Next week Soundstreams present Brian Current’s opera Airline Icarus, touching down in Toronto at Ada Slaight Hall.
Current’s music has been performed across North America and abroad by the Esprit Orchestra, the American Composers Orchestra (Carnegie Hall), the Oakland Symphony, the Indianapolis Symphony, the Winnipeg Symphony, the Warsaw National Philharmonic, the Vancouver Symphony, the CBC Radio Orchestra, the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, The Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, Symphony Nova Scotia (Koussevitzky commission), Monday Evening Concerts (Los Angeles), the VOX festival of the New York City Opera, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Winston Choi, the Honens International Piano Competition, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and others.
Raised in Ottawa, Current studied music at McGill University in Montreal with Bengt Hambreaus and John Rea later completing his Ph.D. in composition on full fellowship from the University of California at Berkeley in 2002, where he was also active as a conductor. He has since been featured conducting with numerous orchestras and ensembles, including the Windsor Symphony, the Thunder Bay Symphony, New Music Concerts, the Kensington Symphonietta, Soundstreams, CBC’s On Stage, as well as with the Esprit Orchestra’s New Waves Festival. Since 2006, Current has been the artistic director and conductor of the Royal Conservatory of Music’s New Music Ensemble, which performs several concerts per year of international contemporary works.
In anticipation of Airline Icarus I ask Current ten questions: five about himself and five more about the Soundstreams presentation.
1-Are you more like your father or your mother?
I’m hugely grateful to have two amazing parents who are both active in choral singing in Ottawa where I grew up. They got me into piano early and made sure I kept practicing all the way through to university level. My mom now says she was onto me, but I like to think that as a kid I could fake her out by making up “the illusion of Mozart” at the piano instead of practicing the real thing. They also got me into singing as a choirboy in one of the downtown churches (my wife makes fun of me for how nerdy this is, which it was, but it was also a great introduction to organized music). And they were also patient when I practiced with a local rock band in our basement. My dad would come home from work to the sounds of thumping 70s cover tunes below his floorboards.
I’m not really sure which one I’m more like, but I realize as I get older how supportive they both were and hope that I can be the same with my own kids.
2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a composer of “new” music?
It’s the greatest time ever to be a composer. Musicians today are unbelievable and I regularly see people performing things that make your jaw drop. In fact, musicians are getting better and better, particularly the young players I see coming through the graduate program of the Glenn Gould School of The Royal Conservatory. New beautiful concert halls are being built both here and around the world and we can now broadcast our music everywhere from our phones, which was not possible even a couple years ago.
The wonderful thing about my job is that when someone asks for a new piece, it’s completely free of restrictions. They’ll request a rough amount of time – composers get paid by the minute – and a specific instrumentation: symphony orchestra or string quartet or voice, Chinese instruments and electronics for example. They never prescribe a theme or an idea that is prescriptive. You are completely free to invent your own world and composers greatly value this freedom.
The hardest part about composing is the isolation. You sit in a room by yourself for six months. We like to think that composers dash off symphonies during a short burst of inspiration but in reality (or for me, anyway) it can easily take months and months or longer of full time work to write out a detailed orchestra piece. No matter how many pieces you’ve written before, it’s always like pulling teeth and sweating blood.
3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?
I love to relax with Netflix, Jon Stewart or books when I’m able to. In reality, with three young kids in our little place it doesn’t really happen: we do homework, dinner, take them to soccer, put them to bed, pay a bill or two and that’s your night.
As for listening, I’m excited about all the online options that are available. I like the Rdio, NPR and TuneIn iPhone apps which I stream through my stereo while doing dishes or my headphones as I bike around the city. These apps are a great way to discover all kinds of new things.
4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I wish I had a better slap shot. I play hockey on Sunday nights with a great group of teachers, bankers and small business owners. We’ve been doing this for years and I greatly value both their friendship and the time on the ice where you don’t think about anything but the game.
5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
When I remember to, I try from minute to minute to make the most out of hanging out with my kids. It may sound sappy, but I have a very keen sense of how quickly they grow up and leave you. I try to make the most out of every moment.
Five more concerning Airline Icarus
1-What are the challenges you face with opera?
One is the term ‘opera’ itself, which has so many misconceptions surrounding it. What I really want is for people to have an immersive experience like no other. I want them to be in surrounded by sound and words and beauty and the performers’ courage.
2-What do you love about the story & subject of this opera?
I wholeheartedly believe in Anton’s premise and have championed it for years. It’s not just a play that is sung. It is completely its own thing.
The impulse came from reading an article in The Globe and Mail in 2001. In September of 1983, a Korean commercial flight was shot down over the Soviet Union’s eastern coast. They said they thought it was a spy plane. Rather than hit the plane directly, the missile struck its wing, and the plane “fell like a leaf for an excruciating 12 to 15 minutes.” I couldn’t help but to think about the people aboard for years after, and it still chokes me up to think about it today. It was important not to have this appalling event met with just silence.
Later when visiting with Anton Piatigorsky, I told him I was looking for ideas about theatrical works and mentioned the Korean airliner. Anton told me that he had just written a poem about the absurd little society we often take for granted aboard commercial flights and the unsettling mixture of hubris and technology: we’ll make small talk and watch movies while inches outside the window is a glorious cloudscape or freezing certain-death. Anton later proposed the perfect metaphor: Icarus. Icarus, you’ll remember, flew too close to the sun and his wax wings melted and he fell to the earth in a blaze of light. His father, Dedalus, looked for him, crying: “Icarus, where are you!” and “Damn this art!”
To me, one of the most interesting parts of the myth is that Icarus disappears in much of the same way that people involved in airline tragedies disappear, and the way the astronauts of the Space Shuttle Columbia disappeared in a blaze of light over Texas.
Deadalus’s cries of “Damn this art” (which is in the libretto) are heartbreaking, not so much because Icarus has crashed and died, but more that he knows that we are doomed to keep building things – airplanes, computers, operas – in an endless cycle of trial and error that sometimes leads to disastrous consequences.
The opera also simultaneously presents the other side of the Icarus story: that we can rejoice in the thrill of our power to create wonderful things, as sings the Pilot in his aria – No peace so great. No joy so pure – as soaring Icarus must have thought before the moment he disappeared.
3-Do you have a favourite moment in the opera?
Throughout the work, the airplane gets brighter and brighter and eventually disappears. The initial impulse of the piece came from composing the final 15 minutes, which is meant to be a lullaby for the people on the Korean airliner who fell from the sky for about the same amount of time, and also for people in general who disappear from our lives when technology goes wrong.
By the way, speaking of timing, the piece is about an hour or approximately the length of a flight to Cleveland from Toronto, Chicago or New York (depending on who you fly with).
Airline Icarus is meant to be accessible to everyone. It drives me crazy when composers and classical musicians are perceived as being elitist or Old Europe. We are often pigeon-holed as all writing difficult or avant-garde music, which Airline Icarus is not.
There is no single “art-music” style. Canada’s composers produce strikingly different music from one another. It’s our strength as a community, and represents a huge and genuine musical diversity. Nearly all composers working in Canada today both consciously and unconsciously incorporate the music of many world cultures into their musical thinking, including popular and electronic music. Almost all Canadian composers would be surprised to hear that their music is thought of as European or elitist. We just write what comes naturally. We write what it feels like to be alive at this time and place in history, and generally try to build it as rock-solidly as possible so that it gives Canada and the world a musical legacy a hundred years from now or more.
5-Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
I’m very grateful to David Milnes, my conducting teacher at the University of California (Berkeley) who really took the time to show me the ropes and handed over the orchestra to me during the summer.
Most of all, I owe my life in music to McGill professor John Rea. When I arrived as an undergrad I had just a vague idea that I wanted to write music, but had no awareness of the technique or tradition. John introduced us not only to how to compose, but also to why we compose, which is that we believe in a world where people create and live with courage and beauty.
Soundstreams present Airline Icarus
Music by Brian Current, libretto by Anton Piatigorsky
Produced by Maniac Star June 3-8, 2014
Tuesday to Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 4pm, Sunday at 3pm
Ada Slaight Hall, Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas St E
Directed by Tim Albery
Music Directed by Brian Current
Set & Costume Design by Teresa Przybylski
Lighting Design by Kimberly Purtell
Stage Managed by Kristin McCollum
Featuring: Dawn Bailey, Vania Chan, Sean Clark, Alexander Dobson, Larissa Koniuk, David Roth, Zorana Sadiq, Geoffrey Sirett, Krisztina Szabó, Jennifer Taverner, Graham Thomson
Post-concert chats after each performance with members of the creative team.
Tickets range from $20-$75 and are available through The Royal Conservatory Box Office at 416-408-0208 or online at soundstreams.ca.