Imagine minimalist composer Steve Reich with his hand in a blender.
If you don’t know what Steve Reich looks like, just picture pretty much any composer with their hand in a blender. Now imagine that as music. That’s how Toca Loca pianist and conductor Gregory Oh describes a particularly challenging piece he and bandmates Simon Docking and Aiyun Huang played at Toronto’s soundaXis festival in 2006.
The piece was Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s “Workers Union” and the performance at Queen West and John in Toronto was memorable because soon after its start a shopkeeper’s assistant came out and offered them $20 to stop playing. They accepted.
Oh laughs hard telling the story. “That’s so much more interesting than just saying something’s ‘OK,’” he says.
Plenty of other musicians might have felt demoralized by the reaction, but not Oh. “Having a strong reaction is just as important as loving something,” he says. “Art isn’t meant to be medication.”
Formed in 2001, Toca Loca is made up of some serious musical muscle. Korean-Canadian Oh holds graduate degrees in piano from the University of Michigan and the University of Toronto, where he teaches. And he’s worked as music director for a long list of operas, ensembles and institutions in Canada and the United States. Australian-born Docking is also a pianist and an accomplished soloist with a doctorate in piano performance. He lives in Halifax and curates the KumQuat new music series. Taiwanese-Canadian Huang is percussionist in Toca Loca. She is one of only three percussionists to win first prize at the Geneva International Music Competition in its 57-year history. She’s played at Carnegie Hall, is a Doctor of Music Arts and teaches at McGill.
It’s safe to say no one in Toca Loca is hurting for musical distinction and classical training. They all regularly play traditional classical music. So, what draws them to the envelope-pushing term “new music” deserves discussion.
“There’s nothing academic about it,” says Oh. “There’s always a groove going.”
“New music is, by definition, mostly unfamiliar to an audience,” adds Docking. “Our job is to find what the message of a piece is and to make the piece speak to the audience as best we can.”
For all their qualifications and individual prestige as musicians, Toca Loca have a sense of fun, too. After all, the triple meaning in translation of their Spanish name is: “crazy play, crazy touch or crazy hat.”
Not limited to two pianos and percussion, the group draws many elements into their sound---from backing electronics and bizarre effect-pedals to spoken word performances and rap. At any given show, Huang’s percussion could involve traditional drums or veer into vibes, anvils or smashing glass.
“We hit hard,” Oh laughs. “We’re always striking things.”
“You have to put something very strong across, or people may not get it, as they’re only hearing it once,” says Docking. “Any person in the audience is not going to like everything we do. But what I’ve noticed is that for every piece on a program, there’s someone who says it was their favourite.”
Toca Loca’s MySpace page cites Pocky, the famous Japanese stick-shaped cookie snack, under their influences. Listed with new music and traditional composers, the choice might seem out of place for anyone else.
“It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, and a little not,” says Oh about the Pocky.
In this case it represents Oh’s interest in Japanese pop culture and his desire to draw from a variety of overlooked non-musical influences. He talks about “hidden treasures” as inspirations not commonly associated with the genre---hidden treasures like Pocky, graphic novelist Seth, visual artist Shary Boyle, or Japanese video game soundtracks.
“The arts can’t live in a vacuum,” says Oh.
Toca Loca will play as part of Docking’s KumQuat series in Halifax next week. Presenting a new work, The P*P Project. Oh says to expect an adventurous show.
“Anything between Alanis Morrisette and Michael Jackson, or electric guitar-thrashing amid ice cracking to just beautiful contemplative music.”
Don’t forget to wear your crazy hat.
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