Illuminations: Essays in Honour of Brian Cherney

Guest-edited by Robin Elliott

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Author: Robin Elliott

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Personal Views

How I Might Have Become a Composer 

Author: Brian Cherney

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Brian Cherney reflects on his childhood and youth in Peterborough, Ontario, in the 1940s and 1950s and his musical studies at the University of Toronto. He considers the varied influence that family, recordings, CBC broadcasts, attending live concerts, piano lessons, reading about music, and spending time in Europe in the late 1960s had in shaping his emerging interest in becoming a composer. Cherney considers that it was only in the mid-1970s, after his appointment to McGill in 1972, that he developed the self-awareness, critical insight, and confidence to become a mature composer … someone who dared, in T.S. Eliot’s words, to “disturb the universe.”

Brian Cherney: Collaborator and Composer 

Author: John Beckwith

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This article includes comments on some of Cherney’s compositions, and an account of his work on Weinzweig: Essays on His Life and Music (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011), of which he and John Beckwith were the co-editors. Cherney’s approach to composing equips him for dealing with a wide range of musical questions, and his exceptional command of both German and Jewish history (as evidenced, for example, in his University of Toronto dissertation on the Bekker-Pfitzner controversy of 1919, and in his essay on the sources of Weinzweig’s radicalism in the 2011 publication) has in turn suggested avenues of exploration in his creative work. Further observations touch on his gift for parody and musical in-jokes.

Personal Views

Brian Cherney in Conversation with Chris Paul Harman 

Author: Chris Harman

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In conversation with his McGill composition colleague Chris Paul Harman, Brian Cherney discusses his university education and his career as a composer, from his earliest works in the 1960s up to 2017.


Brian Cherney as Scholar and Creative Artist 

Author: Robin Elliott

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While best known as a composer, Cherney has also been active in music scholarship. His doctoral thesis in musicology was on German music criticism during the Weimar era, but in his later career he has made important and timely interventions into Canadian music studies. Among his publications are articles on John Weinzweig and Pierre Mercure, as well as a monograph on Harry Somers, who is the subject of his ongoing research. His course on Canadian music at McGill University has introduced many students to the serious study and understanding of composed music in Canada. This article considers Cherney’s music scholarship and speculates on how this work may have had an impact upon his creative activities as a composer.

Music as Refuge: Stillness in Brian Cherney’s Mature Piano Works 

Author: Zosha Castri

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Lingering in the autumnal countryside, all that magic of the ancient forests invincibly came back to me. A gentle, persuasive voice that lulled one into perfect oblivion … and the hollow tones of the angelus, which tolled the fields to sleep.” For Cherney, this Debussy quotation is one of the most evocative descriptions of stillness and closely tied to his own childhood memories—a perfect fusion of mood, landscape, and near silence. Having grown up studying piano, Cherney uses the instrument as a personal outlet, a compositional tool, and a means for auditioning the sounds of his imagination. Through the study of Debussy’s revolutionary music, Cherney came to his mature style in the late 1970s. Using Dans le crépuscule du souvenir … , In the Stillness of the Seventh Autumn, and Tombeau as case studies, this article uses biographical, analytical, and aesthetic perspectives to examine Cherney’s dual approach to stillness: as a space for inspiration and one for withdrawal.

Ascending Music: Meaning and Expression in the Chamber Music of Brian Cherney 

Author: Taylor Brook

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This article investigates the musical language of Brian Cherney, applying the idea of musical topics as a strategy for analyzing the extramusical content of his music. The idea of musical topics, traditionally applied to works from the classical era, is expanded with a collection of topics that are specific to Cherney’s work. Focusing on a set of chamber pieces from throughout Cherney’s compositional output beginning in the 1960s, this article focuses particularly on the topic of “ascending music,” tracing its musical and expressive meaning through these chamber works. The article concludes with a topic-based analysis of Gan Eden, a 1983 piece for violin and piano, providing an example of how topics coexist and interact within a single composition.

Commissioning Brian Cherney’s String Trio 

Author: David Jaeger

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The author offers a personal account of the events that led him to commission Brian Cherney’s String Trio in 1976 for CBC Radio Music. The trio was first heard on the Two New Hours radio program in 1978, along with solo works for violin, viola, and cello by the German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann. In 1979 the trio was submitted for consideration to the International Rostrum of Composers, and it was chosen as a recommended work, which resulted in the trio being broadcast in twenty-five countries, significantly enhancing Cherney’s international reputation. The performers who premiered the trio also recorded it, allowing further audiences to appreciate this important work.

Brian Cherney’s String Trio: Transcendent Pedagogy and the Spiritualization of Technique 

Author: Arlan Schultz

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Brian Cherney’s pedagogical and compositional philosophy is examined from the perspective of transcendent intention. Both in teaching composition and in his own works, Cherney emphasizes technique, attention to details, a convincing formal architecture, and the power of music to give expression to fundamental human emotions and experiences. Drawing upon the philosopher Henri Bergson’s concepts about the “nature of creative consciousness,” the author finds striking parallels between Bergson’s ideas and Cherney’s music. Analytical observations on Cherney’s String Trio are tied to the composer’s pedagogical approach, which profoundly influenced the author both as a composer and as a teacher. Cherney’s String Trio confronts the listener with a work in which the spiritual expression of a universal impermanence is manifested in the music itself in various ways that are illuminated and discussed using specific musical examples.

Experiencing Time in Brian Cherney’s String Quartet No. 4 (1994) 

Author: Christoph Neidhöfer

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Brian Cherney’s Fourth String Quartet (1994), in one movement lasting half an hour, is striking for its formal coherence and diversity of materials. The work achieves large-scale cohesion not only through an intricate interplay of three simultaneously unfolding “main structures”—four attacca movements in one, on one level, seven sections forming certain temporal proportions, on another, and four cycles of “breathing rhythms” derived from the same proportions on a third level, as documented in the manuscript sources—but also through the continually fluctuating tension we experience throughout the movement between ontological and psychological time. Pierre Souvtchinsky’s notion of a “counterpoint” between “ontological time” (i.e., clock or real time) and a particular music’s inherent time shaped by “the material and technical means by which [the] music is expressed” is referenced to demonstrate how in Cherney’s quartet fixed proportions and slow, stable polyrhythms active in the background afford space for foreground activity that has its own sense of time. The article further explores the notion of time in a second, metaphorical dimension, as concerns intertextual allusions in the quartet.

Brian Cherney’s Illuminations 

Author: David Adamcyk

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Brian Cherney’s Illuminations for string orchestra, composed in 1987, reflects ideas related to Jewish mysticism. Descriptions and accounts of meditation techniques that ultimately lead to visions of light, and even an encounter with the divine, so inspired the composer that he decided to write a piece that re-enacts a meditative cycle. Illuminations is thus a dramatic staging: the listener, as if granted special insight into the mind of someone who is meditating, witnesses how the mind is transformed as it approaches light (or the divine). The composition expresses light and the divine in multiple ways, from the layout of the instruments on stage, to the formal plan of the piece, to the variety of pitch collections heard throughout the work. This article unveils some of the subtle intricacies that make Illuminations so powerfully evocative, and why it remains one of Cherney’s signal achievements.

Leçons de Tenebrae: Brian Cherney, Paul Celan, and a Music of Witness 

Author: Anton Vishio

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In several compositions, Brian Cherney has reflected on the Holocaust and its impact, exploring how music can respond to such tragedy; his recent engagement with the poetry of Paul Celan is a natural extension of these preoccupations. This article offers a close reading of Cherney’s choral setting of Celan’s Tenebrae. The composer incorporates several additional texts that create a genealogy of the poem, from biblical passages to fragments of Dante and Hölderlin to accounts of the Holocaust itself; he arranges these texts to highlight semantic and sonic features of Celan’s work. Perhaps Cherney’s boldest move is his insertion of Hebrew letters, linking his composition to the long tradition of Lamentations settings—a link cemented by a quotation from Couperin’s Leçons de Ténèbres, which provides important motivic material. Through these additions, Cherney turns the poem towards us, inviting us to respond to its call for reflective witness.

Texts—Textures—Intertexts: Brian Cherney’s Transfiguration (1990) 

Author: Matthew Ricketts

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Transfiguration ([1990] 1991) is one of Brian Cherney’s most ambitious compositions. Scored for large orchestra, the piece explores how memories transfigure reality and what that process might sound like. Cherney weaves together a dizzying mise en abyme of quotations—from the canonic repertoire, simulacra of European folk tunes, and his own earlier music (including most prominently Shekhinah for solo viola from [1988] 1992). Orchestral textures alternatively obscure and reveal material both directly and indirectly related to and inspired by the Holocaust, including the photograph of a Hungarian Jewish woman at Auschwitz who haunts the work. The fleeting figure of this unknown woman is represented in the way that material is transfigured—lost, re-emerging, and lost again—throughout. This article focuses on Transfiguration as an apotheosis of Cherney’s interest in the relationship between orchestral texture and intertextuality.

Performing Cherney

Performance Practice of Brian Cherney’s Music: Interviews with Marina Thibeault, Julia Den Boer, and Paul Vaillancourt 

Author: Aiyun Huang

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The composition and performance practice of the Canadian composer Brian Cherney’s music is contextualized in interviews with violist Marina Thibeault, pianist Julia Den Boer, and percussionist Paul Vaillancourt. These three musicians performed major works by Cherney in “Illuminations: Brian Cherney at 75” to celebrate the work and life of the composer. All three interviewees analyze the challenges presented by Cherney’s scores and discuss the ways they found inspiration in the interpretation of the music.

Book Review

Ziad Kreidy. 2018. La facture du piano et ses métamorphoses. Château-Gontier (Fr) : Éditions Aedam Musicae, coll. « Musiques xxe–xxie siècles », 128 p. ISBN 978-2-919046485 

Author: Amer Didi

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Errata volume 36, no


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