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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

thingNY creates largest commission of experimental music in the history of email spam

In late October I received an email message that said:

We are thingNY, a collective of composer-instrumentalists based in New York City. On Saturday, December 19, 2009, we will be presenting a concert called SPAM, based on responses we get to this very email. Congratulations! If you're reading this email, you've been selected to write us some music…

I thought "that's cool," wrote the deadline into my calendar, and promptly got back to work on a paid commission. Then, a couple of days before the final deadline, they sent a reminder. Their timing was good: I was in the middle of a writer's block on my commission. So I sat down and wrote CLIMATE CHANGE in about 7 hours for the full band and sent it off.

I had been reading a lot of Naomi Klein, and remembered one particular passage from an article on the Copenhagen Climate Conference on her web site that I went back to as the source material for the narrator part for the piece. After performing some analysis of the text, I extracted keywords that define the structure of the piece. It was a great breath of fresh air to write…and as soon as I had finished it and hit the send button, I got back to work on a piece that had been blocked (the 2010 commission). Logjam gone!

The work will be presented this Saturday night in New York City, along with compositions from:

Jude Traxler, Heber Schuenemann, David Finlay, Eli Stine, Juliana Steele, Kyle Gann, Marina Rosenfeld, Scott Wollschleger, Sally Williams, Kathy Supove, Moritz Eggert, Daniel Goode, Luciano Azzigotti, Greg Kirkelie, Carr, Joe Kneer, Joseph Nechvatal, Mary Jennings, Brian McCorkle, Paula Diehl, Johnny Kira, Pall Ivan Palsson, Michael Cooper, Emily Koh, Terence Zahner, Joshua Kopecek, William Brittelle, Christian Gentry, Gabrielle Gamberini, Aaron Feinstein, Douglas DaSilva, Greg Pfieffer, Brad Baumgardner, Dave Golbert, Paul Burnell, Jim Legge, David Morneau, Andrea La Rose, Holly Eve Gerard, Gary A. Edwards, Brian McCorkle, Matthew Reid, Gail Noor, Jonah Bloch-Johnson, Greg A Steinke, Tania Leon, Alexandra Fol, Lucy Koteen, Luca Vanneschi, Sarah Prusoff, Ilias Pantoleon, Luis Menacho, David Simons, David Snow, David Drexler, Mike von der Nahmer, Martha Mooke, Art Jarvinen, David Wolfson, Neil Lyndon, Piotr Grella-Mozejko, David Broome, Matt Malsky, Linda Joe, Greg A Steinke, Nate Trier, Mats Eden, Mort Stine, Ophir Ilzetzki, Yianni Naslas, Jane Stuppin, Jessica Quinones, David Snow, Mark Stephen Brooks, Christopher Fulkerson, Ryan Muncy, Barry Seroff, Emanuel Ayvas, Stephanie Miller, Beth Tambor, Pauline Oliveros, Michael Gordon, Adam Reifsteck, Janet Maguire, Jiri Kaderabek, Marilyn Shrude, Joe Hallman, Mimi Kim, Doug Yule, Jeffrey Young, Tom Lopez, Andrew Griffin, Gene Pritsker, Winnie Sunshine, Sima Shamsi, Wally Gunn, Carl Danielsen, Mike Hanf, and Erin Rogers.  

Here's their advert:

thingNY presents: SPAM
Sat. Dec. 19, 2009  - 7:00pm

The University of the Streets
130 E 7th Street (at Ave. A)
New York, NY
Admission: $15 at the door
$10 at

thingNY will boldly state that it has created the largest commission of experimental music in the history of email-submitted spam. Hundreds of new works, words and images from all over the globe, including composers, performers, artists, the Bloomberg administration, peers, subordinates, ordinates, our moms, automated responses, vacation replies and perhaps one or two threats.

We are thingNY, a collective of composer-instrumentalists based in New York City. thingNY is a not-for-profit collective of composer-performers who exist (1) to create, promote, and perform bold and imaginative experimental and improvisational concert art music of the highest caliber, (2) to champion the music of exciting emerging and established composers with skill and enthusiasm, and (3) to collaborate across disciplines with other artists in order to bring new music to new audiences.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Go to Decimating the Arts in Canada blog post.

The final report from the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage is in and clearly states that cutting the Grants to Specialized Music Recording and Distribution grants is bad for the music sector and bad for the economy. Now it is up to the Federal Government to decide to do the right thing and restore this very small percentage of their total budget.

Click on the link above to read a press release on the subject.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Hockey, Music, and Painting

I am in the middle of writing the last movement – titled "Hockey" – of my Chamber Concerto for the Turning Point Ensemble. As I fill up the pages of music for 16 musicians, I am struck by the similarities between the movement and rhythm of hockey and the lines and planes of an artist's finished canvas (those influenced by abstract expressionism). Working with these lines and densities of movement that are the visual feast of hockey, I am once again struck by how similar painting and composing are, especially as the ensemble of musicians becomes larger. Everything is a balancing act of line, density and movement. As I "pass the puck" among the musicians, the principles of orchestration that are taught in textbooks and in the classics of the repertoire continue to press their case to me. Depending on how much energy there is in the writing at any given moment, I need to adjust the orchestration of the line, or the various other elements, by densifying, colouring and altering with auxilliary materials, and so on. Of course, beyond "the classics," there is the whole range of experimental orchestration and composition that has occurred in music in the last one hundred years, some of which goes well beyond "line and plane." That becomes an issue of writing, rather than, strictly-speaking, "orchestration."

A blank orchestral score is like a blank canvas. And once you commit to certain materials, just like the first strokes on the canvas, your process is under way. Even if, as in a de Kooning painting, you end up obliterating or entirely recontextualizing the original material, it is still the cause of much that has happened on the canvas.

So I've taken a little break to give you a report on the commission so far, as promised! Now back to thickening, thinning, "scratching-out," recontextualizing, etc.!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Embracing the power chord and Ockhegem with 11 guitars

Over the past couple of days I did a new mix to demo my piece for 9 electric guitars and 2 electric basses called "11". I wrote this piece back in 2000, at the height of my embrace of familiar musical materials and a celebration of the early influences that inspired my young music-making. Out of this period came some strong post-minimalist works, like Forging Utopia and Raven Steals the Light for orchestra, the cabaret-like dramatic/political work Raven's Cryˆ for voices, piano and tape, and 11.

11 takes the attitude of rock electric guitar playing, the polyphonic procedures of Ockhegem and the driving power chords of the rock I grew up on – I might name The Who as the big influence – and rolls it into an hallucinogenic mixer. I conducted the premiere performance at SONIC BOOM in Vancouver in 2000 but it hasn't been played since. Any takers?

You can have a listen at this link:
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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Turning Point Ensemble workshop and the concept of community

Just back from Turning Point Ensemble workshop where they read what I've written so far for the Olympic commission. What a great team! A number of issues emerged to do with notation of microtones in purely-tuned music and controlled improvisation. Warning: this discussion is highly musically technical until the last two paragraphs title GRATITUDE, CONTINUITY AND MENTORSHIP.

I had written several passages using low tonic notes over which the natural harmonics are played, sometimes melodically, and at other times in closed-spaced diatonic clusters. The notion is that one can play just intonation music by ear naturally, by simply playing intervals without beating, that is to say the natural sounds of open vibrating strings and pipes. In fact, most musicians do this naturally when they are playing renaissance music or other modal music. I had oversignified the pure intervals by adding two notations to "altered" notes: an encircled number for the number of the natural interval, as well as an altered accidental (altered sharp and flat signs).

It was recommended that only one sign be used and that the numbers are preferable to the altered accidentals. I did raise the point that musicians are used to seeing accidentals in front of notes and so a circled number placed above the stem of a note might be missed, whereas the altered accidental goes right in front of the note. Still the consensus was to go for the encircled numbers.

After some discussion several things became clear: 

1] that musicians can play these well-tuned intervals without extra notation in front of the notes when the harmony is clear and there is no question in the mind of the musicians playing, that they must play the major third and just minor seventh, for example;
2] in music with close harmony composed of neighbouring harmonics, e.g. the 8th through 12th harmonics, and where there is chromatic movement between one chord and the next with shifting root resonance (tonic), indications of exactly which tuning is required, in relation to equal temperement, is desireable. This becomes ever more pertinent when the root note is altered by a quarter-tone;
3] that the ear is the best guide as a general rule;
4] that making intervals sound pure takes only a very minor adjustment in relation to equal temperment, and that sometimes the musician may find that they have already made the adjustment naturally in the musical context.

An absence or paucity of information will raise too many questions among musicians. So I tend to provide as much information as possible.  In this case, I learned that once the concept is understood, and the intention of the music is clear, that efficient communication is the most important consideration in the writing of the score, the actual notation used to communicate to the performer.


Professional workshops of this kind are invaluable to the creative process. I was able to work with the musicians on a certain section of the piece that I had simply stopped writing. I had arrived at a point in the music where I wanted a dense undulating mass of low growling sound over which the high winds play very rapid passages that whip around in circular patterns. I composed controlled chaos and then asked the conductor to stop conducting the beat, but asked the musicians to continue playing. The written music is what I call my textural canonic technique, whereby large lava-like sound masses behave in a way that is superficially chaotic, but with an underlying self-similarity of material that allows movement between complete compositional control and improvisation. The objective of this kind of music is to get the listener to listen into the details of the sound composition: the interaction of small changes in sound qualities among the instruments, and new gestural relationships between instrument groups (e.g. snap pizz on strings and random strokes on the drum); and at another perceptual level, a kind of "everybody-talking-at-once-saying-the-same-thing phenomenon.
This kind of music comes out of my experience working directly with sounds in my electroacoustic music studio, where the behaviour of sound, as observed in different types of recorded sounds, is the source for inspiration (i.e. the energy and colour of sound itself). In this way, when the right sonic "situation" is set up in the composed music, it is possible to leave the written music as is and simply ask the musicians to change their way of playing from time to time, e.g. now play the same passage but sometimes attack the first note in an exaggerated way, say, with snap pizz, sul ponticello, loud staccato, etc.

One last thing about continuity in the arts: this group of musicians has played together now for many years for the love of the music and exploration of The New. The working situation that I enjoyed today is the result of community building in the arts. This sense of community and a desire to communicate with an audience is what culture is all about. The human spirit shines through these experiences because the situation is made right. My gratitude goes to all of the musicians and to conductor Owen Underhill, who all worked hard, asked tough questions, and helped us all to understand how to put this music together. This has helped me to see how I might continue to write the rest of the piece. And my heartfelt thanks to Rob McLeod and the students of Seycove Community School in North Vancouver for hosting the event, to Jeremy Berkman for his inspired administration of the event, and to composer Linda Catlin Smith – whose beautiful work for voice and orchestra Cut Flowers was workshopped before mine – for staying to listen to my music and for being a second set of ears to hear, to comment, and especially to discuss the effectiveness of the writing (not to forget the reminders at the end of the improvisation/composition section of my "lava music")!

All of this is only possible because of an artistic continuity and comradery that occurs through mentorship. Mentorship ensures continuity and community. Once this concept is embraced, mentorship works in all directions: young artists admire more senior or seasoned artists and learn from them. And they, in turn inspire not only the next generation, but then they become mentors to their own mentors, who see in the younger generation experiences that they themselves now want to embrace. In this way a whole culture is built up and a great flowering takes place. This celebration of the human spirit is what is torn down by suited men who ask to see your bottom line, rather than attend your concert series.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Interview with John Adams | Great Performances | PBS

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic: Interview with John Adams | Great Performances | PBS

"You have to take the long view that what I do as a classical musician is going to have a long shelf life." – John Adams on communicating with the audience.

To think about the effect that your creation will have on others is at the core of most art-making, whether the creator is experimental or more broadly communicative. Art-making is just part of culture, like food, clothing, wine, sport, etc. It is the expression of our social being in the world. And so it will be complex, like our existence in the world, full of joy and sorrow, struggle and triumph. All of these human emotions are shared by most art, whether the art be of organized sound, visual space, or movement or words. There will be difficult art and easy art. But when a composer (or any creator) takes on the responsibility to engage, through his/her writing, the audience who will hear (see) it, that is the long view. That audience may be small, large, highly-educated, or not: it is the intention to connect with "the other" that creates the "long view" to which Adams refers.
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Monday, October 12, 2009

John Oliver opera "Alternate Visions" now available on DVD

The lyric opera company Chants Libres (Montréal) is pleased to announce the release of the DVD made from the World Premiere performance of the opera Alternate Visions by composer John Oliver and writer Genni Gunn, both of Vancouver. The DVD was recorded during the first run of the opera in Montreal from May 2 to 5, 2007. For more information about the opera and the release, please visit the web page.

In an environment where various musical styles, virtual and real universes, robotics and intelligent fabrics are the norm… what happens to physical human relationships?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Update on the Vancouver 2010 Olympics commission for Turning Point Ensemble

Last night the Turning Point Ensemble performed a great concert at Ryerson United Church in Vancouver featuring the World Premiere of a new work by Vancouver composer Jacquie Leggatt and a program of great Canadian music. A great concert: polished and exciting performances.

But today's post is my 2010 Olympic commission update.  I delivered the parts to the ensemble of the music I have written so far for the chamber concerto commission. I have completed two of the five movements:

1. Curling
2. Short-track speed skating

The other three movements are still in sketch form.

It has been fascinating to write music that is somewhere in a nether-world between evoking the spirit of the games, and sonifying the actual rhythms of the winter sports. The musicians are athletes! They are competing, and then at other times they are working as a team. There are so many similarities between music and sports that I find myself scratching my head when people try to say that arts and culture are somehow a world apart from sports. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Look at their movement! It's all a dance, whether the dancers be actual dancers, or musicians dancing through their movements, or hockey players twirling on the ice. All are negotiating ups and downs, fast and slow…

Yet to come: movements 3, 4, & 5:

3. Skeleton
4. Freestyle skiing
5. Hockey

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Standing ovation for Kai Ma and John Oliver at Typhoon Morakot Fundraising Concert

On Friday September 18, I accompanied the wonderful Taiwanese-born Ottawa counter-tenor Kai Ma in a fundraising benefit concert for the survivors of the Morakot Typhoon that devastated southern Taiwan last month. The concert was organized by the Egret Music Centre in Vancouver, and all proceeds from the tickets sales of the concert went to the relief fund.

Our program of music by Frescobaldi, Grandi, Dowland, Mozart and Beethoven was given a standing ovation. We performed an encore medley of two Taiwanese songs. At the end of the piece, I joined Kai Ma in song; I sang a few phrases in Taiwanese, then we sang in duet to close the show. It was lots of fun. I also played three guitar solos to introduce each section of the program.

I haven't performed early music in quite a while and was thrilled to revisit some "old friend" composers. Since I spend the majority of my time composing at a desk these days, it was refreshing to spend more time than usual practising my trusty Kohno No. 30 classical guitar in preparation for the concert. Kai made the task an easy one; he is an inspiring singer to accompany.

Needless to say, if any concert presenter reading this is interested in our program, we'd be glad to discuss an engagement.

I'd like to express my thanks to Cecilia Chueh, director of the Egret Music Centre, for organizing this event and inviting us to perform.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mel Bay releases classical guitar anthology including 4 Oliver compositions.

Contemporary Anthology of Solo Guitar Music

By Charles Postlewate

I am proud to announce the release of this Mel Bay publication, to which I contributed 4 compositions, titled Sea Spray 1, 2, 3 & 4.

This is the first compilation of guitar music specifically composed for right-hand technique that includes the little finger. The 57 compositions include original pieces in the Easy-Intermediate to Intermediate -Advanced levels by renowned guitarist/composers from Europe, North America, South America and the Caribbean. Music by Ernesto Cordero, Carlos Dorado, Jim Ferguson, David Flynn, Gerald Garcia, John Hall, Ricardo Iznaola, James Lentini, John Oliver, Charles Postlewate, Mirko Schrader, Burkhard “Buck” Wolters and Luis Zea show the advantages of a five-finger technique in the playing of scales, chords, arpeggios, tremolos and harmonics. They also show the advantages of using the little finger for speed, accuracy, strength and balance. All of these compositions are edited and fingered by Postlewate, pioneer in the use of a five-finger technique. This book is a companion to Anthology of Nineteenth Century Guitar Studies for Five Fingers of the Right Hand (MB21153), compiled and fingered by Leonhard Beck and edited by Charles Postlewate. Standard notation only. In English and Spanish.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Labyrinth Event a success!

The August 11 performances at Christ Church Cathedral of John Burke's Labyrinth music were a success. Both performances sold out (likely because only 100 tickets sold for each). The continuous performance, in about a dozen sections, created an intense experience, as the music journeyed from simple minimalism to rather more intense musical surprises. Due to the repetition of musical material for long stretches of time with minimal or gradual changes in texture, the sudden changes to a new section had a similar effect to a Philip Glass score, but the harmonic movement is entirely a different beast, taking this music to a place rather far removed from the OpArt-related Glass style.

Today's entry reports my thoughts on the first performance of "La Sombra Espiral" for guitar and string quartet. This special event required that I sit on stage in the orchestra waiting to play for 40 minutes! For a number of reasons, that became a rather unnerving experience. First of all, it was my first participation as musician in this ritual event, and I had essentially no idea how "La Sombra" would sit in the overall concept. Then there is the first performance jitters, which are to be expected.

It is an unusual thing for classical musicians to perform while people engage in any activity other than concentrated concert-hall listening, especially with music designed to engage the listener in a special way, as Burke's music does. So as I sat for 40 minutes watching people walk the labyrinth – which sometimes became quite crowded – I thought about how they might be dividing their concentration. Would they bump into each other if they got lost listening to the music while walking? Would they be able to listen and pay attention to the walking? With the labyrinth so full of people for the first half of the performance, I became convinced that it may have been a wise decision to limit the number of people who could actually walk the labyrinth at any one time. Then, a surprising thing happened: as soon as it was my turn to play, the labyrinth was suddenly empty. This completely changed the atmosphere in the room, as now everyone was seated and it felt just like a regular concert. So suddenly, all eyes were on the musicians. Okay: normal concert now… Strangely, I had prepared myself to play the piece to motivate labyrinth walkers: now it was just a regular concert!

The second performance at 9 p.m. was much better than the first for all the usual reasons, but also because the labyrinth had the perfect number of people on it when my piece came around. Having bult up certain expectations the first time around which were not realized in the first performance, I was ready for the ideal conditions of the second and so was quite pleased with how things went. And the first performance jitters were behind me.

I think John Burke's labyrinth music project is very special. It posits to help those who attend to achieve a catharsis, or to "work through personal issues." The event needs to be presented and handled in a very sensitive way – as it was here, with the possible exception of the traffic problem mentioned above – that is informed by the feedback of those who attend the event. In this way, it can build a dedicated following for a special type of sensitive music-lover who may also be seeking to attend the event to reflect on their own existence. In this way, it is not so far removed from the goals of those who attend performances of the more serious works from the classical music canon.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

First performance of Labyrinth Sold Out

MusicFest Vancouver's first performance (6:45 pm) of the Labyrinth music of John Burke at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver on August 11 is sold out! Get your tickets in advance only from Ticketmaster for the second show at 9 pm. Only 100 lucky souls will get to witness each show!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

La Sombra Espiral for guitar and string quartet by John Burke

On August 11 I will be performing (classical guitar) the premiere of La Sombra Espiral for guitar and string quartet by Canadian composer John Burke at MusicFest Vancouver, a work I commissioned from John a few years ago.

This music, designed both as concert music and as sonic "assistance" for those engaged in walking the labyrinth at Vancouver's Christ Church cathedral, is hypnotic and continuous, yet evolving in ways certainly unexpected if compared to the usual reference points for this sort of music: minimalism and New Age music. John Burke's music is unclassifiable in this regard.

My anecdote for today is to shed a little light into the process of internalizing the music, that is, practising and preparing for the concert. Usually a musician will prepare the music by identifying the difficult passages, working them until they are smooth and under the fingers, and then integrating them into the musical passage in which they exist. With minimal music, the challenge is more often mental and muscular stamina: the repetition and the counting put me, as a musician, in a different relationship with the sound I am making. There is time to "view oneself" performing the music. But such viewing is a distraction and the result of a busy mind. So I find I need to conquer the technical challenges, just as usual, but then, to actually perform the music, I need to put my mind into a meditative mode. In this respect, performing Burke's piece requires of me to enter the stream of the music in a similar way that the audience might: to quiet the mind and the body, and to focus on the sound. Those walking the labyrinth may have a two-fold task, making the possible rewards of the experience double: focus on the walk and the music at the same time. For those who enter the stream of John Burke's composition entirely, there will be a few surprises.

There are two performances of the work on August 11, the first at 6:45 and the second at 9 pm. More information here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Chenoa Anderson's "Birds of Paradise Lost" completed

I've just finished the first version of my composition for amplified flute and computer for the great Canadian flutist Chenoa Andreson. The work is designed to be performed by a duo of solo flutist and computer musician. The flutist plays into a microphone which is attached to the audio interface of the computer. Once in the computer, the flute sound is transformed in real time to be sent out the loudspeakers in the hall.

The computer part is uniquely designed to run exclusively with Ableton's "LIVE" software. For anyone unfamiliar with the software, it allows the mixture of realtime processing and the launching of audio files with an interface that is easy to set up and use. The company also provides a 14-day completely functional trial version that allows the user to open any previously-saved files and play and manipulate them (but saving is disabled). This allows a composer to create an entire working document that can be sent anywhere in the world because the software runs on both Windows and Macintosh computers. The computer keyboard is used to control the flow of the processing and computer performance, so no extra devices are needed to perform the work. All that is needed is audio cables to go from computer to sound mixer. Very simple, this piece could be played anywhere.

The title comes from the nature of the sound materials themselves. Chenoa sent me recordings of herself performing various special flute sounds and techniques. After I multitracked the sounds and created the first few minutes, the title came to me, and it has stuck. (The connection to the Milton text is an echo rather than any direct reference to meaning in this great classic.)

The solo acoustic instrument (here the flute) is processed through various multiplication and sound colour manipulation techniques to create an entirely new sonic beast that evokes soundscapes and sound textures one would normally associate with nature and/or industrial noise; yet within the large sound, one hears the "motives" that are the source of it all, as performed by the soloist. With electronic music, it is possible to go further than "motivic development" as the primary source of forward movement in music. Where the primacy of sound rules, excitement is created using other means than the (harmonic) modulation techniques of times past. We speak of "textural transformation" rather than "modulation" – although "modulation" in electronic music refers not to chord changes, but to "frequency modulation", which is another beast. "Birds of Paradise Lost" presents a seeming contradiction between consonance and dissonance, with microtonal chromaticism colliding with beautiful tonal resonances.

Is "dissonance" defined purely by the resonating/beating properties of musical intervals and sounds? Or does the rate of change also contribute to perceived "dissonance"? As Stockhausen, Grisey and others have observed, the structure of moving sound, from still (static) to hyperactive (chaotically dense movement) is a complex web of interdependent components. For example, a dense cluster of quiet, slow-moving microtones can be quite peaceful if the beating of the intervals – the sound texture – has a very slow rate of change. It is the behaviour of the sound over time that defines its level of tension for the listener. As is often the case in my music with manipulated sound, the texture may seem fairly busy, but the underlying rate of change is often quite slow. This allows the listener into my sound world, which often contains very high, sometimes "rough" sounds.

This is music for those who would like to hear music beyond the equal-tempered music for pianos and pop-computing: music for curious minds and thirsty ears.

Premiere yet to be determine, likely 2010.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Turning Point Ensemble commissions Oliver for 2010 Olympics Cultural Olympiad

Although news of this commission was announced almost a year ago, my work on this project is now in full swing. As is so often the case, my process began with the exploration of ideas about the commission that are quite broad, encompassing everything from the specific instrumentation, to the theme of the concert, to "extra-musical" inspirations.

This post is an invitation to follow my musings on this topic – "the Olympic Chamber Concerto" – in this blog. This work will be the focus of my creative work for much of the remainder of 2009. the premiere is scheduled for the Queen Elisabeth Playhouse Theatre in Vancouver Canada on Febrary 24, 2010. See the Turning Point web page for more details.

Meanwhile, visit often for other updates about projects for ARS NOVA of Sweden, Canadian flutist Chenoa Anderson, the Vancouver Intercultural Orchestra and others, as well my latest recording project.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Artist's Statement: Driven by Sound

The 20th century saw an unprecedented expansion of musical invention, the most notable of which were what I call the hidden and obscure arts of neo-medieval post-serialism derived from Webern and Varese. The great music of the 20th century is full of remarkable works that are sometimes frightening in their originality and daring. A new kind of beauty can be found in these works for the curious and persistent listener.

But what about the music of the future? If the 20th century raised questions about the relation of music to psyche, perception, number and social theories, will the music of the 21st century ask different questions? What about "New Music" in the 21st century?

When people ask me what kind of music I write, I say "New Music." I do not mean avant-garde, experimental, serial, neo-romantic, post-modern, minimal, maximal, etc. These are 20th century terms. No. I mean, "made recently." But we need more than simply "New" in a society dominated by marketing. My term for the new music of the 21st century is "New World Music."

At the beginning of the 20th century, Russian painter Kandinsky described three "mystical necessities" that define artwork of lasting value: The Personal, The Ephemeral, and The Eternal.

1. Every artist, as creator, must express what is peculiar to himself (element of personality).
2. Every artist as a child of his time, must express what is peculiar to his own time (elements of style ...)
3. Every artist, as servant of art, must express what is peculiar to art in general (element of the pure and eternally artistic which pervades every individual, every people, every age, and which is to be seen in the works of every artist, of every nation, and of every period, and which, being the principal elements of art, knows neither time nor space.)"
[from W. Kandinsky: "On the Spiritual in Art"]

I believe there is a well-spring of desire among the public to hear new music that takes these responsibilities seriously, that engages with society through its expression, that has immediate impact yet sustains a lasting impression due to its intrinsic value. In short, music that ignites the flame within because it is a gift to listeners, music without borders, "world music." Popular music fanatics receive this gift from their artists regularly since good popular music so easily communicates personality and style.

It is the artist's sensibility to the third "mystical necessity" that has the potential to secure his work as art of lasting value. Kandinsky's "art in general" is what I would call "World Art," knowing "neither time nor space." "World Music" means music that transcends boundaries and cultures, that synthesizes the musics of the world into a global expression. This already happens in much popular music, where the mixture of musical personalities and styles, from within and among different cultures, is increasingly common. Yet this merging generally eludes New Music today.

The 20th century was a century of experimentation and reaction. The scary first 15 years of the century brought us unprecedented musical invention in the works of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Varese, Ives and others, to which the rest of the century responded. The obscure hidden voice of the 20th century began with chromaticism, which begat atonality, which begat 12-tone music, which begat serial music, which (justifiably) spawned several reactionary movements of which three are the most visible: 1] towards improvisation and arbitrary musical organization (or none at all); 2] towards referential music, of which neo-romanticism was the first "ism"; and 3] towards music based on phenomenology, the study of sound organization ideas and sound itself and their effect on experience and consciousness. The third of these trends is a holistic path that embraces Kandinsky's three necessities, principally because it is based on sound perception and the psyche.

Most music of the world is organized with melody, harmony and rhythm. The New World Music I want to hear and to write will embrace the realty and potential of these powerful aspects of music and will also integrate those advances of the last century that best enhance and intensify cultural and musical experience. Audiences will listen for more than the traditional elements, to experience a music of many voices, rhythms, harmonies and textures, to experience the physical power of sound and the cultural power of events driven by sound. This will not be a secret society music. There may be hidden voices, mysteries, and obscurities within the music, but they will not obscure the music's power. Composers face a challenge: to give to the world the gift of music, the gift of culture - beyond the personal, beyond the ephemeral, toward the eternal.

Copyright © 1995 & 2008 John Oliver