Former CPO associate conductor Karl Hirzer drew on classical background for debut album, but the results are hard to define

Article content

In April 2022, Karl Hirzer was asked a somewhat obscure question by Adam Fox of the National Music Centre.

Hirzer was in Berlin at the time, but he still had a year left in his seven-year tenure as associate director of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Fox, who was director of programming at NMC at the time, asked if he had any experience playing an Ondes Martenot, which is one of the earliest electronic music instruments. Invented in 1928, the proto-synthesizer sounds a bit like a theremin.  

Advertisement 2

Article content

Article content

“It has this eerie, kind of plaintive sound to it,” says Hirzer.

David Kean, founder and president of Audities Studio in Calgary, had made a modern replica of an Ondes Martenot called an Ondea. In the summer of 2022, the NMC was hosting the annual general meeting of the American Musical Instrument Society and Fox suggested Hirzer perform on the Ondea for the occasion as a way of showcasing the centre’s vast collection of instruments. Hirzer is a world-class pianist, but when he made his debut performance on the Ondea, his experience was limited.

“I played the instrument for the first time 10 days before the performance,” says Hirzer, in an interview from his home in Berlin. “I definitely don’t have any mastery of the Ondes Martenot.”

But that was part of the fun. In June 2020, Hirzer collaborated with Calgary Philharmonic assistant principal cellist Josue Valdepenas on a piece that would eventually be performed at the meeting. Over seven days, Hirzer and Valdepenas worked together on the piece. Ringing in at nearly 22 minutes long, Crystal Clear was eventually recorded at the NMC and is now the closing track on Hirzer’s debut album, Relaxer Distractor.

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

“It was that liberation of approaching an instrument that I didn’t have years and years and the majority of my life’s worth of professional training on like I do with the piano,” Hirzer says. “I found that to be a very liberating experience because I didn’t contextualize what it was that I was doing. I didn’t compare it to the hundreds or thousands of pieces that I know for that instrument. I think that’s part of the nature of this album. Yes, I’ve been playing piano for a long time, but a lot of the electronics and synth is very much an exploration of that sound world and there is a sense of discovery to it and even a playfulness to it.”

Other than Crystal Clear, the album was largely recorded with Paul Chirka, the CPO’s former recording engineer. The piano is still the primary instrument on the album, which features instrumental eight tracks that elude easy characterization. A number of the compositions also have Hirzer playing the Moog Matriarch, a synthesizer that he is at least a bit more familiar with. Still, the names of some of the tracks – such as Melancholy Quasi-Waltz in B-Minor or All This Happened, more or less – highlight the idea that Relaxer Distractor falls in between genres. On Cosmic Vertigo, Hirzer offers a heady, psychedelic piece that sounds like it could be on an early synth-based soundtrack for a sci-fi film.

Advertisement 4

Article content

Karl Hirzer
Karl Hirzer. Photo submitted. cal

When asked directly about the genre, Hirzer admits he has no clear answer other than to say it’s instrumental music. There are lots of sonic and compositional threads. Hirzer was influenced by classical music and his training as a classical pianist and it is a foundation for the album. He was inspired by French impressionist composers such as Erik Satie, Maurice Revel and Claude Debussy but also minimalist contemporary composers such as Steve Reich and German composer Nils Frahm, who is known for mixing classical and electronic music.

“I call it post-classical,” Hirzer says. “It’s minimalist, contemporary – very cinematic, often very chill and minimalist and usually tonal music.”

Hirzer was only 26 and fresh from McGill’s Schulich School of Music when he arrived in Calgary seven years ago as the CPO’s resident conductor in 2016. He made his debut in September of that year at the annual Taste of the CPO concert at the Jack Singer Concert Hall, leading the orchestra through movements of Mozart’s G minor Symphony, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. Throughout his tenure, he became known for tackling challenging orchestral works and working with a wide range of collaborators, including Corb Lund, Bernadette Peters, iskwe and  Sarah Slean.

Advertisement 5

Article content

Hirzer’s contract with the CPO ended in August and he eventually moved to Berlin, which he calls the “centre of the classical music world.”

His online bio claims that Hirzer began “composing” at his family’s upright piano at the age of four, but the musician admits that this is “slightly misleading.” Banging away at the family piano was one of his first musical memories, but he didn’t really start writing music until he was a teenager and it was actually for heavy metal bands that he played with in high school. He didn’t start writing contemporary classical or minimalist pieces until 2021 when he began Relaxer Distractor.

He was interested in writing classical pieces, but it seemed a daunting prospect.

“You spend so much time studying the music of these composers who have really transcended eras and historical periods,” Hirzer says. “When you are listening to composers and studying the music of Beethoven and Mahler all the time, this is music that really tries to capture the entire human experience of life. It rolls up love and death and life and philosophy and the wilderness of the earth all into a piece of music. As someone who spends a lot of time with that kind of music, there is a feeling of ‘OK, how can I even approach this?’”

Advertisement 6

Article content

Hirzer says the compositions found on the new album are almost “the opposite of that.”

“I don’t think any of these songs try to make any bold statements about anything,” he says. “They are much more inspired by settings or moods or trying to convey the impression of something. It’s thinking of things on a smaller scale or a deconstructed scale. Conducting is my absolute favourite thing in the world, I love working with orchestras and the orchestral repertoire is really what I’m all about. But I did find it healthy in a way to create new songs and also to be engaging with an instrument myself.”

Relaxer Distractor is available on all streaming services.

With files from Kenneth DeLong

Article content