• Spectrum Music TO

I first met Karen Ostrom at MacDowell, an artist colony in a forest in New Hampshire. The colony is full of big moody pine trees and old, moss-covered stones. One night, the artists all piled into Karen’s studio, a cabin down a dark, winding dirt road, to see her work. Flipping through a slideshow of her past work, as well as some photos she was creating at the colony, I felt a sense of eeriness. Karen photographs herself as a variety of characters in a fictional fishing village. The dissonance of seeing her familiar face over and over again in situations that increase in oddity does something very weird to my brain- and it makes me think twice about the visual world around me.

So, when Spectrum composer Shannon Graham said she was looking for a visual artist to collaborate with for this season, I immediately thought of Karen’s work. Watching from a distance as Karen and Shannon’s collaboration has grown this winter, I’ve been awestruck by their ability to communicate their artistic ideas so clearly through such separate expressive mediums. They have created an abstract narrative world for our music and Karen’s visuals to inhabit that is at once familiar but foreign, distant but full of emotional touch points.


In pulling together Karen’s work with performers Stephanie Chua, Veronique Matthieu, Lina Allemano and Jesse Dietschi, as well as composer Ben Dietschi, Shannon has compiled a very exciting creative team. As we head into rehearsals this week, I’m really looking forward to watching this wealth of great ideas take shape into an exciting evening of music, animations and stories. As a composer, it’s a rare privilege to be part of such an interesting artistic journey!


- Caitlin Smith


Patent Pending comes out of a long string of narrative works thematically centred around factories and industry. To give some context to the project, I will begin by explaining the umbrella project, Holiday in Hope, a series begun in 2001 of primarily photographic tableaus depicting the citizens of a fictional fishing village. Not being an actual place it had to be defined by the characters, or citizens, of the village. Their individual development has come out of personal experiences of what I feel a small industrial town might have or need. Since their conception, the characters have slowly evolved, venturing out of the original context of photo-tableau from a fictional fishing village to be featured in cycloramic installations, short plays, animations and now a multi-media installation; all of which intertwine and digress, but are essentially inter-related and further the definition of the village. It’s an ongoing project and one that I describe as a living narrative.


I play all the characters in the village and they are either male or female and discernable by their profession and not an individual name. This allows me to strip down the characters to what I think of as the essence of their role within the community. A community that is really a sort of utopian experiment modelled after Scandinavian immigration in the mid19thC to early 20thC to the US and Canada. In search of religious and political freedom these waves of immigrants set up self-contained communities in isolated and remote locations. All but a few still survive but not in the idealized form they were once hoped to be. Meant as more of a foundation than a structure for the village, I emulated this search for the utopian dream, made it digital and accessible, and over time, allowed it to transform into its current dystopian state.


Coming from a small fishing town and growing up in the fishing industry, it was natural that I made the village’s baseline economy fishing. However I have also always been interested in turn of the century factory production and light-manufacturing and so this digital age village is all about assembly lines and the handmade. Of course these are just excuses and a backdrop to talk about a plethora of other issues, be it psychological, social, or historical.


The initial intent was to discuss the social and economic issues within the dynamics of this seaside industrial economy and to explore factories as a means of production at a time when mechanically operated and light-manufacturing factories supporting a small rural population is all but history, slipping away as romantic notion. This has settled more into the background as the character development and stories within the village have taken over.


The creation of the village as a ‘virtual’ village is for me an ironic act based on the contradiction within the subject. The Glovemaker illustrates this most succinctly: One of the most important characters of the village because of his craftsmanship and skill in hand-crafting the handglove, the Glovemaker becomes a tragic and ironic figure, sitting on the brink of being obsolete due to the digital duplication (mechanization) of the very hands that create the village. Essentially a poetic notion, it reflects on the factory as a virtual space and what that would mean to an industrial based society but also brings to question what that society has evolved into and how does this representation resemble who we are in this culture. Is there such a things as progress, or are we in a state of paralysis? Paradoxically, the seeking out of the elusive definition of the village is both the fuel and the endgame.


In the narrative that takes place in Patent Pending, the Seamstress and the Glovemaker manufacture objects that are essentially clones of their own body parts. It sets up notions of identity and the creation of identity and the seemingly endless cycle of existence. Set against the backdrop of my dystopian village and the factory narrative, the term ‘patent pending’ consequently reflects poetically on the impossibility of there being anything to specifically or actually patent in the factory and perhaps more appropriately emphasizes this as another ironic gesture – hence my definition of the ‘pending’.


Patent Pending is a set up as 3 interwoven narratives that rely on the viewer to piece the unfolding story together as they play across the 3 screens simultaneously. The setting is the factories of the village of Hope where the Seamstress and the Glovemaker work privately in their studios attending to their production. Of course there is a slight sense of the surreal cast upon the average workday and events play out unexpectedly between the characters when they interact. In addition to these 2 factory workers is the Writer who also sits in her own factory studio (and her own projection screen) manufacturing a written version of the visual story. Part introspective, part poetic, the writings illuminate and guide the viewer but are never definitive. Rather they are meant to suggest and help give structure to the narrative so that the viewer can arrive at their own conclusions.


What has evolved out of this project and is most exciting for me is that the musical score is not an accompaniment but an essential narrative component in the story. The live musical performance will similarly weave 3 compositions written by 3 of the Spectrum composers, adding the final narrative element to the project. And because the compositions are written by 3 different composers a new sense of who these characters are as individuals, is given the opportunity to blossom. Add the element of live performance and improvisation and the sense of a living narrative becomes increasingly apparent.


- Karen Ostrom

  • Spectrum Music TO

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the terrible fire that ripped through downtown Toronto on April 19th, 1904 is that no one was actually injured in the blaze. The fact that it started in the evening in a commercial area of town perhaps helped, but considering the vast amount of destruction it’s amazing that no lives were lost. It shouldn’t be overlooked, however, that one man was lost during the cleanup efforts in the days following the fire: John Croft had an untimely dynamite malfunction during the demolition of a burned-out building.


Now referred to as “The Great Fire”, this blaze changed the face of Toronto forever as most of the downtown core had to be rebuilt. The fire got me thinking about the transformative power of destruction and how that process is often mirrored in nature. The idea of a cycle of creation towards an apex, followed by the intervention of some sort of destructive force, fascinates me. I decided, however, to take a fairly programmatic approach to the piece to best explore the arc of the whole event – from the hours before the fire right through to the aftermath.


I tried to set up distinct spaces for the listener to occupy. There’s the busy downtown streets with their particular 1904 flavor of hustle and bustle, then the ominous calm, snowy night when the blaze quietly started.  Then of course, the fire, which is admittedly very fun to imitate with music! I tried to create a powerful insistence to the fire, an inevitable forward motion that can’t be stopped until it reaches its natural conclusion. The piece gets pretty intense at the peak of the blaze, but I think the rhythmic aspects of the writing make it a fun listen as well.  I wrapped up with a section to represent the morning after the disaster, which although reflective should hopefully also hint at renewal: the inevitability of the cycle of creation and destruction in the natural world.


I’m a bit of a sucker for programmatic music. It’s fun to try to relate abstract musical building blocks to literal aspects of the material world. Writing this way can also be very difficult, and I think that there’s a risk of being trivial. I think it’s important to let the music follow its own direction when it needs to–one shouldn’t be too rigid about sticking to a story.


The great thing is, the music is always a story unto itself – so come for the music and stay for the story!  You can tell us whether or not we captured these places, people and events of Toronto in a way that was meaningful for you.


I’m very much looking forward to playing all of this brand new music for you at our concert this Friday, April 5th at the Al Green Theatre.


- Ben Dietschi

© 2018 by Spectrum Music