VSO New Mu­sic fest takes flight

The Georgia Straight - - Arts - By

JAlexan­der Varty

ust as there are cycli­cal forces in na­ture, there are tides and cur­rents in art, and what we’ve been see­ing in much con­tem­po­rary mu­sic is a move away from the aus­tere con­cep­tu­al­ism of the post–world War II past. Whether by in­cor­po­rat­ing el­e­ments of pop­u­lar mu­sic, recon­cep­tu­al­iz­ing baroque or clas­si­cal no­tions, or adopt­ing mu­si­cal con­cepts from be­yond the west­ern canon, com­posers are glee­fully ex­pand­ing their sonic pos­si­bil­i­ties—and one of the most fruit­ful new av­enues in­volves mu­sic in­spired by the nat­u­ral world.

This is not an en­tirely new con­cept, of course. An­to­nio Vi­valdi’s The Four Sea­sons is but one ex­am­ple of a com­poser tak­ing his cue from na­ture’s rhythm. Lud­wig van Beethoven em­u­lated cuckoo song in his Piano Sonata No. 25, and the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind Ralph Vaughan Wil­liams’s The Lark As­cend­ing needs no ex­pla­na­tion. But to­day’s bird- and whale-song-be­sot­ted com­posers— like Emily Doolit­tle, John Luther Adams, and VSO com­poser in res­i­dence Jo­ce­lyn Mor­lock, all of whom will be fea­tured in the Van­cou­ver Sym­phony Or­ches­tra’s up­com­ing New Mu­sic Fes­ti­val—are bring­ing a pointed aware­ness of en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues to their work, along with an­a­lyt­i­cal tech­niques bor­rowed from bi­o­log­i­cal re­searchers.

“I think there’s a lot of peo­ple writ­ing new mu­sic based on an­i­mal songs or other nat­u­ral sounds,” Doolit­tle con­firms in a Skype in­ter­view from her Glas­gow home. “A lot of peo­ple are look­ing for that con­nec­tion in var­i­ous dif­fer­ent ways.”

Given that the Nova Sco­tia–born com­poser’s fa­ther is pioneer­ing mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist Ford Doolit­tle, one might spec­u­late that she’s pre­dis­posed to ex­am­in­ing the minu­tiae of the nat­u­ral world. In­stead, she re­ports that her in­ter­est in work­ing an­i­mal song into her mu­sic comes from a rev­e­la­tion she ex­pe­ri­enced not long af­ter mov­ing to Am­s­ter­dam to study com­po­si­tion. “One night I heard this re­ally amaz­ing bird singing out­side my win­dow,” Doolit­tle ex­plains. “I hadn’t heard a bird like it be­fore, so I sort of threw open my win­dow and lis­tened. I was in­ter­ested by the way that what it was say­ing sounded like hu­man mu­sic—but the whole song didn’t sound like hu­man mu­sic. I lis­tened for a long time, and the next day I went and asked ev­ery­one what the bird was, and it turned out that it was a Euro­pean black­bird.…i ended up writ­ing a piece called night black bird song in which I tran­scribed some mo­tifs of what that black­bird sang, and then or­ga­nized them first the way I thought a black­bird might, and then grad­u­ally trans­formed them into the way I thought a hu­man might.

“At the time, I thought, ‘Okay, that will be my bird-song piece, and then I’ll be on to an­other topic,’ but it ac­tu­ally started some­thing that I’m not done with yet,” she adds. “Twenty years later, I keep com­ing back to bird song and other an­i­mal songs in lots of dif­fer­ent ways.”

Reed­bird, which the Van­cou­ver Sym­phony Or­ches­tra will pre­miere at the Or­pheum next Satur­day (Jan­uary 19), ex­em­pli­fies that fas­ci­na­tion. When Doolit­tle first re­ceived the VSO com­mis­sion, she in­tended to work with whale song in or­der to fit in with the aquatic theme of the other pieces on the New Mu­sic Fes­ti­val pro­gram, no­tably Adams’s trans­fix­ing med­i­ta­tion on cli­mate change, Be­come Ocean. But the birds kept call­ing her back.

“There are ac­tu­ally 5,000 species of song­birds, and they each have their own song, which has its own mo­tivic pat­terns; they each have their own way of ar­rang­ing them and jux­ta­pos­ing those pat­terns, their own way of struc­tur­ing the songs. So I think that the more you look at one bird song, the more you be­come cu­ri­ous about other bird songs,” she says, not­ing that ex­plor­ing the alien in­tel­li­gence of birds is a way of break­ing free of her hu­man pre­con­cep­tions of what mu­sic should be.

“Plus,” she adds with a laugh, “lis­ten­ing to bird songs is a less lonely way to be­gin a piece than just sit­ting at the piano with a blank page.”

Some­times the beauty of the song is enough to spark a piece, as was the case with Reed­bird, in­spired by the bur­bling call of the bobolink. Al­though this small, song­ful black­bird was fa­mil­iar to her from her Nova Sco­tia child­hood, and al­though it’s be­com­ing en­dan­gered due to the loss of its favoured marshy habi­tats, Doolit­tle says her con­cerns were pri­mar­ily mu­si­cal rather than nos­tal­gic or en­vi­ron­men­tal. Still, in the cur­rent mo­ment it’s hard to sep­a­rate the so­cial from the sonic.

“I do think there’s a gen­eral, un­der­ly­ing mes­sage in my mu­sic, which is that these an­i­mals are im­por­tant, and that there’s not just an anony­mous mass of birds out there,” she notes. “There’s all these dif­fer­ent species, and in­side all these species there are all these in­di­vid­u­als, and they each have their own song and their own de­sire to be liv­ing in the place they’re in. So the mes­sage is that we need to pay at­ten­tion to these other liv­ing be­ings, and pre­serve a space for them.”

and Brit punk rocker Ian Rub­bish.

Else­where, Dave At­tell, known for his Net­flix se­ries Bump­ing Mics with fel­low comic Jeff Ross as well as movie ap­pear­ances in films like Train­wreck, ap­pears at the same venue on Fe­bru­ary 14. He gained a fol­low­ing with Com­edy Cen­tral’s crudely hi­lar­i­ous In­som­niac With Dave At­tell.

And Jack­ass stunt dude Steveo brings his mul­ti­me­dia com­edy show The Bucket List to the Vogue on Fe­bru­ary 17. The man born Stephen Glover is clean and sober these days, but ev­i­dently do­ing stunts more bone-break­ing than ever.

Mean­while, pod­cast fans will be stoked to hear Su­per­mega Live’s Matt Wat­son and Ryan Magee bring their weird as­sort­ment of videos, video games, and mail open­ings to the Bilt­more on Fe­bru­ary 14.

In other news, due to pop­u­lar de­mand, JFL North­west has added a sec­ond show for an­other hit pod­cast, Girls Gotta Eat, on Fe­bru­ary 15 at the Bilt­more.

Tick­ets for all of the above go on sale Fri­day (Jan­uary 11) at www. jflnorth­west.com/.

Pre­vi­ously an­nounced head­lin­ers in­clude Howie Man­del & Friends (Fe­bru­ary 14 at the Queen El­iz­a­beth Theatre), co­me­dian and Parks and Re­cre­ation star Aziz An­sari (Fe­bru­ary 15 at the Q.E.), Mex­i­canamer­i­can standup Gabriel Igle­sias (Fe­bru­ary 18 at the Q.E.), and 2 Broke Girls cre­ator and Whit­ney star Whit­ney Cum­mings (Fe­bru­ary 16 at the Vogue Theatre). MADTV alum­nus Bryan Callen per­forms his standup show Fe­bru­ary 21 at the Vogue, and An Evening With An­toni Porowski is set to take place on Fe­bru­ary 20 at the same venue.

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