They’re both being presented by the Queer Arts Festival, but ask composers Allison Cameron and Lyle Chan if their work expresses a queer aesthetic and you’ll get two very different answers.
“I don’t know,” says B.C.–born, Toronto-based Cameron, on the phone from her home. “I can say that I have a certain sensibility that is in line with experimentalism or conceptualism, but I wouldn’t know about a queer sensibility.”
Chan, in contrast, says that his music is undeniably rooted in a queer world-view—but only because that’s his world-view. “When a gay person or a queer-identified person writes their own biography, inevitably it adopts a queer aesthetic,” he says, reached on a rainy winter morning in Sydney. “But that might not be recognizable even to another queer-identified person, because it’s so diverse. Somebody might be writing about their life in Minnesota, or Ghana, and I might be writing about my life in Australia, and the only thing we have in common is that we’re recording change.”
This difference of opinion is reflected in the music each artist makes. Cameron’s compositions, which Toronto’s CONTACT Contemporary Music ensemble will perform here, are quizzical interruptions in the normal flow of time, slow investigations of timbre and gesture. Chan’s approach, as embodied by his upcoming performance with the Acacia String Quartet, is more conventionally tonal, and usually reflects some kind of narrative. What might link the two composers is their willingness to push beyond accepted forms, each in their own highly personal way.
For Cameron, the act of composition is essentially collaborative. Rather than tell performers exactly what to do, she’s more interested in having them think about what might be done. Her scores, she reveals, “waver between a little bit of instruction and a whole lot of instruction”.
“For example,” she adds, “in A Gossamer Bit, even though there’s a lot of notation, there’s also a lot of flexibility. There’s a pulse, which the musicians have as a tempo, but they’re given a lot of room to play within that, to phrase within that. I’ve given one instruction where I want the wind player to play sort of klezmerlike—trilling and flutter-tonguing, and things like that—while other people are actually reading the score. So they’re finding a place within this texture or mix of things that are happening over time.”
Chan is more prescriptive in his scores, but his philosophy of art is unique. The work he’ll present here, An AIDS Memoir, is actually an excerpt from an open-ended, hours-long String Quartet that will continue to grow until he becomes incapacitated or dies.
“I call it a perpetual work in progress,” he explains. “As a composer, I only write these very, very long pieces. What I figured out, early on, is that I don’t actually like writing beginnings and endings. And then I realized why, which is that they’re not real. I think that, as an artist, you create one work, which is the work defined by the life that you lead and the experiences that you have.”
An AIDS Memoir covers the years 1990 to 1996, when Chan—who has a degree in molecular biology—was an AIDS activist and occasional drug runner, clandestinely importing retroviral treatments into Australia before they had been officially approved. He’ll intersperse spoken memories of the plague years with music, and while that suggests a very sombre entertainment, Chan says otherwise.
“Personally, there’s only one reason I’m telling this story now, which is because it has a happy ending,” he stresses. “I think the most important thing, for me, is to remember that, as dark as that time was, it came to an end—and it came to an end because of what people did.”
The Queer Arts Festival presents Lyle Chan and the Acacia String Quartet at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Friday (June 24).
CONTACT Contemporary Music performs works by Allison Cameron and others at the Roundhouse on Monday (June 27).