Composer seeks “strangeness”
> BY ALEXANDER VARTY
Everyone who has studied with veteran composer and educator Rudolf Komorous holds him in the highest regard— and one indication of that can be found in the two musicians who’ll play his 1964 composition Olympia at an upcoming Turning Point Ensemble concert. One is Owen Underhill, Turning Point’s conductor and artistic director, who’s also a composer and the dean of SFU’S faculty of communication, art, and technology. The other is composer Christopher Butterfield, head of the University of Victoria’s School of Music. These are not lightweights.
And how will the two old classmates realize Komorous’s minimalistic score, which can be performed by almost any instrument? They’ll play harmonica.
“Mouth harmonica, bass mouth harmonica, and things like that, you know,” says Komorous on the line from Victoria. At 86, his voice is now frail, although he’s retained his heavy Czech accent and is still writing new music. “It’s a short piece, which is completely symmetrical, because the score is rather graphic and only partly notes. You play it, and in the middle you turn the score upside down and play it again backwards. But of course the high is now low, and so forth.”
If that sounds rather surreal, it’s fitting, for the main attraction in Turning Point’s concert of Komorous’s music is the North American premiere of The Mute Canary, a new chamber opera based on a 1919 text by the French Dadaist Georges Ribemont-dessaignes.
“In general, the generation before us—like our fathers and teachers and the whole artistic colony, the Czech avant-garde—was very close to the French avant-garde,” he explains. “So, for example, the Prague surrealist group was the strongest one after Paris. I was always very familiar with this, and when Christopher Butterfield translated the three Dadaistic plays by Ribemont-dessaignes, I thought that this one was absolutely made for me.”
Part of the appeal is that The Mute Canary is a short, one-act play; Komorous makes no secret of the fact that he is not in great health, and originally expected this chamber opera to be his last composition. (He’s since been commissioned to write a piano trio.) But he also found the play’s structure intriguing. It features three characters: the baritone Riquet, an overbearing despot; the soprano Barate, who occasionally embodies the Roman empress Messalina; and the countertenor Ochre, a samurai who considers himself possessed by Charles Gounod. Each character is backed by a separate instrumental trio; in addition, a cello echoes Barate when she’s channelling Messalina, a piano plays quotes from Gounod when appropriate, and timpani underscore the entire drama.
Also on the all-komorous program are the woodwind quintet Fumon Manga and 23 Poems About Horses, which takes its text from the Tang Dynasty poet Li Po and will be narrated by the mellifluous Butterfield. All save Olympia were written in Canada, but Komorous’s early influences are still readily apparent. “We had a group in Prague, which was one painter, two sculptors, and I as a composer,” he says. “And we had art theory for our works, and it was called A Theory of Weirdness, or Strangeness. So, you know, it’s integral to this concert. It’s not Dadaistic, but it’s strange.”