Chamberfest: Tom Allen reaches across the distance in Exosphere

Bryce Kulak and Patricia O'Callaghan, Tom Allen, centre seated and Lori Gemmell. All four are in Exosphere at Chamberfest.

Tom Allen wanted to be a professional trombone player. That was the plan and it stayed the dream until he turned 30.

Let him tell it.

“I started as a musician. I worked hard at it, but it became pretty clear to me that by the time I was 30, storytelling and language were where my greatest strengths were.”

The epiphany happened when he went to the CBC to talk to a friend who was a producer who had recorded me with a brass quintet I was playing in.

“I shadowed him for a day. He was directing As It Happens at the time and it just was fascinating to me.

“I looked around for a freelance gig and I got one and six months later I had a job” on what was then known as the stereo network.

That led to a career on the radio, first on Radio 2 and then he hosted Fresh Air on Radio 1 for awhile and these days he’s back on Radio 2 with the show called Shift.

You see Allen has a gift for the gab. He likes to talk and he likes to tell stories. That explains radio and it also explains these storytelling shows (with music) that he concocts with his partner Lori Gemmell.

He’s been doing them for years now. In fact at Ottawa Chamberfest he’s presented seven. And he’s back this year with another called Exosphere. It can be seen on July 30.

More about that later.

Allen ascribes his storytelling habit/passion/career to genetics starting with his grandfather who was a member of the fundamentalist protestant sect called the Plymouth Brethren.

Grandpa was a preacher and loved to tell Bible stories in revival meetings on the beaches of southern England. Family lore has it that the old man was pretty good at preaching and what’s a good sermon if not a good story.

That ability bumped down to Tom’s dad and then to Tom. Must have been quite a dinner table.

Exosphere is a product of that family talent.

It is a mix of storytelling, classical music and more contemporary pieces.

The central piece is by the Quebec composer and harpist Caroline Lizotte. It’s called the Suite Galactique for solo harp (2000).

One of the movements of the suite is called Exosphere.

“In Caroline’s very imaginative narrative, it is about hydrogen atoms bravely leaving the atmosphere and entering the great beyond,” Allen said.

“I took that inspiration and created a story around the idea.”

It’s about a father and daughter who have been separated by distance. The daughter is in a ship that is orbiting the earth in the exosphere and the father has to try and reach her and connect with her.

“The forces in the exosphere at play are solar radiation tugging away at those hydrogen atoms pulling them away from the earth and gravity holding everything down.” It’s a handy metaphor for family relationships,” he said.

The shows are sort of a natural growth out of his life as a trombone player, his gift for storytelling and his 15-year marriage to Lori Gemmell.

“We both have a love of and history with music and storytelling.”

The shows have even improved his relationship with his trombone.

“I have a more positive relationship with the instrument now than I have had in a long time. I really love playing it. I don’t get to play it much now but when I do I enjoy it and this project is one of those opportunities.”

Anyone who plays a brass instrument will tell you that if you don’t practice regularly it’s tough to pick it up again.

Allen handles it this way: “I’m a crammer. It’s brutal. The first day, the first week, it’s takes about three weeks for me to get back to reasonable shape.”

These “chamber musicals,” as he calls them are a “nice way to keep in touch with the musical language.”

He has been working with the same group of performers for about a decade now.

“It’s really satisfying because we know each other well. There is a great deal of trust.”

Allen comes up with the stories and then develops them with Gemmell.

“There is a subconscious thing. I try not to question too much why I want to do this and let the idea tell me what I am trying to do.

“(Exosphere) was a little elusive. I had a chunk of time set aside last January I when was going to write the story. I had been thinking about it for a couple of years and I knew what I was going to do and I sat down to write and it wasn’t there.

“So I had to throw up my hands and say, ‘Come to me when you are ready’ and a couple of months later it did.

“It’s a funny process but in this case what is really compelling is that it’s about this coming together across distance. That is inherent in families, even at the same dinner table every night can be vast distances.

“Lori and I have a son and we have been working on trying to get the best way to connect with him.”

His two older children from a previous marriage are now young adults and are starting to leave home.

“There is a sense that we will be navigating distance. Whatever love we have had and can share as parents will be done over time and space and that’s a different challenge.

“When we do get to be together today, there is a sense that this connection has to happen now and that’s never a positive thing.

He has learned that it doesn’t work if you only try to make the big days the all important time. Christmas, birthdays and holidays are always be fraught and difficult.

“The real gold is in the everyday moments when real connection happens.”

Allen’s shows have explored the lives of the composers.

In Exosphere, there is music by Brahms, Shostakovich and Khachaturian.

“These composers wouldn’t want to be excluded because they are dead. It doesn’t mean their music can’t be played with.

“I’m not a very good gardener but when I watch people who are good at it, they aren’t tender with plants. They beat them up and push them around.

“Brahms can’t help but beautiful if treated with respect and heart. But you don’t have to treat it as a dusty museum piece.”

In many cases the music is also an illustration for his story. It’s like a picture book.

“In the best case, the mind is listening to the story and creating an image. The music will inform that and expand on the image.”

Interestingly enough the music for Exosphere includes a pioneering piece of electronic music by Hugh Le Caine, who was physicist, composer and the inventor of the synthesizer in the 1940s. Le Caine called his invention the Electronic Sackbut. The piece of music is Dripsody (1955)

In 1955, Allen said, Le Caine was in Port Arthur (now part of Thunder Bay). Using an eye-dropper, he recorded a single drop of water that he dropped in a steel milk bucket containing two inches of water. Le Caine recorded the sound and used a variable speed tape recorder to create a “marvelous, evocative” piece that is about three minutes long.

And Allen has commissioned a new work for Exosphere by the composer and sound designer John Gzowski, that is based on Dripsody. The Gzowski piece is called Drips Odyssey.

Chamberfest presents Tom Allen’s Exosphere
Where: Ottawa Art Gallery
When: July 30 at 10 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.