Milestone for music series that demands listening, even in silence

What: A Place to Listen: R. Andrew Lee, piano.

When/where: Wed., April 15, 7 p.m., James Bay United Church (517 Michigan St.).

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Tickets: $10, students $5.

 

On Wednesday, the contemporary-music series A Place to Listen will sponsor a recital by the widely admired pianist R. Andrew Lee, a 32-year-old new-music specialist who lives in Denver, Colorado.

This will be the 25th concert presented by A Place to Listen, an impressive milestone for a series that is less than three years old and is devoted to repertoire that even some contemporary-music fans might consider rarefied.

“Rather than a concert series, this is a listening series,” says its co-founder, pianist and composer Daniel Brandes. It explores “the relationships between sound and silence, audience and performer, performer and score,” by creating a “quiet place” where listeners can penetrate deeply into the music.

Not surprisingly, the series focuses on compositions that create “radically quiet, intimate and immersive soundworlds,” though it has ranged widely within this repertoire. It has even included two concerts featuring harpsichordist Colin Tilney, in mixed programs of early and new music.

The series has frequently been a showcase for Wandelweiser, a loose, international collective of musicians and other artists that was founded in Berlin in 1992. Its member composers, according to Lee, “have a particular interest in duration and silence;” their music is “minimal” in the sense of being “stripped of anything unessential, and silence is only broken when necessary.”

Wandelweiser composers often describe their work using a neat oxymoron: “silent music.”

Brandes, 29, is a Wandelweiser member. A native of Windsor, Ont., he moved here from Guelph, Ont., in 2008 to pursue a master’s degree in music at the University of Victoria, which he completed in 2010. In the summer of 2012, he and his wife, Laura Brandes, participated in an intensive three-week mentoring program with one of Wandelweiser’s founders, in Düsseldorf, Germany.

The couple had already been involved in mounting occasional new-music concerts in Victoria, but the “life-changing experience” in Düsseldorf, he says, “left us with a more refined vision of what A Place to Listen could be, and gave us new inspiration and courage to embark on it.”

Since it was launched, in October 2012, the series has consisted of concerts given monthly from October through June, in the cozy, charming confines of James Bay United Church, and it has become the nucleus of a close-knit group of like-minded local musicians, from which an in-house performing ensemble has emerged.

(Plans are afoot to present, next season, additional concerts in other communities, perhaps including Saturna Island and Vancouver.)

Lee’s recital program comprises four works, all by Wandelweiser members. It includes German composer Eva-Maria Houben’s 6 short partitas, which, Lee says, “concerns itself with the decay of sound. There are simple melodies that are allowed to float in space, long, sustained bass notes, and beautiful chorale sections.” Composed for Lee, 6 short partitas will receive its world première on Wednesday.

(Another impressive statistic: To date, A Place to Listen has presented the world premières of 21 works — 15 by Canadians, 12 written especially for the series — as well as eight Canadian premières.)

Also represented on the program is another German, Jürg Frey; an American, Craig Shepard; and a Canadian, Mark Hannesson, who is an assistant professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton (he will be present at the concert).

The music is all “quiet” and “minimal,” though also substantial. Indeed, music like this tends to be “minimal” only in terms of its musical materials. In terms of its duration, it is often “maximal:” Sound and silence interact at a very deliberate pace, and time can seem altogether suspended, with an almost hypnotic effect.

With such music, Lee says, “you are invited into a space that is considerably more than the sum of its parts.”

Lee, incidentally, has released seven CDs on the Irritable Hedgehog label, all featuring major works of “silent music” by composers including Frye, Houben and the late Canadian Ann Southam. They have not gone unnoticed: In 2013 alone, his Houben CD was selected as one of the year’s notable classical albums by The New Yorker, and his recording of Dennis Johnson’s five-hour-long November was named the best classical album of the year by Time Out New York.

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