The first six days of Soundstreams

It’s been a crazy week here at the Soundstreams Emerging Composers’ Workshop in Toronto. The days have been packed with composing seminars with R. Murray Schafer and Juliet Palmer, reading sessions with the Gryphon Trio, various professional development talks, and reunions with many friends. My jetlag combined with overexcited insomnia means that I have mostly been running on adrenalin and copious amounts if tea.

Despite the sleep deprivation, I’ve been having a really wonderful time. I am really enjoying working with the Gryphon Trio. Jamie, Roman and Annalee have been extremely supportive and patient as we try to communicate and explore our ideas. They have a great sense of humour, which makes the whole process fun rather than stressful. It turns out that scordatura (funky tuning) can be a little annoying (to put it lightly) for string players with perfect pitch; they expect to hear a certain note and something else comes out. Annalee is being a very good sport about it though (thank you!). I am enjoying the pulsating, shimmering textures I’m getting from the strings, but finding that I need to go even further into that world, away from the very solid sound of traditional playing. I’m still struggling with fitting the piano into this soundworld.

There has been no drama among the participants, but, since everything is being recorded, we feel like we are on reality radio of some sort (or should I say podcast?). It would be a pretty borring reality show for the average viewer since we all get along…We all have very different aesthetics, so it’s an interesting learning experience. Adam Scime has these crazy dense textures and very detailed string writing. Gabriel Dharmoo is working with Carnatic material from India, with lots of heterophonic unison playing and quiet noisy textures in the strings. Caitlin Smith is incorporating jazz and Turkish traditions. Graham Flett is doing some trippy things with Schumann and string harmonics. Emilie LeBel is combining her gradual, shimmering textures with very broad melodic lines.

Juliet has already asked us what we are planning to steal from each other (Adam Scime, I WILL have your trilly-glissy figures!). I am very curious to see where these pieces will end up. Will there be any cross influences creeping in?

We had a very special treat today: a visit to Murray Schafer’s farm! We got a tour of his current work in progress – a massive theatrical, musical and spatial experience – that’s being erected on his property. He also very generously gave us some of his scores and books as gifts after showing us his publishing house located in his basement. I am now the happy owner of two of his beautifully hand-drawn scores: a chamber opera Loving, and The Black Theatre of Hermes Trismegistos from the Patria cycle. He even gave me the LP recording of the opera! I am very pleased and excited.

Excerpts from the score The Black Theatre of Hermes Trismegistos by R. Murray Schafer

Excerpt from "The Black Theatre of Hermes Trismegistos" by R. Murray Schafer

Excerpt from "The Black Theatre of Hermes Trismegistos" by R. Murray SchaferI love how the lines of the staves turn into waves in the second one. If you like what you see here, get yourself to your nearest CMC library and check out these gorgeous scores. You can also buy them from Arcana, Schafer’s very own publishing label.

Off to Toronto!

After successfully defending my masters thesis a couple of weeks ago, I’m happily on my way to the next adventure. I’m off to Toronto for the Soundstreams emerging composers’ workshop, which starts tomorrow. I am super excited about this opportunity to work with R. Murray Schafer, Juliet Palmer and the Gryphon Trio, and to meet the other participants. In addition to composing and reading sessions, there will also be some professional development seminars covering topics such as “From emerging to emerged,” “The art of artistic directing” and “Marketing and PR.” There will also be a visit to Mr. Schafer’s farm!

The format of this workshop will be a little different from the other two I’ve participated in (Carnegie Hall and NAC). Instead of coming in with a completed piece to rehearse and tweak, we were asked to bring sketches to try out with the ensemble. The piece will be completed after the workshop.

I’ve spent the last four weeks trying to wrap my brain around a new tuning on both violin and cello. I tried to keep the tuning unchanged at first, but the open strings are so familiar and predictable. And, with the strings being turned in open fifths, the harmonics pretty much form a D major scale.

The moment I started fidgeting with the tuning pegs, the sound assumed a new darkness and mystery. The new tuning also opened up some interesting possibilities for natural harmonics and double stops. I think the pain of keeping track of how everything is notated vs. how it really sounds is well worth the effect. We’ll see what the ensemble has to say.

My primary goal for this piece is to fuse several directions in my composing, which up to now have mostly be confined to different pieces. I am trying to integrate my fascination with Ukrainian folksong with the kind of colour manipulations I was exploring in my solo cello piece, The child, bringer of light. I am taking snippets of a folksong I recorded in the village Kozats’ke, Kalyna Malyna, which has really touched me both in terms of its musical content and meaning, and making them emerge out of and dissolve into various harmonic trills.

A sketch for an upcoming piano trio

I rented a cello and a violin to experiment with these ideas and get a feel for the tuning, but the challenge has been imagining what it will all sound like together. Being so preoccupied with the strings, I’ve also been a little neglectful of the piano, a shortcoming I am hoping to fix by and by. Anyway, I’m excited to hear it all at my first session on Tuesday. Keep tuned for further updates!