“Despite the fact that I often describe my music as quiet, slow, and boring, it might be the most exciting thing you could possibly experience.”
As the lunch rush reaches its climax in a downtown Calgary restaurant, this is how composer Mark Limacher describes what someone might expect hearing the premiere of his new composition, commissioned by Land’s End Ensemble for their concert On Parole, happening Saturday, June 9 at the Rozsa Centre in Calgary.
“I’m trying to write music I’d like to hear, music that sounds good to me,” explains fellow composer Lesley Hinger, who also has a new composition being premiered at the same concert and has joined Limacher for this lunch hour chat. “My hope is that at the very least (this concert) will be an interesting experience for people to hear the different styles and approaches in our scene at the moment … like a snapshot of what’s happening in Calgary.”
Both Hinger and Limacher are part of a small core of artists working in Calgary who are creating contemporary classical music, a catch-all term for music written loosely in the tradition of familiar names like Beethoven and Mozart. But a loose designation is where the similarities end. These two composers are creating music that is remarkable both in its construction and sound, and On Parole offers a unique chance to hear both played by one of Calgary’s best new music ensembles.
When the term “classical music” comes up, many Calgarians will naturally think of groups like the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra or Calgary Opera, two organizations that primarily (but to be fair, not entirely) focus on performing works of the past, so how do two composers like Hinger and Limacher, living in 21st Century Calgary, fit into this entrenched tradition? Well, they don’t. Where they do fit is with the rest of their contemporary colleagues in other genres, creating new works of art that speak to the period they’re living in.
“My starting point was a spectral analysis of a single note played on an electric guitar, then run through several different types of amps with varying levels of distortion,” says Hinger, explaining how her new composition came to life. Spectral analysis, as explained by Hinger, is a visual representation of a musical tone that shows all of the overtones that result from its sound.
“I had all of these different spectral analyses,” she continues, “and I built chords based out of that, followed by harmonic progressions that were hypothetically supposed to go from less to more distortion as it would sound being run through a particular amp.”
“Oh my God, I love it!” Interjects Limacher, clearly impressed by his colleague’s process. As it turns out, Hinger’s original idea didn’t quite take this exact form, but instead transformed into something she didn’t quite expect.
Limacher’s process was something completely different. “Increasingly I’ve been, in recent times, drawn to miniatures as a form because they allow for two interesting things to happen.”
He continues. “They prevent development from being possible because of their brevity … and they’re always unsatisfying in a musical sense because they’re brief and often there’s a sense of perplexity that emerges because it’s a feeling of, ‘What the hell was that?’ ”
To boil this down a little, we have Hinger who is deriving entire compositions from playing single notes through an amplifier while Limacher is creating music with the desired result of perplexity. Hard to imagine on paper, but an exciting prospect to experience live.
Writing music like this in Calgary is something that comes with both positives and negatives. Positive because the small centre allows you to follow the path you want without too much outside influence, and negative for the same reason, there just aren’t enough other composers to form a cohesive community.
“I don’t think Calgary has an aesthetic of its own,” says Hinger. “I wouldn’t say there’s any particular composer or group of composers that one would identify as having a Calgary sound.”
“If there is,” continues Limacher, “I probably don’t know any of them, or I fear maybe I do.”
Reflecting some more on the subject, Hinger says, “There’s a DIY vibe to the city that can be great because it encourages pioneering whatever you want to do, but it’s also discouraging in that there’s not much of an existing audience for new music.”
This causes both to consider why they’re writing music and who they’re writing it for, something that comes up a lot in modern classical music.
“I feel compelled to say something like I’m not sure why it is that I write,” says Limacher. “I’m very fascinated by certain things I see on the page that lead me to question how carefully considered they were,” he continues, speaking about his own experiences as a pianist playing music written by others. “What is it to carefully consider two notes that are next to each other? Suddenly it’s almost a reflection about really thinking carefully about what one might do and might ask another person to do.”
As these observations sink in, Hinger adds, “I don’t think this style of music will ever be widely popular, and that’s OK — there’s still a community for it, still people to appreciate it.” However, there are some ways things could change for the better, she says. “Increasing accessibility so that this music is no longer in a concert hall where you have to pay 30 bucks to get in could be impactful, as would integrating with different communities in the city. Accessibility is often the biggest thing.”
It’s clear from our conversation that Hinger and Limacher consider far more than just putting notes on a page when they approach composition. Surprisingly, it is this fact that connects them most with the tradition of western classical music, where composers were often contending with the social norms of their time and fighting – at least artistically – against injustices.
On Parole offers a unique opportunity to hear these two local composers performed in the same night. If you’ve ever wondered what classical music might sound like if written by someone who might be your neighbour, this is your chance to find out
On Parole will be performed by Land’s End Chamber Ensemble this Saturday evening at the Rozsa Centre.
(Photo of Mark Limacher and Lesley Hinger courtesy Nathan Schmidt.)
Nathaniel Schmidt is a composer, educator, and writer in Calgary who spreads his wings in a wide variety of ways. After a decade working in the arts, he will begin a law degree at the University of Calgary in Fall 2018.