Edward Top’s Magic will be performed as part of VancouverMagic, November 21 at the Orpheum Annex. We spoke to the composer about the piece, his reputation in the Dutch press, and integrating children into his music.
You are a relatively recent arrival to Vancouver. What brought you here, and what inspires you to stay?
Moving to the great Pacific Northwest in Canada was considered an exciting adventure for me, and also Vancouver is my wife’s hometown. We have been in Vancouver for over a decade already, and I still find exciting pockets of music creation. I loved my previous job as Composer-in-Residence with the Vancouver Symphony during my first years here, and continue to be excited about symphonic music as a teacher of composition, orchestration and violin at the Vancouver Academy of Music. I recently discovered that Vancouver has a group of high-level musicians, specializing in Chinese instruments. With my Dutch roots, and having previously lived in East Asia, I am now working with both Western and Chinese musicians to find new ways of expression. This can only happen in Vancouver!
Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed anything in your composing process? How are you faring in these weird times?
The pandemic did not affect my personal composition process because as a composer I always work in isolation. However, the uncertainty of whether my work would ever be performed again had a profound and ominous impact. Performances of live music were on hold, which made my colleagues and I increasingly nervous about an already precarious profession. Ironically, since blood is thicker than water, this insecurity motivated me to write a large orchestral work just because I felt I had to to prevent “compositional-atrophy”!
The Dutch press called you “horror composer Edward Top”. What did you do to earn that designation? Should audiences brace for terror?
This moniker was designated 25 years ago, after the performance of my piece “The Overwhelming Blankness of the Ultimate Meaninglessness of Tragedy” for chamber orchestra where a soprano ran screaming down the concert hall, and an actor narrated a macabre text. At first, I was apprehensive of being pigeon-holed but it is just a bit of fun. For the upcoming concert of Magic with the Turning Point Ensemble and an ensemble of child violinists, this piece will be quite angelic!
There are intriguing photos on your site with a double-necked Gibson SG. Tell us a little bit about the piece that used that unusual instrument most often associated with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.
Three years ago, during Vancouver Pro Musica’s Sonic Boom Festival, I performed my composition “Three Studies for Decaoctochordon”, an instrument name that I made up. It creates very interesting clouds of sound, with its 18 differently-tuned strings on the double-neck guitar. The twelve-string section is tuned to all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale, and the other neck is a quarter-tone sharp. It is an instrument for the outlandish! Recently I have been re-tuning the double neck for a more Jimmy Page-like approach in my progressive-rock band called Square.
Magic is written to incorporate child violinists. Did your work at Vancouver Academy suggest this approach?
Yes! I have taught violin to young musicians for 30 years now. In a previous piece, “Pots ’n Pans Falling”, I asked one of my students (7 years old) to record his violin parts. The sound was pure and joyful. Magic is a logical progression from there, incorporating eight young performers… to play live! Two years ago, Owen Underhill conducted the premiere of Magic with the Cantus Ansambl in Zagreb whereby pre-recorded samples were used, similar to Pots ’n Pans, but with three players. Those three players are now a part of the group of eight live players, which includes my 10-year old son, Elliott. I suppose this is a re-occurring theme of mine, multiplying guitar necks and now children!
What about this performance are you most excited about?
Having young violinists performing live is very exciting because of the unique and tangible sound quality, the high stakes of coordinating many moving parts, and giving the kids a chance to work with professionals. It was Owen’s suggestion to try live performers rather than pre-recorded samples like we did in Zagreb. There is no equivalent in art music to movements like Cobra in the visual arts: Cobra “wanted to start again as a child” in the words of painter Karel Appel. The expression of feelings here is instinctive with childlike simplicity. The word magic raises a childlike curiosity, awe, and perhaps a little fear. Although this arrangement of children on stage may appear sentimental, hopefully it will reveal a deeper layer of psychological meaning.
What have you been listening to lately?
Thanks for asking! Bartok and Ravel String Quartets; Webern Three Songs; Alfredo Santa Ana’s “Ye elves” in Music on Main’s Modulus Festival last week; my students Henry From’s and Francis Sadleir’s works; Cardiacs “The Seaside” (one of my all-time favourite albums!); the prog/art rock compilation album “Rock From the Alley #2” with 19 local progressive rock bands, including my own band Square.
Are there any upcoming performances (Turning Point Ensemble or otherwise) that you are looking forward to?
We recently filmed scenes for one of our recent 1+1+1… films at Pyatt Hall in Vancouver. “Mobile” features new music by Peggy Lee for violinist Marc Destrube. Here are some behind the scenes photos.
Loons 1+1+1… shoot
Some behind the scenes photos with from our 1+1+1… film shoot of the piece Loons filmed in July at Pitt Lake. This piece features Brenda Fedoruk on flute and soprano Robyn Klassen.
Q & A with Owen Underhill
Our colleagues at the Chan Centre recently interviewed Turning Point Ensemble Artistic Director and Conductor, Owen Underhill talk about what it’s been like to get the ensemble back together onstage for the first time in a year, and the exciting and innovative music that is a part of our TPE Interactive digital concert.
Here is that Q & A:
Chan Centre: After a year of no live concerts and video projects with solo ensemble members, what was it like to get the larger group of Turning Point Ensemble musicians back together on one stage for this recording?
Owen Underhill: It was a relief to get the whole ensemble together again and make music together. Even though we have been pursuing quite interesting solo film projects, that does not take the place of the chamber music collaboration that is at the heart of Turning Point Ensemble. It had actually been over a year of not playing together as an ensemble so we all appreciated the opportunity to sink our teeth into a large-scale project. Of course, it was necessary to follow all of the safety protocols including social distancing on stage, and wearing of masks for all except wind players. It is was a treat therefore to have the opportunity to space out in the Chan Shun Concert Hall, and have all the outstanding technical support there to realize such a complex project.
CC: The program features works by two very cutting-edge composers David Eagle and Mauricio Pauly. As the artistic director as well as conductor, what was it that drew you to the works of these composers?
OU: The program was designed to demonstrate innovative approaches of mixing electronic and computer processing with a large ensemble. This is still something that is not often tried due to the difficulty of capturing the sound of many instruments in an interactive and hybrid setup. Both David Eagle and Mauricio Pauly are among the few in this part of the world that are attempting this kind of work. David is from Calgary and is now living in Victoria. We had enjoyed performing his Two Forms of Intuition before, and were in discussions about recording some of his works for an audio CD he will be releasing. Mauricio, originally from Costa Rica, and now in Vancouver since 2017, takes a different approach of integration where the players are often more directly involved in the processing and manipulation of their own sound. I felt the two approaches would be a nice mix in our TPE Interactive presentation.
CC: Both of the works from David Eagle, Two Forms of Intuition (2011) and Unremembered Tongues/ʌnɹɪmembəɹd tʌŋz (2013), have interactive computer elements to them. Can you describe how these elements fit in and what audiences can look forward to with these works?
OU: David Eagle in his two works performs a rather magical performance role. From the centre of the hall, he controls through hand and arm movements (you will see this in the recording) various processing effects which result in the instrumental sounds being spatialized and moved in an effectively three dimensional space. In addition to the spatialization, there are many other effects that David is controlling including looping and modulation. Thanks to the excellent work of the audio engineer James Perrella, you can capture this quite well in the recording. Headphones are recommended. The Unremembered Tongues/ʌnɹɪmembəɹd tʌŋz piece adds another whole dimension through the inclusion of languages in danger of extinction. As sung, whispered and vocalized by the outstanding soprano Robyn Driedger Klassen, and then further magnified and transformed by the composer, the sonic power and character of these languages and the tragic potential loss of cultural experience is palpable.
“The program was designed to demonstrate innovative approaches of mixing electronic and computer processing with a large ensemble… David Eagle and Mauricio Pauly are among the few in this part of the world that are attempting this kind of work.” Owen Underhill
CC: Mauricio Pauly’s new work We en flor de chiflón is a brand new commission written for the Turning Point Ensemble. What was the process of working with him on this new work, and how does this complement the other work of his on the program, Clinamen clinamen clinamen?
OU: Mauricio was very interested in working and collaborating directly with each performer. That collaboration went beyond the extended performance techniques into the world of electronic manipulation. For example, our harpist Janelle Nadeau is extending her tones through an extra pedal (like an electric guitarist) that she controls, and our trumpeter Marcus Goddard is operating his own interface and midi controller. Mauricio also worked extensively with our percussionist Jonathan Bernard who, as audience members will see, is busy spinning crotales (high disc-shaped bells) and other objects on his bass drum. Finally, it should be mentioned that Mauricio performs a wizard-like role in his own piece, generating various electronic tracks (including a male orator which has a large role in the piece), and manipulating live the sound of the players which keeps reappearing in new contexts. The final ‘surprise’ in our working together with Mauricio is that he continued to build his work in post-production adding many other layers particularly in the end section of the piece.
As for Clinamen, clinamen, clinamen – this was an entirely acoustic performance for clarinet and string quartet of an earlier work. What was the most interesting for me is that this piece, without any additional electronics or effects, had a kind of hybrid and transcendent character that seemed very much in keeping with the new commission.
CC: What has it been like for the ensemble, performing without live audiences?
OU: Yes, this has been very different. In live performance, these pieces would have involved octophonic surround-sound speakers as well as the kind of in-person interaction we cherish with our audience. It is, as in a recording session, somewhat anticlimactic to pack everything up and go home after take 27, but we and the audio/video crew have worked hard to allow the viewer to get right inside these works and close up to the performers. Please also do listen to the interviews with the composers that can be viewed at the end of the four works.
One final point: You will have access to TPE Interactive for a full year, so that will allow you to listen again and get to know the music more intimately than one can on a single hearing. Tickets are available here and please feel to write us on our contact us page with your impressions!
TPE Interactive Recording
Turning Point Ensemble was thrilled at long last to be rehearsing together and recording works by David Eagle and Mauricio Pauly in the Chan Centre Concert Hall between April 14th and 20th. Stay tuned for the video release of TPE Interactive which includes music that blends fascinating combinations of acoustic ensemble, interactive technologies and electronics. In addition to our full band, and the composers performing in their own works, we were joined by soprano Robyn Driedger Klassen in Eagle’s Unremembered Tongues, a piece that utilizes many forgotten and endangered languages. Mauricio Pauly composed a new mixed sextet for us (We en flor de chiflón) that included our harpist Janelle Nadeau operating her own sustain pedal, and trumpeter Marcus Goddard looping and adjusting his own sounds in real time in collaboration with the wizard-like electronic manipulations and live processing of the composer.
Thank you for your continued support of the artistic activities of Turning Point Ensemble during the pandemic. We look forward to continuing to share our work with you in new ways!
TPE Interactive Recording Photos
On April 19 and 20, 2021 we recorded two pieces by David Eagle and two pieces by Mauricio Pauly at the Chan Centre for our TPE Interactive online concert. This concert will be available to watch starting on Friday, June 11. Tickets are available by clicking on the Buy Tickets link.
Here are some behind the scenes photos from the recording:
Conjuring the Future
The University of British Columbia School of Music recently wrote an article about our first 1+1+1… film Synapses in their blog.
Message from Owen Underhill who attended the Western Canadian Music Awards Breakout West in Whitehorse, Yukon.
I left a rainy Vancouver yesterday in order to fly up to the Western Canadian Music Awards Breakout West in Whitehorse, Yukon. As we flew further north, the clouds went away and we arrived in a very clear and sunny Whitehorse. I am proud to attend the WCMAs representing Turning Point Ensemble nominated in the Classical Artist/Ensemble category for our Curio Box CD, as well as my own personal nomination as Classical Composer for my Cello Concerto played brilliantly by Ariel Barnes and Turning Point Ensemble on the same CD. Yesterday evening we all gathered in a large circle in the setting sun alongside the Yukon River outside the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre for a ceremonial first nations welcome and cleansing fire. Following the outside gathering we all went inside for the Award Ceremony. Other attendees from Vancouver included Steven Bélanger who is the Executive Director and a singer in the Vancouver Chamber Choir. They were also nominated in the Classical Ensemble category. My congratulations to all the winners including the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra as Classical Artist/Ensemble of the year and Carmen Braden from Yellowknife as the Classical Composer of the year. I enjoyed Arctic Char, Carmelized Bacon and other local delectables after the ceremony as well as listening to one of our former SFU students Sarah MacDougall from the Yukon who was nominated as Pop Artist of the Year. Her group fresh from a European tour performed last night. I am looking forward to attending other events over the weekend as well as spending time walking along the river.
Sept 24, 2019
Yesterday was a very exciting and dramatic day with a terrific concert and also unusual weather events!
Thank you to the amazing Ariel Barnes for a superb performance of my Cello Concerto, and there were very strong and committed performances by Cantus Ensemble of all the pieces by Dorothy Chang, Edward Top (premiere!) and John Oliver. One audience member from Norway came up after and said it was the best concert of contemporary music he had ever experienced.
All four pieces were written for Turning Point Ensemble so it did feel like a close connection between the two ensembles has now begun. We look forward to Berislav Sipuš joining us in Vancouver in May 2020 (don’t forget to get your subscriptions to the TPE Season!), and many musicians were saying see you in Vancouver in two years when we will host Cantus Ensemble.
Thanks to Dubravko for the before and during concert interviews.
As for the weather, there was an extremely heavy rain in the late afternoon causing flash flooding, and also there was a fire at an old train station not far from the Lauba performance space.
Although that did prevent the TV crew from arriving and some audience members that already had tickets did not make it, there was still an extremely appreciative audience.
It was a good break to have one last day in Zagreb today after six straight days of intense music making, and Dubravko and I visited the Naive Art Museum and the Museum of Broken Relationships. That ends the Zagreb Blog, and see you all before long in Vancouver.
Artistic Director, Turning Point Ensemble
Turning Point Ensemble Artistic Director, Owen Underhill is currently in Croatia rehearsing with the Cantus Ensemble for an incredible concert to be held on September 23 of BC Composers including Dorothy Chang, John Oliver, Edward Top and Owen Underhill’s own cello concerto to be performed by Ariel Yosef Zev Barnes. This is the first concert of an exchange project we are working on with the Cantus Ensemble. On May 16/17, 2020, their conductor Berislav Sipus will join TPE in a concert of new Croatian compositions. Here is Owen’s first blog post with news from the road!
Hello from Zagreb! I have been here with our President Dubravko Pajalic for one week rehearsing and preparing for a concert of BC composers entitled ‘Maple Syrup’ which will take place tomorrow (Monday) at a hall called Lauba. Lauba is a former horse stable that has been converted into a very large artspace with exhibition area in one half and the concert hall in the other. It has brick walls and a very high ceiling – very hip and with a good acoustic.
I am delighted to be joined by cellist Ariel Barnes (just on his way on the train from Nürnberg) to play my Cello Concerto, and to also play Three Windows by Dorothy Chang, Five-ring Concerto by John Oliver and a premiere of Magic by Edward Top. All these works have been commissioned and premiered by Turning Point Ensemble.
It is also exciting to have worked this last week with the excellent musicians of Cantus Ensemble with whom we are embarking on a three-year exchange project which will include their artistic director Berislav Šipuš coming to conduct Turning Point Ensemble in May 2020, and also tours of both groups in the next two years.