For an entertaining example of conceptual continuity, look no further than Radio Rewrite, the program that the Turning Point Ensemble will present this weekend as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. But the connections, on first glance, might not seem entirely obvious.
What, for instance, unites the composers featured on the program: Christian mystic and composer Olivier Messiaen, guitarist Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead fame), pioneering minimalist Steve Reich, and the newly appointed head of the University of Victoria’s music department, Christopher Butterfield?
Music, obviously, and a certain exploratory spirit. Beyond that, the threads that connect demand to be teased out carefully.
Messiaen, who died in 1992, is no doubt the starting point. His compositions, which still sound startlingly innovative, shimmer with otherworldly beauty and pulse with complex rhythms, often derived from his study of Indian music. He was also an early exponent of electronic music, primarily working with the ondes Martenot, a tube-powered protosynthesizer. His music was a formative influence on Greenwood, a viola student at Oxford before he picked up the electric guitar and formed Radiohead.
Further research led Greenwood to Reich, and in turn led Reich to Radiohead. In 2010, the guitarist presented his version of the older composer’s Electric Counterpoint at a festival in Poland; Reich was there, and liked what he heard.
“What impressed me was that he had made his own backing tracks,” Reich tells the Straight in a brief telephone conversation from his home in New York City. “Mostly people, when they perform Electric Counterpoint, use the tracks that Pat [guitarist Pat Metheny] made for the premiere, but Jonny had done the work of making his own, and they were louder and more electric. His guitar has a solid body, it's not an electric-acoustic like Pat uses.”
Reich checked out some Radiohead recordings, and immediately saw how he could employ the English band’s tunes as source material. Radio Rewrite’s namesake composition—which builds on the Radiohead tunes “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” and “Everything in Its Right Place”—was the result.
And how does all this relate to Butterfield? Well, that Turning Point has had to procure two hard-to-find ondes Martenot in order to play Messiaen’s Deuxième Oraison and Greenwood’s Smear will allow the Vancouver Island conceptualist to revisit an instrument he loves while reworking Room for Mystics, his score for visual artist Sandra Meigs’s current show at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Butterfield’s AGO installation features 17 custom-made loudspeakers distributed around the gallery, plus brief daily appearances by three live musicians, all playing off the room’s resonant frequency. “F sharp,” the composer notes, adding: “So you’ve got this drone or spectral hum going on that’s changing very slowly over about a 57-minute cycle.…I just call it ‘coloured air’.”
For Turning Point’s Radio Rewrite concert, however, Butterfield has rejigged Room considerably. Two of the three horns featured in the original will be replaced by ondes Martenot. The ensemble's strong players, distributed around the venue, will fill in for the multispeaker array. And the running time has been cut from nearly an hour to a compact eight minutes.
“The piece we’re doing this week is now called Short Room, because that’s literally what it is,” Butterfield says, chuckling. "You'll get kind of a slice of what exactly happened [at the AGO]. And if it took a Radiohead to make it happen, that's great."
The Turning Point Ensemble and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival present Radio Rewrite at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre on Friday and Saturday (January 19 and 20).