Udo Kasemets has written many pieces of music during his 90 years on the planet, including ambitious translations into sound of the works of eminent poets and scientists. But he says he is still looking for the answer to the most basic question about his art: What is music?
"I don't really want to be considered an accomplished composer, or something like that, because I'm still learning," he says, during an interview between rehearsals for his fraCtal fibONaCciERTO, which New Music Concerts is performing at the Betty Oliphant Theatre Sunday. "I still haven't got my answer, as to what music really is, and this is probably why I've had this long life."
Kasemets walks with a cane, his speech is slow and his hair is snow white, but his capacity for wonder is that of a small child. "Fascinating" is one of his favourite words.
I thought it was important for a conductor to know what music is from the inside out, to know how it is made and put together.
Talking with Kasemets may be a bit like talking with Socrates, who also claimed nothing for himself but the ability to keep asking questions. But while Socrates, in Plato's dialogues, is focused on strict lines of logical argument, Kasemets's mind is continually seeking out lateral connections between different kinds of endeavours.
For him, music isn't something existing in its own zone, separate from the rest of life. It's more like a fluid state of being, whose traces can be found almost anywhere, and whose true nature can only be hinted at through a score or even a live performance.
"Everything in life belongs together," he says. "As long as we experience it, there is really no break."
He counts himself a devoted follower of John Cage, who saw no reason to make a sharp division between art and life. His first encounter with Cage's book Silence was, Kasemets says, a pivotal experience.
"I was a changed person from that day on," he says. "Cage opened up my mind. He managed all his life to keep asking questions about what music really is."
But Kasemets's questioning had started well before that, and quickly diverted him from the path he thought he wanted to take. Growing up in Estonia, the son of a church musician, he had planned to become a conductor.
"I thought it was important for a conductor to know what music is from the inside out, to know how it is made and put together," he said. "And that meant learning composition." He didn't realize that his studies would last a lifetime.
A few figures stand out in his memory like beacons: his school music teacher, "a very inspiring person" who planted the seeds of his future preoccupations; Heino Eller, his "very forward-looking" composition teacher in Tallinn; and Ernst Krenek, the bad-boy composer of the Weimar Republic, with whom Kasemets studied in Germany. He also vividly recalls 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 ?"
Everything in life belongs together. As long as we experience it, there is really no break.
Kasemets sailed to Canada in 1951, settled near Toronto, and began organizing concerts, festivals and publications, and establishing himself as a teacher (he taught experimental arts at what is now the Ontario College of Art and Design from 1971 to 1987). He had his fateful encounter with Cage's ideas in the early sixties, and moved from a somewhat traditional modernism into the exploratory kind of music he has made ever since.
Most of his pieces take off from poetic texts or mathematical concepts or visualizations, which he sometimes translates quite directly through an orderly system of what composer Linda Smith calls "sonic alphabets." There may be freedoms for the performers, including improvisation and leeway in determining timing or timbre in some sections, but the piece essentially works out whatever system Kasemets has devised for it, usually with results that he couldn't have anticipated.
"Often he's excited by what the process reveals," says Smith, who has participated in some his pieces. "It's like he's discovering something in nature, not something he created."
fraCtal fibONaCciERTO is based on the works of five mathematicians, including Fibonacci and Mandelbrot, whose ideas can be visualized through things like fractal patterns. Stephen Clarke, the pianist for whom the piece was written in 1996, says the ideas and even the imagery are quite perceptible in Kasemets's piece.
"It clearly shows the numerical and fractal aspects," says Clarke, who is playing in tomorrow's concert. "The way the phrases branch and subdivide is very much like fractal patterns." In some ways, the music shows a stronger resemblance to the mathematicians' work than it does to Kasemets's other pieces.
"His music, more often than not, is rather spacious and quiet," Clarke says. "This piece is dramatically intense. I think the mathematics led it in that direction. I don't think that came from him."
As a composer, Kasemets hasn't had the degree of mainstream exposure enjoyed by people like Harry Somers, with whom he became close during his first years in Canada. His is primarily a personal quest, for meaning and understanding. He has had a broad influence on a few generations of composers, and on visual artists who studied with him at OCAD. Smith says that awareness of his works may grow once a large cache of his compositions are placed in the collection of the Canadian Music Centre, though Kasemets has never been a heavy promoter of his own work.
"He puts himself in the background," she says, referring to his compositional process, but also perhaps to his way of working as a musician in society. "It's not about him."
As for what it's really about, Kasemets is still working on the problem.
New Music Concerts plays the music of Udo Kasemets Sunday at the Betty Oliphant Theatre.