Wednesday, June 4, 2008

writing for a symphony

everybody knows i love owen pallett. everything he does pushes the envelope, and his music is just so beautiful, and my girlfriend is a little worried that i love him more than i love her (i don't, but it's close). so even though i had mixed feelings about twelve polearms, a work of new music by pallett commissioned by the bang on a can all-stars (who subsequently performed the work with pallett at last weekend's bang on a can marathon), you won't hear me say a single bad word about it. anyway, the real importance of twelve polearms isn't its substance, but its significance. there is an increasingly awesome trend in music, of independent artists composing classical-style works or performing with orchestral ensembles, and i just want to say i think it's amazing, and has incredibly exciting potential.

though twelve polearms is perhaps the least conventional of these collaborations (the work was prefaced by a lengthy, humorous introduction read by pallett that detailed its origins; suffice it to say that they were... otherworldly), it is certainly not the first. aside from metallica (which doesn't really count at all anyway), the first major piece of this trend was probably the bqe, sufjan stevens's homage to the brooklyn-queens expressway. new yorkers went mad for tickets (i don't even want to say how much they went for on craigslist), but it wasn't a huge creative stretch for stevens - after all, the illinoisemakers are practically an orchestra in themselves! so i think a great deal of credit for this promising trend is owed to musical directors, whether of BAM (who commissioned the bqe as part of their nextwave festival), bang on a can, or symphony nova scotia, who performed in conjunction with native son richard terfrey in april. this final collaboration is my personal favorite of the three, because of the deep level of cooperation between terfrey, who performs under the pseudonym buck 65) and the symphony, who performed a selection of buck 65 songs as well as a 15 minute work entitled "hymnpeace (remixed)," commissioned from conductor dinuk wijeratne by the cbc with solo parts for cello, percussion, and turntables. i came upon a recording of this show while trawling the pirate bay one afternoon, and though i downloaded it for its novelty as much as anything else, i've since found it to be absolutely brilliant.

there's a quite a tangible difference between symphonic rock and rock with symphonies, and while i can't stomach the expansive, layered sounds of the arcade fire or their ilk, david christensen's nuanced arrangements complement and re-envision buck 65's songs en masse; the symphony isn't terfrey's backup band, and their parts are integral, not afterthought - this isn't a bullshit string tribute to buck 65. yet, even though the majority of the performance is buck 65 songs, wijeratne's "hymnpeace (remixed)" is the worthiest composition, and the truest collaborative effort of the evening. as he explained in the work's introduction, the fragments of melody tossed back and forth between terfrey, solo cello norman adams, and the rest of the orchestra was written as a deliberate counterpoint to the first few televised minutes of the war in iraq. wijeratne then adds a wrinkle to an already daring production: terfrey's part in "hymnpeace (remixed)" is entirely improvised, and one section of the piece was composed so that terfrey and adams improvise simultaneously, as the rest of the orchestra plays their scripted parts. wijeratne's piece is not a work of new music, unencumbered by the almost petulant rebellions of that movement, and is an engaging and rewarding composition.

as exciting as the indie artist-as-classical composer idea is, i think it remains the responsibility of music directors to encourage and promote this trend, and bring even more musical prodigies into the mix. without their guidance (or financial support), there will be little impetus for successful independent musicians to try and write music for symphonies, especially for solo artists who are far more comfortable creating and performing alone (throughout the concert, terfrey repeatedly mentions his high levels of nervousness, and pallett apologized for his anxiety on saturday night as well). there is a lot of promise in this trend, and judging from the support terfrey, stevens, and pallett have received already, there will be more to come.

if anyone with influence is reading, you should commission a work from dan snaith, right now.

"feels like" & "misdeed"
stream the entire concert here, and an older buck 65 show here, both courtesy of the cbc.

1 comment:

Hayden Davenport said...

Do you know where I can download or hear Twelve Polearms?