When Toronto jazz pianist David Braid saw the film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, it touched him on many levels, and made him reflect on how he composed music and communicated with his audience

It also inspired “Chauvet”, the piano and strings composition which is the centrepiece of his National Arts Centre concert Saturday.

The Werner Herzog movie is about the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave in southern France, which contains some of the oldest and most vividly beautiful and expressive cave art in the world. Paintings in the cave have been dated to as old as 32,000 years ago; when discovered in 1994, they had not been disturbed for 27,000 years. Only archaeologists and scientists can work in the cave in order to preserve the art, but in 2010, Herzog and his three-person crew were allowed very limited access over six days to film their documentary.

When the movie reached Toronto in 2011, Braid went to see it – and again, and again.

“There's this friend of mine whenever he says I should go see a movie – and he doesn't say it too often – I know there's a reason why I should go see this movie. So he's like, 'You should go see Cave of Forgotten Dreams'. And oh, OK, fine, I'm going. Because I know something heavy is going to happen. But still I didn't know much about the film.”

“I don't even know how to describe it in words, but that film had very special impact on me for a few different reasons, some which I can articulate and some which I can't. Among the things I can talk about, probably the first thing that hit me was the realization that experiencing these paintings through this film allowed me to have some shared imagination space with these artists who lived in this particular part of Europe tens of thousands of years ago. Now I have this strange kind of connection to them!”

He ended up seeing the film three or four times in Toronto, then in Vancouver, and “in Copenhagen twice, and I saw it on an airplane after that” – and he'd still like to see it again.

Braid was amazed at the sophistication and beauty of the paintings. “These paintings which you'll see, they're not like stick figures. They're complex drawings. They use the rock contours and torchlight shadows to create all sorts of 3D effects. And something that was really amazing was – I don't know if you saw the part of the movie where they showed a bison with multiple sets of legs. When you think of it, that's like a proto-cinematic idea, to have multiple images in the same area to simulate motion. And would you think of movie-moving when you think of 45,000 years ago?"

Experiencing these paintings through this film allowed me to have some shared imagination space with these artists who lived in this particular part of Europe tens of thousands of years ago. Now I have this strange kind of connection to them!
– David Braid

He wondered why the artists created these paintings – which raised fundamental questions about his own creativity. “What motivated them? And what did they think their art could do? For some reason, right or wrong, I just feel like those creations that are spoken about in that film just feel a lot more pure and authentic and original, in every sense of the term original than anything that I can do. So somehow I think just by being there or thinking about that film, or revisiting those paintings, it has a grounding influence on me.”

The film discusses how humans have an innate need to communicate, “and that got me thinking about my own work, too – is what I'm doing communicating? And certainly there's music that I might work on which I find it interesting because of an intellectual curiosity and there's certainly nothing wrong with that, but this film really made me embrace, even more fully, that there's a two-way street going on between the artist and the receiver, and there's a communication going on. And that was also very grounding for me.”

After experiencing those paintings, he said, he wanted to respond to them – “that turned on the creative batteries” – although he was also motivated by the moody, introspective score by cellist Ernst Reijseger.

Braid said that “Chauvet” expresses many, very contrasting, moods. “There's very solemn moments, introspective, delicate moments, and then there's terrorizing moments and there's another moment where it's very comical. And those various emotions, some are taken from the paintings themselves – for example, the one of the terrorizing parts of the piece is when they're interviewing one scientist and he's been talking about how after a certain number of days in the cave, he couldn't go back anymore because it was too overwhelming and he was having dreams and responding emotionally outside of the cave. And because it felt like he was disturbing something that was in there.”

Braid has reorchestrated several of his pieces with every performance: “if I like something, I keep note of it and I may or may not use that in the second edition of the piece. And this has a direct connection to the film itself because one of the startling elements of those cave paintings is that they were touched up over thousands and thousands of years. Can you imagine the Mona Lisa five thousand years from now, every generation has been touching up the painting? How would it look? Would it look the same? Would it look different? In some 'primitive cultures' that use cave art, it's common that the art is retouched generation after generation. And the artists don't think of themselves as the ones retouching. They think that the painting itself is retouching itself.”

“So that idea of evolution over time involving collaboration is another connection to the piece, because I'm collaborating with musicians and they're improvising, and sometimes ideas that surface will end up becoming a permanent part of the piece.”

After several years of performing “Chauvet”, Braid said he was planning to record it within the next 12 months. “I feel like I'm past a certain point now where I think I'm ready to record it.”

Playing with string quartets: "a very wide-open territory for exploration”

Saturday's concert is also the first time Ottawa audiences will see a new direction Braid has taken in the last four years – performing his compositions with a string quartet. He's primarily been doing this in Europe, starting in 2011 with a program for Dutch National Radio together with the Zapp4 String Quartet. He's performed “Chauvet” with string ensembles in England, Finland, Denmark, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands – and Beijing, China.

It's a change from the jazz he's better known for: whether solo piano, his mainstream sextet, his duet with cellist Matt Brubeck, and collaborations with many well-known Canadian jazz artists such Mike Murley, and more recently with the group Peripheral Vision.

Braid said liked composing for the string ensembles “because of how it lends itself to the use of nuance and how, with an improvising string quartet, you can write very detailed, but at the same time you have tremendous flexibility with improvisation because string players by nature are virtuosic, because their repertoire is so vast. I felt I was in a very wide-open territory for exploration.”

For some reason, the project had “a lot more legs in Europe”, Braid said, and only in the last year has he had opportunities to play this music in Canada.

In Ottawa, he'll be performing for the third time with the renowned Penderecki String Quartet, from Waterloo, Ontario. They first performed together last summer, although Braid had known about them for years: “part of their reputation was that they were this string quartet who could basically do anything. And do anything really, really well. And they were very open-minded to try different things. And I know that the first violinist is particularly interested in improvisation and jazz.”

Spontaneous composition within the string quartet culture

Composing for a string quartet is very different than writing for a jazz group, Braid said. “The string quartet culture is a whole deep, and very long, and very developed tradition. So I wouldn't want to ignore that and just write things to make a string quartet sound like a jazz band. To me it makes more sense to bring over the vocabulary and techniques of string quartet writing and infuse in that the spirit of improvisation and of course the spirit of my own music.”

But also fundamental is “the design of spontaneous composition. To me this is very exciting because string players have such a vocabulary and not to mention a love of their instrument. To set out parameters for them to improvise within – it's amazing what they come up with. Which is completely different because it's coming from a different tradition than the jazz/bebop tradition, for example. That really serves the music I'm writing in a very particular and beautiful way, because the level of detail and nuance they can achieve when they're improvising – you can't even notate that!”

“So I like building that potential right into my music. And it also makes every performance unique, just like a jazz performance. And also unique to the individual players, just as it is with a traditional jazz band.”

One of the highly satisfying parts of this project is watching a very, very highly trained, highly disciplined seasoned professional break open in a new territory. And then my music can benefit from that, which is really wonderful.
– David Braid

Do they surprise him? “Oh yes, all the time. And I think the lovely part of it is sometimes I think they surprise themselves. Normally the Pendereckis are amazing, and they improvise a lot already. But it's different than a string quartet that's specializing in improvisation, or musicians who specialize in improvised music. It's different. So it's wonderful to see them thinking or feeling or listening in a different way and enjoying the results. That's one of the highly satisfying parts of this project is watching a very, very highly trained, highly disciplined seasoned professional break open in a new territory. And then my music can benefit from that, which is really wonderful.”

The concert will also include five other compositions by Braid. The string quartet will open the show without Braid, playing a piece he wrote after reading Simone Weil's book Gravity and Grace. That will be followed by all five playing two movements from a cantata, a memorial for the soldiers of the First World War. Braid rearranged the cantata for strings to make it a song without words, although he said he might read the lyrics that originally went with it as well.

“Joya” is an improvisation on a repeated melody, with different instruments handling the improvisation differently. “It's an attempt to bring in a direct, sort of jazz, spontaneous mentality into a string quartet context. Basically the whole piece is chorus after chorus with an introduction and conclusion, but the way it unfolded and developed is the interesting part of the piece.”

“Semi” is a piece Braid originally wrote for solo piano, which has a lot of long held notes in its melody, “so it just seemed naturally to lend itself towards being played by instruments that can hold their notes. I started sketching it out for string quartet and I liked instantly how it was sounding.”

The concert will end with “Spirit Dance”, the title piece from Braid's CD with the Canadian Brass – but which he's played in many other formats as well. “I feel like with this piece, the piece is evolving over time like an organism. Every time I reorchestrate it, things that are less necessary are disappearing, and new things are growing onto it. The version that we're playing now is completely different than the Canadian Brass version, for example, which was five years ago.”

Braid emphasized that he was not composing for piano plus strings – or the reverse.

“By nature [Chauvet is] a piece for quintet. So if I'm doing my job well, it sounds like neither of those scenarios, it sounds like five instruments that are using their capabilities. It was a pretty conscious decision. And coming from a jazz background, getting inside the design principles of chamber music was, and it still is, a whole topic of study so that I can maximize the capabilities of the instruments. So I'm not writing a jazz piece and then finding stuff for people to do but I'm actually writing music that's designed for those instruments because of what those instruments do in their own unique way.”

Emotionally-charged music gets a warm reception in Hamilton

On March 1, Braid played with the Penderecki String Quartet at the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts, performing much the same program as they will in Ottawa. The audience reaction was “wonderful”, he said. He heard comments from many audience members as they left the hall: “that was really tremendously encouraging, because it's newly written music and normally unfamiliar things are less popular these days than familiar things.”

Based on that show, how would he describe what Ottawa audiences will hear?

“Melody, passion, surprise, friendliness, colour, imagination, what else? I'm thinking of the concert yesterday and the reaction I got from the audience afterwards. Joy, terror ... it's really quite an emotionally-charged kind of experience. And it's full of surprises, it's spontaneous, and it's unfamiliar but it's friendly. So in a sense it's that situation where you end up randomly in a conversation with someone unexpectedly and you totally hit it off and have a great time. Because the person, there happens to be some kind of simpatico between you and the person, and it's totally a complete unfamiliar person. I think that describes something about the experience the audience will have.”

    – Alayne McGregor

David Braid and the Penderecki String Quartet will appear at the NAC Fourth Stage on Saturday, March 14, in the second half of a concert. They will be preceded by guitarist Mike Rud and vocalist Sienna Dahlen performing Notes on Montreal.

Ottawa jazz fans can also hear David Braid performing more mainstream jazz in Mike Murley's Septet on May 8 at the NAC. He will return to Ottawa for Chamberfest, with a performance on July 26 with the classical group Sinfonia UK, performing a programme that will include “Chauvet” and “Spirit Dance”, as well as Braid's arrangement of George Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue”.

You can borrow the DVD of "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" from the Ottawa Public Library.

You can hear and see an earlier version of Chauvet here.

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