When I was in high school, "alternative" was the title for what became the most popular genre of music, boasting big names like Green Day and Nirvana. Though the movement was born from a backlash against manufactured bands, the music became so mainstream, the straightfaced joke was to ask "alternative to what?" Only recently has the "alternative" label regained its intended connotation and again describes music that doesn't intend to reach a mass audience. From alt-country XM Sirius stations to jazz playlists on Spotify, alternatives are easy to reach and you can delve into obscurity within any genre that intrigues you, stumbling onto new sounds to satisfy your evolving taste. But the very best way to find fresh music is to be guided by experts, which is what Ritornello Chamber Music Festival promises to do for you this coming weekend. Classical is already an "alternative" for many music fans, but even those of us who grew up playing orchestrally or enjoy CBC Radio's Tempo can't keep up with the vast catalogue of pieces so Ritornello offers an exploratory dive into the genre that is (to steal their tagline) "fresh, homegrown, inspired, and original". Sounds fun, right? It is! I caught up with Festival Co-Director Jacqueline Woods to find out what we can expect at this year's festival and why she's convinced that choosing alternatives makes life exciting.
Me: In addition to the chamber component, Ritornello also highlights music that pushes the classical boundaries. Why do you think the new music genre is important to showcase?
J: "New music" gets such a bad rap sometimes, at least when the term is connected to the classical genre! I've always been drawn to it. For me, it's important to hear how today's composers are responding to the world around us, how our contemporary reality is reflected in music. I love the variety of sound available, too, the use of electronic music, extended technique and more percussive sounds...I find fresh new music, be it ugly or pretty, loud or soft, fast or slow, completely weird or minimalist...it gets the conversation started and expands people's idea of what the limits are. Maybe there aren't any!
Me: That creative push you're talking about means the world has a large and ever-expanding wealth of music. So what is it that Ritornello looks for when deciding on artists and compositions?
J: We always try to keep the programs fresh and innovative, while understanding that we often have a totally different audience at each show. A lot of times, the instrumentation inspires the initial direction. If we bring in a quartet, we'll program more quartets, maybe a piano quintet and a string quartet supplemented with local musicians. Bringing in a piano trio of the Gryphon Trio's calibre means we get to program some serious piano trio repertoire like the Ravel Piano Trio, and that's always exciting. Saturday's show is always more avant-garde, so we look for a mix that pushes the envelope a bit, that introduces a different sound world than we're typically accustomed to in Saskatoon's classical chamber music scene.
Me: I think there are a lot of people for whom classical music doesn't feel relevant, but I bet you can make the case against that sentiment!
J: I'd say classical music has had a profound influence on other genres and I would bet the majority of famous musicians in the pop, rock, heavy metal and indie genres began in classical training - that it provided the foundation. Paul McCartney was trained in classical piano (you can certainly hear that influence in the music of the Beatles!), Arcade Fire bassist Richard Reed Parry has Classical training and has written for standard Classical ensembles, and Bryce Dessner, who plays guitar for The National, was trained in classical flute and guitar and has written loads of music for string quartet, orchestra and more. He holds a Master's in Music from Yale. Radiohead's lead guitarist Johnny Greenwood was also classically trained and works with many contemporary ensembles and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Kate Bush. Tori Amos. Owen Pallett. Patrick Watson. Pat Benetar. Van Halen. Led Zeppelin. Bernie Morrell from Parliament-Funkadelic...the list goes on and on. Maygen Kardash of Violent Kin, too? ;-) You also see the influence of classical music in music by people who weren’t classically trained, in music with classical (more densely layered) textures. I’m thinking of David Bowie. Talking Heads. Pink Floyd. Beck….
Me: Point made! But beyond being that fundamental building block for rock and pop, why do you think we should keep pushing to find new ways to explore an old genre?
J: Music is such an important vehicle to share emotions and ideas… Many of these concepts are so timeless that something hundreds of years old remains relevant throughout the ages. It's not just old, but living - that list of people mentioned above barely scratches the surface of people who are continually sharing their view of the world through sound, nevermind all the performers! And the audience plays a role too - music evokes different emotions for every listener so each person attaches their own stories/narratives to what they hear. That’s pretty amazing to me.
Me: To what kind of demographic do you feel the festival speaks?
J: Each concert is so different, I'd say there's really something for everyone. We've been super proud to contribute to growing a new audience, especially with our Saturday show and are seeing an increase in the number of attendees under 35. We also get a lot of first-timers who often comment that they had no idea that they would like it so much!
Me: What has your favourite moment been from Ritornello Festivals past?
J: Hmm. That's a tough one. We've been chipping away at my bucket list as each year goes by....Schoenberg's Transfigured Night with poetry written and recited by Brendan Flaherty especially for the event was pretty special...I also loved perogies and sausage followed by Lara St. John's folk music extravaganza at the Ukrainian Hall...I think every year has had a gem that makes me proud of what we do, and grateful we have the chance to present such high quality shows right here in Saskatoon. :-)
Me: That spoken word portion of the program was magic, I'm so glad I was present! Now tell me a little about what we can expect at this year's festival.
J: Our programs speak to a pretty diverse audience. I’d say if you like supporting local, experiencing live art or experimental music of any sort, or simply love traditional classical chamber music…you’ll enjoy Ritornello. Friday is two beloved Impressionist Piano Trios (Debussy & Ravel) with Sri Lankan-Canadian composer Dinuk Wijeratne's "Love Triangle". I haven't actually heard that one yet, but the title certainly gets me excited! The Ravel is a desert island piece for me, too. Absolutely. And I can't believe it's the Gryphon Trio's first chamber music concert in Saskatoon! We're certainly due!
J: I couldn't be more excited to present Cree cellist Cris Derksen on Saturday. She's just such an interesting musician, mixing traditional Classical and Aboriginal sounds with new technology (looping pedals, drum machine, etc.). Carissa is doing a great work by Nico Muhly for violin and recorded music. I'm collaborating with local composer Darren Miller that night, too. He's composing a unique 88 noise patch system I'll explore live on the spot as he interacts with resonance and volume from his computer. That experience will be a surprise for all involved, I'm sure! We've also commissioned some Radiohead arrangements for unique instrumentation that should be really cool. Oh! And we'll close with Reich's "Clapping Music." That night will definitely be a sound world exploration for all involved. And there's food and an after-show by Minor Matter, too. A definite no-misser that will sell out.
J: Sunday sees the SSO's Erin Brophey (oboe) and Stephanie Unverricht (bassoon) join the Gryphon trio for some real gems. Oh! And Carissa Klopoushak, violinist and Ritornello co-founder/Artistic Director will jump on the viola for that concert, just to mix things up.
Thanks to Jacqueline Woods for taking the time to talk with me about the genre she loves and the upcoming weekend's Festival. For more information and to buy tickets, please visit the Ritornello Chamber Music site by clicking here.