Concert: Instruments of Happiness; Steve Cowan, James Hurley, James O’Callaghan // LSPU Hall

by Greg Locke / All News, Past Symposiums
July 12, 2016

Sound Symposium July 11, 2016

By Clinton Ackerman

2-soundsymposium-2016-3564The rain is pouring and there is no old man snoring as I walk into the LSPU Hall, the excitement palpable. The reception is packed and there is a line out the door as people wait eagerly to get their tickets, I would later overhear someone mention there were none left, not even for pass holders. As we enter the hall and find our seats our eyes are greeted with a vast array of guitars and amps – blues, oranges, blacks, and sunbursts are a feast for the eyes against the black-box of the stage. The eclectic shapes of each guitar popping out as they lean against, or lie in front, of their respective amp. Each guitar is its own character, and we see the individuality of each player before they even enter the stage. The chatter a constant until the lights go dark and we are thrown into the middle of a sonic world filling the space in full surround sound.

Instruments of Happiness: Les Dentellières (Laceworks), Composed by Joane Hétu

After the usual greeting and introduction an all male cast of 16 guitarists enter the stage with their leader Tim Brady. Everyone is dressed in black from head to toe, but like the individuality of each guitar there is a mix of dress shirts, jeans, t-shirts, slacks, and a bright red fedora to boot. These are individuals, and these individuals will be led together to blend 16 guitars into a singular sonic journey.

The journey Brady takes us on, guided by Hétu’s colourful score, takes us through different soundscapes, but watching Brady’s actions is as much a part of the experience as listening to it. He leads the group and the audience through many different sound worlds from rippling swells, dripping guitars, to churning tones, and gives us playful surprises. At one point while guitars were oozing ad-hock, Brady pointed with a rocker’s devil’s horns at individuals to solo for 1 or 2 seconds, punctuating the grotesque with bursts of sound. The metal visual had a certain irony when laid against the art-music aesthetic of the sound.

At times the 16 guitars were mesmerizing and it was a new experience to hear that many guitars at once. It would be a treat to explore all the textures and sounds that could be created by such an ensemble. And with generous performers like these I imagine it would be quite a good time to pass around the figurative baton and see what everyone comes up with.

James Hurley (piano), Steve Cowan (guitar), James O’Callaghan (sound diffusion): voyages sans direction, sans durée (duartionless, directionless journeys); Shadow Prism; de mythe et croyance (of myth and belief); One Foot in the Past – 4 pieces composed by Jason Noble.

This brings us to the serious portion of the evening. As the guitars got pulled off one by one, all colour was stripped out of our visual sense and replaced with blackness. A black piano was pulled onto center stage (a flat black stage mind you, with black curtains all around too), the black bench tucked under the keys, and a black chair put into its proper place. This is serious music, presented in a serious space, in a serious way. The only colour we are allowed at this point is the colour of sounds, and all seriousness aside, we can trust Jason Noble to gives us colour.

Noble’s first piece, voyages sans direction, sans durée, was performed evocatively by pianist James Hurley. The piece is based on the water cycle. I’m not entirely decided that the sound reflects this idea, but I found myself concerned more with what the relationship was between the piano and the manipulated piano in the speakers. There were moments where they seemed like two independent parts, not really responding to each other, while other times the sounds blended so well it was difficult to tell them apart. Other times, the electronic track was adding texture and depth to the live piano – these moments were super satisfying! This seemingly random relationship didn’t seem to go anywhere, or develop, it was just there, and the piano just kept doing what it was doing. Perhaps this disconnect is the “without direction” part of the title, but when the two parts were in step the piece really shone.

Noble’s second piece, Shadow Prism, for solo guitar, is built on the idea of how a harmonic being pulled out of the sound of a string is like a prism pulling out a colour, while also being like a shadow because all of the other partials must be blocked out. The piece began with just harmonics being played in small groupings (the prism), and in the second section Steve Cowan reversed the process and sounded all of the strings of the guitar first and then dampened them to pull harmonics out (the shadow).  The shape of this piece was reflective of the idea and it was delightful how Noble held back using the distinct open strings until the end. This was one of those rare instances where the sound, the form, and the idea are all in harmony together. Basing the piece all on natural harmonics gave it a consistency, but Noble cleverly had Cowan tune his guitar to an alternate tuning to create a lot of interest in the harmony.

The third piece, for solo piano, was titled de mythe et croyance (of myth and belief). Noble explained to us that this piece was a direct commentary on his belief that there is no distinction between pop music and contemporary music. I must say I’m disappointed there wasn’t even a hint of Beyoncé here – although in the case of this particular half of the concert Justin Bieber would probably be a better fit considering his male whiteness. Noble spoke of how this piece was mathematically composed, which is notable because the piece had a very organic quality. It started at the top of the piano on just the white keys and as Hurley slowly worked his way down tension was added bit by bit to the harmony, until finally ending on the lowest notes of the instrument and resolving the tension that was built up while passing through the middle of the piano. Nothing pop-like about it, but it had a very simple and clear direction, and became a meditation on the timbres of the piano.

Finally we arrive at Noble’s piece for piano, guitar, and electronics, One Foot in the Past. This piece is about the 1916 battle of Beaumont Hamel and its resonance in Newfoundland and Labrador. The piece blends electronic sounds, recordings of interviews with Newfoundlanders who remember the second world war, folk songs, and extended techniques. The piece focuses our attention on the interviews, with the instruments first playing a collage of folk songs. There is a single phrase that provides a framework for the piece, a woman saying, “You can always learn from the past,” and in the later part of the piece the live players enter a more contemporary sound world. Here, Hurley threw a chain onto the strings to great affect, this was startling, jarring, and brought about a fairly intense reaction in me of both anger and fear. The noise-based music here was in stark contrast to the earlier folk collage. There is dialogue between the old and the new happening here and the chain was a part of that. The sound of the chain was intense, especially when dropped, there’s no resolution to this sound, not even from the dainty one used on the higher strings. Perhaps Noble is saying we’re chained to our past or carrying the burden of the war still. Moving on might not be a necessary part of the process, but maybe holding on is. Maybe this aggressive chain is a necessity. We can carry it, remember it, acknowledge it, and continue living by honouring the memory of the soldiers who died at Beaumont Hamel.

After the matching performers and composers, dressed head to toe in black of course, took their respectful bows we came back to a starkly different second half. Garry Wasyliw has written a response to this, which if you haven’t yet, I urge you to read now.