Fables for naughty musicians

School of Music associate professor and head of composition Christopher Butterfield earned some strong media attention—as well as audience appreciation—with his recent Toronto concert Contes pour enfants pas sages: 8 cautionary entertainments. Based on poet Jacques Prévert‘s 1947 collection of fairy tales (which loosely translates to Fables for Naughty Children), Butterfield’s composition for Toronto’s Continuum Contemporary Music got a lengthy write-up in the Globe and Mail, as well as playing to full houses both nights at the 918 Bathurst Centre.

Christopher Butterfield (photo: Ken Straiton, Globe and Mail)

While Butterfield’s world premiere of Contes may be noteworthy in itself, it also warrants attention here due to the collaboration with the other Fine Arts faculty involved in its performance—Christopher’s equally talented tenor brother, Benjamin Butterfield (head of voice); Benjamin’s wife, soprano Anne Grimm (music performance instructor); and Visual Arts painting professor Sandra Meigs, who provided projected images to accompany the music. (Also involved in the production were acclaimed choreographer Laurence Lemieux and Choir 21, led by David Fallis.)

As the Globe and Mail‘s Robert Everett-Green notes in his May 27 piece, “Butterfield was introduced to the stories almost 20 years ago by Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen, when both men were looking for saccharine-free books for their small children. The composer wrote a solo cello setting, with narration, of Prévert’s relatively happy tale of a philosophical elephant seal, who reasons that he’s better off than a king.“’It’s an identifiable world,’ Butterfield says of Prévert’s narrative situations, ‘but where it goes is anybody’s guess.’ A caged lion puzzles over his keepers’ harsh treatment, and eats his tamer ‘more to restore order than from hunger,’ Prévert writes. Horses decide they’ve had enough ‘gifts’ from humanity (including whips, spurs and forced labour), and secretly plot a rebellion. An ostrich, tired of being stripped of eggs and feathers, corners a neglected boy and flies away with him.”

Images by Sandra Meigs

Noting that some of Prévert’s poems have been covered by the musically diverse likes of Edith Piaf, Yves Montand and Iggy Pop, Everett-Green continues: “The fables also feature song-like verbal patterning, though Butterfield took their wayward narratives and absurdist logic as his cue to write music that follows its own impulses. ‘They let me sail from one thing into the next,’ he says, referring especially to the vocal melody, which doesn’t repeat much. My audio preview of a few pieces revealed a lean and brilliant instrumental score, with bright overlapping patterns, some quite hummable tunes, and nimble alternations between the delicate and the grotesque. ‘I wanted to make playful musical characterizations that wouldn’t put children off,’ Butterfield says, “though I can’t say I was thinking: ‘What would little Freddy like to hear now?’”

Butterfield in a screen shot from the Continuum’s video

You can hear Butterfield himself talk about the piece in this video from Continuum’s own site.

And the performance itself received resounding accolades from T-dot cultural blogger Leslie Barcza on her Barczablog:

“The music’s surface shimmered inscrutably, challenging one to pay attention to the subtleties of the text & the performances. Butterfield’s adaptation was decidedly sophisticated, and while invoking the child in all of us, not really for children: at least not young ones.”

“Butterfield walks in the footsteps of giants. My first impression may seem narrow-minded, but I thought of smaller-scale works such as Ravel’s Mother Goose or Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite, thinking that the large-scale forces assembled could overwhelm the children’s stories. But it’s a new century. Butterfield isn’t cowed by influence nor what’s come before, only seeking to follow his own voice, occasionally tonal, sometimes in other mixes of tonalities that eluded my easy grasp (or descriptive classification).”

“Another Butterfield, namely Christopher’s brother Benjamin, sparkled in several of the songs, wonderfully tuneful and especially authoritative in keeping a blank expression on his usually smiley face.”

She concludes by simply saying, “I’d like to hear it again.”

Lightning Strikes Twice

Eliza Robertson (photo: Will Johnson)

Last year, it was Department of Writing alumna Esi Edugyan who made international headlines by appearing on the famed Man Booker Prize shortlist—only one of the five major literary prizes for which her sophomore novel, Half-Blood Blues, was nominated. But the good folks at Booker seem to have developed a taste for UVic writers: of the three people awarded the prestigious Booker Scholarship at England’s University of East Anglia, two have been Writing graduates—inaugural recipient D.W. Wilson, and current winner Eliza Robertson. And if Edugyan’s success (and Wilson’s own prize-winning streak) is any indicator, Eliza Robertson will be a name to remember in the years to come.

Eliza Robertson (far right) with the Freshman’s Wharf team at the 2011 Leo Awards

Already a talent to watch before she even graduated in 2011, Robertson won the 2010 PRISM International fiction contest (first runner-up? D.W. Wilson), was shortlisted for 2010’s acclaimed Journey Prize (2009 winner? then-UVic graduate student Yasuko Thanh), picked up The Malahat Review’s 2009 Far Horizons Award and was also one of the student creators of the 2011 Leo Award-winning web series, Freshman’s Wharf. Not bad considering her original major was political science and she didn’t even transfer to creative writing until her third year at UVic.

“There was this moment when I was studying for midterms—philosophy and poli-sci—and I was just miserable,” Robertson recalls. “And my brother, who was still in high school, was writing a poem for his class and I was very envious of that. So the week after that midterm, I walked across Ring Road to Fine Arts and changed my faculty. It all happened very quickly.”

Score one for spontaneous decisions. Had Robertson stuck to her original plan of becoming a lawyer, she wouldn’t already be on a list of acclaimed Writing graduates that includes the likes of W. P. Kinsella, best-selling fantasy writer Steven Erikson and noted aboriginal author Richard Van Camp, plus recent award-winners and nominees Deborah Willis, Matthew Hooton, Madeline Sonik and Steven Price. But it’s Dave (D.W.) Wilson whom Robertson singles out as being a positive influence on her own writing career.

“It’s odd being on this parallel track with Dave,” she admits. “If he didn’t exist, I would be very naive about what the next step is, and I wouldn’t already have publishing on my mind. But it was on my mind in my fourth year at UVic, because Dave was already going through the process of submitting to agents. He definitely blazed the trail for me.” Robertson pauses and offers a shy laugh. “It’s convenient, but kind of daunting.”

Robertson as web series star: filming Freshman’s Wharf (photo: Ashley Culver)

The Booker Prize Foundation-sponsored Booker Scholarship covers both academic fees and the living and travel expenses of a Commonwealth student enrolled in UEA’s creative writing (prose) MA. But considering that Wilson had already won it, Robertson didn’t think much of her own chances. “I thought lightning wouldn’t strike in the same place twice—that they wouldn’t give it to another Canadian, let alone another UVic student,” she chuckles. But Robertson quickly realized this wasn’t a case of who you know but where you come from. “I’ve honestly come to realize what a fantastic Writing program UVic has,” she says, citing influential instructors like Lorna Jackson, John Gould, Bill Gaston and Maureen Bradley.

Due to complete her UEA MA in August 2012, Robertson is currently finishing up her debut collection of short stories, as well as working on her first novel; future plans involve pursuing a PhD and an agent. And, just as we were wrapping up this interview, she got word that the 5,000-word manuscript which nabbed her the Booker Scholarship had just been shortlisted for a British short story prize—judged by acclaimed UK author Roddy Doyle, no less.

When asked if she considers herself an overachiever, Robertson just laughs. “Probably,” she says. “But it’s the cycle too—once you realize you can actually win something, then you can’t let yourself stop trying.” She pauses and seems to consider her accomplishments over the past few years, broken down like the chapters in a book. “It’s all a bit loopy, really.”

A shorter version of this story is published in the May 2012 issue of The Torch

Cutting and Pasting

What’s your preference—college or collage? For two of our Visual Arts profs, the emphasis is definitely on the latter.

Both photography professor Vikky Alexander and Lynda Gammon, associate professor of drawing, sculpture and installation, are among the more than 30 Canadian artists selected for the new collage exhibition Cut and Paste at Vancouver’s Equinox Project Space. Equinox describes Cut and Paste as a group show featuring artists “whose processes are connected by an impetus to cut, tear, separate, juxtapose, contradict, assemble and reassemble.”

Alexander and Gammon were both at the June 2 opening event, which Gammon said attracted “many, many people—over 400, I would say.”

Alexander’s work in particular caught the eye of Robin Laurence, visual arts reviewer for veteran Vancouver alt-weekly The Georgia Straight. “Smart and visually engaging works by both Alexander and Van Halm reveal a shared interest in critiquing modernist architecture and design,” writes Laurence in a June 5 article. “Alexander has a gift for digitally combining banal patterns and images, often lifted from wall paper, photomurals, and glossy magazines, to invoke the interface between nature and culture. Her imaginary modernist interiors often look out on impossible landscapes such as icebergs or gigantically enlarged, frozen pine trees.”

As of September 2012, Equinox Project Space will be the new home of Equinox Gallery, which was established back in 1972 and has been a Vancouver institution ever since. (This will be Equinox’s third move, following its original space on Robson Street and its current South Granville location.) Equinox Gallery has long been committed to presenting the work of local and Canadian artists in the context of an international program.

Gammon notes that Equinox’s new home is a former Finning Tractor machine shop at 525 Great Northern Way (between Main Street and Clark Avenue in East Vancouver)‚ which features over 12,000 square feet of exhibition space. “It is a pretty amazing space for showing art,” she says.

Just in case you’re curious, in addition to Gammon and Alexander, the other artists included in Cut and Paste are: Roy Arden, Michael Batty, Raymond Boisjoly, Paul Butler, Sarah Cale, Gathie Falk, Geoffrey Farmer, Charles Gagnon, Peter Gazendam, Rodney Graham, Randy Grskovic, Holger Kalberg, Christopher Kukura, Tiziana La Melia, Lyse Lemieux, Elizabeth McIntosh, Jason McLean, Al McWilliams, Ron Moppett, Office Supplies Incorporated, Toni Onley, Jean Paul Riopelle, Jack Shadbolt, Krisdy Shindler, Gordon Smith, Derek Sullivan, Jonathan Syme, Takao Tanabe, Harold Town, Allison Tweedie, Renée Van Halm, Etienne Zack, and Elizabeth Zvonar.

As the Straight‘s Laurence notes, “the show invites us to examine contemporary uses of what was once a breakthrough medium championed by the early modernists . . . . Given its location, this exhibition also provokes thought about the shifting nature of curation. The strikingly large Equinox Project Space, located on industrial land off Great Northern Way, reminds us that commercial galleries (and sometimes private collectors) are playing an ever greater role in shaping our experience of contemporary art.”

Cut and Paste runs to July 14.

All photos by Lynda Gammon