As Winston Churchill once famously said of Russian foreign policy, composer Gordon Fitzell’s Deus ex Machina: The Nine Lives of Schrödinger’s Cat is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. Even percussionist Vern Griffiths, who’s been rehearsing the work with his Standing Wave colleagues, is at a loss when it comes to describing the electroacoustic composition. He suggests perusing Fitzell’s program note, but warily adds: “When you read it, you’ll probably just go, ‘Huh?’ ”
A little sleuthing turned up said note, and proved Griffiths correct.
“I have recently taken to basing certain aspects of my work on the unlikely pairing of seemingly unrelated concepts, in the hope of discovering unforeseen commonalities,” Fitzell writes. “In my 2017 flute concerto Techno Messiah: Zoom/Richter/Langsam/Pop, for example, I examine the abstract paintings of Gerhard Richter’s alongside the synth-pop music of Kraftwerk and other West German artists of 1970s and 80s. In Deus ex Machina.…I explore two equally dissimilar concepts—an improbable plot device and a preposterous thought experiment.”
The plot device is the ancient Greek technique of using the sudden appearance of a “god from the machine” to resolve a theatrical cliffhanger. The thought experiment, created by physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935, asks us to consider the state—alive, or dead?—of a cat that has been locked in a steel chamber with a potentially fatal radioactive atom.
As for how this will sound, it seems that we’ll have to wait until the Standing Wave new-music ensemble’s upcoming Ex Machina concert to find out, although Griffiths offers some insight into how it works.
“The piece is for the six of us with an electronic track,” explains Griffiths, who’s also the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s principal percussionist and a UBC music prof. “Basically, we all play off a score together; it involves extramusical things, or I guess musical but strange things like scraping or rattling chairs, or stomping your feet. And there are rattly things going on in the tape, so you have to blend various metal and skin sounds with that. There’s also a click track that comes in and out through the whole piece, which basically gives you landmarks, so that you can all keep together—which actually works really well. It’s like having somebody whisper in your ear, ‘Hey! Now you’re at letter P.’ ”
Is the click track the god, or some kind of external force that resolves the action?
“Oh, man,” Griffiths says. “Um… That, I don’t know.”
He laughs, conceding that even by Standing Wave’s adventurous standards, Ex Machina offers a heady selection of conceptually astute oddities—including Paul Steenhuisen’s Pink Pink Pierrot, another electronically assisted effort in which a radically altered version of Arnold Schoenberg’s modernist staple Pierrot Lunaire meets a variety of moon-themed pop tunes from Henry Mancini, Nick Drake, and Pink Floyd. Also on the bill will be Brian Current’s dense and shimmering Shout, Sisyphus, Flock, Western Front music curator Aram Bajakian’s open-ended Dolphy Formations, and Dutch composer Mayke Nas’s Douze Mains. The last is especially unusual, in that it asks the Standing Wave players—with the exception of pianist Allen Stiles—to temporarily relinquish their chosen instruments.
“We basically take the lid off the piano, and then the six of us stand at stations around the piano, using coffee stir sticks, dish brushes, and ping-pong balls scraping on the strings,” Griffiths says. “Nas describes it as ‘operating on the piano’, like in an operating room, which is actually really clever.
“It’s a fun project to work on,” he adds, “and it just feels like this close-knit chamber thing for all six of us to be playing the same instrument.”
Standing Wave presents Ex Machina at the Orpheum Annex on Monday (May 13).