Sonic Boom

8 April 2016

By Nathan Marsh

Since its inception as an organization in 1984, Vancouver Pro Musica has dedicated itself to the artistic development of British Columbia’s composers of new music. Each spring Vancouver Pro Musica hosts its Sonic Boom Festival, taking place over an entire weekend with different concerts playing every night from Thursday to Sunday, and a composer’s masterclass workshop taking place on Sunday morning. Saturday and Sunday are generally considered the big nights, featuring the organization’s ensemble-in-residence for the season, usually a Vancouver-based ensemble of great repute such as this season’s wonderful Standing Wave Ensemble, and new work from their composer-in-residence for the year, Edward Top, in amongst the work of other well-known Vancouver-based composers.

However, what makes Sonic Boom a truly unique event is its first two Mixed Ensemble nights. These nights truly encapsulate what Vancouver Pro Musica is as an organization, where on its opening night, Thursday March 17 at the Western Front, an enthusiastic audience was treated to an eclectic mix of ten new pieces of music exhibiting diverse compositional and performative stylings, demonstrating Vancouver Pro Musica’s truly admirable devotion to the presentation of work of all styles from BC composers of all ages and skill levels, amateur, student and professional.

Amongst the new works on display here, six were from university students still learning their compositional craft, five of which come from SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts. The diversity of influence and style in these works exhibit the promise and eminent potential prevalent in the emerging generation of Vancouver composers.  However, what stood out the most in this concert was not the amount of young talent on show, but rather the absence of creative vim and vigour from these students’ elder composers, and a lack of examples upon which young talent can reflect and seek to construct fine artistic careers from.

The most prominent example of this was the work of the composer-in-residence for the Laudate Singers Of North Vancouver, Chris Sivak, who wrote a quirky piece for string quartet entitled “Patrick Stewart Bakes a Cake”. The musical content of this piece, as admitted by the composer both in the program notes and in person before the performance, had absolutely nothing to do with the famous actor baking a cake; it was more about the happy feeling that one might gain from such a baking experience. Now, there is nothing wrong with writing “fun” music, it is enjoyable to listen to and it provides people with happiness, which is truly a wonderful thing, and in this case, I am not arguing its merits as a musical work. However, the piece was written purely for the sake of aesthetic; in other words, it exists solely to evoke base emotions and has a title that is utterly meaningless by design. From this, I would argue that this piece is not “art”, and should not be presented in the context of a concert of contemporary art music.

Before I open up the age-old can of worms that is the “what is art?” debate, I feel I must clarify my position. While listening to the piece, a few questions arose in my mind, questions like: “Is the piece well crafted and meticulously composed?” and “Were the harmonic possibilities in the interaction of the timbres of each instrument well utilized?” Yes, and yes.

But, and here’s the big but, this is not what makes a piece of music a piece of “art”. This distinction lies in the intentionality of the artist. Questions must be asked of a piece, and of its composer. Questions like: “What does this piece communicate to me, the audience member?”, “What is the composer trying to get across to the audience in general?”, “What existing boundaries are being pushed?” Ultimately, if the answers to these questions are not immediately prevalent, then, in my opinion,  it is not art music. Is it well-written music that is enjoyable to listen to? Yes, and well-crafted pieces of furniture on display in the windows of high-end home décor stores are enjoyable to admire and to use, but that does not make them pieces of fine art. Put those same pieces of furniture in an art gallery within a divisible conceptual context and then we’ll talk.

For example, contrast this piece to the final performance of the night, Elisa Thorn’s “She Was Always Late” for electric harp, bass and drums. Before the performance even began, Thorn was asked by the concert’s emcee about the genre of her piece; “would you define it as classical?” he asked her. Her reply, with a deadpan expression: “I’m not comfortable with that term.” Some uneasy laughter from the audience. The emcee laughs uncomfortably and replies, prodding for a proper answer, “okay, well is it jazz?” And her reply comes even drier, “I’m not comfortable with that term either.” Thorn goes on to say, still deadpan, that after a certain amount of time, she burns her pieces if she feels they’ve gotten stale or if she doesn’t like them anymore. The emcee then gives her an awkward smile, says, “good luck with that then” and walks off to audience laughter, leaving her to smile, with a hint of sarcasm, taking up her harp.

What happened next was fantastic, as she began weaving spacey, effects-infused melodies amid improvisational ambient textures as the piece ebbed and flowed to a euphoric conclusion. The combination of improvisational flair constructed on top of identifiable compositional structure was masterful, and Thorn’s verbal introduction declared the context for this piece; it could even be considered an essential element to its conceptual understanding. The piece was a celebration of ephemerality, temporariness, of fleeting gestures bound never to be repeated, a testament to shifting styles and new ideas. Electronic effects took the harp to musical spaces it’s rarely, if ever, been before, while the fleetingly rhythmic structures of the drums and upright bass carried it all the while. The intentionality of the artist in eschewing the norms of genre, of pushing the rigid boundaries of contemporary art music, and of combining so many styles coherently into one piece, made this the standout work of the program, and finally a strong example was put forth to all of the young artists in the crowd.

Ultimately, I believe that there is a great need in Vancouver to develop its new music scene to include and promote more boundary-pushing works. There currently exists a harsh bias in the city towards the presentation of works based on a criteria of aesthetics over intentionality and concept. Art music should be considered in the same way as the visual arts are, with contemporary galleries devoting themselves to the exhibition of art based the on a curator’s overall artistic aims rather than the pure aesthetics of the works. Aesthetics are important in the expression of an artistic message, but they are not the whole story.

All in all, while it is extremely admirable that Vancouver Pro Musica accepts so many works from so many diverse composers for its annual festival, they, as an organization, must consider more deeply the artistic merits of the works they present and how they want their shows to be perceived. Do they want to provide a space of expression for innovators, both student and professional, who are full of potential and new ideas, in which to present something new to the world? Or do they just want to provide people with enjoyable evenings on the town, as so many promoters of classical music concerts seem to exist solely to do? I think one thing is for certain: they can’t do both.

Feature image courtesy of Vancouver Pro Musica.