Autocratic conductors and dysfunctional bandmates aside, there’s something quite utopian about a well-made musical ensemble. Everyone listens, everyone contributes, and, as rising-star singer and composer Gabriel Dharmoo notes in a telephone interview from his Montreal home, “everyone knows their place.”
That shouldn’t be too difficult for the 11 Vancouver Symphony Orchestra players who’ll premiere Dharmoo’s the fog in our poise this weekend, as part of The Elusive, Imaginary Future. (The program also includes works by pioneering sound sculptor Edgard Varèse, Bang on a Can mainstay Julia Wolfe, and others.) In contrast to some of Dharmoo’s improvised performances, the work is almost fully scored, with hints of indeterminacy creeping in through the various unconventional instrumental textures that bring a kind of sonic fog to this otherwise poised piece.
“There are some layers of sound that are a bit more free,” Dharmoo explains. “Everything that’s textural—atmospheres and stuff like that—is notated really freely, almost like an improv score would be. But those are always textural effects that are in the background. I think I have four of them or so. One is having the musicians pronounce the letter S super softly, so it’s just this drone of S sounds. And the same with the strings, which are doing little bow-hair crunches. They could be really notated, like in [German composer Helmut] Lachenmann.…but, again, I just indicated when they should be doing that, and in the performance notes I give different options for what to do and how dense or spare it should be.”
Realizing such instructions should be easy enough for the VSO players; in recent years, the orchestra has come to include a large number of contemporary-music specialists. There will be times during the fog in our poise, however, when the audience might feel slightly at sea, primarily because the piece is designed to suggest the court music of an entirely fictitious civilization. As such, it’s one of a series of fascinating ethnological forgeries perpetrated by the Montreal-based singer and composer—with the best-known being this year’s PuSh Festival hit Anthropologies Imaginaires, a multimedia performance for which Dharmoo invented an array of different “ethnic” vocal styles.
“With this new piece, I wanted to explore the same sort of thing,” he says. “But my ensemble is an instrumental chamber ensemble, so I couldn’t rely on sung theatre and all those forms. It’s more like court music, or trance music—a transcendental, ritualistic kind of music.”
In Dharmoo’s ideal musical culture, elegance is all. But that, he explains, doesn’t mean that physical effort is an afterthought. For instance, the fog in our poise’s two percussionists will be playing their own bodies at times, in addition to kick drums, sandpaper, and pebbles.
“I was thinking about how court music is, almost by definition, refined, because that’s who would be commissioning or hearing the music,” he says. “And I love refined music, but at the same time I like to think of music as democratic, in that anyone can just enjoy it. So I tried to imagine a culture where there was this sense of refinement, but that was also really connected to nature and the body. Music for a grounded and democratic elite, in a way, or for a society where everyone’s elite!”
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra presents The Elusive, Imaginary Future at the Orpheum Annex on Sunday (May 22).