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The games that Vinko Globokar's musicians play

Paris-based composer and trombonist Vinko Globokar is photographed on Dec. 5, 2011, in Toronto.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

On the floor of Vinko Globokar's Toronto hotel room, a three-metre long alpenhorn lies in front of the sofa. Nearby, a box of Cuban cigars rests on a sheet of battered music manuscript that includes the notation, two-thirds of the way down the page: "light the cigar."

All these items have a place in the two performances of Globokar's music taking place this weekend in Toronto. Globokar, who is 77, has never been one to settle for standard equipment or procedures. His works often require players to use their instruments or bodies in unconventional ways, or to make choices about the next event in a carefully structured piece. It's impossible to play his music and not become personally implicated in the creative act.

"I find it very sad that many players spend their whole lives playing only the music of others," he says. Till his mid-20s, he was one of those players: a virtuoso jazz trombonist, working in Paris, a close colleague of pop-film composer Michel Legrand (for whom he played on the soundtrack of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). Globokar had studied music in Slovenia, his parents' homeland (he was born in France, where he still lives), but felt deficient in jazz harmony. He mentioned this to a friend, the conductor Diego Masson, who told him that "his father played chess with a Polish guy" who might be able to help.

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The "Polish guy" was René Leibowitz, a disciple of Arnold Schoenberg and a key figure in the development of the postwar avant-garde in Europe. Globokar's first lesson was a life-changing experience.

"I noticed right away that Leibowitz had no interest in jazz," he recalls. "But he started to talk about things that I had never heard before." Nobody at the conservatory in Ljubljana had told him about Schoenberg's 12-tone method, or about the forward edge of European music. Globokar became a composer, and developed a kind of music whose modernist energy is matched by a playful interest in the way that different performers engage with their instruments and each other.

One frequently performed piece, Corporel, allows the solo percussionist no instrument other than his or her body. Everyone performs the piece's mimed actions, skull-rappings and breathing sounds differently: "some like Tarzan, some like a fakir on his bed of nails," he says.

Eisenberg, a 1990 piece on Sunday's show by New Music Concerts, calls for four groups of variable instruments, including one quartet of archaic horns and another of noisemakers. The score is "like the map of a town," he says. "The streets are fixed, but you have a choice of which route to follow from one place to another." The ideas for the piece came to him while he was at his house in a tiny Slovenian village, where an ironworks once stood and where animal noises are common.

He is, in a way, a maker of games for musicians, though he seldom relaxes the rules to allow extended improvisation, which appears in only three or four of his roughly 120 pieces. Improv only works when people really know how to do it, he says, and even then, it's more fun to impose rules that challenge their performance habits. The improvised part of Friday's double-bill program at the Music Gallery, in which Globokar will play, won't sound like anything heard at a jazz club.

He remains a determined modernist – and a lonely one. The performing groups he formed in the late sixties disbanded long ago; colleagues such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mauricio Kagel, Gyorgy Ligeti and his former teacher Luciano Berio, are dead. Postmodernism, or "the reinvention of Mahler," as he calls it, holds no attraction for him.

"I was part of a group of friends, an avant-garde that was based on risk," he says. "The idea, collectively, was to find something new. But even if you didn't find this end result, it was still okay, because you were exploring ideas. That kind of collective thinking we did has disappeared."

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Now, he has to do the collective thinking by himself, and write it down for other people to discover and inhabit. It's an adventure worth sharing.

Continuum Contemporary Music and Toronto New Music Projects present Vinko Globokar's music at Toronto's Music Gallery on Friday. New Music Concerts plays his works at the Betty Oliphant Theatre on Sunday.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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