Even the most fearless musicians are sometimes scared by Jordan Nobles—not because of what the composer wants them to play, but where he wants them to play it. Take, for instance, his work for Aeriosa, the local movement company that specializes in suspending harnessed dancers high in forest groves and urban jungles.
“I’ve had both [saxophonist] Colin MacDonald and [flutist] Mark McGregor up seven storeys on the outside of the Vancouver Public Library,” Nobles reports from the Scotiabank Dance Centre, where he’s conspiring with Aeriosa on another daredevil mix of music and movement. “They were not having it. It was a workshop thing, and they even had little harnesses for their instruments so they didn’t drop a saxophone seven storeys off the ledge, and they were just like, ‘This is not going to happen.’ The dancers were dancing outside, off the ledges, and they were like, ‘Come with us!’ But Colin and Mark were like, ‘Yeah. No.’ ”
He laughs, and adds: “The musicians are always like, ‘You know what? I play better on the ground.’ ”
Chances are, though, that the scariest thing about his new composition Memento Mori is its title, taken from the Latin for “reminder of death”. The as-yet-unfinished score is inspired by the recent passing of a favourite pet, and also by the venue where it’s going to be performed as part of the third concert in the Hard Rubber New Music Society’s free summer series, Spacious Music at the Atrium. After a pair of programs devoted to horns and strings, respectively, this time the focus shifts to voices, with sopranos Dory Hayley and Camille Hesketh, altos Melanie Adams and Martina Govednik, tenors Ian Bannerman and Taka Shimojima, and basses Stephen Duncan and Steve Maddock joining pianist Nina Horvath to perform new scores by Nobles and emerging composer Dean Thiessen, alongside a selection of medieval choral masterpieces.
Will the singers be asked to disperse themselves around the cavernous Woodward’s Atrium, or ascend into its soaring skylights? Probably not, says Nobles, although that’s still up for debate.
“I often visit the spaces that I’m writing for,” he explains. “I like to compose in the space as much as possible, so I’m going to go there in a couple of hours, just to finish things off. What I do is I walk through the venue privately—no one has to know there’s a composer in the space—while listening on headphones to what I’ve already got, and I’ll try to use that as inspiration.”
Were he writing for brass or reed instruments, Nobles continues, he’d almost certainly scatter the players through the room, using the built-in echo to provide a fully immersive listening experience. Voices, however, demand a different approach, and so it’s unlikely that any of the singers will need to bring their climbing gear.
“It’s hard for singers to be spatialized because choirs normally sing together,” Nobles says. “They tune together, they stand together, and they blend together, because that all makes sense. So when I say, ‘You stand over there; you stand over there; you go up on the big stairs,’ it thins them out and makes it a lot harder for them to blend.…But we’re going to have a piano in the mix as well, and my piece gives the piano a lot of the tune so that the chorus can pick up what to do from the piano, no matter where they are in the room. Still, we haven’t rehearsed in the space yet, so I don’t know how far we can stretch.”
For Hard Rubber New Music Society artistic director John Korsrud, staging concerts in the Woodward’s Atrium has been no stretch at all.
“The Hard Rubber office is right next door, so I pass through there all the time,” he says, in a separate telephone interview from his Chinatown flat. “And they already have a community piano in there, so we’re always hearing music there all the time, anyways. It’s a wonderful, super-reverberant space; it’s very reverberant and very large. And what happened was that at the end of last year, Hard Rubber had a few dollars left over, and we were trying to figure out how to spend them. So I said, ‘Let’s just do a little concert here, with just horns, no rhythm section.’ And it went so unexpectedly well that we said we’ve got to do it again.”
Commissioning Nobles to create a new work for this installment was a no-brainer, Korsrud reports. “What I’m asking the composers to do is to write something that’s very simple, that can be rehearsed in a half-hour—just something that’s kind of ambient and spacious, and that’s what Jordan specializes in.” It was also easy to tap improvising virtuoso Paul Plimley to contribute a short solo set to Sunday’s event. The Piano Teachers Federation’s Pianos on the Street project has placed a handsome grand in the Woodward’s Atrium, and, as Korsrud notes, “I really wanted that piano to be used, and if you want someone to improvise on the piano, who better than Paul Plimley?”
Picking Thiessen as the other featured composer is more of a left-field choice: he’s only just beginning to make a name for himself after graduating from Capilano University, where Korsrud is an instructor in the jazz-studies program. “He writes really, really well for voices,” the Hard Rubber mainman says. “He’s got a really advanced and very beautiful harmonic language. That’s the best way to describe him; he really knows harmony very well, so I’m expecting something nice from him.”
Maybe the best part of Voices at the Atrium, though, will be watching casual passersby stop, stare, and sink into the unexpectedly lush sound of the Downtown Eastside venue. Beauty is a rare thing—and rarer still in Vancouver’s grittiest neighbourhood, which makes this Hard Rubber initiative an especially welcome gift.
The Hard Rubber New Music Society presents Voices at the Atrium, at the Woodward’s Atrium on Sunday (August 27). The performance begins at 5 p.m., with an open rehearsal running from 2 to 4 p.m.