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26 May 2016

Soundstreams Emerging Composers Workshop, Toronto

Mark Wolf in Toronto Image: Mark Wolf in Toronto  

Mark Wolf writes about his involvement in the 2016 Emerging Composers Workshop run by the Canadian Soundstreams organisation. The 2016 international mentor of the workshop was Steve Reich, and the group of six participating composers also included the Brisbane-based Nicole Murphy.

Established in 1982 under the direction of Artistic Director Lawrence Cherney, Soundstreams showcases and promotes the work of living Canadian and international composers, with a focus on innovative thematic and experiential programming. As one of the world's leading contemporary music companies, Soundstreams is active in presenting new music in ever-evolving and innovative contexts. As part of its education program, Soundstreams offers a wide variety of opportunities for promising young musicians, including the highly regarded Emerging Composers Workshop. Run annually since 2013, the program brings six young composers to Toronto, Canada, to be mentored by an international visiting mentor and a local mentor, as well as a resident ensemble. Past international mentor composers for the ECW have been R. Murray Schafer (2013), Ye Xiaogang (2014), and Kaija Saariaho and Jean-Baptiste Barrière (2015). In celebration of his 80th birthday, the 2016 visiting composer was Steve Reich.

The six composers selected to take part in the 2016 ECW in April were Andrew Scott Israelsen (USA), Cecilia Livingston (Canada), Colin Labadie (Canada), Fjóla Evans (Iceland/Canada), as well as two Australian composers, Nicole Murphy and myself. The schedule was jammed with daily rehearsals, lecture presentations, collaborative discussions, performances, and a variety of networking and professional development activities facilitated by local composer/mentor Peter Hatch.

Most evenings we attended concerts or prearranged Soundstreams events. My event highlight would have to be the Soundstreams Annual Gala, in which we six composers were the invited guests. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experienof couce to be in the same room as Steve Reich, partaking in an intimate performance of Drumming alongside legendary percussionists Russell Hartenberger, Bob Becker and Gary Kvista. I also felt truly privileged to be introduced to James Harley, the author of Xenakis: His Life in Music, a book I have recently studied alongside my PhD research. Coincidentally, Toronto happens to be the home of the Royal Ontario Museum, a building designed by the famous architect Daniel Libeskind and the subject of my new work currently in development. Most of my minimally allocated free time was spent at the museum making field recordings and piecing together the new work's conceptual summary.

Mark Wolf: Without an Exit (Soundcloud)

The long intensive days coupled with the mostly subzero temperatures meant that my jetlag took the entire first week to subside. Subside it did, just in time for the second week, when we had our sessions with Steve Reich. Days before his arrival the anticipation was building as not one of us quite knew what to expect. Reich is known for expressing his personal distaste for teaching and we were pre-warned of his potentially passive tendencies when placed in these situations. It was a delight to discover that our collective openness and willingness to collaborate made for a productive group dynamic, creating an atmosphere where Reich was comfortable sharing reciprocally. Another highlight was the 'Steve Reich at 80' concert. The celebratory event on Thursday 14 April was held at the historic Massey Hall. The program commenced with a nostalgic performance of Clapping Music by Steve Reich and Russell Hartenberger, followed by Tehillim conducted by Leslie Dala and, finally, a mesmerising and highly captivating hour-long performance of Music for 18 Musicians.

Before arriving in Toronto we each had a little more than six weeks to compose a new work for any combination of soprano voice (Whitney Mather/Zorana Sadiq)), piano (Wesley Shen) and percussion (Daniel Morphy), with a maximum duration of five minutes. Of course, all being eager and enthusiastic composers, everyone chose to write for the complete trio ensemble available and not one of us adhered to the five-minute maximum duration. The shortest work was Colin's Thistle, Thorn lasting 5'47" and the longest, Andrew's Petrichor, lasting a total of 17'00".

A creative output from Stage Two of my PhD research in translating architectural spaces into temporal musical experiences, my composition Without an Exit, of eight minutes' duration, is a musical rendering of Daniel Libeskind's spatial design in the architecture of his Felix-Nussbaum-Haus. Within the museum's three contrasting exterior skins, Libeskind's architecture reveals a highly considered conceptual design process, providing the motivation for crafting an equally considered temporal musical experience. Dedicated to the life work of the Jewish painter Felix Nussbaum, killed in Auschwitz in 1944, every element of the spatial organisation, geometry and programmatic content of the Felix-Nussbaum-Haus refers to the paradigmatic destiny of Nussbaum. The museum is the retracing of the fatal elements and dead-ends of Nussbaum's life. Inscribed on the walls of the Felix-Nussbaum-Haus are the words of Paul Celan's poem 'Engführung'. Michael Hamburger's english translation, 'The Straitening' provided the text for my composition.

Consisting of two instrumental parts and one vocal line, the conceptual basis for Without an Exit corresponds musically to the museum's three highly contrasting 'volumes'. Libeskind conceived of these spaces as irreconcilable 'times zones' which are expressed in the music by allowing each ensemble member moments for temporal independence. The piano and marimba represent volume one, the Nussbaum Haus, constructed from wood and containing the pre-war paintings. The wooden space is violently cut by a dramatic second volume, the Nussbaum Gang. Constructed of concrete and represented by the soprano (who, apart from projecting her voice into the piano also plucks and strikes the strings with her palms), this narrow, compressed space sees the museum's entrance point and displays the paintings from the time when Nussbaum was a fugitive, forced to work in secret within tiny hidden spaces. Vibraphone and found metal objects (played by the soprano) represent volume three, the Nussbaum Brücke. Cladded in metal, a space housing newly discovered paintings, this is a collection which continues to grow.

The 2016 ECW came to a close on Wednesday 13 April at the Final Showcase Concert held at the Spadina Theatre at Alliance Française de Toronto, featuring the world premieres of the six completed works. The next Emerging Composer Workshop will take place in May 2017 with visiting guest mentor Unsuk Chin. I urge all interested young Australian composers to submit an application to be considered.

Mark Wolf's trip to Canada to take part in the Soundstreams Emerging Composers Workshop was supported by a Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre travel grant.

Further links

Mark Wolf - AMC profile

Mark Wolf: Without an exit (recording on Soundcloud)

Soundstreams (www.soundstreams.ca)

Soundstreams Emerging Composer Workshop (www.soundstreams.ca)


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