Tuesday, November 18, 2014

mèi mei

Photo Credit: Nanc Price Photography

In October, I started a ukulele coverband with my sis. We had talked about forming a group for a while. We even had our band name picked out: mèi mei (translation: little sister in mandarin). However, securing a gig at the VIP Reception for a Nina Haggarty Centre of the Arts Fundraiser expedited our band's formation. 
It not confidence boosting to admit that you are the weakest link; however, it was true in this case. The only instrument I really had an ever trained was my voice. As you can imagine, there was as steep learning curve for me to be able to play basic chords on ukulele while singing at the same time. I have terrible fine motor skills. At the same time, nothing ever gets better without practice so I took the challenge to develop my brain's motor cortex regions. We carried off our first gig well enough with the ambient noise of the cocktail party to disguise any of my glaring musical errors. 
The whole process gave me a glimpse into how my neural networks consolidate new information. I gave myself very basic goals. My first week's focus was just holding my ukulele so I wouldn't be crushing my contorted thumb behind the bridge. The next week was trying to play chords and sing at the same time at a reduced tempo. The next week was learning that I can strum in different patterns to create rhythm. The following week was attempting to sing right words, play correct chords, strum, and keep a steady tempo. The only strength I have is that I am able to automatically sing a harmony line because I can hear it in my head. Plus, I am strumming the chords so I am supplying myself the notes.  

There were short intense periods of practice everyday. Drilling awkward chord transitions and willing my fingers to move with more accuracy between chord postures were at the top of my list. I felt a sense of satisfaction when my fingertips would tingle due to lack of sensation. I was forming callouses! One step closer into becoming a ukulele instrumentalist. I began learning on my niece's ukulele that is green and covered in tropical fruit. As the gig approached, I decided the week before I should pick up my own ukulele. While I was tempted to purchase a colored one, the sound was terrible so I opted for something in the mid-range.

Following the reception for the Nina fundraiser, we even had the chance to sing some holiday tunes for a private shopping event with Cory Christopher at Simons this past weekend.

Thanks to Nanc for these amazing pics from Simons!

While mèi mei's future is undetermined at this point in time, all I know it's fun to spend some time with my sis and have the courage learn something new.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Leap of Faith - An Interview with Canadian Choral Composer, Jason Noble

Braving the icy chill from Edmonton's abrupt onset of Winter composer, Jason Noble, shakes off the bite of the windchill as he enters the warm surroundings of Remedy Café.  He sits down to discuss the premiere of his newest choral work, Missa Remissionem Peccatorum. Pro Coro Canada sings the debut of the piece at their concert on Sunday. In addition to his work as a choral composer, Noble is a musician and PhD researcher at McGill's Music Perception and Cognition Lab. Noble sings with voces boreales, a professional choral ensemble founded by Pro Coro's Artistic Director, Michael Zaugg. Missa Remissionem Peccatorum is Noble's largest choral work to date. Drawing upon his previous history with Zaugg as a singer, Noble states that it gave him a better perspective when writing a piece for one of Zaugg's choirs. "Zaugg has a compositional approach to conducting. He looks at scores so analytically. There might be sixteen independent lines going on at one time and he helps choirs see harmonic underpinnings, understand global textural effects, and how each note functions in terms of the overall sonority.  As a composer, that is how we would look at a score too,'" Noble says with a tone of deep appreciation. "He's also very passionate about contemporary music," Noble continues,  "to have somebody gifted at bringing out inner intentions and the compositional structure of a piece... it was a real gift," Noble states as he reminisces about his time when Zaugg conducting voces boreales in Montreal before moving to Edmonton.

This Sunday will not be the first time in which Pro Coro has premiered one of Noble’s works. "The first piece that I wrote for Michael was The Shadows Flee Away which Pro Coro did over a year ago. I think everybody would agree it was a difficult piece. It was 16 parts throughout with polytonal layering, lots of textures, and [Pro Coro] did a great job," he states.  "As much as I was happy with that piece, it helped me grow as a composer," he says.

Taking what he learned from that experience, Noble kept what worked and applied it to the Missa Remissionem Peccatorum.  As a result, there is some continuity between the two works. "In the beginning of the Gloria, for example, there are just four notes sustained but every singer is articulating the text at their own free pace. Later the Sopranos and Altos have this canon where there is a floating texture above and in the tenors and basses there is more of a homophonic chorale," he says before apologizing and continuing with a burst of explanatory excitement. "Basically, you've got two textures going on at the same time. One is the sparkly texture over top and the bottom appears as a unified statement of familiar chords.  Also, the crossfades where you have one choir decrescendo as the other choir does exactly the opposite with a crescendo," he explains. There is intent behind every aspect of Noble's musical construction: "There may be a straightforward D flat major chord but one of the voices on the third may make it major or minor. Other voices may move in microtonal intervals that are not major or minor but more like a band in pitch space. It is this destabilizing thing that takes you out of familiar harmony.  It is that moment of trepidation and instability which the audience will feel as much as the singers." There is also a section where singers are instructed to sing their lowest comfortable note. The pitch descends into a “black cloud of undefined sound,” ridding the section of any harmonic identity. These are all techniques that Noble uses to highlight the textual meaning in the piece. 

There are challenges associated with setting sacred text for secular audiences and still making it relevant. Noble casts a contemplative look downwards while he formulates his loci of thought into words: "Liturgical composers in earlier eras could just accept the text as something the audiences both know and believe. We live in a multicultural age now. Where we have people from all different backgrounds of faith and no faith. It would very naive to assume modern audiences will receive these texts as universal truths or as affirmations of unifying faith as audiences from previous eras might have. I think a lot of composers in the 20th and 21st centuries cut themselves off from tradition, whether that is musical or religious. The idea of complete renovation. Something radically new and different. I believe that we still have a lot to learn from the wisdom that has been handed down to us through the ages. The emphasis on the now and the new may be the sources of problems we face in the world today. Maybe those previous generations knew a few things that we would do well to learn from, including the teachings of faith. I try to find values in those teachings that are morally legitimate, even in the world today, without alienating people from any background.  For me, the concept of forgiveness is one of the most powerful ones. I don't want us to live in a world that loses the ability to forgive.  As opposed to radical individualism, where you're only thinking about yourself and your own needs. We all make mistakes and I want to believe that we can still forgive others and ourselves even in a secular world.”

The concept of forgiveness is poignant in Noble’s Kyrie section.  "The movement is about the confrontation with sin. Sin is the recognition of having done wrong in whatever moral sense that means to you. That sense of shame and self-reproach that is familiar to most people. The Kyrie is not a prayer to some sort of deity or God, although it can be interpreted that way if you wish, it's more of a hope that wrong can be set right. And wrong, once done, doesn't have to define you forever or be irreparable. Mercy is essentially a hope this can heal. Not a literal request for somebody to set things right for you. Just a hope and faith in the universe and in other people that forgiveness and reconciliation is still possible even wrong has been done," Noble summarizes with a philosophical fluency.

There is a sense of balance while Noble outlines how his personal upbringing has shaped his worldview: “I wasn’t brought up in a church-going family. My parents wanted me to grow up and make up my own mind. Now I sing in a Cathedral Choir, so I have more exposure to the teachings of Christianity than I did as a child. I think I take it in the same way I take philosophy books or other works of Art whether secular or sacred. All of them have something to teach me. All of them have something meaningful and beautiful that I can make meaningful in my own life. It’s not about which one is right or wrong. It’s about finding the value and meaning in all of them that come together in my own personal worldview. I'm hoping to convey something through the selection of text and through the music that I write.”

Art communicates through the transmission of meaning from one mind to another. This concept ties in with Noble’s research at McGill where he investigates the processes of thinking and interpreting that are common between people. Even though there are breakdowns in the message between his compositional intent and audiences, he notes that the process is a leap of faith. “As a composer, I know that meaning is always interpreted against a subjective context that is constantly evolving for everybody. By definition, it is impossible that the meaning that I have in my mind while writing is going to be the same for any one member of the audience let alone all of them,” he says while laughing at this lofty goal.

Noble views himself as a top down composer: “I don’t start with motives and materials and build something up out of them. I start with global intuition and feeling I am trying to work with. From that intuition, I get a sense of form. And then down from there into selecting materials that are appropriate to the concepts I am working with. Form and material and concept are all very interwoven with one another. There are still lots of choices to make, if I ever get it right!” he says while laughing before continuing. “What I want the work to be is clear from the beginning. If it is not clear, then I spend lot of time meditating on what I am trying to achieve. In the pieces I am most proud of, the musical choices follow almost as a matter of course once that concept is worked out.  I try to restrain myself from moving on until the concept is very clear. To the point where it’s almost self-propelling and the process unfolds where I feel like an observer and not an agent. That doesn't happen every single time but it happens at the best times,” he states in describing his compositional process.

There is an importance in how new music can document contemporary cultural identity: “We live in an age where identify is very plural and divided. In a big way, one of the reasons why I want to be a composer and write works like this is to draw attention to values that stand apart from the general cultural and moral currents around me. It would be far easier to produce music in a popular domain, using techniques, which are known to be popular. I don't want Art to be a commodity. I don’t want it to be something that’s just there to give people what they ask for because they ask for it. If you do that, then you just reinforcing people in what they already know. Which means Art will never move forward. Art will just become the perpetual recycling of things that are already known to be pleasant, and that’s not how new meanings are discovered. Our age deserves to have a unique voice. Our age deserves to have an expression through Art that documents and expresses what is unique about being alive today. How our age is not the same as ages past. What are the challenges we face? What are the feelings that we deal with? I don’t believe the best way to achieve that is by using the materials earlier musical ages have generated. But, at the same time, Art loses its power altogether if it’s written in a way that too esoteric or arcane that people can’t relate to. I don’t want to be a strictly academic composer that is only writing for my colleagues in the University while the rest of the world is unaware.  I want to write thing that have the potential to reach out to people but challenge them. Open their eyes to things that might not familiar or comfortable. I hope, by my leap of faith, that they find meaning in,” he summates, highlighting many of the themes from the conversation.

There is an overwhelming sense of gratitude when a Noble professes how honoured he is when a choir gives his music a voice. He clenches his fist in front of his chest, "it lives in here for months," he says before noting the sense of release he feels when he hears it live for the first time. “I really admire Pro Coro. I think it’s great you have a performing ensemble of this caliber here in Edmonton and that you do take on these challenging projects and master them to the degree that you do,” he says with affection. Thus, it was fitting that Noble’s opening statement to the choir at rehearsal on Friday night was just simply: “I love you.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

An Interview with Michael Zaugg, Conductor of the 2016 National Youth Choir

Michael Zaugg leads the way to his office. The hallway is filled with concert posters, which have been plaqued and mounted on the wall. A closer look at the posters reveals the signatures of soloists. The names amongst the array of posters include The Cantata Singers of Ottawa, voces boreales, and Pro Coro Canada. At the end of the hallway before turning into his office, there is a room lined with shelves, solely dedicated to music storage. Zaugg settles into the chair behind his desk and a quick look behind him shows a trio of glass message boards with dry erase etches of future repertoire ideas and thematic concert brainstorming. The board on the far right already has repertoire and commission thoughts for the National Youth Choir 2016. 
In the past ten years since arriving in Canada, Zaugg has been Artistic Director of the Cantata Singers of Ottawa, The St. Lawrence Choir, voces boreales, the Montreal Choral Institute, Chorusmaster of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and is now beginning his third season as the Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of Pro Coro Canada. During the Podium 2014 conference in Halifax, it was announced that Zaugg would be the next Conductor of the NYC in 2016. Conducting a mass choir of elite youth choristers is not unfamiliar territory as Zaugg has conducted the Ontario Youth Choir and Nova Scotia Youth Choir in previous years and also World Voices, a 40-voice choir of World Youth Choir alumnae; however, it will be his first opportunity at the helm of the NYC. Singing as a tenor was an integral part of Zaugg's musical upbringing. His choral experiences included tours with the Swiss Chamber Choir, the Chamber Choir of Europe, the Stockholm Chamber Choir, and five sessions in the World Youth Choir. Zaugg outlines his aims for the NYC choristers, which include, exposing them to great choral works and certain musical techniques. “I hope these young adults work in their communities and carry on some aspects of what they will be doing into the future,” he states. Zaugg makes it clear that there will be no slackening in his professional-level expectations of these youth choristers. He wishes to instill a high-performance work ethic in these budding young professionals. For those looking to become conductors, they can transfer teachings to their own work and increase their tools to help better prepare them for positions of musical leadership.
Zaugg reminisces upon his own memories from the World Youth Choir with fondness. “I arrived in Helsinki and then we took the ferry over to Tallinn. From that moment I stepped into a different world and it was only the morning on my flight back to Zurich that I realized that I had to get back into real-life. It had been a month of other-worldly experience,” he said.  Prior to WYC, Zaugg’s interest in conducting was already developing since he was teaching highschool music in his early 20s, conducting a girls choir and amateur choir, and was assistant conductor for a symphonic choir. “My early career path leaned towards pedagogy. There was always the element of making music, but being a musical pedagogue was foremost. Later on it was key moments, like hearing fantastic choirs, and saying: ‘That's what I want to do! I want to learn how to create that sound and do that particular music,’” he states. Upon arriving in Canada, Zaugg worked primarily as a conductor and in his position with the Cantata Singers of Ottawa, he tried to implement sound ideals from Scandinavia. Once he founded voces boreales in Montreal, he began to see how he could shape the free and colorful textures of voices and demonstrate a different evolution of choral sound. His approach with Pro Coro Canada has continued in this direction. “Pro Coro's full and vibrant sound wasn't here when I came 2.5 years ago. Working with a youth choir is very similar, young singers just need more guidance. The best thing is to always model what you want. I think my ears are tuned to hear individual voices, so my instruction is always very direct and that transfers into the work with the choir. I think the choirs had to get used to direct feedback," he says with a smile, breaking his stoic expression. His approach to differentiate between different voices stems from his Stockholm training. "I've sung so much for so many different voice teachers and conductors, I have acquired the vocabulary to solve various problems. It solves the problem without have to rehearse a section over and over," he says providing a rationale for his direct approach. 
Epic Photography Inc., Ian Jackson

In the two weeks given to prepare the NYC, Zaugg recognizes there will be no problem so long as the singers are prepared. He notes that he rarely takes pieces out of a concert program. "My programs have a theme. It is hard to cut something out because the story falls apart," he says. Indeed, a quick glance again at his brainstorming notes behind him reinforces how carefully he plans each repertoire item. 
Zaugg hopes that NYC singers will recognize that Alberta is a great choral province. Perhaps it will attract some young talent to Alberta and these singers will return home to transfer these teaching and experiences into their own communities. Furthermore, Zaugg notes that it is important that choristers have a great social time, forming bonds that they will keep for a lifetime. As any chorister knows, it is the on-stage and off-stage bonding that completes a musical experience. 

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