Music and Beyond: Eve Egoyan mixes music and marriage to make some magic

Eve Egoyan performs Sunday at the National Gallery of Canada.

Eve Egoyan is one of the most intriguing pianists working today. She pursues a vision that takes her into new and unique musical territory. She often plays the music of the late Canadian composer Ann Southam. She also has worked with her visual artist husband David Rokeby to realize multi-disciplinary performances. In advance of her performance at Music and Beyond on Sunday which will feature both collaborations, she answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. The project you are working on with David Rokeby sounds fascinating. How did it come about?

A. David Rokeby is my husband. We have independent careers as artists. Peter Hatch commissioned Surface Tension, our first and only collaboration, for the Open Ears Festival, Kitchener, in 2009. The meeting of Ann’s work and David’s, Simple Lines of Enquiry/Machine for Taking Time, was an idea of David’s. He often listens to my recordings when he works. He found the meeting of these independent works of art fascinatingly rich. I agree with him.

Q. Can you describe for me what people can expect to see when you take the stage in July.

A. Simple Lines of Enquiry/Machine for Taking Time: This presentation is the meeting of two independent works of art; the music and video are not explicitly synchronized, but move through time in compatible ways that enliven each other. Both works involve a process of unfolding — a camera pans across a city and across time; the music explores of the emotional possibilities of a 12-interval row. Each embraces extreme detail and timeless expansiveness. The held sonorities of the piano link seamlessly to the subtle pan/shift of images through time. They are both gently emotional contemplations of transience; places of remembering and letting go.

Surface Tension: In Surface Tension, my performance at the keyboard of a disklavier (an acoustic piano with a computer interface) is transformed and interpreted by a computer into live visual images projected on a screen rising from the body of the piano. The visuals respond to a variety of performance parameters including dynamics, pitch, the harmonic relation between pitches, the use of the sustain pedal and the duration of individual notes. This extends the piano into a visual instrument as well as a musical one.

Much of the visual material is based on simulations of natural processes such as the swarming behaviours of insects, the trajectories of planets or the rippling of water when a pebble hits the surface. My performance triggers and modulates aspects of these simulations; the visual representations respond to my performance, but also have a sort of life of their own, becoming in a sense a partner in the performance. In one movement, each note played on the piano contributes to the construction of a three-dimensional tower. In another, I draw out the trajectories of falling snowflakes, manipulating the live processing of a pre-recorded video. Yet another charts the harmonic relationships between the notes that I am playing.

The performance is a loosely structured audio-visual improvisation in five movements. The improvisation is shaped partly by my responses to the system’s visual response to my playing. Except for the change of software programs between movements, all visual activity on the screen is directly responsive to my playing. The result is an extraordinary integration of sound and image in which neither of these elements dominate the other.

Q. What is the performance attempting to realize?

A. I am exploring a hybrid art form, where sound and visual elements become equal creative partners; works that bridge both arts practices in unique ways, creating new, refreshing and remarkable experiences for my audiences. During my performances of these works I invite the public to share in an ever deepening experience of image and sound and the multi-layered relationships between them.

Q. Why are you playing work by Ann Southam? What attracts you to her work?

A. Simple Lines of Enquiry is a work that Ann wrote for me. Ann’s works are mesmerizing in their beauty, simplicity and elegance. Her writing for the piano is sensitive to its most unique capacity, the gradual decay of sound after a note is struck and how this sound alters through time. Simple Lines of Enquiry is an eloquent and quietly emotional work relying on its slow unraveling to evoke a magically suspended, weightless sound world. Its stillness and intimacy invite listeners’ into an environment of deep listening and contemplation.

This is what Ann said about the work: “Simple Lines of Enquiry, as with other pieces such as Qualities of Consonance and In Retrospect, is an enquiry into the emotional possibilities of a 12-tone row. It is also an attempt to rationalize the irrational for which the 12-tone row serves as a metaphor. Through simple minimalist processes the row is spun out, note by note allowing time for the changes to register and the shifting emotional terrain, which those small changes produce, to make itself known.

As a composer I am extremely fortunate indeed to be working with a pianist of such exquisite sensibilities as Eve Egoyan. Not only does she invite the listener into the music being played, she invites us into the sound world of the piano itself. Eve is as true to the music and to the instrument as a performer could ever be!”

Q. How well did you know her personally before her death?

A. I got to know Ann during the recording of Remembering Schubert (CBC Records, 1997). We became close friends during the session and beyond. She then wrote for me: Qualities of Consonance (CBC commission, premiered at the Sound Symposium, Newfoundland, 1998), Figures for solo piano and string orchestra (CBC commission, premiered with the Toronto Symphony, 2001), In Retrospect (2005), Simple Lines of Enquiry and a series of works called Returnings which were written right up until her death in 2010 (some works remain incomplete).

Q. This is very contemporary work. Is that where you find yourself most interested, modern music making, not playing Mozart et al?

A. There are many reasons: I want to re-invent how I hear the piano constantly for myself. I support the performance of music by women; I support composition as a living art form

Q. Is there some fascination with the classics as well?

A. Trained as a classical pianist, over the past 20 years I have followed my curiosity and sense of adventure into the world of contemporary music. I studied standard repertoire exclusively up until the completion of my Masters degree which included four years on full scholarship in Europe (a DAAD scholarship to study at the Hochschule der Kunste in Berlin and a Commonwealth scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London). I have never “trained” in the performance of contemporary music. I love all forms of concert music.

Q. What sort of musical mark do you want to make?

A. I have commissioned extensively and released 11 solo discs, 10 of works by living composers (many of these works were written for me) and one disc of works by Erik Satie. I will be releasing a double disc of music by German/Spanish composer Maria de Alvear this coming January. My discs have been selected as Top Classical Disc of the Year, The Globe and Mail (2011), and one of 10 Top classical discs, The New Yorker magazine (2009). My first disc, thethingsinbetween (1999), was selected one of the top 10 discs of any genre by The Globe and Mail.

Q. Your home growing up must have been very stimulating for someone with an artistic temperament. Were your parents supportive of your music-making then? How did they encourage you?

A. I grew up in an artistic environment. Both my parents were painters. However, as immigrants, they did not support my passion for the piano. I started the piano by going to an elderly neighbours and asking her to teach me. I continued to practice at her house after having begged my parents for lessons — I was put in group piano. At that point, my teacher offered me private lessons on scholarship. I had to earn money for my first piano, which I purchased second hand from an auction house. My parents were understandably cautious for either of their children to become artists, as it is a financially precarious existence.

Q. Your brother is of course well known for his film work, But he also directs operas. The marriage of the visual and the musical seems part of the Egoyan repertoire? Is that a fair statement. Why do you think so? or Not?

A. I have only just begun this exploration. My brother (Atom Egoyan) has been doing it for years. Generally I mix pieces combining sound and image with solo piano works, playing between the augmentation of sound through image and sound itself.

Eve Egoyan and David Rokeby
Music and Beyond/Canada Scene
When: Sunday July 16 at 2 p.m.
Where: National Gallery of Canada

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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.