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Canadian Composers Series

The Canadian Composers Series consists of 10 portrait CDs presenting music by a number of Canada’s leading experimental composers. The first batch of 5 discs was released in February 2017 and the second batch will be released at the end of 2017.

The book accompanying the series contains a contextualising essay by Nick Storring and long interviews with all the composers involved. There are extracts from the interviews with the composers of the first five CDs on the webpages for each disc:  

Linda Catlin Smith    Martin Arnold    Isaiah Ceccarelli    Chiyoko Szlavnics    Marc Sabat

Below are extracts from the interviews with Cassandra Miller, Alex Jang and Lance Austin Olsen, the other composers whose work will feature in the second batch of Canadian CDs.

Below you can also read the preface to the Canadian Composers Series book by Simon Reynell, the producer of the series.

The series book also contains reproductions of several paintings by Lance Austin Olsen and photographs by Nick Storring. You can read the full version of Nick Storring’s essay here

The 120-page book is free for anyone who buys two or more of the Canadian Composers Series or can be bought separately for £4.

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Preface to the Canadian Composers Series book

This series is emphatically not intended to be an exhaustive documentation of contemporary music in Canada. It neither attempts to offer an encyclopaedic overview, nor claims to present ‘the best of’ Canadian experimental music (however that might be judged). It comes rather from a moment a couple of years ago when I realised that I was talking independently to three Canadian composers about producing portrait discs of their music. It struck me that it could be interesting to present their music together, although they are stylistically very different and there’s nothing in their music that could be identified as a common national trait. In fact all three composers are defiantly individual voices, not belonging to any school or tendency, and perhaps that is partly what interests me about their music.

Having realised this coincidence, I started to think of other Canadian composers whose work I knew, and to explore the music of others who I didn’t yet know. And so the idea of producing a Canadian series emerged, covering at first three, then five, then finally ten CDs as I became more and more taken with and drawn to the richly diverse works being produced by musicians in or originally from a country that is so often eclipsed by its more powerful, populous and louder neighbour.

I have never been to Canada, so my research was done from afar. However there are significant connections between Yorkshire (where I live) and several Canadian musicians and composers. Both the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and the music department at Huddersfield University have frequently hosted the Quatuor Bozzini, who constitute one of the key hubs for contemporary music in Canada, and, reciprocally, musicians from the university have toured Canada, creating more bridges. As a result, several Canadian musicians have gone on to study in Huddersfield, including two of the composers featured in the series, and the violinist Mira Benjamin, herself a former member of the Bozzinis, who performs on most of the CDs in the series and is an extremely effective ambassador for Canadian experimentalism abroad.

The selection of composers featured in the series is inevitably subjective, and has arisen as much through happenstance flowing from these Yorkshire-Canada links as through any supposedly objective assessment of the merits or significance of their music as compared to that of others. In preparing the series I have discovered several other Canadian composers whose work I enjoy, and if I had enough time and money, I could happily produce another ten CDs covering music by composers such as André Cormier, Daryl Jamieson, Michael Oesterle, Barbara Monk Feldman, Daniel Brandes, Allison Cameron, Rudolf Komorous, Anna Höstman, Mathieu Ruhlmann, Christopher Reiche, Nick Storring, eldritch Priest, Jason Doell, Mark Hannesson… the list could go on. I seem to have stumbled on a corner of the contemporary music world that is both particularly rich and somewhat under-exposed.

Simon Reynell, January 2017

Photo: Nick Storring

Extract from interview with Cassandra Miller

What do you make of Linda Catlin Smith’s comments about Canadian composers having a certain freedom, with no pressure to fit in because they are working in the wilderness, removed from and unexamined by the major cultural centres and traditions of the world?

It’s really interesting to hear Linda say that, and I’ve said similar things myself. When I grew up in Canada and went to the University of Victoria as an undergraduate I had nothing to compare it with because I didn’t know that anything else existed. That was my first encounter with the idea of what musical composition was. Christopher Butterfield was my teacher – he still teaches there – and in my second year we flew Linda Smith out to give us some lessons, and Martin Arnold’s music was being played all the time – I remember hearing his piece Contact; Vault played for what must have been nearly the first time. So this was just normal to me and only when I came to Holland ten years later to do my master’s degree did I start to understand what the European scene was like. The idea that there was a career composer, someone who had a career and thought that was important, and the idea that there was this thing called ‘culture’ which had a certain importance to it, that was something which I’d never considered or even heard of. The idea that culture somehow speaks to human consciousness or was important to humans in general, I’d just never come across that concept. I think Linda was trying to explain to a European what they’d find if they showed up in Canada, whereas I grew up in Canada and then went to Europe and thought ‘hey, what is  this?’

So when you went to the University of Victoria as an undergraduate, without having heard of this European notion of music as culture, what sort of music were you into, and why did you go there?

I went thinking I was going to study harp, because I was quite a serious harpist when I was young. But then on my first day I took an elective class for composition with Christopher Butterfield, and it was clear by the end of the first hour that I wasn’t going to be a harpist any more, I was going to be a composer.

It was that quick? What happened?

I can’t remember exactly what happened in that class, but it was a really good group of students that year. There were about twenty of us, and André Cormier was there, but Christopher Butterfield just had such a great way of teaching. He’s very interested in absurdity, and is influenced by Dada art, so he tends to present art as being interesting only if you can’t really understand it, and that it’s normally made by someone on the margins, not by some canonical figure. And he had a way of talking about it so that we didn’t really distinguish between on the one hand Schönberg and Webern and on the other Wilhelm Killmayer  – who people haven’t heard of even in Germany, though he’s amazing. So there’d be all these very odd figures, like Harry Partch and so on, in a way the stranger the better. To learn about Webern for the first time in that context, you think ‘God, he’s weird!’

Which he is in a way, but one weirdness among others rather than the official weirdness.

Exactly, we had no idea that there was an official weirdness. Two years later there was the twentieth century techniques class where you’d analyse all the canonical stuff. But until then we didn’t get the sense that there was a canon. We thought composers were like Linda Smith, not like Lachenmann or anyone with a canonical reputation.

Cassandra Miller

Photo by Andrew Parker

Cover painting: ‘Transfiguration Triptych’ by Lance Austin Olsen

Extract from interview with Alex Jang

What is your musical background and how did you come to experimental music?

I had childhood piano and violin lessons, which were fundamental musical experiences for me. But for contemporary music, I have a friend who works as a curator at the Royal British Columbia Museum here, and he had a substantial analogue synthesiser collection in his basement. I went to school with his daughter, and one day when I was about eleven or twelve years old, I was at their house and he said ‘Do you want to see the synthesiser collection?’ I said ‘Yes absolutely’, and as I remember he had Moogs and a working Mellotron – it was just wonderful for a twelve year old kid. He was showing me some of the oscillators and so on, and then he said ‘Do you want to take home some music that sounds like this?’ and he handed me a stack of vinyl records. There was the Xenakis electroacoustic LP from the 70’s on Nonesuch, there was Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge and Kontakte, The World of Harry Partch on Columbia, and I took these home and I just played them over and over and over again.

Did you like them immediately or were you just curious and gradually come to like them?

I immediately liked them and was drawn to how totally different they were from what I’d been learning playing violin and piano, and from the fairly substantial classical record collection that my father had, his favourites being Richard Strauss and Aaron Copland. Reading the liner notes on the Harry Partch LP, and learning about the chromelodeon and the cloud chamber bowls, I realised wow, someone has just started with an idea in their head and been faithful to it and followed it right through. Partch must have said, ‘There’s nothing in the world that can realise what I’m hearing in my head, so I’ve got to build it myself.’

So my early contact with contemporary music was largely through these recordings, and then there was a CD in the public library here of Cage’s Indeterminacy, and digging through back issues of Rolling Stone magazine in my parents’ basement, I found a review of it, which said something like ‘This is a record you must have in your collection. Sometimes the piano and other sounds obscure Cage’s voice, but that’s ok’. Which mattered to me, someone saying that it was totally cool even though it was so different from the bulk of what Rolling Stone was reviewing.

Did the itch to compose start at that point, or did it come later?

No, that came later, not till I started at the University of Victoria, where I went right after high school. Within the first week or even the first two days at UVic, I started on Christopher Butterfield’s Intro to Composition class, and I’m sure you’ll have heard his name come up before…

I certainly have; Cassandra Miller said that the first hour in that class changed her from wanting to be a harpist to wanting to be a composer.

Yes, before taking that class I hadn’t really connected the dots that you could be a composer of music that sounded like twentieth century music and still be active, or even alive. I’d never really thought that you could be composing right then and there, you didn’t have to be in Paris or New York or Winterthur or something. So, if I remember correctly, when he started us doing composition exercises Christopher Butterfield said ‘Your first exercise is to write a piece with one note’.  So we all wrote pieces with one note, and I remember I wrote a piano piece that was all A flats, with two or three A flats per bar, so there was quite a lot of silence even then. And I remember I didn’t want to write out all the flats again and again, so I put a single flat in the key signature, which amused Christopher.

Alex jang

Lance Austin Olsen ‘Momentary Glimpses’

Photo: Nick Storring

Extract from interview with Lance Austin Olsen

Tell me about ‘Dark Heart’, the long piece on your CD. How did that come about?

I’d had this idea in mind for a time, and my paintings were getting darker and darker again, partly because I had a lot of black paint. People think you’re painting about death and doom, but sometimes it’s just because you’ve run out of colours for a while and the black and whites are looking pretty good; I was really pleased with the paintings at this time. Then out of the blue the Norwegian musician Terje Paulsen sent me a recording with an idea that we might collaborate on something.

It was a long field recording including some guitar doing a kind of metallic clunking. I worked on it for quite some time but I was never able to do anything satisfactory. As Jamie Drouin said, it sounded like we’d done a 15 minute piece that had been stretched out to an hour.  I was having trouble with it, and I was at a point where I didn’t want to mess around too much with someone else’s work, cutting large chunks out or playing parts backwards or whatever, so I left it aside on my computer. A couple of years on and my computer hard drive was getting so full that I had to get rid of a lot of files. I re-found Terje’s piece and had a listen, and thought ‘oh yes, that…’ I couldn’t remember which bits I’d done, and what was still Terje’s, but there was something in the recording that I liked that I hadn’t been able to hear before, so I started to re-work it.

I’d been working on a project that involved old radio plays, and I thought that might work here and help tie the piece together in an interesting way. I cut and changed a lot, working the original field recording into the ideas that I now had regarding the work, but I thought Terje might be upset that I was taking so many liberties. Meanwhile Terje had pretty much disappeared; I heard that he’d been unwell. I wasn’t going to do anything with the finished piece without his agreement, so I set about trying to find him. It turned out he had been pretty ill, but once I’d traced him I sent the file to him, and he sent back a long letter saying that he absolutely loved the piece and felt his original recording was still there in the foundation for the new composition.

So what were you actually doing on it? You were chopping up his stuff, but also adding things of your own. How were you making those sounds?

I forget exactly. I had some field recordings from when I’d walked through the local history museum with my recorder and there was an organ going and animal noises and so on. I have a couple of guitars which I never tune, but I record sets of tones on them using e-bows or just plucking and scraping anything that produces interesting sounds, which I put on the computer. I have a big earthenware jug that gives some great sounds when the microphone is right inside. I also use a lot of old digital mini tape recorders, a couple of reel to reel tape decks and a lot of old tape recordings from different thrift stores, small electric motors, wind up toys, anything that gives off sounds or sound waves. Once I’ve gathered all this material together and organised it into sets of harmonic tones or textures, I approach it like painting; I have all these materials and I dance with them, I re-organise the different elements to bring into existence the dance in my head. I enjoy the process, but the way I work means that when I finally finish a piece I usually don’t have a clue about exactly what I did to get there, although I always know where I am heading.

Going back a bit, why did you first come to Canada?

Back in 1967 I met a woman from California through a friend, and we ended up together, and we still are together. I’d been in New York, but I didn’t like it there; it was crazy. I knew people there and perhaps if I’d stayed, who knows?  But we decided to move as far away as possible from both families, and I knew a few people who’d moved here to British Columbia, so we came and we liked it.

Do you think that moving to Canada was partly a desire to get away from the pressure of being in a big cultural centre like London or New York?

Very much, yes. Even when I was still a kid and went to Camberwell Art School at 16, the person I really admired and looked up to was Alberto Giacometti. What I loved about him even more than his art was his attitude. He always felt that you should just do your work. The fact that he got picked up and became famous after a while didn’t affect him; he kept focused on his work and felt all that fame and fortune stuff was just for kids, just bullshit. You shouldn’t be distracted by an agent saying ‘we just got 2 million for that, so can you do five more of them?’ For me that’s no way to work; I just want to be left alone in a quiet place where I can think about things and get on with the work.

Lance Austin Olsen  ‘Blue Drift Hotel Londres’