Ari Barnes – Finding a Moment

Ari Barnes is one of the most thoughtful and generous spirits I’ve encountered among classical performers. And as someone recently bequeathed with the burden of being called “the best Canadian cellist of his generation” by Bramwell Tovey it would be understandable if he was more guarded with his time.

But despite a schedule that frequently includes multiple and diverse performing duties, catching up with colleagues and even some skateboarding, Ari is always ready to act as an ambassador not just for the appreciation of classical and new music, but for the idea of a broadly engaged citizenry that can participate at every level of cultural life. I met with Ari to do an interview for VR Media while he was here to perform with the Turning Point Ensemble and Heidi Krutzen as Couloir. On Remembrance Day we alighted to Green College at UBC for an improvised portrait session and followed up with coffee for the “formal” chat. This is a man who will bring his cello to a public plaza and perform Bach for anyone who happens by. That then leads to discussion of the notion of “the public good” and the design of public places. And I really enjoy his emphatic reference to written music as “the literature”. A far-ranging conversation always yields unexpected revelations.

The trouble with doing portraits of great musicians is that there are so many factors at play. Time, purpose (promotional or editorial etc.), and personal. And I’ve noticed two dramatic trends in classical music portraiture; a tendency towards playful, cute or clever images (often demanded by marketers to feed to the press) or an overly formal, egocentric, vanity-driven style. I suspect many of these images will be subject to deep regret in the future. So my preference is to find a quiet, reflective but powerful image that speaks to sensitivity and commitment. We never know if we’ve nailed it until some time has passed.

The VR Media interview will be published in December. Let’s see which images fit the interview content at the time! At the moment I’m favouring this one. But everything is subject to change.

Please check out these links:

https://www.manitobamusic.com/new-music-releases/view,album/18349/michael-oesterle-s-cello-concerto

http://www.ariel-barnes.com/

 

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Nova Pon – Wrenegade

The summer of 2019 saw the beginnings of a very fun new video project featuring the music of Bowen Island-based composer Nova Pon. The piece is for solo flute and is based on the song of the Pacific Wren, an unremarkable looking little bird that makes a grand impression through its calls! The piece largely alternates between a degree of actual birdsong transcription played on the flute and imagining it slowed down to be performed so the human ear can appreciate its structure. It ends with the performer whistling the song as though it had been finally processed and internalized!

Naturally, the performer is the irrepressible Mark Takeshi McGregor, clearly one of the nation’s best flutists. When I saw the lovely and eye-popping jacked he’d chosen for the shoot (we’d wavered between wanting him to stand out, like the birdsong … or blend in, like the actual bird) I decided to add a hint of fire weed to the edge of the video frame to complement the jacket.

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Gordon Smith – Tangle Master

One of Canada’s best loved painters, Gordon Smith is approaching 100! Still painting at his West Van studio/home, this was taken a decade ago for Vancouver Review’s spring 2009 article on landscape painting in British Columbia.

You can check out his work and peruse his extensive CV at:

https://www.equinoxgallery.com/artists/portfolio/gordon-smith

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The Quiet Ones (Part Two) – Benoît Pioulard

I suppose the first question I wanted to ask was why Seattle’s Thomas Meluch records under the name Benoît Pioulard.

“It appeared in a dream during a semester at university in which I was taking a few French classes – I woke up, wrote it down and found it a week later when I was putting together a CD of new recordings for my friend Jakub.” I take that as a perfectly suitable answer given the often dreamlike music he creates.

The music of Benoît Pioulard would have fit well with the early eighties minimalist post-punk scene. I can easily imagine him sharing a bill with The Young Marble Giants, Felt, Durutti Column or Eyeless in Gaza. But Thomas is very much a contemporary minimalist. And by “minimalist” I don’t mean in the musical vein of Steve Reich et al. I mean in terms of his relationship to material goods, to consumption and the means of creation. In terms of using what’s to hand in the production process as those early post-punk groups did. “We don’t need to make any more stuff” he tells me during an improvised photo shoot in a Seattle parking lot around the corner from Everyday Music and Elliot Bay Books (ground zero for those of us who still love hard copies of cultural artifacts). And he needs nothing more than Apple’s Garageband to create his music.

His is a wistful but sharp brand of introspective, atmospheric almost pop music. As he puts it: “I make textured & harmonic things primarily with guitar, tapes and voice.” The songs may seem low-fi at first but they’re superbly mastered and his soft, beautiful clear voice is frequently set back in the mix. They could almost be heard as collages, with solid, conventional song foundations overlaid with distortion, warbling analog tape, tastefully applied electronic atmospherics and snippets of field recordings. His lyrics are very personal, often reading like inner dialogues about disappointment, thwarted expectation, simple joys and wonder laced with references to the elements and the cosmos. Exemplary song title? How about The Sun is Going to Explode But Whatever It’s OK. And if you have difficulty making the words out they are, like in olden times, reproduced in the CD booklets at a readable scale. They are worth your time.

 

 

He also excels at long form soundscapes shot through with melancholy and adorned with gently abraded indefinable sonic detritus. Two years ago Thomas injured his wrist and put out a piece called Radial on Bandcamp. It sounds not unlike something from Eno’s first collection of Music For Films but with added length and a bit more grit to get lost in. The cover (see above) features his x-rays from the Snoqualmie Valley Hospital. “My wife and I were hiking up to Snow Lake on our sixth anniversary, I hopped off the trail to get a photo and on my way back up got a poor footing on a slick boulder – slipped and landed on my wrist, palm out. I knew immediately what happened.” The single piece is titled The Very Center of its Flame. It’s beautiful and painful simultaneously. And that is a hard thing to get right in music of any genre.

 

 

Also from 2016 is Thine, a three track digital EP (cover image above). The first takes its cue from late 70s Eno; Music For Airports meets Discreet Music. On the second there is even a hint of Ariel Kalma’s Osmose (now we’re getting obscure). But the three tracks, Ribbon, Loire and Minuet pay any debts with interest. Both of these releases are among the less than ten “digital only” releases I’ve ever bought.

Thomas is, not surprisingly, a fan of the Polaroid SX70 and he has a great eye. He creates beautiful images often featuring natural elements of the Pacific Northwest sometimes refracted through translucent or reflective found objects/materials. His photographs manage to capture the wet, sunlit flora of the region in a deeply felt way, like someone who’s long absorbed the landscape and can snatch moments of beauty out of the damp air. At the end of the day, that is the best most of us can hope for.

 

 

Benoît Pioulard plays the Red Gate on October 19th with Marcus Fischer and Hotel Neon.

He has a new CD out on Kranky called The Benoît Pioulard Listening Matter. Please check out his music here:

https://pioulard.bandcamp.com/

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The Quiet Ones (Part One) – Tord Gustavsen

The jazz piano trio format contains a universe of possibilities. It took me a long time to appreciate that after years of seeking what I thought was more adventuresome music. Perhaps it’s a function of maturity, akin to growing into a greater appreciation of classical chamber music after pushing hard for the avant garde. Or perhaps it was hearing some of my favourite “out there” players reining it in on quiet jazz standards and hearing them anew.

Norway’s Tord Gustavsen Trio released Changing Places on ECM in 2003 and at first listen I considered it too “candle lit dinner” for my tastes. Then I noticed the presence of drummer Jarle Vespestad who I’d last seen here with Norwegian improvising supergroup Supersilent. I gave it a closer listen and felt compelled to slow down and appreciate the delicacy and precision that propelled the unabashedly romantic set of carefully crafted tunes. Pure loveliness from start to finish! I’ve since picked up all of his subsequent recordings and saw him play a remarkable set with Simin Tander at the 2015 Jazz Fest (see my earlier post on this). That is when I came to fully appreciate Tord as a compelling live performer.

Tord has a new CD out on ECM titled The Other Side and it continues in the warm, melodic vein of its predecessors. However it does begin to explore around the edges a little more. There appear some welcome and unexpected left turns particularly on Duality. And Left Over Lullaby No. 4 possesses a kind of devastating beauty that relishes the presence of haunting shadows among the melodies. As well, there are arrangements of two pieces by J.S. Bach and two arrangements of traditional tunes. Overall the music feels a little looser, a little darker, and more insistent overall. Gone is any sense of preciousness surrounding the notes.

Live, this trio smoulders and ignites in perfect measure and they are a delight to watch. They are performing on September 29th at the Blue Shore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts, 2055 Purcell Way, North Vancouver. It should be a season standout and well worth the trip across the inlet!

Here is a recent clip of Tord in concert, solo, for the BBC:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGNI5Az1P7A

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Sphaerae 2

My latest music video project. This was shot on, near or en route to Galiano, Pender, and Bowen islands. The music, by loscil, was originally composed for one of eight photographs from a series begun in 2005 and which were exhibited in 2009. Subsequently they provided the source material and thematic inspiration for three videos; Sphaerae, Sphaerae 1, and now Sphaerae 2.

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Tigran Hamasyan – An Ancient Observer

 

One positive outcome of the changes affecting the music industry has been the increasing turn to more intimate and deeply connected live performances. And so a sold out house for Tigran Hamasyan’s solo performance at the Vancouver Academy of Music in February was to be expected. The recently remodeled venue normally holds small recitals and though it was a cold, wintry day (for west coast standards) this promised to be a big gig for several reasons. The presenter, The Armenian Cultural Association of BC, brought him to town for a culturally connected audience eager to hear his music, inflected as it is with traditional Armenian folk melodies and a deep dedication to bringing ancient and modern Armenian music (Tigran Mansurian and Komitas come to mind) to wider audiences.

Also on hand would be many from the jazz community who recognize him as one of the great new voices in jazz, particularly fans of players who are renowned solo performers such as Keith Jarrett, Brad Meldhau etc. There would also be those in the prog rock world who might recognize the muscular trio work on much of Tigran’s Mockroot to be kin to some of the best of the “Rock in Opposition” style of modern classical chamber music-influenced rock typified by the likes of Univers Zero et al.

I was there for all those reasons. But it was an ECM release, Luys i Luso featuring fresh arrangements of Armenian liturgical music and performed with the Yerevan State Chamber Choir that really got my attention. It is very much part of the recent ECM vogue of showcasing deep, melancholic music from the edges of Europe that so many labels seem to have neglected. Then came Atmospheres, a double CD recording on ECM with Eivind Aarset, Arve Henriksen and Jan Bang that was supposed to be a rather ambient outing. But Tigran’s melodies kept leaping out at me so I embarked on a search for more. That lead me to his latest solo release Ancient Observer on Nonesuch. This album is essential listening for fans of solo piano/electronics regardless of tastes. A rich, subtly shifting tapestry.

Tigran also sings. And for some jazz piano fans that can be an issue. But his voice is no Jarrett-like audience divider. It’s a beautiful instrument perfectly suited to the material and is a joy to listen to whether foregrounded or woven into the whole. His application of electronic treatments is also perfectly judged. But the one thing that is so important is how effortlessly he fuses all these things into an emotional performance with impact that avoids sentimentality or excess. There were no moments where I could think of or care what influences I might be hearing in his music. He is absolutely unique.

Thanks to Arto Tavukciyan I was able to meet Tigran and do a portrait in the chill air near the south end of the Burrard Bridge where, nearby, under the bridge, were the trappings of the displaced and homeless. Tigran let me know he was recovering from surgery and that it was possibly going to affect his voice for the concert. He may have not sung as much as he’d liked to but his voice was very much heard.

 

 

Here is an excellent and generous helping of Tigran Hamasyan in a solo setting at the Montreal Jazz Festival. My advice would be to see him in any context at all. His music will stay with you long after the last note has rung off. That said, seek out his CDs on Nonesuch and ECM.

 

http://www.tigranhamasyan.com/

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Snow Globe

Sometimes you just point your camera out the window some mornings and there’s a delightful scene. Vancouver has had only a couple of snowfalls this winter but each has reminded us that snow can be a lovely thing, especially as it bounces light up into our homes in the darkest months.

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Heavy Snow

Rumours of the demise of the CD format continue to come up against the hard reality that not only is the format alive and well, there are labels still dedicated to investing in cover art. ECM comes to mind as one of the great independents still dedicated to the format but worldwide there are small independent labels like Japan’s White Paddy Mountain who also maintain a busy release schedule and take equally great care in the presentation of the music.

This is a new release from Chihei Hatakeyama called Heavy Snow and I’m delighted to have provided the cover art culled from a series of images from Vancouver’s somewhat rare severe winter of 2016. I have listened to Chihei’s enveloping soundscapes for nearly a decade and it was his music that helped soundtrack my unexpected hospital stay after an accident in 2010. That we should eventually come to work together is a real joy and I’ve just completed a video to go with this release.

https://chiheihatakeyama.bandcamp.com/album/heavy-snow

Here is a still from the video for the track Heavy Snow II:

And here is the full, fifteen minute video. Please take the time to watch it on a big screen and keep the volume low. Enjoy!

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Saxophilia

This latest CD cover project is for composer Colin MacDonald’s Saxophilia, a saxophone quartet dedicated to playing and commissioning new works for saxophone by Canadian composers. Recently, on a cold, grey afternoon at the venerable Ironworks Studio on Vancouver’s working waterfront, we convened to photograph Colin, the quartet and to get some images of Colin’s sax for the new CD. And here is the result. It also offered the perfect opportunity to use the ornate display face Restraint, designed by my good friends Marian Bantjes and Ross Mills. The very name of the group practically demands it! Look for a December release of this. Available on Redshift. More info to come…

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