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Jazz musician Vijay Iyer is director of the Banff Centre’s jazz and new music program. (Handout)
Jazz musician Vijay Iyer is director of the Banff Centre’s jazz and new music program. (Handout)

Classical music at the Banff Centre: It’s a religion, with its own doctrine Add to ...

The year 2013 has not been the most relaxing in the history of classical music at the Banff Centre – and that was the case even before Vijay Iyer, director of the Centre’s jazz and new music program, was awarded a $625,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” this week.

The tremors of populism that have shaken the music industry for a decade now threaten to run a rift through the elite school in the mountains.

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It has been fascinating to watch as a non-musical outsider, like Cro-Magnon man stumbling upon his first NHL game. Unk! Why red sweater smash blue sweater’s head on ice?

The nervous stretch began last spring with the departure of Henk Guittart, the traditionalist director of Fall and Winter Creative Music Residencies. Guittart was ousted after Jeff Melanson, the 38-year-old, change-loving president of the Centre, issued a dictate that the Centre had to pay more attention to non-classical music – specifically jazz, world music, indie bands, singer-songwriters and indigenous fare.

The tiny tendentious town of Canadian classical music popped a gasket. Melanson was accused of dumbing down and commercializing the Banff Centre’s 75-year-old standards to make it more “relevant.” Suddenly, the Centre’s internationally renowned classical music department had to share its trove of financing with jazz musicians and the likes of Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, who occupies a coveted Banff residency this fall. Kevin Drew! The man wears a toque!

The nervousness did not abate with the arrival in June of the MacArthur-winning Iyer, appointed last spring as head of the Centre’s International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. One of the world’s most celebrated jazz pianists, Iyer was raised in Rochester, N.Y., by Indian parents, which partly accounts for the blend of American and Carnatic influences in his music. To date, he has 17 albums and a passel of Grammys, and makes no bones of the high regard in which he holds jazz. “There is no ‘supposed to,’” he said to me one afternoon last June, describing why jazz is different. “There is only what people do, and what people did. There’s just that. And when you take it that way, it’s all discovery.”

Ooooh, I thought. Then said: “Do you think that’s true of classical music too?”

“It’s almost a false equivalence,” Iyer replied. “What I kind of have to keep reminding everybody here is that we’re all makers of music. Which is not the same as playing the music of someone who lived 200 years ago, in some state of perfection. It’s actually about putting yourself out there right now and making a whole bunch of choices, and every choice might fail. You know? But the possibility of that failure, the risk that’s involved in that process, is really just an inherent part of it. It’s a very different idea of what music is and what it can be. I’m not trying to denigrate the amazing legacy of classical music, which is a big part of my life too. But just to understand that what we’re talking about here is creativity, which is more than playing an instrument.”

Inter-genre rivalry heated up all summer. One night in Banff I met a famous concert violinist. “What do you do?” she said.

“Journalist.”

“Oh,” she said dismissively. “That’s so easy. Just one thing, writing. We have to read the music and then play it, flawlessly. We’re gods compared to writers.” I’m pretty sure she was trying to make a joke. Later I reported what she’d said to a jazz saxophonist.

He snorted. “A classical violinist? All they do is data transfer.”

A lot of classical musicians agree with Iyer’s description of the rut of perfectionism classical music finds itself in today. Shortly after Iyer returned to New York, John Corigliano arrived. The celebrated American composer admitted that classic classical can be a snore.

“I think what he’s talking about is the kind of programming in which the standard three Bs [Bach, Brahms, Beethoven] are played over and over again. And it’s like the Top 40. It does get tiresome,” Corigliano said.

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