Calgary musician hopes to shake up the classical music world with his debut album

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When musician Daniel Pelton was a teenager, his aunt surprised him with a solid gold coin. She told him to keep it safe, promising it would go up in value.

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“I think it was a Loonie-inspired gold coin, but it was a solid ounce of gold,” says Pelton. “She said, ‘Hold on and one day it will come in handy.’ ”

Fast forward to 2020. Pelton was in pre-production for a chamber music album and had already started gathering musicians. But when COVID hit, the grant he was waiting for fell through.

“I signed a bunch of musicians, including big names like Donovan Seidle, and then all of a sudden the grant was gone because of the COVID stuff,” he says. “I was like, ‘How am I going to pay for this?’ Then I remembered the gold coin my aunt gave me all those years ago, it was extremely useful, as she once said.

Pelton would not reveal the value of the coin, but said it covered at least half the cost of what he would later name the Daniel Pelton Collective Gold Coin Sessions in honor of this gift and of the wise “save-it-for-a-rainy-day” advice from his aunt, who died a few years ago.

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It’s a pretty unusual origin story for a classical music album that was created in a decidedly unorthodox way. Pelton is a graduate of the University of Calgary’s music program and an accomplished saxophonist who leads the jazzy horn band Long Time No Time. But he also loves classical music, and some of The Gold Coin Sessions compositions date back to his high school days. Others were written over the past year while he was composer-in-residence at the Calgary Public Library.

Due to the COVID restrictions in place during the production of much of the album, each part had to be recorded separately. It’s not an ideal setup for any genre but seems particularly unsuitable for chamber music. This meant that the string quartet performing the majestic Prelude and Jig had to do it individually, as did the saxophone quartet performing Don’t Know Tango and the three singers singing the haunting Swells. Pelton himself did not perform on the album but oversaw all sessions, which took place at the National Music Center and smaller studios around town, including one in Pelton’s basement. But the musicians were going more or less blind, says Pelton.

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“It would have been difficult with any music, but it was music that none of these musicians had heard before and for which there was no frame of reference,” Pelton says. “They were all bizarre, wacky contemporary compositions. It wasn’t like we were recording Beethoven’s String Quartet, so we’re going to listen to some recordings of those and create some tunes. Here’s something you’ve never heard. You’ll never repeat it in a band, so you’ll never really hear how it sounds in a band. Just practice and show up, and I’ll have to tell you if you’re doing it right or not and try to guide you. If we’re lucky, it will be fine and the next person who arrives can use your tracks as a reference for what they are going to do.

Pelton recruited musicians he knew in school, others he knew from the city’s music scene, and a few of his musical roommates. He also brought in heavyweights, such as Andrea Case, principal cellist of the Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra in the UK, and violinist Donovan Seidle, assistant principal violinist of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.

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“With Donovan Seidle, I was lucky enough to have my violinist roommate help him out with some kind of violin and he came over to the house,” says Pelton. “When Donovan Seidle came up the stairs to our little porch, I saw him at the window. I grabbed a string quartet that I wrote and ran for the door: “Donovan, I wrote this string quartet! Would you like to watch it? What was really good was that Donovan looked at the string quartet and said “Oh yeah, we can record that one day”. It was amazing because I wasn’t quite thinking that way yet.

All of this may seem a bit risky to the usually stuffy world of classical music. But Pelton hopes The Gold Coin Sessions will play a small role in upending the classical music world. The final track on the album features Pelton strumming an acoustic guitar and singing his thanks to the listener for being there. It then turns into a long comedic routine about a trombone player who may or may not be in a coma.

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Pelton says he would like to bring the same energy, irreverence and artist-audience relationship to classical music that he enjoys performing with Long Time No Time. He said he had always loved classical music but often felt alienated from it because there seems to be an expectation that audience reaction to performances will be static and polite.

“We think so because that’s how we’ve behaved all along,” he says. “I think that’s part of what’s really hurt the appeal of classical music, especially for young people. I think (we should) create a space where you can react as you see fit. If the music makes you want to move, then move. If you feel like you need to shout, then shout. If you need to jump, jump. Not so long ago in the 1800s when (Franz) Liszt was around, if you read the accounts of his concerts, women were throwing their underwear on stage, people were screaming and screaming. It was a big event. »

Some tracks from Daniel Pelton Collective’s Gold Coin Sessions are available on Spotify. The full album will be released on January 21.

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