Toronto Festival Yields Gamut Of New Compositions

Kronos String Quartet teamed with composer Tanya Tagaq at the 21C Festival. (Lisa Sakulensky/Royal Conservatory of Music)
Kronos Quartet teamed with composer Tanya Tagaq at the 21C Music Festival in Toronto.
(Lisa Sakulensky/Royal Conservatory of Music)
Colin Eatock

TORONTO — So what can be said about contemporary music nowadays, especially after attending Toronto’s third annual Twenty-First Century Music Festival — or 21C, as the event is usually called?

It’s a harsh, atonal cacophony, or it’s consonant with a vengeance. It’s a high-volume assault on the eardrums, or it’s a barely audible whisper. It’s a dense, opaque wall of sound, or it’s sparse and spacious. It’s a through-composed stream of consciousness, or it’s repetitious in the extreme. It’s jarringly experimental and iconoclastic, or it’s deeply rooted in ancient traditions. It is all these things, and more.

Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh
Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh

Yet regardless of style, the sad truth is that most contemporary works have a pretty short shelf-life. Often, this is simply a matter of quality: a mediocre work is performed once and discarded because nobody cares to play or hear it again. But there are other reasons for this phenomenon. A composer may choose to write for an unusual combination of instruments, or for performers with unusual skills — creating a work that, for all its merits, is an “occasional piece” that’s difficult to reproduce. Today, there’s no lack of composers who take this approach.

On the other hand, there are composers out there who are writing music that could conceivably enter the repertoire. It’s a long shot, of course, and it doesn’t happen unless the stars align in exactly the right way. But I, for one, hope that at least a few works from our anything-goes era will endure. And when I attend contemporary music concerts, I listen for new works that just might stick to the wall.

The music performed at this year’s 21C ran the gamut from here-today-gone-tomorrow works to compositions that could have some staying power. The event, presented by the Royal Conservatory of Music from May 25 to 29, featured a stylistic smorgasbord of chamber music by composers from Canada and around the world. I attended four of the six concerts.

A big program by the Kronos Quartet, which opened the festival on May 25, was a mixture of ephemeral music and works that aspire to durability. The piece that I’d nominate as “most likely to have an afterlife” was Reqs (Dance) by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh. Kronos has championed her music for more than two decades, and the relationship has paid dividends. The piece draws on traditional dances from the composer’s native Azerbaijan and is rooted in Central Asian musical language, sounding a little like Khatchaturian. (But did I also hear a tango wander through the piece at one point?) Technically, her approach to quartet writing harkens back to Shostakovich, and she also shares his intensity and sense of drama. Reqs deserves attention from other quartets, and I hope it gets it.

Another piece that might find its way into some other quartet’s music folders is Mary Kouyoumdjian’s Bombs of Beirut. Scored for string quartet and digital recording, the piece is a musical portrait, in three movements, of the Lebanese Civil War, from 1975 to 1990. The pre-recorded portion of the piece feature the voices of people displaced by the war, and also the sounds of war. In this elaborate work, Kouyoumdjian displays a musical style that shifts with remarkable fluidity between atonal modernism and Arabic modalities.

On the other hand, Sivunittinni and Nunavut, co-created by Kronos and Tanya Tagaq, are two pieces that no other quartet could ever play, if only because they’re impossible to do without Tagaq herself. An Inuit from the Canadian Arctic, she’s famous for her “throat singing”: an earthy, guttural, gasping kind of ur-vocalization that’s downright terrifying when amplified. Tagaq’s live performance was supported by an “accompaniment” of gnarly string-quartet ruminations from Kronos. It was an astounding and breathtaking performance.

Montreal-based composer Nicole Lizée also gets high marks for non-reproducibility. Her Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop (Fibre-Optic Flowers) was inspired by the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop of the 1960s. In her piece, sounds from oscillators, turntables, tape decks, and other obsolete electronics are blended with Kronos’ stringed instruments. Stylistically, Lizée is a kind of minimalist, and her quirky quartet pulsates in fits and starts towards a repetitious “scratched-record” conclusion.

Another 21C concert, on May 28, included a few pieces that could sprout legs. Foremost among them was Gratitude by the Vancouver-based composer Rodney Sharman. The work was written for violinist-violist Barry Shiffman (formerly of the St. Lawrence Quartet), who played it on the viola, with pianist Jeanie Chung. It’s a lovely, pastoral piece, with shape-note harmonies built around a short phrase that sounds like something out of Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

And a piano trio by the Serbian-Canadian composer Ana Sokolović — and played by violinist Andréa Tyniec, cellist Amahl Arulanandam, and pianist Wesley Shen — could also go places. Portrait Parle, which is somehow inspired by a 100-year-old device for constructing facial portraits, features furtive and erratic textures and a free-ranging, pan-chromatic language. Sokolović’s acute and sure-footed sense of drama serves her well in this refreshingly mercurial composition.

Once again, there was ephemeral music. Drown in the Depth showcased Anna Pidgorna as both a composer and performer. She is deeply interested in Ukrainian folk-music and culture, and she sang in Ukrainian with a small chamber ensemble and pre-recorded sounds (bells, water, and rain, among other things). She also vocalized, with a variety of non-verbal moans and howls intended to “explore the richness of female erotic imagination independent of any male presence.” (I quote the program notes.) It is a striking, moving piece, but just as Tagaq’s works can’t be done without Tagaq, this piece can’t be done without Pidgorna.

Canadian composer John Oswald
Canadian composer John Oswald

The two other programs I attended were very much in the “occasional” camp — filled with works and music that I will almost certainly never hear again. The concert on May 26, entitled “Japan: Next,” was performed by Continuum Contemporary Music, a Toronto ensemble. For this concert, Japanese instruments — koto (a zither) and shō (something like a mouth-organ) – were added to a varied Western chamber ensemble. The program included Hikari Kiyama’s Death Metal Rock with Head Bang, a seething mass of thrashing noise laced with traces of Burt Bacharach-style lounge music. It reminded me of what I’ve read about the crazy performances George Antheil gave in Paris in the 1920s, except nobody was thrown out the window.

Finally, it would take a very remarkable effort to recreate John Oswald’s Blackout, presented on May 27. The piece is performed in total darkness so strictly enforced that the audience had to be led into the pitch-black hall in small groups. Starting with pre-recorded animal noises (an “acoustical jungle,” if you will), Oswald soon introduced a post-modern mix of live music and sounds, sung, spoken, and played by musicians around the room: piano rumbles, weird noises from a hurdy-gurdy, and a few trombones playing something that that sounded like “Shenandoah,” out of phase. An ear-opening experience was had by all — this writer included — but where does a work like this go?

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould. He has written for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Houston Chronicle, and many other publications. He also teaches at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.