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Quantity vs Quality

Roy Thomson Hall
03/11/2017 -  
Nicole Lizée: Zeiss After Dark: Sesquie for Canada’s 150th – Black MIDI
Cassandra Miller: Round
Daníel Bjarnason: Emergence

Kronos Quartet
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, André de Ridder (conductor)

A. de Ridder (© Jag Gundu)

This third and final concert of the TSO’s New Creations Festival, featuring three brand new works, opened with yet another of the 40 two-minute sesquies, Zeiss After Dark by Nicole Lizée. “Zeiss” refers to camera lenses used in filming, notably those for a scene lit only by candlelight in the 1975 film Barry Lyndon. The music sets out to create a sonic counterpart to the subtleties of the scene with a set of flowing, shimmering tones. It ends with a thud. How this relates to Canada’s sesquicentennial eludes me.

Cassandra Miller is a Canadian composer studying for her doctorate at the University of Huddersfield, England. The notes accompanying her 10-minute piece, Round, refers to a selection from the writings of Plato on mothers lulling infants by rocking them. She also states that the melody replicates a performance of cello arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Valse sentimentale by Gaspar Cassadó. I never would have guessed. Four trumpet players located in the choir loft play a continuous restless “drone”, the kind of lines that often underlay more eventful orchestral parts, but here sit on top, as it were. Their music swims along with minimal energy, losing momentum, until strings alone take over, a development that comes as a welcome respite. It received a polite reception.

By far the most fully realized work of the evening was Emergence (2011) by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason. The 16-minute work has three movements - “Silence,” “Black Breathing,” “Emergence” - in a slow-fast-slow progression. There’s a lot of moody yet sensuous rumbling, rather neo-Sibelian, maybe what the Finn’s never-completed eighth symphony might have sounded like. The ending comes across more as a submergence. The work has been recorded on the Bedroom Community label and a second one is due on the Sono Luminous label. I eagerly look forward to hearing it again. (And Daniel Bjarnason is scheduled to conduct one of the New Creations concerts in 2018.)

The 90-minute concert ended with a 20-minute electro-acoustic work by Nicole Lizée, Black MIDI for orchestra with string quartet (the ever-venturesome Kronos), and film. Black MIDI is music that results from using a Musical Instrument Digital Interface procedure that can generate music with such a density of notes that the resulting musical score prints out black. A work with billions (yes, billions) of notes can result. The video game industry seems to eat these up.

The object of Lizée’s piece was to combine results from using MIDI with live performers, whose playing must be synchronized with the film and its music, and whose musical output as measured statistically by counting the number of notes, could never hope to match that of MIDI’s electronics. (Conductor de Ridder used a small switchboard to get things going.) The work (including the film) is in eight sections and comes across as more a documentary or teaching aid - and at moments it has a mockumentary feel. Some of the orchestral music has a hoedown sound to it, and both conductor and players stomp their feet at one point.

MIDI was devised in Japan, a renowned generator of much that is new and startling, and is just a few years old. I found Lizée’s piece only partially enlightening. A question arises: with such a quantum leap in sheer musical quantity, is there also a jump in quality? Or perhaps an inverse relationship?

Black MIDI was polarizing. Some audience members fled but were outnumbered by those who stood and cheered. Some people laughed (not disrespectfully).

New Creations returns next year with an eclectic line-up, featuring the winner (not yet known) of a composing competition, plus recent works by James MacMillan, Wolfgang Rihm, Gary Kulesha, Vivian Fung, Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Adams - and more.

Michael Johnson



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