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Jesse Stewart's Gnomon Variations a timely arrival for 20th Guelph Jazzfest

On September 8, Ottawa artist, composer, percussionist, instrument builder, writer and music educator Jesse Stewart will mark the passing of time – the 20-year life of the Guelph Jazz Festival - with Gnomon Variations, his specially commissioned piece for drumset and strings.

It's an exciting, creative opportunity for Stewart. He's had a long-standing interest in time, expressed in both the visual and musical arts, in addition to participating in the Guelph Jazz festival (GJF) since its first year.

Jesse Stewart © Brett Delmage, 2011"One of the things connecting my work in the visual and sonic arts is my ongoing interest in different representations and conceptions of time," Stewart told OttawaJazzScene.ca.

The Guelph Jazz Festival could not have found a more enthusiastic timekeeper. For the 2000 festival, Stewart was commissioned to create a multi-media jazz opera that “would serve as a sort of meditation on improvisation, impermanence, and the passage of time.” His first solo visual and musical exhibit, “Wheels of Time” followed at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre in 2003. In 2011, he presented his first solo visual art exhibit at a major Ottawa art gallery: “Time Pieces”. It examined time in innovative ways, including both visually and musically.

“I was thinking of this idea of marking time, anniversaries and so on, and that's really where the genesis of the idea for the piece came from,” Stewart said. “The piece for me is about how we measure time, how we keep time, how we mark time, musically and otherwise.”

“People talk about site-specificity. For me, it's not just about the site but the people and the setting and the context. I do take all those things into consideration,” Stewart said.

© Brett Delmage, 2011He's had a lot of interesting work creating site and occasion -specific music. Among many projects, Stewart has performed original music with hand-built and tuned ice marimbas and ice cubes for Winterlude (which were played at -25C), and with rocks, bird calls and tuned, cut marble at a concert with balanced rock sculptures along the Ottawa River. He gave a unique performance that reflected the characteristics of the Voice of Fire painting in the National Gallery of Canada.

Gnomon Variations, on the other hand, will be expressed by very traditional instruments. But behind those will be much thought about the piece and the deeper significance of music made by the combination of traditional instruments.

“Because it's the 20th anniversary, I was thinking about ways of marking time and indicating time. [The gnomon itself is the upright part of a sundial that casts the shadow on the hour markings.]

"And so the piece is a suite of twelve movements. The whole thing is based on the same underlying cyclical pattern but a different starting point within that cyclical pattern. So let's say it's a 12 -pulse rhythm, so at the 12 o'clock position if we start there the rhythm sounds one particular way, but it we start at the 1 o'clock position it's going to start another way. I've used a similar way of treating the pitch material as well,” says Stewart.

The Penderecki String Quartet (PSQ), who were suggested for the project by GJF's Artistic Director Ajay Heble, will provide much of the pitch material. They perform “music of our time”, making them a good bet for GJF listeners.

“They've done a lot of really interesting projects, what we might think of as contemporary string quartet repertoire,” Stewart said. “They are a really innovative group, one of the preeminent string quartets in the country. I'm really delighted to have an opportunity to work with them.”

This concert will be Stewart's first opportunity to perform with the quartet, although he has had close contacts with the quartet and its members over the years. Stewart was artistic director of the Kitchener-Waterloo New Music Society (NUMUS) in 2008, where he paired PSQ with DJ Spooky in a turntable festival. He described that performance as “great.”

© Brett Delmage, 2011The ensemble won't be tied to the clock, however. Stewart expected that “there will be substantial room for all five of us to improvise and stretch out musically, individually, but also in various combinations.”

“Unlike the vast majority of other jazz festivals in this country, indeed in the world, the Guelph festival has really made a point of focusing on music, not only jazz, but creative improvised music and other related idioms that are really pushing boundaries, that are innovative in other ways, and that's something I certainly respect about the festival. It's one of the reasons I love that festival.”

That attraction is clearly mutual. Over twenty years he's worked as the Festival's assistant artistic director, played in a incredible diversity of solo and ensemble performances, and given the opening keynote speech at the colloquium. This year, he's also playing in the World Percussion Summit, which opens the festival on Tuesday, September 3.

Stewart was a university student (albeit a critically acclaimed one) when his band performed in the first year of the festival. Since that moment, both have continued to advance. The GJF has won the Premier's Award for Excellence in the Arts and other artistic awards. And it's presenting highly renowned musicians from across the globe this year with its World Artist Summit. And Stewart (along with fellow Guelphite Matt Brubeck who is also performing in this year's festival) won the Juno award in 2012 for the debut Stretch Orchestra album.

In thinking about and developing his commissioned performance, Stewart winds the clock back decades beyond his first day as a jazz musician at the first year of the Guelph Jazz Festival.

“The history of the drumset in many ways is not only closely linked to, but is, the history of North American popular music. The drumset is about 100 years old. Early jazz drummers and ragtime drummers who really invented this instrument [brought] together elements from the European marching band tradition and Chinese Tom Tom and wood blocks and Turkish cymbals and [found] a way to play them all as one instrument. And then the subsequent innovations and developments of the setup and design of the drumset again really mirrored changes in popular music styles. So the drumset is so closely linked to the history of jazz and popular music. In a way it's kind of an embodiment of that, at least for me.

© Brett Delmage, 2011“The string quartet, on the other hand, for me is the epitome or the embodiment of chamber music; the history of western classical music and chamber music specifically. So to write a piece for both of them: for drumset and string quartet brings these two kinds of streams of music and culture together.”

As listeners often find at the Guelph Jazz Festival, there are principles and ideals that drive the music, and principles and ideals that musicians attempt to drive. Stewart's commissioned piece is no exception. It's music with an agenda.

“For me, music isn't just about sound. Sounds also carry meanings and they carry broader cultural connotations... the drumset was not only historically linked to popular music, but it had certain cultural and class connotations to it. And I think that is certainly true of western art music and the string quartet.

“And for me, what's really exciting about making music and creating music at this time is a lot of those kind of received musical and cultural and social categories, they're collapsing. And I personally feel as though I want to do everything I can to encourage the collapsing and disappearance of those kinds of especially class distinctions. So in a very small way, I think that the music that we make and some of the musical decisions we make can actually bring about or encourage those kinds of changes. And that is very much part of what attracted me to this particular instrumental combination.”

    - Brett Delmage

Jesse Stewart's Gnomon Variations will premiere at the Guelph Jazz Festival on Sunday, September 8 at 2 p.m. in the River Run Centre. He will also play in the festival's opening World Percussion Summit on Tuesday, September 3 at 8 p.m. and as a duo with Hamid Drake on Friday September 6 at 11:30 p.m.

Full disclosure: Jesse Stewart has licensed photos and video that were originally produced for OttawaJazzScene.ca's editorial needs.

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