The Shaman: Spectacular New Canadian Orchestral Music


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I don’t know what it is about political borders and the arts but there must be some kind of walls up that prevent musical immigration from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, etc.  In short there is a strong Eurocentric/American flavor to the classical music distributed here.

 

One of the issues with which the large colonial countries such as the United States and Canada grappled was the tendency for all their composers to sound like second rate European composers.  With the dawn of the 20th Century there was the obligatory attention to folksong but that is also arguably Eurocentric…not bad, mind you, just leaving out the Native Americans or, using the elegant Canadian term, First Peoples.

Eventually both the U.S. and Canada began to pay attention to indigenous traditions of the peoples they had conquered.  One suspects that an appreciation of the social and spiritual traditions of indigenous peoples also encouraged a different view of the very landscapes.  In Canada the composer most closely associated with the post Eurocentric traditions would have to be Raymond Murray Schafer whose incorporation of the vast landscapes of his country embraced it musically and dramatically in a way that no one had previously.

So along comes this disc from composer Vincent Ho (1975- ) born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  He was educated variously at Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music, a Bachelor of Music from the University of Calgary, an MM from the University of Toronto, and a DMA from the University of Southern California.  His mentors have included Allan Bell, David Eagle, Christos Hatzis, Walter Buczynski, and Stephen Hartke. In 1997, he was awarded a scholarship to attend the Schola Cantorum Summer Composition Program in Paris, where he received further training in analysis, composition, counterpoint, and harmony, supervised by David Diamond, Philip Lasser, and Narcis Bonet.

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Vincent Ho

 

Impressive credentials for sure but this album demonstrates the very impressive work of a composer who would seem to be poised to take on the mantle of the next generation of artists working to create music that represents the entire country in this generation.  This is a man with formidable skills in writing for large ensembles.  No doubt his facility with writing music allows him to create convincingly for any size ensemble.  A quick look at the composer’s catalog of works inspired the mini polemic with which this review begins.  How can so much wonderful music go unnoticed south of the border here in the U.S.?  (End rant.)

Finally to the disc at hand.  This is a beautifully recorded live concert of two major works by Mr. Ho, “The Shaman” (2011) and Arctic Symphony (2010).  Both are for large orchestra and inhabit a very listenable realm melodically and harmonically.  That is NOT to say that these are ordinary or simple works.  In fact they clearly embody the work of a well trained and thoughtful artist.  This is exciting music and the audience response at the end of each work was highly approving.

Your reviewer heard the Carnegie Hall broadcast of The Shaman and jumped at the opportunity to review this disc.  Dame Evelyn Glennie is reason enough to pay attention.  This (essentially) Concerto for Percussion was written for her and she is ostensibly the shaman of the work’s title.  Her performance is simply spellbinding.  The piece has three numbered movements and an interlude.  I will leave it to the program note readers to plumb the additional depths of meaning embodied in the concerto but I will tell you that if you are not enthralled by the “fire dance” finale you may very well be dead.

The Arctic Symphony is another animal.  It is a programmatic work inspired by the composer’s experience on a research vessel, the Amundsen, exploring various arctic regions and describing the different areas of research being done.  There are environmental themes here for sure and also an incorporation of Inuit songs transcribed by the composer and sonic evocations of various aspects of the composer’s experience of the journey (wind, silence, the strange sounds of uncertain causes that one apparently hears in these nether regions.  The five movements fit pretty comfortably into the basic classical forms that comprise symphonies.  There are chorales, variations, a nice scherzo in the Amundsen (3rd movement).  It is, like the concerto, a very entertaining and exciting piece.

The Winnipeg Symphony and it’s talented conductor, Alexander Mickelthwate must be mentioned for their skill at holding this complex music together.  In both works they provided readings that were both accurate and stimulating.  One can’t imagine any audience failing to enjoy this music.

One can’t help but wonder about the confluences between the work of Mr. Ho and that of John Luther Adams.  Both deal with arctic landscapes and both express environmental concerns.  Well I invite listeners to do their part in eliminating the weird musical apartheid that appears to exist by buying this album.  It is excellent.

Oh, No! Not Another Minimalist! John McGuire


When I posted my introductory article to the “Not Another Minimalist!” series I got the suggestion on Facebook from composer/writer Walter Zimmerman that I do a piece on John McGuire.  Many will remember Zimmerman for his important book of interviews called Desert Plants (1976) in which he interviewed a series of 23 American composers in the early to mid-1970s.  His choices virtually defined an era much like Robert Ashley’s Music with Roots in the Ether would later do.  He is also a fine composer in his own right and will be featured in a future essay on this blog.  I am honored to receive a challenge from him and I also thought it was a fine selection of a minimalist-type composer whose work deserves wider dissemination so I am using McGuire as my first article in the series.

Unfortunately there is precious little to be found on this American composer.  In Zimmerman’s book he gets only one page so I am essentially updating his earlier efforts.  However, even 38 years later, McGuire does not appear to have a web page and I have been able to find reference to only a few recordings of his music.

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Cover image from one of McGuire’s recordings.

John McGuire (1942- ) studied with Robert Gross at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he earned his BA in 1964, with Ingolf Dahl at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and with Seymour Shifrin at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his MA in 1970. He also studied composition privately with Karl Kohn, composition and orchestration with Krzysztof Penderecki at the Folkwang Universität der Künste in Essen from 1966–68 and composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Ferienkurse in Darmstadt in 1967–68. He then studied computer composition with Gottfried Michael Koenig at the Instituut voor Sonologie of the Universiteit Utrecht in 1970–71 and electronic music with Hans Ulrich Humpert at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz in Cologne from 1975–77.

I came to know the work of John McGuire when I found a remaindered copy of a Largo CD containing his 48 variations for two pianos in the great though now sadly gone Rose Records  store in Chicago in the 1980s.  It was a gamble as I had never even heard of this composer but the album somehow spoke to me from the CD bin.

Variations for 2 pianos CD

Variations for 2 pianos CD

My gamble paid off because I had found in that piece a new take  on minimalism and pattern music.  It seemed to be closer to classical variation form than to strict process-oriented patterns but clearly there were rhythmic cells being subjected to development.  It clocks in at about 48 minutes and is a tour de force.

As it turns out McGuire makes use of minimalism as only one of his compositional techniques and has a distinctly different take on it which appears to be informed by the various techniques gleaned from his teachers.  After finding and bonding with this CD I began to look for more of this man’s music.

The intelligent vigilance of Richard Friedman and the Other Minds organization broadcast McGuire’s 1974 Frieze for 4 pianos and his 1985 Cadence Music for 21 Instruments in a RadiOM program dedicated to the composer’s music. Both recordings were broadcast from a 2 CD release on the RZ label.   Again the unmistakable sound of minimalism in a very unique approach.

The east coast equivalent of RadiOM is WNYC’s New Sounds hosted by John Schaefer.  The program of November 12, 2013 included McGuire’s Pulse Music III from 1978.  This is a great example at the composer’s facility with electronics.  This piece realized on tape was apparently originally for a multiple speaker installation  but is mesmerizing even in the stereo presentation which was broadcast.  Another inspired new music show, Kalvos and Damian did a program on the genesis of this music which remains available as streaming content.

McGuire spent 25 years living and working in Germany returning to the United States in 1998.  He then worked for Carl Fischer music as an editor and was a visiting adjunct professor at Columbia from 2000-2002.

I’m not sure I’ve been able to do much more than Walter Zimmerman did in his book but it is my hope that this article may spark interest in musicians, producers and broadcasters to keep this fascinating composer in mind for future projects and performances.

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