Instruments of Happiness (IoH) is the brainchild of Canadian electric guitarist Tim Brady, who has devoted over 25 years of his life to creating contemporary classical music for his instrument. The name is inspired by the two guitar manufacturers Robert Godin and Paul Reed, whom Brady quotes as having declared that “you can never be sad with a guitar in your hands.” There are actually three IoH ensembles, a quartet, a twenty-piece orchestra, and a 100-piece group.
A little over three weeks ago Starkland released the debut album for the quartet. (Since recordings of the other groups have not yet emerged, this explains the reference in the headline to a debut album.) Brady is the leader of the group, whose other members are Gary Schwartz, Michael Heroux, and Antoine Berthiaume. The better part of the album is devoted to a symphony by Brady, performed in both quartet and solo versions. There are also two shorter compositions by Berthiaume and Rainer Wiens.
Brady has been composing symphonies since 2005. He calls them an “eclectic collection of works” and puts scare quotes around the noun “symphonies” the first time he uses it in the note he provides for the accompanying booklet. He is right to treat the noun somewhat gingerly. Basically, he uses it to specify a multi-movement composition of relatively extended duration; and, as far as I am concerned, he has every right to do so. I am more put off by the contributing note by Allan Kozinn that describes the opening of Brady’s symphony as having “a touch of Brucknerian lumbering,” as if the only way to justify a work being called a symphony is to compare it with another symphony. Lest readers approach Brady’s music with the wrong expectations, it would be fair to say that any association with Anton Bruckner is little more than pretentiously misplaced. This is music easily taken on its own terms, where in manages quite well, thank you very much.
The title of the quartet version of Brady’s symphony is The Same River Twice: Symphony #5.0; and, strictly speaking, it is more of a suite than a symphony. However, it is also structured around a well-defined overall plan (making Gustav Mahler a better point of reference, but still a rather remote one, than Bruckner). The piece consists of three titled movements, “Float,” “A Somewhat Eccentric Waltz,” and “Count,” preceded by an introductory “Riff.” Each pair of successive sections is separated by a solo, which not only provides a transition but also, in at least one case, give the players time to retune their instruments. Each of those sections amounts to a “mood piece;” so, taken as a whole, the symphony amounts to a journey through a series of emotional dispositions, the last of which is an intensely manic burst of activity through which the symphony comes to the sort of energetic conclusion that is encountered so often in nineteenth-century symphonies.
The solo version, The Same River Twice: Symphony #5.Solo, consists of only three movements played without interruption. The attentive listener should have no trouble identifying parallels between the first (“Freeze”) and last (“Burn”) of these movements and their “correlates” in the quartet version, “Float” and “Count.” The connection between the middle solo movement, “Thaw,” and “A Somewhat Eccentric Waltz” is more tenuous, if it was ever intended in the first place. Also, the latter piece is solo only in that it involves only one player (Brady). However, the guitar is supplemented by “a rather impressive number of guitar pedals” for special effects and sampling technology for playing back loops. With that kind of gear, the solo version often sounds more “massive” than the quartet version.
Nevertheless, listening to these two versions back-to-back is enlightening. One comes away with an appreciation of Brady’s determination to shape the concept of symphony to his own desires as both composer and performer. As is the case with the memorable symphonists of the past, the attentive listener gradually begins to appreciate Brady’s personal characteristic take on what he wants a symphony to be; and, if this is his fifth attempt, then it would be fair to say that he is making admirable (if not impressive) progress.
Wiens’ composition is entitled “What is Time?” In the booklet he describes it as “an exploration of the timbral possibilities of prepared guitar and the use of human breath as the rhythmic determinant.” The score is an indeterminate collection of sections that can be played in any order with only the first and last sections fixed. With Wiens’ approval Brady made recordings of two spontaneous interpretations of the score, both in a studio setting. For the album he then superimposed these two recordings as a single track. Between the ground rules and the realization, it is unlikely that any listener will be able to “parse” the result simply on the basis of listening to that track. Nevertheless, the sonorities are impressive, strikingly different from those of any of the other tracks on the album. The duration is about eight and one-half minutes, meaning that one can just enjoy those sonorities without growing too impatient.
The most lyrical track on the album is Berthiaume’s “Fungi.” This music has the steadiest rhythm and the most songlike harmonic progressions. Thus, while it definitely speaks with its own unique voice, there is a sense that familiar tropes are in play. That reassuring sense of familiarity provides an excellent spacer between the more experimental domains explored by Brady and Wiens at the beginning and conclusion of this recording.