Bratislava bound but Made for Modulus: Nicole Lizée’s TARANTINO ÉTUDES

I first met Montreal-based composer Nicole Lizée almost exactly two years ago: the Little Chamber Music Series That Could and I had co-commissioned her to write a new work that dealt with grief for LCMSTC’s All Souls event at Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery. The resulting commission, Ouijist, is a piece that still haunts me: dark, touching, and a warhorse virtuoso role for percussionist Ben Reimer. After the performance, emboldened by a post-concert repast of fried chicken, waffles, and bourbon, I asked Nicole if she’d consider writing a new piece for flute and electronics. She agreed (such is the power of fried chicken, waffles, and bourbon), but immediately stipulated that the new piece would be written for bass flute.

Bass flute, baby. Bass flute.

Nicole Lizée

Nicole Lizée

As Nicky and I started talking about this new commission in more detail, I knew she was in the midst of composing a series of pieces that explored the works of particular film directors — she called these her “Criterion Collection”. Lizée’s music is infused with tributes to popular culture, whether it be film (Hitchcock, Kubrick), music (Rush, DJ turntable art), or even toys (those of us born in a certain age will remember the Omnichord or the electronic game “Simon”, both of which have made appearances in Lizée’s music). She remains unique in her ability to create music that is chilling, funny, and occasionally flat-out demented while referencing iconic moments of 20th century popular culture — this is new music steeped in 70s/80s pop nostalgia. So I was surprised when she proposed that her new piece for bass flute and glitch would pay tribute to the work of Quentin Tarantino — a cultural phenomenon firmly rooted in the 90s/21st century. I should probably clarify that: when I say “surprised” I mean “peel-me-off-the-ceiling excited”, not just because Tarantino is one of my all-time favourite film directors, but because so many aspects of his style — the juxtaposition of humour and violence, soundtrack-driven narratives, a love of pop culture iconography — are things that, I feel, resonate very strongly with Lizée’s music.

The world premiere of Tarantino Études was originally planned to be at Music on Main’s 2015 Modulus Festival — but in a fit of incredible generosity, MoM’s artistic director Dave Pay arranged an introduction with Olga Smetanova of the Melos-Ethos Festival in Bratislava. As a result of this introduction, Nicole and I are on our way to Slovakia this weekend to give the European premiere of Tarantino Études on November 12th at the Melos-Ethos Festival, followed by the North American premiere at Modulus Festival in Vancouver on November 17th. This past week my email correspondence with Nicky has been dealing primarily with extra-musical devices and props for these performances — some of these requests have been entirely sincere, others… not so much: whistling, guitar playing, sword swinging, and Japanese school girl outfits have all been discussed at length. Which of these are fact and which are fiction, you ask? I suppose there’s only one way to find out.

A peek at the score of one of Lizée's Tarantino Études

A peek at the score of one of Lizée’s Tarantino Études

National InQueeries: looking back

Vancouver's Fox Cabaret, the perfect venue for National InQueeries. Photo by Jan Gates.

Vancouver’s Fox Cabaret, the perfect venue for National InQueeries. Photo by Jan Gates.

I secretly love a good pun. When pianist Rachel Iwaasa and I were scheming about our next Tiresias Duo concert — one that would commission four young LGBT composers to write new works inspired by historic queer trailblazers — we were wracking our brains for a good title. It finally came to me while standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, surrounded by tabloid papers that were, coincidentally, insinuating that some B-list actor had a secret gay lover. “National InQueeries“, I thought, encapsulated what we were out to create: a nationally focused exploration of queer culture and heritage; something that asked questions about who we are and who came before us; and something that preserved an element of the campy and the taboo, especially as queer rights begins to lumber its way towards a very peculiar and selective kind of mainstream acceptance. Four composers were approached: German-born, Victoria-based Annette Brosin; BC-born, Denmark-based Justin Christensen; Toronto-based president of the Canadian League of Composers, Brian Harman; and New York-based composer-in-residence of the Victoria Symphony, Jared Miller. And on October 20th — after a year-and-a-half of plotting, scheming, commissioning, rehearsing, and nail-biting — National InQueeries came to life at the Fox Theatre as part of Music on Main‘s series, “A Month of Tuesdays“.

On one level (and I suppose one could argue that it’s the level that matters most), we were über prepared. Rachel and I had spent a week at the Leighton Artists’ Colony at the Banff Centre, rehearsing the four new works as much as eight hours each day. Moreover, we were working with four composers who are on absolutely top of their game. But what I was entirely not prepared for was how a programme like this would affect me emotionally. I had never stood before an audience and tried explaining that 1.) I’m gay, 2.) it’s an identity that I spent years struggling with, and 3.) the evening’s programme was a way for all of us to learn more about a cultural that isn’t always recognized, but continues to exist and thrive thanks to extraordinarily brave and creative individuals. But what was perhaps even more overwhelming was how each composer responded to the challenge of writing a new work that paid tribute to our shared inheritance: Brian Harman wrote a haunting and often playful piece that paid homage to two exceptional gay composers, Claude Vivier and Benjamin Britten; Justin Christensen’s piece explored the complex homoerotic roots of tango while brilliantly utilizing the spoken text of Judith Butler; Annette Brosin wrote a fascinating piece that looked at two pop songs she loved, one by Björk, another by Radiohead — neither song being specifically queer, but both with messages that, for her, changed dramatically after she came out to herself; and Jared Miller wrote a virtuosic (and occasionally quite savage) tribute to Leonard Bernstein. The evening was one of the most artistically satisfying things I’ve done, and I’m so thankful that 1.) after more than a decade, Rachel Iwaasa remains my Tiresias Duo partner-in-crime 2.) each composer gifted us with such beautifully wrought, intensely personal pieces, and 3.) David Pay and all the folks at Music on Main gave us the chance to share this programme. To each and all of you, I want to shower you with love, gratitude and the queerest of Hollywood movie star kisses.

Betwixt the Bananas: New Music in Victoria

Anna Banana

Anna Banana’s exhibit at Open Space. Photo credit: Jacquelyn Bortolussi

I actually came up with at least half-a-dozen banana jokes for the opening of this post — all of them in poor taste. At best they were a little green; at worst they were highly un-apeeling. So suffice to say that Open Space in Victoria is presently exhibiting an Anna Banana retrospective, and on October 16th you can expect the oblong imagery to increase ever so slightly… when I present a concert of new and recent works for solo flutes, with and without electronics.

The lion’s share of the programme is the result of a Call for Scores from Victoria-based composers. I was thrilled by the response and blown away by the diversity, skill, and beauty of what was submitted. My concert on October 16th will include:

Diane Berry: Calling
Liova Bueno: Poema para Paola
Brandon Chow: Asthma 
Nathan Friedman: La double a remplir
Julio Lopezhiler: Lip, Stitch, Tether
Maria Eduarda Mendes Martins: Wandering Somewhere for bass flute
Marcilio Onofre: Marionette de Vento
*                    *                    *                    *
The programme will also include two newly commissioned works for flute and electronics: a new work by Stefan Maier; and Ambitus for solo alto flute + Max/MSP, by Gregory Lee Newsome. Ambitus was commissioned by Daniel Cooper, a Toronto-based philanthropist who has commissioned a number of new solo works by key Canadian composers. Maier lives in New York now and Newsome lives in Toronto — but they both used to called Victoria home, which ties the programme together very nicely. Special thanks to Chris Reiche, Open Space’s new music coordinator (and a formidable composer in his own right), for initiating this event and organizing the Call for Scores. The concert takes place at 8pm, Friday October 16th, 2015 at Open Space (510 Fort Street), Victoria, BC.
Gregory Lee Newsome, whose piece Ambitus will be premiered on October 16th

Gregory Lee Newsome, whose piece Ambitus will be premiered on October 16th

So, Lots. Of. Music. Fortunately on Sunday I’m off to spend a week at the Leighton Artists Colony at the Banff Centre, thanks to generous assistance from the Canada Council for the Arts. The English language is insufficient to accurately describe how much I’m looking forward to hiding away in the Cardinal Studio in preparation for this programme as well as another, very special programme with pianist Rachel Iwaasa (who’ll be nestled away in the Valentine Studio, just a few trees away). But more on that later…

Sins & Fantasies nominated for WCMA

Sins & Fantasies cover image

Sins & Fantasies cover image

The nominees for the 2015 Western Canadian Music Awards were announced on May 5th and I’m thrilled to be able to say that my sophomore solo album, Sins & Fantasies, was nominated for Classical Recording of the Year. This recording, released by Redshift Records, is the culmination of a little project I began in 2010. I asked a number of Canadian composers to each write a solo flute piece inspired by one of the Seven Deadly Sins: Wrath, Greed, Pride, Lust, Envy, Sloth, and Gluttony. It was fascinating to see who gravitated towards what sin — some struck me as perfect pairings; others completely surprised me. But in the end, I was gifted with six amazing pieces: Dorothy Chang‘s Wrath; Gregory Lee Newsome‘s Avarice (Greed); Owen Underhill‘s Three Reflections on Pride; Jocelyn Morlock‘s L (Lust); James Beckwith Maxwell‘s invidere (Envy); and Benton Roark‘s Untitled (Sloth). And to round things out, I made my composer-ly debut with a salute to Gluttony, Le dernier repas de Monsieur Creosote, and included three Fantasias by the 18th century composer G.P. Telemann — hence the album title, Sins & Fantasies.

And here we are, in all our depraved glory (or is it just a flimsy excuse to post a photo of me in a chicken mask? We’ll never know…).

Sins & Fantasies is in first-rate company and I’m proud to say that many of my fellow nominees are close friends and colleagues. These include PEP (Piano-Erhu Project), featuring Corey Hamm and Nicole Li; Sea and Sky, featuring François Houle and Jane Hayes; the Victoria Baroque Players; and violinist Karl Stobbe. The WCMA ceremony will take place on September 20th, 2015 in Victoria, BC.

New Directions with the Powell Street Festival Society

Performing Michael Mori's "Nothing is Free" at the Powell Street Festival's Spatial Poetics IX in 2010 (with Iman Habibi).

Performing Michael Mori’s “Nothing is Free” at the Powell Street Festival’s Spatial Poetics IX in 2010 (with Iman Habibi).

I had the wonderful opportunity the other day to catch up with a dear friend, Kathleen Gallagher: a Sydney based flutist, interdisciplinary performer, and educator. Kathleen and I were enjoying an izakaya lunch on Darling Harbour: the food and service were excellent, but entirely secondary to our conversation, which was impassioned, hilarious, and even occasionally teary. We talked about our careers, our relationships, our families, and, perhaps more than anything else, our desire for change. I announced that 2015 was to be a year of personal and professional change for me – not because I’m dissatisfied with what I’m doing…. except that, well, I am a bit dissatisfied.

In 2012 I stepped down as Co-Artistic Director of the Redshift Music Society. This organization, which I co-ran with composer Jordan Nobles, remains an important part of the Vancouver cultural landscape, and I’m immensely proud to have had a part in its development. Since then, I’ve had a great time focusing on personal projects and my own development as a flutist (and by “great time” I’d like to clarify: rewarding, diverse, and challenging at the best of times; anxiety-inducing and failure-riddled at the worst of times). But there came a point when I realized that my ability to affect positive change in my community could only extend so far as a flutist. I wanted to explore collaboration and dialogue with other arts and artists – a thing that we, as artists, often talk about, while knowing that the reality is a much more complicated beast. Also, as I get older, my connection to my Japanese Canadian heritage is something that is becoming more and more important to me. I remember as a child I wanted to be as “white” as possible: blonde hair, blue eyes… I resented my epicanthic folds. Now, especially in the years following the death of my mother, I’m discovering how rich, fascinating, and evolving Japanese Canadian culture really is – and I’m both delighted and reassured to find that artists of Asian heritage throughout the world have similarly complex relationships to East/West culture and are creating works that address the bridge/divide in incredible ways.

Enter the Powell Street Festival Society.

Founded in 1977, the Powell Street Festival Society celebrates the history of Japanese Canadians and acts as an important platform for established and emerging Asian Canadian artists. The heart of the Society’s activities is their summer festival, inspired by the matsuri of Japan: a weekend of cultural activities, family events, crafts, and food, held the first weekend of August in Oppenheimer Park, the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Beyond the festival, PSFS presents events throughout the year that showcase Japanese, Japanese Canadian, and Asian Canadian artistic talent, and provides an arena for the ever-evolving discourse between Eastern and Western artistic practices.

On March 24th, I’ll be assuming the role of Artistic Director for this incredible institution. It’s a newly created position, one that I hope will enable us all to continue honouring the past while creating, nurturing, and bearing witness to the exciting future trajectories of arts and culture on local, national, and international levels. It goes without saying that I’ll continue to perform and teach: music is and always will be my primary form of communication, and I know my work in this field will continue to develop and mature. But I’m beyond thrilled to be joining the PSFS family and am looking forward to a future of connecting communities, artistic growth, and change. (And spam sushi.)

VOI (rex) with Aventa Ensemble

Philippe Leroux’s Voi (Rex) is, at least in my mind, the 21st century’s answer to Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire Op. 21. Thrilling, demented, haunting, and deeply, deeply beautiful, this masterpiece for soprano voice, ensemble, and electronics uses poems by Lin Delpierre, the words for which are transformed through electronic enhancement and a dizzying array of vocal techniques. Aventa, the Victoria-based contemporary music ensemble (with whom I’ve been playing for ten years! Gawd, time flies), presents this work tonight with guest soprano Helen Pridmore, along with Leroux’s Continuo(ns); Zosha di Castri’s La forma della spazio for solo violin and ensemble (featuring our own concertmaster, Müge Büyükçelen); and Gordon Fitzell’s Evanescence for ensemble and electronics. It’s an extra treat having both Leroux and Fitzell in town for the occasion; in particular, it’s wonderful to see Gordon on the heels of his recent Juno nomination for the recording of his piece Magister Ludi (which, I’m pleased to humble brag, includes a certain half-Asian West Coaster honking away on the bass flute). If you’re in or near Victoria, this will be a stunning show. Some snapshots of our rehearsals have been included here for your visual enjoyment!

Voi (Rex): Sunday, February 8th, 2015 8pm

Aventa Ensemble
Bill Linwood, conductor; Helen Pridmore, soprano; Müge Büyükçelen, violin; Philippe Leroux & Gordon Fitzell, live electronics

Phillip T. Young Recital Hall (UVic School of Music, MacLaurin Building)
Tickets at the door $20
Pre-concert talk 7:15pm



ROAM: music & food with Music on Main

This past weekend (January 17th to be precise) I was asked to participate in a most unusual event: Music on Main teamed up with Here There to present ROAM at the Juice Truck (which is, I was somewhat relieved to learn, an indoor venue). I was asked to present a handful of solo works (I chose Bach and Takemitsu) alongside a performance of Hildegard Westerkamp‘s beautiful electroacoustic work “Kits Beach Soundwalk”, and chef Annabelle Choi created a three course meal inspired by the music. It was fascinating to see (and taste!) how someone might interpret these pieces through food. Choi’s dishes — spiced persimmons, goat cheese tapioca, and ginger tuile for the Takemitsu; butternut squash & chickpea falafels for the Bach; and a seaweed Miyoek soup with mussels for the Westerkamp — were all as delicious as they were inventive. Some photos below, courtesy of Grady Mitchell.


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