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Co-facilitator Ben Finley

Move over Tanglewood: Westben launches composer-performer residency program​

​​Review by Paul Merkley FSCS

Toronto ON July 8th 2018

If you have read Dave Richards’s review this week you understand what a special venue the Westben festival is. It was my great privilege to travel there today, and I interviewed Ben Finley, an educated, intelligent, ambitious young musician who, with co-facilitator Sarah Belle Reid, is starting a composer-performer residency program.

The program has brought twelve participants together (over half from Canada and drawn also France, Iran, U.S. and Norway) selected by a panel from a field of fifty applicants from around the world. Musicians range in age from the early twenties to sixties. Over the next four days each one will give a workshop, which could be a lecture, or a hands-on performed improvisation or demonstrationThey also bring pieces they have worked on and that they will develop further, especially in an improvisatory setting. Some workshops will feature other media, such as film.

Certainly in earlier periods of music history composers have been performers. It suffices to mention Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Liszt. But this concept is very different. At the core of the program is improvisation, something easily imagined and undertaken when all musicians know well and adhere to the same compositional style, but much more difficult in the highly variegated environment of present-day music.

How does one manage to have a group improvise when the individuals speak different musical languages? And a composer-performer behaves differently from a performer who carries out the authors intentions, and from a composer who sets out intentions for a composer to follow.

Finley, a bassist (electric bass), holds a very rare degree, a Master of Fine Arts in the composer-performer program from Calarts (California Institute of the Arts). He has founded two ensembles: “Weaving locus” (a group of Canadian musicians) and “Ben and Kat”. He plans to start his doctorate next. More details can be found on his web site.  

The residency program is peer-based, not faculty-based; there are no mentors. Finley’s own workshop will discuss the philosophy of ensembles, in particular how ensemble music can be designed and developed to make a meaningful, life-changing experience for each player.

Improvisation in modern idioms has been tried forty years ago by the composer Lukas Foss. The procedure of having this done by composer-performers who are not trying to convert each other to a common musical language is a very dynamic step in a new direction. It is a new, exciting idea, and it could lead to very important developments.

Details on the participants can be found here on the festival web site. The free workshops are all at 7 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday July 9, 10, and 11. Go to see composition in action, before your eyes and ears! The final concert is on Thursday July 12. This is a valuable program, energetically launched, and well thought out. Clearly it is a new and growing trend, since the festival has managed to attract a large number of serious applicants.