The Canadian Composers Series on Another Timbre: Smith, Arnold, Szlavincs

Monday 1 May 2017

In its own quiet way, this is one of the major events I’ve been looking forward to in 2017. Over the past year or so I haven’t been alone in noticing how much of the freshest, most intriguing and affecting music has been coming from Canadian composers. This week, there are three nights of music this week focusing on new music by these composers and more at Cafe Oto. The gigs are to launch the first five releases in a ten-disc Canadian Composers Series on Another Timbre. I’ve had all five on heavy rotation at home the last few days and will need to write more about them during/after hearing the live shows.

The double CD of works by Linda Catlin Smith, Drifter, opens with a duet for viola and vibraphone. Cantilena‘s instrumentation recalls the magnificent 70-minute violin and percussion Dirt Road Another Timbre put out last year and is a brighter, briefer work with fewer complications to mull over. Any suspicion that the album would offer diminishing returns are evaporated by the 2014 Piano Quintet and Drifter itself, another odd pairing of instruments, guitar and piano.

The Quintet presents a hothouse atmosphere of lyrical flourishes in the strings, framed by restive, unresolved harmonies in the piano. It’s like a passage from romantic European chamber music at its ripest, held in suspense, their details enhanced while their function is diminished. When the strings finally break into sustained drones against the piano, it serves only to maintain the cool tension already achieved. In Drifter, the two instruments play in turn, the guitar as an echo of the piano, the same chords but transformed by the change in timbre and decay, surprising the unsuspecting listener with the way the harmonic material appears to be subtly transformed. Eventually, each takes turns in leading on the other, or playing in unison, an unhurried interplay of two partners sounding out each others’ qualities.

Over ten pieces, Apartment House and Quatuor Bozzini present Smith as a composer capable of finding great diversity of expression within a single, coherent compositional voice that focuses on depth more than breadth. Suggestions and traces of other music styles are recalled, but never in pastiche. Those string arpeggios in the Piano Quintet relate equally to folk playing as to a salon. The clearly delineated phrases of the Ricercar for solo cello are modelled on Baroque music but do not imitate. Unexpected shifts in mood come in the strange processional Moi Qui Tremblais and in the final string quartet, Folkestone, a cycle of introspective fragments in fragile diminuendo.

A small book of interviews has been published together with the CDs. From what I’ve skimmed so far, some common themes emerge between composers: the isolation, allowing them to work in blissful ignorance of more common theoretical hang-ups occupying colleagues’ minds in the US or Europe, is spoken of approvingly more than once. There’s also a repeated referral to the legacy of John Cage, particularly via Morton Feldman. Previous generations who might have claimed such an influence would frequently be stridently avant-garde, often more in style than in substance. While never sounding derivative, distinct traits can be observed that show a firm understanding of Feldman’s music. Ambivalence of mood, the embrace of traditional harmony while simultaneously rejecting its traditional structural function. The allowance of stasis, a musical ‘surface’ of sustained dynamics, typically tending towards the quiet. A careful consideration of instruments’ attributes, enabling otherwise unusual combinations of instruments to be heard in new ways, in contrast or in complement.

Another echo of Feldman can be heard in Martin Arnold’s album, The Spit Veleta. The three works on this disc comprise a sort of extended suite. In each of them, the music continues in a slow and seemingly aimless way, yet always with a faint suggestion of a waltz. There’s always the sense of something a little faded, diffuse, of what might have once been a more rigid order. If the music that is left is more elusive, then it is at once more free yet more sophisticated. In Points & Walzes for solo piano and then in Slip Minuet for solo violin, each with titles referring to dances in triple rhythm, the musician (Philip Thomas and Mira Benjamin, respectively) circles elegantly, if a little erratically. The two combine on the final, title work.

In each piece, a change occurs halfway through. The delicate counterpoint of Points & Walzes gives way to a relentless tessitura of chords in the piano’s lower register. Slip Minuet suddenly turns to pizzicato, articulating a downbeat to a dance otherwise inaudible. There is more silence than sound, yet the underlying shape of the music is still clearly perceptible. It sounds like the violinist is accompanying a tune heard only in her head. In The Spit Veleta, the duo build a slow, complex rhythm of intertwining dances, before freezing, erasing almost all memory of the music with a succession of soft chords and dyads, played simultaneously. The piano sound decays, revealing the violin’s sustained tone underneath, a faint colouration of the silence suspended between one isolated chord and the next.

There’s a beautiful poignancy and melancholy in these pieces, found in the way that Arnold allows the matter of his music to be reduced to the most spare and etiolated state without ever suggesting that the music is withholding anything from the listener. For what could easily be considered as studies in decay, there is a welcome lack of postmodern didacticism. In fact, it reminded me more of modernist thinking. I’ve referred before to Guy Davenport’s quote that completing an image “involves a stupidity of perception“. Hugh Kenner observed that in the twentieth century, Westerners learned to interpret fragments outside of their original settings, gathering meaning from non-consecutive arrays. As Ezra Pound wrote, “Points define a periphery.” Perhaps in the respect these Canadians’ sensibility is like my own Australian one: as colonial cultures, we can accept ruins as what they are, not just what they once were.

This post is already too long and I want to write about Marc Sabat and Isaiah Ceccarelli after I’ve heard them live at Oto. Right now I need to mention Chiyoko Szlavnics’ remarkable During a Lifetime. Szlavnics pits live acoustic musicians against pure sine tones; a combination well-known for its use by Alvin Lucier, Warren Burt and others. While those latter composers typically exploit the small differences in intonation between acoustic pitches and pure tones, Szlavnics works with the same deceptively simple combinations to very different ends. During a Lifetime is for saxophone quartet and electronic tones, but for much of the piece sounds like neither. A large, complex multiphonic sound swells, pulses, grows rough and then smooth again as variances in tone between the instruments modulate each other as much as the sine waves do. The electronics merge and disappear, then emerge again as one of the voices in the ensemble. This played by the Konus Ensemble, who do an exceptional job of balancing clear tones against some subtle, raspier edges. I heard these guys’ superb performance of Jürg Frey’s Memoire, Horizon at Huddersfield a couple of years ago, and they’re playing both pieces at Oto on Thursday.