It is Friday, August 11, 2023 and I am in Halifax, Nova Scotia nearing the end of the Opera From Scratch workshop. It has been a very busy, but amazing time. Watching these six mini operas come to life has been a real privilege.
On our first day, Sunday, I got to hear my soloist go through the work. She had done an impressive job learning the piece considering its loose notation and tuning challenges. But from that day to this one, the transformation has been incredible. Fortunately, not many major changes have been needed in my score, just a few adjustments here and there. There was a worry that it may be a bit too long, but that hasn’t been the case. What has been invaluable to me is watching the singers work through the performance aspects of the operas. Finding the “Third Line” and the vocal colour and approach to project that sentiment. Sitting there and watching my soloist and a mentor analyze a musical line that for the most part was instinctively written is very humbling. What this gives me is a new focus on how to approach the art form. When I am writing, I now have another approach to take while making decisions. I have learnt that my instincts are pretty good, but there are always better choices to make. I can improve on my instincts.
We have a couple of days left – today and a short day on Saturday – then the concert on Sunday afternoon. All of the singers are amazing, and they will put on a heck of a show with these incredible works. I can’t wait for it!
So, I have written an opera. A mini one, mind you, just under ten minutes in length. No big cast, just a single soprano and a piano. Maybe that is not what you are expecting when you hear “opera”, but it is one.
Opera is a fascinating art form. It has been dubbed the King of the Arts and is also ridiculed as being overblown and out of touch. The former is quite appropriate as it combines so many disciplines; music, theatre, set design, production and occasionally dance. When all of these elements are mixed together in proper quantities the end result is glorious. With the latter, these complaints can be quite accurate. If the aforementioned quantities are not balanced correctly it can come across as an aggrandizing mess. As for being out of touch, can still bear the mark of an activity for the wealthy. Its traditions can be impenetrable for those not used to them, and for much of its history it was an entertainment for the wealthy classes. A grand opera is notoriously expensive to mount, therefore the average ticket price would be out of touch for a typical middle to lower class individual. That being said, the great operas and their music has permeated the general culture. If you mention opera to anyone on the street I am certain that the first thing the majority will think of is a soprano belting out a warbling tune, or Bugs Bunny in “What’s Opera, Doc?”. The thing is, opera is many different things, especially nowadays. While the older notions of opera on a grand scale still exist at The Met, La Scalla and the COC, there seems to be a renaissance of small scale and adventurous opera happening. This is a personal anecdotal observation, but there seems to be an increased interest among fellow composers to write opera, and an increase in new opera being produced from the large companies to small start-up ensembles. What is happening? When I was grad school over twenty years ago I had a composition professor, who is a very prominent composer, say to me “why would anyone write and opera? It’s like pouring money into a hole?” That is a good point. I think it is something to do with the inherent interdisciplinary nature of the art form, and a comment on where art music and music in general sits in today’s culture. This is a tangent for another blog post.
I am still trying to figure out my relationship with opera. As a composer I have always had a fascination with vocal music and setting text to music. You would think that opera would be a natural extension of this, but it wasn’t. I have always enjoyed it, but it never caught my imagination like other genres did. It may have been the lack of exposure to contemporary operas as a student – I was quite single-minded in my new music approach back then. Seeing Robert Lepage’s production of Blue Beard’s Castle/Ewartung was pivotal to my musical education, and going to see Hans Werner Henze’s Venus and Adonis was simply amazing to see what could be done with movement. I can still see elements of each show in my mind. Also, the idea of writing, then trying to get an opera produced was pretty much a pipe dream for a young composer back then. Everyone was still interested in just doing Donizetti and Mozart. The prof was right, a lot of expense for no payoff.
I was still writing for voice though. Mind you, it was for small-scale interdisciplinary works; music, acting, dance etc. How is this different from opera? Good question! I have written three such pieces: Variations on Gestalt, Tilt!, and River Flow. The thing with each of them that, in my mind, differs from opera is the way the sung text is used. In each work the vocal part works alongside the spoken part, and in a couple of the pieces the sung text acts more as a commentary on the narrative instead of being its driving force. For some people this could be splitting hairs, but it is one of those times where “you know it when you see it.” Between River Flow and this opera, I wrote the song cycle Slagflower Songs. When I finished those pieces, I took a look back at all of this previous work and saw where I was at. I started to think that I could possibly handle an opera. As I have mentioned, the landscape for opera has changed. Opportunities have increased including the Opera From Scratch program of which I am taking part.
Opera From Scratch is a weeklong program in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It has been occurring for a number of years now and a number of the participants are names I recognize. A handful of composers and an equal number of singers are paired of to workshop a newly composed mini opera. The opera has to be on a Nova Scotia subject. The week is full of lessons and rehearsals. It will be awesome! It is now the end of June and I have completed my opera. I wrote it in just under two months. For those two months I thought of very little else. In that time, I had to wrap up my teaching with recitals, exam prep, and prepare a couple of special services for the church where I am music director. A busy time to say the least. So, what is my opera about?
My wife has deep family roots on her mother’s side in Nova Scotia. Some of her ancestors arrived in Nova Scotia as members of the “Foreign Protestants”. These were protestants, mostly Calvinists, leaving continental Europe at the invitation of England. Many were of French or German background. After a harrowing, months-long journey in 1752 they arrived in Halifax and were granted land in what became Lunenburg. I decided to base my opera around this journey, especially since two of her ancestors, the Boutiliers, died on the journey over and were buried at sea leaving their children orphans. I decided to do a bit more research into their story and I came a much more dramatic one.
In the spring of 1791, a trial was held in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Not just any trial but the first murder trial ever held in the village or county. The accused were brothers George and John Boutilier. They were on trial for the murder of Frederic Emondeau “and his family”. As you can tell by the last name, John and George are related to my wife’s family that crossed with the Foreign Protestants. The thing is they murdered three people, not just Frederic. They murdered his wife Elizabeth and their granddaughter Catherine. The only body found was Frederic’s. The farmhouse was burnt down and the two women’s remains were never found. Is this the reason the brothers were only charged with one murder, or is it due to the fact that the women were thought of as property? We can only speculate, but the fact remains that they are not mentioned by name in the court records.
How could I ignore such a juicy and dramatic story! Having a soprano as my partner I created a scene where she is Elizabeth watching the trial proceedings then bringing the audience with her on flashbacks to the events and background. The conceit being that she is in essence a ghost due to her murder, and invisible in death as well as life. The piece is divided into three different alternating sections: the present (trial), a transition, and the past. These sections are differentiated musically by vocal and compositional techniques. The trial is free-form, recitative style, the transition uses Sprechstimme and some extended vocal techniques, and the past is in a more song-like style of singing akin to an aria. Occasionally the lines between the sections blur as Elizabeth revisits that fateful evening and realizes her fate. All the information I have is from research done by Dr. Kenneth Paulson who is also a descendant of the Boutelliers as well as the Emondeus. He has written a book about it and there is a filmed lecture to the Nova Scotia Historical Society.
This has been a fantastic learning experience for me, especially working on my own libretto. When I was younger, I fancied myself a bit of a writer. It was my main creative outlet as a kid. I eventually dove into music and my true calling, but I have never really abandoned it. To all the writers I have worked with, Lawrie, Rae, Tom and others, I salute you and thank you. Your text is so easy to set. Many times I struggled with my own awkward turns of phrase. The workshop week in August will be the real test and I can’t wait for it. I’ll keep you all posted and up to date.
During the height of the pandemic there was chatter within the art world about what affect the lockdowns and health restrictions would have on the art works produced during this time. As my work doesn’t often carry an overt response to current affairs, I noted this conversation with more of a passing interest than a fully engaged debate. That stance has now changed because of my new piece In Tempore Mutationes. It was influenced by, and for the most part exists because of, the pandemic.
May 26, 2020 was the date chosen for the premiere of my short orchestra piece When the Empire Falls by the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Orchestra. I had written the piece several years before and it had sat dormant on my shelf. I had shown it to Matthew Jones, the musical director of the KWCO, and he decided to program it. I was elated as it had been a long time since I had an orchestra perform one of my compositions. The piece uses a South Indian reductive form. To keep the description simple, this musical process introduces new material as it progresses which leaves the listener in a completely new musical place from where they started. Most Western musical forms have a return to the opening material, thereby creating a sense of completion due to familiarity. This form does not do that but uses rhythm and time to achieve a sense of completion. I had been listening to a rock song around the time of composition called All Empires Fall by the Winnipeg band Waking Eyes. That title intrigued me, and it seemed to work well with what was going on in the piece. The complete sense of change due to the formal use of musical material corresponded with the idea in the title about a changeover in a form of ruling class or government. A whimsical notion at best.
Then the pandemic.
We all know what happened to the world of concerts and live performances. The premiere was cancelled of course, and at the time I wasn’t sure what would happen to the piece. I took the time to focus on an upcoming project that became my streamed concert Slagflower and Other Songs that included the premiere of the song cycle Slagflower Songs. All the while, Empire never left me.
There was something about the piece that called out for a musical answer, even if it never did receive a performance; a work that responded to the statement left by this vigorous piece. Its title also worked its way into my craw. Were we, at this time of serious lockdowns, supply-chain disruptions and climate catastrophes experiencing something like an empire falling? If so, what is our collective response? I pulled out a work for choir that I had written around the same time as the original Empire. It was simply titled Lament. It made sense. After a life-altering event our first response is often grief and sadness at the loss of what was. The frenetic energy of the first movement needed a contemplative response. The original choral piece is a setting of the Latin “Lux Aeterna” and a bit of text I had heard from an elderly aunt on news of her sister’s (my grandmother) passing, “My heart is breaking, but I cannot cry”. The music has a slow pace and moves between large clusters, static chords, and a plaintive melodic line. I orchestrated it and then set this combined work aside once more. It was at this point that I realized I was working towards something symphonic. I decided on a four-movement work based on the classical symphonic form. While this form is dated and “old-fashioned” it provides an opportunity for a wide variety of comment and colour. It then turned to the year 2022 and I heard from Matthew that they had programmed Empire for the new season. I informed him of what I had done with the piece during the past two years and my ultimate plans for it.
Now, let me fill you in on something about the typical Canadian orchestra and how they program premieres. It is generally understood by composers that if you are lucky enough to get one of your pieces programmed it would be a five-minute piece placed at the opening of the concert. The overture. Cynically, it is often regarded as a token bit of CanCon that people could miss by arriving late, but just in time for the concerto. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I mentioned my idea to Matt. I remembered him being a good friend to us composition students when we were classmates at Laurier. In fact, he toured a great piece for recorder solo by a classmate far and wide. To my delight he told me my idea sounded great, and said I was allotted twenty minutes. I set to work. How was I going to handle this?
My view about what this piece was, and how I was going to present it had changed. My usual choice of not delving into programmatic music was not possible anymore. The pandemic had changed my art. Instead of an abstract notion of change within a musical form, I was dealing with titles that may have taken on a whole new reality. As I mentioned earlier, I prefer not to work with direct programmatic elements in my music. If I do use descriptive titles, they will hint at notions or suggestions that can be used by the audience to move deeper into the emotional experience of the music. Looking around at the social tensions and polarizations that were intensified by the pandemic situation, I decided to approach the rest of the symphony as a narrative while using the structure of a classical symphony. This meant four movements divided as such: a large opening movement, followed by a slow movement, a faster third movement, then a finale. I had the first two completed that represent the initial societal rupture followed by a period of mourning. For the third movement I chose a classical scherzo as a model. It became a parody of what’s known as a scherzo-and-trio, a classical form in an ABA structure with the middle section being an almost new piece. It was very common for Haydn, Mozart and their contemporaries to use the minuet and trio dance forms in their symphonies. Beethoven altered this into the faster scherzo but retained the dance-like feel in triple meter. The general lighter quality of the form worked as a slight palette cleanser after the grander notions of the first and second movements. I wasn’t going to have any of that. I titled the movement Which Side Are You On? There is confusion, jarring rhythms, noise, and call-backs to the first movement. I do not attempt to answer the question posed in the title. That is for the listener to ponder along with how the question is asked.
For the final movement I wanted to leave the audience with at least a glimmer of hope. It is the shortest piece in the set clocking in at about two minutes. It is titled Into the Unknown (Coda). It is a piece that wraps everything up by launching the orchestra into a glorious fanfare. Where does all this tumult lead? We do not know, but wherever it ends up let’s hope that it is a better place for everyone.
The complete symphony needed a title that reflected this journey. I chose a non-English phrase as it places a bit more distance between the listener and the music, forcing a bit more work in the interpretation of the piece. In Tempore Mutationes is Latin for “In Changing Times”. These are the times we live in, and we need to know how to deal with it whether we choose to change with them or not. Which way will you decide?
The Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Orchestra perform the world premiere of In Tempore Mutationes on October 16, 2022 3pm at Knox Presbyterian Church, 50 Erb Street West, Waterloo, Ontario. Please go to www.kwchamberorchestra.ca for more information. A live stream of the concert will be at the website with donations accepted.
I have come to realize that I was so immersed in the aspect of writing about my personal experience in working on Woman of the Drum that I completely forgot to include the actual poem! I have apologized to Rae and he has graciously forgiven me. Here is the link to The New Quarterly article that Rae wrote that explains his background with the poem, and the poem itself.
The process of rehearsing the piece and introducing it to a group of about 130 people, with some who do not read music, has been a great experience. They understand the objective and appreciate the methods taken even as it pushed them completely out of their comfort zones. Much of this is due to the incredible guidance of the director and leader Debbie Lou Ludolph. Her leadership and gentle steering of this project when it landed on Inshallah has been inspiring to say the least. If my previous post discussed my journey during the writing stage, it has continued in a similar fashion during the production and rehearsal. My hat is off to everyone involved: Rae, Debbie Lou, Inshallah, Kelly and Mino Ode Kwewak N'Gamawak. It is going to be a wonderful afternoon of singing and celebrating.
Singing With Our Neighbours, Knox Presbyterian Church, Waterloo ON Sunday, March 24, 3PM entry by donation.
For the past 18 months I have had the great honour of working on a unique piece of music entitled Woman of the Drum. It will see its premiere on March 24, 2019 at Knox Church, Waterloo when it will be realized by Mino Ode Kwewak N’Gamawak (Mino Ode for short) and Inshallah Singers. A collaboration with poet Rae Crossman, it is a tribute to indigenous elder Jeanne Becker. Rae wrote the poem in honour of Jeanne after she had a serious illness. Years earlier he had participated in a drum making workshop that was organized by Jeanne and it had a profound affect on him. He had always felt that the poem would work well set to music and he approached me not long after our earlier project, River Flow, had been finished. Jeanne was the founder of Mino Ode and Rae wished to involve them. When he mentioned this fact to me, I took a deep breath, then I said yes, of course. Why the deep breath? Mino Ode is an indigenous drum group and Indigenous Relations within Canada are at a very interesting time. I am very supportive of indigenous rights and the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions calls to action, but at the same time there are very serious questions being asked in the arts community in regards to appropriation and use of voice. I took on the project out of my trust in Rae and Kelly Laurila of Mino Ode. This post is about the how this piece came about. Besides being an interesting compositional journey, it has been an interesting journey for me as an artist making choices in the country’s cultural landscape. Before I talk about the actual process I need to talk about some of my cultural viewpoints.
The colonial cultures of North America (now predominantly Canada and the United States, but also including white Latin America) have a long tradition of absorbing indigenous cultures and using their symbols. This was often an attempt to create a separate identity from the mother countries and a romanticized view of preserving dying nations. Examples are the use of totem poles throughout the continent when they are specific to the Pacific Northwest, and the rise or Redman Societies – groups of white men from the upper classes who would dress in stereotypical native “garb”. While in some ways they may have felt they were “honouring” these nations, it was, and is, in fact, turning them into an other, a curiosity, and laying claim to their cultural agency. While this “red facing” has had a long and slow dying away along with its unseemly brethren black-face and yellow-face, the prejudice in performance and art creation can persist.
The recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has had a deep effect on the arts community. It has exposed long standing situations of cultural appropriation and inspired many non-indigenous artists and arts groups to reach out in an attempt of inclusiveness and cultural support. While the latter is to be commended and is most often done in a spirit of altruism, it can have the effect of accentuating long standing issues if the artist is not aware of the colonial history involved; it becomes cultural appropriation done in the name of good intentions. An eagerness to be involved, and to show an alliance with the cause of indigenous rights can strip the group that is being supported of all agency and remove their own voice. It is the power imbalance in a saviour complex. The settler has their own way of doing things and control most of the resources. This can lead to a situation of them speaking on behalf the Indigenous group and explaining how they themselves have been transformed by the process. It becomes all about the settler’s experience. The settler’s experience once again. There is a great forum on the CBC Radio One program Ideas where theatre artist Jani Lauzon, documentary filmmaker James Cullingham, and CBC host and journalism teacher Duncan McCue discuss collaborating with indigenous and non-indigenous teams. What struck me the most -- and has been supported in my experiences from earlier work -- was the cultural differences in how the hierarchies of a team, and the work silos must be approached in a completely different way. As a composer raised and trained within the European classical tradition, the idea of the great individual artist reigning supreme over their work is firmly ingrained within the culture. In the last fifty years or so this philosophy has formed cracks with the resurfacing of improvised music, aleatoric music and artist collectives; but the individual creator still carries an enormous weight. The composer decides what is to be done, the performer takes those instructions and produces the art. It is an understood partnership with clearly defined roles.
What happens when this system encounters another way of doing things? Especially when it is a culture that has been invisible but in plain sight for centuries; a culture lived by people who we assumed were one of us. These are not people from the other side of the world. It can be disorienting. Mino Ode Kwewak N’Gamawak -- The Good Hearted Women Singers – is a song circle. They formed as a way for indigenous women in the community to gather together, to share songs and to heal. The individuals involved often come from backgrounds where they have experienced racism, trauma and cultural denial. They sing songs that have been shared with them and they have a distinct way of using the songs for engaging with their traditions and assisting with spiritual healing. In recent years they have taken on a larger community presence that includes engaging with events and being guests at concerts.
Talking with Kelly Laurila, the group’s song carrier, I became aware of the community events that were successful and the ones that were not. There were some that were an awful experience for the group. In those cases there were experiences of tokenism and expectations to just fit in with the event with no understanding of how Mino Ode would want to perform or to what requirements they may need. The organizations inviting Mino Ode expected them be like any other musical guest from a settler tradition. They were expected to come in and set up, then do their set and go home. With Mino Ode the songs are approached much differently. When they sing they use the space in a particular way and it may not conform to a traditional concert. It can include a smudging ceremony. Many of these songs have a spiritual significance. We also cannot ignore the racial situation. There is an unconscious imbalance of power whenever there is a gathering of white people and indigenous people. It has been there for hundreds of years whether we like it or not. This is White Privilege. What is the secret to the successful partnerships? The answer is something as simple as communication.
When Kelly, Rae and I were meeting to discuss the work we spent hours just talking about expectation. For me it was a time of just listening. As I listened, that small unsettled feeling of being pushed into an uncomfortable zone crept up on me. It was coloured a touch by the issue which caused my quick intake of breath I mentioned earlier. How was I going to write a piece for a European choir and a drum circle of the type as Mino Ode without cramming them into a position that denies their agency and the power of what they do? I also did not want to take their songs and use them for my own purposes like so many other acts of appropriation. I have sung along with Mido Owe at different events and recognize some of their songs, but I do not know how to use them with the respect they deserve. It would be with the utmost arrogance to tell them what to sing and how, per my tradition, when they have their own way of using the songs. On the other side of the coin I had a choir that was looking tom me to give them notes and to inform them on how to sing them. They wanted me to do my job. Fortunately, I enjoy a creative challenge.
An important historical document informed my creative approach. It is the Two Row Wampum,
the first treaty between an indigenous nation in North America and a European nation. The Two Row Wampum was presented to the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam by the Haudenosaunee in 1613 as an agreement on how to work together. At its core is the metaphor of two vessels sharing a waterway but not interfering with the steering each other’s vessel. This treaty has influenced indigenous and settler relations ever since. Using this image of separate but together helped me over the hurdle of stealing the voice of the drum group. I decided to just let the drum group do what they do best. I would not compose for them at all. This doesn’t let them off the hook entirely because what they choose to do has immense impact of the entire piece.
The choir is where I have my comfort zone so I composed only for them, but with a wrinkle. I did not want the two groups singing completely by themselves as that would not work with the project. The choir part is scored without rhythm or bar lines, just stemless notes. While the pitches are in a C major of the page the pitches are to be transposed to whichever key the drum circle’s song is in. This goes as well for the piece’s rhythm, tempo and general feel. The choir is required to really listen and pay attention to what and how the members of the drum circle are singing to understand how they are to proceed. Structurally, it is divided between a main choir and a SATB quartet. The drum circle sings a few rounds of a song, then the choir sings a section. The drum circle finishes its song and the choir takes over again. At the end, they all come together to sing a final drum circle song. What is happening is a moment of reconciliation. The choir need to meet the drum circle on the drum circle’s own terms. They must listen to what is being given and incorporate what they have heard into their own decisions.
As one can see, the Two Row Wampum metaphor doesn’t completely fit by the end. Kelly shared an Annishnaabek teaching of the braid. Simply put, when we all come together we can not be broken. The braid is stronger than its individual parts.
Working on this project has been a very enlightening experience and one that helped answer my own artistic questions in the ongoing debate about what appropriation is and what it is not, and the role and responsibilities of the colonist in modern Canada. This will be a steady journey of always learning about our relationships by communicating and treating each other with the respect and compassion that we all deserve.
The following article appeared in the March/April 2017 edition of The Music Times. While the byline in the paper is my name, the article was written by both myself and Rae Crossman.
“The same man can not step into the same river twice.” This idea, attributed to Heraclitus, serves as the epigraph for the interdisciplinary performance work River Flow: Confluence of Music, Words and Dance that will be premiered in Cambridge on April 1, 2017 at the Cambridge Centre for the Arts. What is a river? Where does it begin? Does it end? These questions and more have been explored by the writer Rae Crossman, choreographer Michele Hopkins and myself, composer Owen Bloomfield with the generous support of a Waterloo Region Arts Fund grant and the Cambridge Centre for the Arts.
The image and symbol of a river permeate every aspect of the human condition. Writers and artists have used it since ideas were first recorded. It courses through our lives both the same and different all at once. It rages and slows. It nourishes life and takes it away. Human existence has relied upon rivers for physical, spiritual and economical sustenance. Living in the watershed of a Canadian Heritage Waterway, and the ongoing controversies about water resource management, we felt the time was right for an exploration of this kind.
While we originally conceived the piece as an expression of the fluid dynamics of a river, we soon recognized that there were biological, social, and political currents that needed to be voiced as well. As residents of this watershed, we were particularly conscious of the early presence of indigenous people in the region. In addition, we were aware of the political situation with respect to land grants and claims along the river. While River Flow is not specifically about the Grand River and its contentious history, the piece does address differing cultural perspectives in relation to attitudes towards nature and the course of life along rivers shaped by politics.
We have created an aural and visual experience through words, music, and dance movements that will invite the audience to consider their relationship to rivers and the surrounding natural landscape.
Step into the river
Feel the current flow around you
Quickening the senses
Buoying the spirit
Lifts and carries you
Sweeps you away
River in the blood
Collaborative work by its nature can be both challenging and rewarding. River Flow is a true collaborative work with completely original text, music and choreography. Creative ideas were generated together as a group. Sometimes the text inspired the dance, then an idea for dance inspired the music. “I have often worked with composers, but this has been my first experience working collaboratively with a choreographer,” states Rae Crossman. “The tri-part creative process has generated ideas that may never have surfaced had we been working independently. This is what we had hoped for, of course, and we’re pleased that the process has been both productive and collegial.” For myself, as a composer, this is the first time I have written music to text still being produced. The typical process of composing with text is to work from words that have already been set down, often as a poem existing in its own form, separate from music. In this case the text was being produced while I was composing. A large outline was created by three of us. Rae would write a section and forward it on to me and I would begin composing the music. I would bring a sample to the group and receive feedback and adjustments would be made. These conversations would be greatly inspirational and influence later sections mostly due to the element of Michele’s ideas for choreography. She had to wait for us to finish before she could begin choreography in earnest. That being said, her visions of how a scene could be realized were inspirational to how my creative process has worked. This process of free-sharing of ideas has produced a piece that is still changing as it goes into rehearsal and production. How it will end is still to be determined. This has been a dynamic and extremely fruitful partnership. Creativity in flux, as Heraclitus might observe.
The music and speaking parts will be performed by the group SlanT, comprised of Marion Samuel-Stevens, soprano, Tilly Kooyman, bass clarinet, Owen Bloomfield, piano, and Rae Crossman, actor/speaker. SlanT’s interdisciplinary productions blend chamber music, opera, music theatre and performance art. We have previously mounted Tilt! an interdisciplinary work created by myself and Yukon writer and artist Lawrie Crawford. In addition, the group has performed Peter Skogaard’s Songs of Skywoman in collaboration with the Good Hearted Women. For River Flow, SlanT will be joined on stage by two professional dancers and dance students between the ages of nine and nineteen from Michele Hopkin’s Acadamie Ballet Classique. This youthful element is very exciting and we hope that the children involved will be able to take away with them a unique artistic experience and the messages of conservation, humanity and timelessness that are at the core of the work.
River Flow will be performed on April 1, 2017 in the Toyota Room at the Cambridge Centre for the Arts, Dickson Street, Cambridge. Shows at 1pm and 3:30pm. There will be a question and answer session with the creators following each show. Tickets $20 adult $15 children, cash only.
I only became familiar with Rae Crossman’s writing after I had worked with him as a performer. He performed the speaking role in Tilt!, written by Lawrie Crawford and for which I wrote the music. We later worked together on Peter Skoggard’s Songs for Skywoman. During this time, I discovered that he is a poet and had worked with R. Murray Schafer. His poems immediately pulled me in. They have a sense of phrasing and evocativeness that belies a musicality. It is obvious that the sound of the poem is important. These works need to be spoken as much as to be read, if not more so. This, of course, means being sung. His words flow easily and call for melody. A distinct feature of Rae’s work is the constant presence of the natural world. Lakes, streams, the boreal forest, fauna, all play a major role. The images and themes bring me back to my childhood and youth in Northwestern Ontario. While I was never the nature child, that world was ever present in how you lived your life. All activities seemed to take place near the lake and the forest’s edge was always nearby and part of your subconscious being. We are formed by our geography and these poems spoke deep to that form of my being.
The first poem of Rae’s which I set was When the Ravens Descend for Bohlen-Pierce tuned clarinet duo and soprano. It describes the last moments of a deer being hunted by a pack of wolves from the deer’s perspective. The poem is fairly graphic in its description of the deer’s demise and is unflinching in its investigation of the process of death. While dramatic it is not melodramatic, allowing us to witness a natural act and ponder our own journey towards the inevitable. Life and death can be ugly. This uncomfortable scene and topic seemed perfect for the use of the Bohlen-Pierce tuning system, an unfamiliar and eerie sound to the uninitiated.
Still in the Current also dwells upon passing away from life, but in a more peaceful and meditative state. The narrator is considering his place in the natural order of things and sees his dying as a transfer back into the earthly system. He asks for his ashes to be floated on the river and to feed it and its living things. He feels his energy “deep in the pulse” of the waters. “God” is found in nature as the traditional trappings of a funeral (priest, prayers, eulogy and song) are all interpolated into natural symbols. There is reflection, melancholy but a peacefulness that assures the reader that all is right in the world even when he is gone. The poem ends with the invocation of what is truly the greatest image of the wild we have, a loon’s call. There is nothing more haunting, but at the same time more spiritually transporting than the call of the common loon at twilight.
Rae had told me that the poem has been read a few times at funerals and memorial services. My first inclination was to write something that would be transmutable and portable. At one time a solo voice piece and another something accompanied if need be etc. I ended up setting it for SATB choir for a competition. At the request of Amanda Brunk, director of the Grand Philharmonic Youth Choir, I wrote in a tenor saxophone part for the logistics of a performance. This has worked out very well. It was a challenge at first as how to write a new instrument into a fully composed a cappella piece. I looked at the idea of river in the text and the saying that you cannot stand in the same river twice. While the choir is fixed the sax is variable. It has freely notated sections along with fully composed sections and areas for improvisation. The choir and sax are the two forms of the river; always the same but always different.
I now have the pleasure of working with Rae in a fully original project where he will be writing original texts directly for my original music. These pieces will then be danced to with original choreography by Michele Hopkins. It is a very exciting project. Stay tuned for Spring of 2017.
This Saturday, November 2, at the Dunfield Theatre in Cambridge, Ontario the Cambridge Concert Band directed by Brent Rowan will be premiering my new piece Convergence. It was written especially for the band and is in commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the creation of the City of Cambridge.
Celebrations and other commemorative events have been quite muted. Granted, a fortieth anniversary is not as big a deal as a fiftieth or hundredth but it is usually marked as a special event. The reason for the lacklustre response to the occasion, in my opinion, is that the amalgamation was a shotgun wedding. In 1973 the communities of the Village of Hespeler, Town of Preston and City of Galt along with the tiny village of Blair were forced by the Province of Ontario to amalgamate. There are still very bitter divides. Long-time residents still hang on to the old jurisdictions and newcomers, like myself, learn very fast in which one they live. The city bureaucrats try their best to assuage the residents. This city of around 100,000 people has three downtowns, two Santa Clause parades and two hockey associations all set up on the old geographic boundaries. How do you acknowledge this while celebrating an important historical event?
For Convergence, I have used a form that has become almost my default. It is a South Indian reductive form that alternates thematic material in a mathematical way. While I use it in a Western European context and not in its pure Indian one, the spirit and recognisability of the form is there. Convergence has three themes, each to ostensibly represent the three main municipalities. One is a melodic event, one a mostly rhythmic one and the other a large choral sound. These themes are tossed around each other almost never occurring at the same time. As the piece progresses, each reiteration of the themes becomes shorter until they collide into what I referred to at a rehearsal as a “soup”. When the mora (A term for part of the form. It is analogous to a final cadence or coda but not truly so.) arrives the themes have sorted themselves out of the “soup”. They are sounding clearly together but still are distinct. I liken it to the wampum belts used at early treaties. Two peoples travelling side by side but in each of their own canoes. I never mention which theme is Galt, which is Preston, or which is Hespeler because I never decided for myself and I think it is best that way. I also like to think that the piece can travel beyond this specific idea of locality and be a convergence of many other things; even just a convergence of musical ideas.
This piece is the most programmatic I have written in a very long time and that includes my stage works like Variations on Gestalt and Tilt! I learned early on in my career how a programme can severely overshadow the music. That being said, this programme and the form and occasion have come together nicely to give me this opportunity to create something; my comment on coming together.
Tomorrow (Sunday) morning the musicians at the church for which I am music director will present a mass setting I have recently completed. This is very exciting but also slightly nerve-wracking. I am very experienced presenting new compositions of mine so why would this be different? The congregation is very supportive of anything I do and have heard some of my compositions before, but this is different because the texts come are written by me and represent my own personal theology.
Being the music ministry leader for a fairly progressive Christian congregation can have its challenges. While we have a great roster of songs and hymns to choose from there are limitations. St. Matthias does contemporary worship. We use a digital piano with guitar as our base with violin providing melodic support and djembe, when needed, as a rhythmic one. The thing is, most music written for this style comes from the evangelical/fundamentalist tradition. While the music may be fun and uplifting the texts do not fit our congregation’s theology. There are gems to be found but a lot of searching needs to be done. The situation is more difficult when looking for settings of the mass. To be more accurate, the situation is hopeless.
Being an Anglican congregation, St. Matthias has Eucharist every week. We have a Sanctus that we have been using for about twelve years. It is easy and nice to sing. The text has been altered a number of times to suit our needs and the rest of the setting isn’t even done anymore. We use many other settings with wonderful modern language but they are not sung and we like to sing. I have been hunting for texts to set for ages but have come up empty handed. The reason, I believe, is a modern avoidance of verse.
The traditional settings have a sense of meter even if it is not at first apparent. I first discovered this when composing a setting of the Beatitudes for my cantata a number of years ago. I used the revised standard version of the text and what I found was that when I set music to the first section the remaining sections fit the music with hardly any adjustment on my part. It was absolutely beautiful. Modern prayers, collects, statements etc. seem to be obsessed with prose. While that is fine in and of itself the lack of meter betrays natural rhythms and beat. This is my problem with setting them. Modern paraphrases of the Lord’s Prayer for example, while showing a wonderful understanding of the theology read more like a paragraph than a lyric poem. I love modern poetry but these don’t work for my purposes. To fulfill my needs, I was left with writing my own texts and baring my private theological musings.
The impetus for completing this came from the decision of the congregation to vacate the building we have been in for about thirty years. It was to be a fast move and I felt something musical should be done to commemorate this event. I decided to put my ideas of a modern mass setting into action. I had been doodling and sketching for quite a while so it wasn’t as dire as it may have looked. My original plan was to do an evening service before the church was turned over to common use but that was changed due to logistical and preparation issues. This altered my original outline a tad but probably for the better.
In the setting I use a Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus, Lord’s Prayer, something like an Agnus Dei and a Blessing. The texts are all paraphrases or interpretations of English translations of the ancient ones. For the most part I hue closely to the meter and phrase structure of the originals. The Lord’s Prayer is almost a direct mapping.
Never before have I put my deepest spiritual thoughts on display. I know many people won’t agree with them, but that is the nature of these things. Others may appreciate them. The musicians I work with have been extremely supportive and game for taking this project on with such a short time line. For that I am truly grateful.
All texts by Owen Bloomfield unless otherwise noted.
Let there be mercy.
Let there be mercy upon me
and from me.
Glory to God
here on Earth!
Let there be peace amongst all people.
We give thanks for the Spirit amongst us
and glorify its presence.
We follow in the path of Jesus
who showed us a better way
to reclaim the light in ourselves.
We give thanks for him in the Glory of God.
Holy, holy, holy
the Earth sings of glory
bounding with new life!
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is the one
who comes in the name of God!
Hosanna in the highest!
For the Journey(source unknown)
For the journey that life has been.
For all that life is for us now,
and for the mystery of life beyond death.
This great Compassion within and without us
is sacred in our world.
A day will come
when the world is one
and peace is shared by all.
Let us be so filled in body and soul
that we may forgive and love ourselves
as well as those who harm us.
Let the wisdom
carry us through our trials
and sustain us to our end.
Go Now in Peace
Go now in peace
Walking in the light of God.
It has been some time since my last post. I have had many thoughts to share but never the time to sit down and write. Now is the time.
Since January I have been to four orchestral concerts by three different groups. They all have been markedly different. Interestingly, the difference has been in the moment spent as an audience member in the hall taking it in and what my perceptions and expectations would be and what they were.
Trish and I have a small subscription to the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra. Earlier in December I heard their performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. It was billed as Edwin and Gustav. Edwin being Edwin Outwatter the orchestra's amiable young conductor. We also got to hear the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa during a vacation to the capital in March. We heard a Haydn symphony, Shostakovich Cello Concerto and Brahms Fourth Symphony. We were then back in Kitchener just last Saturday to hear a whole lot of J.S. Bach, Copeland's Music for Theatre and Cameron Carpenter's The Scandal with the composer on organ. In late February my mother and I attended a concert by the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra. We heard Sibelius Danse Macabre, Grieg Piano Concerto and Saint-Saens Organ Symphony.
Clearly the KWSO and NACO are in a different league than the CSO. The CSO is, as far as I know, entirely amateur, but I believe I enjoyed their concert the most. I am not meaning to sound snobbish in my statement but maybe I am. Were there mistakes? Absolutey. Were there tuning issues? You bet. Then what was it?
First off, I would like to discuss the two professional orchestras' performances. I am very much used to the KWSO and the way Maestro Outwatter works. He is very chatty from the stage and attempts a sense of informality at the concerts. All in all it works fairly well. Of the two concerts the second one -- with Cameron Carpenter -- worked a lot better though it may have been less ambitious. The Bach D Major Orchestral Suite and Ricicarre arranged by Webern sounded wonderful. The Copeland Music for Theatre was a real treat to hear. It is essentially a symphony dressed up in a jazz outfit. Carpenter was fun to watch but his piece was a half hour of well orchestrated trifle. In the end an entertaining evening easy on the ears and mind. I had more issues with the Mahler concert. Firstly, it came across as a concert all about Edwin Outwatter. The poster for the concert had photos of both Mahler and Outwatter. The way they were positioned it looked like old Gustav peering over the young conductor's shoulder. After a small piece by Schubert (Entr'act from Rosamund) we had a fifteen minute powerpoint presentation about Outwatter's love affair with the music of Mahler and the thematic elements of the symphony. Now I am all in favour of educating audiences but I personally do not care about his/her musical fantasies. Maybe it was the only way he could convince the board of governors to approve of his wish to program the piece. Now I am sounding a little glum here. The reason being I went away feeling underwhelmed. The performance was adequate. I have heard the KWSO perform Mahler a couple of times now and either I don't think they have what it takes to pull it off or I don't care for Mahler symphonies. I am beginning to think it is both. In summary for the KWSO the concerts were good. It is nice for Trish and I to get out and hear some music. In June I get to hear Beethoven's second piano concerto and Berlioz's Fantastic Symphony. I know the Berlioz like the back of my hand. I will fill you in on how it goes.
Now off to Ottawa. During the March Break Trish and I headed away together for a few days sans enfants to the nation's capital. On our last night there we took in the NACO conducted by guest Fabien Gabel with cello soloist Johannes Moser. This was old-school concert going. Not a single word from the podium. The orchestra looking very prim. Moser had his top button undone in a nod to informal hipness, but the soloist are allowed that concession now. He has nothing on Carpenter though who sported a Mohawk and wore tight fitting black shimmery pants. As I told Trish afterwards the image of Cameron Carpenter's tiny and sparkly rear-end mosying off stage after two encores is permanently burned into my mind. As for the NACO orchestra, their playing was beautiful. The Shostakovich rocked and the Brahms was sublime. Southam Hall has very cramped seating compared to Centre in the Square. But to tell you the truth I missed the stage chatter. There was something cold and detached about the whole performance.
Which brings me to the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra. It was in the sanctuary of Central Presbyterian Church. The audience members in the front row were pretty much reading the music on the stands of the string players. We were sitting in the balcony above the double basses because there wasn't enough room on the floor. The concerts are not ticketed. Admission is pay what you can. This is not the most ideal situation to be in. As mentioned earlier, the performance was rough in parts but the quality of the playing has grown exponentially. So what made it so enjoyable? The energy in the room and the passion of the players. I haven't been able to get to many CSO concerts but whenever I do I am always taken by the spirit of the band. I always try to convey to my students that what matters the most is the conviction you bring to the performance. Accuracy is very important or course but I prefer to hear a few wrong notes played musically than the exact ones as an after thought. Another advantage of the Cambridge concert was the intimacy of the performance space. It was almost like chamber music. I also cannot take anything away from the fact that this is my city's orchestra. Colleagues of mine were on stage.
The lesson I have taken from all of this is to be aware of your biases and perceptions. It is good to remind oneself to always go in with eyes and ears open.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.