raW: chamber music by James Rolfe

(raW and 7 other chamber works)
Continuum Contemporary Music
Centrediscs, 2011.





Press reviews, James Rolfe, raW (CD)


The Continuum ensemble, comprised of Toronto’s top contemporary musicians, adds a third CD to its discography. Here effectively conducted by Gregory Oh, the entire album is dedicated to the music of multi-award winning Toronto composer James Rolfe (b. 1961).

raW (2003) is a delightful musical romp. Based on Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto, Rolfe notes that the musical elements of raW are filtered through several reggae songs and the John Philip Sousa march Stars and Stripes Forever. The work starts smartly with a series of recognizable motoric sixteenths from the Bach treated to syncopation and silencing. This stream is then subjected to a complex multi-layered compositional process exposing evanescent and barely recognizable echoes of reggae and march. The effectiveness of raW is heightened by its masterful scoring. The first series of chords sound as if a much larger ensemble than Continuum’s six musicians produced it. Graced with deftly constructed light-hearted moments, it’s no wonder this effective work was awarded the 2006 Jules Léger Prize for Chamber Music.

The composer’s brand of cheeky humour re-appears in Devilled Swan (1995). Here the composer takes apart the late 18th-century hymn tune China by Timothy Swan, the American hymnodist. Like James Rolfe’s composition teacher John Beckwith has often done in his own works, Devilled Swan takes an established hymn and re-composes it; except that the student takes compositional messing to new extremes. Rolfe virtually vivisects the hymn, proposing an ode to chromaticism and rhythmic stasis.

The violin sonata Drop (1999) is most memorable where the extended violin melody is doubled on the piano. Squeeze (1997) on the other hand starts off as a jaunty march, flavoured with a “Les Six”-like insouciance. Further on it marches right into the mysterious dreamy realm of a Bach chorale, dissolving into an unresolved tonal, harmonic and textural mistiness.

Composer Rolfe, evidently fond of bass drum thumps of all dynamic gradations, indulges his penchant in Revenge! Revenge!! Revenge!!! (1995) to dramatic effect, adding brake- and other drums for good measure.

This is a distinguished album by one of our most gifted composers of new concert music, definitively played. –  The Whole Note, by Andrew Timar, 28 February 2011


raW: Chamber Music by James Rolfe, reviewed by Stanley Fefferman, January 18th, 2011

From showtimemagazine.ca

Continuum Contemporary Music project on Centrediscs CMCCD 16210 released on Monday, January 18, 2011 @ Gallery 345, Toronto.

James Rolfe has been generating music—abstract, choral, and operatic—that for 20 years has been winning him commissions, prestigious prizes, and performances galore. In recognition of part of Rolfe’s contribution to music, the Canadian Music Centre and Canadian League of Composers are issuing this CD of selected chamber music pieces 1991-2004.

The 11′ title track “raW (2003)” sets out all martial as rhythmic variations on spastic fife and drum riffs. Then there’s a delicate lull that moves on taut, tentative feet like a wounded sparrow hopping and pecking before the snarling snares resume their march, discordant and sardonic in the mood of Weill or Zappa. Terrific stuff! Rolfe’s program notes are illuminating: ” raW was written by filtering J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto through Bob Marley’s War…Burning Spear’s The Invasion and John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. The technical bits are interesting too, but you’d have to get the CD for them.

Soprano Carla Huhtanen joins Laurent Phillipe at the piano and Ryan Scott on percussion for “Simon and Garfunkle & the Prophets of Rage (1993)”. This is a kind of ’songspiel’ number— the lyrics distinctly separate and separated, which Huhtanen utters in truncated, oddly rhythmic chunks lightly bound by the ostinato instrumental. The resulting hammered rage makes an absorbing sonic array.

“Freddy’s Dead (2004) is a 3 ‘ vignette also based on a Bach theme (from Musical Offering, BWV 1079) that is “sped up…squeezed down…and otherwise mutilated”. Carol Lynn Fujino’s violin joins the piano and Paul Widner’s cello to produce a musical flow like a flooded river in full spate freighting debris—natural and household—that tumble in random, repeated patterns with a clocklike regularity. “Devilled Swan” is a wonderful mix of chimes, whistling tea-kettles and clownish drums. “Fete de la Faim (1991)” has Huhtanen back singing fractured phrases by Rimbaud against an ensemble augmented by Max Christie’s clarinet, Angela Rudden’s viola and Ann Thompson’s flute, Gregory Oh, conducting.

The remaining titles on this album —”Drop,” “Squeeze,” and “Revenge! Revenge! Revenge!” — ought to reinforce the notion that Rolfe’s music is full of fun for folks who enjoy having their musical boundaries tickled.


raW: Chamber Music by James Rolfe, reviewed by Elissa Poole, 26 February 2011

From Toronto Globe and Mail

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)


Picture the composer at his desk. Look away, he thumbs his nose. Look back, he’s only smiling. James Rolfe’s music misbehaves, but it also rationalizes. Bach steps along with Sousa marches in Charles Ives—like juxtapositions that shout academic license. Rap battles with anodyne pop; the Canon surfaces and fails. Rolfe concretizes different kinds of music as if they were artifacts discovered together at an excavation site—the cooking utensils, the pretty jewelry, the bona fide objets d’art, all equal candidates for some future museum. His music has a beetling momentum. It’s edgy in rhythm, texture and intent, playful but not funny, rarely pretty but attractively lithe, and its own critique. The excellent Continuum players give it a clean musicality and a sly grin all its own.