Music: Edwin Outwater's research in (rhythm and) motion

I just wanted to let people know what an extraordinary debut recording the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony has made under its fearless artistic director, Edwin Outwater. (It’s hardly the orchestra’s first recording, just the first under the new guy’s baton.) I wrote about Outwater two years ago. He’s a Californian who rather effortlessly mixes the standard orchestral repertoire with some really wild new compositions and multimedia projects. This season he’ll lead the orchestra in… something… he’s cooked up with the physicists at Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing. That’s the sort of thing he does. K-W already had a very good orchestra and, bizarrely, one of the two or three best concert halls in Canada. Outwater takes the whole package to another level.

Anyway. The CD is called From Here On Out, it’s on Montreal’s Analekta label, it encapsulates what Outwater is doing in Kitchener-Waterloo, and it stands as a rebuke to the conservatism of just about every other mainstream Canadian orchestra. Of the three composers represented, only one, Nico Muhly, is normally associated with concert halls, although when he isn’t writing operas for the English National Opera he sometimes plays keyboards for Bjork. The other two composers are Richard Reed Parry, who’s a member of Arcade Fire; and Jonny Greenwood, who’s the guitarist for Radiohead.

This is no pops album. It demands, and rewards, open ears and minds. I wrote about Parry’s For Heart, Breath and Orchestra in that first article two years ago. It requires that most of the musicians wear stethoscopes so they can listen to their own heartbeats and pick tempos to match. Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver was inspired by the white noise that jumbles a shortwave radio signal. Greenwood used parts of the composition, which is sometimes harrowingly atonal, in his astonishing soundtrack to There Will be Blood;  Alex Ross of The New Yorker wrote about that here. Outwater’s performance here with the K-W Symphony is the first full performance of Popcorn Superhet Receiver on record.

The whole CD (or collection of sound files, or whatever) is a pretty good encapsulation of the attitude Ross brings to his New Yorker articles, blog and books: a sense that a formal music-education pedigree, while handy, matters less than fearlessness and big ears; and that the 20th-century battles over form and tonality are yesterday’s fights. Muhly’s music is tuneful and repetitive, a sort of slouchy post-Philip Glass. Parry’s is folky and delicate. I gave For Heart, Breath and Orchestra to Colleague Geddes for a listen; he was prepared to scoff, but came away delighted and intrigued. So much of the new music I hear in concert halls sounds dreary and dutiful. Outwater doesn’t seem to hear at those frequencies. He deserves more attention for the work he’s doing in K-W.

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