Confessions of a (once again) Omnivorous Listener

by Pat Carrabré     ¦   March 2 2017

Dr. Pat Carrabré

As a listener, I’ve gone through many different “style” periods. When I was young (mid-teens), my options were controlled by what I could buy at the record store. I favoured the delete bin, where I found all kinds of unusual albums (little known folk singers, German art rock bands, jazz fusion projects, etc.). My musical tastes were omnivorous and not very discriminating.

When I was in music school, I soon came to realize how many holes I had in my listening background – especially on the classical side. So I spent quite a bit of time filling in some of those gaps. That didn’t leave a lot of time for recreational listening, but artists like Kate Bush joined Shostakovich, Lutosławski and Maxwell Davies on my turntable.

George Perle (Sara Krulwich/New York Times/File 1999)

George Perle (Sara Krulwich/New York Times/File 1999)

Our New York years (my mid-twenties) were even more focussed on study listening. And by this time my interests had gone over to the esoteric side. Albums of music by George Perle (who I was studying with at the time) and Donald Martino mixed with whatever we heard on the soundtracks of video rentals. One of my most iconic memories from that time was hearing “Tears Are Not Enough,” the Canadian answer to “We Are the World.” Both of those tunes brought together a rather unlikely cast of musicians from difference genres, in the name of drawing attention to the famine in Africa.

When we returned to Canada, I ended up making part of my living as a concert critic for the Winnipeg Free Press. It was an interesting experience, being asked to write about everything from Bach’s Goldberg Variations (on harpsichord thank goodness), to Symphonic Pops programs and a variety of travelling shows. When I look back at my writing from those days, I was definitely high-brow in my tastes, but every once in a while a particularly quirky artist would get to me, like Ivan Rebroff who was super kitschy, but also very musical.

After that, I had some “thin” listening years. When I was working in University administration and trying to maintain my career as a composer, I wasn’t able to listen too much. I had to leave conscious and subconscious space for my own music to develop. But these were also the early years of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival (NMF). I will openly admit to being more than a bit narrow minded at this point. Most new music types had been taught by osmosis to align ourselves with composers of a similar style and to cut down those who played in different sound worlds. My wife often reminds me about how black and white I was in my tastes in those days. I booed Gavin Bryars


Gavin Bryars

when I first heard “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet” (a piece I find rather touching now). But it was hard not to like the Arvo Pärt we heard and Glenn Buhr’s neo-romantic symphonic scores always managed to find their way through my defences. Slowly, I started to open my ears and by the time I became the WSO’s composer-in-residence (2001), I was ready to begin exploring again. In the meantime I had given up the musical language of my early career and was starting to follow my inner ear for the organization of sound.

For six seasons I invested a great deal of time trying to keep up with new developments in the world of new concert music. Working closely with conductor Andrey Boreyko, I became familiar with the styles that had developed in the former Soviet block countries. Beyond the works of Pärt,


Arvo Pärt

I was soon exploring the music of Peteris Vasks, Veljo Tormis and even Vladimir Martynov and other ultra-minimalists. At this point I needed to listen to a lot of different styles, so I also dug into the music of Brett Dean, Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Anders Hillborg amongst many others. Pretty much anything recorded by the Kronos Quartet was of interest (I had first heard them when Leonard Bernstein dragged all of the young composers down to one of their concerts at Tanglewood in 1987). Their “rock and roll” sensibility helped point me in some new directions. My generation of American composers, like Aaron Jay Kernis and Michael Daugherty weren’t afraid to write music that pulsed with urban rhythms and pop infused harmonic progressions. The range of what was going on in new concert music was really amazing and once I shed the idea that there was a “higher ground” in terms of aesthetics, I became free to explore even further. This was also about the same time period as my obsession with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, which featured some of the most interesting pop songs I’d heard in years.

The next phase coincided with my two year gig hosting the weekend edition of The Signal on CBC Radio 2. The mandate I had was to link together all kinds of contemporary and experimental musics from classical, pop, electronic and jazz. For me it was all about finding common ground between these various genres. So my ear gravitated towards crossover projects, like Bjork singing with the Brodsky Quartet or groups like Belle Orchestre, who were using classical instruments (strings and brass) to make experimental pop.

Just as I was starting at The Signal, Owen Pallett (aka Final Fantasy in those days) won the Polaris Prize. For me, his music offered the perfect combination of tunefulness, intelligence and irreverence (that album was entitled “He Poos Clouds” and included a song that makes reference to a well-known condo developer in Toronto). Since then I’ve continued to follow Pallet’s work across a number of genres, as well as his occasional analytical writing about pop music.

Pallett seems to epitomize the ideal of an omnivorous musician and I’ll use three examples of his recent projects to show the range of his musical vision. His work is informed by his classical training, but squarely in the indie world.

His most recent album, Conflict, continues to show the range of Pallett’s songwriting and arranging chops. From beautiful rich brass sounds to his trademark violin loops, Pallett now adds a significant dose of synth, which features front and centre in this tune: Song for Five & Six.

Even though the synth riff overpowers things at the beginning, it drops out for a bit to allow Pallett’s vocals to ground us. Listen through to the string syncopations that are just under the surface throughout most of the piece. They show a super complex rhythmic sense that permeates Pallett’s work. The official video (above) features students from the National Ballet School. A nice touch.

One of Pallett’s other recent projects was to play violin on David Lang’s Death Speaks. This is a fascinating set of songs, written by a Pulitzer Prize winning classical guy for a group of young hotshots who are classically trained, but who are making a big mark in the indie pop scene. The ensemble consists of Shara Nova (formerly Worden), voice (My Brightest Diamond), Bryce Dessner, guitar (The National), Nico Muhly, piano (who has worked with a range of pop folks from Grizzly Bear to Antony and the Johnsons and Björk). The music is spare and minimal, but delivered with a non-classical sensibility.

On Pain Changes, Pallett’s contribution is some very low key repeated notes that animate the otherwise slow moving picking of Dessner’s guitar.

I admit that the whole piece can be a bit hard to get through. Lang keeps going back to the same pitches and the unrelenting sameness of Nova’s voice can be challenging over the work’s 26 minutes (Death is for an eternity, perhaps). But I keep coming back to listen because I like its haunting quality.

A significant segment of Pallett’s audience probably knows him best from his work with Arcade Fire. He has been a regular collaborator with them (although never in the core of the band). And he recently co-wrote the music for Spike Jonze’s movie Her with Will Butler. Here’s a little clip that shows some behind the scenes footage of them recording the score.

It’s very chill, with Pallett’s long violin notes buried deep in the mix.

I’m fascinated by the range of projects he takes on, how he thinks music and how he’s building a career that allows him to cross between genres. His work speaks directly to a new breed of listeners. They are inquisitive, searching for music that is original, music that isn’t afraid to be challenging and beautiful – sometimes all at the same time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments…

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