Thursday, June 26, 2014

Art is a Gift - An Interview with Canadian Choral Composer, Peter-Anthony Togni

Settling down for a chat after the Composers panel at Podium 2014, Peter-Anthony Togni and I begin by catching-up from when we last saw each other in Edmonton. Pro Coro Canada performed the Canadian premiere of Togni's Missa Liberationis on Good Friday. There was a strongly worded review published following the concert that I wanted to get his thoughts on. "I think if you haven't rustled people's feathers in some way, then you're not doing your job," he states with an air of humor. However, with over 20 years as musician, composer, and CBC radio broadcaster, it hasn’t necessarily made Togni immune to such feedback. “I am as vulnerable as the next person. I know what it is I wanna write. I know what my aesthetic is and I know what I'm playing with and I know that not everybody likes it. And I know it's a direct reflection of my Catholic faith. For me it helps me interpret what I think is supernatural. If you get a moment like that, the rest of it doesn't feel like writing music anymore,” Togni states in summary.

The spiritual aspect of music is not to be overlooked when considering Togni’s composition perspective: “I was thinking of this the other day as I was listening to Mozart's Piano Concerto in D minor No. 24. There are some moments in that that are so perfect… I actually think what we're listening to is a conversation with God written down… it's like sticking your finger into the electric socket,” Togni says with a  twinkle in his eye. Sometimes Togni feels these moments occurs in his pieces; however, he emphasizes how music is a pathway and connection for him to this world. “There's everyday roads of life and there's the other world. Composers always want to live in the enchanted forest all the time. We're trying to create Utopia. I believe in the holiness of beauty. But beauty doesn't have to be pretty music can be ugly. Look at the Spanish cruxifices or Christ nailed to a cross, that's beautiful. Pain can be beauty,” he says while taking a moment to consider the aching torment of that image. A constant struggle between the roles of the mortal and divine appears to ripple beneath Togni’s calm façade.

Togni goes to explain how the role his Faith has shaped his character: “I flirted with Monasticism in my early 20s. I was drawn to the Benedictine monks. There was a monastery in Paris where I finished my degree. I flirted with Priesthood but I think what God was telling me to do was to be in the world. Now, I think the Church is about being in Church and I think it's about your being outside of the church. I think tradition is clouding what is right and wrong. What about talking about what we have in common?” Togni continues, “my Faith is not one to swim against the stream, but my nature is to swim against the stream. My friends call me a Catholic hedonist. I love it,” he says with a laugh fully aware of the conflicting nature of this label.

Currently, Togni’s most recent commission entitled, Warrior Songs, for percussion and choir was premiered by Ars Nova in Colarado. He describes the theme as being a warrior for peace. Not actually being the warrior, but having the power to kiss the blade and not use it. Exploring the use of percussion on the piece was a new area of exploration for Togni. “I never thought of Singers as being vehicles of rhythm. But it's all about rhythm. Anything that moves, even if it's melodic, it has rhythm,” explains Togni.

During the Composer Panel at Podium, Togni was one of the Composers who stated his inspiration comes largely from sound and not text. He described how he hears the structure of the piece within sound. Togni brings up the concepts of Theo Drama and  Ego Drama to highlight the philosophy behind his composition perspective:

“A great piece of Art is a beautiful flower in the middle of the forest and nobody sees it. Ego Drama wants the flower to be seen, adored, and noticed. My inclination as I get older is I can see clearly where my Ego is. I can see myself wanting people to like something, and hope that it gets great applause. I am trying to remove myself from that. My inclination as I get older is to move more into the Theo Drama. Music that is spiritual is not about impressing everybody,” he says. While Togni did not feel inclined to stand up and be recognized from the audience as the National Youth Choir premiered his piece during their Podium Spotlight concert, it allowed him an opportunity to say thank-you to the performers and audience. He notes that it is good to nurture his neurosis in order to fully embrace the role of being an Artist.

As for how Togni decides where to go next, he realizes that it is inspired by whatever is right in front of him at the time. “It is never anything I plan because most things I plan are a disaster,” he states with a laugh and contemplative coolness before we conclude our chat. Togni reminds me that "Art is a gift,"at the end of our interview, and following a weekend at the Podium 2014 conference, I have no doubt. 

 Listen to Togni's work here

Monday, June 9, 2014

Behind the Spotlight with Canadian Composer, Matthew Emery

--> "I don't like to be the centre of attention... I am more comfortable with writing and somebody else taking it into the world," Canadian Composer, Matthew Emery reveals to me during our interview at Choral Canada's Podium 2014 conference. 

In fact, the opposite of Emery's aversion to the spotlight was occurring over the four day conference. His piece, Lover's Chant, won the 2014 Competition for Choral Writing and was premiered by 2014 National Youth Choir/Chœur National des Jeunes at Podium 2014. Furthermore, professional choirs such as the Canadian Chamber Choir, Pro Coro Canada, Vancouver Chamber Choir, and Elmer Iseler Singers have already been programming Emery's work to bring awareness to his works. Not bad for somebody convocating from his UBC Undergraduate degree in Composition program that coming Wednesday.

--> Sitting in the lobby of the Westin Hotel, Emery emits a poised and calm exterior; however, it is evident there is a constant stream of interior cerebral activity. As Emery begins by musing whether or not he should buy a last minute ticket to Vancouver and crash the UBC Music reception on Wednesday, I realize that I am speaking to Emery at the transition point from student to full-time Composer. 
Emery sang in Elementary, Highschool, and Amabile Choirs in his hometown of London ON before moving to Vancouver to complete his Undergrad in Composition where he also sang with the UBC University Singers . Most recently, he was singing with Larry Nickel in Jubilate while living in Vancouver. Emery traces his start in composition to Grade 10 when he began experimenting with chords on the piano and writing them down. From there he began pondering how pieces could be better or what he would like to sing as a chorister.

"If you don't sing in a choir, you won't be able to write for choir very well," he states with a gentle bluntness. 
Emery feels that he is conservative in all of his own writing. "I might throw in a gliss or something in my next piece," he says, granting me a subtle smile before continuing, "but I'll probably stay pretty tame. There's other people to do the crazy stuff." He provides examples such as R. Murray Schafer or Pro Coro gargling water during their performance of Ugis Praulins' The Nightingale to highlight the possibilites writing for voice. "In some ways, voice may be the most versatile instrument," he states with a serene awareness.

In terms of starting a composition, Emery reveals that it all begins from the poetry: "I don't really hear a melody first and find the poem to fit that. Just reading the poem I come up with the melody or the chords. Or the form of the piece could be related to the text in some way. But then the instrumental pieces that I write I would try to find inspiration from nature, buildings or architecture." While Emery worries about running out of public domain poetry, he also realizes that there are great poems he doesn't want to use because he thinks there are already perfect settings of them, citing Stephen Chatman's "Remember Me," as an example. "I don't think I could a better musical expression of that poem," he plainly states.   

It is clear that choral music is at the heart of Emery's compositional voice."I grew up singing so [choral music] is what comes most naturally to me. When I think of music, I immediately think of singing something. Having the text and singing poetry is what makes choral music so inspiring and powerful that you can take a meaningful thought from someone else, combine it with music, to make a great thing," Emery says with an enlightened tone. 
Emery's self-imposed structure is impressive. He sets a goal to write a piece every other week, resulting in 24 choir pieces a year. He reveals more information on his process: "I've always been on a routine. I try to just write on the weekdays all morning, have lunch around 12, and edit all night. Somewhere in there, I'm always reading poetry. Sometimes I take the afternoon off from composing to do the work, e-mailing publishers or scores or finding poems. Originally, at UBC, that's when nobody was using the practice rooms from 7 AM until classes started and it was quiet where I didn't have to compete with the Opera singer or Tuba player beside me."

He notes that he has future aspirations to write a Cantata piece for Choir and Orchestra or something intimate with one voice per part, similar to David Lang's Little Match Girl Passion.

While Emery prepares for a season as Amabile Choirs' Composer in Residence, he will also be heading to the United States for other compositional residencies this upcoming year. The opportunity to work one-on-one with the singers performing his works is an aspect of his job that he welcomes. "I really enjoy going to the rehearsals. You can say whatever you want. The singers are not tense yet for the concert. Everyone is just chill. I spent a good hour with the National Youth Choir in rehearsal and it was great... it's interesting how people perceive the music. Whether they absolutely like it or hate it. Some people don't like that it's boring or too traditional. Or some people love that aspect and say 'it's a breath of fresh air.' What's most interesting I think is watching the choirs and how they sing my pieces. Some pieces they release all their tension and it looks like it's freeing for them. They look very calm and lose all their worries. It's interesting to watch people performing and see how they visually change," describes Emery. 

--> Emery prefers to be behind the spotlight instead of basking in the attention a premiere draws. "At the concert, I get all nervous and worried about what happens if it doesn't go well, or what the person behind me thinks. [The Podium listeners] are toughest audience outside myself. After the premiere, once it's out there, it's free, and I don't have to worry about it. But at the first performance, I'm a nervous wreck," he states in a tone that reveals a rare ripple of insecurity during the interview.
He notes that Podium has been a great time to reconnect as well as meet some of the Conductors programming his works. Emery is overwhelmed at the support from Conductors such as Julia Davids, Elroy Friesen, Michael Zaugg, Jon Washburn, and Lydia Adams. "I can't ask for anything more. I owe them a lot. Julia put two of my pieces in her new series with Cypress Music so that's great. I can't ask for anything better than that," he states with graciousness. Emery values Conductor insight from their gestural execution of his works or how he should consider notating a passage for a given effect. "Taking composition classes at school, you're only getting feedback from another composer, it is good to get feedback from the other side."

The future is full of possibilities. Whether Emery ventures abroad for Graduate studies in Composition or continues to compose out of London, ON, it is apparent the amount of support from the Canadian choral community will continue to foster his career. "I'm glad to be part of Canadian choral community supporting me and other young composers. We are taking pride in the music of Canada, and supporting our music, which is what we need."