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Appreciation: Canadian Music Centre's Score Reading Club a fine introduction to new sounds

By Open Submission on December 4, 2013

Every now and then, the Canadian Music Centre holds special events at Chalmers House, where it invites musicians, composers and the general public to look into the world of this country’s music.

You have the ‘On the 13th’ events on the 13th of every month. You have independent events held in their intimate and welcoming concert space. You have events set up for education, such as the Ping! Educational Chamber Music Showcase last week. You also have the Score Reading Club.

The main idea behind the club is to put on display the wealth of music the CMC has available, by dusting off some music that people may not have heard before, or showing music that is fairly popular but that people new to the scene may not have heard. This is done by way of performances or recordings, as well as presentations on the works by musicians who have performed them. Organizers also pull other works out from around the world to be presented by Canadian artists and composers.

On Tuesday night, music by Canadian heavyweights Violet Archer and Ann Southam, as well as the lesser-known American composer Christian Wolff were on the bill.

Ann Southam, who passed away in 2010, was a prolific composer whose most-heard works include Glass Houses (1981), a set of pieces for piano that were minimalistic in nature. Wesley Shen, a Toronto-based pianist and harpsichordist, performed Glass Houses #1 and #9 (quite brilliantly, I may add). These pieces are very demanding on the performer, as they are essentially a nonstop stream of very rapid notes.

Anyone looking to dive into the world of Canadian music should listen to some Ann Southam. Some of her music is fast, lively and very accessible (and no, that is in no way a bad thing).

Christina Petrowska-Quilico, who has recorded Glass Houses, was on hand to speak about the late Violet Archer’s Piano Concerto, which dates from 1956. She explained that Archer’s style had been influenced by Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith and Dmitri Shostakovich — and you could certainly hear it in the concerto.

Violet Archer
Violet Archer

The slow second movement rose and fell with that typically Shostakovichan gravitas, and it built up tension and energy in much the same way as his symphonies. Archer’s piece was by no means bad music, even though I felt that it emulated too much these different composers. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, since almost all music borrows from other music.

That said, the concerto was missing a certain bright quality, a playfulness that was present in Shostakovich’s piano concerti (such as the first movement of No. 2). It was a dry piece of music, but still an entertaining listen.

Christian Wolff is a composer that people rarely hear about. Born in France (in 1934), and taught by John Cage in New York, Wolff worked with sounds quite different from those of Cage and his contemporaries.

Allison Cameron, former director of Array Music and also a very talented composer in her own right, talked to us about Wolff’s work with graphic notation [where the composer uses shapes rather than traditional lines and dots to describe the flow of music] and his piece Burdocks (1971), an interactive piece for us, the audience.

Cameron handed out a variety of small instruments and explained the rules of the piece. It was an interesting experience, working with such an abstract idea, but I wasn’t really satisfied with the end result, especially as the explanation took easily 45 minutes, while the resulting ‘performance’ took just under 10.

Either way, it was a fascinating look at a different kind of New York Avant Garde than the usual Cage and Morton Feldman that most people are familiar with.

The score reading club has different musicians coming in and composers being played all the time. Some days are more exciting than others, but it’s usually still an entertaining evening.

I would suggest that if you haven’t been out to one of these, you at least give it a chance and go experience it. Even if you don’t read music, you can still take part, listen to live performances, and learn about Canadian music.

For more information, the Canadian Music Centre has extensive digital archives on their website. You can find everything, including details on upcoming events, here.

Paolo Griffin
is a Toronto-based performer and composer who posts regularly to his blog, New Music Toronto

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