Elizabeth Reid: Conjuring: The Viola Music of David Jaeger

Conjuring: Viola Music of David Jaeger

Redshift Records

While he’s not unknown outside Canada, within its borders David Jaeger (b. 1947) is revered as a pivotal figure in the history and development of Canadian contemporary music. Many a listener versed in that scene knows him as the radio music producer for the CBC’s fondly remembered contemporary music program Two New Hours, which ran from 1978 to 2007 and helped give exposure to many a homegrown performer and composer. Others know Jaeger as a founding member of the pioneering Canadian Electronic Ensemble (CEE), which, established in 1971 and still operating, can legitimately lay claim to being the longest-running live electronic group in the world (this Canadian’s first exposure to the group didn’t occur at a Toronto venue, interestingly enough, but at De Ijsbreeker in Amsterdam in June 1985 as part of that year’s Holland Festival).

Jaeger is also, however, a composer of considerable note, as shown by this terrific collection by Canadian violist Elizabeth Reid with pianist Alison Bruce Cerutti (the now Vermont-based Reid has collaborated with Cerutti, a Vermont native, since 2004). His compositional output spans decades and is as adventurous as it is substantial. Even in this single-disc presentation, evidence of his range is clear when the material extends from solo viola miniatures to daring electroacoustic explorations. Reid’s association with Jaeger started in 2014 when she performed his 1980 work Favour for amplified viola and electronics, and the collaboration continued thereafter with concerts in Canada and the United States. After a well-received 2019 performance of Sonata no. 1 for Viola and Piano (2018) with Cerutti, Reid decided the time was ripe to record a full album of his material, specifically one that would feature pieces for viola and piano, unaccompanied viola, and viola with electronics. Befitting the composer’s panoramic range of interests, the recording is eclectic and adventurous.

The compact Sonata, Tristan and Isolde (1992), isn’t a straight-up Wagner homage but rather a piece for viola and piano written in honour of Jaeger’s mother’s seventieth birthday and titled in part after her pets. Affection emanates from the hushed lyricism of the oft-mysterious opening movement (“Slowly, but with intensity”), notable also for its daring harmonic choices. The central “Allegro” is, naturally, animated, its playfulness perhaps reflecting the personalities of the pets; by comparison, the closing “Chanson, douce et sauvage” largely re-instates a serene tone with lovely duet voicings by the performers. Arriving twenty-six years later, the Sonata no. 1 for Viola and Piano adopts a brooding tone when chromatic harmonies and a memorable theme (which returns at the work’s close) amplify the introductory part’s haunting aura; the second movement is as unruly and mischievous as its “Allegro bizzaro” marking implies, while the third’s “Very hushed and slow – presto molto – coda” accurately captures the material’s shape-shifting character.

Jaeger wrote Six Miniatures for Unaccompanied Viola (2021) after poems by Scottish poet David Cameron, which, because they’re included in the release booklet, allow for a fascinating to-and-fro between the texts and the composer’s imaginings. Listening to “Conjure You,” for example, it’s tempting to draw an equivalence between the poem’s “Tie up the black parcels with string / And go to their funeral-wedding” and the dive-bombing glissandi that surface halfway through. With most only about a minute long at a time, the vignettes come and go quickly yet long enough to register a distinct personality. Another recently composed work is Constable and the Spirit of the Clouds (2021), its title a reference to Cloud Studies created by the English Romantic artist, John Constable. In this first of three electronically enhanced settings, the viola responds agitatedly to an alien, atmospherically suggestive backdrop.

The final two pieces, Sarabande (1993) and Favour (1980), are companions for the fact that each incorporates systems of electronic delay. The simpler of the two, technically speaking, is Sarabande for employing a single playback track for the violist to play against. After unaccompanied viola calmly introduces the piece, electronic elements seep in, though not so disruptively they get in the way of the violist’s bowing and pizzicati. When violist Rivka Golani asked Jaeger to write a work that would involve amplified viola and audio delays, he created a piece featuring two separate delay systems controlled by volume pedals, Favour. Cycling string patterns give a number of passages thrust, but moments of contemplative calm also emerge amidst the percussive electronic effects.One of the best things about the project—recorded, fittingly, at CBC Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto—is that in assembling six Jaeger pieces into an album-length statement the listener comes away from it with a generally good grasp of his music, much more so than if, say, a single piece of his had been included on a compilation featuring works by Canadian composers. Even if its focus limits itself to the viola music he’s written, Conjuring nevertheless allows for a solid appreciation of his writing style and sensibility.

March 2023