People in Glass Houses
at the Royal Ontario Museum (100 Queen’s Park)
Sunday, June 15th
Part of the soundaXis 08 festival
By Rob Teehan
It’s festival season in Toronto: the much-hyped Luminato just wrapped up, as did North by Northeast; the Toronto Jazz Festival is about to start, as is Caribana; Pride Week is on the horizon with the Fringe Festival not far behind. As for the two-year-old soundaXis, it’s a bit of a festival underdog considering the long-established reputations and/or bigger publicity budgets of its competitors. Then again, isn’t the classical new music scene always struggling to put butts in chairs?
One solution would be to remove the chairs altogether, which is exactly what CONTACT Contemporary Music did for the festival’s final concert on Sunday afternoon. Under the direction of percussionist Jerry Pergolesi, the hip new music troupe set up shop and sound system in a corner of the cavernous Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum, a fair distance from the benches. This concert, titled People in Glass Houses, was clearly not intended for the new music scenesters (though a few of us showed up anyway and sat on the floor); rather the target audience was all around, filing through the admissions gate and meandering through nearby exhibitions.
What to play for these people in glass houses? Very slow, very quiet, and very beautiful music. Allison Cameron’s 3rds, 4ths, and 5ths set the tone, adding the interesting colour of two harmonicas to the usual CONTACT suspects of piano, guitar, and vibraphone — whose undulating arpeggios set up a shifting bed of sound — as well as violin, saxophone, trombone and two flutes, whose quiet sustained notes were like harmonic overtones. I detected the influence of the minimalist “pulse music” of Steve Reich et al., but the music was harmonically more mobile, and the pulse was gentler and seemed fragmentary, washy, and impossible to pin down: ergo, post-minimalist. But who cares what you call it — the sound of it was ravishing, especially with the late introduction of a jangling electric-sounding shimmer, which I thought for sure was caused by some kind of effect pedal or digital signal processing until I saw the metal chain and wire hangers draped across the vibraphone.
Cameron’s piece was the fastest of the day, for all its mellowness; almost all that followed were equally or even more meditative, slow moving, and lushly beautiful, striking a good balance between accessibility and fresh creativity, very much appropriate for a museum. The audience was free to come and go as it pleased, making the choice to experience the music simply as background ambience, or to pay greater attention to its subtleties; most did both to some degree. Music in museums and art galleries is nothing new, but it bears remembering that these venues provide a readymade audience that, rather than attend a concert to be seen or to make a political point, simply walks through the door open-minded, curious, and seeking unique cultural experiences. What more could you ask for?
And just such a unique experience was provided, with spectacular effect, by Vancouverite Jordan Nobles‘ A Sign in Space, which scattered the musicians to the far, jagged corners of the Crystal to surround us with music of unearthly beauty. If Cameron was slow, Nobles was positively glacial, each instrument moving with painstaking deliberation through a series of long notes based on the major scale, imperceptibly gaining energy as the voices faded in and out of the engrossing texture. Specially written for the day, Nobles’ piece was as perfectly at home in the ROM’s Crystal as Gabrieli in St. Mark’s Basilica. And the museum-goers were caught in their tracks as they drifted in from neighbouring rooms: spellbound, they stood and spun around slowly, trying to place the sources of the sound; a few brave ones joined us to sit on the floor, but even those just passing through lowered their voices to a hush. How long was it, ten minutes? Thirty? Time was suspended; I could have sat for hours.
The afterglow of Nobles’ piece might have dampened the lustre on Jeff Herriott’s new Filtered Space; though beautiful, it was similar in character and colour to its predecessor while lacking the spatial effect, and thus it felt like less of the same. And John Cage’s Fontana Mix was an odd choice to follow; an early specimen of indeterminate music, its score is an intimidating graphic of randomly-assembled curved lines and grids, allowing great latitude from the performers. But in spite of some occasionally euphonious improvisations from the CONTACT musicians (dictated by mad scientist gestures from Pergolesi), Fontana Mix is chaotic and unfriendly music unless you’re acutely aware of the importance – and theatricality – of its on-the-fly structure, which was lost on the wandering tourists. Cage, though he might have disagreed, needed a quiet theatre and an attentive audience this time.
Leave it to Brian Eno to save the day. Pergolesi explained that Eno’s Discreet Music is meant to integrate itself into its surroundings, and by way of a dismissal he recommended we “enjoy the rest of the afternoon”. Not one to argue, I wandered through the nearby galleries where, despite the bustle, Eno’s dreamy, pulsating shimmer could be heard throughout, and I watched as tourists turned away from the Tyrannosaurus rex and cocked an ear, some drifting over to balconies to look down at the musicians.
The way this music infused the air with a sense of wonder bordered on magical. Memo to CONTACT and soundaXis: keep bringing art music to the masses, please. And memo to the ROM: music in the Crystal — especially post-minimalist music — is a good thing.