Does music tell stories?
I’ve been listening to the CD “Journey Through Night” by Odin Quartet.
Here’s how they describe themselves on one of the sites I found extolling their virtues:
Passionate about chamber music, the Toronto-based Odin Quartet represents the diversity and the promise of youth in Canada. Named after the one-eyed Norse god, seeker of knowledge and holder of the wisdom of the world, the Odin Quartet explores the role of classical music in modern-day storytelling. Since 2015, the ensemble is also dedicated to making classical music accessible to new generations of listeners, by promoting modern Canadian compositions, including those of cellist Samuel Bisson, alongside classical music literature.
Throughout the recording I found myself thinking about the ways music can signify, sometimes functioning as pure music while often aiming to do more. That phrase “modern-day storytelling” seems apt, especially in the ambitious creations I encountered today from seven Canadian composers.
Both of Ronald Royer’s contributions are studies in contrast. His Danzon Overture is in two parts like a French Overture (think for instance of the way Handel begins Messiah), although Royer’s second part is infused with Cuban dance rhythms. His String Quartet No 1 has two contrasting movements, where the first is contemplative and the second action oriented.
Bruno Degazio’s Suite from The Pearl is in two parts, based on the great Hymn of the Pearl, from the Gnostic scripture the Acts of Thomas the Apostle. The complexities of the story are outlined in the comprehensive program notes. Although I’m not yet able to say I really get what Degazio is undertaking, if nothing else it’s totally fascinating music. And I admire its ambition.
Samuel Bisson, the cellist in the quartet and their resident composer, is represented in For Mor, a piece that was his wedding processional and recessional. Its ceremonial function doesn’t get in the way of it as music.
That sure doesn’t sound like a wedding march.
Alex Eddington’s gibbons vs GIBBONS is such a cool idea for a piece, that I listened, bracing myself for the possibility that the concept is too brilliant for the piece. I’ve seen this before with music and visual art as well, tremendous ideas on paper that simply don’t fly in the execution. But Eddington’s idea is truly brilliant. Imagine a few apes of the species “gibbon”. Now imagine their encounter with the music of the composer “GIBBONS”. And of course, knowing that we’re talking about apes and music, it devolves into a kind of debate or battle. The quartet enacts an encounter between two simian gibbons with (the composer) Gibbons’ music, and the wacky collision we might imagine. It’s an electrifying 3 minutes and 24 seconds.
Daniel Mehdizadeh’s Dialectics is true to its name, a kind of musical exploration of discourse itself. While the program notes are among the briefest, that might be due to the purity of this composition that does exactly as its title would suggest, employing dissonance near the beginning and (spoiler alert) moving to a resolution.
I have listened to Victims of Eagles by Elizabeth Raum a couple of times, fascinated by its emotional contours, needing to listen to it some more. Commissioned by the Odin Quartet for Beethoven’s 250th birthday, the piece is based on Raum’s earlier song setting words of poet John Hicks. In its quartet incarnation she incorporates the “dot-dot-dot-dash” we know from Beethoven’s Fifth, the Morse code for the letter V of “Victory” as well as “victim”.
Chris Meyer’s three movement “Journey Through Night”, that gives its name to the CD, would aim for a kind of programmatic depiction of the moods associated with the transition from dusk to midnight to dawn. I’m reminded of Richard Strauss, the most extreme practitioner of pictorial realism that I can think of, as for instance in the overpowering sunrise we hear early in his Alpine Symphony. Can a composer of romantic music nowadays dare to be representational? Impressions and emotions are another matter I suppose. Meyer has us mostly inside the feeling, but the outside is still there as well, a welcome visit to terrain serious composers rarely seem to visit nowadays.
Does that sound like a lot of stories? I’m barely scraping the surface in what I said here. This CD at a little over an hour long, is a genuine Journey. I shall listen some more. If I weren’t already committed elsewhere, I would be attending their CD release concert Saturday November 6th at Metropolitan Community Church, 115 Simpson Avenue, an event which alas I can’t attend. Click the link if you want to know more, especially if you’re interested in tickets to the concert. I’m sure it will be a lot of fun.