This Saturday in Hintonburg Park, some 250 people of all ages and all skills will gather to do something unique in Ottawa. They’ll pick up their bows and their stringed instruments and join together in a performance of a piece of music called Spectre by composer John Oswald.
It’s an effort in community building through music by the Chamberfest and an organization called Music in the Barns called #1000 Strings.
The concept is the brainchild of Carol Gimbel, an American violist with strong ties to Canada. It’s been done before in 2018 in Toronto.
Gimbel is a typical musician. She started playing classical music as a child in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area. Today she runs an organization called Music in the Barns.
In an interview she told ARTSFILE that “I am focused on storytelling and community building, whether it is a viola recital or a Music in the Barns project.
“I leverage the nature of a concert — bringing people together in a shared experience — as an opportunity to make a statement about art, artistry and the world around us.
“My aim is to engage new and seasoned audiences alike in enriching experiences and to support organizations by designing concerts that create entry points for broad demographics.
“The most important piece that I would like to stress, is this is designed from the music out. It honours the music and our art form as the centrepiece.”
The #1000 Strings concept is part of this.
The spark for the first #1000Strings was a Music in the Barns performance of Oswald’s Spectre in 2013 at the Drake Underground in Toronto.
“It was the opening piece for a 360 degree concert and film experience,” Gimbel said. “The challenge was to design a concert that weaved through the screening of four videos entitled The Shift in a night club environment” that also incorporated progressive dance, film, activism, beat boxing and electronic music.
“How to fit a classical quartet into that bill?,” she said. “Spectre created an amazing opening effect rising out of an open A and taking over the entire room with its blast of a sound. It was so profound that the entire audience sat down on the floor (there were no seats in the venue),” she said.
Afterwards, one of the performers, Rosina Kazi of LAL, asked about Spectre and how it functioned.
“And as I told her, she spontaneously said “You should play the backing track live.” The backing track in this case was a recording of the Kronos Quartet playing which was layered 1000 times to create the unique sound of Spectre.” Oswald created the piece for Kronos.
Gimbel took the idea and allowed it to ferment.
Later she attended a meeting of the INTERsection music festival in which the directors were discussing programming and “I thought, what a perfect project to suit how they were looking to engage audiences, expand their reach and make an impact.”
A year later, in 2015, the festival approached her about putting the idea on.
“In four weeks #1000Strings was performed and the production had gone practically viral in Toronto,” she said. She kept notes on how she pulled the performance off in Toronto and that path has been followed in Ottawa.
As for the composer, John Oswald will be in Ottawa this Saturday. The Canadian composer has forged an interesting career in music including his concept of Plunderphonics.
“Plunderphonics is a term I coined back in the mid-’80s for the act of making familiar music sound absolutely new in some way,” he said in an email.
“You’ve heard of mash-ups? They’re a sub-genre of Plunderphonics. Spectre was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet in 1990. They invited me to steal their sounds to make something new.”
As a composer, “I like the sound of many string players playing together. As a youngster I listened to records by the 101 Strings Orchestra, even though I knew there were fewer players than that in the recording studio.
“I used similar techniques to record Kronos, with no amplification or distortion, artificial reverberation or additives.”
“In the original program notes for Spectre I was able to make a pun: ‘Recordings of Kronos fill Spectre.’
“The name hidden in the pun is the producer, Phil Spector, who created what was called ‘the wall of sound’ in pop music in the ’60s. I endeavoured to make a bigger wall of sound by overdubbing a thousand quartets. The official title for this version for a larger ensemble is Spectre for 1001 String Reflections.”
The piece for Kronos was to be about 5 or 6 minutes long. And, he said, it made sense “to include the recorded track with the live quartet, because they travel with their own sound technician. I figured that a confusing blend of a live acoustic quartet and a gradual accumulation of its recorded dopplegangers, could be quite magical.”
Oswald says — presumably tongue in cheek, but then again — that he was writing with 16,384 strings in mind. “That’s 4,096 musicians, or 1,024 quartets. These are the numbers when you simply multiply by four a half dozen times.”
The quartet version has been performed hundreds of times Kronos, Oswald said, as well as by a dozen or so other quartets.
He’ll be in Ottawa because “this large string ensemble version is very much a work-in-progress which requires much fine tuning, so to speak; both tuning the players into the piece, and tuning the piece to each particular situation and location. If I’m not there it’s not my work.”
Spectre was premiered by Kronos at New Music America in Montreal in 1990 at a rock hall called the Spectrum, which is now closed. At the time it was Oswald’s first composition for live musicians in 15 years.
The 250 musicians performing on Saturday afternoon will rehearse and play Spectre on the same day, says Travis Croken, Chamberfest’s community engagement officer.
The players will be led by some impressive talent including Grammy-winning violinist James Ehnes and the Gryphon trio’s Roman Borys and Annalee Patipatanakoon along with local string-player celebrities.
“When Carol approached us about doing this mass community piece it caught our attention right away.” Chamberfest is interested in community engagement efforts and using music to change lives, Croken said, especially if it’s something that hasn’t been done here before.
Chamberfest and Carol Gimbel held meetings with various community organizations such as Suzuki Strings and OrKidstra they explained the concept and “everyone we spoke to was just thrilled with the concept.”
The organizers pulled together a list of organizations and started recruiting. People have registered and the organizers created a list of participants and potential leaders of each of violins, violas, cellos and double basses.
They are aiming for 250 participants; the equivalent of #1000strings.
“The hardest part about the recruitment is the fact that it’s in the summer.” People are on holidays.
Hintonburg Park works for Chamberfest because of its location in an art-interested community. So does the work Spectre.
“It’s not often that you have a piece of music that is really accessible to amateurs and professionals. Everyone can participate.”
On Saturday at 11 a.m. there will be an open dress rehearsal with the leaders and the composer. They will do a half hour masterclass of sorts. The actual performance will be at 11:30 a.m.
Chamberfest and Music in the Barns present #1000Strings
Where: Hintonburg Park
When: Aug. 3 at 11 a.m.
This is a free event. For information: chamberfest.com