The Free-Reed Review
Critiques of Compact Discs, Books and Music Scores

CD Review: Canadian Electronic Ensemble
Catbird Seat

CD Image

total time: 74:21
released: 1990

label: Trappist Recordings #9003

Featuring members/composers of the Canadian Electronic Ensemble (David Jaeger, Larry Lake, and James Montgomery), as well as instrumentalists Robert Cram (flute), the Armin Strings (strings), Christina Petrowska (piano), Lawrence Cherney (oboe), and Joseph Petric (accordion).


CEE Collaboration: Catbird Seat
Larry Lake: Israfel
James Montgomery: Wildfire
David Jaeger: Quivi Sospiri
James Montgomery: Hut
CEE Collaboration: Davies

Review by Joseph Natoli:

Catbird Seat (produced in 1990) represents the 20th anniversary recording from one of the oldest continuous live electronic groups in the world, the Canadian Electronic Ensemble. Although only one of the pieces on this CD includes the accordion (Davies, performed by Joseph Petric), there is a valuable perspective to be gained by listening to the entire CD before settling in on this final work in the compilation.

Toronto is one world's most opportunistic places to become involved with new and electronic music because the University of Toronto, the Royal Conservatory of Music, as well as peripheral groups like the Canadian Electronic Ensemble possess excellent facilities, ample creative talent, and a large audience that truly loves and supports the contemporary arts. These aspects combined with one of the most active and progressive new music concert series on the face of the globe, are the very reasons why Toronto is a wonderful hotbed of creativity for new music and electronic music composers. The Catbird Seat compilation is a prime example of the large diversity and artistic beauty that can simultaneously exist under the umbrella of contemporary music. There are works for live electronic instruments, acoustic and electronic sounds, acoustic instruments electronically enhanced and amplified, computer sequenced music, and also collaborative works. With every piece, the listener is transported to a new timeless musical hyperspace. Consequently, this is really great music to audition with headphones, in a quiet and dark room with eyes shut, so that your aural senses can come completely alive and aware of what you are about to experience.

Catbird Seat, the title track and the first cut on this compilation is the only piece on this CD that is composed purely for electronic and synthesized sounds. Some sounds are performed live in an improvisatory fashion, while others are pre-sequenced and played back with the aid of a computer, and finally some sound materials are a combination and interplay of both improvised and sequenced materials. Technically and artistically, the electronic sounds are executed extremely well, and in spite of all the various types of musical organization in this piece, everything blends and segues very seamlessly from one section to the next to form a unique and cohesive composition. Incidentally, "Catbird Seat" refers to a term coined by the late Toronto Blue Jays sports announcer, Red Barber. All CEE collaborators on this project are avid Blue Jays fans and indicate that this term is something Red coined to indicate when "you have everything your own way and you hold your opponents in complete disarray." In spite of this extra musical reference, the piece is very strong and stands quite nicely on its own.

The remaining works on the CD are acoustic/electronic combinations. Israfel, for flute and electronic sounds, programatically references a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, which focuses on the angel Israfel, who in Islamic heaven, can make the planets pause in their orbits with his music. The electronic sounds often include electronically enhanced acoustic flute sounds, which add to the drama of programmatic references. The end result is a very poetic (no pun intended) and eloquent composition in this genre. Israfel, like Catbird Seat, is another one of those pieces with which you can find yourself floating away if you are not careful. A very lovely work.

Wildfire is interesting in that it is written for a completely electronic string ensemble. However, even though Wildfire is at times very attractive, it is unfortunate that the electronic strings are treated in a very traditional and less innovative way. The composer had an excellent chance here to extract some very unique sound possibilities and in my estimation, missed his chance. Except for a few minor sections, there really was no reason that this work could not have been conceived and realized for traditional acoustic string ensemble. It would have been much more adventurous in the context of the companion works on this CD, to have had the string ensemble producing sounds that are "other-worldly" and generally unachieveable on normal acoustic strings.

Hut for oboe and electronic sounds is another Montgomery offering on this CD with which I am equally unimpressed. The piece seems to meander through a myriad collection of uninteresting electronic sonorities as well as consistently uneventful dialog between the oboe and the electronics. With some of the best musical talent and electronic music facilities in the world at his disposal, I was disappointed that Mr. Montgomery did not allow Hut to capitalize on these resources more.

Quivi Sospiri finds Christina Petrowska (an outstanding Canadian pianist who also appeared on Joseph Petric's Gems CD), once again setting the high standard for artistic excellence. Her interpretation and sensitivity on this track, as well as her interaction with the electronic music and the computer are remarkable. Quivi Sospiri is about a scene from the 3rd Canto of Dante's Inferno, where inside the Gates of Hell, no visual images are allowed and Dante must describe the terrible sounds he hears. This work is very reminiscent of the works of George Crumb, especially the dark and brooding programmatic references, as well as the muted piano tones on the insides of the piano. It is a beautiful work and a beautiful performance. Ms. Petrowska is a formidable force on the Canadian music scene, and having heard her on both this and the Gems compilation, I am looking forward to anything that has her name listed going forward. She is truly gifted pianist.

Finally, Davies, a collaborative effort from four of the CEE composers, is written for accordion and electronic sounds and was commissioned via the Ontario Arts Council by Joseph Macerollo in 1974. Davies is performed on this compilation by virtuoso Canadian accordionist Joseph Petric. Mr. Petric's performance as always is technically excellent, meticulous, sensitive, and artistic. Compositionally, Davies is very intriguing in many ways with only a few minor negative concerns. The electronic sounds are very good considering the infant stages of synthesizer technology in 1974 vs. today's synthesizers, and the use of a wide variety of accordion sonorities shows some real compositional intelligence towards our instrument. Echo, delay, and reverb were the tools of the day in 1974 and the tools of choice in electronically altering the accordion sounds (one of the key goals of this collaborative effort). Considering the huge arsenal of effects algorithms that exist today, Davies integrates these effects very nicely into the overall soundscape. One especially nice use of the delay is in the penultimate section where the accordion is playing very pleasant and soft sonorities, using the delay and echo in rhythmic interplay with each other. However, one element of Davies that detracts from the composition is the hackneyed use of bellows air sounds and cluster glissandi traversing the keyboard in a few sections. These compositional elements were used much too often in the 70s for new accordion works, and I am afraid that their overuse has caused these sounds to be quickly dated and cliché sonorities. Aside from this minor issue, overall Davies is an exceptional work and a real challenge for both the performer and listener, as is the entire CD, Catbird Seat. So please excuse me while I get in my own "Catbird Seat" by putting my headphones back on, sitting back, dimming the lights, shutting my eyes, and letting myself soar through this soundscape a few more times. Try it yourself. It will be worth the trip.

About The Free-Reed Review
Back to The Free-Reed Review Contents Page
Back to The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. Home Page

Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional