Pushing the boundaries of classical music Nick Thornburrow

The Toy Piano Composers are best known across the city for playfully challenging the notion that classical music is lame. These young, (mostly) U of T Music grads are typically less into writing tunes that make your toes tap, but this Saturday they're amping things up for the premier of their 4th season, Avant Guitars. The concert at Gallery 345 will showcase 8 brand new works composed for and performed live by electric guitar quartet. Electric guitars and classical composition? Should be interesting. It's a season premier you won't want to miss.

To get an inside look at this hip, homegrown composer's collective, we caught up with Monica Pearce, the Toy Piano Composer's Artistic Director. She filled us in on the group's inspiration, roots and what’s in store for this weekend's show and the rest of their 2011-12 season.

the newspaper: First off, where did you come up with that name, Toy Piano Composers? And how did TPC come about?

Monica Pearce: When I finished my Masters at the University of Toronto, I was worried that all the performance opportunities to get my music played were going to dwindle outside of the academic environment, where performers are literally around every corner. So, my fellow composer friend Chris Thornborrow and I came up with the idea to have a composer collective where we would put on unique concerts of new compositions for all different types of ensembles. I toyed around with a few different ideas, but when I landed on the Toy Piano Composers, it just clicked. The toy piano is like a symbol for the group, representing playfulness, humour, and imagination. Plus - I had just bought a beautiful second-hand 37-key Schoenhut toy piano and I was dying to use it!

What exactly does TPC do?

The Toy Piano Composers put on a season of concerts (usually three or four) featuring a variety of ensembles and with all new music by its composers. Every concert we put on has a particular concept or theme to it, because we want to make the concert experience of new music as interesting and engaging as possible. We also like to put on concerts that explore different demographics as well - such as in February, when we put on a kid's concert of percussion music featuring TorQ percussion quartet.

Has it evolved over the years and if so, how?

In our first season, we simply went from concert to concert, hoping that we would have performers to play our music, an audience to hear it and enough money to get us to our next concert. As the group evolved, performers began approaching us for projects such as the Sneak Peek Orchestra, TorQ Percussion, junctQin keyboard collective, and more. And now, we have amassed a fairly sizeable audience filled with people of all ages who are always curious about what we are going to write next.

In the past few years, we have really evolved as composers as well, and I think I speak for all the composers when I say that we have learned a great deal from each other. It is always a special time when we get together with the performers for the first time to read through the music. It is such a privilege to be able to work with such a wonderfully diverse group of composers.

This weekend's performance showcases electric guitars. In the past you've had concerts called Recess and ...and then my brain exploded.

How did you settle on the themes and ensembles for your shows. Do you agree collectively on the themes or is there a mandate you're trying to follow? Is there something cohesive about each season?

The short answer is we do whatever excites us artistically - one of us will come to the group and say, "Guys - how about a concert where the audience has to guess who wrote which piece?!!" and then we go from there. Chris Thornborrow (co-founder and co-Artistic Director), Elisha Denburg (co-Artistic Director) and myself (Founder and Artistic Director) are basically the team that thinks up most of the concert ideas, and then we each curate one of the concerts of the season. For instance, this concert "Avant-Guitars" is my baby, a labour of love. I had collaborated with Rob MacDonald (one of the guitarists) on another project a few years ago, and when he told me that he was putting together an electric guitar quartet, I thought it was a perfect project for us - little edgy, definitely on the fringe of Classical music, many exciting sound possibilities. The "Opera Scenesters" concert in January is being curated by Elisha Denburg, and he has put together a stellar trio of singers (Maureen Batt, Marta Herman and Jeremy Ludwig) and even a director for the scenes (Erik Thor). And then our season finale "Encounters: TPC meets Array" in April is being curated by Chris Thornborrow, and we are all thrilled to be writing for new music legends ArrayMusic.

Looking at your site, 7 out of the 9 members of Toy Piano composers are U of T alumnae. Are you guys just a bunch of old school friends? Or was there something about the grad composition programs at our music department that drew this group of composers together?

When Chris and I sat down to discuss who would actually be in the group, we decided we weren't looking for a certain compositional aesthetic, but instead a certain attitude to composing. We wanted composers who were slightly on the outskirts of academia in various ways. For instance, Fiona Ryan has a spectacularly unique compositional voice - her music is so playful and imaginative that it caused my husband to remark, "It sounds like she has pixies in her head!" And then on the other spectrum, we also have Dan Brophy, who is heavily inspired by death metal, and it comes out in his music loud and clear. We wanted to work with composers who we got along with, and composers who didn't take themselves too seriously.

Your show this Saturday is called Avant-Guitars. What can we expect to see and hear at the show?

You'll hear a lot of atmospheric guitar music, music where you enter a lovely sound world and decide to curl up and enjoy it. But you'll also hear some really loud stuff, which will make you want to rock out. All in all, when do you ever get to hear four electric guitars playing together in an art music setting?

TPC fans always look forward to the exclusive TPC buttons available at your shows. Will there be buttons on Saturday? Can you share what they'll look like?

Of course there will be buttons. We have a new one for every concert and I love doing it. It makes me feel like we are putting on a rock show and that we have merch. This concert's button will be our new logo, which was made by Nick Thornborrow (amazing artist who does all our posters).

Amazing! Thanks Monica. Break a leg this weekend and good luck with the rest of the season.

Thank you.

Catch the Toy Piano Composer's 4th season premier, Avant Guitars: Works for Electric Guitar Quartet, at Gallery 345 (345 Sorauren Avenue) on Saturday, October 15th at 8 pm. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door. They're on sale now online at: www.thetoypianocomposers.com

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  • Subtitle: We talk to Monica Pearce, the artistic director of The Toy Piano Composers
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