New Creations Festival Finale: Miller, Bjarnason & Lizée

Tonight’s Toronto Symphony New Creations Concert to close the festival was a demonstration of the old maxim “less is more”, an epithet I used to use as a personal motto (at least for its pun-potential).  If I had any objection to the programming by Owen Pallett and Peter Oundjian – who did a marvelous job with this series—it’s in the feeling that the minimalist music was all in the same program, namely tonight’s concert conducted by André de Ridder.  When relatively similar pieces follow one another –a pattern we also saw in the first concert of the festival with a darker hue of composition—I’m not sure that we can hear their excellence quite so well as if they’re in contrast to what they accompany.  If concerts were meals, we wouldn’t want three salads last Saturday and three soups tonight, but rather to spread out the soups and the salads so that they don’t seem to be in competition with one another, AND to enhance the flavour of the entire meal.

But that’s a small quibble, especially when this last concert felt so much like the best of the three.

Tonight three composers gave us four pieces without intermission other than the time required to reconfigure the orchestral players and their instruments & equipment onstage:

  • Nicole Lizée’s Zeiss After Dark: Sesquie for Canada’s 150th
  • Cassandra Miller’s Round
  • Daniel Bjarnason’s Emergence
  • Nicole Lizée’s Black MIDI

Composer Nicole Lizée (photo: Murray Lightburn)

My age may be showing in my suggestion about the way the pieces were presented: an approach more consistent with the way one would assemble a gallery show or installation –where the thematic consistency is possibly the most important issue rather than my quaint thoughts about how the pieces sound together –than the old-fashioned way concerts were programmed in the last century.

We began with another Sesquie, those two minute salutes to Canada’s 150th anniversary.  I am breathless with admiration for the way Lizée writes her program notes, again more in alignment with the art world than the old classical world I know.  Zeiss After Dark would replicate in music something ground-breaking in the history of cinematography, even as we saw Lizée on that most curious interface: looking simultaneously into the past while employing revolutionary tools that break new ground, as though revising our notions of historiography.  When Stanley Kubrick filmed a candlelit scene in Barry Lyndon he was simultaneously reaching into the past – to show us an optical effect we never see on film nor terribly often even in our own lives; yet to do so was a kind of advanced trick of recording history, a kind of time-travel.  How she might have asked herself would a composer go back in time to record something similar if intangible and elusive from Canada’s history?  With the same or analogous aural tools to hear as though in that unilluminated place: where the light helps us hear rather than see.  We got something deceptively simple, and while that may mean something minimalist on the surface, it was a slippery surface, one that I grappled with and would like to hear again, as I can’t pretend that I understood it.  This was the most probing and elusive two minutes of any of the Sesquies I’ve yet heard, but come to think of it, the year is yet young, I’m sure I’ll hear more.

Cassandra Miller came forward, interviewed by the ever-charming Peter Oundjian, who helped her unpack her compositional ideas in Round.  I’m grateful for their exchange, which confirmed my suspicion that there was more than a bit of whimsy in how Miller came up with her program note, alluding to Plato’s ideas on how to put children to sleep.  This is a very daring admission at a concert, when the usual goal is to avoid putting people to sleep.  The piece is not at all soporific but a charming bit of pattern music whose textures & repetitions would be recognizable both to the fans and haters of Philip Glass.   I was reminded of the sound-world of Colin McPhee, but without any allusions to Balinese rhythms.

Daniel Bjarnason’s Emergence began in an even quieter place than Miller’s score. His three-movement work has a pair of outer movements coming from a slow reflective place, while the inner movement was the pulsing heart at its core.  We were encouraged to look for the Icelandic geology in the piece, and it was surely there in hidden fires and bursts of air under its cool surfaces.   Where Miller seemed to want to soothe –not just in her notes but in the sonic world she created—Bjarnason was often poking at prodding us with percussion, inner voices and gradual changes in the predominant timbre.

I am not a newspaper writer, who would lead with the big story. Instead I wrote this in sequence because I have so much to say about the final wonderful piece on the program, Lizée’s Black MIDI, a commission from the TSO & Kronos Quartet.  Yes it comes with a preamble, the requirement to understand its language, but that’s a very rewarding stipulation when it comes right down to it.  Black MIDI is a series of short compositions for orchestra & string quartet, with films projected above that illuminate what we’re hearing.  I’m tempted to call the work a series of short films, resembling documentary in some respects but much more fanciful than what we usually see of the genre, and far more oblique in the approach to expression.

Black MIDI is ostensibly about one narrow phenomenon, yet is in effect a history of music.  MIDI is the invention that currently is the usual way that machines make music, the interface that makes most synthesizers work (at least of the 2nd generation digital variety, as opposed to the analog machines Moog and Walter Carlos showed us so long ago) and enables the crew to synchronize a band with their accompanying light show.  “Black MIDI” is a genre that Lizée uses as an opportunity to investigate the fundamentals of music and music making. If we can imagine that the notation of many notes on a screen will make many notes to be heard, then imagine if that is taken to the extreme, so many notes that the screen is almost blackened.  This extreme case of what a machine can do served as an exploratory playground.  For twenty electrifying minutes we investigated music from first principles.  Black MIDI serves Lizée perfectly to illustrate the implications of technology in the creation of music. If black MIDI didn’t exist she’d have to invent it.



An example of Black MIDI I found online via google.

Lizée offers us a profound meditation on the relationships between mechanical and manual, the interface between the human and the machine, a curious parallel to the one she explored briefly to open the concert.  Indeed we could expand beyond music to explore the relationships between human and machine if she so chose, as this is a profound subject.  Where her two minute Sesquie proposed a way we might frame the question –by implying that we might look back by avoiding our usual apparatus and instead using the toolkit of the past—so too with Black MIDI.  In one film we seem to dance around on the interface between the human and the mechanical, watching students singing the notes drawn on the board by their teacher .  It must be a music conservatory as they have classic staff lines on the board. And so what if instead of writing (in chalk) first this single note, or that single note, while the class sings this note and then that note, we get the dense clusters of Black MIDI on that board? It’s a funny thought, comical in the way it soon outstrips what the humans can do.

Or what if we probe the problem –as she phrased it—of Black MIDI? I saw at least two possible problems.  Humans aren’t machines, which cuts both ways.  Humans have limits, as we observed watching people try to play quickly, watching the fellow in one of the short accompanying films trying to keep up, beginning to resemble a cartoon or puppet as he got quicker and quicker.  And when the notes get too fast they may disappear into a blur, like parts of a pulse or heart-beat.  But that interface is a complex one (meaning that problematic one between human and machine, not MIDI), whether we’re trying to go back in time (as in the Sesquie) or pursue the goal of progress.  We are within shouting distance of some of the ideals of modernism, which I say with Schönberg very much in my head after having interviewed Against the Grain about their Sunday collaboration with TIFF and having played through the piano parts of Pierrot lunaire.  Modernism sometimes seemed to want to liberate music from the human element, to make music purely abstract in its ability to obey science & mathematics, rather than emotions and expressive principles.  Lizée seems ambivalent when we see a Black MIDI scarf being knit in one of her short films as though in a nightmare, organic and involuntary but a reminder that scores were once handcrafted by Beethoven, Mozart, Schönberg and all the other composers of past centuries: when the candlelight alluded to in that Sesquie was the only option other than daylight.

I think the piece has a great deal to offer, and could be made longer if Lizée had any interest in exploring further, even if the length right now feels taut with suspense & dramatic tension.  I hope to encounter this work again, perhaps in a video.


And I realized as I re-read this: but I didn’t make any mention of the music. How indeed did Lizée approach telling this story? We had a series of eight titles representing eight segments to the performance, perhaps eight distinct films:
i. Kronoscope
ii. The Tuning Fork
iii. Pictionary Night
iv. MIDI in the Schools
v. The Problem with Black MIDI
vi. The Scarf
vii. 1978
viii. Cassette Culture

The first section sets up the sometimes self-reflexive performance where the Kronos Quartet are located at the front of the stage. We began without them, so in this section their live persons walked onstage, took up their instruments, made adjustments, etc.

In the second section we had one of several quasi-autobiographical segments, as the composer told us her story, a mysterious process whereby she received a tuning fork and an ear, represented as a disembodied object. This is not the only time she will reference the music-making process in ironic fashion, seeming at a great distance from it, and showing us the ambivalence I spoke of earlier. The tuning fork is struck and off we go.

The third plays with our sense of the process, as we look at a game with players who employ a set of game procedures.  Pictionary begins with a mystery and the requirement to decode the mystery, being a charming analog to what performers do with musical scores. There’s a moment when the quartet players being tearing & shredding paper, but I can’t recall if it’s during this segment or not. I think we see the first of several recurring images, of a small piece of paper that might resemble a black MIDI piece or chunk thereof, that gets ingested onto a human tongue, seen in close-up. And of course people do sometimes observe that yes music does come into the interpreter and become a part of the musician, so we’re seeing an ironic portrayal. Sometimes these ironic moments made me laugh, whereas i could see that others might call it pretentious.

As you may have already noticed, I swallowed it eagerly.

I have already described segments IV, V and VI very superficially. In each case there were moments when we saw something that might be black MIDI music, but the score –played by the TSO and the quartet—may or may not have been actual black MIDI. At times the music was a blur of enormous numbers of notes, when the visuals suggested something like black MIDI. But could the TSO + Kronos actually execute such music? I don’t know. What we were hearing was at times highly ironic, as for example, when the “Problem” section was examined in a series of repeated little segments of film, repeated as though the person and these few seconds of his life as he spoke were to be played and sampled like a bit of a vinyl record being scratched for house music, or some digital equivalent.

The last two –1978 and Cassette Culture – refer us back to old technologies that permitted some of the experimental / compositional possibilities of the digital MIDI world, although we only see that now with the benefit of hindsight.

The images & ideas will be reverberating in my head for days.

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