Periodically I get questions from students (often working on high school music assignments) about certain aspects of my career or music. Some of my answers to the better questions are found below:
1. What inspires you to title your compositions?
Often I am drawn to composing music that is somewhat abstract in a classical music style using generic titles such as SONATA, CONCERTO or SYMPHONY. In these works, the musical ideas are of primary importance. I am also repeatedly inspired by titles that paint a descriptive picture such as SNOWDRIFT, WATERCOLOUR, or UPPER CANADA FIDDLE SUITE. In these works the music tries to capture a musical version of the title. Sometimes these musically descriptive or impressionistic works utilize a phrase or title from a poem as their own title. These works display a special interest in Canadian poets such as Margaret Avison or Stephen Heighton. Works in this later category include, EVERYTHING WAITS FOR THE LILACS, ELEGY LEFT ON AN ANSWERING MACHINE and ESCAPE VELOCITY.
2. What instrument(s) did you/do you play?
I was trained as a pianist having completed my Associate Diploma from the Royal Conservatory of Music while still in high school. I know that before I went to university I had aspirations to be both a concert pianist and composer but opted to focus mostly on composition as a career while in Grade 12. I still do have a deep love of piano music though and try to practice daily and often play complete piano works as examples in my university classes. Over the last few years I seem to be playing more solo piano recitals (or lecture/demonstrations) of my own music which I enjoy doing immensely. While in public school I did play cello in the school orchestra and took private lessons for a few years. This helped me to really understand how to compose for string instruments which is a useful skill to have as a composer of orchestral music. Also, sitting in an orchestra teaches you about the conventions of rehearsals and how to work with a conductor. Finally, one of the best things I did while at university was take a year of organ (instead of piano lessons) which took a great deal of work but taught me how to write intelligently for the organ which I have done repeatedly for the past 30 years. Indeed, some people assume that I must be an organist but I assure you, this is NOT the case.
3. Is there a musical era or composer who influences you?
My own music often has a traditional structure that is drawn organically out of a few recognizable musical ideas and as such, composers like Bach, Beethoven and Chopin are real touchstones. Orchestrally, I adore the music of the big, late-Romantic composers like Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and certainly the 20th century giants with Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen, Bartok and Shostakovich. Opera is a favourite passion and while Verdi and Wagner were truly gifted and always have something to teach you, the music of Benjamin Britten and his wonderful settings of the English language, always inspires. In short, I tend to look historically backwards while focussing my attention on a certain kind of popular music appeal drawn from today. John Beckwith was one particular Canadian composer who was a great influence and teacher to me at the University of Toronto (now a Professor Emeritus). He is not only a brilliant composer, but also a fine musicologists and essayist. His own interesst in all things Canadian provided a wonderful patriotic model that I can only hope to live up to.
4. When did you start composing?
I started piano lessons before going to public school but really didn't become a strong pianist until high school. I do recall starting to fill sheets of manuscript paper at the age of 6 or 7 and was composing music for my high school ensembles to play as a teenager. These works are lost in a trunk labelled, "Juvenilia," and I certainly would never show them to anyone today. I had a great music teacher at Western Canada High School named Michael Klazek who in his spare time copied music with pen and ink for professional composers. I thought this was SO COOL at the time and he gave me a shopping list of pens, nibs, rulers, French curves and erasers to buy and then gave me a few copying lessons. Students these days using computer music notation programs would not believe how cumbersome and slow the process is to copy music by hand but at the same time, the results were quite beautiful and satisfying. It was a pain to fix errors and make changes though. When I was in Grade 12, I remember asking my parents for an ELECTRIC ERASER for Christmas and my mother still to this day thinks that I really wanted an ELECTRIC RAZOR. The powered eraser was ideal for efficiently getting ink off of the page.
5. What style of music do you write?
Defining one’s creative style is probably the hardest question that you could pose to any artist as the imaginative mind doesn’t really want to be pinned down to a few descriptive words. In my case the category of music is definitely CLASSICAL in that I am still working in the medium of vocal, choral, chamber and orchestral ensembles that have interested composers for centuries. Stylistically though, my music has been described by others as Neo-Romantic although more and more, it seems to me that I am writing in a Neo-Minimalistic style in which I enjoy repetitive patterns that evolve over time. One aspect of my instrumental music is the virtuosity of the writing, especially if the piece has been commissioned by a talented musician or ensemble. Probably one of the most difficult works to perform that I have written is my PIANO QUARTET which was commissioned by the Ensemble Made In Canada, a group of four highly accomplished musicians. As this was the ensemble’s first commissioned work, it was important that the music make a substantial impression and the resultant 35-minutes piece certainly does that. Happily, the group rose to the challenge and not only featured the piece on a recent Centrediscs' CD but continues to keep the piece in their repertoire. A feature of this work is the high density of the counterpoint and perhaps it would be appropriate to say that part of my musical style is an interest in the shifting density of musical textures as exemplified in highly active contrapuntal writing.
6. What was your childhood like?
I was fortunate to have lots of musical encouragement when I was growing up and started piano lessons at about the age of five in Calgary, Alberta. My father was my first piano teacher and, as there was lots of music lying around the house, I grew up spending a lot of time sight reading through the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. I was by no means a natural pianist but worked hard and became proficient. As the oldest of six children, I had somewhat of a free reign to do what I wanted, and this was especially true when my parents divorced when I was about thirteen. A couple of things happened after this that pretty much determined that I was going to be a musician. First, I broke my leg skiing at Lake Louise and was in the hospital for three weeks and a walking cast for another five months. I remember thinking at the time that I was fortunate that I broke my left leg so that I could still use the pedal on the piano (always an optimist) and those months with nothing much to do in my spare time, I really practiced the piano. Also, soon thereafter I started to accompany for a voice teacher and ended high school playing for singers up to 12 hours a week. This is great training for any musician but as a composer, I really learned how to write successfully for voices.
7. What significant historical events happened in your lifetime that influenced your music?
Like many composers, much of my life is spent looking to the past for inspiration and this is very true of my vocal music that uses the texts by poets who are no longer alive. One of my major compositions (my doctoral thesis in fact) was inspired by Amnesty International and the plight of political prisoners. The work (written in 1989) is titled MASS FOR PRISONERS OF CONSCIENCE and is in thirteen movements (about 75 minutes in length) and uses texts of political prisoners and their families provided by Amnesty International. The work is dedicated to that organization in fact. A more recent example of finding influence in the present day is a work that I wrote in tribute of Dr. Arthur McDonald’s award of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2015. Art McDonald is a retired professor at the university where I teach (Queen’s University) and as his wife is a retired piano teacher whom I have known for years, I wrote a piano solo tribute to the two of them titled, OSCILLATIONS. The music at times has overlapping patterns divided between the right and left hands that get louder and softer at different times such that you can really hear the harmonic colours gradually shift between hands. This is a neat effect that I never would have thought of without having been asked by the university to write this tribute.