Here’s a bit of an unusual instalment of Omnibus, because I recently went to six concerts in as many days. This was all part of the blandly-named-but-actually very-exciting International Society for Contemporary Music World New Music Days 2017. Standard talking points include but are not limited to: major annual event featuring music by composers from all over the world, premiered the Berg violin concerto in 1936, only held in Canada once before, music from more than 50 countries, hosted this year by Vancouver’s own Music on Main, etc.
I’ll be doing a more focussed dive into some of my personal highlights on North by Northwest next weekend (that’s on CBC Radio 1, if you’re new here). But here, we like to go broad. I’m starting this week’s instalment off with six notes-to-self about the concerts I saw at ISCM 2017. (Here, for interested parties, is the deluxe Tumblr edition.) Business-as-usual resumes below. I do hope you’ll stick around for the review of Paul and Linda McCartney’s RAM because I’m rather proud of it, actually.
ISCM World New Music Days 2017
National Arts Centre Orchestra: Life Reflected — I had heard some of the music performed on this opening concert before on a recording NACO released earlier this year. In that context, it mostly left me cold. Live, it worked. Funny how being there makes you focus. The premise is this: four pieces, by four Canadian composers, focussing on the stories of four Canadian women. I hear your scepticism. I too am slightly repulsed by the sickly-sweet maple fragrance of events like this. And in the year of Canada 150, I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. The answer turned out to be: this much. I was not surprised at all to find myself particularly enamoured of the pieces by Jocelyn Morlock and Nicole Lizée, who are (with apologies to everybody I’ve forgotten I like) my favourite composers in the country right now. Morlock’s My Name Is Amanda Todd is a musical character study of Todd that starts off with the darkness you’d expect from a piece on that subject, but which eventually shoves the clouds of fear and desperation aside to allow something more vibrant and positive to come into view. That approach may cause cognitive dissonance for some, given the circumstances in which Todd came to the national consciousness. But I expect that’s the point. There’s more to any one life etc. Jocelyn Morlock writes gorgeous music. There’s some brass writing near the end that just kills me. You should check out the recording. I’ve revisited it, and this is well worth hearing, in whatever form you can. Nicole Lizée’s Bondarsphere, about the marvellous Dr. Roberta Bondar, is altogether sillier and completely wonderful. True to form, Lizée smooshes the orchestra up against meticulously manipulated tape from Bondar’s career as an astronaut. Thus, we are treated to the spectacle of a choir of Peter Mansbridges and Knowlton Nashes singing backup. I should say, each piece on the program came paired with elaborate projections which were generally a mixed bag. Morlock’s piece would have fared as well or better without them. In Lizée’s, they are essential: she manipulates video and audio alike. The audio recording represents half the piece. I’m really happy I saw it live. I don’t have much to say about the other two works on the program. Zosha Di Castri’s Alice Munro tribute Dear Life has some marvellous orchestral effects (and a vocal solo by Erin Wall, which nobody will complain about) but outstays its welcome by a good seven or eight minutes. John Estacio’s I Lost My Talk sets the moving and insightful poem by Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe, but the musical material strikes me as having little or nothing to do with the words themselves, and is in itself rather bland. Still, two out of four ain’t as bad as it sounds. And honestly I liked the Di Castri too. I just would have liked it more if there were less of it.
Lori Freedman & The Hard Rubber Riot Ensemble: RIOT — One of my favourite things about the festival was that it had late-night concerts beginning at 10:15 — just the time of night when I usually start to stare into the void. Bass clarinetist Lori Freedman is undoubtedly a fabulous musician, but the semi-improvised, vocalization-heavy piece she performed here was a bit much for me. RIOT, on the other hand, lived up to the name. The Hard Rubber Riot Ensemble is a permutation of the Hard Rubber Orchestra, a very loud jazz-inclined new music ensemble led by John Korsrud. RIOT is a piece for percussion, guitar, bass, strings and keyboard — but really mostly percussion. It is a bracing, draining, extremely loud piece about Vancouver’s super dumb 2011 Stanley Cup riot. Hard Rubber’s incessant crashing and banging was backed up by video from the riot, and interviews with social psychologists, rioters, etc. The combined effect of the music (which is great fun) with the video (which is infuriating) is that you can’t quite decide how much fun you should be having. I had a whole bunch, halfway in spite of myself.
Leo Correia de Verdier & Gabriel Dharmoo: Question Notions — Another late night concert, and my personal highlight of the festival, narrowly edging out the closing concert. Leo Correia de Verdier is billed as “one of the world’s foremost sewing machine players.” (“One of.” I love it.) Naturally, I was more excited about her than just about any other performer in the festival. (Yes, there’s video.) She didn’t disappoint, though I will say that sewing machine music might actually be better suited for headphone listening than live performance. Live and learn. But here is where things get awesome. Gabriel Dharmoo’s Anthropologies Imaginaires is the cleverest bit of theatre I’ve seen since Robert Lepage was last in town. I halfway feel compelled to issue a spoiler warning here, even though it’s entirely possible that nobody who reads this will actually have the opportunity to see it for themselves. It’s a piece that is served well by going in completely cold. Those willing to put that aside, read on. In Anthropologies Imaginaires, Dharmoo gives a virtuoso vocal performance of strange, silly noises while a panel of fake professors talk shit on a screen above him. If that sounds a bit esoteric, well yes. But I’ve never heard a crowd laugh harder at weird art before. Everybody involved in this is totally committed to the bit, nobody more so than Dharmoo himself. But the actors who play our bogus academics channel the blithe condescension of so many of their real-life counterparts with nary a wink or a gurn in sight. Chris Morris would be proud. The issue at stake in Anthropologies Imaginaires is colonialism: Dharmoo presents one invented indigenous vocal tradition after another, ranging from mouth noises to faux-pop songs, and the profs make asses of themselves again and again, for different reasons each time. It’s near impossible to convey the effect of this without simply urging you to take any opportunity to see this thing. Sure, check out the promotional materials, but be aware that they don’t and can’t do justice to the show. Pick of the week.
Powell Street Festival at the Annex — This tried my patience a bit. More than most of the other concerts I saw, this one put the more esoteric and difficult side of new music front and centre. There are people who begrudge that music its very existence. I am not one of them. But now that my own musical studies are far behind me, I don’t feel especially inclined toward it. There were a couple of highlights, though. I very much enjoyed Murat Çolak’s NEFES.PAS.ÇIRA.IŞI, which dives deep into the combinations of a few key sounds, like crotales and piccolo. (I like Çolak even better because of this tweet.) And Yasunoshin Morita’s ReincarnatiOn Ring II for Sho, U and iPods is a bit gimmicky, but it introduced me to the existence of the sho, which is a beautiful thing.
Victoria Symphony at the Roundhouse — The only concert I wish I hadn’t bothered with. I was playing new music cliché bingo by the end of it. Mouthpiece pops, breath attacks, tinfoil, endless harmonics, repeated patterns on mallet percussion instruments, they were all here. I don’t mean to be catty, but unlike every other concert I attended at ISCM 2017, this one showed me nothing new. Jared Miller’s Concerto Corto was the most promising piece on the program, but even that was let down by scrappy playing. Alas.
Vicky Chow, Eve Egoyan, Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa & Megumi Masaki: A Kind of Magic — One thing I haven’t mentioned is that each of the concerts I’ve discussed so far was short. About an hour a piece, no intermissions. NOT SO FOR THIS ONE. This one was FOUR HOURS LONG. I’m not complaining; it was brilliant. Had it been shorter, it would have been less of an event. The “muchness” of it eventually became part of the appeal. Naturally, given what a massive spread of music this was, not all of it hit the target. And I suspect the performers knew this would be the case for a substantial chunk of the audience. The most obscure and difficult music was mostly saved for later in the program, by which time the packed house had understandably thinned out. Mind you, the early bedtime set did miss Rodney Sharman’s beautiful transcription of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, which manages the neat trick of making it sound almost entirely different without actually changing any of the notes. It was surely the most nostalgic piece I heard at the festival, but we’ll allow them one. They deserve that much. I’ll touch on three other highlights, because more would be madness. My very favourite piece on the program was Hildegard Westerkamp’s Klavierklang for piano and stereo soundtrack. True to Westerkamp’s predispositions, the piece is nearly a radio documentary, with Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa doubling as musician and narrator. (And a quite good one, too.) The subject is Westerkamp’s musical upbringing: the sounds of her childhood, the teachers who led her to love and hate the piano, and the role of a hopelessly broken instrument she found in an abandoned house in helping her realize the kind of music she wanted to make. More than just being a good story set to good music, it is a straightforward explanation of why a person might like to make a particular sort of music. That’s a useful thing to have in the mix at a concert, and a festival, where the artists’ intentions might not always be immediately clear. The evening’s other two highlights were extended performances by Vicky Chow. David Brynjar Franzson’s The Cartography of Time is a beautiful, very spare piece of music with only three or four unique bits of musical material over its 26-minute duration. It never feels stagnant, but it also gives a rather pleasant sense of not really moving. It was apparently composed as a lullaby, which makes perfect sense. I wonder if I’d respond the same way to a recording. Maybe. In any case, it’s lovely stuff. And if it is indeed a lullaby, then it is the polar opposite of Chow’s other featured performance: Remy Siu’s Foxconn Frequency No. 2 for one visibly Chinese performer. I’ve had panic attacks that were less stressful than watching this piece. Basically, Chow sits at a keyboard, playing exceedingly difficult exercises that we don’t actually hear. Instead, her accuracy percentage is displayed on a huge screen behind her, alongside a constantly counting down timer. If she doesn’t play a given exercise with a certain degree of accuracy within a given time frame, a buzzer goes off and she has to try again. Failure is baked into the premise of the piece. So, naturally, is Foxconn: the terribly abusive company whose labour practices are satirically dramatized here as a sort of perverse, nightmarish musical video game. Foxconn Frequency No. 2 wasn’t the best thing I heard at ISCM 2017, but it was no doubt the most viscerally affecting. Also, I can’t not mention Eve Egoyan. I didn’t find her rep as memorable as Chow’s, or some of Iwassa’s. But she’s an extraordinary musician with a marvellous sense of musical colour. I’ve loved her recordings for years, especially Simple Lines of Enquiry by Canada’s best-ever composer (fight me) Ann Southam. I’m very happy to have finally heard her live. Much the same can be said of Megumi Mesaki, though I do find some of her rep a bit frustrating. This magnificent concert serves as an apt microcosm for my entire experience with ISCM 2017: I loved it, I feel my horizons were widened, and have an odd sense that its mixed effectiveness only adds to how memorable and compelling it was. A final point before I leave this be: I heard 34 pieces (I think) at the festival altogether. I am unsure of the specific number, but only a modest handful of them were by white men. This is enormously refreshing, given how notoriously backwards our major “classical” music institutions are in this way. As of 2017, people who call themselves composers — thereby, however unintentionally, placing themselves in the tradition of Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms — come from everywhere and are everyone. Now, if we could just staple that sentence to every music director’s forehead, we’d be in business. ISCM 2017 is one of precious few experiences I’ve had that left me feeling that this musical tradition, such as it is, might not only be relevant in a modern, progressive society, but could actually serve as a vital force in one.
Björk: Biophilia — I listened to this in preparation for an installation at ISCM 2017 that I arrived at three days after it closed. So much for that. Anyway. This is certainly one of the lesser Björk albums, which is not to say it’s bad. But it doesn’t have much that reaches out and grabs you the way that her best stuff does. I do love “Crystalline,” which is certainly the most immediate track. I shouldn’t dismiss this out of hand: I could see it being a grower, and Björk is one of those artists who deserves the benefit of a doubt. I do see why Vespertine was regarded as a return to form, though. Frankly I still think that album is as good as anything she’s done.
Tom Waits: Swordfishtrombones — I’ve been listening to a podcast about Tom Waits — specifically about Rain Dogs, and I realized that I hadn’t actually heard the album that began the stylistic transition that brought him to that point. This is not as good as Rain Dogs. It has the requisite creepy freakouts, but it is lacking the tracks like “Time,” “Downtown Train” and “Hang Down Your Head” to counterbalance them. It is certainly not as good as Frank’s Wild Years, which seems likely to remain my favourite for all time. But it is an obvious watershed. It’s a strange thing: Rain Dogs seems totally plausible when you know that it was preceded by an album with similar stylistic tics. But this album was preceded by Heartattack and Vine, which I have heard many a time, and it has nothing to do with this. Nothing. There are several tracks that I love, particularly the title track and “In The Neighbourhood,” which is a less beautiful but more self-sufficient prototype for “Anywhere I Lay My Head”: one of the most gorgeous things ever.
Paul and Linda McCartney: RAM — I would like to present an extremely specious breakdown of Paul McCartney’s psychology. Lingering in the bit of Paul’s brain where most of us keep our secret hunger and despair, there is instead a delirious, unsettling happiness: a happiness that would, if left unchecked, force him to run constant laps around buildings with his tongue lolling out, climb trees and laugh maniacally from the highest branch he could reach, hug strange dogs, do jumping jacks always, build enormous sandcastles, throw confetti at strangers, complement snowmen on their hats, develop consuming enthusiasms for idiosyncratic hobbies such as bottlecap collecting or leathercraft, kick footballs off the roofs of tall buildings, convert his living room into a ball pit, and aggressively yell his appreciation for the good weather at all passing motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, and pets. This being an untenable way to live one’s life, Paul’s subconscious mania must be held in balance by an ego and superego with the soporific strength of several dozen tranq darts. This is how we get songs like “I’ve Just Seen A Face” and “Martha My Dear”: expressions of unalloyed joy that nonetheless fall within the acceptable confines of normal human behaviour. But on RAM, the one album Paul made with his wife Linda as a co-billed collaborator, the tranq darts have failed to gain purchase. This album is a deranged expression of Paul McCartney’s aggressively euphoric id. Even the dim shadows that occasionally appear — the open condescension of “Dear Boy,” for instance, or the “don’t know how to do that” backing vocals on “Smile Away” — are couched in a general mood of “MAN OH MAN CAN YOU EVEN BELIEVE THIS CRAZY LIFE.” From his first yelping vocal on “Too Many People,” to the final squalls of “The Back Seat of My Car,” Paul is out of control on this record. He cannot shut up. Even when there are no words for him to sing, he’s content to exclaim, squeal and coo abstractly. His vocal performances here make “Hey Bulldog” and “Oh! Darling” look like models of restraint. And in terms of songwriting, he seems to have entirely given up on the notion of cohesion within a song. Even the most “together” track on the album, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” is fractured by ludicrous play-acting and a two-part structure wherein the two parts have nothing to do with each other. And “The Back Seat of My Car” loses track of where it’s going about a minute in, at which point the thin veneer of narrative that drives the opening verses gives way to a succession of would-be climaxes that each seem to be trying to outdo the “better better better” bit from “Hey Jude.” It is completely exhausting, totally undisciplined and I absolutely love it. That’s basically the album summed up, right there. RAM is my favourite Beatles solo album by a mile, with even the sublime All Things Must Pass trailing substantially. No other Beatle ever made an album so gloriously inconsequential. While George was composing spiritual koans on All Things, John was publicly working through his deepest psychoses on Plastic Ono Band, and Ringo was doing his best, Paul was content to just run around in circles in a studio, occasionally colliding with instruments and trusting that glorious sounds will result because he’s Paul McCartney. The Beatles trained a generation of music listeners to think that pop music can and should be “important.” John and George worked to honour that legacy on their early solo albums. Paul just turned himself inside out, and made a dumber, weirder, better solo record than either of them ever did.
Philip Pullman: The Golden Compass — My favourite book from when I was ten definitely holds up. (To clarify, by the time I was eleven, it had been usurped by The Amber Spyglass.) What really satisfied me about this re-read, 17 years later, is that the bits that are meant to be disturbing still are. It’s remarkable how thoroughly Pullman normalizes daemons in this book. He does such a job of it that when Lyra first discovers Tony Makarios, the severed child, it is horrifying for the reader. Here we have a person who is by all appearances more realistic than any of the other characters in the book, because he does not possess an external manifestation of his soul, and yet we feel Lyra’s repulsion. The form he takes, which is our own form, is a grotesque deformation. That’s just one of many reactions I remember having as a child reading this for the first time that I had a second time when I read it as an adult. Another is incredible anger at Lord Asriel’s callous treatment of Lyra. This, I think I experienced even more acutely this time. I don’t quite remember how things turn out with Lord Asriel in the end, but the way he talks to Lyra at the end of this novel is unforgivable. It’s also a refreshing break from the trope of absentee fathers being humanized and forgiven by the text. (See: Blade Runner 2049.) Pullman wants us to hate Asriel, because he is a terrible man. Certainly, there’s a legitimate reason that he wasn’t able to raise Lyra himself. But he also didn’t want to and doesn’t like her. (Equally unforgivable. If he knew her like we do, he surely would.) We aren’t treated to the disgusting spectacle of a father justifying himself for abandoning his child. Instead, Pullman just writes Asriel as being flat-out horrible. And we don’t see Lyra pining for his affection, either. Instead, we become invested in her genuine, intense and earned love for Iorek Byrnison and the gyptians. Pullman’s first priority is clearly to tell a good story. His second is probably to set up an analogy about organized religion as it exists in our own world. But another clear intention of his that he doesn’t get enough credit for is demonstrating healthy, rational familial relationships. In practice, that means rebelling against a callous and ruthless pair of biological parents while embracing an adopted family of people who care for you the way a family should. That’s remarkable. Pullman is a remarkable writer. This is a remarkable book. I can’t wait to re-read The Subtle Knife.
Jorge Luis Borges: “The Shape of the Sword” — Probably the least remarkable story I’ve read by this author. At less than five pages, it is focussed on a single twist that is entirely predictable. Even the greatest ever have their off days, I suppose.
Tacoma — Finally got around to this. I was super excited for it, because Gone Home was and is one of my favourite games ever. It almost single-handedly reinvigorated my interest in the medium after about a decade of not playing games at all. I was worried that Tacoma would fall flat purely because of its setting: one of the things about Gone Home that made me think there’s hope for this art form yet was the simple fact that it takes place in a realistic, domestic space. It’s a divergence from what I then perceived to be the entirety of the gaming world: fantasy and wish fulfilment. So, the news that Fullbright’s follow-up was to take place on a space station was concerning. But I should have had more faith: the Tacoma is as domestic a setting as Gone Home’s Pacific Northwest mansion. It’s just bigger and more… in space. Truthfully, I find the overall story a bit hackneyed: a big corporation is revealed to be increasingly evil, and the goals of a scrappy insurgency are elucidated piece by piece. I’ve seen this before. (I’ve written this before; fairly recently. But mine has a twist!) But focussing on the linear story of Tacoma is missing the point. The point of both of Fullbright’s games is learning about people by examining the places where they live. I often think about how a person who had never met me would perceive me if they wandered into my apartment randomly. I often wonder what it would be like to wander randomly into somebody else’s apartment. The places we spend our time are littered with the weird ephemera of a life in process, and each piece can serve as evidence of who we are. That’s the phenomenon Fulbright exploits. Even without the extremely clever interactive cutscene-type things, Tacoma would tell us a lot about its characters purely by way of the rooms they inhabit. And that’s why the “not a game” people are idiots. Both this and Gone Home set up experiences that are unique to this medium, and the fact that the endings of both are entirely prescribed and any player’s completion of the game is virtually a foregone conclusion is a feature, not a bug. I liked Tacoma a lot. Wonder what Fullbright will do next. They said they almost made this game on a ship in the middle of the ocean. God, what I wouldn’t do to play that.
All Songs Considered: “Pearls Before Swine’s ‘Underground’ Classic Reissued 50 Years Later” — Quite content to pass this reissue by, I think. This is the kind of psychedelia that grinds my gears these days. But Bob Boilen still facilitates a good conversation here, even if the music isn’t to my taste.
Song by Song: First four episodes on Rain Dogs — I don’t get much out of this podcast’s regular episodes, but I had to drop in for the live ones on the first three songs on Rain Dogs, featuring John Hodgman and Helen Zaltzman. Those are fabulous episodes that are both funny and insightful into the music. I’m particularly gratified to hear the panel acknowledging Tom Waits’s awkward and offensive ableism and his tendency to exoticize whole countries. That hasn’t aged at all well. But the fourth episode, with the two main hosts back in the studio, isn’t nearly as fun. I think I’m opting out now.
Code Switch: “Raising Kings” (four parter) — This series of episodes is one of the crowning glories of Code Switch so far. It’s a deep dive into a unique new school where the vast majority of the students are young black men, and the teachers are also mostly black men. The school’s focus on restorative justice and its attention to the root causes of students’ misbehavior is apparently totally alien to the American public school system (I am Canadian and have limited knowledge about these things). And as admirable as the mission statement is, there are some bugs in the system that keep the school from getting the results its staff hope for. This is great journalism. Check this out. Pick of the week.
Reply All catchup — Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s two-parter on a Mexican-American skip chaser who’s hunting for a Mexican undocumented person is a crazy story with an actual satisfying ending. And the episode about whether or not Facebook is spying on us through the microphones of our smartphones features P.J. Vogt laughing uncontrollably at Alex Goldman’s inability to do something. So, altogether, a pretty strong run.
The Memory Palace: “Hoover” & “Elizabeth” — Two of the best episodes of this show in a long time. “Elizabeth” is particularly heartbreaking, moreso because Nate DiMeo is straightforward about how the story makes him feel, specifically. I am reminded of why this was my favourite podcast for so long. Sometimes it still is.
99% Invisible catchup — It’s fundraising time, and the Radiotopia flagship is pulling out all the stops. The most recent three episodes of this show have all been outstanding. The one on La Sagrada Familia is the best architecture episode they’ve done in ages. They followed it up with a story about how oysters could save New York from sea level rise. And then they did an episode about how houses in St. Louis are literally being stolen brick by brick. It’s three episodes of classic 99pi. And when this show is on, there’s nothing better.
Fresh Air: “Humorist John Hodgman” — I’ve heard a few interviews with Hodgman in the wake of his book release, but this is unsurprisingly the best by far. Terry Gross talks with him about his journey from ostentatiously weird only child in high school (I feel as though I have known a person like this) to professionally dissatisfied twentysomething (I feel as though I may currently know a person like this) to famous writer and weird dad (who can even say). It’s lovely stuff. He’s a treasure.