Where Do We Go From Here

Written by: David Cowling
Edited by: Michelle Zhang

Novo Ensemble presents: lūx @ Pyatt Hall – November 15th, 2014
a concert of new Canadian chamber works

Saturday night was a busy one for the fine establishments of Granville Street. The 1975, a U.K. based pop group, had a line of at least one hundred people stretching from the front door of The Vogue; The Commodore was hosting Canadian indie darlings Tokyo Police Club (along with local openers Said The Whale, and The Pack A.D.); and The Orpheum was attracting its regular procession in anticipation for a night of “Great American Classics”.

Tucked behind all of this commotion, on Seymour Street, stood a short A-frame billboard; on it a single poster flaunting contemporary flat aesthetics and a minimalist sans-serif typeface. This billboard told me I was in the right place. The poster read: “Novo Ensemble presents: lūx – a concert of new Canadian chamber works”.

Inside, I walked up the stairs to the lobby located on the second floor (past the upscale magazine and coffee shop that occupied the first). It quickly became apparent that I was one of a lonely few who was not directly connected to the show. The lobby was littered with a half dozen groups encircling someone, who by dress or style, was clearly either a composer or performer.

Luckily it wasn’t long before the doors to the hall opened and the volunteer usher ripped my discounted student ticket: I walked into a room I did not expect. An intimate and modern space, Pyatt Hall is flush with meticulously uneven stone walls and wood paneling for acoustic precision. The chairs, constructed of blackened steel and curved wood are covered in red upholstery that looks as if it were installed yesterday.

Interior of Pyatt Hall. Photo credit: David Cowling

Interior of Pyatt Hall. Photo credit: David Cowling

Shortly after finding a seat the lights dimmed, and a woman took the stage. She confirmed that she was Marina Hasselberg, the artistic director of the Novo Ensemble and a cellist in the night’s proceedings. She described that the Novo Ensemble is a group dedicated to performing new works by contemporary composers – Canadians as often as possible.

After the brief introduction, she walked off stage only to return short seconds later with her cello, as well as a flautist, pianist, and bassist. She then called for the composer of the first piece, “Lux”, to join her onstage to describe the piece (whose inconsistent spelling on the program still puzzles me). This format of having the composer introduce the piece was consistent throughout the night, and was a welcome means of giving listeners information specific to each piece (as it was absent in the program).

“Lux”, as Jordan Nobles described it, was a piece inspired by light. When white light moves through a prism, you can see it broken into all its separate parts. He compared this refraction to overtones in music, the complex series of pitches that help define the texture of a single note. “Lux” was an exploration of this concept.

Promotional Poster for Novo Ensemble presents lūx

Promotional Poster for Novo Ensemble presents lūx

The lights dimmed darker than is typical for a proscenium show. I imagined this was to focus the audience on the sounds, not the visuals of the piece. The pianist stood overtop an open baby-grand piano with a soft percussive stick and began tapping a single low note on the piano. One by one the different instruments of the quartet joined in. The piece began and ended softly with a very loud and aggressive section in the final third of the piece. It lasted eight minutes (the average length of pieces to be played that night).

A long pause hung before the performers looked up and signaled that the piece was finished. The room, only half filled with people, swelled with applause and the performers left the stage. After only a moment, Hasselberg returned with her cello still in hand to introduce the next piece.

The rest of the night continued like this with little deviation. Pieces ranged in complexity from “Rambler Rose I & II”, a cello solo built by repetition, growing in length one bar per repetition (A, AB, ABC, ABCD, etc.); to “Ten Miniatures” which was a collection of ten, sub-two minute, pieces for flute, cello, and piano that was based on a collection of miniature Moghul paintings that the composer, Owen Underhill, had been inspired by during travels on the opposite side of the globe.

But despite the abnormal context of the small modern hall, the modern promotional materials, and the “new chamber works” being skillfully presented, I did not leave the show feeling changed: only entertained. I’d witnessed something of aesthetic beauty (and it was undoubtedly worth applauding on that merit), but not something of musical or societal reflection. As time moves on, and the revelations of John Cage’s “Prepared Piano” and “4’33”” become inherent to our understanding of music and performance, I’m losing hope in the idea that chamber music, devoid of any instrumental, formal, or multimedia cross-pollination is possible of truly pushing any artistic bar forward. The concepts on aural display, while engaging, would sit more comfortably between the 1950’s works of ultra-rationalist composers than it would in any modern musical context.

Three days later, next-door at the Commodore Ballroom, FKA Twigs played a near sold out show. Twigs is a trip-hop, experimental R&B artist based in London and is part of an electronic scene in the United Kingdom that every year highlights itself as the musical capital of innovation. Her pairing of hip-hop instrumentation with rhythms and vocals utterly alien to the style – or, in some cases, music generally – challenge listeners modern preconceptions of what’s possible with the pop form. Twigs expands what music can be and how we define it in the modern day.

“lūx” felt more like a performance that would play at the other venue next-door, The Orpheum. A musical museum, it offers somewhere to experience works of the past to better understand how they impacted the world in which they were prematurely born-into. But you won’t see FKA Twigs play there anytime soon – and you probably wouldn’t have seen Cage there either.

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