8 years ago

Volume 18 Issue 3 - November 2012

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  • November
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A Q&A with composer

A Q&A with composer Brian Current by Paula CitronAward-winning, Ottawa-born composer/conductor Brian Current hashad his works performed and broadcast in over 35 countries. His honoursinclude a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Barlow Prize for Orchestral Music,and Italy’s Premio Fedora Award for his chamber opera Airline Icarus.The Premio prize led to a fully staged production in Verbania, Italy in 2011.PHOTOGRAPHS BY AIR’LETH AODHFINCurrent is one of Canada’s busiest men of New Music,and November is a particularly rich month for his activities.As artistic director of the New Music Ensemble atthe Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School, he will beconducting two of his students in a concert at the RichardBradshaw Amphitheatre on November 20. On the afternoonof November 25 at Mazzoleni Hall, Current leads anall-star cast in his opera-oratorio Airline Icarus, whichwill be followed that evening by a commercial recordingsession. Finally, on November 30, the Banff Centre’sGruppo Montebello performs the newly minted chamberensemble version of Current’s piano solo Sungods,titled Sungods 2012.The WholeNote met up with the 40-year-old Currentat the Royal Conservatory before a rehearsal of his NewMusic Ensemble.How did you get into New Music?I used to be in a rock band in suburban Ottawa. Weplayed 70s style classic rock. It was hard for me to get theguys to do what I wanted because I didn’t know how towrite down music — so I enrolled in the music programat McGill. It changed my life. I had a fantastic professorcalled John Rea. He tore my world apart by keeping us inthe library, pouring over scores of composers like Berio,Stockhausen and Ligeti.Your graduate work was in conducting.Why UC Berkeley?My mother had family in the Bay area, and the Berkeleymusic program is strong. I didmy MA and Ph.D. there. Mythesis was scenes from AirlineIcarus, so that opera has beenwith me since 2001. I call it “TheBlast from the Past.” The doctoralwritten exam was three hourslong and covered 50 books. Afterall that reading, I was the smartest I’ve ever been in my life.What’s your creative process like?I picture myself sitting in the audience and not beingbored. I want to astonish the audience.What exactly is your role with the RCM’sNew Music Ensemble?One of my many jobs is identifying new artists. Forexample, the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre concertfeatures pianist Ryan McCullough performing Frenchcomposer Martin Matalon’s piano concerto, and sopranoLucy FitzGibbon singing works by Korean composerUnsuk Chin. Both are wonderful young talents. The NewMusic Ensemble is a compulsory course for graduate students,so another of my jobs is taking them out of theircomfort zone. By introducing them to New Music in aresponsible way, they won’t freak out when they haveto play a contemporary piece during their professionalcareers. I want them to get rid of their nervousness aroundNew Music. I also want to introduce them to unfamiliarwork. Part of my job is demystifying the art form.What is your demystifying process?The first question I address is, Why does New Music soundso weird? I show the students that New Music is parallelto the visual arts being regarded as weird. I then pointout that composers are trying to share with us what it isto be alive in this time, just like modern art does. Just likespecific composers reflected Vienna of the 1800s, or Parisof the 1900s. Contemporary composers are breaking with8 November 1 – December 7, 2012

the past in the true spirit of the avant-garde — the originalmeaning of the French term — advance guard — sothat the soldiers in the forefront get mowed down so thatothers can follow.You also have many workshops with composers.Absolutely. I want them in the classroom, because the levelof playing goes up when a living composer is in the room.The students can also equate the music with a real person.I hope this carries over to their classical gigs, and they seethose composers as real people as well. I also take the studentsthrough the commissioning process, like applyingfor grants etc. I want them to develop a passion for commissioningnew work.Let’s talk about your opera-oratorio Airline Icarus.What was the inspiration?It was a mention in theGlobe and Mail about theshooting down of a KoreanAir Lines flight by the Russiansin 1983 over the Sea ofJapan. They thought it was aspy plane. I was particularlystruck by the descriptionof the last moments of theplane — that it turned inspirals like a falling leaf for 12 to 15 minutes. That mademe think about a 12 to 15 minute lullaby for the passengers.There was also the image of Icarus flying too closeto the sun, and the space shuttle Challenger disappearinginto a flash of light in 1986.Your librettist is the famedAmerican-Canadian playwright Anton Piatigorsky.How did that come about?Anton is a good friend, and one time when we were hangingout in 2001, he mentioned that he had written a poemabout how nuts the experience of flying is. His themewas that we’re eating processed chicken inside the planewhile a freezing death is waiting just outside the window.I, in turn, mentioned the Globe article, and the excruciatingimage of the passengers’ slow death. We had alwayswanted to work together, so Anton seemed like the logicalcollaborator. Anton is terrified of flying, and so is the tenor,his alter ego in the opera.What is the storyline?Anton set certain rules. Noone gets stabbed. The planegoes to an unexotic place,so we chose Cleveland.(Incidentally, the piece isabout the same length asa flight to Cleveland — 55minutes.) And finally, thecharacters don’t talk to eachother, so the opera is mostlymade up of interior monologues. There are four principalcharacters — all very Anton-like. He always writesabout the human condition, warts and all. The soprano isa successful ad executive, a lonely workaholic who countscalories. The mezzo-soprano is the flight attendant who’drather be going to Paris than Cleveland. She wants to meetsomeone. The baritone is a businessman who hates himselfand his job. He sells highspeed computer access. Thetenor is a scholar who’s just written a paper on Icarus,so the myth is very much on his mind. And finally, a secondarybaritone sings both the disgruntled baggage guyand the optimistic pilot. He’s sort of the jester role. Thesmall chamber choir doubles as a Greek chorus and passengerson the plane. The point is, everyone is acting sonormal, yet flying is a terrifying experience. The airline isCurrent Air — that’s Anton’s joke. My joke is writing thesafety demo in accelerando.November 1 – December 7, 2012 9

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