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Volume 25 Issue 3 - November 2019

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On the slim chance you might not have already heard the news, Estonian Canadian composing giant Udo Kasemets was born the same year that Leo Thermin invented the theremin --1919. Which means this is the centenary year for both of them, and both are being celebrated in style, as Andrew Timar and MJ Buell respectively explain. And that's just a taste of a bustling November, with enough coverage of music of both the delectably substantial and delightfully silly on hand to satisfy one and all.


LEGACIES GROUNDED IN DISPLACEMENT UDO KASEMETS A Centenary Celebration ANDREW TIMAR ANDRE LÉDUC Assessing the legacy of a musician is tricky any day, but particularly when celebrating the person’s birth centenary, and especially when he was my teacher, colleague and then, friend, over several decades. It’s even more daunting when that person is the prolific composer, pianist, vocal coach, choral conductor, music journalist and educator, and mentor to several generations of Toronto musicians, Udo Kasemets (1919-2014). Kasemets considered himself a perennial outsider. He also, however, possessed the entrepreneurial chops to stretch the definition of what it meant to be a composer – and somehow to survive doing just that throughout his fascinating, multifaceted and prolific career. For most of his life he was, as he put it, “always trying to get things going.” The outlines of his biography may provide a few clues to this enigmatic man. Born into a musical Estonian family (his father Anton Kasemets was an organist, influential choral conductor, composer and musicologist), he was educated in Tallinn and, after WWII, in Germany. In 1951 Kasemets immigrated to Canada. He made Hamilton and then Toronto the home where his musical career grew; during his long life he mentored several generations of musicians, me included. This is not the first time I’ve written about Kasemets in The WholeNote. In my 2010 article, In Appreciation of Udo Kasemets, Robert Aitken, founding artistic director of New Music Concerts calls him “probably the most uncompromising musician in Canadian musical history”; while my 2014 article, Toronto’s Musical Avant- Gardist: Udo Kasemets (Tallinn 1919 – Toronto 2014) A Remembrance in Five Decades, leaves no doubt about its contents. A number of organizations have taken Kasemets’ 100th birth year as a cue to program his extraordinary compositions. We’ll look at several Toronto concerts scheduled throughout November. To aid us with background, I’ve reached out by email to Canadian musicologist Jeremy Strachan, Estonian flutist (and Ensemble U: member) Tarmo Johannes, Toronto pianist and concert curator Stephen Clarke, and composer Linda Catlin Smith. They knew Kasemets personally, either performing his work or writing extensively about it. I first asked my interviewees why Canadians should care about Kasemets’ musical legacy. Jeremy Strachan was the first to reply. “Udo was one of Canada’s most prolific composers and a trailblazing figure, bringing the avantgarde to listeners in this country. Although he is remembered fondly by those he knew and worked with, by and large his work has flown under the radar, outside of the small circle of enthusiasts of experimental music scattered across Canada. Aside from being a composer, concert promoter and writer, he was also a teacher and collaborator who brought many people together. I’m reticent to say ‘without Udo...’ but he really did an extraordinary amount of work to ensure that experimentalism in music and the arts had a legitimate place in the Canadian cultural landscape.” Tarmo Johannes weighed in with his Estonian musician’s perspective. “He is a little known in Estonia – unfortunately too little. It has been our mission in Ensemble U: to introduce him more to our audiences, draw attention to his music and to situate him as a very important, very enriching part of Estonian music culture, a figure with no parallel in the Estonian ‘homeland.’ On the other hand let’s not forget that he returned to Tallinn in 2006 as an honorary guest of the Days of Estonian Music festival. There was a concert full of his music, a masterclass at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, interviews, articles, though there haven’t been many performances since.” From Stephen Clarke, seasoned interpreter of Kasemets’ piano works: “Kasemets with Susan Layard, his singer/companion, travelled to Tallinn where he gave lectures – in Estonian, the first time he spoke it since the 1940s (!) – and performances. The German pianist Florian Steininger contacted me some years ago asking for scores of Kasemets’ later piano works. He has been performing them around Europe.” Johannes further observed: “As an Estonian, I’ve been impressed by how many people talk about him with deep respect, admiration and warmth. But first of all, let’s consider his output as a composer. 12 | November 2019

Having studied several of his scores it has become more and more clear how strong his works are. My group Ensemble U: has considerable experience interpreting open scores. Even then, working with a Kasemets score still sometimes means we have to struggle for hours with quite complex sets of rules, yet time and again after unravelling the sounds, we’ve been astonished by the quality of his work! I’ve heard Kasemets sometimes referred to as Canada’s John Cage. Well, okay, but concerning his compositions, in my humble opinion, Udo Kasemets did it better.” Clarke was just as unequivocal in his assessment: “I’m convinced that had Kasemets emigrated to the US instead of Canada, his would be an iconic name as a maverick composer along the lines of Harry Partch, for instance. But Udo kept a fairly low profile and any selfpromotion was anathema to him.” “Fortunately he moved to Toronto,” Clarke continued, “or I might never have had the friendship and collaborations with him! Musicologist Jeremy Strachan recently completed his doctoral thesis at the University of Toronto on Kasemets’ work. This is highly encouraging, not only for preserving a legacy, but for opening doors for further exploration. Kasemets’ work is prolific and vastly ranging.” Linda Catlin Smith, performer in many Kasemets pieces and coordinator for his massive work Counterbomb Renga, as well as for the recording of his Eight Houses of the I Ching, put it this way: “Udo is important to Canadian music for his unique and individual approach to music making. He’s also notable for his many concerts dedicated to celebrating other artists, especially poets such as Octavio Paz, Robert Creeley, Louis Zukofsky and Susan Howe.” I asked Strachan about Kasemets’ trailblazing 1960s and 1970s contributions to experimental music composition and performance in Toronto. “Udo was sort of the right guy at the right place at the right time in 60s Toronto. It was a period of transition and possibility, and he was determined to make an intervention in the suffocating conservatism of Canadian musical culture. He was, I think, uniquely equipped with the skills, the pedigree, and the disposition to shake things up at a time when there was a desire for something to happen, but he also had the required skills when he Udo Kasemets’ Timepiece for a Solo was forced to go it alone. In Performer: aleatoric graphic score the 70s, you start to see the from the anthology, Notations (1969), emergence of arts councils, collected by John Cage & Alison Knowles & documented via chance artist-run spaces, and more operations produced with the I Ching. collectivization and support; Udo really didn’t have that in the 60s. [Earlier] he had to forge alliances with galleries and navigate a frankly hostile musical terrain to present his work and the work of avant-garde composers.” Smith added: “He was incredibly active in his early years in Canada, and was a passionate participant along with the other composers of the day presenting concerts, working with the League of Composers, bringing John Cage’s work to Canada, etc. He had a devoted following of listeners who came to many of his self-produced events. He also attended many, many concerts over the years, and was a keen supporter of younger composers and performers. Toronto audiences can explore for themselves why Kasemets’ music still attracts musicians, composers and musicologists at the following events. New Music Concerts: Kasemets@100 November 12, New Music Concerts presents Kasemets@100 at Walter Hall, University of Toronto, with guest Ensemble U: and pianist November 2019| 13

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