Last year, when things were looking particularly bleak, composer Kimia Koochakzadeh-Yazdi and I started talking about a new piece that would stretch the composer-performer dynamic in new and fun ways. The result is present Brimming Air: a zany, kaleidoscopic romp that really explores this idea of “play”, whether it’s playing an instrument, playing with toys… or playing an instrument WITH toys. But it’s not all just fun and games. Brimming Air is absolutely a piece of its time: exploding aerosols, a nonsensical (yet weirdly relatable) narrative… all brilliantly composed, recorded, filmed, and edited by Koochakzadeh-Yazdi. Both Kimia and I are grateful for support received from the BC Arts Council, who have been instrumental keeping artists active and creative this past year.
Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries there have been extraordinarily prolific pairings of flutists and composers that have created a wealth of music for the instrument: Karlheinz Stockhausen and Kathinka Pasveer; Salvatore Sciarrino and Roberto Fabbriciani; Kaija Saariaho and Camilla Hoitenga, to name but three. Over the last fifteen years I’ve enjoyed a similar relationship with the Iranian-Canadian composer Farshid Samandari. To date, I’ve commissioned and premiered six works by Samandari: two solo pieces; a flute and percussion duo; a trio for flute, cello, and percussion; a quartet for flute, viola, harp, and percussion (all of which were recorded for his debut album, Apogee); and a concerto, Phoenix Rising, for flute and traditional Chinese orchestra, which we’ll record with the Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra in Taiwan, as soon as we can safely travel again. Most recently, we recorded his work for flute and electronics, If this is a man, with a wonderfully psychedelic video by Vancouver filmmaker Dejan Radovanovic. To be clear, If this is a man was not commissioned by me: it was commissioned and premiered by the flutist Suzanne Snizek, but I’m appreciative for the opportunity to create my own interpretation of this incredible piece. The work is inspired by the words of Primo Levi, specifically an invocation that prefaced Levi’s memoirs as an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor. Samandari frames the author’s words in three musical movements: first, Levi invokes his safe and well-fed audience (I. You who live safe). Then he recounts forms of degradation and abuse visited upon humanity throughout history (II. Consider if…). Finally, he stresses the importance of remembering these atrocities so they do not occur again (III. Meditate that…). I want to express my gratitude to Giovanni Aniello for coaching me on the Italian text and to Walter Quan and the BC Arts Council for supporting this project.
And now for something completely different: back in September my guitarist Adrian Verdejo and I filmed a couple videos of choros by the Brazilian-Canadian composer and guitarist Celso Machado. Our original venue for filming fell through (because Covid), so at the last minute local pianist Rachel Kiyo lwaasa was kind enough to offer her backyard as the backdrop for these two beautiful videos, shot by Jordan Nobles: Paçoca (named after a popular Brazilian peanut candy) and Quebra Queixo (another Brazilian candy, specifically a jawbreaker). Thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts, Creative BC, and the BC Arts Council for supporting these projects!
This week we said farewell to one of the weirdest summers ever. Here on the West Coast of Canada, the last few weeks in particular felt like they were taken from the pages of the Old Testament: forest fire smoke that blocked out the sun, a looper moth infestation, and a pandemic that doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Something else we’ve seen, arguably less biblical, is an explosion of online activity as artists turn to the internet to share their creative work during a worldwide lockdown. I confess that as far as this last item goes, I’m a guilty contributor (sorry/not sorry!). I’m extremely grateful for support from the Canada Council for the Arts, Creative BC, and the BC Arts Council, which has enabled me to create a series of videos that attempt to capture some of the performances I would have given this past summer, in Vancouver, Saskatchewan, and Mexico. The first of these was a video I made with guitarist Adrian Verdejo of Jocelyn Morlock’s Verdigris (which you can see HERE). My second video was just recently released, filmed by Dejan Radovanovic, and it features a solo flute piece called O-Hisa, by Vancouver composer Ramsey Sadaka:
Sadaka composed O-Hisa as a musical portrait of the eponymous character from Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s novel entitled Some Prefer Nettles. While Sadaka certainly conveys the flow of O-Hisa’s psychological states (real and imagined) throughout the novel, the following phrase, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker, provided the main inspiration for this piece:
“O-Hisa was a shade left behind from another age.”
This piece was commissioned by the University of British Columbia’s Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery to commemorate the launch of Esther Shalev-Gerz’s outdoor art work, The Shadow. To this end, I think Dejan did a great job of playing with light and darkness, as well as commenting on O-Hisa’s dualities by creating (often distorted) reflections.
This past month I also had the opportunity to work with Music on Main to create a new video for the Festivals for Compassion, a Dutch online initiative that has been uniting music festivals and concert presenters around the world, inviting them to share their interpretations of a specially commissioned work by the Dutch/Greek composer Calliope Tsoupaki. Her piece, entitled Thin Air, was composed for any instrument, so the Festivals For Compassion timeline is replete with a diversity of interpretations: guitar, trombone, cello, bassoon, bass recorder, even theremin! It was a great pleasure to record the premiere of the flute version of Thin Air with MoM’s Joanna Dundas (director) and Mike Southworth (filmmaker).
I’ve had this piece going through my head for weeks now — it feels nice to be able to share it. The composer Jocelyn Morlock is someone whose music I’m constantly returning to. The beauty, melancholy, and consoling nature of this piece in particular — Verdigris, for alto flute and guitar — are things I’m particularly wanting these days. I’m truly thankful for my duo partner, Adrian Verdejo, for recording the piece with me; Jordan Nobles, for shooting the video so beautifully for us; and Piotr Wieczorek for his audio wizardry.
This video was made possible thanks to support from Creative BC and the Province of British Columbia. I’m also very thankful for a microgrant provided by the BC Arts Council, which will allow Adrian and I to create more videos throughout the summer.
Times are strange right now, so one needs to create reasons to celebrate where one can. And for me, the above video is absolutely a cause for celebration, because it represents the end of a major multi-year project for me: to create three music videos of solo flute music by Canadian composers with strong connections to Pacific Rim culture and/or heritage. Nova Pon‘s piece Wrenegade is a virtuosic showpiece inspired by the call of the Pacific Wren — but more than that, it’s a response to my lifelong fear of birds (and also my fascination with that fear). By presenting the wren’s song at various speeds (including “as fast as humanly possible”), Pon gives us a glimpse into the sound world with which birds communicate, all the while lightheartedly playing with the old trope of the flutist as the extrovert, flamboyant exponent of birdlike virtuosity. The video was filmed by Mark Mushet in Musqueam territory (aka Pacific Spirit Park on UBC campus) with the playful, oh-so-kawaii animations of Cindy Mochizuki.
This next video is very much a response to current events. As the coronavirus began shutting down public gatherings across Canada, the Canadian Music Centre BC Region quickly realized that local musicians would be deeply affected. Their response is Unaccompanied, an online concert series that showcases Vancouver musicians performing solo works by Canadian composers. I’m feeling very honoured to be the first of this series, performing the beautiful work Four Directions by Vancouver composer (and dear friend) Jennifer Butler. Four Directions was originally composed as a piece to announce the day at R. Murray Schafer’s Wolf Project — but here, with the chiaroscuro camera work of Jordan Nobles, the work takes on a more sombre, pessimistic tone.
This week saw the release of the second of three music videos I’ve been working on for Lutalica, my ongoing performance and recording project that focuses on the flute music of Pacific Rim composers. I’m so excited to present Notgnirrac: a video by Bernardo González Burgos and Kiné Producciones, featuring the music of the Canadian-Mexican composer Alfredo Santa Ana.
Notgnirrac takes its name and inspiration from the British-Mexican surrealist artist, Leonora Carrington (spell Carrington backwards and you’ll get Santa Ana’s piece title). After the devastating end to her relationship with the surrealist painter Max Ernst, Carrington moved to Mexico City, where she established herself as one of the country’s leading artists, a primary figure in the international surrealist movement, and a founding member of the Mexican Women’s Liberation Movement.
For this piece Santa Ana was specifically inspired by Carrington’s visual and literary artwork. “I consider her artistry to be a path of self-discovery and a blend of psychological and physical geographies… Carrington displays a self-reflecting attitude inwards, to one’s own identity, culture, and work. This, I believe, is an awareness that is also at the core of McGregor’s examination of Pacific Rim music through the lens of identity. His use of ‘lutalica’ invokes the notion of never really being captured within the narrow categories that we use to describe ourselves.”
It’s almost too perfect that this video was, in fact, filmed on location at the Museo Leonora Carrington in San Luis Potosí, Mexico; throughout this video you’ll see a number of Carrington’s sculptures haunting the various courtyards and galleries of the museum, bringing an eerie surrealist energy to Santa Ana’s rhapsodic and virtuosic music. I’m deeply indebted to Museo Leonora Carrington for providing us the unique opportunity to film there, and to the Canada Council for the Arts for their support.
As we head towards the end of 2019, I’ve had the chance to reflect on a year that has provided artistic challenges, growth, and travel — in particular an exceptional five days spent in San Luis Potosí, Mexico this past November.
There’s a bit of exposition required for this story: part of my LUTALICA project (which you can read more about HERE) involved commissioning three new works by Canadian composers, including the Mexican-born composer Alfredo Santa Ana. Santa Ana’s piece, which I premiered in April, is called Notgnirrac and is inspired by the work and words of the British-Mexican surrealist artist, Leonora Carrington. Sometime after the premiere I discovered that there is, in fact, a museum dedicated to Carrington’s work, Museo Leonora Carrington, located in San Luis Potosí, Mexico. Formerly a colonial-era prison, the city transformed the space into an arts centre that includes the museum, an art gallery, and a music and dance academy.
I reached out to the museum director, Antonio García Acosta, asking about the possibility of filming a video of Santa Ana’s piece within the museum’s galleries and courtyards. This grew into an invitation to not only record the video on museum grounds, but to perform at the museum’s monthly event, Noche de Museo. So on Friday, November 22nd I performed works by Nicole Lizée, Jordan Nobles, and Alfredo Santa Ana; and on Monday, November 25th Alfredo and I filmed for a solid nine hours with Bernardo González Burgos and his team from Kiné Producciones. Below you can see pictures from both the performance and the video shoot — it gives one an idea of the incredible artwork of Leonora Carrington (particularly her sculpted works), as well as the museum space itself.
The Notgnirrac video should be ready in early 2020, completing the trio of videos I set out to make for the LUTALICA project, including forever after by Hope Lee (which can me viewed HERE) and a forthcoming video of Nova Pon’s virtuosic solo flute piece Wrenegade (made by filmmaker Mark Mushet and animator Cindy Mochizuki).
Friday, April 26 will see the third installation of my LUTALICA PROJECT, my exploration of Pacific Rim composers, music, and cultural identity, co-presented by Redshift Music and Vancouver Inter-cultural Orchestra. This has been a tremendous ongoing journey: to date, I’ve performed and recorded roughly half of the twenty pieces selected from an international Call for Scores by composers who live in, or hail from, countries along the Pacific Rim. LUTALICA Part III will feature music by Nirmali Fenn (Australia/Sri Lanka/ Singapore), Mario Mora (Chile), Chun-Ju Yen (Taiwan), and a newly commissioned work by Canadian-Mexican composer Alfredo Santa Ana: Notgnirrac, a piece inspired by the British-Mexican surrealist painter, Leonora Carrington. For this concert I’ll be joined by the Taiwanese-Canadian zheng virtuoso, Dailin Hsieh. Together we’ll perform Kan-Kin by the late Canadian composer Elliot Weisgarber.
This evening will also the digital release for my studio recording of Lutalica: Part One, featuring works by Hope Lee, Ellen Lindquist, Pedro Alvarez, Kaiyi Kao, Philip Brownlee, Etsuko Hori, Nova Pon, Graham Flett, and Emilie LeBel. The album will also include the video of Hope Lee’s forever after, made by Vancouver film maker Mark Mushet (which can be viewed above). So it’ll be a very special evening! Tickets for LUTALICA Part III can be purchased HERE.
For a lot of people I know, the New Year simply can’t come fast enough. And admittedly, this year there was a lot of bleak news in political, environmental, and human rights circles — news that gets heaped upon whatever personal challenges we may have had to deal with in 2018. For me, this year saw upheavals in a few different areas of my personal life, the ghosts of these events having a pesky habit of rearing their ugly heads in unexpected (and often poorly timed) ways. But the year also had its share of wondrous moments as well, moments that make you realize what a privilege it is to be able to travel and to play music for a living. One of those moments happened rather recently: this past November I performed as concerto soloist with the Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra in Taiwan. The LGCCO, led by Chi-Sheng Chen, is one of Taiwan’s premiere traditional Chinese-instrument orchestras: instead of Western violins, violas, harps, and woodwinds, the ranks of the LGCCO consist of erhus, gaohus, guzheng, yangqin, sheng, and dizi — a truly gorgeous and, to the uninitiated, entirely unique sound world.
As you might imagine, there aren’t a lot (read: any) concertos for Western flute and Chinese-instrument orchestra, so the Canadian-Iranian composer Farshid Samandari created a new, 20-minute work, Phoenix Rising, thanks to generous assistance from the Canada Council for the Arts. It’s an exciting, virtuosic work that begins with an extensive orchestral tutti (symbolizing the “absence” or “death” of the phoenix); followed by the gradual emergence of the flutist/phoenix, who “activates” the various orchestral instruments (which can be heard in excerpt one, below); before finally transforming into a triumphant climax (excerpt two, below). Phoenix Rising isn’t just a fantastic piece that I’m proud of having a hand in creating; it’s also an apt metaphor for any of us who, after a turbulent year, are looking forward to 2019 for a chance at rebirth or renewal.
LUTALICA (n. The part of one’s identity that doesn’t fit into categories. From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows)
This Friday I’m continuing my exploration of of Pacific Rim composers, music, and cultural identity with the LUTALICA PROJECT, presented by Redshift Music Society and The Little Chamber Music Series That Could. Just over a year ago I asked composers from around the Pacific Rim to send me their works for solo flute — I was curious to see what commonalities might exist outside of what has essentially been a very Western European tradition. On Friday I’ll be presenting music by Etsuko Hori (Japan), Emilie LeBel (Canada), Hope Lee (Taiwan/Canada), Eve de Castro-Robinson (New Zealand), Jeffrey Ryan, as well as an old favourite of mine, “Air” by Toru Takemitsu. The concert takes place in the beautiful acoustics of Celebration Hall at Mountain View Cemetery (5455 Fraser Street, Vancouver) at 8pm. And, in the traditions of both Little Chamber and Redshift, the event is absolutely free to attend.
THE LUTALICA PROJECT
Music by Hori, LeBel, Lee, de Castro-Robinson, Ryan, & Takemitsu
Friday, July 20, 2018 at 8pm
Celebration Hall, Mountain View Cemetery (5455 Fraser Street, Vancouver)
Enter the cemetery from Fraser Street at East 39th Ave.