“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.

New adventures in Toronto

I’m happy to re-boot this blog after a summer hiatus and a lengthy transition to the bustling metropolis that is Toronto.

Marion and I arrived on September 1 to move into our apartment on the York University campus where I’ve started my M.A. in composition.

To make a long story short, once I learned for sure I’d be coming to York, I basically phased out all my musical endeavours in Vancouver by the time our vacation to Newfoundland rolled around at the end of June.  Then it was enjoying the last few weeks in Vancouver and preparing for the move which began with our cross-Canada road trip starting on August 1.  We eventually made it to Prince Edward Island during the last week of August and then back to Toronto.

Still in the process of settling in, I’m eager to report on the Toronto music scene and on things happening around York University, including my own projects.

First up: Metalwood at the Rex on September 14th.

Carnival Band, samba & other adventures

The past couple weeks I’ve joined up with the Carnival Band, a really fun “marching” band/community winds & percussion orchestra.  In addition to absorbing the friendly vibe – a great find in the Vancouver sprawl – and the sense of joy in making music, it’s been a great opportunity to get back into reading charts and playing a little jazz.  Our “book” consists of 99% original music composed by two of the lead members.  The tunes are primarily light and groovy, latin- or funk-tinged jazz pieces.  I would say that, in terms of tradition, the band is a cross between a marching or processional band – without the pomp, circumstance and ‘regalia’ – a concert band (symphonic wind ensemble) and a jazz big band.  The instrumentation can literally be anything you can carry since, although we don’t march per se, we have been known to go on the occasional processional in the park.  Also, we generally play acoustically, i.e. without a PA system.  Outdoors we use a megaphone for the occasional vocal segment and, of course, for addressing the crowd of adoring fans. The group is made up of mostly saxes and brass and an array of percussion, mostly samba drums.  As the name suggests, this band is really all about having a good time.  I think my contribution is welcome, since several people have remarked favourably on my playing, particularly when it comes to soloing.  That feels good!


And speaking of samba, I’ve also joined up in a weekly samba workshop with Bloco Energia.  This is all percussion and all groove.  And things can’t possibly get groovier, trust me!  It’s been a wonderful experience so far this summer.

The adventure continues with my improv group – we are now called Ecstatic Waves.  It would be nice if we could get all five members out to all the weekly rehearsals.  That’s been a bit disappointing but what can you do?  The group is democratic and is meant to fun.  But, if we are to get into regular gigging, we need to develop our group sound more.  It’s still a huge creative outlet for me and I’ve been focusing on bringing in an increasing number of fun pieces that I think will balance out our more serious forays into structured improvisation.

My biggest news is that I’ve been accepted to the M.A. in Composition program at York University in Toronto!  At this point I’m about 95% certain I will accept the offer in turn.  I’m on the wait list at UBC.  Professor Dorothy Chang told me that they “liked my application a lot” but that they “didn’t have many openings this year.”  Oh well, that’s life.  In one way, it makes it easier to choose.  I think I’d have a hell of a time choosing really.  Both programs are great.  It would be more convenient to stay here, for one thing.  Also, UBC has a doctorate program, so there would be potential to continue on there.  In fact, I plan to apply there if I go to York.  On the other hand, an adventure in Toronto is super enticing!

Steve Reich documentary

I recently watched a 1987 TV documentary about composer Steve Reich called Steve Reich – New Musical Language.   Born in New York City in 1936, Reich is widely recognized as one of the key pioneers of musical minimalism.  He’s had a long and distinguished career with many accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

Apart from the wonderful personal insights into many of his important early pieces, (that you might expect), a few interesting, more unusual ideas emerge in this film, perhaps, not even stated or portrayed outright.  Although I’ll give you a few teasers here, it is worth experiencing the more full discussion with commentary by Reich himself and examples of his music.

First idea: “where’s the drumming?”- after observing the dirth of drumming in the classical music world, Reich brings this art form into the forefront of new music composition.

Second idea: tape loops (e.g. in the piece Come Out 1966), are possibly an early influence on the art of sampling vocals, particularly as emerging in the hip-hop tradition to come much later.

Third idea: Reich spans both the world of acoustic composition and electronic music/tape music composition and seems equally at home in both.

II Pause, a piece by Matthew Ariaratnam

I want to share this blog article by my friend Matthew Ariaratnam.  I’m very sad I didn’t get to experience his piece (this time around) but I think the concept is fantastic. Essentially, he set up a public listening station where a single person (at a time) could listen, together with Matthew, to a 10-minute soundscape piece he created, literally with a “side of lemonade” (optional, of course).  I don’t do the piece justice but you should read what he has to say about the multi-day presentation and the stories that emerged through the connections he made.

The article highlights the power of taking a time out, and taking the time to connect to one’s community and environment through sound.  Beautiful!