In the spring of 2017, Another Timbre released the first five recordings of a ten-disc series dedicated to Canadian composers. The discs were accompanied by a booklet that contained interviews with each of the eight composers (eight not ten, because two of the composers have two discs each in the series). It demonstrated that the eight were a disparate group in terms of their country of birth, country of residence, age, musical style and experience. Despite that, those first five discs were warmly welcomed by listeners and critics alike. In autumn 2018, slightly later than expected, the remaining five discs of the series were released, to complete this significant and historic project. In addition to the four composers featured here, credit must be given to the redoubtable Apartment House whose members collectively or separately feature on four of these five discs.
Alex Jang is the youngest of the eight composers by about a decade, having been born in Calgary, Alberta, in 1988. This is the first CD to feature his music. It spotlights four of his compositions dating from 2014 to 2017, all beautifully realised by members of Apartment House and guitarist Cristian Alvear. The opening title track is ridiculously simple but extremely effective. Recorded on Tooting Bec Common in South London, the only instrumental sounds come from Heather Roche's clarinet playing a series of sustained notes; but these are offset by the ambient sounds of the common itselfbirdsong, children playing, dogs barking. Altogether, very evocative. Next up, the trio of melodica, vibraphone and cello on "Any Three Players" maintains the high standard with an edge-of-seat rendition of the piece which conveys its taut atmosphere while also revealing its underlying sense of melody.
After Alvear's equally engaging solo performance of "A Grey, Bent Interior Horizon," the album reaches a climax with its longest track, a twenty-four-minute, quintet version of 2014's "Distributed Tourism" which demonstrates the quality of Jang's writing for larger groupings. Altogether, the music here is an excellent showcase of Jang's skills which leaves one longing to hear more of his work.
From one extreme to another: London-born Lance Austin Olsen is the oldest of the eight, being some forty-five years older than Jang. Trained as a visual artist, Olsen only got involved in audio work in the late nineties, viewing it as painting and drawing with sounds. His sound work and visual art are now so intertwined that he cannot imagine one without the other. Along with Linda Catlin Smith, Olsen is one of the two composers to have had a CD release on Another Timbre prior to this series. In Olsen's case, the disc was 2014's Sometimes We All Disappear with fellow visual artist Jamie Drouin, his duo partner since the mid-'90s. (Incidentally, in terms of this series, Drouin is very much "the one who got away.")
This album's four tracks combine to create a clear picture of Olsen's sound work. In particular, two contrasting ten-minute realisations of his graphic score "Theseus's Breath," one by Apartment House, demonstrate its versatility and power to engage the listener. In contrast, the other two tracks focus more on Olsen as a performer. The thirty-two minute title track was originally a guitar and field-recordings piece sent to Olsen by Norwegian musician Terje Paulsen. Olsen worked on it, cutting it up, altering tones, adding his own field recordings, excerpts from a radio play and instrumental sounds, in a way that he describes as being akin to the process of painting. The end resultwhich Paulsen approves ofeloquently supports Olsen drawing parallels between his sound and visual work. The same is true of the album's closer, a version of Gil Sanson's 2017 graphic score "A Meditation on the History of Painting," solely performed by Olsen using a palette of methods similar to those on "Dark Heart."
Although he blurs the boundaries between composer and performer, and between sound and visual art, Olsen more than merits his place in the distinguished company of this series.
Having had her first Another Timbre album, Dirt Road, released in 2016, as part of the label's "Violin + 1" series, Linda Catlin Smith had an influence on the decision to issue the Canadian Composers series. Fittingly, her own double-CD Drifter opened the series, attracting glowing reviews. Now, Wanderer closes the series and makes her the composer who has had most music released in it (with three discs to Cassandra Miller's two, if anyone is counting!) Hmm, Dirt Road, Drifter and Wanderer, sound like they should be some kind of trilogy...But whereas the first consists of fifteen movements for piano and violin, the two releases in the series are versions of Smith compositions dating from the nineties through to 2015.
The pieces here complement those on Drifter well. Their music displays the same qualities which made that album specialgentleness, subtlety, emotion, attention to detail, sense of melody and tranquility, coupled with Smith's tendency to savour the sound of each individual instrument whether it be playing solo or in an ensemble. Altogether, those qualities combine to make the music immediately appealing while ensuring that it improves with repeated listening, revealing more and more pleasures over time, as it draws the listener in and becomes increasingly familiar. Like its predecessor, Wanderer is impossible to fault.
Last but not least, the series is completed by two contrasting albums credited to British Columbia-born Cassandra Miller, one featuring commissioned and other pieces played by Apartment House musicians, the other string quartets played by Montreal's Quatuor Bozzini. It is pleasing to note that both albums feature cover paintings by Lance Austin Olsen.
Miller has twice been the recipient of the Jules-Léger Prize for New Chamber Music, Canada's highest honour for composition. For years, her works have been performed across the world. In September 2018, she took up the post of Associate Head of Composition (Undergraduate) at London's prestigous Guildhall School of Music and Drama. All of which makes it quite remarkable to discover that these two albums are the very first recordings to be issued featuring her music.
Taken together, the two albums illustrate exactly why Miller has been honoured and heard around the globe. Across the spectrum, from Mira Benjamin's solo violin piece "For Mira," through the enchanting string quartets, up to the duet of Charles Curtis' cello with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Miller's music gets it right; it feels like it is part of a tradition without being unduly shaped by that tradition or kow-towing to it.
The Canadian Composers Series is such a significant event that it makes sense to appreciate it as a whole without drawing comparisons between the ten albums in it. Hopefully, this series has opened doors for the eight composers in it and for the many more who could just as easily have been included. On the basis of it, there is a strong case for further album releases by Canadian composers, either as another series or as one-offs. History has been made.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Momentary Encounters (5) (2015); Any Three Players (2016); A Gray, Bent Interior Horizon (2016); Distributed Tourism (2014/2017).
Personnel: Heather Roche: clarinet 1, 4); John Lely: melodica (2); Simon Limbrick: vibraphone (2, 4); Anton Lukoszevieze: cello (2, 4); Cristian Alvear: guitar (3); Mira Benjamin: violin (4); Nancy Ruffer: flute (4);
Tracks: Theseus' Breath (realisation #1); Dark Heart (2013-16); Theseus' Breath (realisation #2); A Meditation on the History of Painting (2017).
Personnel: Lance Austin Olsen: graphic score (1, 3), guitar (2, 4), vocal sounds (2), additional field recordings (2), found sounds [radio play] (2), amplified objects (2), field recordings (4), amplified copper plate and engraving tools (4), amplified iron park bench (4), found recording [wax cylinder] (4), voice (4); Mira Benjamin: violin (1); John Lely: electronics (1); Simon Limbrick: percussion (1); Anton Lukoszevieze: cello (1); Terje Paulsen: field recordings (2), guitar (2); Ryoko Akama: turntable (3), melodica (3); Patrick Farmer: paper (3), card (3); Isiah Ceccarelli: reed organ (3), percussion (3); Katelyn Clark: organetto (3); Gil Sanson: graphic score (4).
Tracks: Morning Glory (2007); Music for John Cage (1990); Stare at the River (2010); Knotted Silk (1999); Sarabande (2010); Velvet (2007); Wanderer (2009); Light and Water (2010).
Personnel: Mira Benjamin: violin (1, 3-5, 7); Simon Limbrick: percussion (1, 3-5, 7-8); Anton Lukoszevieze: cello (1, 5, 7-8); Heather Roche: clarinet (1, 3-5, 7); Nancy Ruffer: flute (1, 5); Philip Thomas: piano (1-7); Jack Sheen: conductor (1, 3-5); Chloe Barrett: trumpet (3-4); George Barton: percussion (3-4); James Opstad: double bass (3-4); Mark Knoop: piano (6).
Tracks: 'O Zomer!' (2007); 'Philip the Wanderer' (2012); 'For Mira' (2012); 'Duet for Cello and Orchestra' (2015).
Personnel: Chloe Abbott: trumpet (1); George Barton: vibraphone (1); Simon Limbrick: marimba (1), crotales (1); Anton Lukoszevieze: cello (1); James Opstad: double bass (1); Christopher Redgate: oboe (1); Heather Roche: bass clarinet (1); Philip Thomas: piano (1-2); Jack Sheen: conductor (1); Clemens Merkel: whistling (2); Mira Benjamin: violin (3); Charles Curtis: cello (4); BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conductor Ilan Volkov (4).
Tracks: Just So (2008/18); Warblework (2011): i) Swainson's Thrush ii) Herman Thrush iii) Wood Thrush iv) Veery ; About Bach (2015); Leaving (2011).
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