March 20, 2015
The world of classical music can be a strange place. The genre is almost entirely composed of musicians playing music by other people, different from nearly every other genre out there (except maybe jazz).
There’s an important reason for this—the music often requires a large number of people to perform. A symphony orchestra can have over 80 musicians, a situation far different than your typical rock band.
Another reason is that the music can be really difficult, so difficult in fact, that the composers who write the music often can’t play what they’ve written. This is part of the reason why there is a separate profession for performers and composers.
All this has been the norm for classical music during the last couple of centuries.
Stranger yet, for the past 120 years (roughly), classical musicians have been mostly performing music written before 1900. This means that the last 115 years of music have been almost entirely neglected.
The truth is, there’s been plenty of classical music written since 1900, and lots of it is really good. So why is no one performing it and who are these hard-working composers writing music for?
One Canadian pianist has the answers to both these questions. Eve Egoyan, (sister of famed director Atom Egoyan) has devoted her entire artistic life to the performance and promotion of music written by…wait for it…living composers.
Recently, Egoyan was in Calgary to give a concert of modern piano compositions and that was where she sat down to speak with me about what it’s like to be one of the rare musicians committed to playing new classical music.
“What’s strange is the idea of the separation between contemporary and classical,” Egoyan begins. “Everyone in Beethoven’s time all the way up to about Liszt were part of a tradition of interpreters performing music from their own time.”
This seems obvious. When we listen to other genres of music we’re listening to musicians that are performing music from the last century that they’ve, for the most part, written themselves.
Turn on CBC Radio 2 in the morning however, and you’re mostly going to hear music that’s at least 150 years old and mostly by a handful of guys, namely Bach, Handel, Beethoven, and Mozart.
At an Eve Egoyan concert, you’re going to hear music by someone that you could e-mail the next day. This is something that attracted Egoyan to this area of performance. “I felt very connected to working with living people and communicating their intentions, being closer to the creative source and feeling more true about what I was doing.”
A small excerpt from the second movement of Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto, performed by Mitsuko Uchida and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
Egoyan saw the majority of her pianist colleagues only performing music from a very limited canon, leaving out a whole generation of composers as a result.
She sees this as something that began in the period around the two World Wars, influencing the creation of art that was “difficult and dark” as she describes it.
As the world began to change so did the music, but the stigma remains. “There’s so many different genres that composers today explore,” says Egoyan. “But unfortunately that feeling of something that’s difficult or dark still lingers.”
Watching Egoyan perform makes you wonder why this stigma continues to exist. Her persona and playing exude warmth and passion, a good fit for an audience experiencing music they’ve never heard before.
Egoyan’s concerts feature music so new that it’s often the first time any audience member will be hearing the pieces–a fact she has to always be aware of. “The performer has the responsibility to give the audience a path that is as clear as possible,” says Egoyan.
A big part of what Egoyan does, alongside playing new music, is creating working relationships with the composers. Her relationship with Southam has been one of the most significant thus far.
An excerpt of Eve Egoyan performing Maria de Alvear’s piece Asking, which initially caught Ann Southam’s attention.
After becoming close friends, Egoyan began to work closely with Southam on many of her later works up until her death in 2010. One of the pieces that came from this collaboration was the hour-long Simple Lines of Enquiry, which she performed in Calgary.
Speaking about her relationships with composers, Egoyan says: “It’s an aesthetic relationship with somebody. You can’t force it. How do you pick a friend or your favourite food? You can’t really express it, but it’s there and it’s powerful. It somehow reflects who you are.”
Simple Lines of Enquiry was powerfully paired with a video created specifically for its performance by visual artist David Rokeby. Egoyan has been exploring the pairing of visuals and sounds as a response to our increasingly visual culture. She explains that she wants to see if “there’s a happy medium between the visual and the sound where they both complement each other.”
Eve Egoyan in a performance of Surface Tension, a previous collaboration with David Rokeby, at Nuit Blanche in 2011.
In this case, the idea came off extremely well. Not only did the video mesh perfectly with the meditative qualities of Southam’s composition, but it gave the audience the choice to focus on either the visual or aural aspects of both works. Indeed, the crowd, so captivated over the course of her performance, remained still with awe.
Eve Egoyan and David Rokeby discuss their collaboration with the Toronto Social Review.
Performances like these are part of what Egoyan is trying to achieve as an artist. Although the music may at times be complex, Egoyan is passionate and direct about her dedication to bringing the art to the public’s attention. She wants people to listen.
“It should really just be about the experience of listening to something new and being open to it,” she says.
It’s because of artists like her that many more of us will.
Questions, comments, or just want to talk music? Contact me: