Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 30, No.11

March 03, 2005


Composer researched his tango on the dance floor

By Barbara Black

John Winiarz and soprano Christine Atallah in tango mode.

John Winiarz and soprano Christine Atallah in tango mode.
Photo by Kendra Ballingall

Music Professor John Winiarz is celebrating his 25th year of teaching at Concordia with a performance of his own tango music on March 16.

Winiarz describes his music as Postmodern Romanticism because it includes references to history, uses modernist structures and looks to the powerful personal expression found in music of the 19th century.

“Tango seemed to me an ideal vehicle to realize these aims. My tango quintet is in the form of a baroque suite, and contains a French overture, a chaconne and a fugue among its six movements. It follows a programmatic story encompassing destiny, fiery passion, the passing of time and the sadness of love.

“But don't worry! Since the performance of this piece features dancers, including Professor Erin Manning from Film Studies, those distinctive rhythms will still be there!”

Winiarz decided that to write tango, he would have to dance it, so he signed up for lessons. “It was an enlightening experience, a period of painful frustration and joyful satisfaction.

“Montreal is blessed by a wide variety of milongas (tango dance halls), each with its own particular charm and flavour. I enjoyed the late soirées, and passed wonderful nights sipping porto while frequenting a world of macho male milongueros and attractive lady milongueras.

“As time went on, however, the dance and social activities actually became more interesting and important to me than composing the music, so I vowed to abandon the dance and become a tango exile until I had completed my composition.”

Learning the tango stimulated him to think about the instruments in a new way, combining the macho bandoneón with the feminine-voiced violin. “Intertwining melody lines in the music seemed to me to be akin to the intimate embrace of two dancers.”

Winiarz’s most recent composition was for Professor Jeri Brown's Langston Hughes Celebration on Feb. 2. He wrote three piano pieces, each with a distinct mood and style, and chose Hughes poems to fit the music. In performance, the poems were recited against the music while Brown improvised a vocalization.

“A juxtaposition of this kind greatly interests me. Last summer I composed a new work commissioned by the Japanese Nishikawa Ensemble. Music from the Meadow was premièred at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa last November in a concert sponsored by the Japanese Embassy.”

The Quebec première of Music from the Meadow will be in the forthcoming Winiarziana concert. It will be performed by a quartet of Concordia music professors: Liselyn Adams, flute, Laurie Altman, piano, Hélène Gagné, cello, and Vincent Dhavernas, percussion.

Like many musicians, Winiarz was classically trained, but got involved with folk and rock music in his adolescence. “I learned a lot through my experiences with electro-acoustic music, and I was always attracted to non-Western music, like classical Indian and Japanese court music.

“This is probably why I acquired a taste for composing microtonal music, music featuring more than 12 notes per octave, which I do now and then. My last piece like that was in 1/16th tone tuning, 96 notes within an octave.”

Winiarz says he doesn’t worry about whether the public likes his music or not, “though I am somewhat surprised that what to me seems quite natural, even ordinary, strikes others as flyé or far-out.”

He finds that all the subjects he teaches, and the eclectic mix of students from all over the world, enrich his own work.

“There is a beautiful, productive artistic exchange which can happen between musicians. I remember that during the Festival du Monde Arabe, Nizar Tabcharani, a wonderful kanoun player who elaborated upon my melody in the most impressive way, later pointed out to me that the bass line was actually built on the basso ostinato from Henry Purcell's Dido's Lament, a piece of music he had studied in my course.”

Winiarziana 2005 will take place March 16 in the Oscar Peterson Concert Hall, 7141 Sherbrooke St. W. Tickets are $5 and $10.