Evan [Mazunik] and I were recently the featured guest artists at the Horn Festival of the Montreal Conservatory. The host, Louis-Philippe Marsolais has long been one of my heroes of the horn – a brilliant musician and wonderful, warm, interesting, funny person. Louis-Philippe apparently did not shy away from Something Completely Different, i.e. the creative music that Evan and I enjoy doing. He kept us busy (which we like); the first draft of the schedule did not even include lunch.
I arrived Friday and was picked up at the airport by the delightful Nadia Côté, who showed me around the area (Le Plateau) of my B&B, which was about an 8 minute walk to the Conservatoire. Montreal from the air look huge; this neighborhood was fascinating, inviting and full of life – people everywhere, little specialty shops, restaurants. Buildings mostly no more than 2 or 3 stories. Completely charming.
Saturday morning. Day of the horn festival. As I was getting ready to go to the Conservatoire, there was a knock on the door. It was Evan, who had gotten up at about Zero Dark Thirty in NYC and catching a really early flight. It was great to see him; although we Skype quite a bit, the last time we played together was last May in NYC (we did an improv concert with cellist Gil Selinger. The three of us make up the trio Duende. Although we don’t get together very often, we do have a CD: “Mosaic” [MSR Classics], where we took Renaissance and medieval music as sources for improvisation).
It was a short walk to the Conservatoire. We had a little bit of time to practice one piece, a brand new piece of mine (about a week old) called (for now) Down and Dirty – not exactly a blues, but bluesy. It was a little tune that came to me the week before, and I wrote it down before it was lost. There was a theme (with chords) and then a lot of improv, some over the chords, some more free. We ran through it once. That was all we were going to get until we performed it that evening.
I gave a presentation in the recital hall at 10 right after that rehearsal entitled “Getting Control of the Drunken Monkey” – about dealing with stage presence, performance anxiety, and peak performance.
Then I had a 2-hour rehearsal with 8 brave new-to-improv players: we were to rehearse (or perhaps just “hearse” – since this was improv, there was no re- anything) a group improvisation piece to be performed that evening on the concert.
This is a tall order – one rehearsal with people who don’t improvise, but who then must perform in concert that very evening. Two things helped: 1) the talent and wonderful attitudes and spirit of adventure of all the players and 2) Soundpainting. Soundpainting is a great way to get a novice group to improvise together in short order: the conductor, using gestures, asks for something general (Long Tone); the player then supplies the specific. We went over some of the basic Soundpainting gestures, and then I had them scatter around the back edges of the hall. I then asked for various sounds: air sounds, drone, hit, 2 note fifth interval. After a while, I had them come to the stage (while making air sounds). We did two more games: 1) dueling alphorns (4 horns played a drone; for other horns played slow, lyrical alphorn duets in turn) 2) bebop alphorns (more rhythm, faster tempo, and they were able use some kind of extended techniques – flutter tongue, bends, etc.) – very little SP in this one.
Evan had another group and did a Soundpainting piece. I love to watch/hear him work – he is one of the best SP conductors anywhere.
More rehearsals after lunch. [lunch story: I went to eat at a middle eastern restaurant nearby – great food, but they mistakenly tried to bill my card for $136,000 instead of $13.60, and the bank instantly froze my account, making the wise assumption that a card that suddenly starts having huge charges in another country should locked down]. We rehearsed two movements of my Ostinato Suite for 2 horns and (improvised) percussion. This was fun. The 2nd horn, LP2 (Louis-Pierre) was a fabulous low horn player, and the percussionist, Eduard, was excellent. We did movements II and IV of it: Elegy and African Bell. Eduard added brushes on snare to the Elegy and played djembe on African Bell (including a solo). I love percussion; my studio at UI is full of it (used for my improv class and Creativity in Music class); using it here makes the Ostinato (2 horns – duet) a much more interesting piece.
One more rehearsal. Don Haddad did an arrangement some years back built around the theme of R. Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel for 4 horns, bass and drums. We added piano (Evan, working from the bass part, which had the chords). I got a surprise: I thought I was going to take a solo over measures 50-60, but it turned out that, no, it was supposed to be measures 20-50. Evan took a solo over the same measures and he was as brilliant as ever.
Rehearsals concluded, Evan and I walked back to the B&B for about a half hour of down time. That went quickly. We changed into concert clothes and went to dinner, a Thai restaurant on the way. Nice place, good food, but glacial service: there were only two other tables occupied when we got there, but when we finally got our food the place was full and it was 50 minutes later (we were about 30 seconds from leaving). We had to wolf down the otherwise delicious fare. Malheureusement.
The concert was in the recital hall at 7:00 pm. Evan and I were on second with “Down and Dirty” – the world premiere. It was really fun. Evan started “in outer space” – in a completely different, disjunct, atmospheric style that gradually became a vamp in Bb minor. Then I entered with the tune, which we traded off. We both took solos over the chords, then went into a free section using melodic motifs from the tune as source material. At one point Evan stopped and I did a free form quasi-cadenza. Then vamp, tune, and free form coda back to outer space. Very fun.
My improv group was 4th on the program. We started with me facing the audience and the group scattered around the margins of the hall. We used Soundpainting as described above in the rehearsal. It went very well – I admire and commend them for their skill and bravery – performing an improvisation on the day that they first try it out!
6th on the program: Evan and I performed my September Elegy for natural horn in Eb and piano, written as a response to the tragedy of 9/11. There are 4 sections – Prologue – Chorale – Reflection – Epilogue. Only the Chorale is written out; the rest are improvised with a style. Reflection is a piano solo. It is a very moving piece and it is different every time.
More pieces of various sorts with the amazingly talented Montreal hornists… The last piece on the first half was the Till Eulenspiegel piece, with Louis-Philippe on Cor 1. Very fun stuff.
That was the first half. It is now 9:30 pm. There is so much talent in this town that it’s hard to fit it into a normal time slot.
Evan started the 2nd half with a Soundpainting with his group. Evan is a brilliant SP conductor and teacher. I always marvel at what he does and how he does it. The group was wonderful.
3rd on the second half was Evan and me playing “Sonata Libera”, which just meant we were going to make up the whole piece as we went. This time we had help from an audience member, who was asked to pick out any three notes at the piano. He chose C, G, and B, and we were off, building a piece around that motif. I wish there was a recording; I remember having a joyous and satisfied feeling creating the piece with Evan.
Evan played piano in the next extravaganza piece: an arrangement of Bohemian Rhapsody for a whole stageful of horns, Wagner Tuben, and percussion, plus Evan. Sensational!
Then came me playing my Ostinato Suite (Elegy; African Bell) with Louis-Pierre Bergeron (virtuoso low horn!) and Edouard Michaud backing us up with completely improvised percussion (he just listened and came up with his part). It was a complete pleasure to play with these guys.
That was it for our scheduled appearances, although the last number was a Chasse and they called everybody on stage to join in, so I quickly grabbed my horn out of the case and join the throng, which filled the stage. The piece was for horn in D, and apparently no one there had any trouble transposing.
The concert concluded at 10:42 pm. A marathon of fun and talent. LP – idea: make it a two day event next year? Too much talent in one place!
Postscript: I went out with Louis-Philippe and his students afterwards to a charming place with a lot of tables that we could push together. A perfect ending to a wonderful time. I got to do some catch-up with an old friend – John Zirbel, solo horn of the Montreal Symphony – whom I last saw many decades ago when we were both in school at the U of Wisconsin. John looked as youthful as ever (he must have a painting in his attic that is aging) and it was fun catching up on the oceans of water under the bridge after all these years.
That was my time in Montreal – so much fun in a very short time. I’m ready to go back and do it again any time! Merci beaucoup, Louis-Philippe!