Tuesday, March 1 & Wednesday, March 2, 8pm
Pre-concert talks at 7:15pm
Trinity St. Paul's Centre, 427 Bloor Street West, Toronto

Programme notes
by Andrea Budgey

This programme is a dramatic illustration of cultural "fusion" – some would say "appropriation". It combines poetic and mythical traditions of various cultures (for the most part in translation, and removed from their original social contexts) with modern vocal chamber music. The resulting works explores text from those cultures (in the case of the Finnish, New Zealand, Australian, North African, and North American works) or inspired by them (the pieces by Ravel and Villa-Lobos), with occasional melodic and rhythmic elements drawn from the musics of the same cultures.

The composers are all descendants of colonizers. And some would argue that the use of aboriginal language and motifs in modern "Western" art music is, in itself, a colonial exercise. But all the composers are are concerned with what their transformations of indigenous culture can make perceptible to a wider audience, and how they can contribute to the awareness of native traditions in their own and other countries. The middle movement of Ravel's Chansons madécasses makes clear reference to the tragic experiences of colonialism.

The selection of works this evening provides us with a broad survey of this process in the 20th century (and the early 21st), ranging from the culturally detached exoticism and stylized "otherness" of the Ravel (whose texts are already a step removed from the culture they are intended to portray), to the various indigenously-coloured nationalisms of Villa-Lobos, Somers, and Sculthorpe. Taken together, these pieces give us an overview of the changing attitudes to the relationship between indigenous and settler cultures over the last hundred years, and suggest directions in which this relationship needs to continue to be transformed in the future.

Harry Somers: Kuyás. Text from plains Cree narrations
Maurice Ravel: Chansons madécasses. Poetry by Évariste-Désiré de Parny
Heitor Villa-Lobos: Suite for Voice and Violin. Poetry by Mario de Andrade
Jouko Linjama: Saamelaislaulua. Poetry by Aslak Guttorm
John Beckwith: Tanu. Text from descriptions of Haida monumental art
Maurice Jaubert: Chants sahariens. Poetry from folk sources of the Taureg peoples
Peter Sculthorpe: Quartet No. 13: Island Dreaming. Text from chants and poetry of the
peoples of the Torres Strait.

Harry Somers: Kuyás, for voice, flute and percussion. Text from plains Cree narrations.
Canadian composer Harry Somers (1925-1999) was fascinated by languages, and many of his works include words or quotations in a variety of languages from around the world. Kuyás, written originally for the Montreal International Voice Competition of 1967 and later used as the Act III lullaby in Somers' opera Louis Riel, combines a text in Plains Cree with elements of a lament melody collected from the Nass River First Nation in British Columbia. The setting, for voice, flute, and percussion, is highly dramatic: an extended solo incantation, punctuated by drum strokes, greets the sunrise. Next, a rapid and rhythmically complex section with flute and sleighbells invokes the Great Spirit and the spirits of animals, and portrays a hunter's day. At sunset, the solo voice calls once more on the Great Spirit, and soars upward into the song of an eagle; the telling of an ancient story, accompanied by discreet drum strokes, concludes the work.

Maurice Ravel: Chansons madécasses, for voice, flute, cello and piano. Poetry by Évariste-Désiré de Parny
Ravel's suite of songs for voice, flute, cello, and piano differs from the other works on this programme in setting texts in an indigenous voice from a country very distant from his own; in fact, the poems are by the eighteenth-century Creole poet Évariste-Désiré de Parny, himself something of an onlooker of the society of Madagascar which he depicts. The settings evoke a generalized "savage" exoticism rather than a specific ethnic idiom. The first and last express a languid lyricism, rich in sensual detail, while the second song embodies an ironic anti-colonialism which remains a present and necessary voice in many parts of the world today.

The suite was written in 1925 when Ravel was in his early 50s. It was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and Ravel considered it to be among his most significant works, perhaps because of the new tonal idioms which he explored in it. He also remarked, somewhat enigmatically, "I am quite conscious of the fact that my Chansons madécasses are in no way Schoenbergian, but I do not know whether I should have been able to write them had Schoenberg never written".

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Suite for Voice and Violin. Poetry by Maria de Andrade
By 1923, when this piece was written, Villa-Lobos had made several trips into the Brazilian interior, collecting the music of the indigenous, African, and mestizo populations. While his music shows some influence of the Parisian milieu in which the composition was released, the primary influence on his work throughout his life remained that of the folk music of his own country. The composer told an American critic,

I compose in the folk style, I utilize thematic idioms in my own way, and subject to my own development. An artist must do this. He must select and transmit the material given to him by his own people. … I study the history, the country, the speech, the customs, the background of the people. I have always done this, and it is from these sources, spiritual as well as practical, that I have drawn my art.

The first song sets a poem by Maria Andrade, while in the latter two the voice sings vocalized syllables. All three reflect the spirit of the work songs of the peasants of the Brazilian interior, the caboclo.

Jouko Linjama: Saamelaislaulua (Saami songs), for voice, alto flute and piano. Poetry by Aslak Guttorm
Born in 1934 in a border area of Finland which is now part of Russia, Linjama is one of Finland's foremost composers of choral and church music, as well as an organist, conductor, and music critic. While his early works were in a "modernist" style influenced by Webern, he subsequently became interested in plainchant and medieval and renaissance polyphony, and his later works represent a fusion of all these influences. Several of his compositions reflect a deep concern with Finnish national identity, and he is also one of the few composers to set texts in Saami, the language of the indigenous people of northern Finland, Sweden and Norway, also known as Lapps.

The Saamelaislaulua are an instance of Linjama's preference for "enriched" song accompaniments, using another melody instrument (here the alto flute) in addition to the piano. In the first two songs, the straightforward text rhythms are set against more complex patterns in the instrumental parts. In the final one, all the parts share an undulating figure which is essentially a rhythmicized trill. The vocal part throughout employs leaps of more than an octave – perhaps an echo of the traditional Saami singing style known as "joiking".

John Beckwith: Tanu, for voice, flute and cello. Text from descriptions of Haida monumental art
Tanu is the name of an abandoned village in southern Haida Gwaii, whose houses and carved poles were meticulously documented by photographer George M. Dawson in 1878. Emily Carr also visited, in 1913. Beckwith, one of Canada's most distinguished composers, is originally from Vancouver Island, and has long been fascinated by the culture of Haida Gwaii.

The text consists of two lists, one of the figures from Haida legend represented on the carved poles, and the other of traditional names for the houses shown in the early photos. In his introduction to the score, Beckwith writes

Tanu is an original composition, but I have been influenced by studying the writings and various photographs and art works from Haida Gwaii; by a visit to Haida Gwaii in early August of 2013, including some hours at the Tanu site; and by sampling the impressive recorded anthology issued in 2008-2009 by the Haida Gwaii Singers Society, Songs of Haida Gwaii. … These recordings suggested the addition of a hand drum and a seed rattle, and I have adapted a couple of the characteristic drum rhythms. In a few passages, I also reflect a feature of the traditional singing style, namely the long exhale with a downward portamento at the end of a phrase.

This work was written in 2014 for a concert at McGill University, at the instigation of Brian Cherney, and first performed by Jessica Wise, Nora Simard Saint-Cyr, and Andrea Steward.

Maurice Jaubert: Chants sahariens, for voice, string quartet, oboe and tambourine. Poetry from folk sources of the Tuareg peoples of Northern Africa
Born in Nice in 1900, Maurice Jaubert studied law at the Sorbonne before devoting himself to music. His chief fame was as a composer of film scores, especially for such avant-garde directors as Jean Vigo, but he was also a conductor and critic, and wrote eloquently about the aesthetic partnership of music with images in motion. He was killed in action at Azerailles, during World War II.

Among his earliest works is this miniature cycle of settings of poems from the nomadic Tuareg people of the Sahara. Like Ravel's Chansons madécasses, to which it has sometimes been compared, Jaubert's work seems intended to evoke African musical traditions for a European audience, fascinated and even sympathetic, but with certain definite preconceptions of its own. The combination of voice with solo violin in the fourth song echoes traditional Tuareg practice, as does the use of the tambourine; but the sinuous lines of the oboe part, the occasional complexity of metre, and above all the use of scales incorporating augmented seconds, are more reminiscent of the Arab-inflected music of urban North Africa with which Parisian audiences would already have been familiar.

Chants sahariens, like much of Jaubert's music, was never published. Tonight's performance is from a score transcribed by Laura Jones from a a recording.

Peter Sculthorpe: Island Dreaming (String Quartet No. 13), for voice and string quartet. Text from chants and poetry of the peoples of the Torres Strait.
Sculthorpe was born in Tasmania in 1929, and educated in Melbourne and Oxford. He taught at Yale and Sussex before returning to Australia in 1961, and has been called the "spiritual father" of Australian new music. The inspiration for much of his work is drawn from landscape and from Aboriginal culture. In the case of the String Quartet No. 13, the composer writes

This work is based upon ideas suggested by the musics of the Torres Strait Islands. In these islands, the cultures of aboriginal Australia and Papua New Guinea, as well as Indonesia, are brought together as one; and the mythology is concerned mostly with the sea and with sea-change. The text, sung in its indigenous language, was culled from poetry both modern and archaic.

This work was written in 1996 for the Brodsky Quartet and Anne Sofie von Otter, and the first performance was given in Paris. The string parts create an atmosphere in which the vocal line unfolds, underpinned by rolling waves in the lower lines; its expansive lyricism is punctuated by harmonic glissandos, like the calls of sea-birds.

concert listing