composer     Writing Music, Playing Music and Teaching Music. Not so bad.


I have a question… by Michael Gfroerer

So it seems that cosmologists, physicists and mathematicians are upset and confused: ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ are unpredictable. In addition, Einstein’s theory on gravity is now seen as insufficient. It seems that God has thrown a curve-ball; just when scientists thought they had it all figured out, dark matter and dark energy cannot be pinned down.

It’s astounding that scientists have figured out that the universe is 13 billion-plus years old, as well as the speed at which the universe expanded seconds after the big bang. But the universe is not cooperating in some ways: scientists thought it’s expansion should be slowing down, but it’s accelerating!

Has astrophysics hit the Dark Ages?


Sound and Space -‘PRISM’, a concert by the University of Alberta Music Department

Entering the Wispear Hall with the talented University of Alberta Symphony playing a Beethoven Overture was like having a nice soapy shower after 9 months of not bathing. It’s been about that long since I’ve heard a good live concert; my co-workers penchant for rap, ‘hard dance’ music and ‘screamo’ rock had left a hole not only in my mind, but also my heart.

Following the Overture was a performance by a saxophone soloist playing 2 notes accompanied by reverb. No further comment seems necessary.

Following this was a refreshing performance by an Indian ensemble, with sitar, tabla a dulcimer-like instrument and a bright silver flute. It seems so amazing that professional players from India can rock out in the far north. Music is pretty universal, it’s something we all can enjoy.

Next up was a saxophone ensemble playing 2 chorales by Bach. I have never been fond of the saxophone, as it always sounds flat, but this performance, probably because of the great baritone saxophones, was surprisingly rewarding.

Next was a ‘performance’ by an ensemble specializing in improvisation. It began with a stereophonic crash of metallic ‘instruments’, and nearly knocked everyone’s knickers off! Experimental Improvised music seems to ride the razors edge as with the wrong people, it can devolve into a popularity contest of attention seekers: everyone is trying to do something unique and unexpected and have the last sound. One performer insisted on serenading me with castanets, right above my head. I like variety, but sometimes a freak show is just that.

The ‘Madrigal Singers’ sang an arrangement of “Amazing Grace”. I would have preferred a madrigal. Has the music world become infected by pop-music singing contests with overly melismatic expressions? Throwing in all these unnecessary notes exposes a singer, I wish they would remember that and just sing the necessary notes well, before throwing in all the others, which are frequently off key. Thankfully, this performance was not bad, but the programming seems quite odd.

The West African Music Ensemble began with lots of loud drumming and a clanging cow bell. I really wish cow bells were left on the cow and were never brought into a performance venue. They just sound ugly. When the dancers appeared in bright yellow t-shirts and colourful African print skirts, I was surprised that half of them were Asian. Seeing a young Asian man who cannot dance whatsoever on the stage of a great concert hall seems really unfair to classical musicians who practice for decades to earn that privilege, and here the wonderful orchestra players were stuck on the stage to witness this! I’m all for cross-cultural experiences, but putting these experiments with inexperienced beginners on stage for a public performance is just wrong.

There were some wonderful solo performances in the second half: a wonderful performance of Feux d’articife by Jacques Despres and a couple modern pieces, but Jerusalem, by Michael McGlynn was perhaps the highlight. I’m so pleased that music organizations are allowing for alternative styles of presentation, this one with a wonderful women’s choir arranged along the aisles of the orchestra. As original as this may seem to us now, this style of presentation has probably been around for thousands of years. It’s only really new to western art music.

There was some Gilbert and Sullivan on the program: Three Little Maids. Does the music department not have a good opera singer? Why trot out a couple guys, dressed as Japanese women acting silly?

The performance of the Enterprise String Quartet, which has a guitar instead of a viola, was refreshingly exquisite. The two violins alternated with skillfully played material. The only thing missing, really, was volume.

Another surprise was an aria by Bach for soprano and alto. I sometimes wonder what audiences think they are listening to, especially if the lyrics / text is in another language-German in this case. Does the average audience know the difference between Sacred music and Opera? In a way it doesn’t matter, but I was imagining explaining the difference: opera is staged, sacred music is not. I imagine questions / comments like “well they’re on a stage, so it’s staged, isn’t it?” My response: “no there are no sets or costumes, so it’s not ‘staged’ even though it’s presented on a stage.

I wish our music education system was more serious. Musicians don’t start wars, don’t usually hit each other to catch a ball, and generally enjoy co-operating to make something, music, better. Music is a way of expressing oneself without using stupid words. Music is also a good way to learn to listen. Something we could all improve upon. winspear

Playing for Jesus

After being forced to go to church every Sunday for 16 years as a child, it seems ironic that I now play two church services each Sunday at St John Lutheran in Edmonton, and quite enjoy the experience.

The first service, which is in German, is usually pretty straight-forward: there is a Prelude, a couple hymns (Lieder), parts of the mass are sung, there may be extra hymns when there is communion once and month and then a Postlude.

The English service can be tricky. There is also a Prelude, a couple hymns, several extra hymns for communion and a Postlude. (Sometimes after juggling three books I play the wrong hymn, or other accidents – like the massive hymn book falling on the pedal board, creating a massive roar of sound – were regular occurrences till I got my mojo.)

Oddly, after 5 months on the job, I have not discovered a single hymn by JS Bach. While listening to several of Bach’s Cantatas over the past couple of days preparing for the choir’s first rehearsal, I read a quote by a Swedish bishop that Bach’s Cantatas were the Fifth Gospel. High praise indeed!

I had dismissed Bach’s Cantatas as mediocre works without having explored them. I was a fan of the Passions, the fantastic keyboard suites (particularly the Partitas) and the sonorous concerti. Perhaps I was just overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the Cantatas: 200 sacred-text and about 15 secular-text. From the year 1723 until the end of his life in 1750, Bach had a ‘new’ Cantata performed in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche every week and holiday. Like most composers forced to produce at an unrealistic rate, Bach recycled music, and had a near army of offspring to rewrite his masterpieces.

At St John Lutheran in Edmonton there is a hymn before and after the sermon, Bach had half of the Cantata before and half after the sermon. Certainly his pastor’s message may have been overshadowed or perhaps more greatly appreciated by Bach’s musical frame.

Bach had a pretty standard formula for his Cantatas: Chorus, Recitative, Aria, Recitative or Arioso and Chorale. I would imagine that Bach had things under control, probably, or hopefully having the week’s Cantata planned in advance for rehearsal purposes. Musicians back in the Baroque period are thought to have been naturally virtuosic. I would imagine that from time to time there may have a musical train wreck. But like the Lutheran church I play at (sometimes after juggling three books I play the wrong hymn, or other accidents, like the massive hymn book falling on the pedal board, creating a massive roar of sound) I imagine Bach’s congregation was forgiving and understanding if the music was less than excellent. However, as one of the greatest composers in European history, Bach probably could pull any derailment back into order.

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In the Thick of Bohemian Alberta

Despite being a couple hundred kilometers from the biggest polluter on the planet (the tar sands), surrounded by young men-even nurses-who insist on driving testosterone-soaked 4 x 4 pickups, and youth who consider cocaine an after-dinner mint, I have managed to surround myself with yogaholics, caucasian Buddhists, cutting-edge experimental music enthusiasts and the only NDP-ers in a 700 km radius.

I wasn’t even trying – I suppose we Bohemians have some magnetic affinity for each other.

It all started so innocently! A ‘friend’ encouraged me to join him for better work opportunities. I initially dismissed his desperate pleas, but a quick google search at the falafel shop in Toronto informed me of a good teaching opportunity in Calgary. I sent my CV and the next day I was contacted for an interview. That never worked out, but with a couple twists of my rubber arm by the ‘friend’, Edmonton it was!

Ever the resourceful former journalist, I had a part-time job, a seat on a board of directors for a children’s music education organization, and an interview all lined up.

If you ever want to surprise a travel agent, go to their office in mid-January and tell them you want a one-way ticket to Edmonton at the end of the month.

I am honestly completely perplexed at how foreigners from places like the Philippines, Somalia, India and Toronto survive here. Public transit succeeds, but just barely. There is one LRT line with 10 stops, which has now been given a name: the Capital Line. Why it needs a name when there is only one line is beyond me. There is another line opening soon, which parallels the ‘Capital Line’ with 3 additional stops: the “Metro Line”! New York look out! Edmonton is coming up in the world!

When not working my 30 hours, which includes my practice time for the church services I play at every Sunday, I do a mean Qi Gong, I go to a meditation class (I visited 4 different Buddhist groups in Edmonton to find a good fit), I spend some time at the wonderful libraries (the Milner Public Library was voted best library in Canada, and will be publishing my first book on piano lessons-they have an Espresso Book Machine ), and I enjoy pleasant, usually solitary walks in the valley, while planning my escape and resurfacing a rich and famous European music sensation!

While walking in the valley, we can find opaque, time-warped public education plaques informing us that dinosaurs walked here over a hundred million years back! That was before they got into politics, and started the “Progressive Conservative” party. (“Progressive”, “Conservative” and “party” are three opposing words which should never appear in the same sentence, never mind rule a province for over 40 years!) One of the most recent dinosaur premiers, (King) Ralph Klein, showed up drunk at a homeless shelter on Christmas eve, and threw money at the residents, telling them to ‘get a job!’ I tell ya, this place has class!

Poverty, alcohol and substance abuse are relatively epidemic in Edmonton. Despite one of the most progressive local governments in Canada, there is a very large transient population – 60,000 arrived here last year alone. Schools are overcrowded, public transit is about 30 years behind schedule so the roads are packed with monster dumb cars, and the privatization of the liquor and beer outlets has put alcohol in hand too easily, in my opinion. (I had to call 911 twice in one day because of suspected alcohol poisoning leading to public inebriation / unconsciousness.)

Edmonton has some impressive projects coming up. They already claim to be carbon neutral regarding energy, they are planning a world-class artists’ community, and the former city central airport area is being readied for major development with environmentally friendly water treatment and energy. With our Earth teetering on the edge of failure, I suppose some lip service for the province’s complete mismanagement of natural resources for the past 20 or 30 years seems necessary. Will it be enough? Who can say.

Let’s hope our insect friends like the Monarch butterflies, which have lost over 60% of their population in the past 25 years, and the small yet essential honey bees will fare better than they have. They are our ‘canary in the coal mine’ and if they get wiped off the face of the planet, we’re screwed! Sure we will have oil to export to the greedy, immoral, Chinese slave labour conglomerate, but what about food? What about food?

Food for though and necessary action.