Once a risky venture, both artistically and in terms of public acceptance, the integration of electronics with acoustic orchestral instruments is now an almost routine compositional gambit. This observation serves as background to Talking down the Tiger, a set of five recent works for electronics-supported solo instruments by Canadian composer Andrew Staniland (b. 1977), who also performs on electronics.
Staniland’s compositions integrate their acoustic and electric sides as a matter of course, it being understood that any conflicts or contradictions between them would be the product of deliberate design. On all five of these pieces, which were composed between 2007 and 2013, the electronic element plays a largely supplementary role. The emphasis is on the soloist and the writing for him or her; Staniland favors a clear line and virtuoso performance. Percussionist Ryan Scott on Talking down the Tiger (2010); guitarist Rob MacDonald on Dreaded Sea Voyage (2013); flutist Camille Watts on Flute vs Tape (2012); cellist Frances Marie Uitti on Still Turning (2011); and soprano saxophonist Wallace Halladay on True North (2007) all actualize their pieces with skill and an expressive range indicative of interpretive sincerity. The latter is important since Staniland’s compositions suggest a spectrum of emotions as revealed in frequent changes in dynamics, tempo and register. This is epitomized in, for example, Flute vs Tape, which creates the sonic image of an impulsive, mutable character containing emotional multitudes. Staniland explores a different emotional register in Dreaded Sea Voyage, a three-part work inspired by Mahler’s fear of sailing for America. Here, MacDonald’s fluttering chords, shifting accents and rapid single line runs on nylon string guitar convincingly convey an atmosphere of nervous anticipation.
The highlight of the collection, though, is Still Turning, which features a remarkable performance by Uitti. This gravely beautiful piece, which takes best advantage of the cello’s range and vocal properties, is marked by a slow, measured lower register line played with expressive dynamics which eventually moves up in register and culminates in virtuosic, technically expansive playing. As with most of the other works, the electronic component is most noticeable as the performance moves towards its conclusion. In fact, with its balance of emotion and technique, Still Turning seems to epitomize Staniland’s aesthetic.