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Montreal composer Michael Oesterle extends the piano by surrounding it with percussion for Soundstreams concert

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Haruka Fuji's marimba skills were an inspiration to composer Michael Oesterle.
Haruka Fuji’s marimba skills were an inspiration for composer Michael Oesterle.

On Tuesday evening, Soundstreams presents a concert heavily influenced by percussion and the music of Japan at Koerner Hall. On the programme is Carrousel, a new piece by Montreal composer Michael Oesterle, which plays sleight-of-ear with the piano.

Soundstreams commissioned Oesterle to write this piece for Haruka and Rika, the two younger members of the Fuji Percussion trio from Japan, Toronto percussionist Ryan Scott and pianist Gregory Oh.

“They’re very tricky projects, I tell you,” Oesterle says of Soundstreams commissions, which he says always stretch his imagination and composition techniques in some way. “We go in with this feeling that we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.”

Michael Oesterle (Christine Unger photo).
Michael Oesterle (Christine Unger photo).

The composer walks me through the fascinating process that began with the commission and ended with a finished piece, revealing how musical creativity, like so much else, is a product of a number of sometimes unrelated factors coming together in fortuitous ways.

With the performers accounted for, Oesterle knew right away he would be writing a percussion quartet, with marimba as a must-have participant.

The composer had heard Haruka Fuji perform before. “She’s a genius marimba soloist. We have lots of those but she is in many ways on a whole other level,” he says.

The ultimate formation came to piano, marimba, vibraphone and glockenspiel.

But what to do with this quartet?

Oesterle has been working as the composer-in-residence with the Victoria Symphony. Last season, this included taking part in the orchestra’s celebrations around the centenary of composer John Cage. Among his many varied pieces, Cage wrote a famous series for prepared piano — an instrument where the sound of the strings has been changed by sticking nuts and bolts and other objects between them.

Oesterle considered preparing the piano for this commission. “But it’s not a natural thing for me. It’s not something that is very organic for me — it’s something that I would use as an effect.”

And then the light really dawned. Instead of preparing the piano physically, he would prepare it acoustically, using sound waves from the other three percussion instruments.

“For me Carrousel is a prepared piano piece,” explains the composer. “I see the colours of the vibraphone, the marimba and the glockenspiel as an extension of the piano. The colours of those instruments are so particular that, once they mesh with the piano, it becomes this interesting extended sound. It’s a percussion quartet but it’s also a piano with extended colours – without touching anything on the inside of the piano.”

The four instruments are arranged in a circle on stage, with the piano as axis. In the music itself, the instruments run little loops and figures around each other as well, further adding to the carousel metaphor

“I called it Carrousel because you can do circles around the piano,” says Oesterle. The glockenspiel helps the ensemble make an old carousel-organ sound: “One of those magnificent carousels that were very famous in Paris.”

The piece has a fast-slow-fast three-movement structure, with a carousel-like wind-down at the very end.

“My movements are very old-school Haydn format,” Oesterle admits. “The [classical structures] give me a lot of freedom with the new music approach of things.”

In his introductory notes to the score for Carrousel, Oesterle writes: “My intention is that each keyboard create iterations of the piano’s momentum with reflective sparks that bounce from one instrument to the other to create something like the blur of double vision.”

He gives a lot of credit to two muses: Ryan Scott, whose virtuosity and adventurous spirit is an inspiration to all Canadian composers writing for percussion; and Haruki Fuji.

“I wanted to see if I could impress her,” he adds with a sheepish chuckle.


The Fuji Trio (Mutsuko, Haruka and Rika Fuji) is joined on Tuesday at Koerner Hall by percussionist Ryan Scott, pianist Gregory Oh and the Toronto Children’s Chorus in a wide-ranging programme. You’ll find all the details here.

John Terauds

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