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The Gold Coin Sessions is a new self-released digital album of chamber and solo music by the Daniel Pelton Collective, the creative vision of a young Canadian composer who recently has become recognized within his own country for his groundbreaking work as a musical leader in the city of Calgary. According to the city's public library website, Pelton's remarkable story began shortly after graduation from the University of Calgary. As a rising multi-genre saxophonist, educator and ensemble leader, he soon found himself in the role of the Calgary Public Library's 2020 Composer in Residence, a position which promised to give him the resources to '[build] musical bridges' and 'inspire community' in his hometown. Yet COVID would soon transform his creative challenge overnight into a logistical nightmare.
Pelton had planned to record a collaborative album of chamber music featuring musicians of various backgrounds from around the city. As he recounts, however, a grant that was supposed to cover the cost of recording and performance contracts was suddenly canceled due to the pandemic emergency. This left him personally responsible for 'thousands of dollars' in uncovered expenses. Pelton concluded that the only way to meet this obligation was to sell off a family heirloom - apparently a gold coin - which ultimately did enable him to cover the cost. Thus, he named the album 'The Gold Coin Sessions'. Yet even this was not the end of the story. According to COVID protocol in Calgary, as Pelton puts it, he and his musicians 'were legally never allowed to gather or put more than one person in the recording booth at a time'. All of the chamber ensemble tracks on the album therefore had to be recorded with each individual's part at a time, as in-person rehearsals or performances were impossible.
Despite these immense challenges, the Daniel Pelton Collective was able to complete its task. The result is a striking array of energizing, engaging and stylistically diverse music spanning half an hour, enhanced yet further by the admirable and altruistic compositional philosophy that Pelton successfully brings to the album as a whole. In his own words, Pelton's ongoing artistic goal is to create something 'more palatable or accessible than what one normally hears in the modern classical music scene', a world which he feels 'has stopped trying to relate to its audience'. Pelton and his musicians have indeed risen to the occasion, as the album features performers and performance spaces representative of the full spectrum of Calgary's musical life. According to the Calgary Herald, the musicians heard on this release include violinist Donovan Seidle (assistant concertmaster of the Calgary Philharmonic), Andrea Case (former principal cellist of the Cambridge Philharmonic, UK), musicians from the University of Calgary, musicians from the city's broader music scene and Pelton's roommates. The performance spaces used in the recordings include the National Music Centre, various smaller venues within the city and even Pelton's basement.
The album opens with the short Bells for trombone choir, a kind of chorale-style fanfare. Next is the Prelude and Jig for string quartet, which I honestly consider one of the most infectiously joyous and memorable works of new chamber music I have heard in years.
Listen — Daniel Pelton: Prelude and Jig
(track 2, 0:00-0:30) ℗ 2021 Daniel Pelton Collective :
This is followed by Don't Know Tango for sax quartet, an edgy and exciting reexamination of the traditional dance form through the lens of asymmetric meters.
Listen — Daniel Pelton: Don't Know Tango
(track 3, 0:00-0:30) ℗ 2021 Daniel Pelton Collective :
We then hear the two-movement Stepping Stones for solo marimba, a virtuosic portrayal of hesitation if ever such a thing were possible.
Listen — Daniel Pelton: Movement II (Stepping Stones)
(track 5, 0:00-0:30) ℗ 2021 Daniel Pelton Collective :
Afterward, we hear This Piece Gives Me Trills for sax trio, an imitative and rhapsodic dialogue of melodic figures using various degrees of trilled ornamentation. Then comes the deceptively cinematic solo piano work For S, which blends the Neo-Impressionistic with the Neo-Romantic while subtly evoking theme-and-variations form. Following this is the brief Swells for women's choir, which explores extended harmonies and tone clusters through vocalise. Pelton then uses the next track to introduce himself, describe the purposes and circumstances of the recording process and list the album's credits. The album closes with Thank You For Listening, a comically absurd spoken-word performance blending elements of folk and electronic music with some rather colorful surrealistic dialogue. While some listeners might be taken aback by a closing track so deliberately and self-admittedly 'goofy' within the context of the album's other pieces, it is my interpretation that this is simply Pelton's way of lightening the mood and reaffirming that he does not take himself too seriously.
His humorous self-effacement notwithstanding, Pelton clearly shows himself to be a creator having skill, vision and courage. The various works on this release really do demonstrate a mastery of myriad tools available to the classically trained contemporary composer, such as extended techniques, post-tonal harmony and electronic media. Yet Pelton never lets the sheer novelty of technology or technique distract from his primary goal of using music as a conduit for collaboration and communication within broader society. Instead, the techniques and technologies become tools for achieving that goal first and foremost. As a fellow composer, I share his conviction that contemporary classical institutions have much to offer - and gain - by establishing an ongoing collaborative dialogue with surrounding communities. The Calgary Public Library, for one, would seem to agree with Pelton's objectives, as would the diverse body of musicians who make up his Collective.
In conclusion, The Gold Coin Sessions strikes me as a remarkable collaboration uniting forces across Calgary's entire musical landscape despite extraordinary logistical hurdles. Here, Daniel Pelton proves himself to be an ideal model for the new civic composer: someone who uses the tools of their craft to facilitate community-wide dialogue and build bridges across cultures, generations and professional backgrounds. Lastly, the story of the album's creation is a testament to the uncommon example of dedication, selflessness and youthful humility he has brought to his role. I look forward to seeing what else is possible when composers like Pelton harness the powers of contemporary classical music to build social bonds within their communities.
Copyright © 19 January 2022
John Dante Prevedini,