Pie à la Modulus: Hot, Sweet & Savory

Music on Main's annual Festival serves up varied fare citywide

A tranche for all tastes. Images: Eclectic

Starting with a whimper and ending with a bang, Music on Main unfurled its ninth annual Modulus Festival -- a baker’s dozen of concerts at five citywide venues over a longish November weekend.

The “whimper” was eloquently understated on 17th century period instruments in a pair of recitals at Christ Church Cathedral in association with Early Music Vancouver (EMV). Countertenor Iestyn Davies joined the Fretwork viol consort in a bill that combined compositions by baroque master Henry Purcell with contemporary works by English minimalist Michael Nyman and a new commission from Montreal composer Jon Wild.

And then, just days later, Modulus/EMV audiences returned to Christ Church to hear English lutenist Nigel North and Canada’s own viol consort Les Voix Humaines “whimpered” through a selection of 17th century lute-master (and quondam spy) John Dowland’s Lachrimae (that’s Latin for “tears”), interspersed with a few sprightlier Gaillards (dances).

In a dazzling display of virtuosic versatility, though, the viol consort shifted from Dowland’s measured tempos and plaintive harmonies to an unsettling 5/8 time and edgier chords in a new work that EMV commissioned from B.C.-born composer Stacey Brown. Her piece, Lachrimae Viventium (“Living Tears”) directly “quotes” thematic material from the 17th century suite. But, where Dowland’s phrasing imparts a crying catch to the melody, the extra beat in Brown’s tempo lends a kind of tidal undertow – more the gasps of an exhausted swimmer than the sobs of a spurned lover. Powerfully affecting.

Modulus then segued into more contemporary music for traditional instruments with a rendering of Missy Mazzoli’s Still Life with Avalanche, as performed in CBC’s Studio 700 by Vancouver’s cutting-edge Standing Wave quintet. The richly-textured work seemed tailor-made for the ensemble’s idiosyncratic mix of voices: AK Coope on woodwinds, violinist Rebecca Whitling and cellist Peggy Lee on strings, pianist Allen Stiles. Much of the propulsive force came from percussionist Vern Griffiths, shifting seamlessly between drums, cymbals and vibes.

Pure percussion dominated the first half of the concert, as not one but two vibraphones squared off for a performance of Alyssa Weinberg’s Table Talk. The Infamy Too! duo – Aaron Graham and Julia Chien – proved as visually arresting as they were sonically exciting, with the petite Chien scurrying after the gangly Graham to damp down his opening salvos as soon as his mallets struck the metal.

Nor were these mere standard, factory-issued instruments, but rather “prepared” vibes, embellished with everything from tin cans to temple gongs to Styrofoam coffee cups, each with its own particular resonance as the interlocking rhythms ramified.

Even more striking, visually, was aptly named next item on the programme, Plato’s Cave by Casey Cangelosi. No instruments at all for this one; just the Infamy Too! duo seated cross-legged on the Studio 700 stage, rapping out intricate riffs on the floorboards or their own drumsticks with intermittent butt-scrunch rotations in synchrony or syncopation like cams on an accelerating gear shaft. And then they face off and drop their sticks altogether as their hands take flight for a dialogue of elegant gesticulations.

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