Monday, November 6, 2017

Tackling a Dangerous Premise

Recently, I was asked the question below in a discussion about early music performance. I've decided to write up my (polished) answer. 

"What do you think about attracting audiences in this century of digital music downloads?"

First, I'd like to tackle the premise of your question. It assumes that a recording is effectively a replacement to a live performance. In fact the two media are fundamentally different works. A recording today is, essentially, a patchwork of hundreds (or even thousands!) of segments that are weaved together to present a musical composition performed to technical perfection and, possibly, with a specific artistic vision. 

A live performance, on the other hand, is a communal activity where an artist or artists engage with a work and the audience around them. A performance is a transfer of energy through a specific medium (whether it be a musical work, theatre piece, etc.), connecting people on an intellectual and/or spiritual level. It's a human activity - it's not a social construction. 

I'm sure you've been to a performance in your life where you felt you were on the "outside" - maybe it was a concert of 15th century Burgundian music, or maybe it was contemporary dance - but even so, there was still a moment during the show where you couldn't help but think "wow, I don't know what I'm watching, but it's incredible!"

The danger with tacitly accepting that a recording is a replacement to a live performance is that it will ultimately lead to the latter's disappearance. Already it's getting harder and harder for artists to find paying audiences, and I worry that we are unconsciously trying to replicate a recording in performances to the detriment of the activity. At every level of artistic training, at least in the classical music world, we are not teaching performance. We might encourage it, but we don't emphasise and train the skills which set performance apart from recordings. We don't even have a vocabulary to discuss and analyse the act of performing. 

So, to answer your question, all I can say is that I will continue to advocate live performance as its own medium; to strive to perform as much as I can, to the best of my ability.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Night that Songs are Written About

Over the last year I've found it hard to find the inspiration to write. I've had plenty of life to live in that time, but the events that have occurred did not reverberate in the musical or literary corners of my mind. That changed this past Saturday night. 

After an exhausting week in The Netherlands with Primary Colours and The New Baroque Orchestra, harpsichordist Andi Westermann and I got back to Basel early Saturday morning. After I awoke, I had to immediately prepare to officiate a friendly Rugby game between Basel and Fribourg later that afternoon. Luckily, I wasn't a complete disaster.

That evening I went on a date with someone whom I had an immediate connection. I think everyone reading this can relate, but these kind of moments for me are few and far between given my career choices. After a beer, she invited me to meet some friends and to continue on to a club. I could come along so long as I understood one thing: she was leaving Switzerland and never coming back. 

It's funny how defining a relationship can dramatically establish how it unfolds. It was clear in this moment that we had to experience the night as best we could. Her friends and I danced the night away. We talked, laughed, and shared those dreams of what could be. We stayed in the moment for as long as it could last. It was one of those nights that songs are written about; one I won't forget.

As the days begin to pass, that echoing in the corner of my head has begun to build up once again. I hope it continues to grow.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Wrong Inspiration?

For too long, there has been much on my mind. Since the new year I have been in a rather unstable place when it comes to paid work. While the last quarter of 2016 was the busiest it's ever been for me,  I had a huge empty space in my calendar which lasted for months. Though a few opportunities popped up here and there, it was hard to deal with especially when most of my peers remained in school. While daylight was at its rarest, all I could do was wish for things to change.

In a twist of fate, I met a woman who changed my life and gave me, at least temporarily, relief from my fears that all of the troubles that came with moving to Switzerland were worth it. Sadly, circumstances were against us and I was once drawn back again to my professional situation when she left me.

However low I may have been feeling, I didn't let it stop me entirely: I set up my reed making business, I prepared for competitions, I deepend connections with friends. What I really felt I needed was a win: A long-awaited reed making machine needed to arrive; I wanted to compete in a Canadian competition; maybe an audition would come up... Unfortunately, even once the reed machine arrived I didn't feel like much had changed. The Canadian competition didn't select me and it turned out there was a major audition which I had not been made aware of until it was too late. 

As I began to advertise my reed business I got in touch with Thomas Oltheten, a Dutch bassoonist who invited me to show my wares at the annual bassoon society conference in Groningen. While the cost of the whole endeavour was high, I felt I had to do something radical if I was to get out of this months-long rut. Coincidentally, at the conference was a professional bassoon competition which declared that it accepted entrants who performed on historical instruments. Seeing the potential for the chance at winning my expenses back, I accepted. 

Once I had arrived and set up my table at the conference, I had the chance to take a look at the conference program booklet. Flipping through the pages, I found that I was the only baroque bassoonist performing in the professional competition. From past experiences in Ottawa, I had developed the idea that there were simply too many differences, both aesthetically and technically, between the modern and baroque bassoons for some to be able to appreciate the historical instrument. So lowly regarded were my aspirations to be an Early Music Performer that I was once awarded 9th place in a scholarship competition when only three students applied. "The baroque bassoon was broken," reasoned the scholarship committee, "and the modern bassoon fixed what was broken." Naturally, I was very skeptical of my chances. 

Part of the first round included the performance of four miniature pieces written by Dutch composers for the modern bassoon. Each of them had interesting technical challenges, especially for a 300 year old instrument. With weeks of practice, a special reed, some adjustments to my bocal, as well as some made up fingerings, I felt I could take those pieces as far as they could go. I think it surprised everyone in the room when, in the second bar of my performance, I hit a high C#, a major third beyond what we would generally agree was possible today for my instrument (actually, fingering charts show that this was at least theoretically possible by mid century. In Antoine Dard's Op.2 of 1752 you can find high C's and D's in the slower movements). From that point forward I had their attention. 

The Podium at Groningen
I ended up winning the competition and I was relieved to know that I was going to be in the black for the trip. What I found funny about the whole event was that it was the first time in years that I had not gone to perform with the intention to blow people away. I wanted to show my reeds, make some contacts, and get my expenses back, but winning the competition wasn't my primary focus - not at all. Of course, I prepared well - I wasn't going to make a fool of myself - but I only really began to want to win the night before the final round (I was forced to change hotels at the last minute due to a huge party taking place and my new accommodation wasn't cheap).

While it was certainly the wrong inspiration for a competition, it got the job done.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Membra Jesu Nostri

As he stands as one of, if not the most important organists in mid-17th century Germany, it is natural that the keyboard music of Dieterich Buxtehude (1637/9-1707) is still often performed today. While his vocal works haven't received the same kind of attention by modern musicians, over the past twenty years there has been a a rediscovery of many excellent, moving examples within his output.

This weekend Accademia Barocca Lucernensis will perform one of Buxtehude's cantata cycles, Mebra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima (or, The most holy limbs of our suffering Jesus). The cycle combines liturgical text with a medieval devotional poem, the Oratio rhythmica. It is organised into seven cantatas, following the structure of the poem, each being addressed to different parts of Christ's crucified body: feet (Ad pedes), knees (Ad genua), hands (Ad manus), sides (Ad latus), breast (Ad pectus), heart (Ad cor), and head (Ad faciem).

The work, composed in 1680, has been described as the first Lutheran Oratorio. While six of the seven cantatas require relatively small forces (five voices, two violins, and continuo), the sixth requires the singers to be accompanied by a consort of five viole da gamba and continuo. When listened to in sequence, the change of instrumentation for the cantata Ad cor can have quite an effect. The switch violins to a consort of gambas gives the impression of a change of perspective. While the cantata is relatively short, for a moment the cycle gains an element of introspection. It's a kind of effect which is most compelling if witnessed in person, as there is a visual element to the experience. 

Performances on Saturday, April 29, at 19:30 in the Johanneskirche, Zurich; and on Sunday. April 30, at 17:00 in the Matthaeuskirche, Luzern.
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