• Sarah Kwok

Wave Warp! November 12

Updated: Nov 11, 2019

Standing Wave presents Wave Warp! on November 12, a playful, provocative, and poignant program of cutting edge chamber music by Christopher Mayo, James Maxwell, Mayke Nas, Alexina Louie, Scott Lee, and Bekah Simms. It's exciting to share more about the world premieres by James B. Maxwell and Christopher Mayo, read on to find out more about their works and the process behind the creation of Finding itself [it] deviates and They Sing and They Clap and They Shout.

James B. Maxwell

James B. Maxwell

Tell me about Finding itself [it] deviates

The piece was commissioned as one of Standing Wave’s “20th Remixes”—short works by contemporary composers that are either arrangements of, or draw inspiration from, works of the 20th century. The timing was perfect, as I’ve lately found myself drawn to the notion of engaging compositionally with music that has made a strong impression on my life. In particular, I'm interested in digging deeply into tiny fragments of such music; fragments which have somehow crystallized the affect I associate with those works—a kind of musical haecceity. Stravinsky’s violin concerto is one such work, and I chose to dig into a passage of around 7 measures from the third movement (Aria II). During this passage there is a conspicuous, and thunderous, rest. It is totally unprepared, and the music continues afterward as if nothing happened. It’s oddly breathtaking and has always struck me as incredibly poignant. For my “remix” I wanted to put that rest under a microscope, drawing the surrounding material into a kind of frozen moment—an eternal present. 

What was your compositional process for this work?

During that period of his musical output Stravinsky was devoted to contrapuntal writing, so that harmony arose as a kind of byproduct of the continuation of motivic lines. When I began to look at my chosen 7 measures in detail, I discovered how rich and stunning these “resultant" harmonies were and found myself compelled to bring them to the foreground. Simple enough solution; I stretched them out to the breaking point! Hearing them in this way, their sonorities took on new relationships, and began to suggest different temporal settings and proportions. It was fascinating and inspiring! To counter this overt harmonic extrusion, I used the rhythmic figure that precedes “the rest” as the basis for a percussive motif, which drives the piece gently forward from below, marking time, and reframing the rest as both beginning and ending; a kind of perpetual stammer.

Christopher Mayo

Christopher Mayo

Tell me about They Sing and They Clap and They Shout

They Sing and They Clap and They Shout is based on the songs of Swedish-American labour activist Joe Hill (1879-1915). Hill was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, an international labour union founded on principles of “revolutionary industrial unionism”, and he contributed numerous protest songs to their “Little Red Songbook”. In 1915, Hill was executed for murder in Salt Lake City after a lengthy and widely-publicized trial. The IWW—and many subsequent historians—have maintained that Hill was framed, and he has since been held up as a martyr for the labour movement. After his execution by firing squad, his ashes were divided into 600 packets and sent to various branches of the IWW and their allies. The ashes were marked with the epitaph: “Joe Hill murdered by the capitalist class, Nov. 19, 1915”. 

They Sing and They Clap and They Shout incorporates many of Joe Hill’s songs, or, more specifically, many performances of his songs. The piece is peppered with transcriptions of tiny fragments from performances by Joe Glazer, Cisco Houston, Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock, Pete Seeger, Earl Robinson, Barbara Dane and, particularly, Swedish folk singer Finn Zetterholm (drawn from his 1969 album Joe Hill på svenska)

Joe Hill travelled across America lending his voice and his songs to IWW strikes and protests. In 1912 he travelled to British Columbia where he joined the Fraser River railway strikes and composed several new songs specifically for the striking workers. These included “Where the Fraser River Flows” based on the then-popular tune “Where The River Shannon Flows” by James I. Russell. They Sing and They Clap and They Shout incorporates a recording of “Where the Fraser River Flows” by the great American folk singer and activist Utah Phillips, used here with the generous permission of his estate.

They Sing and They Clap and They Shout takes its title from Joe Hill’s most famous song “The Preacher and the Slave” in which he coined the phrase “pie in the sky”:

Long-haired preachers come out every night

Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right

But when asked how 'bout something to eat 

They will answer in voices so sweet

You will eat, bye and bye

In that glorious land above the sky

Work and pray, live on hay 

You'll get pie in the sky when you die.

What was your compositional process for this work? 

Recently I’ve been really interested in collage and transcription. In this piece, I took tiny fragments from recordings of Joe Hill’s songs and created a sort of demo version of the piece just made up of these samples. At that stage of the process, I tried not to think too much about how any of the music would work for the ensemble, I just wanted to create something that I felt worked as a convincing piece of music in its own right. When I then came to transcribe this electronic demo for the six instruments of Standing Wave (flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, and cello) I was faced with the challenge that a lot of the material didn’t lend itself well to the instruments I had at my disposal. This self-imposed challenge was sort of the point from the outset; I wanted to develop a sound world that was going to be very difficult to re-create for the ensemble so that the transcription process would necessitate coming up with interesting creative solutions.

This was very similar to the process for the last piece I wrote for Standing Wave, an arrangement of Reinhold Glière’s Symphony 3 in B minor in which I gave myself the challenge of reducing an 80-minute work for large orchestra to a 12-minute work for sextet.

I can tell you're intrigued and want to experience these works yourself, so go and hear the world premieres of James B. Maxwell's Finding itself [it] deviates and Christopher Mayo's They Sing and They Clap and They Shout plus more when Standing Wave presents Wave Warp! on November 12, 7:30pm at the Annex.

More information: http://www.standingwave.ca/upcoming-2/

James B. Maxwell: https://www.jamesbmaxwell.com/

Christopher Mayo: https://www.christophermayo.net/

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