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The OCADU Project: Music and Commentary

The Music Gallery
01/24/2011 -  
Peter Hatch: 5 Memos
William Peltier: Summertime for Sex in Woolly Sweaters
Richard Ayres: No. 34B Two Pieces foe Cello and Ensemble
Gerald Barry: Triorchic Blues
Mayke Nas: Douze Mains
Peter Adriaansz: 9 through 99

Anne Thompson (flute), Max Christie (clarinet), Carol Lynn Fujino (violin), Paul Widner (cello), Laurent Philippe (piano), Ryan Scott (percussion)

J. Waring (Courtesy Contimuum Contemporary Music)

With its OCADU project, Continuum Contemporary Music, under its Artistic Director Jennifer Waring, has achieved an intriguing convergence of performance and commentary/criticism.

OCADU is the Ontario College of Art University. The 15 members of a fourth-year course in art writing (in the Criticism and Curatorial Practice Program) were assigned to assess (via recordings) 13 recently-composed works without knowing anything about the background to them. As a result of their comments and critiques, six of the pieces were chosen for this performance by six members of the Continuum Ensemble. The printed program contained a selection of the students’ comments.

It would be interesting to compare a student’s opinion of the first piece on the program (Peter Hatch’s 5 Memos, composed in 2006) after seeing it performed in contrast to simply hearing a recording, as the presentation had a visual as well as aural dimension. For example: the first movement (“In which an image is formed”) begins with the cello playing a ruminative solo while the pianist and percussionist are slumped over their instruments as if asleep. The cello is gradually joined by the clarinet, then flute, then violin, all placed at the rear of the room. The lights went down after each movement (or “memo”), and the start of the following section always presented us with a new stage arrangement.

The second movement (“In which things happen quickly”) is perky and syncopated - a sort of jazz but not of the ingratiating kind. In Part III (“The removal of weight”) the flute is featured while other players mime exaggeratedly slow motion gestures. In the fourth section (“Which gives speech to that which has no language”) the instrumental parts tumble over one another while the percussionist reads out a jumble of words (Gertrude Stein-esque) meant, I am sure, to be not quite heard.

The final section (“Involving a well calculated plan”) starts with a portentous drum roll and then becomes something that could accompany a jaunty cartoon. Players depart one by one, leaving alone the seemingly despondent cellist.

Student comments include “some pretty train wreck”, “a descent into madness” and “dada-like disorientation”.

The second piece was William Peltier’s Summertime for Sex in Woolly Sweaters, also from 2006, for violin and piano. The work features brief, repetitive figures (a technique now so very familiar thanks to the huge wave of minimalism in recent decades) interrupted by periods of silence. The music seems to submerge but continue unheard during the silences. The composer practices what he terms object-oriented composition, thus the reference to a woolly sweater, one of which was placed centre stage.

Student comments include: “sex in woolly sweaters in the summer months wouldn’t be a particularly preferred experience”, and “musical phrases contradict each other”.

The third piece was Richard Ayres’ No. 34B Two Pieces for Cello and Ensemble (composed in 2003). The first part, “Waltz”, was not submitted on a recording to the students as indeed it is unrecordable. It is a lot quieter than Michael Colgrass’s As Quiet As, and only a bit more eventful than John Cage’s famous/notorious4'33". The five players (no piano in this one) sit in silence much of the time. They make us aware of their breathing with sharp inhalations and exhalations, then they shuffle their feet a bit. Finally we get a few scattered notes but these outbursts soon end and the players resume their silence, but are poised as if to play again. I would describe this piece as embryonic.

The second part, called “Wallis (Chorale)” has a rippling, rather Asian quality that seems to beckon from afar. Toward the end a tape is activated, giving realistic sounds of surf breaking on the shore, while the cellist makes seabird noises. It is rather like a postcard appended to an abstract painting. Student comments: “the secret joy of falling angels” and “chaos rises from form”.

The second half opened with Irish composer Gerald Barry’s Triorchic Blues (dating from 1990, the oldest piece on the program). It is a five-minute work for solo piano, and starts out in the instrument’s lowest range with tight figures tumbling over one another. The pianist works his way up the keyboard, then the piece divides in two, each hand playing at the extreme ends of the keyboard, leading to an abrupt end. One student compared it to Samuel Becket’s Play, another to a rock guitarist playing a spontaneous solo. This engaging piece seems intensely pianistic and it is surprising to learn that it was originally composed for the violin. I would be very interested in hearing a paired performance of both versions.

Dutch composer Mayke Nas’s Douze Mains (dating from 2008) is for one piano, 12 hands. It is divided into four sections performed thusly: in “Doc it’s only a scratch - part I” the six performers gather around the piano (lid removed) and, using toilet brushes and other devices, make a range of scratching sounds within the instrument (the sounds are amplified); next, in “What have you done”, the strings are plucked and we actually hear a few notes struck. The third section, “Take it easy”, features percussive rappings and slappings to the piano innards. Finally, “Doc it’s only a scratch - part II” returns us to the earlier scratchings and scrapings. The performers closely followed scores throughout.

Students responses include “like a birthday party of backstabbing girls” and “reminiscent of a horror movie murder scene”. I can’t disagree with the latter. It certainly explores the (limited) possibilities of the piano’s innards. What next? - a piece for violin bow without the violin? (It has probably been done.)

Another Dutch composer (although US-born) is Peter Adriaansz, whose 9 through 99 (dating from 2003) closed the program. All six players play short, repetitious phrases (phraselets really) and gradually increase their tonal ranges as the notes bubble along in a manner reminiscent of Jean Françaix. The sound level is a relentless mezzo forte that over 12 minutes or so laboriously builds to a climax and a final swoosh not unlike a guillotine descending. It’s rather a relief when it ends. Student comments: “like a baby testing his or her curiosity”; “gleeful suspense of child’s play; hide and seek perhaps”. And another: “speeding toward the unknown with the propulsive spirit of an Italian Futurist”.

Like most new music concerts (and many of not-so-new music), the program was a bit of a mixed bag, as were the student critiques/commentaries, which ranged from attempts to closely analyze a piece to stream-of-consciousness impressions. All in all, a valuable exercise in listening and analyzing that can be carried over to ones experience of any type of music.

Michael Johnson



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