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Books, books, books! - and some thoughts on art and labels 

I took a big risk in packing for this tour: I only brought one book. 

Now, I thought I was being careful, since it was 500 pages long and we had concerts to play and new places to see and blog posts and daily journal entries to write. But I miscalculated, and by day six of the tour found myself in need of something new to read. 

So, on our last day in Sudbury, I dragged Ben, Arie, and Jonathan to a used book store downtown. It wasn’t hard – we’re all readers, and there was also a promise of coffee and a swim afterwards. Once we arrived, I immediately lost track of the other three and struck out on my own. Bay Used Books is divided up into sections by genre, and I found the category labels to be fascinating reading. Immediately visible from the front of the store were the shelves labeled “romance,” “historical romance,” “historical fiction: British,” “historical fiction: non-British,” and a large but un-labeled section that I would categorize as “general life improvement,” containing cookbooks, self-help, parenting, pop psychology, and a smattering of mysticism. Towards the back was a room devoted to “award-winning fiction,” with a wall devoted to Canadian authors; I closeted myself there for a while and emerged with an armful of books but also a few frustrations. I had found many English translations of Gabrielle Roy’s novels but nothing in the original French, and absolutely nothing by L. M. Montgomery (I don’t need any more Anne books, but their presence is how I determine my overall approval of any bookstore). So I headed downstairs, where I knew there were more books to be found. On the way to the staircase, I saw a door with the enticing declaration, “More books behind this door!!” – somewhat disappointingly, it was not bookworm-Narnia but just a supply closet with some unshelved books on World War I and the British royal family. 

The basement, fittingly enough, housed horror, mystery, science fiction, and something cryptically labeled “light mystery.” This is also where the children’s section was located, as well as the French-language corner. They were both jumbled and not really alphabetized, so I had to do some digging; the children/teen section wasn’t even separated out by reading level, so I had to wade through picture books and several fantasy series to find Anne (who was, thankfully, there after all). I eventually found the untranslated Gabrielle Roy book I was looking for and so we were free to continue on our way for coffee and a swim in Ramsey Lake. 

Two days later, I unexpectedly thought of the genre signs at Bay Used Books. We stopped for lunch in Blind River, one of the title towns in Algoma Miniatures, and found our way to the Butterfly Grill, a food truck boasting local delicacies such as fresh pickerel and chips and deep-fried dill pickles. We had our instruments with us because instruments don’t like being left in the car, so naturally the food truck owner struck up a conversation with us. He wanted to know what kind of music we played and we told him “contemporary classical with a little folk thrown in.” His response was, “I love classical music! I saw Mumford & Sons in Scotland a few years ago.” Now, not too long ago, I probably would have come up with some snotty response about what is and isn’t classical music (despite the fact that I also love Mumford & Sons, think they write and perform great songs, and would love the chance to see them live, I would definitely not consider them classical artists). But the variety of types of organization at Bay Used Books got me to think about specificity of genre differently. If I were running a bookstore, I would probably keep British historical fiction and non-British historical fiction together, and I probably would separate children’s books based on reading level, and I would definitely not separate “light mystery” from full-fat mystery. But  I impose categories on music that I’m sure would seem artificial to this food truck owner – minimalism, contemporary music, chamber music, romantic music, German baroque, and Mumford & Sons all fit under his “classical” heading – while not making any differentiation in my personal metric between, say, death metal and speed metal and sludge metal. That kind of boundary flexibility has been one of the most enjoyable things about sharing “Lost Islands” with a variety of audiences. Whether people come in because of the newly composed classical music, the poetry, the fiddle tunes, or because they know one of us onstage, they seem to be able leave labels at the door and enjoy everything on the program. I think this is partly a testament to the success of our programming, and to the individual artistic merit of each component of the program (and the artistry of the people presenting them – what a privilege it has been to play alongside these musicians and actors night after night!), but mostly it’s proof that our audiences need labels a lot less than we think they do – and a lot less than they think they do. Worthwhile art is about making genuine connections with people regardless of what you or they call it, and the diversity of people who have been moved by our performances or even just our jamming outside a food truck is proof of that.

-Erica

On memory, music, and place - Benjamin Stuchbery 

It is late. 11:13pm on Sunday, August 12th to be precise. I like these late hours. Everyone has gone to bed. There is very little sound save the hum of the dishwasher and the chirping of crickets coming in from outside. Late nights are times where I can let my mind wander where it wills. Usually I find myself running through the events of the past day: the accomplishments, the near misses, and the encounters which gave the day its texture. Traveling provides a rich palette of experiences to ponder at day’s end. Perhaps this is where travel derives its pleasure, at least for me. There are of course the new sights and sounds, in addition to the new faces and places which stimulate curiosity and wonder. There is also the pleasure of returning to a place that is familiar. What I notice in these instances is both the comfort of the intimately known, and the discomfort that arises from noticing disjunctions between my memory of a place and the reality that is before me. Perhaps the familiar house no longer resembles the one known to me from my memory. Maybe my friend has changed – or I have changed and so the ground of our relationship has shifted. I don’t mean that discomfort is an unwelcome reality. On the contrary, leaning into the discomfort of the no longer familiar is necessary for a relationship to continue to be living and thriving. If change is not acknowledged in the people and places that have informed my identity then the relationship is cut off. A refusal to acknowledge dissonance in my relationships with people and places would be a refusal to continue to engage, to speak another word, to affirm the goodness of the present reality. 

For me this tour brings all of these threads of travel experience together and, to paraphrase Nancy Holmes’ poem, ties them together with a love knot. Our Lost Islands program pivots around two pieces: “Okanagan Vignettes,” and “Algoma Miniatures.” The Vignettes are rooted in a landscape which I know intimately. Each time I return to this piece I have a clear sense of the physical geography which informs the music. I am transported almost immediately to the clay cliffs along the KVR trail overlooking lake Okanagan just outside Penticton. The colour of the cliffs is a soft brown, and they are dotted with turquoise coloured sage brush. The cliffs butt up against long rows of grape vines and fruit trees. I can almost smell the scent of sage, especially potent after a heavy rain. This is a place that exudes comfort and all the feelings associated with nostalgic remembrance. And yet despite my familiarity with this piece, each time I return to it I have found the experience of the unfamiliar waiting in the form of an unintended note or a new harmony as yet unnoticed. As in the music, so too in my lived experience of those cliffs. For you see I really believe what we say in our program notes about the places we have called home: they are in a sense forever lost to us. There is always a discord between my memory of a place and my present experience of it. Those cliffs were never the same each time I returned just as I was never the same each time I returned. And this is how it should be. 

The Algoma Miniatures by contrast are rooted in a landscape that is unknown to me. With this piece I am bringing a musical landscape crafted by all of us in the trio, and of Arie too, to a place that forms no part of my lived experience. I am approaching my visit to the Algoma region with curiosity and, hopefully, a healthy dose of wonder. I am eager to discover how knowledge of a place as yet unknown to me can inform my musical interpretation of it. This coming to know of new places is one of the gifts of this tour; that and the gift of returning to familiar landscapes and people to continue a conversation begun long ago and renewed with each new utterance.

 - Benjamin Stuchbery

Music to Play, Music to Enjoy, Music for All 

Two things. 

“Hey isn’t this great, we have an unusual instrumentation people are going to love it, we are so trendy and new!” GREAT! But. “Hey come to think of it, I’ve never heard of this ensemble before either…and I’m part of it….what are we going to play? Is there anything for us to play!!!?” 

It’s time to pick repertoire, it’s time perform, what are we going to do? As an ensemble this it the issue we’ve had to work with over the years. We’ve learned to love our abnormal instrumentation and how it ties in very well with our vision to bring composed music to relatively unknown spaces and audiences. I’d like this blog to encourage any of you to follow through on something that isn’t necessarily easy to put together, because in our process of finding and creating new repertoire we have learned a lot about ourselves, and about the people in our community. 

So! 

Step one. Find out what is already out there. For this I had the advantage of a former guitar teacher, Selwyn Redivo, who has lots of experience with chamber groups and was able to recommend some repertoire. Our first piece was Joseph Kreutzer’s Trio in D Major (yes for flute, violin and guitar! YAY!), a classical trio. We also found Paul Angerer’s 1961 trio for recorder, violin and guitar. These two pieces are important parts of our repertoire, but two pieces is not enough for a concert program! What else is there? Trios for treble instruments and guitar? We’ve done our fair share swapping instrumentations for pieces for two recorders and guitar, or two violins and guitar to fit our trio. We have found some beautiful music this way and have been able to bring a new sound pieces by Cesar Bresgen, Folk songs from different cultures and more. Certainly when we play music from the 19th century and earlier the possibilities of interchanging treble instruments are greater. Many pieces in the repertoire were published for flute (or violin) and guitar of vice-versa, so we have found a delightful choice of repertoire from the baroque period of music for treble instruments and continuo. Music by Telemann and Rosenmuller for example. The keyword for our initial search is certainly diversity, it would have been practically impossible for us to have started a concertizing ensemble with this instrumentation trying to specialize in one area of music, there simply was not enough repertoire in a certain area. This taught us to enjoy playing music of many styles and solidified the unusual trajectory of this abnormal ensemble! Pairing folk songs with 19th century music wasn’t only a matter of taste, it was even a necessity! 

Step two. Arrangements! This was a really fun step for me because it challenged me to engage myself more in the creation of scores and to think more seriously about the roles of each of our instruments. It has also been liberating because it engages more of the composer side of me, which has been otherwise relatively dormant in the past few years. I enjoyed arranging several folk tunes (allowing myself to be quite liberal harmonically and structurally) for the ensemble, and Erica also worked on rearranging a part for violin in a trio version of Astor Piazzolla’s “Le Grand Tango”. Arrangements are an opportunity to provide a fresh perspective on existing tunes, a way that we can relate personally with the piece, especially if it is being expanded from a single melody line to an ensemble. Questions like, “which instrument does this line belong to?” I think about timbre and variety, or “what harmony belongs here?” I love this work, and it allows the ensemble to be a new part of this wider, ever-changing and shifting world of music. 

Step three. New music. I think I can easily say that this has been at once the most exciting, challenging and rewarding part of the process. We believe that it is our duty to expand the repertoire, to collaborate with amazing artists, and to inspire artistic creation. Our first experience of this type was in 2013, before Erica had joined our group. My teacher Selwyn had commissioned music with his trio “Wind in the Woods” a few years earlier for the Meadowlark Festival, a weekend nature festival in the Okanagan Valley. One of those pieces was by Okanagan composer Anita Perry titled “Trio for two recorders and guitar”. With movements “Through the Valley Soaring”, “Desert Plains Shimmering” and “Of Rivers, Streams and Waterways” it is a beautiful musical portrait of the landscape of the Okanagan Valley. Selwyn recommended we try it with our instrumentation, and Anita was happy to tweak the score to accommodate this. The effect was magical, we were hooked on creating new music. We continue to perform this piece now, which was renamed “Okanagan Vignettes” last summer. Now when the three of us were planning our 2016 concert series, Erica proposed we engage composer Charles Zoll to write us a piece. Eagerly we agreed, and in May we had fresh parts and a score. There is nothing quite like getting brand new music in your inbox and printing it off to read through it the first time. The piece pushed us as an ensemble and getting to work with Charles was such a privilege. We premiered AMALGAM by Charles Zoll on August 13th 2016 in Montreal and continued to give four more performances last year. Having Charles with us for three of the concerts to introduce his piece and take questions from an interested audience made the whole experience a huge success. We learned that though this new music didn’t have the advantage of being well known and loved like music by Beethoven or Bach, what it did was expose audiences to something they’ve never experienced before and were maybe uncomfortable with, so when we had time for questions, there were lots, and it is still something we hear back about, very positively, from the communities we have played for. New music has this wonderful ability to arouse curiosity in people, you feel a direct connection to the time at which it was written, which can be a very powerful tool when programming a concert. Since then we have worked with three other composers. We participated in the 2017 Fresh Inc festival, whose emphasis on collaboration between composers and performers (not to mention collaboration IN general) really appealed to us when we were applying. We were paired with Patrick Walker who wrote “Trio for four Instruments” (flute/recorder, violin, and guitar), which was an elegant and clever way of using the instruments available to us. We also worked with Karalyn Schubring on her quintet for flute, oboe, guitar, cello, and violin entitled “Music for a Particularly Sparkly Afternoon”. With both of these composers we benefitted from many opportunities to rehearse together and learn about their pieces and personalities. It was an amazing experience! Currently we are working on a brand new piece “Algoma Miniatures” by Arie Van de Ven, a close friend of mine whose music I admire. We will be premiering this in our 2017 season. Something that is truly inspiring about all the composers that we’ve been able to work is they are all the pieces are so different from each other, yet each one is beautifully composed. We have the delightful pleasure of being able to perform these pieces and create an incredibly diverse program that is yet unified by honesty of the composers’ creations. We are certainly not done collaborating, and are always on the hunt for new music! 

So as you can see, we have built a repertoire for ourselves. At times it has been challenging to program. How do we find a way to put so much variety in a cohesive program? But this challenge has developed our ideas about music and performing, and we have certainly become a much better ensemble by exploring so many possibilities. I also think, that because we are not a group that people are used to seeing, we are given more freedom from the audience to show them something new. So if we play a baroque trio sonata, we can follow it with a brand new composition, and then maybe some folk music, and the public will be enjoying themselves. It’s been great for us, since each of us have very diverse tastes in music, and would really love to play all the music ever! 

Who knows what we will discover next? There is so much out there if you are willing to look. 

We’d love to hear what you think about these subjects. Do you have experience creating something new? Have ever been worried how that might be received? Are you a musician with a similar ensemble and have ideas to share?

Live Music/Living Music 

or, why I love new music 

by Erica Jacobs-Perkins (interviewing Charles Zoll) 

Classical musicians can easily be trapped into feeling that our art is dead, that everything we do is at best an accurate reenactment of something that was over and done with hundreds of years ago, or at worst, a mechanical transformation of dots on a page into the sounds they represent. Any MIDI file can do that, so what’s the point of having humans do it instead? What’s the point of doing the same old thing, day in, day out? Usually, if we look deep within ourselves, we can come up with at least a few convincing reasons, otherwise we wouldn’t find ourselves continuing to do this odd thing that we do: Revisiting old works reveals new truths; human imperfections are necessary to create great art, etc. etc. But it’s still sometimes difficult to convince myself that it’s worthwhile for me to interpret anew a piece that countless violinists have played over the centuries. Maybe I’ll add a slide that no one else ever thought to do. Maybe my version will find someone who never heard the piece before, and it will touch them in a way they deeply and hungrily needed. That is a good and important and life-changing reason to engage in this strange practice of doing the same thing over and over. Even so, it’s one of the hardest things for non-musicians, or even non-classical musicians, to understand about what we do: very few serious performers are also serious composers. Both activities require such a high level of expertise that doing just one of them is usually enough to take up all of a person’s time and creative energy. 

So that means that musicians like me, who almost exclusively play music written by other people (with the occasional tentative improvisation thrown in), can feel a little bit stuck. I’m not actually creating, I’m just interpreting. Sometimes, though, there comes an opportunity to not only make live music, but also to make living music. Working with a living, breathing composer is one of the most exciting things I can imagine doing, and it’s even more fun when that composer is also a friend, like Charles. Suddenly, instead of spending hours of rehearsal time arguing over whether the subito pianissimo happens on the downbeat or the pickup, or whether Beethoven intended to put accents in two of the parts and not in the other two, or what the heck he meant by the carrots over those eighth notes, it’s possible to send a text and get a clear answer within a few minutes. Not only that, but we get to play an active role in breathing life into this new piece of music. If Charles is AMALGAM’s parent, then the Cygnus Trio members are its midwives. Our Youtube recording will be the definitive version that future musicians will refer to; other violinists will copy, or deliberately rebel from, my vibrato and my slides. It’s heady to have that kind of power! 

I’ve had an interest in playing recently composed music for about five years at this point, but this was my first experience commissioning and premiering a work that was written specifically for me. I could talk at length about how much fun I’ve had in the process, but I’ve taken up enough space for one blog post. Instead, I’m going to have Charles tell you what it’s like to painstakingly craft a work of art and then relinquish control of its entry into the world to three goofs like us. 

ERICA: Can you describe your vision for AMALGAM? 

CHARLES:Well, to start at the beginning, you and I first met Talis Festival in Switzerland, but learned quickly that we actually went McGill at the same time. Although we probably passed each other in the halls everyday, I had my head down as I struggled to break out of my shell in a foreign country with a different language both verbally and musically. In many ways, AMALGAM is a reflection of that awkward period in my education—at times the piece acts controlled and refined, and at others it moves hurriedly through a tumult of mismatched ideas. The personality is as close to manic as I usually reach myself, with tempo pairings like “belligerent” and “reserved,” “awkwardly romantic” and “batshit crazy.” We learn from whatever environment we find ourselves in, appropriating the aspects that stand out to us, and sometimes, at least in my case, we find out later that we allowed traits to become ingrained that maybe we didn’t intend to become so. Thus, the sonic world sounds, as you affectionately put it, “very McGill.” I managed to avoid knocking things and blowing into other things that aren’t usually knocked on or blown into on purpose, but I did incorporate a performance element popular in rock music, which I will leave up to the guitarist to deem worthwhile or not. If you’re like me and most millennials, you get distracted easily. Let AMALGAM be your new ADHD medication. 

ERICA: What was your creative process for AMALGAM? Where did you start? What other projects were you juggling at the same time? 

CHARLES: I’ve been dealing with some fear lately regarding composition, and with AMALGAM I decided to just “go for it” and not worry so much about what some people (like my professors) might say. I’ll speak more about this in the next question. I usually edit and redact as I compose, so the process in writing this piece was a departure from that—I never told myself “no.” The title and the reference to Parks and Rec arose naturally from this weird way of composing, as I discovered more about the guitar and visualized one of the characters in the show (Andy Dwyer, your typical loveable oaf) playing rock in this small chamber ensemble. I’ll just mention that at the time of writing the piece I was dealing, yet again, with my masters thesis. Please direct further questions regarding this to my psychiatrist. 

ERICA: You mentioned that AMALGAM in some ways reflects the period when you were studying at McGill. How would you say your compositional style has developed since then? 

CHARLES: My university experiences have included a lot of pre-composing, which is like thinking about something before you write it down, except you’re also thinking about the thought before committing to the something. I see a lot of composers trying out this pre-composing thing—many of my colleagues at McGill did it very well. But for me it has become steadily more debilitating to my output and has turned me, I think, into a generally more pessimistic human. It didn’t start at McGill, but the act of listening to my friends’ thoughts about music forced me to confront the emptiness and pessimism that had been gradually setting in since my undergrad. Very depressing stuff! But I think it worked out for the best, because, looking back, throwing away the idea of pre-composition has made me a better composer. 

ERICA: What was the most fun thing about writing this piece? The most difficult? 

CHARLES: I definitely enjoyed writing for the unique instrumentation! I’ve always been a fan of unusual combinations of instruments, so this was a fun challenge. The most difficult issue stemmed from the instrumentation, because at times I struggled with engaging the guitar in an equal role. I think I ended up making the guitar the most important instrument, though! (Side note from Jonathan: At first, not knowing Charles’s musical background, I thought that he might have been a guitarist, or had experience with the instrument; the music is really well written and idiomatic, which a lot of composers struggle to capture in the guitar. It’s a very fun part to play!) 

ERICA: Cygnus is premiering AMALGAM on Saturday this week and you haven’t heard us play it yet. How do you feel about that? (How do you feel about this loaded question?) 

CHARLES: A little nervous, to be honest! What’s putting me at ease, though, it that I’ve only received a couple of clarification questions—I usually have many confusing or otherwise questionable choices in my scores, in part because I use techniques I haven’t seen or tried before whenever I write a new piece, as many composers do. I believe in you, though, and in the end, after I sent it off to you, it’s not really “my” piece anymore—it’s yours, and that’s a beautiful thing! 

The world premiere of AMALGAM can be heard at Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal, on August 13th at 4:30 p.m. For more performances of AMALGAM and other works, check our events page.