Opus: Testing – In conversation with Brenden Varty, Patrick Arteaga, and Curtis Perry

In our final post leading up to Opus: Testing — Period Piece, in collaboration with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Musica Reflecta and the Canadian Music Centre,  we would like to introduce composers Brenden Varty, Patrick Arteaga, and Curtis Perry.

The Opus Testing workshop is dealing with objects, and memory. How are you approaching this theme through your music?

Brenden Varty: When I was at home for the winter holidays, I found myself reading a book about ‘Frosty the Snowman’ to my younger brother, who is four—nineteen years younger than me! In the front of the book, I came across the message “To: Brenden—Love: Mom, Merry Christmas!” I must have received this book when I was 3 or 4, and it struck me as a special that I was now reading a book to a loved one who was the same age as I was when I had been given it.

This got me thinking of how the meaning of the book (both symbolically and in regards to the actual story) had changed for me since I was four years old, but was again being received by a different four years old in much the same way as previously. I started to think about how the meaning the book had for me at four years old was almost definitely similar in many aspects, but undoubtedly different in some regards, as the meaning my brother was giving it now.

Of course, the different meanings it has had over time and for different people (me at four and twenty-three, my brother at four—not to mention my mother) is removed from what the object actually is – pressed tree pulp, dyed and bound. These thoughts led me to recognize that all the decorations, movies, and other objects lying around the house that at some point had meant something to me were now being given different meanings, whatever they were, by my younger brother.

It is amazing the sentiments that we can attach to inanimate objects, how they can trigger memories in us, and how we can muse about what they might mean to others.

In my piece, I took the chord progression from Handel’s Concerto Grosso op. 6 no. 11, and wrote my own melody and arrangement to go with it. This serves as the “true form” for the object. The subsequent variation uses re-harmonization techniques and is written in a more modern style which I am partial to, serving as the meaning I might ascribe to an object. The second variation uses aspects from the theme and first variation, and through cut-and-paste and newly composed material, explores the meaning someone else might give the object—there will of course be similarities between two people’s memories of the same object, and so this variation echoes the first variation while being approached in a completely different manner.

What/who did you listen to in preparing to write for period instruments?

BV: To prepare for this composition, I listened to several baroque concertos by Bach and Handel. I wanted to approach this piece conceptually, and so rather than listening to modern chamber works, I decided to explore sounds and textures that I thought fit with my overall concept, while drawing the “nuts and bolts” of the piece from a classic baroque work.

If you could borrow someone’s musical abilities for a day, who would that someone be?

BV: The great New York alto saxophonist and composer John Zorn has been a source of inspiration for me over the past several years. Zorn fits seamlessly into both the jazz and classical avant-garde worlds, and has developed a unique voice within his compositions. His works with chamber ensembles, big bands, string ensembles, and jazz groups all drip originality, and do not often approach extremes that might deter his listeners.

Is there a particular thread running through your recent?

Patrick Arteaga: I am often working towards creating independence between voices while still having them share a contrapuntal co-dependence. For some time I have been achieving this using harmonic concepts that use very systematic approaches, though as I become more comfortable with these processes I find myself applying these systems much more organically as I am writing. Recently my focus has been shifting to include explorations in rhythm, metre and time to achieve greater distances between contrapuntal voices: an instrument may pull out of a texture by breaking out of the collective metre or tempo before re-assimilating or developing new textures based on the new temporal dichotomy. I also find myself simplifying the thematic material that I am working with, often basing a complete piece on a short gesture. The simplified material allows me to apply more distorting processes and to find opportunities to give the performer more expressive space while giving me more control over the thematic development.

If you could borrow someone’s musical abilities for a day, who would that someone be?

PA: Today I’ll be Ry Cooder touring Bugs Bunny’s folk repertoire, or Bugs Bunny touring a Ry Cooder cover band.

Tell us about your interest and existing experiences with period performance (as a composer, performer, and/or listener).

Curtis Perry: I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between new music practices and early music practices. As early music as a re-discovered performance practice movement arguably only gained traction by the mid-20th century, I feel it has come to represent a facet of contemporary music making that was initially overshadowed by trends in serialism, and what I would call the “ripe to decayed” music of composers like Poulenc and Hindemith. Today, whether I hear the “Gouldbergs” or Buxtehude, or maybe the Brandenburgs, I hear an overall sense of lightness and un-encumbrance, because I think the idea of “freedom through strictures” reigns supreme in music the same way “show don’t tell” is the famous dictum in literature. I admire that there’s a code and a regimented obsession over accepted standards and practices for early music performance, and I was delighted to be able to drop myself into a working situation where I wanted to deliberately give performers a lot of choice in the interpretation of the score, while also writing something that cleaves to the strengths of the decisions such performers would be more likely to make.

The Opus Testing workshop is dealing with objects and memory. How are you approaching this theme through your music?

CP: I think that we—as in likely anyone taking the time to read this—live in a decadent age. The Opus Testing call for proposals made note that we live in an era of unprecedented disposability. Somewhat paradoxically, I think that precisely because of these conditions we are living in a baroque period—where the truth seems to run increasingly rare and opulence seems necessary.

But I think it’s the sense of working through all that detritus and acknowledging it and arranging it in a way that makes some kind of sense—and handling it with care—is what makes period performance the ideal vehicle for this theme of objects and memory of lasting value.

I chose my keys simply because they are some of the few objects that have consistently stayed on my body over the past five years or so. The piece runs through a standard three-part structure: slow—fast slow, anticipation—building—release. The current title, The Key Less Turned, is an allusion to The Road Less Traveled, a book by Morgan Scott Peck. In it he offers advice for a fulfilled life. One of the arguments is that “true” love is an action that one undertakes consciously. The original title for this piece was “Let Love Locks Live,” or something like this—unapologetically metaphorical and alliterative. However, that is a terrible title, so I went for something more nuanced. I have three keys on my ring—for my building, for my apartment, and one for my suitcase that I almost never use. So, the piece is a meditation on possibility and on resisting the lure of banal, everyday existence, for the purpose of seeking to know—to know the self and others, in order to better love. In a roundabout way, then, this piece is really about that memory yet to come.

What/who did you listen to in preparing to write for period instruments?

CP: Now, don’t do what I did. And that is not to worry about listening to any period instruments, composers, or performances in particular. I’ve listened to quite a bit of it, and there are only so many ways you can, say, harmonize a descending bass, and so I figured if my memories of my favourite pieces are only vague, then perhaps I might eke my way into something that is not a pastiche and not in homage, but rather, something that is clearly learned from what came before, but also clearly a new thing—just as I suspect might be the goals of early music practitioners. That is a difficult thing to accomplish. I’m not sure if I’ve done it, but that was my goal.

What have you found most surprising about working with this instrumentation?

CP: Of course, I’m going to talk about the most different instrument in this instrumentation as compared to modern ensembles. The harpsichord is not what you might think it is on recalling its pop culture representations. The harpsichord is a bad-ass beast and it will destroy you. I am not ashamed to say I was pleasantly surprised by its power in the first reading of my piece.

Who/What serves as a primary source of inspiration for you these days?

CP: I have started teaching English as a second language in the past couple of years, and I often find inspiration in my students—I have the privilege of working with adults, and I love listening to their stories, learning about cultures, and seeing new perspectives from the students as immigrants and as new Canadians. I don’t know if that manifests in a clear way in terms of creative energy, but I have consistently found working with students to be inspiring.

Is there a particular thread running through your recent compositions?

CP: I’ve only got a couple of other recordings so far, so it’s hard to say. In addition, I think it’s doubly hard to analyze your own work. It’s like understanding your own vocal accent. It takes an outsider. I hope that I might get to the point where somebody writes about my work—even if it’s not received ideally. That would be interesting.

If you could borrow someone’s musical abilities for a day, who would that someone be?

CP: I think I’d like to try borrowing William Byrd’s contrapuntal sensibilities…

Meet the other composers in previous interviews: Roydon Tse & Joshua Denenberg, and Tova Kardonne & Patrick McGraw.

We invite you to join us to hear the results of Opus: Testing – Period Piece on March 26, at 7:30pm. Reserve your free tickets here. Limited tickets available!


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