Time for Linda Catlin Smith

The subject of rave reviews already, Linda Catlin Smith‘s recent recording for another timbre, Dirt Road, played by Mira Benjamin and Simon Limbrick, needs little additional support from me. However, Smith herself has until now been a relatively little known composer outside of Canada. She has been plugging away at her elusive, subtle, and engrossing music for three decades or more so that recognition has been a long time coming; but it is well deserved.

As well as Dirt Road, two other CDs are essential listening. The first, Memory Forms, dates from 2001 and features six chamber and orchestral works from the 1990s. The whole disc is available on Spotify; I would recommend the trio for violin, piano and percussion Moi qui tremblais (1999) as a great introductory ear-opener.

The second CD is not so easily accessible online, but just as valuable – Thought and Desire, a collection of Smith’s piano music played by Canada’s new music champion, pianist Eve Egoyan. I reviewed that disc at the start of the year for Tempo, saying: ‘What particularly excites me about listening to Smith’s music is how hard it is to pin down. … It seems so straightforward in the moment, but becomes impossible to grasp only shortly afterwards, which is perhaps the right way around to be. Much of the music here has a gentle, quasi-improvisatory feel, as short melodies and chord sequences are allowed to turn slowly in the light. Yet within that gentle informality is a precise rightness, like the thousandth kiss from a lifelong lover.’

Some of these works, plus others, are on Soundcloud. Brocade (2013) for harpsichord and piano visits Smith’s longstanding interest in Baroque instruments (see Rose with Thorns, also on Soundcloud, as well as other pieces).

Stare at the river (2010) is a recent piece for the leading Toronto experimental music ensemble Arraymusic, of which Smith was director between 1988 and 1993.

Les fleurs anciennes (2000) was written for 13 strings of Vancouver New Music, and thus represents a link with Canada’s west coast which, particularly through the teaching of Rudolf Komorous and, later, Christopher Butterfield at the University of Victoria, has been absolutely critical to the development of experimental music in Canada. (Smith herself was a Komorous student.)

A few of Smith’s writings are available on her website. There is a nice interview accompanying the Dirt Road release on the another timbre website. A longer read can be found in Paul Steenhuisen’s interview collection Sonic Mosaics (University of Alberta Press, 2009), pages 21–25 (edit: more interview with Steenhuisen available here as a podcast).

Smith has a gift – one that I particularly treasure when I find it in music – of turning things suddenly and surprisingly into a new light. It happens in Moi qui tremblais with the way she uses the cymbals against the violin and piano, for example; or with the trumpet’s late solo in Stare at the river. Her most jaw-dropping moment I’ve found so far occurs midway through the piano solo Thought and Desire when suddenly (if a whisper can be sudden) the pianist’s voice enters ‘quietly as though to oneself or someone close by’, murmuring the words of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XLV to a song that until now had been hidden within the piano’s chords.

Smith’s time has, finally, come.

6 thoughts on “Time for Linda Catlin Smith

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