a column by
Stuart Broomer

John Oswald, © 2021 Lily Ramsey

Decades ago, I read about a Mozart festival in Estonia. Every ensemble in the country would play the same piece at the same time so that everyone in the country would be able to hear it. If you were walking, you’d pass from one group playing it to another. I thought I remembered reading about it in a book by or about John Cage, or perhaps heard about it from the late Canadian/ Estonian composer Udo Kasemets who had a keen interest in relationships between space and sound. I might have even described it in a 1972 grant application, though with random or improvised music in a park standing in for Mozart and Estonia. The usual searches, however, turned up nothing. I asked a musician who knew Cage’s work well and who had worked extensively with Kasemets, far more than my own brief association. He was unfamiliar with it, but he reached out to a Canadian/Estonian improviser on my behalf. She, too, was unfamiliar with it, but suggested Estonian institutions with query desks and asked other Estonian musicians. No one, including a helpful person at the Estonian Music Information Centre in Tallinn, could find anything about it or anyone who knew about it, though she seemed to find the idea charming. I heard as well that there might be a gap in the records arising between the Soviet era and the current democracy. I stopped before I became a complete pest, sorry to have offered such a puzzle to generous, helpful people, but I will retain a belief that such a festival took place regularly, even though further, much more casual searches, failed to find it in Latvia, Lithuania or even Finland, which one might expect to have something like that, even with Sibelius.

I heard my first live music in about 16 months on a Monday in late July. It couldn't have been better, and it couldn’t have been more Canadian unless it had included the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and their musical ride. It was literally a walk in the woods, though it was also a walk in the woods as a work.

Faced with the challenges that COVID-19 has presented, resulting in the cancellation of the 2020 edition of the Guelph Jazz Festival, the current festival directors Scott Thomson and Karen Ng have been creating novel performance possibilities, works that emphasize the significance and meaning of the audience’s role. In the spring they created a series called One on One a series in which individual musicians performed short solo concerts for individual listeners, suitably socially distanced, the volunteer audients then creating a short, written response to the experience.

Arborienteering, one of Thomson’s cartographic compositions, was a significantly larger event with a larger audience as well – two performances, one per day over two days, July 25-26. 15 improvisers were spread around a 1.25-kilometer (3/4 of a mile) track in the Arboretum of Guelph University, a large forested/agricultural research area (the university started life as the Ontario Agricultural College many years ago). The players were arrayed from 100 to perhaps 250 feet apart, each played for ten minutes, starting at five-minute intervals, so that after the first soloist, each musician would begin playing with one musician for the first five minutes then another musician would join in to begin their 10-minute cycle, some luminous moments of convergence occurring in the process. Then the whole cycle started again, the two cycles lasting 2 hours, 35 minutes.

Thomson has been creating cartographic pieces since 2006 and each insists on the listener’s individual experience, an element that has in some ways dovetailed with the COVID-19 restrictions. The earliest ones involved a Toronto street festival and another piece, AGOrienteering (2011) for the Art Gallery of Ontario, had members of a brass ensemble following individual paths through different galleries, eventually converging in a central location. The first version of Arborienteering took place in a downtown Toronto park in 2008. There’s further continuity between projects. Three members of the Radiant Brass Ensemble that played in the AGO piece ‒ trumpeters Rebecca Hennessy and Jim Lewis, and trombonist Doug Tielli ‒ took part in Arborienteering (Guelph).

The walk in the woods, wasn’t just any wood, but an invitation to a specific and detailed locale, in which a neighboring organism had a complementary significance to the musician playing beneath its limbs or beside its trunk. Emphasizing that sense of intimate attentiveness extended to the 38-page program, Arborienteering (Guelph), distributed to everyone attending. On facing pages, a silhouette of a specimen tree and its description were matched with a silhouette and corresponding description of the musician who would be playing next to it.

Courtesy Guelph Jazz Festival

Audience members were free to engage the path in any way they wished. You could get up close or stay far away, focus on a particular soloist or find an intermedia spot where two voices balanced. There were loud and soft instruments – as well as instruments being played loudly and softly – sprinkled throughout the Arboretum. You could experiment with volume just by moving around, but Araz Salek’s tar ‒ an Iranian lute ‒ is a quiet instrument, and string basses (played by Rob Clutton and Ben Finley) don’t project far in the open air. Tenor saxophonist Paul Newman, playing beside a narrow foot bridge, may have had one of the potentially loudest instruments, but he created a series of gentle warbles and muffled multiphonics that had, in a woodland setting, much in common with bird song. Clarinetist Naomi McCarroll-Butler was similarly subtle, almost part of the flora and fauna. Percussionist Germaine Liu spent much of her segment drumming lightly on a vibraphone with gloved hands, creating a quiet, shimmering oscillation that could suggest a gentle breeze wafting through glass and metal wind chimes.

There was a kind of circular movement to the music itself as well as to the circular path. The first and final instrumentalists, Rebecca Hennessey and Jim Lewis were both trumpeters. Hennessy launched the piece with a brightly articulated strongly linear, motivic improvisation, and Lewis started 70 minutes later with a similar approach, audible at some distance, but also close to the starting point where Hennessy would launch the second circuit through the fifteen musicians, thus bridging the two halves with a strongly focussed trumpet duet. In a strange echo of the stark solo trumpet’s significant military history, the piece would begin with a solo trumpet and conclude with a solo trumpet two and a half hours later, suggestive perhaps of the officially authorized military bugle calls, “Reveille” and “Last Post”.

Nick Fraser, © 2021 Lily Ramsey

If Paul Newman elected a birdsong-like approach to outdoor improvisation, some of the other reed players genuinely played out. John Oswald, the second musician in, began in duet with Hennessy’s trumpet, contrasting her clarity with explosive honks and wails and distorted runs from high to low, gradually mutating his approach into intensely speech-like grumblings as Nick Fraser’s drumming – much of it characterized by rapid, even, genuinely machine-like rolls ‒ rose in volume. In the second circuit, Oswald, heard from a greater distance, sounded like a herd of bellowing hippopotami, roiling river waters in another kind of landscape. Beginning the second circuit with those rapid even rolls heard earlier, Fraser then hung a bass drum around his neck and walked toward his audience, beating the drum with a single mallet, increasing in amplitude and speed, covering percussion from machine to primitive in the course of a single ten-minute episode.

Kayla Milmine, © 2021 Lily Ramsey

Faced with an open invitation, soprano saxophonist Kayla Milmine took an approach as deeply traditioned as Arez Salek’s detailed modal melodic figuration, opting to play Thelonious Monk’s “Nutty” (surely the ideal Monk tune in a forest, just as John Ashbery’s Some Trees would make ideal reading material, or perhaps better still Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World). Milmine’s “Nutty” was projected with clarion zeal, strong on melody and rhythmically precise, and it inspired subtle, almost whimsical improvisations, reminding me of the late Steve Lacy, whom I had last heard at the Guelph Jazz Festival in 2003. Another stand-out among the reed players was bass clarinetist Kathryn Ladano, a Kitchener, Ontario native who teaches at nearby Wilfred Laurier University. A student of Montrealer Lori Freedman, Canada’s reigning improvising clarinetist, Ladano is a virtuoso specialist in the bass instrument, apparent in her fluent movement among the instrument’s contrasting registers, from sweetly hypnotic upper register melisma to raucous gutturals and eructations in the instrument’s lowest register.

The ultimate possibility of Arborienteering is that this woodland composition isn’t a substitute for a conventional listening experience, it’s an opportunity for musician and listener alike to create, to organize, a more intimate, more self-directed experience, rich in dimension and possibility.


© 2021 Stuart Broomer

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