Better Know Continuum Contemporary Music (Toronto)

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Continuum Contemporary Music (Toronto) has been shaping new-music terrain and contemporary art for over the past quarter century. Continuum has commissioned and premiered nearly 150 new works from Canadian and international, emerging composers. An engine of collaboration, they have partnered on events with the best minds in philosophy, psychology, criticism, theater, film and literature - not to mention instrument makers, composers, librettists and artists from around the world.

Co-Artistic director Jennifer Waring speaks to Continuum's ability to dream beyond practicality, how it has helped shaped and seen shifts in the world of new-music and how it creates and executes its projects.

Continuum Contemporary Music is celebrating 26 years performing new-music. What can you say about how the new-music scene has changed since 1985? (For example, how has the audience changed, and what things were new that are no longer new?)

Twenty-six years ago in Toronto the orthodoxies of modernism still held sway, not only in the academic environment of graduate school where Continuum began but in the programming of the few established presenters. (Minimalism and other alternative aesthetics had been around, but consonance was still in the process of rehabilitation.) Continuum gave a voice to emerging composers, some who were beginning to explore prohibited territory. For a while, reaction against and enthusiasm for change defined camps (at times virtually armed camps) of thinking about music. But now the range of aesthetic means acceptable in serious “art” music seems just about boundless. 

Funding structures, too, have played a big role in the development of new music practices over the past 26 years.New music practice (at least as we define it) is fairly recent in Canada -- some of its pioneers are still living. And because of our small population relative to the size of the country (and all sorts of historical factors) it’s funded mainly by various levels of government. All the arts councils were founded post-war, and some not long before Continuum came into being. For the most part, the councils’ budgets have increased steadily, which has not only provided us with support but has created a proliferation of organizations, specialized performers and composers. Toronto is one active center, but it’s similar across the country, with Montreal’s being probably the most vibrant scene (Quebec funds the arts to a greater degree than anywhere else in Canada.) Emerging from this are sounds and schools particular to areas, but networks of colleagues creating links; competition for funds and for audience, but an ever growing audience. 

How did the core of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion begin? Was this the original orchestration of the group when it started? Does this combination seem confining or freeing?

When Continuum began, we fielded very different ensembles every concert, instrumentation being geared to programming. At the same time we were a collective of composers and musicians – so member musicians, and their instruments, were a fixture. Eventually the group became more hierarchically organized, and gradually the current core ensemble evolved, both through a desire to work with the same dedicated musicians and also because this Pierrot formation is in some ways the standard for the 20th and 21st century chamber music. 

What sort of things do you pay particular attention to in collaborating across genres and what have been some of your favorites?

I like big ideas that serve as a structure for programming, whether a concert or a collaborative project. These ideas can be themes, but they can also inform a project invisibly. I also like risk – not really knowing if something is going to work, or work the way I imagine it in planning. L’Orielle fine (2005) was probably one of the riskiest and open ended projects we’ve mounted. It centered on the idea of contemporary expression in a classical art form (for me, a fascinating conundrum); and though music was the art form under scrutiny – it having the most perplexing relationship of present to past – I wanted the discussion to be undertaken by people who were not experts in the field. (My thinking was, now I’m really going to get to the bottom of this issue, one which had obsessed me since university.)

What are some things that Continuum is looking forward to that you are willing or able to discuss? Do you have any long term goals or dreams for the next 25 years?

After my rather rosy description of funding structures and how they’ve benefited new-music practice in Canada comes a recognition of the hard reality of the foreseeable future – certainly no increases and more likely the opposite. This situation results not only from economic uncertainty but also from being saddled with a conservative government that looks like it will be around for a while. Practice reflects resources. If groups are to grow and tackle big and interesting projects, they will have to broaden funding sources, relying more on box office revenues, corporate sponsorship and private donations. The Dutch funding system has already been shaken to its foundations, with government officials telling groups to “do it like the Americans.” I suppose we may get the same message (though the Quebec question will, I think, prevent evisceration of public funding of the arts.) All this reflects more the worries of the coming years than our dreams, but I do expect new-music to continue to become more “approachable.”  As for Continuum, we will continue to program emerging composers and emerging musics, to dream up projects and collaborations that reflect big ideas, to tour and disseminate work in new and interesting ways, and to make sure that Canadian composers contribute to the aesthetic dialogue that shapes new-music in the future.  

Continuum is Jennifer Waring, Co-Artistic Director; Ryan Scott, Co-Artistic Director & Percussion; Max Christie, Clarinet; Carol Fujino, Violin; Laurent Philippe, Piano; Anne Thompson, Flute; and Paul Widner, Cello. Their next performance, "Contes pour enfants pas sages," runs May 27 - May 29 at 918 Bathurst in Toronto.