Alex’s Posts

Brilliant Piano Roll Hues



In the late 1970s, tuning in to a radio broadcast in California, I heard some remarkable piano pieces that left me astonished. The pieces delivered a flood of notes at speeds that would be impossible for a live performer to achieve. The unusual musical activity, extremely imaginative, was at times almost acrobatic. For example, two musical lines might start at opposite ends of the keyboard, move toward each other, cross in the middle, then continue moving to the other end of the keyboard creating a giant musical X. A live player would have to have extremely long arms to do this. Chords and melodic figures in complex rhythms come at the listener in great densities and speeds that could only be accomplished with many players on many pianos.

I later learned that the composer of the music was the ingenious Conlon Nancarrow who created such works as studies for player piano. Before the advent of computer generated sequencing, Nancarrow was one of the first composers to use auto-playing musical instruments.

In1947, Nancarrow bought a custom-built manual punching machine that enabled him to painstakingly punch the holes in piano rolls to achieve superimposed layers of music with “sliding”  (increasing and decreasing) tempi, many-voiced canons (musical “rounds”) and forms in which notes jumped around in extreme ways.

Having lived most of his life in relative isolation (American-born in Arkansas, he became a Mexican citizen in 1956) it was not until the 1980s that he became better known due to recordings of his music being made and distributed. He was eventually lauded by important musical figures such as György Ligeti who proclaimed that Nancarrow was one of the most significant composers of the century.

Nancarrow eventually composed several works for small ensembles and small orchestras, among them being Piece No.2 for Small Orchestra (1984) which appears on Esprit Orchestra’s February 12th concert at Koerner Hall. The piece has tell-tale signs that some piano roll techniques were being transferred into layers of instrumental lines in the orchestra but not with nearly the same complexity that could be created with piano rolls. Never-the-less, musical ingenuity and excitement abounds. All of Nancarrow’s music is worth knowing about and listening to.

Check out the link below for a taste of Nancarrow’s music and to see player pianos in action.

— Alex

A Long and Meaningful Friendship

alex-schafer-house1Murray Schafer and I have had a long working relationship and friendship and I’ve long thought about celebrating him and his work with a special concert, an event that is really overdue.

I first met Murray when I moved to Vancouver in 1973. He was finishing his work with the World Soundscape Project and preparing to move back to Ontario. I was just beginning my career and looking for work at Simon Fraser University where he was doing his research and teaching. Rather than lead me into academia, he said “you are a composer and conductor – just stick to doing that.” I’m grateful to him for that.

Over Esprit Orchestra’s history (we are about to launch our 34th season), I’ve commissioned several works from him, conducted his music more than 60 times (several times on Canadian and international tours in Europe and China) and made CD recordings of his music. I’ve programmed almost all of his works for orchestra and I’ve conducted the outdoor theatrical works Princess of the Stars and Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix in several separate production runs.

All this is just to say that I know Murray’s music well and respect it, and I know he trusts me and Esprit with his music. Murray will be in attendance at Esprit’s special tribute concert on October 23rd so the event will be a wonderful opportunity for friends and admiring audience members to meet Murray and pay tribute to him as we perform some of his most important pieces for the concert stage. It will be a vibrant celebration of a great composer.

alex-schafer-studio1I’ve lined up some terrific soloists for the concert. For Schafer’s monodrama Adieu Robert Schumann we’ll have the superb mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó in the role of Clara, Robert’s wife, evoking aspects of the last period in Schumann’s life – from his first hallucinations until his death in an asylum in 1856. The text is freely adapted from Clara’s diaries. Passages of Schumann’s compositions (lieder, fragments of his piano pieces) weave in and out of Schafer’s work, evoking moods, characters, and conflicts of the mind as Robert descends progressively into madness. A backstage piano mid-way through the piece plays the melody Schumann wrote down the night of his first dramatic hallucination – a melody he claimed was dictated by angels. The song, Dein Angesicht, opens and closes the composition.

I last performed Adieu Robert Schumann in 1990 with the legendary Maureen Forrester as soloist. I’m thrilled that I’ll now have the chance to do the piece again with Krisztina who is herself developing a legendary career. As for Murray’s flute concerto, this will be the fifth time that flutist Robert Aitken and I have collaborated to perform it with Esprit. The third work of Murray’s on the concert, Scorpius, is one that I commissioned for Esprit and have performed several times before.

Murray has had such a full, diverse artistic life and output. He is a great composer and I want to show this again.

— Alex

“The Lady Gertrude” and Shanghai Dim Sum

Gertrude0003That darn composer Doug Schmidt presented me with a real challenge (so I thought) for premiering his new work “Sirens” on Esprit’s March 31st concert. He included a part for a harmonium – a real old-fashioned pump organ with air pumped into bellows with two foot pedals. (The player has to steadily pedal alternating feet to keep up the air pressure and simultaneously play at the keyboard – and change stops as necessary!) It’s one thing to do this with hymns or chorales, but imagine trying to do this playing complex new music rhythms!

Gertrude0000Naturally I wondered where we would get such an instrument in good condition. Doug was thinking ahead and, from Saigon where he now lives, began forwarding me Canadian Kijiji links to possible organs. These were not helping much in the search but finally there was a possible instrument to be viewed in northeast Markham – in the far reaches of Suburbia. Alexina and I got in the car and drove there to discover that the instrument was for sale at $250. The owner, who was downsizing, wasn’t interested in renting it out and it was the size of an upright grand piano. Even if Esprit bought it, the moving charges would have been exorbitant (Markham to the rehearsal hall, then to Koerner Hall then to — where?). I could not imagine finding storage for it and trying to sell it after the concert.

Ding Tai FungDriving back to Toronto along Highway 7, we were astonished at the vast malls that have sprung up there – seemingly filled only with Chinese restaurants. All was not lost for us on this adventure. We turned in and discovered the Ding Tai Fung Shanghai Dim Sum Restaurant – very special and different from what we usually find downtown. This made the trip worthwhile.

But – back to the harmonium. What next? I spent a couple of hours on the phone in a further unsatisfactory search. Then, our musicians contractor, Christine Little, suggested I call David Olds at New Music Concerts about our need. He recommended I contact Dawn Lyons and Den Ciul, harpsichord builders, restorers and providers, who I’ve worked with before when we needed a harpsichord. Their company is called Claviers Baroques.

I called Dawn and – AMAZINGLY! – Dawn and Den had the perfectly-sized, perfectly in tune, easily transportable harmonium in their living room. In all her glory, she is named “The Lady Gertrude”. She will be ours for the concert. At last, relief! But, it gets better.  Dawn and Den (and Gertrude) live two blocks away from me in High Park.

Somehow it’s fitting that the harmonium in Doug’s piece represents the main character of the work – a sailor lured by sirens to his demise on the ocean deep. I hope you’ll come and hear Lady Gertrude at Koerner Hall on March 31st!

— Alex