I’ve known Michael Oesterle way longer than I’ve known his music: we were students together at the University of British Columbia back in the 90s. I knew him primarily as a violin player in the orchestra (and once, he even played mandolin for a performance of Respighi’s Roman Festivals). It would be many years later when I got to know Michael the composer, primarily through my work with the Aventa Ensemble: Urban Canticle, territio verbalis, and tell tales (the latter two pieces written especially for Aventa) are all beautiful, colourful, and deftly wrought ensemble pieces. But it wasn’t until I heard Stand Still — his solo violin piece that he wrote in 2011 for Aisslinn Nosky — when I realized that here was a composer who understood the complexities and subtleties of writing for an unaccompanied instrument; who could reference the instrument’s incredibly rich history of both hedonistic folk music and 18th century polyphony, all the while cunningly maintaining his own unique voice. I cautiously approached him to ask if he’d consider writing a piece for solo flute… and after much scheming and generous support from the Canada Council for the Arts, Delilah was born in September of 2014.
Delilah was inspired, like many of Oesterle’s works, by the British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, computer scientist, mathematical biologist, marathon runner, and persecuted homosexual Alan Turing (1912-1954). In 2012, Turing’s 1944 reports on his “speech system” Delilah, were finally pulled from the British National Archives and opened to the public. This functional machine, designed to scramble and descramble voice messages, was so far ahead of its time that it resembles the way we currently store music in digital format. The musical construction of Delilah for solo flute was motivated by Turing’s unorthodox search for humanity or human intelligence within patterns and systems. It searches for answers to an unasked question, allowing this systematic approach to create subtle emotional shifts. Like Turing, it presents its puzzle playfully: in its persistence it becomes serious and then, as it begins to wallow in the process itself, lightens its mood again: a simple arc in a pattern of system, method, and discovery, its greatest motivation the joy of moving forward (from Oesterle’s programme notes).
A couple weeks ago I headed over to Jordan Noble‘s abode in North Vancouver and we spent the good part of the morning laying down a proper studio recording of Delilah. Thanks to Jordan’s editing skills and a bit of reverb you’d never know that this piece was recorded… in his bedroom. Delilah is joyful, mesmerizing, virtuosic, and bittersweet — and it’s a delight to be able to share it.
Anyone who has ever had to work towards a looming deadline will appreciate (or resent) the passage of time. For composers, time is of course the canvas on which they write — and if you’ve ever had the opportunity to talk to a composer working on a commission, you’re probably familiar with time-related statements like “I need to write another five minutes of music,” or “My piece is longer than what they asked for,” or even just plain old “Oh God, I need more time!” For us listeners, pacing and duration are key ingredients in how a piece of music impacts us emotionally: the 17-second brevity of Schoenberg’s Galgenlied from Pierrot Lunaire Op. 21 instantly conjures up images both horrific and humorous; whereas an hour+ long performance of Terry Riley’s In C can lull us into a trance-like state where an entire evening can slip by unnoticed.
Next week I’ll be giving the Vancouver premiere of a piece that definitely makes its home on the large-scale end of the time spectrum. On Wednesday, March 9th, 2016, Redshift Music Society and Little Chamber Music Series That Could will present Piling Sand – Piling Stone 4 for flute and MaxMSP by Moncton-based composer André Cormier. There are few artists I know who play with the concept of time like Cormier: Piling Sand – Piling Stone 4 is part of a series of pieces that gradually reveal themselves to the listener over the space of 90 minutes. One by one, notes are played by the flutist, which are recorded and looped back every six minutes through a multi-channel speaker installation. Ever so slowly, the piece becomes layered through the speaker playback: it becomes denser, richer, and more elaborate, until the final six minutes reveal the “complete” piece, with swirling flute lines and Tibetan finger cymbals.
In particular, the opening of Piling Sand – Piling Stone 4 is worth mentioning: essentially a blank canvas for sound, the piece begins with a full six minutes of silence. Some people have given me double-takes when I tell them this, but this extended silence serves an important role: the first two minutes is spent wondering what the hell is going on; after four minutes, your inner clock begins slowing down; and by six minutes, you’ve truly entered a deeper listening state, making the first utterance of the flute — a pianissimo F# — seem like a shattering intrusion. It’s a very special listening experience, the likes of which is almost impossible to achieve in our 21st century “Age of Instant Information”. Piling Sand – Piling Stone 4 is unquestionably challenging — and I’m the first person to say that it’s quite possibly not a piece for everybody. But after premiering this piece in New Brunswick back in 2013, I know that this piece can have a very powerful effect on those who are willing to be openminded to truly new listening experiences.
Piling Sand – Piling Stone 4 takes place this Wednesday, March 9th, at 8pm at Celebration Hall at Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery (39th off Fraser St.). This event is FREE. There will also be a free artist chat at the Canadian Music Centre‘s BC Region (837 Davie Street) on Monday, March 7th at 4:30pm. Both André Cormier and myself will be there to talk more about the piece!
And just to give you a tiny, 21st century “Age of Instant Information” taste of what to expect, here is an excerpt from the final six minutes of Piling Sand – Piling Stone 4:
Last night was a sad night indeed: the final drops of my Slivovica — the plum schnapps of Slovakia — was shared among friends and loved ones… and I’m left wondering how one can acquire more of this in Canada. But while the schnapps may be gone, there is no lack of fond memories of the week spent in Bratislava, where I gave the premiere of Nicole Lizée‘s Tarantino Études at the Melos-Ethos Festival. We heard some incredible performances, met lovely people, ate excellent food, and I spent a good part of an evening discussing the movie “Slap Shot” with a bartender who was kind enough to introduce me to his country’s national drink.
Bratislava is a beautiful city, situated on the Danube River and extremely close to neighbouring Austria and Hungary. The old town is closed to motor vehicles, so it’s easy to get the sense of what the place was like in ages past. Tarantino Études was premiered on November 12, 2015 to a packed hall at a4-Zero Space, a contemporary/experimental performance venue with a diverse and enthusiastic following. Those in the know will appreciate the unbelievable amount of work that goes into creating a festival of this size: we’re talking fifteen events over seven days. Kudos to everyone at the Melos-Ethos Festival, especially Festival Director Ol’ga Smetanova.
Almost immediately after the premiere, Lizée and I were back in Vancouver for the North American premiere at Music on Main, which was celebrating its tenth anniversary with its largest Modulus Festival to date — all the more impressive when you consider that the number of MoM staff who made the week happen could all fit comfortably in the back of a Škoda (bravo to Dave, Melody, and Genevieve!). The evening of November 17th included music by Stefan Prins and Caroline Shaw, as well as Lizée’s Tarantino Études and Karappo Okesutura, featuring the Music on Main All Star Band with the incomparable Charlotte Cumberbirch.
And what about the piece itself, you ask? How is the Tarantino Études? Well, I’m perhaps a bit biased, but Lizée has created a serious multimedia masterpiece: hours and hours of film footage were obsessively combed through to find a handful of incredibly potent but unlikely moments musicaux, which are looped and glitched. The result is an audio-visual world that is at once mesmerizing, visceral, disturbing, and hilarious. For a wee taste, here’s an excerpt from the premiere performance at the Melos-Ethos Festival in Bratislava — but be forewarned: it is the Tarantino Études after all, so there is some, uh, “language”.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.)
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
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