Saturday, November 18, 2017

Recording: James Tenney Resistance Ensembles

Artist: James Tenney Resistance Ensembles

Songs: Timbre Ring (feat. Tanya Charles, David French, Louis Simao, Alejandro Cespedes, Allie Blumas, Alexis Baro, Elena Kapeleris, Ben Grossman) + Listen! (feat. Mingjia Chan, Mara Nesrallah, Belinda Corpuz and Noah Franche-Nolan) [composer: James Tenney]

Recorded at 918 Bathurst (The Music Gallery's X AVANT XII – Night 5), October 15, 2017.

James Tenney Resistance Ensemble - Timbre Ring

James Tenney Resistance Ensemble - Listen!

After an off-season of uncertainty and exiled from its home at St. George The Martyr Church, The Music Gallery has found refuge at 918 Bathurst. Vibewise, this has kept things in the same ballpark, with the new space sharing churchy origins and a wood-y acoustic space. The X Avant Festival was first big test for this arrangement of things, presenting four nights of shows there.

More than ever, the linkages between the Festival's performances was in the overarching theme of "Resistance", explicitly evoked in this final night's survey of some of James Tenney's more explicitly political works. There were a pair of sonically-fascinating "playback" pieces to start the night from Tenney's days as a tape collagist and computer-based composer, including the seminal "Fabric for Che", a soundburst of computer-aided synthesis that must have sounded wholly alien in 1967, but today is quite comprehensible to anyone who's ever been to a harsh noise gig.

There were also three live performance pieces, including the reportage of "Pika-Don", giving perspectives on the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from both the creators of the weapon that obliterated them as well as its victims. There was also the uncharacteristic "Listen...!", a jaunty pop number (endearing in its occasional earnest clunkiness) trying to position "you and me" both as part of the problem and the solution to the world's many ills — at the end of the programme, it felt like a healing balm to end the night and the festival.

But the most interesting resonance of the night came with something that wasn't played, and what emerged instead in its place. When searching for pieces by Tenney that fit the night's theme, his "Ain't I a Woman?" (from 1992) was suggested. The piece abstracts "certain acoustical properties" of the words in Sojourner Truth's famous speech, breaking them down and distributing them across a string section and vocalists. Perhaps viewed as a progressive social endeavour in its time, in 2017 performing a piece by a white composer written to feature a specific white soloist that appropriates the words of a black woman is viewed differently. Whether this piece could be presented — as a representative of political music in its time, or as something useful in today's context — received a lot of discussion in the Music Gallery's community [full disclosure: as a member of the MG's Artistic Advisory Council, I was present at some of these discussions]. Consideration was given to "remixing" the piece, and/or programming it to be led by a black soloist, to return the words to the community and historical reality that they emerged from. (Side note: one further issue is that there's no clear documentation of what Sojourner Truth's actual words were, and the most-widely known transcription, and one which Tenney referred to, was by Frances Dana Barker Gage, a white abolitionist and women's rights activist, published a dozen years after the speech and re-written in a Southern dialect different than Truth's own.) In the end, there was there was a sense — from the black community and the wider MG community — that there's simply no interest — and scarce redeeming value — in hearing a white composer's take on a black woman's suffering, and it was decided not to mount the piece.

In its place, there was a performance of "Timbre Ring" ("for any number of definitely-pitched instruments, beyond about five"), a piece composed in 1971 but apparently never before performed in public. This version took nine performers (from different musical scenes and artistic practices) and spread them around the the perimeter of the audience. The idea of the piece is to take one single extended note and explore it in all its musical possibilities, as it was moved back and forth from one performer to another, passed along through eye contact. Though less overtly didactic, like the discussion around "Ain't I a Woman?", this piece felt more like a plausible model for resistance — based in listening, mutual respect, communication and sharing a moment together.

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