Billed as "a concert and outreach activities dedicated to the politicized work" of the late James Tenney, this final night (October 15) of 2017's X Avant programming offered a career retrospective examining nearly 30 years of the composer's work.
In his practice and community, Tenney emphasized the value of the audience over the composer, notably suggesting to mentor Steve Reich that "the composer isn't privy to anything." Instead of using music to convey ideas, he wanted to create environments that would encourage audiences to open themselves up to the world around them.
At 918 Bathurst, that focus resonated deep throughout an impressive world premiere of Timbre Ring, a piece Tenney wrote in 1971. Instructively open-ended, requiring "any number of definitely pitched instruments," this mounting gathered musicians and sounds from an impressive variety of disciplines to circle the seated audience and trade brief, conscious drones upon gestures. Assembling the seemingly incompatible likes of the orchestrally trained Tanya Charles (violin), Cuban jazz trumpeter Alexis Baro, hurdy gurdy experimentalist Ben Grossman, steel pan drummer Alejandro Cespedes, Louis Simã (accordion), DOOMSQUAD's Allie Blumas (flute) and more, each performer took numerous turns exploring timbral variations on the same note, all free to swim about the room's natural acoustics, unamplified.
If viscerally overwhelming and disorienting, it was a poignant display of psychoacoustics that forced you to take stock of the physical space you occupied. Unfortunately, there was very little else in the program to suggest Tenney's work has anything to offer the contemporary realm of political action.
As a result of consultation with the Music Gallery's artistic advisory committee and the wider community, we were spared a mounting of the appropriative Ain't I A Woman, but the sensitivity seemed looser elsewhere.
Pika-Don — which features voice recordings of first-hand accounts of the 1945 "Trinity" atom bomb test in New Mexico and young Japanese women and children that witnessed the Hiroshima bombings — avoided the exclusion. All of the voices reading those accounts on tape were white, so while we were told it underwent a similar community consultation as Ain't I A Woman, it's difficult reconciling how this made it onto the night's program.
In an introduction to the piece, Dacks offered that, "While Pika-Don could be said to exploit the testimony of Japanese victims, I don't think that it's equivalent to the ongoing power relationship between black and white folks in U.S. and Canada," describing the lack of poetic license taken on the piece as "successfully journalistic" by comparison. That's fair enough, but the gradient difference doesn't exempt the work from scrutiny as white art built on racialized suffering. Indeed, panel speaker Parmela Attariwala noted this decision might have been symptomatic of "being less conscious of being sensitive to Asian [subjects]."
The threads connecting Pika-Don to the Music Gallery community are also tellingly short — the piece features contributions from an important generation of figures and patrons in the institution's history, including readings from Paul Dutton, a member of the CCMC (which founded the MG in 1976), as well as Allison Cameron, whose works have also been featured and commissioned by the MG over the years.
Despite their shortcomings, couching these performances in historically-minded social criticisms did build an important layer of contemporary resistance into an evening revisiting the contributions of an artist that is often celebrated for his "socially conscious" works — but the costs seemed to outweigh the benefits.