For proof that Vancouver is no longer the wild and crazy place it once was, consider the course of the Sonic Boom festival. In its early, unjuried days, the annual celebration of local composers sometimes strayed into performance-art territory, with pieces that used tarot cards to determine what would be played, or that featured a pair of Godzilla robots duking it out while electroacoustic music blared from the speakers. Such spectacles were exciting, to be sure, but the event’s come-one, come-all approach meant that even music critics could have their experimental tape compositions heard, and the less said about that, the better. (Trust me: I’ve repented.)
Now, though, Sonic Boom’s standards are higher. Which is generally laudable—although as 2019’s composer in residence, Rodney Sharman, notes, this professionalism has come with a cost.
“In the 25 years or so that I have been attending Sonic Boom, I would say that Sonic Boom has become more conservative,” Sharman allows in a telephone interview from his East Vancouver home. He goes on to say that the scores he’s had a chance to assess, which had already been prescreened by the Sonic Boom jury, tend to be “less adventurous than some of the work that was being done 25 years ago”.
“Now, does that make me show my age? Maybe,” he continues. “But the other thing that I noticed, which is actually fantastic, is that among these juried pieces are pieces by teenagers, pieces from junior-high-school and high-school students. So I think that younger people are studying composition with better teachers, younger, than before, and I find that extremely exciting and encouraging.”
Sharman’s brief, in addition to contributing his own text-and-sound work Everything is Vanishing to the third of Sonic Boom’s four nights, was to survey all of the 19 pieces that will be played by the festival’s two resident ensembles—the percussion duo of Julia Chien and Aaron Graham, and the all-star Turning Point Ensemble—and give notes during their rehearsals. “I go through all the scores, and I look for every tremolo on the clarinet that’s impossible to play, and every stretch for the vibraphone that is too big, and so on,” he explains. “And I give very, very practical advice on that which is possible and not possible. Ultimately, of course, everybody is encouraged to express their own voice as artists, and I never interfere with that. But with technical things, I always let people know.
“So, in that sense, I’m there as a mentor,” he continues. “But I’m also there as a host. When the concerts come, I’ll be introducing the composers and I’ll be asking questions from the stage.”
Sharman’s glad to report that experimentation has not been bred out of Sonic Boom, citing emerging composer and conductor Jaelem Bhate’s innovative use of improvisation and fluctuating tempos in his piece Lock and Key. And that’s part of why the festival is still as relevant as ever to local culture, even if Godzilla robots are unlikely to return.
It’s “absolutely crucial” to Vancouver’s burgeoning new-music scene, Sharman contends. “I’ve been a great supporter of Sonic Boom right from its inception, and I used to faithfully go to all the concerts, in part to hear composers I’d never heard before. It’s exciting. But it’s not only for the very young; it also has established composers whose music is perhaps not performed as frequently as some, and also people who are gifted amateurs. It’s a forum for absolutely everybody, and anyone can enter a piece.”
Vancouver Pro Musica presents Sonic Boom at Pyatt Hall and the Orpheum Annex from Thursday to Sunday (March 21 to 24).More