Composer Rodney Sharman tells no tales in Chamber Symphony
Glenn Gould once proclaimed Richard Strauss as the most important musical figure of the 20th century, but according to Rodney Sharman, the great pianist got it wrong.
“That may not have been true,” says the local composer, talking to the Straight from his downtown Vancouver apartment. “But he’s certainly the most important of the 21st, because everybody is writing program music, and even when it isn’t program music, they’re talking about it as though it were.”
This trend toward sounds that illustrate an extra-musical narrative, he suggests, might be an unfortunate development.
“We have created a culture in which composers are expected to speak about their music from the stage,” he explains. “But what has happened is that people don’t talk about the music; they tell stories.…And they never say something like ‘I’m exploring the low register of the piano.’ What they say, on the contrary, is ‘This is a picture of the trip to Europe that I took last summer, in three movements.’ ”
It’s safe to assume, then, that Sharman’s new Chamber Symphony is not going to be the sonic equivalent of enduring your dullest uncle’s holiday slideshow. Even the deliberately anodyne title is meant to suggest that the local composer is stepping away from storytelling in this piece, which the Turning Point Ensemble will preview this weekend as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
Instead, he’s focusing on form and timbre.
“This is an abstract piece where everything is coming from the sounds of the instruments,” he stresses. “The ideas are coming from things that the violin can do, things that the flute can do—things that the instruments themselves can do.
“The first movement is all string harmonics,” he continues. “The entire string section plays only harmonics for the entire first movement, all 11 minutes. And one of the features of the woodwind and brass writing is this business of using two fingerings for the same note, so there are different timbres, different colours. It kind of shimmers like a colour tremolo, which is perhaps the connection this piece has to impressionism.”
The other connection, of course, is that Chamber Symphony will share Turning Point’s Colourful World program with impressionist composer Claude Debussy’s Jeux, in a new arrangement by Michael Bushnell, and with Toru Takemitsu’s Archipelago S. There’s a slight irony, perhaps, in that both of these works have a programmatic element: dance impresario Sergei Diaghilev commissioned Jeux in 1912, to accompany a ballet about childhood games; Archipelago S, from 1993, is a musical portrait of an island chain.
Sharman seems untroubled by this, however, likely because he’s long been inspired by both of his predecessors.
“I’ve learned so much from looking at the scores of Debussy and Takemitsu,” he says. “I suppose any resemblance is coincidental, but there are resemblances.”
And he has nothing but praise for the Turning Point Ensemble, whose mandate is to illuminate the music of this century by pairing it with innovative works from the past.
“I don’t know any other ensemble that does this,” he says, “and I think it’s a wonderful idea.”
The Turning Point Ensemble presents Colourful World at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, SFU Woodward’s, on Sunday (January 29).