Articles & Interviews

An article prior to Sinfonia Finlandia's Premiere of Ronald Royer's Dances with Time, featuring flutist and Conductor patrick gallois and cellist shauna rolston. Published in the newspaper Keskisuomalainen, JYVÄSKYLÄ, Finland in September 2004

Overture to an Unscripted Movie

by Lorne Tepperman, Professor of  Sociology, University of Toronto

Several decades ago, Polish fantasy and science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem—now best known in the West for his novel Solaris, which was recently (re) made as a Stephen Soderbergh movie with George Clooney—took his readers along on a fascinating thought experiment.  He asked, How might you write book reviews for imaginary books—that is, for books that never existed?  To answer this, Lem wrote a series of just such reviews and the witty result is published as “A Perfect Vacuum,” (1971; translated into English in 1979).

If we consider how it is possible to write reviews of books that never existed, we realize the task is not impossible at all, if we appreciate the different kinds of books that already exist—that is, the genres that books conventionally fall into—and also the different kinds of reviewers that already exist.  On the latter score, we can glimpse the wide but predictable variation in reviewers by re-reading another old favourite—The Pooh Perplex, by Frederick Crews—in which imaginary reviewers of different persuasions (Marxist, Freudian, stuffy academic, etc.) analyze the classic Winnie the Pooh children’s stories.

So by combining imaginary but predictable plot lines with imaginary but predictable reviewers, one can—if imaginative enough—generate imaginary book reviews.

Now, translate this enterprise to the world of music, because that is what Ronald Royer has done in composing Overture to an Unscripted Movie.  After viewing enough Hollywood movies—hundreds if not thousands will suffice—the movie genres and their accompanying musical scores become immediately evident.  True, their execution varies somewhat over decades and from one composer to another.  But, despite this variation, we find characteristic uses of instruments, themes, and orchestral ornaments to support key plot and character developments.  There is, indeed hero music and villain music, love music and tragedy music.  What’s more, we audience members have all become accustomed to these types of musical adornment, so we scarcely notice them.

Yet, though these musical tricks often occur below our consciousness, we respond to them nonetheless.  We feel excited when we “hear” the hero coming, and frightened or angry when we “hear” the villain.  We grow excited when the music is scripted to excite us, depressed when the music becomes slow and morose to depress us, and so on.  In short, we have become programmed to respond like Pavlov’s dogs.

What Ronald Royer has done is combine these tricks to play a joke on us.  He has given us a brief orchestral suite that pushes all our emotional buttons in the customary ways.  He gives us hero music and villain music, etc, all in the service of a story that does not exist.  In doing so, he makes clever references to many of the leading composers of American movie music—for example, John Williams and Danny Elfman—and also to leading composers of modern “serious” music, including Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland.  Royer knows the classical musical literature and he knows the screen composers, and he knows the relationship between them.  He also knows how we have been programmed to respond and he makes us respond that way.  So, we sit listening passively as his music tells us a generic Hollywood story, becoming happy, sad, excited, and so on as required.

When it is all over, we realize that we—not the music—have been played.  Royer’s music is “about” listeners and the listening public.  It is “about” tired, jaded ears and over-programmed palates—music listeners who have consumed the equivalent of one too many musical Big Macs.  Some listeners will feel like a good dose of Bach or Bartok after hearing Royer’s send-up of the Hollywood sound experience.  In short, Royer’s music is an entertaining yet educational experience for all of us, crafted by a masterful and witty composer who has given us something both real and imaginative to think about.

Niagara Symphony Guarantees Lots of Fireworks in New Piece

by Lori Littleton -The Standard, Friday June 30, 2006

For members of the Niagara Symphony, the annual Canada Day concert at Queen Victoria Park in Niagara Falls is going to be a blast in more ways than one. The symphony will premiere a piece it commissioned, entitled Water and Light Fireworks at the Falls, at the St. Catharines Street Party in the afternoon, and later that evening in Niagara Falls. What’s especially unique about this 15-minute piece, which was composed by Toronto-based musician Ronald Royer, through a Canada Council for the Arts grant, is the fireworks show has been choreographed around it for the Falls concert. Daniel Swift, Niagara Symphony music director, said previous Canada Day fireworks concerts have always been a high point for symphony musicians.  “I could see their faces when something was happening at the same time (during the concert),” he said.  They couldn’t stop talking about it when they finished.”

A year ago, Swift approached Royer about the possibility of composing a piece especially for the Falls fireworks extravaganza.  Previously, the symphony has played classical pieces while Canada Day fireworks are set off. “They asked me and it was a great honour to do something like this,” Royer said.  “I’ve never worked with fireworks before.  It’s not a normal thing as a classical musician.” Last summer, Royer, Swift and David Whysall, who designed the fireworks display, met to determine an artistic vision for the piece. “We wanted something connected with Niagara Falls to celebrate Canada and what it stands for, “Royer said.  “We came up with a day in the life of Niagara Falls.” Royer said his piece describes the falls at different times of the day, how the varying light affects the water. The fist movement begins in the afternoon with mist and rainbows, while the second movement features moonlight.  The third movement is set at dawn. “There’s structure to how fireworks are organized, just like a musical piece or a story,” Royer said.

Born in Los Angeles, Royer began his musical career as a cellist, playing with the Utah and Toronto Symphonies.  During the 1980’s, working as a freelance musician in L.A., he played the cello for film scores such as Star Trek, Little House on the Prairie and Gremlins. “It was really an incredible experience for me, he said.  “It was so exciting.  The music had just been written and you go in and play it. I got the bug. I thought I have to compose music.” He began studying composition in the 1990’s, receiving a Master’s degree in composition from the University of Toronto in 1997. Royer, who is an associate composer of the Canadian Music Centre and a music instructor at the University of Toronto Schools, began composing Water and Fire in January.

He finished the 100-plus page piece a month ago. The work involves a lot of notes because the orchestra must play “fairly aggressively to compete with the fireworks,” he said. The writing process for Water and Fire, he added was very much like composing a film score—the music must connect with images. “Like this, you have to tell a story,” he said.

Royer said he’s looking forward to seeing how the piece comes together Saturday night as obviously, he hasn’t heard it accompanied by fireworks. “I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity and, too, as a classical composer, you usually write music for the concert hall that seats 1,000 to 2,000 people,” he said.  “I’ve heard estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 people will be hearing the music at the Falls and also in St. Catharines.  It’s exciting that many people will hear it.”