Rudolf Komorous writes music that is unlike anyone else's, elusive yet clear, familiar yet always surprising, exquisitely orchestrated - often with unconventional instruments - and full of telling juxtapositions. It is music that takes nothing for granted: Listening to it I often feel as if the answer to some question about beauty or wisdom lies just beyond the corner of the next, evanescent, phrase.
Komorous came to Canada in 1969 from his native Czechoslovakia, where he was the sole composer in an avant-garde association of visual artists known as the "Smidra Group," with ties to Dada and Surrealism. Theirs was an "aesthetic of the wonderful," in which the banal held within it the possibility of transcendence. Komorous has given voice to that aesthetic in an array of orchestral, solo, chamber and vocal music, including two operas.
Komorous taught for many years at the University of Victoria where he was much sought after as a composition teacher - some of Canada's most respected experimental composers, among them Linda Catlin Smith, Christopher Butterfield, Rodney Sharman and Martin Arnold, were his students.
This week, Vancouver's Turning Point Ensemble, conducted by another former student, Owen Underhill, will premiere Komorous's Minx, his first new composition in many years. Komorous, who is 78, says it is his "last piece."
The Globe spoke to him at his home in Victoria.
Does the 'aesthetics of the wonderful' still describe something essential about your music?
Yes, absolutely. Although wonderful is not quite the right word. Maybe "strange" is better. The definition for the Czech word is more limited - 'unusual, curious, outside of one's previous experience.'
Your melodies have a lot to do with what makes your music so strange .
Yes, but there's no melody without harmony. Harmony is like a pillow, and the melody sits on that pillow. Italian monody was always for me the pinnacle of music, because the harmonies are so strange, and for this reason the melodies are also strange. Sigismondo D'India (a contemporary of Monteverdi) is my saint composer! The thing you absolutely must do when working with harmonies is mix triads with sharpest dissonances; it makes for the interest.
You do this brazenly.
In Minx it's more brazen than usual.
A lot of your music has Chinese or Japanese references.
I lived for two years in China, and visited Japan as well. I still have an old notebook where I wrote, "Look at everything through the experience in China." In Japan I was very interested in Noh Theatre.
What does your music share with the Japanese aesthetic?
Structure, the feeling for dimensions, the relationship of one part to another. Japanese art is very clearly observable. It has a kind of transparency.
But this transparency in your music is more apparent than real.
Well, I like art to be ambiguous. It gives the listener choice. It touches people more because they get it their own way.
You sometimes invent an ambiguous quotation for the title page. Here you write, 'Minx appears in many transformations,' a statement you attribute to a fictional Lodovico Oni in 1637.
This piece is a minx: It jumps from one thing to another, each part very different. These parts aren't continuous, but they're not individual movements either - more like blocks. Minx goes the furthest in this block-style of any of my pieces.
Edward Said, in his book, Late Style , remarks on the episodic character of the music Beethoven wrote late in life - its 'apparent disregard for its own continuity,' its avoidance of synthesis. That's sounds like your late style.
It's such a close description of my music that you can't have a closer one. I start somewhere; I stop anywhere; something different happens, and something different again. They say that music must have flow, but I think that flow is actually incredibly boring. It just goes and goes. Most of classical music is basically songs on a larger scale with accompaniment.
And the alternative?
I believe that the future of music now is in the structure, to get rid of these what I call songs!
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The Turning Point Ensemble presents three premieres: Minx, by Rudolf Komorous; the monodrama Cut Flowers by Linda Catlin Smith, with soprano Phoebe MacRae; and Owen Underhill's Imprint, for eight dancers, with choreography by Henry Daniel; June 17-20, at the Fei & Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward's in Vancouver.
Special to The Globe and Mail