Encount3rs in a hurricane: Composer Andrew Staniland creates a musical storm

Andrew Staniland. Photo Bo Huang

When Andrew Staniland was first contacted about writing a new score for a new dance work with the Alberta Ballet, the choreographer Jean Grand-Maître told him to expect something in the mail.

In a few days an envelope arrived containing a file full of ideas, all of which exploring the  Golden Ratio, that one mathematical formula that seems to govern nature itself.

The ratio is found in storms and in spirals; in flowers and in the human form.

It was serendipity. Staniland had already been captured by mystery of Phi for some time.

He is a rising star in the field of Canadian composition. This year he was nominated for a JUNO award for his composition Dark Star Requiem. The work was also nominated for best classical album, vocal and choral.

He has also become an inventor of new musical instruments. Much of his work takes him in different directions and there isn’t always available sources of sound. So he has invented his own.

In an interview with ARTSFILE, he talked about the work he has written for the dance work called Caelistis that will premiere as part of the Encount3rs series of dance works on April 20. It began with a phone call saying, “‘Send me some scores, I can’t tell you why’. So I just sent them. I wondered why but I sent them anyway.

“Then there were a few more requests for information and then all of a sudden I got this offer. I have collaborated with dancers before but never like this. It was the kind of commission you move things for.

“Then Jean contacted me and said, ‘I’m going to send you a package and let’s talk after that’. I got this huge package in the mail. It was chock-full of magazine articles and pictures. There must have been about 100 items in there including poetry and quotes.”

The one cohesive theme: all of the words were dealing with Phi.

“I’m a technology freak and I’m also really interested and very well read on the Golden Mean and also on numerology generally. I find it beautiful. I have explored it musically before in a few significant pieces but not for a few years now.

“They invented the word serendipity for this project. It was really two minds thinking alike.”

The composer and choreographer started a regular conversation.

“Ultimately, once you are working together, it’s not really a two-way street. It’s common for a choreographer to ask for changes in music, but you don’t often have composers saying ‘Change that step’.

Still there was a great deal of scope for experimentation in this work. So he played with some numbers including injecting a Fibonacci sequence or two into the piece.

In his exploration he reached “into the mystery and the beauty of it all. You realize that the Golden Ratio is everywhere. You get this sort of zen feeling; it’s everywhere whether you put it in the music or not.”

It’s even in the bodies of the dancers.

Staniland says there are three movements in the score he has called Phi.

The first “is pretty terrifying. It is inspired by hurricanes. It’s a big violent movement. It’s probably the most powerful score I have ever written, because I dialed it to the point of being uncomfortable. I said to myself: ‘This is the idea and I was going to follow this idea until it is done’.

“The harder I pushed the more I realized it was the way to go. It is almost uncomfortable in its starkness, but it creates a lot of power.

“I don’t know if you have ever sat through a hurricane but I have experienced two.”

The second movement is rhythmic. It is the most technological.

“It is percussive with some minimalist influences with repeated chords, that sort of thing. The third movement is a giant canon based and it lasts the entire movement.

“I have really pushed himself here; much further than I ever have in that direction.”

There is a quote from Johannes Kepler, the German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer that Staniland likes.

“He said: Nature uses as little as possible of anything. I’m really trying to take that philosophy home. All good composers embrace that to some extent, I’m trying to see how far I can push it.”

Staniland has also been able to hear his 30-minute piece being rehearsed by NACO over the months. He says it is a rare luxury.

“It’s very expensive to do, but everybody benefits. You just don’t get this kind of opportunity.

“Usually you write a 10-20 minute piece; it’s rehearsed for 40 minutes, performed and put away forever.

In this case the music is being recorded and the companies will be able to use the recordings in future performances.

Staniland’s music has been performed and broadcast internationally in more than 35 countries. He has been affiliate composer with the Toronto Symphony and NACO and has also been in residence at the Centre du Creation Musicale Iannis Xenakis in Paris.

He is an accomplished guitarist and has much experience with new media. He’s even invented his own instruments.

There is one YouTube video of him playing a square piece of technology that is called a Mune. The instrument was invented by Staniland and a colleague, percussionist Scott Stevenson. Staniland operates on the old principle of necessity is the mother of invention.

“I was playing these electronic pieces and wasn’t happy with what was available to perform on, so we came up with the Mune.

“Once you make something to solve one problem, it turns out it has dozens of other uses.”

Staniland and Stevenson raised the money to build the Mune through a crowd-sourcing campaign and now Stevenson is trying to market the device.

Staniland is now making a new instrument to solve another musical problem. This one will be driven by vital human signs such as a heartbeat.

Now doesn’t that add up.

For more information about Encount3rs (April 20-22) including tickets please see nac-cna.ca.

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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.