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Reminiscences about
Kebyar and Spiral
Robert Aitken

Kebyar (1971) was the result of a trip to Thailand in 1970 and the musical encounters I experienced there. The piece itself was written specifically for my close friends at the time, my former teacher Nicholas Fiore (flute), my good friend and colleague Stan McCarney (clarinet), Eugene Watts of the not quite yet famous Canadian Brass (trombone), John Wyre of Nexus whom I had known since I was 20 years old at Marlboro (percussion) and Thomas and “Corky” Monahan (double basses) of the Toronto Symphony. As I was heavily involved with electronic music at the time it also involved tape. There was pseudo gamelan music on the tape which people thought I had taken from Nonesuch recordings, but in fact I made myself from banks of sine wave generators. The performers at certain moments all had to play percussion instruments, especially wood blocks, which seemed relatively easy but in fact they had great difficulty playing the rhythms and even hitting the wood blocks. I really could not understand it until I had to play the piece myself some years later. It really is very embarrassing, I tell you, when the stage lights are low for mood and you are looking at your music with a flute in one hand, a drum stick in the other and you continue to miss the Balinese wood block you are trying to strike!

One section of the work features the two double basses playing harmonics over a very evocative electronic tape. I must admit the basses do sound a bit bovine and the section became known as “lunar moonscape with cows.”

Spiral (1975): A much more challenging piece is Spiral about which there were many stories. The basic idea of the piece is that it begins simply enough as a normal contemporary work with some effects and harmonic material when suddenly four amplified instruments disrupt the tranquility with extreme extra-musical effects and extended techniques. The amplified flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon destroy the orchestra which now starts to play only effects, noises and new techniques while the four instruments, because of the amplification or rather with the aid of amplification, sing tonally over the broken remnants of the orchestra. Well, I listened to the first performance from the front of the balcony in the National Arts Centre, and beside my wife and I were the important members of the CBC administration, one of whom began to laugh. In fact he began to laugh almost out of control. I sort of understood it, but felt very uncomfortable and the other members of the CBC were even more embarrassed, including John Roberts. Well, a few days later the truth came out as I received a number of letters of apology, including one from the man himself. It turns out he was head of CBC for Newfoundland and when he thought of CBC money being spent on such a piece, while he was trying to educate his audience to even listen to Mozart, he lost it.

Mario Bernardi, to his great credit, did champion the piece, played it on tour and conducted it with the BBC Symphony at a public concert in London at St. James Smith Square. That is a very long story… But he told me, immediately after the premiere in Ottawa, a lady, one of his regular audience whom he knew, came backstage and gave him “hell” for playing such a piece. But then she went home and because she hated the piece so much and as there was a one hour delay, listened to the broadcast to hear it again. And she phoned Mario back at home and told him she quite liked it the second time. Controversial pieces always generate lots of stories and I could go on, but would especially like to thank John Roberts for his foresight and the opportunity to write both these pieces.