Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Red Sky Performance. Adizokan, composed by Eliot Britton, and curated by Sandra Laronde, with Nelson Tagoona (vocalist), and Gary Kulesha (conductor). Roy Thomson Hall, Saturday, Oct. 7.
If Canada’s 150th year has taught us anything, it is that we are changing, growing, and moving towards something that we do not yet fully realise. But it is through the creation of new and innovative works like Adizokan that we can fully articulate the struggle to understand this grand experiment we call Canada.
Composed by Eliot Britton, Adizokan was not without its faults, but what it did right was far more interesting.
Technically, Adizokan presented a multi-faceted integration of live symphony, vocals, and dance with pre-recorded and process sounds, and visual images. Artistically, it told a story of the connected threads of information that weave across the universe, linking organic, technological and cosmic forces through human experience.
To handle the snarl of creative influence was Gary Kulesha, who besides being the Toronto Symphony’s Composer Advisor, ably took up the baton to keep this nearly hour-long ship on course.
His conducting, if not slightly stiff, was fairly utilitarian. It wasn’t until the later movements that Kulesha appeared a little more breezy. At one point, his hips were seen swaying side-to-side along to the beat-driven rhythms.
Adizokan’s centrepiece was Nelson Tagoona — a self-professed “throat boxer” who improvised traditional singing and beat-boxing. He admirably held his own. I was particularly impressed with his ability to handle the highly complex asymmetrical rhythms, which at times sounded a little like Aphex Twin meets the timpani.
Over two movements, his voice was processed with vocoder — a synthesizer that produces sounds from an analysis of vocal input. Vocoders have become a staple in popular music, and hearing it in an orchestral work with voice was a fascinating means to expand the timbre of Tagoona’s breathy sputterings. That said, it became overpowering at times, and would have been better served with more subtlety.
Britton’s use of the orchestra was theatrical and dramatic (especially the opening “Origins” movement), but I struggled to come to terms with his penchant for climaxes. These were built using density rather than melodic contour, and he seemed to favour the brass choir to accomplish the “exultation!” effect. It’s an old trick used by everyone from Mahler to Coldplay, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Britton relied on it too much. Britton was wise to include varied moments where the first violin took the melody alone, and to keep the music balanced against the dance choreography, performed by Michel Muniidobenese Bruyere, Eddie Elliott, Lonii Garnons-Williams, Julie Pham, and Jera Wolfe.
The dancers provided a physical articulation of Adizokan‘s themes, most notably of the past meeting the present. An example was Michel Muniidobenese Bruyere entering the stage in ceremonial dress, complete with a handsome Roach headdress, while the other dancers wore more contemporary costumes, designed by Julia Tribe. The dancing was athletic and impressive. It ended with Michel Muniidobenese Bruyere holding a feather pointing towards Eddie Elliott frantically dancing alone in a spotlight.
Besides the relatively small hiccups, the staging was the production’s fundamental weak point. In particular was the lighting, which seemed garish, especially cast against the important messages being told.
The images, designed by Andrew Moro, were projected on dual screens in the choir loft. The images featured people dancing, using cell phones, and smiling. The video also included archival images, which at one point, caused the audience to erupt in laughter, as a puppy was filmed falling on a dogsled in the Arctic.
With all the problems in Adizokan, it is important to biggest obstacle was the technical limitations of Roy Thomson Hall itself. With its bland lighting and traditional proscenium stage, it was a true feat that the dancers managed as well as they did in the narrow space.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Sesquie of the day: Blood Echo, by composer Carmen Braden. I have not yet heard of Braden, but hers was a unique tone painting inspired by the power of identity and self-empowerment. The TSO played it well, and I look forward to hearing more work by this young composer.
Before Adizokan, was Fara Palmer singing “My Roots” — a heart-on-sleeve piece about overcoming the residential school system. Accompanied by native drumming, Palmer’s voice resonated surprisingly well in the hall’s acoustically unforgiving space.
All told, this was a thought-provoking night for cultural exploration at the TSO.
We, as listeners, all benefit with an experience articulated not only the artists’ struggle to realize an inherent “truth” in Adizokan, but also our truth as a society. It’s heavy stuff, and it’s not easy.