Apples and Onions, Sigur Rós and Schöenberg, And The Constant Reinvention Of The Wheel

If you were to bite into an onion and taste an apple I bet you’d have a hard time attenuating your praise for said onion.  You’d also likely experience a rush of emotion akin to relief and make a sound not unlike a bag of cement flying harmlessly past your earlobe.  After all, it’s not everyday one gets to enjoy the sweetness of rosacean nectar while being forcibly fed a bag of onions.

An interesting thing about this language contraption, or rather this contraption we’ve been convinced to call language, is that it’s easy for anyone to contrast a pile of gibberish with perfectly ordered prose and be able to declare with as little hesitation as they have credentials that one is language while the other is a mass of a mess.  A train of thought certainly follows that gibberish is gibberish;  I declare that nothing interesting ever happens on that train.  The real meat of the nectar is to be quaffed by allowing gibberish’s infectious properties to run wild-but-checked like eleventeenth stage compositional cancer.  In the proper context, a raft of flotsam and jetsam can float you over a fourteen volume sea of pages that seem to gesture rudely to the finite by broadening even after the author‘s demise.  As often as not, the word doesn’t exist to elucidate your point and a unique opportunity is to be found in employing the more guttural gestures of the pen when stabbing to the point.  Douglas Adams knew it and addressed it in The Meaning Of Liff.  When supported by well ordered prose, even a flamblastamagoo of characters can have meaning and moreover, can cut to the point faster with the added advantage of personal colour.

In order to keep my curdling brain from melting and pouring out my nostrils, I like to draw parallels between the worlds of text without music and music which sometimes has text.  They often run parallel to one another in facepalmingly conventional ways.  Examples that have at least something to do with what I mentioned above include groups like Sigur Ros‘s untitled album of 2002 being written entirely with an invented language or Arnold Schoenberg‘s not-as-academic-as-you-might-think adventures in pantonality.  The touch of personal color that Sigur Rós and Schoeberg bring to brunch can be as surprising and memorable as onions that tastes like apples and it’s the musical moments where their worlds collide unwholesomely with our own that we have an opportunity to realize that the horizon isn’t as near as we think it is.  There’s an infinite world waiting to be discovered in an immortal and fervent tumble off the edge of the sea.

On April 19th, the Vancouver Chamber Choir will serve up an onion of my own called mother goose’s melody.  I’ll disgorge more details over the coming weeks leading up to the concert as I expect it to be extra sweet.


Vancouver Chamber Choir – Interplay 2012

A naked read, and by that I mean reading music at sight for the purposes of making music rather than noise, can be a stressful situation for everyone involved.  Granted, the performers get an extra hat tip because, after all, they are the ones who have to suffer in the spotlight while the rest of us luxuriate in the shadows.  Usually, the only way to tell we’re even there is a soft weeping sound garnished with tasteful howls of anguish.

You might say that I’ve seen my fair share of painful reading sessions.  Anybody with a degree in music composition is well acquainted with the squirm-in-the-chair-feeling that accompanies pretending what you heard wasn’t a total massacre.  But of course, perfection never comes (Open for debate, I know, but hear me out).  There is always something to tweak.  One of the most valuable insights you can get when you have your music read by a musician made of toenails and organs is whether or not you’ve gassed up enough at this unglamorous pit-stop on the way to performance.

We, the living, don’t have the luxury of having our music proofread again and again by a clamoring mob of pre and post doctoral candidates eager to settle the debate on what Dead Composer X really meant when he wrote the squiggly line next to the dotted ampersand.  An essential part of the craft is getting your scores visually close enough to what’s out there (The reams and reams of music by Dead Composer X in their up-teenth edition) so that the performer can focus less on interpreting your slips of the pen (Slips of the mouse) and more on being in tune, in time, and most important of all: in the moment.

So you can say I’m a little guarded about reading sessions.  Usually they’re less an exercise in music-making and more a chance to go over the fine-tuning of craftsmanship.  To say otherwise is to short-sightedly dismiss the whole rehearsal process and the lifetime a performer spends developing a reliable technique. Thusly, it’s usually best to go in with your expectations focused on kicking the tires rather than chasing that feeling of crossing the finish line in a blaze of glory.  It’s because of this pessimistic, yet arguably practical, outlook that I have the pleasure of saying that I was extra-creamily impressed by the Vancouver Chamber Choir‘s musicianship at their annual Interplay Workshop for composers this morning.  Not only did I get the requisite tire-kicking I craved and an in-depth proof-reading by about twenty professional singers (Shout out to the alto who pointed out my faulty hyphenation of the word angelorum), but I got to hear all my dots arrive in tune and in time.  I couldn’t be more elated.

The choir demonstrating an excellent sitting position for singing 😉

Three other composers with just as many limbs as myself were selected to participate:

In order of most to least hair: Myself, Tobin, Jordan, and Brian.

Brian Tate, director of the City Soul Choir, published composer, and all-round nice guy brought a primal and aggressive setting of Psalm 102 to the table.  Out of all the music we heard today, it was the most challenging read for the sole reason that it moved like lightningIt also featured one of my most favourite potential musical events which can only be found in aggressive, violent music: The cool-down.  Brian wove a spell binding ending that rose up from the baritones to the sopranos in a series of tensions and releases only to leave us hanging by plummeting instantly, much like a feather doesn’t, into a lush and thick D minor.

Tobin Stokes brought a small scale sketch of a larger work to workshop a concept he was working on.  In a nutshell, the men’s and women’s voices moved in mirror image to one another.  The harmonies were unexpected and exquisite.

Jordan Nobles, artistic director at the Redshift Music Society brought what was, to me anyway, the most intriguing piece of the bunch.  Observe:

Jordan has such pretty scores.... I made sure to tell him so.

A lot of Jordan’s music relies heavily on sensitive use of chance devices and this one is very much in that vein.  The idea is that the singers maintain a drone on a ‘g’ throughout the piece and pick from their choice of musical motifs from the page pictured above and sing them out of sync with their neighbours.  If set in motion with minimal direction we get a beautiful bubbling texture that rises in intensity towards a middle point and then fades out to the drone again.  The exact form and shape of the piece is very much up to the intuition of the leader of the ensemble whether that be the conductor or the ensemble members themselves.  Jordan expressed the idea that it should be ritualistic.  That is to say, and I’m probably putting words in his mouth, that a concept for the how the piece is to be shaped could be suggested by the way in which it’s inflicted upon a willing listener.  A performance where the choir starts embedded in the audience would suggest a different approach than one in which they were moving through the audience, or around, or stationed above, or below, or swinging from chandeliers.  The options are multitudinous.

After it was all over, the four of us took part in the ever popular composer ritual of gazing in rapturous amazement at our countless gaffs of engraving: