The art of the com­po­si­tion

Toronto Star - - ENTERTAINMENT - Wil­liam Lit­tler

When asked once what it takes to be a com­poser, the Rus­sian note­smith Mod­est Mus­sorgsky re­port­edly replied, “What does it take to be a man?”

Ah, yes, life and art. For some they are dif­fer­ent. For oth­ers they are vir­tu­ally the same.

Ask Nor­bert Palej, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the Univer­sity of Toronto Fac­ulty of Mu­sic and he nev­er­the­less says, “You can teach a per­son the tech­niques of com­po­si­tion. You can­not teach a per­son to be an artist.”

The dif­fer­ence may well be on dis­play later this month in the Ed­ward John­son Build­ing when the fac­ulty’s an­nual New Mu­sic Fes­ti­val (Jan. 24-Feb. 7) presents a se­ries of con­certs in­volv­ing works by both es­tab­lished com­posers and cur­rent stu­dents of com­po­si­tion.

Among those stu­dents is Roy­don Tse, one of Palej’s own doc­toral can­di­dates, who will be rep­re­sented by two works and whose ca­reer be­gan at the age of 16 with a com­mis­sion from the Ed­mon­ton Sym­phony Or­ches­tra.

“Like a lot of kids from Asian fam­i­lies I started on the pi­ano,” he re­calls, “and it de­vel­oped from there.”

The Hong Kong-born mu­si­cian iden­ti­fies Ravel’s gor­geously or­ches­trated “Suite No. 2” from the bal­let Daph­nis and Chloé as the in­spi­ra­tion for his turn to com­po­si­tion. Since then, he has writ­ten about 30 com­po­si­tions for a va­ri­ety of in­stru­men­tal and vo­cal forces, and seen them win prizes and be per­formed in­ter­na­tion­ally. Call­ing him a stu­dent scarcely ac­counts for an al­ready ac­tive ca­reer.

As for his teacher, the Pol­ish-born Palej might have be­gun his mu­si­cal life as a vi­o­lin­ist when his par­ents bought him an in­stru­ment, “but I re­fused to play it,” he smiles. “I wanted a pi­ano, which they could not af­ford.”

It was when the fam­ily sub­se­quently moved to Ger­many that they bought the 13-year-old Nor­bert an elec­tronic key­board.

“I knew right then that I wanted to be a pi­anist and com­poser,” he says.

“I spent ev­ery free mo­ment at that key­board.”

If Ravel was the stu­dent’s in­spi­ra­tional com­poser, Chopin was the teacher’s. “I cried lis­ten­ing to Chopin,” he ad­mits. “I wanted to be like him. He is still my favourite com­poser.”

And yet, does Palej’s mu­sic sound like re­vis­ited Chopin? By no means. “I be­lieve you should learn ev­ery­thing you can in the process of try­ing to find your own voice.

“It is easy for young com­posers to be car­ried away by am­bi­tion, want­ing to im­press. But to cre­ate art you can’t just want to im­press oth­ers around you.”

Palej points to the way so many young com­posers try to make an im­pact with the open­ing notes of their pieces, or in­cor­po­rate el­e­ments of rock or pop or world mu­sic in or­der to ap­pear with it.

“Now it is fash­ion­able again to speak to the au­di­ence, a good thing over­all, but it does have its dan­gers, such as los­ing the in­tro­spec­tion and depth art mu­sic can have.”

“I’ve done some work with pop and jazz,” Tse in­ter­jects, “but I still go back to work­ing with sonata form and tra­di­tional tech­niques.”

His teacher nods agree­ment: “Alexan­der Solzhen­it­syn said art should not en­ter­tain but be an ex­pe­ri­ence. It is not just fun and games. An ex­pe­ri­ence trans­forms a per­son and leads to wis­dom. It has a greater ob­jec­tive than en­ter­tain­ment.”

So why then do so few peo­ple, rel­a­tively speak­ing, lis­ten to con­tem­po­rary art mu­sic?

“It is wor­ry­ing,” Palej con­cedes, “but I think we are in a pe­riod of tran­si­tion. The au­di­ences for the New Mu­sic Fes­ti­val keep grow­ing from year to year.”

When he as­sumed the task of co-or­di­nat­ing the fes­ti­val in 2010, Palej be­gan by invit­ing one of the great­est liv­ing com­posers to take part, Krzysztof Pen­derecki. Each suc­ceed­ing fes­ti­val has fea­tured a sub­stan­tial guest, with Al­berta’s Al­lan Gor­don Bell as this year’s Roger D. Moore Dis­tin­guished Vis­i­tor in Com­po­si­tion.

Bell has writ­ten a new piece for the oc­ca­sion as has stu­dent com­poser Domenic Jar­lk­aganova, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the chore­og­ra­pher An­gela Blumberg.

A num­ber of pro­fes­sional groups, in­clud­ing the Gryphon Trio, Land’s End En­sem­ble and Ce­cilia String Quar­tet can also be heard, along­side the Univer­sity of Toronto Sym­phony Or­ches­tra and other cam­pus en­sem­bles.

“Some­thing is in the air,” Palej sug­gests. “We are at the dawn of a new cen­tury. That usu­ally rep­re­sents a big shift in cul­ture.”

“And peo­ple who have a strong sense of in­di­vid­u­al­ity will find a way to say what they have to say,” adds Tse.


Univer­sity of Toronto mu­sic pro­fes­sor Nor­bert Palej, right, with his stu­dent Roy­don Tse. U of T’s New Mu­sic Fes­ti­val gives young com­posers like Tse a chance to shine.

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