Com­poser seeks “strange­ness”

> BY ALEXAN­DER VARTY

The Georgia Straight - - Arts -

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.”

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