Category Archives: Classical

Guitar Concerto

This work dates back to the early 1980’s. It was commissioned by Eli Kassner and Lee Hepner through the Ontario Arts Council. After two performances using the piano reduction, the Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra was premiered in the intended orchestral version, in Rochester NY, on Mar. 27, 1982. Domenic Ashworth was the guitar soloist and Gerald Bannerman the conductor. The performance took place at Hochstein Music School. The producer of this concert was John Wiesenthal, and he did a great job at pulling everything together.

The Guitar Concerto had its Canadian premiere on June 29, 1984, at Guitar ’84 International Festival in Toronto. Again, Domenic Ashworth was soloist. The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, was conducted by Raffi Armenian. The performance was recorded for a CBC broadcast on Sept. 24, 1984. Here are links to the broadcast recording:

Movement One:

Movement Two:

Movement Three:

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Chromatic Fantasia on the Name of Bach

Pursuit is a good word to describe what composers often do. It often starts with an innocent question: “Hey! I wonder if I could do that?”  and then, before you know it, countless hours have been gobbled up in the pursuit. When I was commissioned to write an organ solo for Douglas Haas, I thought it would be a challenge to base the work on the BACH motif.

The BACH motif is a succession of notes: B flat, A, C, B natural. In German musical nomenclature, the note B natural is written as H and the B flat as B. This allows a series of four notes to spell Johann Sebastian Bach’s family name. Hundreds of composers have paid homage to Johann Sebastian Bach by incorporating this motif in their music. I knew about Schumann’s work in this pursuit: Six Fugues on the Name of B-A-C-H and Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue on the Theme of B-A-C-H.

The first three letters were no problem for me. The B flat and A form a major seventh, an interval I love, and throw in a C natural and it adds a major 9th or 2nd to the harmony. But what to do with the H – or you could say “What the H to do with the H?” When I tried to write a theme and a counter melody, I disliked everything I came up with.

It is second nature to me to use octatonic scales, also known as ‘diminished scales’. There are three possible octatonic scales and this chart lists them:

Bb C Db Eb E F# G A
B D Eb F F# G# A
Bb B Db D E F G A

As you can see, if Bb is your starting note, your centre of gravity, there is no dominant, no F. In terms of the BACH motif, there also is no H (B). Then I had an insight. I realized that, if I ‘modulated’ from one octatonic scale to another when the B natural (the H) occurred, I had a meaningful language, that sounded ‘right’. Since I write by ear, it is more important that it sounds right to me; it can’t just make a logical harmonic sense.

I created a piece is one continuous movement, but in two sections. The first is Largo, very slow, and certainly owes a debt to Bartok’s Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste. The second is quite fast and since Italian is used for musical instructions, I marked this “come un pipistrello fuori dal inferno”. This translates: “like a bat out of Hell.”

What you hear in this piece is the subtle shifting of scales in a harmonic sea where there is no home key. There are the 4 notes of the BACH motif however which provide an anchor.

The Chromatic Fantasia on the Name of Bach is quite a dense piece. Traditional fugal techniques are employed, such as stretto, where the voices enter earlier and play overlapping versions of the theme. The musical palette is quite chromatic and the four voices enter at the four point of a chromatic scale marked by a diminished seventh chord.

At the ending of the piece, the harmony results from stacking the 4 notes of the motif. I started with a low A natural in the cello and added the other 3 notes, stacked a minor 9th apart. This is the sonority at quite an abrasive climax. Then the notes are inverted and the dynamics change from triple forte to pianissimo. The lowest note now is a Bb and the other 3 notes form major 7th or major 9th ‘s intervals. Emotionally, it is like going from anguish to acceptance.

The work was premiered on June 28, 2017, by the Sycamore String Quartet at a concert in Kamloops, BC, entitled Made in Canada. At the premiere, I introduced it with some insights on how the material was structured. Here is a recording of this introduction, followed by links to the two movements of the work from the premiere performance:

Introduction by Doug Jamieson

Chromatic Fantasia on the Name of BACH part one

Chromatic Fantasia on the Name of BACH part two

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Love is an Art of Time

Cover Art Image at the Fontaine de MedicisLove is an Art of Time was written in 1985. It was commissioned by and dedicated to James McLean and Gianetta Baril of the tenor-harp duo Lyracord. It was composed with the much-appreciated financial assistance of the Ontario Arts Council.

Writing these five settings was one of my most positive commissions. James and Gianetta gave excellent performances – as you can hear in the premiere performance connected to this post – and they included the work in a tour of Ontario. More importantly, they gave me a lot of valuable guidance throughout the creation of the work. Gianetta, in particular, provided a lot of help with the daunting task of writing effectively for concert harp. The following recordings are from the premiere performance on March 8, 1985 by Lyracord:

Introduction by James McLean

1. Now the starlit, moonless Spring

2. The blue-eyed grass

3. Sharp in my heart

4. Void only

5. Another spring

I had fallen in love with Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Japanese poems, which prompted me to read Rexroth’s own poetry. When I did, I found several poems that were eminently singable. (Not all poems have that quality, to say the least, and many poems stubbornly refuse to cooperate with composers and, when set, seem to enter into a dysfunctional coupling, an unholy alliance.)

In 2012, my wife and I went to Paris, France. It was my first visit to the City of Lights and I thoroughly loved it. I felt very much at home in a place where such a high value is placed on both historic and contemporary culture. Listed in the Paris attractions was the Fontaine de Medicis in the Jardin du Luxembourg and I was reminded of the first poem I had set: “Now the moonless, starlit Spring”. Of course, we visited the Fontaine and the picture that included with this post was taken by photographer wife, Elizabeth Cunningham.

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(7:09) To Stream: Mitotem

Mitotem was my first endeavour in writing for an ensemble. I was working on a film for a professor at University of Waterloo. He did not have a script, just an idea that the film would be about symmetry in nature. He was funded to make the film, but had lost all interst in the project. I was given free rein to do whatever I wanted. There was no funding to complete the film, so whatever time I spent was an opportunity to gain experience and get access to equipment.

For the ending, I wanted a dance sequence. My idea was to have dancers portray the mitosis of a human cell. I met Lenora Hume, who was a modern dance student at U of Wloo. She loved the idea and choreographed it with the help of another student,Vera Hunt. The dance was performed by the University of Waterloo Repertory Dance Company on Mar. 3 & 4, 1973 at U of Wloo and Mar. 31, 1973 at the Kitchener Public Library.

Early in the project, I tried to find existing music that I could use for the dance. This was frustrating, so in a “Hey! I can do that!” moment, I decided to write it myself. I came up with the instrumentation by listing all my musical friends. I wanted a cellist or bassist and had to expand my network to find these players: Nancy Bender played cello and Doug Wicken played bass. Among the friends in the ensemble were Tim Wynne-Jones playing percussion and Steven Naylor playing a pretty tricky piano part. I included two classical guitars, played by Evan Graham and John Constant. Klaus Gruber was one of three percussionists. Jeremy Constant (now Assistant Concertmaster with the San Francisco Symphony) and David Constant played violin and clarinet respectively.

The structure of the piece came from the scientific terms and description of the various stages of mitosis. For the introduction and the concluding sections (both entitled Interphase) , I used multi-tract recording. Three tracks plus a reference track used up all available 4 tracks. Carol Wainio sang long tones extended by a Moog synthesizer on all three tracks. The patterns were tight clusters (influenced by the Ligeti music used in the film 2001).

The second section, when the instruments enter, is called Prophase. After a pause, the Metaphase section is characterized by a series of slow, descending fifth chords. Then follows the more animated Anaphase and Telophase. The sixth part, called Cytokinesisis, is an adagio using a pizzicato canonic accompaniment. The piece ends with a return to the Interphase vocal clusters.

Raffi Armenian, then Director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, heard Mitotem and gave me some advice. “You should be studying composition. I don’t know if you will be a successful composer, but you have to try. You are doing a lot of interesting things in this piece, techniques which composers were using after World War II.”