Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Compose Something Edmonton (Why New Music Edmonton is the best show in town)

Back in March of 2012 I wrote a post about possible new names for Edmonton International Airport. Based on the premise that many of the world's most famous airports are named after famous individuals (John F. Kennedy, Lester B. Pearson, Charles De Gaulle, Indira Gandhi etc.). I came up with a list of 10 famous Edmontonians that might be considered airport name material, of which my personal favourite at the time was Leslie Nielsen International Airport, in homage to his career-transforming comedic breakthrough in Airplane.

I missed one. I definitely should have included Violet Archer on the list. After all, composers figure prominently among major airports. Rio de Janeiro has Antônio Carlos Jobim International. Budapest has Ferenc Lizst International. Warsaw has Chopin International. And of course New Orleans, where I recently visited, has the wonderfully named Louis Armstrong International Airport. Who do we have? We have the Montreal-born pupil of Béla Bartók and Paul Hindemith who joined the U of A music faculty in 1962 and remained a fixture in Edmonton's music scene until her death in 2000. Edmonton-Archer International Airport - I love it!

Who says we can't be great up here? Edmonton's
own Violet Archer. (source:
Of course I'm scarcely holding my breath for our local airport to be renamed after an avant-garde composer who the majority of Edmontonians haven't even heard of. Nevertheless, it is heartening to know that the spirit of the city's greatest exponent of new music is alive and well in the form of the organization she inspired, New Music Edmonton, the city's leading standard bearer for wild and woolly musical experimentation.

Last month I launched a series of blog posts about this great organization with a review of the NME-produced world premiere of some spooky Ligeti-inspired electroacoustic music by ex-pat Toronto composer Chiyoko Szlavnics by the Montreal-based Ensemble Transmission. And this past weekend I had the pleasure of attending NME's Now Hear This festival, focused on the work of Canadian modern music icon R. Murray Schafer.

While Schafer was the festival's main attraction, Now Hear This felt like as much of a tribute to Violet Archer owing to the prominent role of the newly formed Violet Collective, a new Edmonton ensemble formed under the aegis of NME and named in honour of the late musical experimenter. While I was only able to attend the Saturday program of the three-day festival, what I heard reminded me of why I have crazy love for my adopted hometown. Our winters may be awful and our alleged professional hockey team even worse, but when it comes to artistic experimentation, we've got it made. With local ensembles like the Violet Collective, the Windrose Trio (joined by dancer Gerry Morita from Mile Zero Dance), Pro Coro Canada and the Strathcona String Quartet as well as hometown sonic explorers Shawn Pinchbeck and Gene Kosowan doing their thing, it was the best local festival you probably didn't hear about.

Highlights? There wasn't much that wasn't one. Violet Collective reedwoman and U of A instructor Allison Balcetis demonstrated exactly what the saxophone in all its permutations is capable of, deploying the full saxophonic range from soprano to the rarely seen bass sax on Colin Labadie's minimalist Strata and Brazilian composer André Mestre's Passion of Christ-themed Sorrowful Mysteries. Chilean-born, Edmonton-based composer Raimundo Gonzalez used the space of Old Strathcona's Trinity Anglican Church like few others by piping (literally) the sound of violinist Tatiana Warczynski through electronically doctored copper pipes, creating otherworldly sounds that you truly had to be there to experience. And Vancouver composer Bob Pritchard conspired with Edmonton flutist Chenoa Anderson to deliver one of the day's most electrifying performances, the audiovisual Rebirth, featuring electronic armband-triggered surround sound effects and mesmerizing visuals.

The evening continued with some classic R. Murray Schafer vocal works courtesy of Edmonton choral group Pro Coro, most memorably the wonderful Magic Songs - a composition inspired by Schafer's famous hippie retreats in the Ontario backwoods (to which he would invite select friends and colleagues), replete with firefly chirps and Whitmanesque barbaric yawps. And then the evening got even wilder, delving into deep improvisational territory with bassist Thom Golub and dancer Kate Stashko, some very dark electroacoustic landscapes with Gene Kosowan's The Ghosts that Guard the Gateway featuring Allison Balcetis' otherworldly bass saxophone, and then some mad live improv by local lunatics Pigeon Breeders - featuring visuals by Montreal-based Edmonton filmmaker Lindsay McIntyre.

Edmonton's Pigeon Breeders (source:
Admittedly, I missed much of the R. Murray Schafer content on which this particular festival was focused. That said, the man's influence was all over the music on the menu. Now Hear This was, above all, about 'soundscapes', a concept that Schafer pioneered during his studies at Simon Fraser University in the 1960s, through which he sought to foster a deeper appreciation of sound as a whole by way of cutting and pasting sound from its original source to a 'musical' context (which he famously referred to as schizophonia). As with much of Schafer's output, the works on display at Now Hear This challenge the very notion of 'composition', and the late-night 'Astral Ghosts' session featuring Kosowan, Pigeon Breeders and others pushed well outside what many would consider to be 'music'.

But as experimental as the proceedings got, it never ceased to be fun. Fun and totally unpretentious, a fact that anyone who's been forced to sit through a "highly serious" program of serialist music by the likes of Schoenberg, Webern and so on. Somehow the program managed to exude a certain Edmonton-ness, which I can only characterize as self-deprecating cleverness. In this town you can be as smart as is humanly possible provided you never lord it over your audience. That's the hallmark of the Edmonton Fringe and many of our other festivals - we'll happily do 'challenging' but only if you don't throw unnecessary forbiddingness into the mix. And on this front New Music Edmonton and its incredible cast of artists hit it out of the park once again.

I'm sure Violet would have approved.


  1. Thanks for your support. It's nice that people are actually starting to talk about the new music scene in this city.

    One thing: Violet Archer didn't found the the organization. She suggested to her students (one of whom was Ron Hannah) that they start it. Which I suppose is just as good as founding it. Anyway, Ron's the source if you want the whole story.

    Thanks again!

    1. Thanks for the clarification Dave. It's fixed.