Classical Connections: Canada Dry

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The other night, I was having dinner with some friends at a local Indian place when one of them asked who could name some Canadian composers.  Why he asked this I have no idea, because the question was so challenging I forgot to enquire.  It shouldn’t be challenging of course, because if he had asked for the names of some American composers, a list would roll off the tongue as easily as it takes to eat a papadum.  But Canadian composers?

Canada’s most famous musician was probably the mildly eccentric Glenn Gould, but he was a pianist (and a brilliant one too) not a composer.  My friends stared hard into their chicken biryanis mentally searching for names.  The only two names I could dredge up were those of Murray Schafer and Allan Gilliland, the second of whom was actually born in Scotland.  Schafer has composed a vast amount of music and written a good many books too.  But he’s probably most closely associated with music education, after publishing some influential ideas about class teaching in the 1960s.

Colin McPhee as a young man.Colin McPhee as a young man.

Anyway, to our shame none of us could think of any more composer names but this probably reveals more about Canadian classical music than it does about us.

In an article entitled Six Canadian Composers You Should Know the Canadian writer and composer Colin Eatock claims that “over the years, Canadian classical music has acquired an unfortunate reputation.  It’s boring.  It’s ugly.  It’s incomprehensible”.  He goes on to say that despite this, some Canadian composers have succeeded in creating beautiful, fascinating and moving works which deserve a wider audience.

Far be it from me to take issue with Dr. Eatock because I know so little about Canadian music that I’m hardly in a position to comment.  However, taking his advice, I selected one of the six composers he listed – Colin McPhee – and did a bit of searching.

Colin McPhee (1900-1964): Nocturne.  MusicaNova Orchestra cond. Warren Cohen (Duration: 07:50; Video: 720p HD)

I couldn’t remember why McPhee’s name sounded so familiar until I remembered that he was the first Western composer to take a serious interest in the traditional gamelan music of Bali.  He wrote one of the first books on the subject, imaginatively entitled Music in Bali which I once owned (the book I mean, not the island).  McPhee was responsible for introducing his friend Benjamin Britten to Balinese music which is why some of Britten’s later works like The Prince of the Pagodas and Curlew River have a distinctly Balinese feeling from time to time.

In his early years, McPhee studied with the avant-garde French-born composer Edgard Varèse and was later involved in a group of experimental composers known as the “ultra-modernists”.

McPhee’s best-known composition is Tabuh-Tabuhan composed for symphony orchestra augmented with extra percussion and Balinese gongs and cymbals.  He wrote the work in Mexico in 1936 after four years in Bali engaged in musical research.  Although one of the movements in Tabuh-Tabuhan is entitled Nocturne this particular Nocturne was written some years later and explores a similar sound-world but in a more approachable way.  The music makes much use a solo flute, creating a luminous and evocative soundscape which for me at least, seems to contain reminders of Debussy.

John Estacio (b. 1966): Frenergy.  Houston Youth Symphony Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Michael Alan Isadore (Duration: 05:22; Video: 1080p HD)

Estacio’s sound-world couldn’t be more different to McPhee’s dreamy evocation of the Balinese countryside.  The title looks like a typing mistake, but it turns out that Estacio invented the word as an amalgamation of frenetic and energy.  Frenetic it certainly is, and it rather reminds me of the style of the American composer John Adams in his use of rhythmic patterns, bright tonalities and orchestral writing.  This is an approachable and rewarding work which lives up to its title.

Estacio has written numerous symphonic and operatic works and during the last ten years he has completed three operas, the first of which was entitled Filumena and has won numerous awards.

Note for You Tube watchers: you’ll get the best image for this video if you select the maximum resolution by clicking on the little gear wheel underneath the main image and selected the 1080p option.

Incidentally, if you are still wondering which Six Canadian Composers You Should Know, Colin Eatock suggests Jean Coulthard, Jacques Hétu, Colin McPhee, Ann Southam, Claude Vivier and Healey Willan.  I wouldn’t describe these as household names and I bet a lot of Canadians haven’t heard of many of them either.  As a result, there are few recordings of music by these composers on YouTube.  The good news is that there are plenty of interesting examples by both Colin McPhee and John Estacio but I’ll leave you to seek out their music yourself.  Half the fun of finding something is searching for it.