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National Arts Centre Award Composer
- What is it about Mozart's music that inspires you
as a composer?
Mozart is the purest combination of technique with music. His music is
technically perfect in every way, but we as listeners are never aware of
how hard he is working. Perfect technique fully at the service of art is
an ancient ideal, and even translates into other areas, like sport. The
finest athletes are the ones who are so in control of their sport that playing
seems effortless. Mozart is the greatest athlete among the great composers.
- Do you have a special musical memory from when you were very
My earliest memories are of music by Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Chopin,
as well as piano boogie-woogie. It was actually boogie-woogie (a kind of
early rock'n'roll for piano) which got me playing piano.
- When did you first start composing music?
When I was 8 or 9, I believe.
- How long does it take you to compose a work? Do you have a favorite
place to compose your music?
This varies from piece to piece. A long work of 25 minutes for orchestra
can take up to 8 months or more. An opera takes a full year.
But I can write a shorter chamber piece in a few months, or even less.
My work Syllables of Unknown Meaning, which the NACO toured in Eastern
Canada last year, took about a month, which is very fast for me. When
I was very young, I used to write complete 3 minutes pieces for tuba and
piano in a few hours. In payment for this, my tuba-playing closest friend
would buy pizza for us both.
- What instruments can you play? Do you need to play all the instruments
you compose for?
My principal instrument is piano, but I also play viola. When I was
young, I also studied oboe, and played sax in the high school dance band.
I also did some playing on percussion in concert band. And I played bass
guitar, rhythm guitar, and keyboards in various rock bands.
- Does your music sound particularly "Canadian /Mexican /American"?
If so, why?
No, I don't think so. I don't consider this to be important.
- What is the source of inspiration for your compositions?
It varies. Sometimes, it's an image, or just an idea, or a story. Sometimes
it's just a musical thought. My work Syllables of Unknown Meaning
was commissioned to celebrate the Millennium, so I used a fragment of
a chant from a work by Hermannus Contractus, a composer who lived a thousand
years ago. My piece was partly inspired by an old science fiction movie,
in which people from the future communicate with people in the present
through their dreams. I imagined myself dreaming the music of Hermannus
Contractus, and making contact with him across time. This image gives
the work its atmosphere.
- What advice would you give a student who would like to compose?
Harmony, harmony, harmony ......and counterpoint. Study the basics.
They are your language. You can't write poetry in Ancient Greek unless
you learn vocabulary and grammar, and then practice hard. You can't be
creative in any language without knowing the basics.
- Which of your compositions is your favorite? What should I,
as a student, listen for?
Syllables of Unknown Meaning is one of my very favourites, certainly, as
is my Violin Concerto, and my Symphony. But it's very difficult to single
one piece out over the others. They are all different, and try to do different
things. Listening is no different for a student than it is for anyone else:
listen for communication. It doesn't matter what style the music is in,
it either communicates something to you or it doesn't. Classical music is
not like pop music, though-- it is not designed to give you an immediate
rush of some kind, it's designed to provoke and challenge you a little.
The best classical music is the music that makes you want to come back and
hear it again, and which yields something new each time you hear it.