Summer of Street Music

Ok, been a while. After an extended bout of depression over the winter, I’ve recently begun getting back on my feet, as well as on the horn and on the drum.

Long story short: in April I joined two samba groups (Samba Squad and Samba Elegua), in which I play a snare drum called caixa (“kai-sha”); in May I joined up with Street Brass on alto sax.  My first gig was with Samba Squad on May 11 as part of a worker solidarity parade. But this musical summer really began with the first Pedestrian Sunday in Kensington Market on May 28th.  Early that afternoon I played a set with about 10 other members of Street Brass on the corner of Kensington and St. Andrew.  We collected enough money to buy a pitcher of beer at a nearby bar called Lola (good thing there were only four of us band members sticking around).  Later that day I played with Samba Elegua and the crowds were thicker and more intoxicated.  People danced in the street with us as we paraded around the market.  I’m having a blast with all this and I’ll be writing more about it.  Being involved in these community groups has been wonderful for my mental health and I feel warmly welcomed.  It’s interesting to note how members of a group bond around a gig much more so than in rehearsals.  Some meaningful friendships emerge.

On Saturday, June 3rd, Street Brass played as part of the Dundas Street West Festival.  What an amazing event.  The street is blocked off from Ossington to Lansdowne (about 1.5 km) and it’s lined with colourful vendors, food establishments, bars and music stages.  You can hear one kind of music fade into the next as you walk from end to end, all the while enjoying the scents of culinary delights and the colours of dancers, jugglers, puppeteers and so on.

Chris Butcher, the director of Street Brass put out a call to the city’s available horn players to join in for this event.  Some of us did a spot for the Friday 6pm news on CBC to promote it.  You can check out the clip here (it’ll give you a good idea about what the group is all about):



Spectrum Music

Last weekend Marion, my partner, and I attended a concert presented by Spectrum Music entitled “Tales of the Deep Blue.”

Spectrum is a Toronto-based composer collective formed in 2010 that presents “genre-defying,” themed concerts, this time the theme being ‘the ocean,’ a delectably wide open and inspiring theme if there ever was one.

The artistic director, Shannon Graham – also one of the composers on the program – is a classmate in the M.A. program at York.  I think she’s a part of something special on the local music scene and I was very happy to support her.

Shannon describes Spectrum’s focus as “chamber jazz” and, since the jazz-classical hybrid realm (itself as wide as the ocean) is the focus of my own research, the collective appeals to me on a very deep level (in this case on a deep blue level, wah wah).

Spectrum creates a theme for the concert – a very listener-friendly thing to do – then hires musicians, most often in an ad hoc instrumentation, and commissions composers to write for that ensemble.  This time around they recruited an established group, the Shaw Street Collective, formed in 2014.  Shaw Street is wonderfully poised and polished for a group so young, and also fresh and unusual for their set-up: marimba played by Anthony Savidge, cello by Alyssa Ramsay, trombone by Mikolaj Debowski and trumpet by Emma Rowlandson-O’Hara.

The concert was a spate of world premieres, six of the seven total being brand new.  Often one is wont to express what pieces come off as favourites but it was difficult here.  Perhaps, Shannon’s piece Azulada, Anthony’s Grasslands and Jay Vasquez’s La Sirena (Ventura) seemed the most polished and mature pieces, but, honestly, they were all engaging.  Overall, the music presented was accessible, yet refreshing, leaning towards the conservative side of things but avoiding cliché.  The exuberant cheers and whistles from the audience confirm my thinking.  This is music sought after and enjoyed by those who manage to ‘turn off’ both their passive access to music and their well-worn paths of seeking, and, instead, go out and give new stuff a chance.

I was struck by how many young people were in attendance in the (well chosen) theatre at the Alliance Francaise centre.  It appears “classical” music, if you can indeed call that, is alive and well (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise).  The abundance of new music being churned out maybe doesn’t match the output of the pop music world but it’s robust and I hope it only expands as more and more people get exposed to the likes of Spectrum.

Next presentation is “Tales of the Unconscious” on March 4th at Knox Presbyterian Church, 8pm.  It features a chamber choir called Musicata – Hamilton’s Voices and a trio of improvising jazz musicians, including saxophonist Mike Murley.




Bringer of War

Recovering emotionally from the results of the U.S. election,  I figure it’s a good time to turn attention to some appropriate “doomsday” music.

Various bombastic movie scores might do, Desplat’s Godzilla, for instance.  I’m sure there are tons of options given the popularity of apocalyptic and dystopian films.

However, as I write this I’m listening to Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War” from The Planets, Op. 32 suite for orchestra.  It is totally fitting.

The Anatomy of Melancholy

All this reading about electronic music lately – partly in procrastinating my real research – has inspired me to write about some music I encountered recently: a live electronics piece called The Anatomy of Melancholy by Rudolf Komorous.

On October 7th, Martin Arnold, the artistic director of Arraymusic, (a Toronto-based new music collective), presented the piece, a multi-speaker sound installation in which the listeners are free to move about.  The piece consists of recorded musical segments, which are collaged and montaged by the performer, who draws on about five hours worth of material to create a unique arrangement or “score.”  Every performance is intended to be different and according to Arnold, the composer “doesn’t want you to improvise.”

The recordings, made by Komorous in the 1950s, feature vintage electronics, field recordings, bent signal processing, and acoustic instruments.  Originally, from Prague, Komorous moved to Canada in 1974 and became a professor at the University of Victoria.  There he taught Linda Catlin Smith, whom I met last month and who informed me about this presentation.  She also has performed this piece.  Komorous also taught my former teacher, Owen Underhill, who has also performed this piece, using tape reels no less (the recording files were digitized in the 90s). Both Linda and Martin performed it using CD players, with Martin adding the use of a laptop.

As you can imagine, this piece is a real treat and something one will never hear again the same way.  It has certainly sparked a desire to create some abstract, collage-based electronic music of my own and the feeling has been enhanced by recent reading.  But it’s gonna have to wait – lots to do in the meantime!

Anyway, Happy Halloween!



The Studio as Instrument

Here’s a great article from the Ableton blog about early forays into creative sound manipulation through technology.  Of particular interest to me was the stuff about Daphne Oram, whom I’ve never heard of.  Asking myself “why haven’t I heard of her?” yielded the answer: probably because, sadly, history has been primarily written by men!  Anyway, there’s a lot of great stuff in here.  Look for part 2 as well.

Happy listening!

“Third Stream” and beyond: my current research interests

I currently have two major research streams in music that I hope will converge for my M.A. thesis project: 1) “third stream” music, which is essentially a blend of classical music and jazz 2) improvisation and indeterminacy in concert music, specially that of medium to large ensembles

My own final project will be an extensive ‘Jazz Concerto’ for alto saxophone and a to-be-determined chamber ensemble.  Additionally, I’ll write a paper contextualizing my composition, featuring research into the two above mentioned concepts.

At least that’s where things sit right now.  My ideas may shift or re-focus during my course.

Coming into the program, I had planned to focus on #2 but have recently become interested (actually, re-interested) in music that might be called “third stream” – a term coined in the late ’50s by Gunther Schuller, an American composer and conductor.

While looking into Schuller’s music, I’ve discovered the music of William Russo.  I’ve become especially enamored with a couple of his works, including Music for Alto Saxophone and Strings and An Image of Man.

I think the first of these in particular will give anyone a good idea of the type of music that I’m talking about and actually the type of music, broadly speaking, that I intend to write.  I very much like that Music for Alto Saxophone and Strings combines a ‘classical’ set-up of strings with what amounts to a jazz rhythm section of guitar, bass and drums.

Metalwood at The Rex

I thought it was only a figment of my imagination.  It really does exist, however: a pub that has jazz every night of the month (except occasionally when there’s blues) and that’s The Rex in downtown Toronto.  It was the site of our first live music outing as new Toronto residents.

On our way here from Vancouver, one of our key bits of road music was Metalwood’s album Chronic. We just so happened to have it in our disc binder – a bunch that we grabbed at random the last time we visited my parents, where most of my collection is. It is super groovy, exciting music and excellent for the highway, particularly when the light is getting low and you need a boost of energy.

I was telling Marion that it’s too bad the band hadn’t put out an album in quite some time. I thought this might be because band members are quite scattered.   Saxophonist Mike Murley is a long-time local Toronto icon – and I know him originally from his regular tours all the way east to St. John’s. Trumpeter/keyboardist Brad Turner is now on faculty at Capilano University in North Vancouver. We saw him twice while we were in Van – once at the Tangent café on Commercial Drive and another time in a concert at Capilano. I think both the bassist Chris Tarry and drummer Ian Froman are based in New York.

It’s a real treat to be able to hear them locally and also fitting since we sort of book-ended our move with their music, by disc on the road (it was the first thing we popped in the stereo) and seeing them in our first live music outing in Toronto.

The musicianship here – all around – is second to none. We take in the first set before hitting the road. The compositions are exciting and unpredictable and super funky, in a post-funk era, jazz-fusion embued way. The music was less groovy to me than the stuff on Chronic but never lacking in excitement. And I think it could’ve been a bit tighter, although the massive musicianship tends to mask any tentativeness in transitions, for instance. There was just a certain something – hard to put a finger on – that suggested to me that the tunes were fresh to the band and haven’t quite settled yet. That being said, sometimes the music turns on a dime and everyone is spot on 99% of the time. We bought the album on the way out at intermission. We spoke briefly to Brad as we left. He’s a very unassuming, soft-spoken character. But with good humour. We told him we saw him in Vancouver and he told us he was following us.

Metalwood’s new album is called Twenty.