Music and Beyond: Presenting the music of Victor Herbiet’s mind

Ottawa-based composer and saxophonist Victor Herbiet.

Ottawa saxophonist and composer Victor Herbiet will play just about anywhere from the Diefenbunker and to a concert hall. Fresh off his return performance in the underground cold war museum on July 8, Herbiet is getting ready for a performance on Saturday as part of the Music and Beyond Festival. ARTSFILE thought it was time to interview him about his music and this concert.

Q. Your musical agenda seems pretty full these days. but first tell me about yourself and your beginnings in music?

A. I started playing saxophone seriously at De La Salle High School which has a specialized arts program. After high school, I went to the University of Ottawa to study saxophone performance with Peter Smith. After two years of study I landed my first professional job with the Royal Canadian Artillery Band in Edmonton. After two years in Alberta, I was posted back to Ottawa to play with the Central Band of the Canadian Forces with which I stayed until 2011. After leaving the Forces, I reoriented my career towards education, solo performance and composition.

Around 2007, I was offered to take over the University of Ottawa saxophone studio from Jean-Guy Brault who was retiring. Although it’s part-time teaching, I found it to be a great opportunity to start reimagining my career. Multiple opportunities opened up from there and I found that by combining high school teaching with university instruction and taking freelance contracts as they come, it’s possible to make a decent living here in Ottawa as a musician.

I lead a realistic life in Ottawa. Exclusively freelancing is difficult even for the most in demand instruments. Most of my time at work is spent teaching at the College Catholique Mer Bleue where I work during the day, or at the University of Ottawa where I work in the afternoons and evenings. What’s hard is practicing and finding time to compose. I’m not touring, although I’ve recently taken an interest in saxophone conferences where I can showcase my compositions to others who may be interested in playing new repertoire.

Q. Tell me about the saxophone and why you chose to play the Devil’s horn?

A. When I was just a kid it seemed to me that the instrument was not entirely set in its ways like the piano or the violin and that I could have a certain amount of freedom in learning the instrument. I was also intrigued by the wide array of sounds the instrument could produce.

Q. Composing music: Why do you do this?

A. As long as I can remember, I have been interested by the inner workings of music. All the years I played in wind ensembles, I listened to how the different instrumental lines worked together and what effects could be achieved. When I was in university, I decided to try my hand at composition to see if I could assemble the various elements of music that I like in a style of my own. Steven Gellman was a very good instructor for me because he allowed me to develop my own style while suggesting many ways to improve on it.

Stylistically, I have various influences in my works. I’m fascinated by how the 12-tone system works, but not fanatical enough to use it exclusively in a composition. Playing classical saxophone exposes you to a lot of 20th century French music and that has influenced my writing deeply. I will also throw in elements of jazz because as a saxophonist working with the Forces I have been exposed to it frequently. All of my compositions will have a mix of those elements. For example, in my piece  Twelve Tone Rag for saxophone and piano, I use the 12-tone system as a basis for the melodies and a few of the effects, but the piece is very much a rag and someone unfamiliar with 12-tone music wouldn’t know it’s there. However, in Élégie automnale for soprano saxophone and piano, I went with French impressionism throughout. For my latest works, I’ve been pushing my own boundaries as a composer and saxophonist and I use a theremin while playing soprano saxophone. The writing is heavily influenced by the symbiotic relationship between the sax and the theremin. This deserves a longer explanation, which I will gladly give to the audience members on July 15.

Q. Why both?

A. I have a vested interest in performing my own compositions well and to compose music that showcases my skills on saxophone. After participating in the 2005 Rome international saxophone competition and the 2006 Adolph Sax international saxophone competition, I realized that on the international stage, I was quite a decent saxophone player but that I wasn’t unique. Many players could play the same difficult pieces I was doing. What would make me unique and somewhat more marketable would be to continue composing for my instrument to have the option of pitching virtuosic world premieres to concert promoters. Having the composer on stage explaining the work he’s about to perform for the first time brings something special to an event; it’s a different experience for the audience. I also find that as a musician it is where I’m the most interesting because what I bring can only be experienced if I’m there. On the 15th, I will be premiering On the Shores of Eternity for solo saxophonist-thereminist. It’s a truly unique work because the theremin is used as a real-time effects generator by wiring it through various effect pedals.

Q. Composing for the saxophone is an interesting niche. Do you employ the full sax choir?

For solo and chamber works, I mostly use soprano and alto saxophone. I’ve composed a short SATB saxophone quartet titled Turbulence and a much lager piece called Symphony for Saxophones scored for double saxophone quartet. I haven’t branched out to the extremes of the saxophone choir because sopranino and bass saxes (and players who own them) are difficult to find here in Ottawa.

Q. I note that some of your compositions are being performed elsewhere. Tell me about the piece Tango a Trois?

A. I had pitched two projects to Julian Armour who was running the Chamberfest at the time. The first pitch was a solo recital where I would play classical works inspired by jazz. The second pitch was a saxophone, violin and piano concert having Marc Eychène’s Cantilène et Danse (for violin, saxophone and piano) as a focal point. Julian said that if I can combine both pitches he would approve the concert, so that’s what I did. For the concert, Chamberfest assigned the very talented violinist Renée-Paule Gauthier. Upon learning this, I decided to feature Renée-Paule’s talent to a greater extent in the concert and compose a piece with the same orchestration as the Eychène. I had a limited amount of time to compose the piece and I wanted it to have some elements of jazz so it would work into the theme of the concert so I settled on a tango. Tango à trois worked very well in concert and I decided to offer it to Gérard Billaudot (Paris) who published the Eychène because I thought they might like to add to their catalog of works for saxophone, violin and piano. Billaudot published the piece in 2007 and because of their international distribution, my work has been performed around the world in places like South Korea, France, Tanglewood and, more recently, in Hamburg. The group who played my tango in Hamburg is called Trio Bergamasque but beyond that, I have very little information.

Q. What does it feel like when this happens?

A. It’s a curious feeling when you know there are musicians playing your music for a hall full of people half way around the world. It’s humbling to think that someone took the time to learn my music and play it for an audience. I also wonder how the musicians interpreted my music and if the audience liked it. I’m happy my work is getting played but often sad that I can’t attend the performances. For example, the world renowned thereminist (and Music and Beyond frequent flyer) Thorwald Jorgensen commissioned a suite for theremin and harp from me that he has played in the Netherlands many times, but also in Brazil and here in Ottawa last year. It was fantastic to be able to hear my own work played here but it would have been a great experience to be there in Brazil or at the Amsterdam opera house for the performances.

Q. Tell me about the concert.

A. This year I was awarded an Ontario Art Council grant to record my own music. The project has been backed by the Canadian Music Centre who will take over promotion of the CD through their Centrediscs label once it’s recorded and mastered. I’m recording later this summer and the repertoire is a real handful. When it came to pitching ideas to Julian Armour this spring, I mentioned which pieces I was planning on recording and to feel free to plug them in any concert where they could fit the theme. Instead of spreading out all my works over many days, Julian offered me a concert of my own music. In my head, the concert had a title: Beyond the Ethereal Gate to the Shore of Eternity. The concert is essentially an chronological anthology of the evolution of my music leading up to my theremin experiments and what lies beyond. This is the program we will perform:

Tango à trois for violin, alto saxophone and piano
Trio concertant for violin, alto saxophone and piano
Rhapsodie en hommage à Debussy for clarinet, alto saxophone and piano
Twelve Tone Rag for alto saxophone and piano
Élégie automnale for soprano saxophone and piano
Through the Ethereal Gate for solo saxophonist-thereminist
On the Shores of Eternity (world premiere) for solo saxophonist-thereminist
Musicians: Myself on saxophone; Frédéric Lacroix, piano; Marc Djokic, violin; Kimball Sykes, clarinet.

Victor Herbiet in concert
Music and Beyond
Where: St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts, 310 St. Patrick St.
When: Saturday July 15 at 10 p.m.

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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.