Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker


The Upstream Orchestra                                                                      ©Upstream Music Association 2012

You know you’ve just gotten in under the wire when the prop plane you’re on pulls up to the gate at the Halifax airport while the outbound Air Canada jets are being de-iced, a crane extended over each wing, the de-icing agent blowing horizontally like the snow. That’s January in Nova Scotia, and some Canadians are quick to say, in essence: Buck up, lad; it’s winter.

Still, the snow storm that ripped through Halifax on the first day of the Open Waters festival was fierce enough to prevent cellist Christopher Both from driving the 100 kilometers from Wolfville to make subText: subSet’s set. Undoubtedly, the improvising ensemble’s approach to their set was substantially altered at the last minute, but bass clarinetist Jeff Reilly, pianist Steven Naylor and drummer Tom Roach still created engaging, even lyrical music (Both – the cellist – was in fine form the next night with Sanctuary, a trio with Reilly and pianist Peter Togni that improvises on Gregorian chants to luminous effect). It was an object lesson in improvisation: Deal with the moment.

The heavy weather seemed to be a fitting metaphor for what the infrastructure supporting creative music is facing not only in the Atlantic provinces, but throughout Canada. A fast-moving storm is off the mark, though; Snowmageddon overstates the situation; whatever the best image may be, it would need to suggest the antithesis of momentary – something involving permafrost, perhaps. Subsequently, every performance at Open Waters – be it the deconstruction of Canadian pop music by Liona Boyz, the trio of guitarist Geordie Haley, cellist Norman Adams and drummer D’Arcy Gray, or the provocative social commentary of soprano Janice Jackson’s “Oiko/Ecos” for voice, computer and video images – needed to be heard not only on their respective merits, but also within the context of the current environment.

A wag once described Canadian improvised music this way: A group of Canadians reach a doorway; being well mannered, each insists that another go first, resulting in no one passing through the door. That stereotype was strongly rebuked by robust sets by, among others, saxophonist Paul Cram’s trio with bassist Danny Parker and drummer Doug Cameron and Zokugaku, a synth and samples fueled trio with Haley, Cameron and keyboardist Tim Crofts. While there is an appealing mild streak in what can be construed from Open Waters as an Atlantic temperament – typified by the humor in the rhythmic use of video clips of Toscanini and other conductors in bassist Andrew Reed Miller’s cross-platform solo piece, “L-EDGY” – it is salted by occasional unhinged intensity, which Miller demonstrated in furiously bowed passages accompanied by the rapid scanning of a vintage Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial. 

These complementary traits can often register as dichotomous in a set of improvised music; they require a cohering aura of persona, which takes years if not decades to refine – and are best demonstrated in small groups. The case in point for this at Open Waters was Aperture Trio, comprised of vocalist Tena Palmer, guitarist Arthur Bull and Cram. Their respective resources are impressive: Palmer combines precise diction (if the term can be applied to her vast array of vocalizations) and a keen feel for dynamics; Bull’s lines have a flinty centrifugal force, even though he plays at relatively low volume and without effects; Cram’s tenor can be simultaneously muscular and delicate, while his clarinet retains a full woody sound even when he soars. These veterans know what to do when presented with an open door – they go for it, knowing it will sort out.  

This is a proposition that becomes more complicated with each musician added to the ensemble; hence, the advent of conductions, the shaping of a performance in real time by one or more conductors so that there isn’t a pile-up at the door. On the final night of performances at the Sir James Dunn Theatre on the campus of Dalhousie University, Michael Robson and Chris Mitchell, both of whom currently study composition with Dalhousie professor Jerome Blais, led a 12-piece ensemble in new conductions; after intermission, Reilly led the 18-piece Upstream Orchestra through Barry Guy’s “Witch Gong Game II/10,” a piece Guy conducted with the ensemble in ‘97. Robson and Mitchell’s pieces placed conduction within the context of contemporary chamber music, both composers taking what seemed to be a somewhat cautious approach to granting members of the ensemble greater degrees of expressive latitude. Ultimately, both Robson and Mitchell came off as all-in risk adverse, their pieces facile and coherent, but lacking alchemy.

Reilly, on the other hand, had a slant on “Witch Gong Game II/10” that yielded a thrilling performance. Whereas Guy sometimes opts for pure glorious explosiveness in his conductions, Reilly somewhat capped the spikes in intensity; Crofts, Naylor and percussionists Gray, Bill Brennan, David Burton and Rob Power were particularly skillful in bringing the music to the boiling point without letting it spill over gratuitously. Reilly was more deliberate than Guy in building his interpretation around the magisterial theme late in the piece, one of Guy’s most affecting. There’s a passage like this in every large-scale Guy composition, but Guy tends not to give it centerpiece status like Reilly did on this occasion, letting it be another in a sequence of events. Simultaneously, the piece accommodated something of a recapitulation of the entire festival, as Adams, Haley and others shone again when called upon to solo or improvise in small groups. In short, the orchestra blew the doors off the hinges – the best way to end a festival.    

If only such performances could open doors – even one – for funding new music in Canada, given that traditional sources have frozen with little indication they will thaw in the next few years. Even if the economy were to recover substantially in short order, music communities in the Atlantic region would likely be the last to benefit – they are small and are scattered over a large area, with a lower national and international profile than their counterparts in other parts of the country.

Traditionally, composers and improvisers in the region have been hale and hearty DIY types; when they have networked, it has been on a person-to-person basis or through educational institutions and organizations like Upstream Music Association, Open Waters’ presenter, who work primarily, if not exclusively in one city or town. However, the severity of the current climate has prompted discussions for a regional organization – the Atlantic Canada Artmusic Network. 

The rub of creating advocacy and fund-raising organizations for new music in the current environment is that such organizations, historically, have needed a multi-year track record of increasing accomplishments to attract sufficient public, private and corporate funding to really advance their cause, a difficult task even in good times. Additionally, an Atlantic network would necessitate power-sharing among individuals and concerns who have labored largely unsupported to carve a niche for their own music.

Subsequently, much of the discussion during a meeting of artists and presenters at Open Waters centered on the necessity for the proposed Network to be responsive to its grassroots constituents and not become a top-down bureaucracy, yet another door to be opened. This was essentially the issue set of last year’s meeting at Open Waters, according to attendees. Articulating issues is necessary for endeavors like a regional network; but constituents need to be cautioned against becoming stuck in a loop, where articulation simply prolongs itself instead of inciting action. Knock on the door; bang on it and shout if necessary: It’s winter; it’s freezing out here; let us in.

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