Making contemporary Canadian music matter with Montreal’s ECM+

The musicians of ECM+ of Montreal get ready for their Generation 2018 tour.

For 30 years, Montreal’s ECM+ has been leading the way in the performance and celebration of music by contemporary Canadian composers. And for the past decade they have been touring the music of younger artists across Canada. ECM+’s founder and music director Veronique Lacroix has been actively seeking and promoting the work of younger composers for her entire professional career. The work has brought her accolades and has introduced many talented artists to the world. She explained her motivation and this year’s Generation 2018 concert tour as she answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Why is it important to play and listen to contemporary music?

A. Contemporary music is the language composers speak. And these, as many artists, are usually visionary in the way they look at the world around them. Listening to their music is opening your mind to another understanding of things and giving yourself a chance to contemplate the very creative ways the pieces are organized. Having to put such a sound — which sometimes is very complex — in perspective to feel it and/or understand it is  very healthy and constructive.

Q. What is the state of contemporary music in Canada?

A. Contemporary music is always on the move, in much the same way that all artists and creators usually are at the forefront of  social movements and trends. I feel that Canadian composers are particularly inventive and opened minded. They aren’t limited by the restrictions of academia that affects some other parts of the world. For that reason and because I believe in the quality of our music creators, I have been invested in bringing their music to a large audience for the past 30 years and to keep looking for new ways to support new musical practices and works.

Q. Where is ECM+ going with this tour?

A. ECM+ will go across Canada with eight concerts in Banff, Calgary, Vancouver, Montréal, Quebec, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Toronto

Q. Who is playing the music?

A. ECM+ is conducted by myself and founder Veronique Lacroix and can vary in size from six to 20 musicians. For this particular tour, we are 10 musicians: Jeff Storehouse (flute), Martin Gauvreau (clarinet), Antoine St-Onge (bassoon), Laurence Latreille-Gagné (French horn), Pamela Reimer (piano), Olivier Maranda (percussion), Hubert Bxrizard (first violin), Geneviève Liboiron (second violin), Valérie Arsenault (viola) and Chloé Dominguez (cello).

Q. How were you composers selected?

A. Four Canadian composers in their early 30s, James O’Callaghan, Sophie Dupuis, Patrick Giguère and Thierry Tidrow were selected in the summer of 2017 by a national jury. Last February, each composer worked with the musicians of ECM+ in workshops that provided an opportunity for in-depth musical experimentation all leading to the works that will be performed on this tour.

Q. ECM+’s support of young composers has been going for some time. When did it start. Why did it start?

A. The Generation project began in 1994. It meets a need felt by researchers  and artists in every discipline, to be able to experiment with ideas in real situations and optimal conditions. Every two years, four young composers selected by a national jury enjoy this opportunity for 18 months with ECM+. The Generation concerts  and workshops offer an opportunity  for the audience  to better understand  the creative process. 

Generation has worked with 57 composers over the years, many of whom found a place in the Canadian and international  music scene, including Ana Sokolović, Jean-François Laporte, Nicole Lizée, Louis Dufort, Nicolas Gilbert, Anthony Tan, André Ristic, Gordon Fitzell, Paul Frehner and Taylor Brook.

Q. Can you give me a brief history of ECM+?

A. ECM+ has premiered more than 260 works since its founding in 1987. This includes three operas. As an extension of its total commitment to musical creation, the ECM+ regularly integrates new works into major multidisciplinary musical events. ECM+ has been in residence at the Conservatoire de Montréal since 1998. Over the years, ECM+ has released 11 CDs, two of which are dedicated to composer Ana Sokolovic and its concerts are frequently broadcast on Radio-Canada. ECM+ also regularly participates in international festivals, including Cervantino (Mexico), Montreal/New Music (MNM), the Ottawa Chamberfest and ISCM World New Music Days and will soon be heading to the Ars Musica festival in Belgium.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about your own musical background?

A. I completed my musical studies in 1988 at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal. I founded the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal (ECM+) in 1987 to be able to work closely with composers. I have also served as artistic director for several ensembles in Quebec and Ontario.

I’m passionate about creation and I love to discover emerging Canadian composers and showcase their work for the public.

James O’Callaghan, Thierry Tidrow, Sophie Dupuis and Patrick Giguère

Q. Can you talk about the music of the four composers that you will play on Nov. 6.

A. James O’Callaghan‘s music will showcase the particular environmental sound of each of the cities we visit on this tour.  Here is how he describes his work Close-Close:

‘I have researched the acoustics of the different concert halls of the tour to generate musical material that will respond to their resonant frequencies. The form of the work mirrors the trajectory of the tour, structured as a sequence of spaces demarcated by an orchestration of the acoustic response of each hall. Features that are specific to Chloé Dominguez’ cello — who is a soloist with the ensemble in this piece — have guided the work as well. I am treating the cello as an interior space-within-a-space. Finally, field recordings from the larger environments around the work’s performance sites (provided) other source material.

Thierry Tidrow on his piece Sweet Tooth: ‘As with every good western millennial, the first thing I ever learned to do was to consume and want more. Sugar, in this instance, is exemplary of consumerism which ties into the dual nature of the sweet tooth. Sweets make us smile because of their sugar and their presentation, but they also rot our teeth. … In this post-truth age, image is everything: candy is food and advertisements depict real life. A major chord means a happy emoji; a minor chord means a sad emoji. I wanted to play with these codes and clichés and see how I could harvest their energy to highlight the violence hidden behind each major chord.

Sophie Dupuis on her work Elles ont peint le crépuscule de noir et de blanc (They painted dusk in black and white): ‘This piece was inspired by the work of American photographer Gregory Crewdson. His pictures immediately captivated me the first time I saw them. Crewdson aims to capture the state of the characters he creates rather than their actions.

Dim lighting and sensations of space and contemplation are important components of Crewdson’s work, and they inform the musical textures and atmospheres I have chosen to create in this piece. I also identified a few common themes throughout the photographer’s work, including shame, numbness, euphoria, exhaustion, hope and melancholy. These ideas have their own moment in the music. Extremes of emotions appear in extreme sounds (very loud, soft, high, low, harsh or unstable), which are often the result of extended techniques, or unconventional ways of playing the instruments.

Patrick Giguère on his L’inevitable idealism: This is a response to my inner conficts, a possible solution and an artistic commitment, because idealism is inevitable for an artist and for society in general. While everything today is quantifed—calories consumed, number of steps walked, self-esteem measured by the number of social media “likes” I want to dream about the world with unprecedented intensity. If the explorers had not idealized their adventures, if they had tried to plan everything before leaving, I think they would have stayed home. We all live in the “contemporary” world, so why write music that tries to represent it, that tries to be in tune with it and that embraces its wrongs? Why not, rather, write idealistic music that offers a vision of a different better world?

ECM+ presents Generation 2018
NAC Fourth Stage
Nov. 6 at 8 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.