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Volume 19 Issue 5 - February 2014

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Toronto’s Musical

Toronto’s Musical Avant-Gardist:Udo Kasemets(Tallinn 1919 – Toronto 2014)A Remembrance in Five DecadesUdo Kasemets addresses the audience at his 90th birthdaycelebration with New Music Concerts, December 13, 2009.ANDRÉ LEDUCReggio eyes his vision of the Atchafalaya swamp during the Elgin rehearsal.Later the next day Reggio spoke with me about the nature of hiscollaboration with Glass going back over 30 years to their landmarkdocumentary Koyaanisqatsi. “That is his M.O. – collaboration. It’s onemedium motivating the other,” he said in his calm, self-assured stentorianvoice. “We usually think of all the forms, how many parts are ina piece, but in fact he just starts at the beginning as an emulator.”The director described how he and Glass work. “I give Philip a metaphorand he responds. In the case of Visitors, it was more a matter ofdiscovering a metaphor of stillness. He takes in what I lay on him andtakes it from there. He doesn’t have to but in this case he took it. Hisjob is to respond to it, it’s his sensibility that I’m looking for.”When I pointed out that his films don’t have a narrative structure,that the music becomes the narrative, Reggio agreed. “The music is acommunion to the soul of the listener, a manifesto – you’re controllingwhat people feel, you’re motivating them.”The night before at the Elgin roundtable, Soderbergh had shed lighton the role of the composer in mainstream movies: “In Hollywood,scores reinforce emotion or put it in when it’s not there.” Glass hadthen explained that he had chosen abstract music to back the sceneswith people (which I felt in part as a series of rising breaths focusingon the flute and metamorphosing into a succession of signatureGlassian broken triads) but chose romantic music to accompany theimages of the swamp (where I heard the echoes of Brahms as stringsset off a brass choir) and the garbage (where the score was at itsmost elegiac).At a similar roundtable quoted in the film’s pressbook, Reggiopointed out that composers tend to write in the medium that they’rein at the time, the “period,” as they call it, of composition: “Theperiod of composition that Philip’s in right now is orchestral, butit’s symphonic orchestral with big highs and lows. The first piece ofmusic that came in was like that and it was gorgeous, but it wouldblow this film out of the water. So after a number of discussions andwriting pieces – Philip is remarkable in that he wants criticism, he|continued on page 50This winter has been brutal. Sunday, January 19, 2014 was aparticularly cold day for music in Toronto. Udo Kasemets’ deathat 94 in Toronto that day marks the passing of a prominent andprolific Canadian modernist musical iconoclast who produced newmusic well into his last decade. I wrote a brief appreciation of some ofhis avant-garde music activities in his adopted hometown, Toronto, ina 2010 essay in The WholeNote.In reviewing Kasemets’ career it struck me that my own musiccareer crossed his in ways both personal and professional in everydecade since the 1970s. Therefore instead of summarizing his actionpackedand varied life, the broad outlines of which are now accessibleonline, I choose here rather to highlight a few interpersonal moments,decade by decade.1970s: Our first meeting occurred at York University in the mid-70swhere I was a music undergrad and Udo Kasemets a visiting lecturer.He already had avant-garde street cred. He’d enjoyed over two decadesof a wide-ranging music career in Toronto and was known among thenew music and artist community as a composer, concert producer,conductor, teacher, music journalist and editor. In the 1960s hehad introduced the Toronto public to John Cage, Marcel Duchampand a generation of American experimental composers and multimediaartists.When I later called him about arranging a performance of a workof his by the group New Music Cooperative I thought it wise to bepolite and call him Mr Kasemets. “Call me Udo,” he said in an austereEstonian-inflected tone. I made sure to call him Udo from then on, asI will here. The N. M. Co-op performed his work, though I wonderedwhy his compositions didn’t receive more performances in Torontoback then. It’s not much different today.1980s: In 1983 I was invited to play in Udo’s moving epic antiatomicbomb work Counterbomb Renga created in collaborationwith a chain of more than 100 musicians and poets from Canada andthe USA. Listening to the CBC broadcast recording of the premiererecently, streaming on Udo’s page on the Canadian Music Centre’swebsite, I still find it moving.In 1988 Jon Siddall, the founding Artistic Director of the EvergreenClub Gamelan, commissioned Udo to compose a work scored for theToronto group. I was one of the eight ECG musicians. Udo gave usPortrait: Music of the Twelve Moons of the I Ching: The Fifth Moon.By the time of its 1989 premiere however Siddall had moved to Ottawaand I found myself the group’s incoming artistic director. Carefulof my new footing, it was now my job to motivate the young group,comprised primarily of percussionists fresh out of U of T, throughrehearsals and the premiere concert performance of the demandingnew work. Due to its exceptional length (just one piece for an entireconcert?), its experimental idiom (where’s the melody?) and notation(where’s the score?) several ECG musicians were not fully convinced10 | February 1, 2014 - March 7, 2014

of the work’s value. Everyone however dutifully played the gig, asprofessional musicians do. And as it turned out no one left on accountof the repertoire: I’m pleased to announce ECG is celebrating its 30 thanniversary this season.1990s: John Cage, a pivotal influence on Udo’s thinking andcomposition, died on August 12, 1992. Udo served as a key organizerof the tribute that fall, a day-long musicircus featuring Cage’scompositions staged at various locations within the DuMaurierTheatre, Harbourfront, Toronto. I was happy to be asked to performin several Cage works including the radioscape Imaginary LandscapeNo. 4 (1951).In 1995 Udo invited me to his midtown apartment on the blocklongleafy Helena Ave. We spoke about a wide variety of subjects butlanded on my ambition to put the Sundanese suling, a type of bambooring flute indigenous to West Java, Indonesia but little known outsideof it “on the Toronto map.” I’d been playing the suling professionallyfor 12 years by then and had finally begun to understand its technicalpossibilities and limitations outside its indigenous repertoire. It hadslowly but surely become my instrumental “voice.” Udo was intriguedand intellectually challenged enough to want to compose for it. Ourdovetailing interests established, I commissioned him that summerto write a suling work. He produced the echoing, lush SulingFlowerscored for five sulings, four of which are pre-recorded, the tape to beplayed back on a four-channel P.A. system. I successfully premiered itat the Music Gallery and performed it again a year or two later.2000s: I met and spoke briefly to Udo several times at Music Galleryconcerts at the Gallery’s current home in the St. George the Martyrchurch. Although his health was not always dependable he remainedan avid concert goer into his tenth decade. He made the trek I thinkmotivated by his indomitable thirst for new sounds and also toconnect with a music community he helped foster decades prior.An important moment of validation for Udo’s music came inDecember 2009 when the New Music Concerts’ large ensemble,conducted by an enthusiastic Robert Aitken, staged Udo’s work at theBetty Oliphant Theatre in commemoration of the composer’s 90thbirthday. While there have been and continue to be individual musicianseager to champion compositions by Udo through performancesand recordings – including pianist Stephen Clarke and percussionistRick Sacks – this concert marked a rare performance of a recentorchestral work. It opened many ears and minds in the audience,including mine, to the compositional brilliance and enduring significanceof Udo’s work.At a chance meeting with Udo after a concert at the outdoor MusicGarden, Harbourfront, around 2003, somehow the subject camearound to things Japanese. Out of the blue he told me he’d heard“udo” meant a “useless plant, a weed” in Japanese. Puzzled andintrigued, I looked it up later. Udo is the Japanese name for Araliacordata or “mountain asparagus” a plant related to ginseng, widelygrown for food in Japan and also used medicinally in Korea. Udomay have gotten it wrong: he and his Japanese cognate may not be“useless” after all.2010s: I last saw Udo one warm summer afternoon in 2012. I visitedhim in hospital with percussionist and Arraymusic artistic directorRick Sacks, our blue-green cotton gowns and purple latex gloves on.Udo was frail and in bed, but ate his dinner with gusto and smiled atus. He was having a good day. During pauses he spoke to us in a quietvoice inflected with his characteristic Estonian accent, dispensingshort phrases, some packed with powerful meaning. “Freedom isbeautiful thing,” I think he whispered.By Andrew TimarAlbert HerringBenjamin BrittenMAR 20-23U of T Opera celebrates 50 Operatic Years in theMacMillan Theatre with a new production of Britten’sAlbert Herring, the fi rst opera produced in MacMillanTheatre. This production is designed by Camellia Koo,conducted by alumnus Leslie Dala and directed by theaward-winning Joel Ivany.Thursday-Saturday, March 20-22, 7:30 pmSunday, March 23, 2:30 pmMacMillan Theatre. ( senior, student)Sir ThomasAllen LectureThe distinguished baritonedelivers the Geiger-TorelLecture, entitled Prima LaMusica, Poi Le Parole, inWalter Hall at 7:30 pm. FreeRhapsody in BlueJuno Award-winning jazz facultyDavid Braid performs Gershwin’ssignature work with the U of TSymphony Orchestra. Concertalso features U of T Jazz Orchestradirected by Gordon Foote.7:30 pm in MacMillan Theatre.FEB 3 FEB 7Cecilia QuartetThe Faculty of Music’sresident quartet performsmusic by Schoenberg,Schubert and Ed Harsh, withguest soprano Stacie Dunlopand faculty Shauna Rolston inWalter Hall at 7:00 pm.Call DahlMaster ClassPremier coloratura sopranoTracy Dahl gives the RikiTurofsky Master Class in Voiceat 2:00 pm in Geiger-TorelRoom. FreeFEB 13 MAR 10FEB 10SoiréeMusicaleFaculty artists and membersof the TSO perform chambermusic by Prokofi ev, Bottesini,R. Strauss and Douglas Hill.7:00 pm in Walter HallMAR 27Mike HoloberPianist, composer-arranger andArtistic Director/Conductor ofWestchester Jazz Orchestra,Mike Holober performs with theU of T Jazz Orchestra and 11O’Clock Jazz Orchestra.7:30 pm in MacMillan Theatre.1314 .SEASON OF February 1, 2014 - March 7, 2014 | 11

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