I participated in a roundtable review of the beautiful new David Bowie book by Mike Allred and Steve Horton:
“Using the last Ziggy Stardust concert as a framing device, BOWIE: Stardust, Rayguns & Moonage Daydreams traces how Bowie built and rebuilt identities and created innovations that affected music, art, fashion, videos, and even financial products.”
One of the things I like about the book is how Horton and Allred credit those behind the scenes who helped shaped Bowie.
UltraViolet with Guest Vocalist and Composer Jane Berry November 23, 2019 McDougall United Church Presented by New Music Edmonton
On November 23, 2019, New Music Edmonton invited me to their first concert of the season. The featured group was UltraViolet, a quartet featuring Chenoa Anderson on flute, Allison Balcetis on saxophone, Amy Nicholson on cello, and Roger Admiral on piano.
On this occasion, they were joined by Jane Berry, who provided vocals on all five pieces performed that night, including her own composition.
I’m going to walk through the program from beginning to end because it made for a perfect evening, starting with the venue. McDougall United Church was built in 1910 with oak interiors and maple floors. It has been used as a church continuously, but has been a concert venue from the start. Its grand opening on January 20, 1911 featured a 50-person choir, and a pipe organ was installed the following year. Opera, symphonies, and recitals have taken place there. (This description summarizes a report by Lawrence Herzog and Molly Staley as part of the Edmonton City as Museum Project). This is all to say that the space is storied and cozy, which complemented and contrasted with the adventurous new music on the program.
The evening opened with John Cage’s “Living Room Music” (1940). The musicians sat on comfy reading chairs and “played” everyday objects of their choosing. They made music with magazine, wooden stools, books on a bench, and a two-by-four, among other items. They took text fragments of “The World Is Round”, a children’s book by Gertrude Stein, and gave it a sound-poem reading. Cage probably didn’t call for vehicular traffic to be incorporated into the piece, but the noise of cars driving past the church became another quotidian source of sound in the performance.
The second piece was “Tanzer Lieder” by Quebec composer Ana Sokolovic. The composition is built around poems written by Francisco Tanzer in German, French, and English (to honour the languages of the members of Trio Phoenix, for which the piece was written) . The natural echo in the McDougall sanctuary added a “special effect” to Berry’s vocals, and her harmonizing with Amy Nicholson’s cello was divine.
Next, Berry sang and hummed her own composition, “The Break”. With lyrics about living with bipolar disorder, the song was gorgeous and haunting, particularly when she sang the words “catch me when I’m falling”, or the repeated phrase, “I’m trying, I’m trying, I’m trying”, or the poignant line, “If I told you a flower grew in the darkness, would you believe it?” “The Break” resonated both musically and emotionally.
After the intermission, the ensemble performed “The Woman and the Lyre”, a five-movement piece based on poetry fragments by Sappho. The composer, Alyssa Aska, used translations by Canadian poet Bliss Carmen (1861 to 1929). This was the only piece of the night with an electroacoustic element, as Berry’s vocals were processed live from the mic. It also had a performative aspect. At one point, Roger Admiral got up and plucked piano wire as if they were strings on a lyre. The piece also called upon Berry to pace across the stage nervously, perhaps reflecting the anxiety of the poet. I thought the action was also a metaphor for the tightrope the musicians were walking in presenting a fully realized contemporary piece of work based on fragments for which we do not have a full context. Satisfyingly, the piece ended on a sure and sublime note.
Finally, UltraViolet performed five movements from Frederic Rzewski’s 1986 composition, “Chains”. If the Sappho piece had a historical flavour, “Chain” was unnervingly topical. Jane Berry sat on one of the comfy armchairs which made an appearance at the start of the program. This time, she was holding a copy of the National Post, and literally reading the news: Trump, the provincial budget, university funding, the Climate Strike march, oh boy! Berry begin to break down the words until they were music, while the Chenoa Anderson and Allison Balcetis coaxed their wind instruments to make sounds like early morning bird calls. The ensemble referred back to the John Cage piece by incorporating everyday objects once again to make music, this time there was a wrench, and a stapler, and a set of keys on a lanyard. Berry provided a physical performance as she did in the Alyssa Aska piece, but instead of pacing, she sat in the chair, building a structure with Jenga blocks, until she dramatically swiped it all off the table.
“Chains” was the perfect book-end to “Living Room Music”, with elements that brought “Tanzer Lieder”, “The Break”, and “The Woman and the Lyre: Sapphic Cycle” to mind. Kudos to UltraViolet for a well-considered, fun, and beautifully performed program.
UltraViolet was named in honour of the late Edmonton composer Violet Archer. The ensemble is especially interested in performing brand new work, and have pledged “to maintain gender parity in our programming and commissioning.” Check out video of performances of three new works on their website.
New Music Edmonton presents a number of shows during the year. They host a series called NME at The Aviary: New Music, New Voices (the next one is on January 16, 2020) and an annual spring music festival called Now Hear This, which will take place on March 19 to 22, 2020. Details about these shows are on the New Music Edmonton website.