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Talking with composers, Canada and beyond

Each generation of composers coming up through college is always a little dismayed to find their music history survey books fizzling out in their descriptions current composers. Maybe one compressed chapter at the end, with a jumble of names or the barest of thumbnail sketches. Half are already only half-remembered, and the other half are musicians you desperately want something, anything more from or about!  Yet often somewhere out there beyond the curriculum, there’s another kind of book; one some dedicated fan, critic or participant created,  providing fuller sketches and often interviews with the people that matter most to them in the here and now (one such that mattered greatly for me in the 1980s was John Rockwell’s All American Music).

Another of my little quirks is a strong liking for a number of recent and contemporary Canadian composers. I have no idea how it happened — other than perhaps years of government funding and a certain image of some “outsider” isolation and independence — but to my ears Canada has produced a remarkably large group of surprising and creative musicians.

So I was very happy to see that one of the latest “catch-up” books on composers comes from a Canadian perspective. Paul Steenhuisen, a fine Canadian musician in his own right, has recently published Sonic Mosaics: Conversations with Composers (University of Alberta Press, 2009), a collection of interviews with (mostly) living composers from America, Europe and Canada.

We asked another Canadian musician and journalist, John Oliver, to review the book:

……………………………………………….

Sonic Mosaics is a book of interviews conducted by composer Paul Steenhuisen over a three-year period from 2001-2004. Over half of the interviews were commissioned by Toronto’s monthly, short-run music publication WholeNote on the occasion of a composer’s presence in the city for a premiere performance or CD release. Two were originally published in Musicworks magazine and the rest were conducted by Steenhuisen afterward to complete the book and attempt to represent more Canadian composers.

Steenhuisen gets full marks for disclosure: he reveals the shortcomings and strengths of the book in the introduction. Although the book contains a large number of interviews with Canadian composers, the author admits that it is by no means representative of the entire country. The reader is treated to six interviews with non-Canadian composers, three of which occur as a result of a composer’s appearance as a guest of New Music Concerts. Five are with the most senior generation of international contemporary music “stars”: Pierre Boulez, George Crumb, Mauricio Kagel, Christian Wolff and Helmut Lachenmann; the sixth is UK composer Michael Finnissy.

Equivalent Canadian senior composers include R. Murray Schafer, John Weinzweig, Udo Kasemets, John Beckwith, and Francis Dhomont. Yet equivalent senior composers of Quebec and the rest of Canada are not represented. The rest of the interviews give a glimpse into the creative minds of primarily composers who reside in the province of Ontario. Place-of-residence analysis reveals that, of the 26 Canadian interviewees, 16 reside in Ontario, 6 in Quebec, 3 in British Columbia, and one in Alberta: not an accurate proportional representation. The reader may also note that over half of composers represented here teach at universities, an understandable bias given the author’s background and the general tendency in Canada for composers to gain a livelihood from teaching. If this represents only a subset of important Canadian composers, the reader’s curiosity will be aroused to seek out information about more as a result of reading this book. A second volume is in order.

One might fear that a book of interviews in which one specialist interviews another in the same field would result in an impenetrable, jargon-ridden read that would send the reader crying out for generalists to give them something understandable and relevant to their own experience. This book, though not for the uninitiated, rarely crosses the line into the specialist realm. It should inspire the music fan to want to learn more and will be particularly attractive to musicians and music students. In this way, it achieves the goal to create a context of understanding for the music: mythologies melt away, though they may be replaced with new and more interesting ones!

Steenhuisen as interviewer asks probing, well-researched and varied questions that elicit from his subjects responses that vary from candid and revealing to evasive or predictable. Thankfully, the latter moments are few. Rather, we experience a conversation rich enough in detail to please the contemporary music enthusiast (though rarely theoretical and technical enough for the academic), and broad enough in scope to introduce those in the earlier stages of discovery to basic paradigms of the art and to some major international figures and a cross-section of Canadian composers, most of whom are interviewed for the first time in such a volume. The sense of speaking in confidence brings authority and depth to many of the interviews that a journalist would be less likely to reach.

Steenhuisen’s questions and style – sometimes probing, other times knowingly prodding the subject – create a text that never lags. The author states, again in the introduction, that “while trained in neither journalism nor interviewing techniques, I am instead a self-taught critic, and approached the interviews as an interested professional, with the goal that my own interests and perspectives on the work of the interviewee would overlap with those of other listeners.” This approach gives the reader a consistency of intent throughout the book, thus providing a book full of ideas about music, composition and the professional life, though few biographical details.

Considering the interviews’ length and generalist purpose, they are remarkably thorough. For example, we have a fine overview of the career of Pierre Boulez in 8 pages: “you should be autodidact by will, not by chance” and “I like specialists only for surgery and medicine, but not for music.” The personality of each interviewee shines out. Steenhuisen’s intends is to cover as much territory as possible. Among his many questions, Steenhuisen usually directs the interview toward the discussion of a specific work and its ideas and touches on the subject of social relevance by way of the topic of communication. Several of the senior composers have appeared in print in the past and are well-known in Canada, but may be new to non-Canadian readers. Entirely new information is contributed to our understanding of contemporary music in the interviews of younger generations. Among the most fascinating are Howard Bashaw, who speaks of pre-compositional planning, musical structure, the role of the piano, intimacy, exactitude, and performance energy; Michael Finnissy, whose continuous ramblings seem chaotic on the surface but clearly the work of a brilliant mind; and Chris Paul Harman‘s discussion of recontextualisation, self-criticism and self-distancing from the materials of music. Helmut Lachenmann‘s entire interview could function as a suitable introduction to the whole book, especially his description of his own music as creating a “situation of perception, which provokes you to wonder ‘What is music?'”

Another great pleasure comes from comparisons among composers, and the echo of one composer’s ideas in another’s. To give just one example: the echo of Robert Normandeau‘s birth of the musical material from listening to the sounds in Barbara Croall‘s description of her way of composing; then the relationship of Croall’s attraction to the “imperfect”, “in-between” sounds to Lachenmann’s explanation of the use of such sounds as establishing “new contexts” for listening and composing. The book is full of such riches. A highly-recommended read.

Comments

Comment from Christian
Time: January 27, 2010, 3:48 pm

Our friends at the print journal Musicworks are also excellent advocates for the Canadian New Music scene (www.musicworks.ca).

Comment from ALlison
Time: January 27, 2010, 5:04 pm

I’ve also published a review of this book. It appeared in the last musicworks – #105. It will also appear on my blog at allisoncameronmusic.blogspot.com

Comment from Taylor Brook
Time: January 27, 2010, 8:51 pm

Great revue, I look forward to reading thew book!

One thing to keep in mind when speaking of senior canadian composers is that the idea of musical modernism only came about in the 50s and 60s in Canada, so the generation of which John Beckwith and R. Murray Shafer belong was the first generation of dedicated composers. These first composers worked mainly in Toronto and Montréal with teacher/composers such as John Weinzweig and Harry Somers (Toronto) as well as Claude Champagne and Gilles Tremblay (Montréal). So, it makes sense that that is where these composers live and work today.

There’s also the issue of population density in Canada — more than a third of our population lives in Ontario:
http://www40.statcan.gc.ca/l01/cst01/demo02a-eng.htm

Also, two of the most influential Quebec composers died young — Claude Vivier and Pierre Mercure.