Fanfare for Two Trumpets was commissioned and written in 2015 on the occasion of the installation of William Robins as President of Victoria University of the University of Toronto.
Brand New Music looks at the 1972 Stylistics’ song You Make Me Feel Brand New from three separate angles. For each movement, I cut the song into one-bar sections and re-ordered them randomly, creating skeletons which I fleshed out in three styles. The original song was played at school dances when I was young and very shy. I still associate it with unfulfilled yearning and melancholy, although there is a good deal of playfulness mixed into these versions. The work is dedicated to my partners in the Collide collaboration, media artist Jason Baerg and scientist/artist Erin Fortier, as well as to Continuum Contemporary Music, with whom I share a happy collaboration of many years.
To say “as if”. To unfold a universe, one parallel to our own, just as alive, or more so. Two little words mapping some unmapped place. A longing for something that could be, or could have been, wishful or wistful or whimsical. As If, a piece dreamed up, an invisible journey, seeking its own level, at times flowing like water, then doubling back, remembering itself, echoing.
As If was commissioned by Aventa Ensemble (Bill Linwood, conductor) with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts.
Writing for unpitched percussion means getting by without pitch, harmony, and melody—which only leaves the good stuff: rhythm, colour, and unbounded energy. I began with two tiny ideas, one from “Why This Kolaveri Di”, a viral Bollywood music and dance video from 2012, the other from Queen’s immortal “We Will Rock You”. They dance together, with a little help from the Balinese Gamelan piece “Liar Samas”. I was fortunate to collaborate on this piece with the choreographer Jacob Niedzwiecki, whose input helped to shape it, as did that of TorQ Percussion Quartet, who commissioned it. Why You was written with the assistance of a Toronto Arts Council Grant to Music Creators.
Program Note: The Mayor’s Fanfare (2009) by James Rolfe. Duration 90 seconds.
The Mayor’s Fanfare, for four trumpets, was commissioned in 2009 by the Toronto Arts Foundation on the occasion of the Mayor’s Arts Luncheon celebrating the 2009 Toronto Arts Awards. It is dedicated to Mayor David Miller and to Toronto Arts Council Director Claire Hopkinson.
I have a fascination with dance music. Its intention is so innocent: it only wants to make us dance. Yet there’s something sinister about the power of such simple music to carry us away. It must be strong stuff, infernal even: I think of Mozart (Don Giovanni, Act One Finale), of Stravinsky (Histoire du Soldat), of Funkadelic (Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow).
The Asko Ensemble of Amsterdam asked for this piece, so I played with their name: Ask You, Ask Me, Me Ask You Dance, Ask You Dance Me… A few dozen of these playful scribbles make up a frame on which the first movement hangs. The second and third movements are based on popular songs, though they are filtered through other processes and music. The results are hardly danceable, being more a reflection on dance music.
Ask You Dance Me was commissioned by The Asko Ensemble with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts.
Oboe Quartet was written to commemorate Mozart’s 250th birthday. I began to disassemble Mozart’s Oboe Quartet with the usual bag of composerly tricks, but it resisted. Backwards, upside down, or sideways, it always seemed to end up sounding like Mozart. Rebuffed, I was forced to write something new, trying instead to chase the fleeting spirits that animated Mozart—the deceptively clear and simple structure, the constantly varied repetition, the restless forward drive. The piece is in two movements, the first fast (with traces of an exposition, development, and recapitulation), the last slow.
Oboe Quartet was written at the request of The Gallery Players Association with the assistance of a grant from the Toronto Arts Council.
Freddy’s Dead is based on the theme of J. S. Bach’s Musikalisches Opfer. It shares some of his construction methods: inversion, retrograde, retrograde inversion, etc. These techniques were resurrected by serialists such as Schoenberg, upon whose death the fun- loving Boulez remarked that “Schoenberg is dead”.
Most of this piece is derived from the third movement of the Musical Offering’s Trio Sonata, which has been sped up several times, squeezed into downbeats (bass clef) or offbeats (treble), and generally mutilated, while a very slow version of the theme cycles alongside, with all its intervals rising. This pair of ideas—short notes fast and jumpy, long notes slow and steady—works its dogged way through the instruments, with a few brief respites, until it’s about time for a coda.
Freddy’s Dead was written for Soundstreams, and is dedicated with affection and respect to its Artistic Director, Lawrence Cherney.
Juggle is a kind of scherzo. At times it bursts with energy and puts on substantial airs, only to backpedal and disappear into itself. There is a steady stream of composer tricks— retrogrades, inversions, quotes—leading to a sense of déjà vu, a feeling that we’ve heard these notes before. The winds are kept on a tight leash, given sardonic and terse lines, and only rarely allowed to wax lyrical.
Juggle was commissioned by the Guelph Spring Festival with the assistance of The Laidlaw Foundation.
raW was written by filtering J. S. Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto through Bob Marley’s War (Bach’s first movement), Burning Spear’s The Invasion (second movement), and John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever (third movement). The constant running sixteenths of the Bach are by turns syncopated or silenced, leaving fleeting and usually unrecognizable echoes of reggae or march. MIDI files downloaded from the internet coupled with music software (Sibelius) helped to build early drafts of this work. From these I made templates, which I then edited over the course of many drafts, as might an artist who takes a photograph and alters it by hand–drawing, scratching, colouring, erasing.
raW was written during the buildup to the American invasion of Iraq, but it was only afterwards that I noticed the connection to the “filtering” pieces’ titles.
raW was commissioned and premiered by Ergo Concerts (Barbara Croall, Artistic Director) and written with the assistance of a grant from The Toronto Arts Council. It received the 2006 Jules Léger Prize for Chamber Music.
The reaction to the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US brought back memories of growing up during the Cold War. I remember the omnipresent atmosphere of fear and anxiety, faced with a faceless enemy who could strike at any second. I remember my father, constantly aggravated by my mother’s constant worrying: “Worry, worry, worry, all you ever do is worry!” Perhaps he was just as anxious, but unwilling to voice it. I remember the music of the time: high modernists like Xenakis, furiously tearing out all traces of the past; and those who embraced the past, like The Beach Boys, wistfully and longingly. I remember growing up in Ottawa, which (like most cities at the time) was obsessed with obliterating its past—in this case, according to the dictates of French urban planner Jacques Gréber (himself a disciple of Le Corbusier, as was Xenakis). As an anxious mind flits restlessly from one thought to the next, making its own unexpected connections, all these thoughts and musics circulate through Worry, which was written from one moment to the next, without thought as to its future. It’s also a kind of nostalgic homage to the modernism I was born into, innocent of its bitter origins. Worry was commissioned by Continuum (Jennifer Waring, Artistic Director) and Numus (Jeremy Bell, Artistic Director) for Mark Fewer, violin, with the assistance of The Laidlaw Foundation.
Like its title, an anagram of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s poem “The Grand Dance”, And Then Grace freely remixes certain elements of her poem. Musical ephemera whirl past. Some come from an imagined vocal rendering of the poem, others from left field–Barry White, the South Park movie, ersatz Stravinsky, numerous plundered snippets of my own pieces—but like so many ghosts, they never settle down or take root.
And Then Grace was commissioned by The Gallery Players Association with the assistance of the Ontario Arts Council.
Drop (1998) is haunted by ghosts of violin sonatas past, ghosts whose desires are sometimes indulged, but more often frustrated. Drop was commissioned with the assistance of The Ontario Arts Council by the Sabat-Clarke Duo, who premiered it in Toronto in January 1999.
Bouquet is a kind of potpourri, a weaving together of instrumental melodies which are wholly derived from poetic texts–texts used as elements in my recent wedding. This is a practice sometimes disparaged as eclectic, as “mere assemblage”, perhaps because it unites disparate styles of music, both the holy and the unholy. Yet it has enjoyed great favour among composers for centuries, with such diverse results as medieval isorhythmic motets, much opera and film music, and sampled music.
Bouquet was written in 1998 for The Burdocks, at the behest of their Artistic Director, Martin Arnold, who commissioned it with the assistance of The Ontario Arts Council. It is dedicated to my wife, Juliet Palmer.
Tunnel was begun without knowing where it would end up. In the real world, this would be a bad way to run a tunneling project, but since the new music community has been overlooked by the Triumph of Capitalism, we can still afford to grope around blindly in the dark, and sniff the dirt and rubble along the way.
With its two thematic groups, a development of sorts, and a sonata-like narrative sensibility, Tunnel is a kind of ersatz sonata movement. It begins with an oblique plundering of the opening Largo of Beethoven’s Third Rasumovsky Quartet (Op. 59, no. 3). Beethoven’s pitches, once relieved of their original voice-leading agendas, are then reordered and used as a foil to the opening descending scale figures—at first set apart, then forced into cohabitation, and finally gaining the last word in a slow chorale.
Squeeze is march music. It marches through the J. S. Bach chorale Jesus meine zuversicht, back and forth, in tight and furious formation. The piano is the exception, a spectator at the proceedings, preferring silence or isolated comments. Yet its taciturn asides eventually subdue the march, which becomes soggy, and never quite recovers its step.
Squeeze was written in 1996 for The Nash Ensemble of London, who premiered it at Princeton, New Jersey in 1997.
Scroll contains echoes of Baroque forms: a division into slow-fast-slow-fast sections, with the slow sections referring to triadic, tonal harmony, and the fast ones using dance-like rhythms. But the harmonies are often highly chromatic and atonal, while the rhythms are more Stravinskian and Afro- Cuban than Baroque.
Scroll was written in 1995, and commissioned through The Ontario Arts Council by the Canadian ensemble Terzetto, to whom it is dedicated.
The contents of Tombeau are primarily extracted from six or seven previous works of mine. The form is thus autobiographical, as if reflecting on a photo album from my last four years. The piece begins patiently and methodically, but gradually becomes annoyed with itself, striving by turn to forget, contradict, and destroy what it set out to do. But don’t believe everything you read.
Tombeau was written in 1995 at the request of Continuum, to whom it is dedicated, in celebration of their tenth anniversary.
Devilled Swan was commissioned by John Beckwith, a former professor of mine at the University of Toronto, on the event of his receipt of the Toronto Arts Award for music in 1994 from the Arts Foundation of Greater Toronto. It was premiered by Arraymusic on June 27, 1995.
Devilled Swan is based on the late 18th-century hymn tune China, by Timothy Swan, a highly esteemed American hymnodist who also had a reputation for hard living. China was immensely popular throughout most of the 19th century, especially at funerals, but it virtually disappeared from use thereafter. I use it in recognition of Professor Beckwith’s devotion to hymn scholarship. Swan’s quirky, leaping melody is progressively squashed flatter and flatter, and the inner voices become unrecognizably chromatic, while the rhythmically lively sections of the opening collapse into stasis, in a kind of musical vivisection of the hymn. This is in part a reaction against the text, which tells us not to mourn the dead, but rather to envy their extraterrestrial travels. And in part, it is a cheeky salute to my erstwhile teacher, as I use musical materials (octaves, chromatic scales, monotonously regular durations) which John warned his students about, as they were thin ice.
Revenge! Revenge!! Revenge!!! begins with the thinnest of musical wafers and stretches it thinner and thinner, using slowly evolving, repetitive structures. A tension develops between the constant forward motion implied by rigidly linear changes in pitch and rhythm, and the slow and halting way in which these changes occur.
This piece is a kind of sequel to Devilled Swan, which was commissioned by my former composition teacher John Beckwith as part of his 1994 Toronto Arts Award, and premiered by Arraymusic. Both pieces feature materials he advised us undergrads against using—chromatic scales, octaves, etc.—and breaking these ancient taboos was so exciting that I needed two pieces to do a proper job. (It should be emphasized that Prof. Beckwith doesn’t recall issuing any such prohibitions, and enough time has passed that I could have imagined them. Perhaps I needed to imagine them in order to pluck up the courage to break them. Certainly his teaching made a lasting impression; and despite their teasing façades, both pieces are dedicated to him with respect and affection.)
The title quotes the whisky-maddened and thirsty Captain Haddock after his flask is shattered by a stray bullet during a desert skirmish in The Adventure of the Crab with the Golden Claws, one of Hergé’s Tintin comic books. Revenge! Revenge!! Revenge!!! was premiered by the Composers Ensemble of Princeton in March 1996.
The contents of Dissolution are primarily extracted from six or seven previous works of mine. It is autobiographical, as if reflecting on a photo album from my last four years. The piece begins patiently and methodically, but gradually becomes annoyed with itself, striving by turn to forget, contradict, and destroy what it set out to do.
Dissolution was commissioned by The Ives Ensemble of Amsterdam with funds from The Canada Council for the Arts, premiered in 1994, and lightly revised in 1997. It is dedicated to John Snijders, Richard Rijnvos, and the Ives Ensemble.
Before After begins with a quick, cheerful, leaping motif in rhythmic unison. Then things begin to happen, and the motif ends up crushed and inert. More things happen after that. Before After was commissioned in 1992 by The Fifth Species Woodwind Quintet, with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts.
Railway Street, on Vancouver’s waterfront, is where I first heard the music of King Crimson, its pulse spiraling, disorienting, slippery, beyond fast or slow—an effect I later encountered in Japanese Noh music and certain pieces of Takemitsu.
Railway Street was first performed on 3 November 1991 by the Vancouver New Music Ensemble, conducted by Owen Underhill, with Lori Freedman, bass clarinet. It was commissioned by CBC Stereo’s “Two New Hours”.