bosendorfer concert grand – its extra keys provocatively uncovered. With composer Linda Smith as page turner, Clarke prepared himself to play the Horatiu Radulescu (1942-08) 29 minute Piano Sonata 6, Op. 110, “Return to the Source of Light”, whose title was taken from The Tao te Ching of Lao-tzu.
This Sonata could well be a case history for exploring compulsive angst syndrome. The moderately paced, pounding chords of the beginning were sure to end I thought, but no, they went on and on until relieved by what may have been a Romanian folk song. Unfortunately the song, very catchy, was too short lived. It was also written for both hands playing canonicaly o’er top each other. The tempo was extraordinarily fast and when the tune first appeared, even Clarke whose artistic skills reliably re-create some of the most difficult 20th and 21st century piano repertoire, found his fingers interfering with each other, creating an unintended “Here’s the Church, there’s the steeple, open the doors and Ooops”, phalangial faux pas. That part of the work went much better the second time around.
“Return to the Source of Light” is the first work by Radulescu I’ve heard. I hope his journey was a success, either before or after death.
The evening’s remarkably stimulating programme resolved with Scelsi’s Elegia per Ty. This was written for his wife who had deserted him in the 40’s and was never heard from again. Royer played beautifully. The concert with Royer and Charest’s performances greatly improved my appreciation for Scelsi’s music.
Excepting the bio of Stephen Clarke, those by the other performers seemed to run on like Ole Ma Bell’s Yellow Pages. When one is young, one wants to write down everything because everything is important. But there does come a time for thoughtful culling and I think the time has come for them. At any rate they are artists on the go and have done and are doing many positive things. They are both very, very good players.
* Violist Vincent Royer, Cellist Émilie Gerard-Charest occasionally play together, but are not a formally constituted duo. Charest was born in Montreal, Quebec and is presently participating in a month long composer/performer colloquy in Lyon, France. This colloquy will then move to three other European cities.
Born in Strasbourg, Royer studied in Freiburg and Cologne. He is now professor of chamber rmusic at the Conservetoire Royal de Liège in Belgium.
** sulla tastiera (over the finger board), strisciata (slides between notes), strozzata (strangled, choking), sur la chevalet (on the bridge), harmonics and chords in extreme pianissimos or fortissimos. The sounds emanating from these techniques proved a helpful tool for remembering the music. I had to look up all of the bowings in a dictionary.
*** Their compositional devices; glissandi, harmonics, multi-phonics and slowly evolving chords, were frequently used by mid-20th century composers. I cannot now remember who said “good composers borrow, great composers steal”. Thus, restoring old techniques and devices once again proves useful.
Posted by robinengelman on November 20, 2015 in Commentaries & Critiques, Composers, Contemporary Music
Tags: Array Music, Émilie Gerard-Charest, Giacinto Scelsi, Horatiu Radulescu, Jörg Widmann, Linda Catlin Smith, Rick Sacks, Stephen Clarke, Tao te Ching of Lao-tzu, Vincent Royer