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.
My father passed away the morning of October 29, 2012. He had received a diagnosis of lung cancer in early March but had been doing well with it. His hip, which he had been complaining about for years, finally shattered earlier in his final week and he was being treated for the pain with morphine. He slowly began to sleep more and more often until finally he stopped breathing. It was rather sudden and shocking. As a family we came to terms with it by agreeing that if he had remained alive he would have been in an awful state of pain and psychological discomfort from being bedridden.
My sister Gwen and I gave a joint eulogy with each of us presenting slightly longer reflections. My dad's long time friend Wayne McCallum gave his own eulogy and my niece Abigail Bloomfield read a lovely poem she wrote a couple of days before. Here is my eulogy for my dad.
There are so many memories, thoughts and feelings swirling through my mind that to attempt to catch them like so many fireflies in the night defies any possibilities. The best thing to do is to grab one, let it glow then release it to the air and then see which one comes around next.
The first one that comes is sharing a laugh with dad. He had, for me, the most incredible sense of humour. It is probably the one trait above all that I admired most. It could be a strange sense of humour, occasionally black and biting, but I found it incredibly amusing. He wasn’t really a joke teller, but he had an ability to make a sharp comment or off-hand remark that cut to the core of the conversation at hand. He would then seal it with a certain look on his face followed by his great laugh. Sometimes it was inappropriate but that just made it even more funny. What was wonderful to see was my mom’s appreciation of his sense of humour. She would chuckle or laugh along even if she knew she shouldn’t. If ever she didn’t like what was said she would scold him with her “Oh, Dennis!” and dad and I would just laugh some more. At the same time though, dad loved mom’s humour. Mom has a pretty dry sense of humour too and he was her biggest fan. I like to think I inherited this trait and many of my friends would probably agree with me. I also have a suspicion it has been passed on to my own children.
Dad and I both really enjoyed reading the Far Side cartoons. We would be reading it and be almost in tears laughing. My Grandma Cook, who lived with us, couldn’t for the life of her understand what was so funny. For her it must have been like trying to find a chair funny. Of course this made us find the situation even more hysterical. While she didn’t get the jokes in the cartoon she was a great sport about it all.
If there is any one thing I’ll truly miss it will be sitting around my table in Cambridge after dinner with Trish, mom and dad and a rum and coke chatting about daily life and having a good laugh.
Dad wasn’t a church-going person by any stretch of the imagination. He’d go when duty called and when he wanted to. But he was a religious person. Whenever he took to something he did it religiously with a lot of consideration and dedication. He was religious in his spirituality. He didn’t talk much about it but it was something I gleaned from him. I am not bringing this up because it is a religious service we are at in a church but because I think it is integral to who his is and what it influenced in me. Living away from Dryden like I do has meant that for the last 15 years my visits with my parents have been short and intense. I feel that I have gotten to know my dad more in these past years than at any other time in my life and I have learned valuable lessons about life in this span that are practised each and every day. My dad was a man of simple needs, his only splurging being on cross-country ski equipment and his Jettas. He lived by a simple code: treat everyone, no matter of their station in life with respect and dignity, and everyday give thanks for your blessings and spare a thought for those with less than you. These are simple suggestions but hard to carry out. I have witnessed my dad put them to practical use with humbleness and integrity. His summation of the Christian faith was “We’re all in the same boat.” Many people talk about the natural world being their church and go out looking for God in the trees and lakes. For dad this was a reality. Being on the ski trails with the moose and wolves, watching a mighty Northern river roar down a chasm, feeding his birds and watching them flock together, he wasn’t looking for God he knew he was witnessing and being a part of God.
While I know he was brought down by his diagnosis as anyone would be, I was moved by his stoicism and the grace with which he carried himself through this time. There were no heroics and no self-pity or anger. He knew the end was coming and was happy with the life he had led and the blessings he had received. For me, he presented a model to strive for in times of personal adversity. I know it sounds like I am portraying my dad like some sort of saint. As everyone here knows well he was by no means a saint! But he is my dad whom I love so dearly and will miss terribly. I am so proud of whom he was and thankful for the gifts that he gave me that allowed me to become who I am today. In 2004 at my parent’s 40th wedding anniversary I was moved to write a poem to share at the celebrations which expressed these sentiments. I would like to share it with you again.
Within a blink of an eye
that lasts a lifetime,
time passes by
the ghosts of the present
in its endless search of those yet to come,
leaving us to collect the riches
left upon our private trail.
We journey on,
but never forget our spring.
It will never run dry as it
nourishes the future
with its own mysteries of the past.
That is why we all return with
our treasures, which belong to you
In a flurry of red and gold
we tell you of our love
from four decades of
but also letting us
search out our own pathways.
With the air crisp with promise
we head forth once again, and for that
we thank you.
Prowling through Facebook tonight I discovered the news that Hans Werner Henze has died today. It always gives me pause when a prestigious composer passes away, especially one whose music has touched you. To be truthful I don't know a lot of Henze's music. I know of him more by reputation than anything else. That being said what music I have heard has stayed with me most of all his opera Venus und Adonis. Trish and I saw it in 2001 performed by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. It was one of those events that stays with you for the rest of your life. I couldn't relate the plot to you, but the music, visuals and costumes were astounding. The actors/dancers on stilts portraying the mating stag and doe are but one example. While it sounds outlandish in print it was mesmerizing and beautiful to see. Total theatre. Trish still talks about the performance to this day.
Trish and I headed out to hear the opening concert of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra back on Saturday, September 22. It has taken me this long to get to a review because Trish came down with that horrible cold that is making the rounds and working and taking care of two kids keeps one away from these kinds of pursuits. I hope I recall what I want to because I came out of the show with some very strong opinions.
The concert was billed as Ode to Joy, Ode to Kitchener in celebration of the city's centennial, and in honour of the region's German heritage a good dose of classic Beethoven was in order. The Symphony No. 9 was the second half of the bill and the first half was taken up by two recent compositions; Stewart Goodyear's Count Up and John Estacio's Brio. When I choose which concerts to attend throughout the season I always lean towards the ones that programme some new music. This concert was unique in that it had two new pieces. While neither was a premiere, it is a little different to have two on the bill. While John Estacio is no stranger to K-W audiences, Stewart Goodyear as a composer would be. He is a well known concert pianist but has just started a composing career. The rationale for these two pieces being on the programme was their connection to Ontario and John Estacio being a graduate of Wilfrid Laurier's music program. I found it a bit peculiar that with all the talent in the region that no money was found for a centennial commission from a local composer.
I'll begin with the Beethoven since that is what most of the audience was there to hear. It was well done but in a typical manner. The choir was outstanding. It was a joining of forces from the Menno Singers, Da Capo Chamber Choir and the Grand Philharmonic. The diction was superb and sound impeccable. They were the true stars of the night. I'm not sure what the soloists were up to though. The gentlemen were ok but the soprano and alto? I'm not sure what concert they thought they were at. At times the trio sounded like complete mush. A great disappointment. Maestro Outwater's tempo choices at the finale were interesting to say the least. I got the impression he wanted the concert to be over so as to get the soloists off the stage. The finale was so rushed I could hardly catch my breath let alone the choir. Maybe he thinks fast means exciting? It is interesting to compare this finale to the one he conducted of the Seventh Symphony at the end of last year. In that performance he rocketed through the finale at break neck speed. I was wondering if he was trying some one-upmanship with Gustavo Dudamel and his recording with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Now that's fast but invigorating! (here's a youtube clip of them performing the Allegro of the Shostakovich Tenth)
Goodyear's Count Up! opened the concert. It was written for an anniversary of the Cleveland Symphony. The title alludes to the counting ahead of a fireworks display. It was suitably celebratory in that American orchestral fanfare way: brassy, tonal, lots of percussion with a wink to some abstraction. All in all not a bad piece but nothing to make me too interested in his compositional career.
Which brings me to John Estacio's Brio. Estacio is one of Canada's most performed composers. He leads a successful career and has spent much of the past years working on operas that have had some nice success. He writes in a very comfortable and populist style and orchestrates very colourfully. In introducing the piece Maestro Outwater referred to him as "one of Canada's leading composers." If that is so, this piece is a severs let down. Now, I've sat through many bad pieces in my lifetime. As a student you become enured to it. But to hear a piece at this level, by this experienced a composer, be so derivative and cliche ridden it becomes embarrassing. Estacio has always gone for the emotional jugular, but when he tells you in the program notes that the slow section was written after news of the death of a friend and mentor we know we are walking on suspicious ground. I don't want to take anything away from his true sentiments, but when you are told what to feel when you hear something your honest reaction to the music is being subverted. Was it a mournful section? Maybe. I wonder how many people thought to themselves "This must be the section when his friend died." Boy that's deep. The rest of the music telegraphed every phrase turn and section ending so far in advance it became tedious. From the the swirling strings on the diminished chord leading into the slow section, to the big brassy finish with timpani and triangle (the ringing triangle at the end put the nail in the coffin.) My wife agreed with me that the ending sounded like something written for a community concert band. I know, I've played in one. If I sound really spiteful, it is due to the fact that I've never had a reaction like this at a KWS concert before. I like John Estacio. I've met him a couple of times and he's a great guy. I've never been a fan of his music but was not expecting this. I know he can do better than this and that the KWS can program better than this.
It has been a week since the Music that Makes Community workshop wrapped up. I have had time to digest the information and even try out a few techniques. What the leaders from the All Saints Company were sharing with us is the way church services are held at St. Gregory of Nissa in San Francisco, especially how the music is used. We learned all music without and paper or other resources except the leader. Musical phrases are straightforward but interesting due to the use of many different modes. Complexity is achieved from rounds, canon, layering of different parts and rhythm. Most of the songs were learnt within a couple of minutes. It is a very powerful tool. Their philosophy is that ingesting the music fast without having to rely on any technology (paper, overhead screens) we get to the core of singing with our neighbours. This then moves us towards a communal prayer space more easily. Many of the songs have repeated single line texts that act like chants or mantras that do put you into a zone.
The communal singing aspect is one of those ideas that when you hear and discuss it causes you to think "but of course!" It makes so much sense it just seems obvious. The thing is I've been experiencing this in a few different places. The first is the Taize style of worship. In this worship a small piece of music is repeated a number of times directly to put the singer into a meditative place to facilitate prayer. With Taize they have unique songs and style of worship. The next similarity struck me quite suddenly while at the workshop listening to a discussion of the neuroscience of communal singing. While strictly secular, Music Together works really hard on fostering communal singing. As an instructor we try very hard to create a safe place for people to sing at whatever comfort level they have. We also try to foster a sense of fun and guided improvisation. These terms would not sound out of place at all at an All Saints Company workshop. At a Music Together class all songs are taught and sung a capella with a little bit of recorded music for dancing. The neuroscience of music, especially in regards to young children, is very important. Much of the psychology of how music connects people in groups was shared between the All Saints and Music Together. From my understanding this topic is still not well understood. As human beings we know something is going on but to be able to boil it down or pinpoint it to a few theories we have a ways to go. What we do know intuitively and scientifically is that it is good for us as a group and individually. Singing uses the entire mind and body. It brings everything in our core alive. When you get a group of people singing the same song the actual physical vibrations from the sound in the air and in the bodies electrifies the room and the soul.
I experienced this just last night. I was at a gathering of the Good Hearted Women Singers at the University of Waterloo. My group SlanT has partnered with them for a piece of music and we attended their meeting to reconnect before a show. The Good Hearted Women are not a performance group. They are made up mostly of Indigenous women who gather to sing and drum songs from indigenous cultures. This singing is done for healing purposes. What healing is needed varies of course from person to person. At a meeting each person, if they wish, brings a concern or maybe a celebration, to the circle and leads a song. The circle becomes a sacred and spiritual place. There is a palpable sense of something special in that circle. The Good Hearted Women Singers meeting is the epitome of what the All Saints company would espouse.
There is something going on here. I don't think it is just me noticing a few coincidences. Within the last hundred years we have abdicated music making to the technology of recorded sound and professionals. There is a somewhat unconscious desire to reclaim it. That is a good thing. We need to trust our voices and our neighbours. A community that sings together is a happy community.
Next Monday, August 20, I'll be heading off to spend roughly three days in Kitchener to participate in a workshop entitled Music that Makes Community. It is put on by the All Saints Company out of San Francisco. Their schtick is teaching and singing paperless music in a worship setting. From the videos I've seen it reminds me a bit of John Bell's technique. I guess now we'll learn how to do what he does. The event is co-sponsored by St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Anglican Diocese of Niagara. I'll let you know how it goes when it's all done.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.