Udo Kasemets | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Udo Kasemets

Udo Kasemets. Composer, pianist, organist, teacher, writer, b Tallinn, Estonia, 16 Nov 1919, naturalized Canadian 1957; honorary D LITT (York) 1991.

Kasemets, Udo

Udo Kasemets. Composer, pianist, organist, teacher, writer, b Tallinn, Estonia, 16 Nov 1919, naturalized Canadian 1957; honorary D LITT (York) 1991. Kasemets studied composition, conducting, and piano at the State Conservatory in Tallinn and subsequently attended the Staatliche Hochschule in Stuttgart and, in 1950, the Kranichstein Institut in Darmstadt. His principal teachers in Germany were Ernst Krenek (composition) and Hermann Scherchen (conducting). He taught school music in Estonia and Germany and conducted several choral and orchestral societies before emigrating in 1951 to Canada, where he taught piano, theory, composition, and conducting at the Hamilton Conservatory of Music (RHCM) until 1957. He served also, 1952-7, as conductor of the Hamilton Conservatory Chorus and the Collegium Musicum of Hamilton. He was music critic for the Toronto Daily Star 1959-63 and taught at the Brodie School of Music and Modern Dance 1963-7.

Udo Kasemets was the founder-director 1957-8 of the Toronto Bach Society; 1958-9 of Musica Viva, an organization devoted to the performance of new compositions and seldom-heard early music; 1962-3 of Men, Minds and Music, a series of avant-garde concerts produced under the aegis of the Brodie school; and 1965-7 of the Isaacs Gallery Mixed Media Ensemble, which brought together musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, poets, and technicians in nine events featuring works by American and Canadian artists of radical tendencies. In 1968 Kasemets planned and directed Sightsoundsystems, a controversial festival that marked the inception of the Toronto branch of the New York-based Experiments in Art and Technology. From 1970 until his retirement in 1987 he lectured on music and mixed media in the Department of Experimental Art at the Ontario College of Art.


Udo Kasemets was at once a traditionally trained musician who has exercised his craft in traditional ways and a musical explorer whose experiments in sound shared the concerns of the international avant-garde. In the early 1960s, he became a leading Canadian representative of the school of experimental thought centred around John Cage and his disciples, and although he retained an interest only in the works he composed after that time (when, in his own words, he came into contact with "the existing international trends in composition"), the pre-1960 compositions reveal tendencies that remained close to the surface of his aesthetic outlook. The settings of Estonian folksongs of the late 1940s and early 1950s, for example, have their parallel in the series of works of the mid-1960s and early 1970s entitled 1 (plus) 1, teaching pieces for young recorder players, pianists, and percussionists, based in the main on familiar folksongs and nursery tunes. Even the mixed-media works and 'game' pieces of the 1970s can be regarded as extensions of this Gebrauchsmusik aesthetic, for behind them one senses an urge on the composer's part to involve his audience in the creative process on a primary level.

Udo Kasemets's compositions of the 1950s are in a traditional vein, with strong melodic lines and classical formal boundaries. The titles alone - Toccatina, Arietta e Fughetta (1952), Sonata da Camera (1955), Passacaglia (1959) - suggest the neoclassicism fashionable in the period, with an emphasis on linear textures, refined sonorities, and strong, bracing rhythms.

A Disciple of John Cage
After 1960 Udo Kasemets made use of chance operations (see Aleatoric Music) and unusual performance methods in an attempt to approach a Cageian fusion of art and technology. The preoccupation with Cage's philosophy and cultural heroes is indicated by the titles and the performance media of many of Kasemets's works. Tt (T to the power of t, subtitled "Tribute to Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, John Cage," 1968), is "composed" by members of an audience, who fill out computer cards - indicating their choices of frequency, amplitude, colour, and intensity - which then are analyzed and developed into graphs to be projected for the audience and used by performers. Another audience-activated piece is Music for Nothing (1971, for four readers, four tape recorders, and pendulum-pushers) in which pendulum sounds are fed into a cybernetic sound-system, where they are allowed to interact with words on "nothing" by Samuel Beckett, Norman O. Brown, and John Cage.

It is clear that Udo Kasemets expected his audiences to participate creatively, to respond imaginatively to the infinite variety of sounds in the environment, and thus to achieve a more intense awareness of the contemporary soundscape. A number of classroom works, created in the early 1970s during his short tenure with the North York school board, were conceived as ingenious perception exercises. Musicgames (1971) is conceived as a series of seven sound-perception and sound-conception group exercises; Songbirdsong (1971) is a tape-recorded birdsong cognition exercise; Colourwalk (1971) involves colour perception; and Senslalom (1972) is intended to instruct all five senses.

Udo Kasemets, like his spiritual ally Cage, remained loyal to the conception of art as a kind of living theatre whereby the creative process itself is raised to the status of a first principle, all artistic activity being a distinctive and vibrant way of attempting to comprehend the totality of existence. As he wrote in 1972, "to compose isn't any longer to solve musical acrostics," but rather is a process of "learning to know what life and nature, indeed the whole universe, are about, and to present a report on these studies by using all means available, including sounds." Interestingly, such grandeur of vision has tended to belong to artists - R. Murray Schafer is the other notable Canadian example - who have pursued their creative goals almost entirely outside the narrow confines of the academy.

Udo Kasemets was long fascinated by concepts of time and space, ancient and modern, his explorations ranging freely from the civilizations of the Chinese and the Mayas to the theoretical worlds of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. From the 1960s on he probed the nature of time and memory, past and future.

Gulf Between Technology and Humanism
Behind much of Udo Kasemets's thinking lay a conviction that contemporary Western civilization, through sensory pollution and information overload, its preoccupation with technology and economic growth, and its ingrained sense of moral superiority, has dramatically diminished the quality of life on this planet for the material benefit of the few, bringing into stark relief the very question of survival. Hence there was a certain urgency in Kasemets' creative activities to open up the Western psyche to the immensity of the changes taking place by introducing us to alternative ways of thinking and perceiving through artistic creation.

In much of his creative work of the 1980s Udo Kasemets continued to seek ways to bridge the gulf between technology and humanism, to explore what he called "the miraculous micro- and macroworld within and around us." He continued to celebrate cultural icons from the past, among them some of the most futuristic minds of the century. Geo(sono)scope (1986), for example, described as "an installation piece presenting in visual and aural form an inventory of the planet's manmade musicscape and its natural soundscape," was inspired by Buckminster Fuller's concepts of Geoscope and World Game. The following year Kasemets commemorated the centenary of Marcel Duchamp's birth with two multimedia works. Marce(ntennia)l Circus C(age)elebrating Duchamp (1987) is based on a collage of words derived from all of Cage's writings about Duchamp, sounds mentioned in these writings, and updated interpretations of two of Duchamp's 1913 musical compositions. Duchampera (1987), a 90-minute music theatre piece premiered in July 1987 at Toronto's Music Gallery, involved on that occasion two singers (soprano and countertenor), two amplified speakers reciting fragments of Duchamp's cryptic prose, a pianist who at one point accompanied the singers with a hypnotically repeated note D, the four-person Glass Orchestra, as well as two chess players re-enacting a game between Duchamp and his alter ego Rose Sélavy.

Explorations of Time
Other works reveal Udo Kasemets's fascination with developing compositional frameworks based on different cultural perceptions of the nature of time and with calendric concepts; for example, as in Lun(h)armonics: Music of the Chinese Calendar (1990) for six sine-wave oscillators, mixing devices, and loudspeakers, based on the Chinese lunar calendar in its relationship to the I Ching, or a series of three works 1989-90 called Calendar Round, so named for the 18,980-day, or 52-year, cycle called a "calendar round" by the Mayas. A number of works explored the musical implications of nature's tuning systems as manifest, for example, in diurnal/nocturnal and seasonal systems and solar, lunar, stellar, and galactic systems. A major series of works begun in 1988 is representative in several respects. Each of the pieces, collectively titled Portrait: The Twelve Moons of the I Ching, is based on a series of acrostic poems by Kasemets derived from translations of the I Ching corresponding to the days and seasons of the lunar year. Characteristically, each Portrait was conceived expressly for a particular musician or group of musicians. The Fifth Moon (1988), for example, is to be played by the Evergreen Club Gamelan Ensemble, while The Sixth Moon (1989) is intended for the just-tuned piano of Gordon Monahan.

Later Activities
After retiring from the Ontario College of Art in 1987, Udo Kasemets remained very active as a composer, writing an impressive volume of work. In 1995 he described his works as attempts to correlate various systems of ordering and, in so doing, to address deeper cosmological questions (Grove Music Online). Some influences that arose in his later career include DNA helices, Renga poetics, Haiku, and the works of Benoît Mandelbrot. His work Requiem Renga (1992), meant to be "memorial music for victims of human cruelty" (Grove Music Online), uses notions from Japanese chain poetry with a quotation from the Dies Irae plainchant. Time Trip to Big Bang and Back (1993), a work of large symphonic scope, draws much from Hawking's A Brief History of Time, while Eighty Flowers (1995) bases its 80 short movements for piano on the linguistic character of a cycle of poems by the American Louis Zukofsky.

Udo Kasemets continued to perform as well as compose, notably at a benefit concert in 1997 accompanying soprano Susan Layard at the University of Waterloo, during which they performed his Fractal Epigraph for John Cage.

Influence; Awards

Throughout the 1990s, a younger generation of musicians in Toronto took up Udo Kasemets's cause, performing and recording his music. Among these were pianist Stephen Clarke and turn-tablist Tobias C. van Veen. Van Veen took on the hour-long, six-musician-and-script, CaleNdarON during a concert in Vancouver in 2003, while Clarke recorded the CD Pythagoras Tree in 1996. This album covered works 1964-96. Clarke has continued to perform Kasemets's music and, in March 2008, gave the premiere performance of Crossing the Ninth Wave (2007) and a repeat performance of Two-Ludes (2006).

Udo Kasemets was an artist-prophet with a mission to search for new artistic forms that would help us deal intelligently with the technological revolution. He often described himself as "a temporal man" or "a process artist," with the clear implication that the moment of creation takes precedence over the accumulation of "masterpieces." Accordingly, he was relatively little known beyond a coterie of Toronto-area experimental composers and performers. His has been essentially a private quest, one man's search for insight and meaning.

Udo Kasemets is an associate of the Canadian Music Centre and a member of the Canadian League of Composers. In 1991, for his contribution to Estonian cultural life in Canada, he received a grant from the Memorial Foundation of Adele, Adolf and Axel Toom. A substantial part of his papers was deposited at the Faculty of Music Library, University of Toronto.

Selected Compositions 1954-69

Recitative and Rondino, Opus 36. 1954. Str orch. BMIC 1954

Poetic Suit, Opus 37. 1954. Sop, piano, string orch. BMIC 1955?

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 41. 1955-7. Vn, full orch. BMIC 1967

Three Miniatures (Shelley). 1956. Sop (tenor), piano. BMIC 1960

Canciones, Opus 42 (Lorca). 1956. High voice, fl, guitar. Ms

Haiku (Japanese, transl H.G. Henderson). 1961. V, fl, violoncello, piano. BMIC 1963

5√5 (Fifth Root of Five). 1962-3. 2 piano. BMIC 1969

Communications: A Non-composition to Words by E.E. Cummings. 1963. Vs, instr. BMIC 1969

Trigon. 1963. 1,3, 9, or 27 perf. BMIC 1969

Cumulus. 1963-4. Any solo instr or instr ensemble, 2 tape recorders. Ms

Five Songs for Children (Richards, Allingham, Rossetti). 1964. V, piano. BMIC 1964. Centrediscs CMC-2285 (Toronto Children's Chor)

Timepiece. 1964. Any solo instr or instr ensemble. BMIC 1967

Cascando (S. Beckett). 1965. 1-128 perf. Focus on Musicecology, Ber 1970

Calceolaria. 1966. Any no. of perf. BMIC 1967

Octagonal Octet and/or Ode (a Calceolaria variation) (Pound). 1967. 1, 2, 4, 6, or 8 perf. BMIC 1968

Tt- Tribute to Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, John Cage (Fuller, McLuhan, Cage). 1968. Readers, synths, projections, audience-controlled cybernetic systems. Ms


"The Saskatoon Summer Festival of Music, 1959" Canadian Music Journal, vol 4, Autumn 1959

"John Weinzweig," Canadian Music Journal, vol 4, Summer 1960

- and Beckwith, John eds. The Modern Composer and His World (Toronto 1961)

"Current chronicle: Ann Arbor," Musical Quarterly, vol 50, Oct 1964

- ed. Canavangard: Music of the Nineteen-Sixties and After Series (Don Mills, Ont 1968)

"Nine notes on notation," Artscanada, vol 25, Jun 1968

"Eight edicts on education with eighteen elaborations," Source: Music of the Avant Garde, vol 2, Jul 1968

"Pierre Mercure," Music Scene, 246, Mar-Apr 1969

ed. Focus on Musicecology (Toronto 1970)

"Prologue to an interlogue and an epilogue (introduction to intermedia)," Canada Music Book, 5, Autumn-Winter 1972

"R. Murray Schafer: Threnody," ibid

ProsePoems (Toronto 1980)

"Tuning of systems to systems of tuning," Musicworks 57, 1994

Mandelbrot Music (Toronto 1994)

"Systems," Musicworks 62, 1995

Z for Zuk for Zukofsky (Toronto 1995)

SoUNdFLOWERS (Toronto 1996)

"(Re)Reading John Cage," Musicworks , 75, Fall 1999

Reviews of music in Canadian Music Journal, vols 3-6, Autumn 1958, Summer 1959, Winter, Autumn 1960, Winter, Spring, Autumn 1961, Spring, Summer 1962


Guitarmusic for John Cage. 1972. Any no. of guitar, projections, dimmers. Ms

Whole Earth Music. 1972-7. 92 tracks of tape

Wordmusic/Interface (any dictionary). 1973. Readers, tape recorders, mixers at diverse geographical locations using postal, air-express, radio, or telecommunication

Wor(l)dmusic. 1974. A stereo tapemix of Wordmusic/Interface

The Advance and Retreat of the Dragon (Music for Everything) (I Ching). 1974. 8 string (winds or keybd), percussion, 16 voices, 4 moving bodies, tape, conductor or I Ching oracle consulter. Ms

64 Provocations for John Cage with 64 Responses. 1974. Tape

In Memoriam Nelson Small Legs Jr. (Rites of Rights No. 1) (North American Indian sayings from Touch of Earth). 1976. 1 to 10 readers, any no. of drummers, optional visuals. (excerpt) Musicworks 12, Summer 1980

In Support of Justice Thomas Berger (Rites of Rights No. 2) (O'Malley). Any no. of participants playing percussion instr of wood, rock, bone, skin, and a public address system

C(ag)elebration/Messagemix. 1977. Global radiotelephonic sound mixing process

Zodiacanons.1980. 1-12 instr playing chromatically tuned instr and/or vocalists

Celestial Timescapes. 1980. Electroacoustic computer-synchronized playback of sounds. Musicworks 29 (includes cass realized by John Oswald and Chris Devonshire), Fall 1985

Ragtime: An Intercultural Timescape. 1981. One group of Asian/Indian-origin instr, one group of European/North American-origin instr. Musicworks 29, Fall 1985

Earthspin: A Timescape for Gordon Monahan. 1982. Pf, elec sound system operator. Musicworks 29, Fall 1985

Counterbomb Renga. 1982-3. A collaboration of over 100 poets and musicians from Canada and the USA responding to and elaborating on poetic and musical material derived from Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth in the form of Acrostics, Tankostics I and II and Chainchant. Musicworks 22, 1983

4-D In Ching. 1984. Two sets of eight 22-minute monoral tapes of Dymaxion Trigrams to be played in pairs determined by the I Ching hexagrams which form the responses to questions fed into the computer

Yi Jing Jitterbug: 50 Hz Octet. 1984. 8 wind and/or bowed string instr. Ms

Yi Jing Jitterbug: Soloctet. 1984. Wind or bowed string player with 1 or more assistants operating 8 cass decks


Geo(sono)scope. 1986. An installation piece presenting in visual and aural form an inventory of the planet's manmade musicscape and its natural soundscape

Duchampera, music theatre (M. Duchamp). 1987. Singers, speakers, actors, the Glass Orchestra, piano, sound-playback and lighting systems

Vertical Music: In Remembrance of Morton Feldman. 1987. Any 7 instr, perferably of the same family (2 piano)

Vertical Taps for Morty. 1987. Snare drum solo. Smith 1988

Marce(ntennia)l Circus C(ag)elebrating Duchamp. 1987. Word collage derived from John Cage's writing about Marcel Duchamp, sounds mentioned in these writings and updated interpretations of two of Duchamp's 1913 musical compositions

Portrait: Music of the Twelve Moons of the I Ching. 1988. (The 1st Moon) columbine and amaranth, (The 2nd Moon) RAAD violoncello, (The 3rd Moon) percussion, (The 4th Moon) clarinet, (The 5th Moon) gamelan ensemble, (The 6th Moon) just-tuned piano. Ms

Hexagram No. 16: a Yi Jing Jitterbug: Pianoctet. 1989 4 perf on 2 piano. Ms

Calendar Round: Megalcides. 1989. Singer/speaker, electracoustics. Ms

Calendar Round:Kaisernietzche. 1989. Guit, percussion, wind instr, tape. Ms

Calendar Round: Malcgolmdstein. 1990. Vn. Ms

Lun(h)armonics: Music of the Chinese Calendar. 1990. 6 sine-wave oscillators, mixing devices, loudspeakers

Hexagram No. 16: a Yi Jing Jitterbug: Duooctet. 1990. Pf, 8 sine-wave oscillators, mixing devices, loud speakers

Muistsehiina Muutusraamatu Kaheksa Koda (The Eight Houses of the I Ching). 1990. Str quartet. Ms

Harmonices Mundi of Johannes Kepler. 1990. Vn, tape. Ms

Timetrip to Big Bang and Back. 1990. Acoustic instr, human voices, electro-acoustic devices, slide and video projections, computer-programmed audio-sculptural environments

Canonic Creationchants. 1991. Treble voices. Ms

Yi Jing Jitterbug: Stereoctet. 1991. Sine-wave oscillators, audiofile mixing device

Hexagram No. 50: a Yi Jing Jitterbug: Vococtet. 1991. V, piano. Ms

Hexagram No. 14: a Yi Jing Jitterbug: Vococtet. 1991. V, piano. Ms

Many others, some (pre-1970) published by BMIC


Musicworks #52. Various artists. 1992. Musicworks, MW 52

Musicworks #57. Various artists. 1993. Musicworks, MW 57

Kasemets: Requiem Renga; Eight Houses of the I Ching. Lyra Borealis Ensemble, Richard Sacks, Trevor Tureski, Adele Armin, Richard Armin, et al, Udo Kasemets conductor. 1994. Koch International

Timetrip To Big Bang, Big Bang And Back. Rick Sacks percussion. 1994. Artifact Music, ART 010

Pythagoras Tree - Works For Piano. Stephen Clarke piano. 1996. Artifact Music, ART 113

Further Reading