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For composer Udo Kasemets, atonality and dissonance were not pejoratives, but musical goals. (MICHAEL TOROSIAN/COURTESY OF NATIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA)
For composer Udo Kasemets, atonality and dissonance were not pejoratives, but musical goals. (MICHAEL TOROSIAN/COURTESY OF NATIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA)

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Musical maverick Udo Kasemets pushed the sound barriers Add to ...

If you ever heard an Udo Kasemets musical composition, you may have regarded it as strange and atonal. Mr. Kasemets would have been fine with that.

For him, atonality and dissonance were not pejoratives, but musical goals. His music, especially his later pieces, eschewed conventional tonal systems. Neither was it terribly melodic. Often minimalist and showcasing the beauty of silence, his work was avant-garde and experimental, never safe, always fresh. Who else would take chaos theory, fractal geometry or the writing of Dylan Thomas and set it to music to create complete aural landscapes?

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“It’s hard to describe his pieces as compositions,” conceded Jeremy Strachan, whose University of Toronto doctoral thesis is on Mr. Kasemets. “They were more like events. They drew from chants and indeterminate procedures, meaning they weren’t really notes you read on a page. There were a lot of performance instructions. He drew inspiration from all kinds of non-musical sources, such as the Mayan calendar, science and the structure of fractals.

“A lot of his pieces don’t really sound like musical pieces the way we think about them,” Mr. Strachan said. “They’re static in many ways, and nonlinear, in the sense that they don’t sound like they’re working toward something.”

Composer, critic, teacher, advocate and organizer within the contemporary music world, Mr. Kasemets died in Toronto on Jan. 19 at the age of 94.

“Udo considered himself to be a bit of a maverick, and his compositions were indeed unusual,” remarked his long-time friend and onetime student, the singer Susan Layard. “His music, however, always made you think and learn. For Udo, music was everything. Until he became ill, he worked on his composition almost every day.”

Talking with Mr. Kasemets was “a bit like talking with Socrates, who also claimed nothing for himself but the ability to keep asking questions,” wrote Robert Everett-Green in The Globe in 2009. “But while Socrates, in Plato’s dialogues, is focused on strict lines of logical argument, Mr. Kasemets’s mind is continually seeking out lateral connections between different kinds of endeavours.”

In its tribute after his death, the Canadian Music Centre noted that Mr. Kasemets, in his earlier days, composed in conventional styles, first strictly tonally, then using more dissonant “attitudes,” and finally adopting the dodecaphonic system, working within it throughout the 1950s.

The system, also known as the 12-note technique, is a method of musical composition devised by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. It’s a way to ensure that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded equally, preventing emphasis of any one note. The music also avoids being in a key.

But in the early 1960s, everything changed when Mr. Kasemets discovered the sounds of the American avant-garde composer and theorist John Cage. It was the pivotal moment in Mr. Kasemets’s life, Mr. Strachan said. “Everything goes back, in one way or another, to Cage.”

Mr. Kasemets began moving away from his somewhat traditional modernism into the exploratory kind of music he made from then on; toward special notations, using mixed media, including audiovisual interactions with the audience, and electroacoustics.

“I was a changed person from that day on,” Mr. Kasemets recalled in 2009 of his fateful encounter. “Cage opened up my mind. He managed all his life to keep asking questions about what music really is.” These were questions Mr. Kasemets himself strove to answer.

He was born in 1919 in Tallinn, Estonia, the son of a church musician. As he recalled in a 1969 interview, the sounds of the human voice first led him to music. With plans to become a conductor, he studied music at the Tallinn Conservatory and later at the Stuttgart Academy of Music. A few teachers stood out in his memory, according to The Globe’s 2009 profile: Heino Eller, his “very forward-looking” composition teacher in Tallinn, and Ernst Krenek, the bad-boy composer of the Weimar Republic, with whom Mr. Kasemets studied in Germany. He also vividly recalled seeing the great visionary composer Edgard Varèse at the famous Darmstadt summer school in 1950, demolishing students by flipping through their scores and saying, “Can’t you do anything new?”

“New” stuck in his mind when he arrived in Canada the following year, and plunged into the modern music scenes in Hamilton and Toronto. He taught at the Royal Hamilton College of Music and conducted the Hamilton Conservatory Chorus until 1957.

He was music critic for The Toronto Daily Star from 1959 to 1963. “He was evidently too outspoken even for that paper,” recalled his friend of 60 years, John Beckwith, a retired music professor at the University of Toronto and himself a onetime music columnist for the Star.

When Mr. Kasemets criticized the pianist-conductor Reginald Stewart, “there was a protest from Stewart’s patron, Lady Eaton,” Mr. Beckwith recalled. “In Methodistical thunder she wrote, ‘Who is Udo Kasemets, and whence cometh he?’”

He continued with a torrent of activity, teaching at the Brodie School of Music and Modern Dance and organizing Toronto’s first new music series, Men, Minds and Music. In 1968, he planned and directed the first Toronto Festival of Arts and Technology. That year, he was responsible for bringing Mr. Cage and the artist Marcel Duchamp to Toronto’s Ryerson Theatre for the 4 1/2-hour premiere of Reunion, in which games of chess between the two visitors determined the performance. Mr. Duchamp would die a few months later.

Mr. Kasemets would go on to teach experimental arts at what was then the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University) from 1971 to 1987. He continued organizing festivals and events and never stopped composing.

His list of influences was dizzying, including novels, choreography and even the classic Chinese text I Ching. Many of his pieces took off from poetic texts or mathematical concepts, which he translated through a system of what composer Linda Catlin Smith called “sonic alphabets.”

For example, the letter A would take a certain sound, “and it wouldn’t be the note A on the piano, it would be a sound he would create, perhaps a couple of notes together,” Ms. Smith explained. “He would determine what A would sound like, then B and so on – all the letters of the alphabet and punctuation and capital letters. On the piano, capital letters might mean to press the pedal down. He had very, very precise instructions for a poetic text and then he would translate the words into these sounds.”

Despite the fact that “he didn’t work a lot with harmony – or melody,” Mr. Kasemets’s creations were “not inaccessible,” Ms. Smith said.

Among his later pieces was the formidably titled fraCtal fibONaCciERTO, based on the works of five mathematicians, including Fibonacci and Benoît Mandelbrot, who helped formalize fractal geometry.

“This piece is dramatically intense,” said Canadian pianist Stephen Clarke, for whom the piece was written in 1996, just before performing the work in Toronto in 2009. “I think the mathematics led it in that direction. I don’t think that came from him.”

Mr. Clarke remembered a lunch he had with Mr. Kasemets eight years ago. The two could barely hear each other above the massive thunder claps outside. So they stopped talking, until Mr. Kasemets pronounced, “I love this.” They sat there listening to the thunder for 20 minutes.

Ultimately, he never quite figured out it all out. “I still haven’t got my answer as to what music really is,” he said at the age of 90, “and this is probably why I’ve had this long life.”

Mr. Kasemets divorced his wife many years ago. They had a son, Uku, who died in 2012. Mr. Kasemets’s partner, Catharine Hindson, also predeceased him. There will be a memorial concert in his memory later this year.

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