When is it right for a new-music festival to focus on the past? “Now” might be the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s response, and that’s entirely understandable. With the orchestra on the verge of entering its second century, and with music director Otto Tausk putting his personal stamp on its annual New Music Festival for the first time, it’s appropriate to breathe deep, take stock, and prepare for the future.
As the festival’s subtitle, (re)-creations, indicates, there’s more renovation than reminiscing going on in the VSO’s house. Antonio Vivaldi’s ageless and undeniably overfamiliar The Four Seasons, for instance, will get a sparkling coat of postmodern paint from German-born composer Max Richter, while the conventions of opera are overturned in Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face, with help from music director emeritus Bramwell Tovey. There are many other genuinely groundbreaking works on the program, including a revised version of Canadian composer Nicole Lizée’s percussion concerto Perxploitation, which won a long and loud standing ovation when it debuted here last year.
The premise, though—looking at the past in order to find a path forward—might be as old as music itself.
“Composers have always borrowed and used other composers’ material,” says Jennifer Butler, a former flute virtuoso who’s moved on to become one of Vancouver’s most accomplished compositional voices. “I think that the reasons for doing it have changed, partly because now we have recordings, and we can expect our audience to be familiar with things in a different way. I mean, there’s borrowing and hiding things, like when you think ‘Oh, that’s a really good idea. That’s something I would like to use in my music.’ And then there’s taking something when you want it to be recognizable as not your own. I’ve done that on several occasions, for various reasons; I wrote a piece which inserted quotations from Clara Schumann’s piano music into my own, because I wanted to reach out to another female composer from the past and try and find a shared space, which was interesting.”
With many of the borrowings and recontextualizations in the New Music Festival’s six concerts, Butler continues, the composers are aiming to engage with the past, the present, the audience, and the performers in a kind of polyphonic exchange. “It’s about a conversation with or a commentary on the music that you’re stealing or quoting or using,” she says, in a telephone interview from her East Vancouver home.
Butler’s own contribution to (re)-creations is a reworked and expanded version of Olivier Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir, a flute-and-piano favourite of hers since her undergraduate days of flute recitals and compositional studies. (Vancouver ensemble Standing Wave will perform it, alongside Jared Miller’s riff on John Adams’s China Gates and Jordan Nobles’s homage to Claude Debussy’s Des Pieds dans le Neige, in (re)flection, at Christ Church Cathedral on Tuesday (January 14). The arrangement is proof, she notes, that recomposition can be just as creative—and taxing—as working from scratch.
“When I first took it on, I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be great. I love this piece,’ ” she says with a laugh. “But as I got my hands dirty in it, it turned out to be very challenging, just in terms of how I was going to get the sextet to be able to perform this incredibly intricate music that was originally written for two people.
“It’s a very interesting piece,” she adds, “in that there’s no time signature, and every measure has a different number of beats in it—and it’s always off-kilter. The pulse is constantly shifting in very subtle ways, so it’s very, very demanding on the performers.”
Butler points out that her Messiaen arrangement combines three of her passions: flute, composition, and the natural world; like Messiaen, she often uses natural elements in her pieces. Le Merle Noir, originally written in 1952, represents the first time that the French musician and ornithologist worked from recorded birdsong, in this case that of the European blackbird. And nature’s presence here might be a nod to another New Music Festival subtheme: that the purportedly ivory-tower art of composition is always viscerally engaged with past, present, future, and the world at large.
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival takes place at various Vancouver venues from Saturday to next Thursday (January 11 to 16).