Christine Duncan rehearses the Element Choir for Chamber Elements ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Christine Duncan rehearses the Element Choir for Chamber Elements ©Brett Delmage, 2012

Chamber Elements
1 p.m. Sat, August 4 and Sun. August 5
National Gallery of Canada
Free. Regular Gallery admission fee applies


“I've see so many performances of creative and unconventional music where the audience just looks like they are stapled to their chairs. Maybe they are dancing in their head. What do I know?”

Although he accepts static audiences as the normal type of listening that most Chamber music and jazz listeners experience, that's not what happens in Scott Thomson's site-specific compositions. Instead, he has both the musicians and the audience up and moving around, choosing what they want to play – and want to hear.

And that's what visitors to the National Gallery of Canada will encounter, as the 30-minute Chamber Elements is presented starting at 1 p.m. sharp on this Saturday and Sunday.

On the Gallery's second floor, Thomson said, eight trumpeters and trombonists will start at the Water Court and then will follow separate-but-intersecting routes through the rooms and around the Water and Garden Courts, playing all the while. Meanwhile, thirty singers from the Element Choir Project, conducted by Christine Duncan, will accompany the brass from the first floor of the Courts. At a key point in the performance, in the Garden Court, the piece features a solo by trumpeter Jim Lewis, playing from the balcony, with the choir accompanying him from below.

Each listener will be given the score: a map of the Gallery indicating what will be happening when.

“A really dedicated listener could sit down and plan their own route – essentially compose their own route through the piece to experience it.”

Often when listeners arrive on site, they ask “Where do I go?” The answer is 'you can go wherever you want'.”

There's no separate admission charge for the concert, just the regular gallery entrance fee, and anyone who's there can choose to join the audience. It's part of the 2012 Ottawa Chamberfest's Chamber Fringe Series, in partnership with the National Gallery.

"My single favourite building in Canada"

Thomson was approached by Ottawa Chamberfest to create the work after they'd learned of a composition he'd done in the Art Gallery of Ontario [AGO]. “I got approached to propose a similar piece for the National Gallery, which is perhaps my single favourite building in Canada. I just love it there. I've long dreamed of doing something there, so it was a golden opportunity.

“I started to think what might work there. I was especially intrigued and impressed by the two courts: the Water Court and the Garden Court which are surrounded by the permanent collection galleries on the first and second floor. I imagined the situation where there would be brass players playing upstairs and a mobile choir directed by Christine Duncan, somebody whom I've worked with quite a bit, both in an artistic and a production / logistical way, with a choir directed by her playing or singing from below. A multi-tiered work of this nature.”

The piece will have an interesting tension between composition and improvisation. Thomson has been planning it since last January, with five separate visits to the Gallery to check out the site, the acoustics, and possible routes for the musicians and choir. Each musician and each group of choir members has a separate route mapped out and carefully timed so that they'll meet up at significant locations at the correct moments.

Thomson has also defined musical parameters for the musicians, mostly with tones that are held as the musicians move, and which “correspond to, or are a part of a harmonic series.”

“It was an idea of resonance. It was a practical consideration too because eight brass players playing in a very acoustically live art gallery can turn into musical soup very quickly. … Given the (acoustic) nature of art galleries, it seemed more appropriate to specify this instrumentation rather than leave it open.”

In one of the acoustically live galleries in which Chamber Elements will be performed in, improvising percussionist Jesse Stewart performed solo last summer. He too made use of the resonance, also in a controlled and deliberate manner.

"Working with creative musicians"

But within Thomson's essential parameters, each trumpet or trombone player will be improvising what they play – and most are well-known in the Ottawa and Toronto jazz community for their improvising skills. And while Christine Duncan uses a series of hand movements to conduct the Element Choir, the choir doesn't work with standard musical scores, and the singers have the freedom to use different sounds to respond to Duncan's instructions.

Duncan's Element Choir is composed of amateur and professional vocalists, most from the Ottawa-Gatineau area, and a few who have participated in her choirs elsewhere. They came together for the Ottawa performances and have rehearsed as a group this week.

“I work with creative musicians – people who are comfortable making music in different ways, different modes of structuring music and approaching the structure, and often that involves a combination of prepared material and improvised material, both solo improvisation and collective improvisation. Some parts of my scores are not notated because I am inviting people to offer their own creative contributions,” Thomson said.

“As this series of works has unfolded and developed, I have looked for more nuanced ways to give people parameters in which to play. I'm striving for a certain sound I have in mind, but I don't want to limit someone's freedom. And I find that to be a very interesting challenge. How do you communicate to a bunch of individual musicians how to be free and also how to be accurate? How to play a piece of music with fidelity? It's an interesting philosophical question, but I think I have found a few practical solutions along the way that have allowed me to communicate more clearly with my collaborators.

“It's in the notation, and also in verbal instructions. It's about keeping a sense of humour. You don't want to intimidate [the players]. People are not going to feel free to be creative if you intimidate them. So ideally you can treat the situation as a collegial one and then a social one as well as a professional and artistic one in order to get the best results and have a good time doing it.

"A gorgeous sound"

Why just trumpets and trombones? “In a resonant space, it's a gorgeous sound. It's one I'm very familiar with because I'm a practitioner [as a trombonist].” He also pointed to his productive experience working with Radiant Brass Ensemble and composer John Oswald, which showed him the potential for creating new works with that instrumentation.

 “I think as musicians in general, we'd like our sounds to ring beautifully in space. It's a more multifarious space as opposed to a single theatre space or stage.”

Thomson started working on his “Cartographic compositions” which link music to locations in 2006. “Creative improvised music is often not very well served by the places it gets played, whether that's a bar or cafe or studio space. ...

I started getting interested in an idea where there was more music happening in a particular space, whether and outdoor or architectural space, that would allow an audience member to move freely from thing to thing so there's a composite music being experienced. Given that no one person can hear everything going on, it creates a context where each listening experience is unique.”

At the 2009 Guelph Jazz Festival, for example, he coordinated a project where musicians played while walking on intersecting routes through the city's downtown. “All of my pieces invite the musicians to be creative in different ways. In Guelph, the score was what was on the map. To play the piece correctly as an interpreter was simply to follow the route and stay on course and on time. It was the spatial parameters that I defined. I left the musical parameters wide open. I invited them to play whatever music they wanted, which naturally included the possibility for improvising. All of the musician availed themselves of that option during that piece.”

And then he started to see “the potential for works that would be designed very specifically for architectural spaces that I like and admire and that seemed to be asking for some sort of musical animation. I thought of the AGO as one of those spaces. It was the new Frank Gehry addition that really inspired me. I could imagine the potential right away.”

“I did a piece there in December called “AGOrienteering” for the Radiant Brass Ensemble, a loose collection of Toronto musicians in which everyone was an experienced improviser and interested in non-conventional performance contexts. For AGOrienteering, what I proposed was eight trajectories, eight routes, through the second floor galleries, each starting separately, each ending separately, but they would intersect in placed that I found interesting acoustically, or architecturally, or because there would be art on the wall, or any combination of those. When these routes intersect, the players would be invited to play together for a few minutes, and once completed, they would continue their routes separately. So throughout the piece, there are these little convergences that take place, where two people have stopped to play together. But otherwise the musicians are moving all the time throughout the spaces and playing as they go.”

A sense of wonder

Thomson said the title of the new Ottawa piece, Chamber Elements, derives from multiple sources. “One of them, of course, is to Chamberfest – but also [to] the various chambers that hold the art and that will also house the music that will be played. The references to Elements is primarily to Christine Duncan and her Element Choir projects. But also [to] actual elements: The “Voice of Fire”, the voice of water. We've got stuff happening in the Water Court, we've got stuff happening in the Garden Court: the voice of the earth; the voice of the air: the musicians are pushing air.”

A particular inspiration is Barnett Newman's giant painting, “Voice of Fire”, which dominates one of the Gallery's contemporary art rooms. “I admire [Newman's] dedication to something he believed in and I find his work to be very beautiful. I find it animates space wonderfully. The kinds of things he tried to do with colour, I'd like to do with sound. I would like to achieve something of that sense of wonder that can be the result of his work.”

And once the performance starts on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, what will his role be?

“Listener. I'm looking forward to enjoying myself. I don't know where I'll go. That will be a composerly approach to listening to the piece. But one could also follow their ears and improvise their way through the piece. Both approaches to experiencing the piece are valid.”

    – Brett Delmage and Alayne McGregor

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