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ClassicsOnline Home » SOUTHAM: Glass Houses - The Music of Ann Southam
GLASS HOUSES: Music by Ann Southam
NOTES/INTERVIEW BY LARRY LAKE
Ann Southam has always been a unique artist: one who found
her own way and never worried about “schools” or “movements” in composition.
To understand how this individuality was formed, it’s useful to know something
of her background. She was born in Winnipeg in 1937. When she was 3, her family
moved back to their home town of Toronto, and it was there that she grew up.
Although she was born to, as she puts it, “a family of businessmen”, there was
always music in the Southam home. Her mother played the piano, and both her
parents loved music. There was a large record collection in their home, and
Ann devoured it all. Looking back on her childhood, she can’t remember when
she decided to be an artist. “I always knew I wanted to be an artist. Art is
magic. There is great magic in drawing, and there can be a world of emotional
meaning in the relationship of just 2 notes.” We’re sitting in the kitchen of
Ann Southam’s home. Ann doesn’t often talk about herself, but when she does
it’s with candour and directness, just as in all her other conversation. “I
knew I would,” Ann Southam notes, “be an artist, but I didn’t know if I’d be
a visual artist or a musician. I studied both painting and music, and I enjoyed
both. I wrote music from an early age, and at the age of 15 I decided to become
a composer.” That was in 1952, the same year that her father died. His death
was a terrible emotional shock to Ann, but it left her financially independent.
As she says, “I didn’t have to please anyone else or live up to any predetermined
ideas of what a young woman should be or do. I was born a feminist, although
I didn’t know it until 1975.” I ask her about this desire to be an individual.
Her answer is simple and direct. “Why should I compromise or give up my individuality
to please somebody else? I’ll never please anyone else if I don’t please myself
first.” The first thing she wanted to do to please herself was to acquire the
tools of her chosen trade. Ann studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in
Toronto. Her teachers were Pierre Souvairan for piano and Samuel Dolin for composition.
“I began as a pianist, but I guess that I always wrote music. In the beginning,
it was pretty naïve stuff — super-romantic, like Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.
I needed to express myself and was gradually finding my way.” “I decided to
become a composer, but years later I still find composition a bit frightening.
It’s a world in which a composer has both control and responsibility. How dare
I take up a person’s time? Music is not like a painting. You can see a painting
at a glance, but you have to listen to a whole piece of music before you understand
it. And it’s all a matter of memory. You have to remember what came before to
understand the relationship of what happens later.” We talk about specifics.
How does she write? “I know that some people begin at the end and then decide
how they’re going to get there. I’m not like that. I begin at the beginning
and keep going until I get to the end. Of course, I have a plan before I start,
but that plan is certainly subject to change. Sometimes I feel like I’m writing
the same piece over and over. Other people may not hear it that way, but to
me many of my pieces are different solutions to the same problem. Maybe that’s
because I’ve used the same twelve-tone row in so many pieces. It’s a row that
I came up with years ago. In fact, I’ve been fascinated by it for over fifteen
years. That doesn’t mean that I write strict twelve-tone music. I never have.
But many of my pieces are based on this same row, including four pieces on this
CD.” Webster’s Spin is one of these. Ann describes it as a “process piece”.
“It explores the melodic possibilities of the row in a minimalist sort of way.
The notes of the row are introduced one at a time. At least one of them is always
present all the way through the piece.” Webster’s Spin (1993) is woven
from a fabric of ostinato figures, and the title is taken from the original
meaning of “webster”, a weaver. As Ann discovered to her delight, webster is
derived from the Old English word “webbestre”, the feminine of “webba”. Therefore,
it means a female weaver. Webster’s Spin keeps the string orchestra
in constant motion. Song of the Varied Thrush (1991) presents the same
12-tone row with a string quartet, and here it is in repose. There is a drone
of the interval of a fifth. Over this drone, we hear the notes of the row presented
one at a time — in single file — not as a connected melody. This reminded Ann
of the call of the Varied Thrush. The thrush sings single notes separated by
long pauses. She first heard this call in Banff, Alberta, when she was composing
this quartet. The bird-call didn’t directly inspire the piece, but the similarity
of it to her music seemed uncanny. Quintet for piano and string quartet
(1986) also uses this tone row. At the beginning, the piano introduces the first
five notes: a two-note melody over a three-note harmony. Then, the violins introduce
a longer melody of seven notes. This melody “gently dislocates” the tonal feeling
of the piano solo, and it opens the way for the entire ensemble to use the complete
set of twelve notes. They proceed to do this energetically. As the piece progresses,
there are two more piano solos. Now the piano uses all twelve notes, but they’re
transformed into a consonant atmosphere. The piece ends with the same five-note
piano solo with which it began. In a Measure of Time (1988) is for two
pianos. Ann says of it, “I wanted to create a still, quiet period of time in
which musical shapes could unfold slowly. The pianos share the same material,
but they rarely ‘speak’ at the same time. You can hear the distinctive ‘voices’
of the two pianists. The tone row is slowly spun out through the piece.” So
here we have four explorations of the same tone row using four different ensembles.
But what of the two solo piano pieces? Do they share this same row? “No. These
two pieces certainly use patterns, but not twelve-note series.” “Remembering
Schubert uses overlapping patterns between the two hands: four-note patterns
in the right hand and five-note patterns in the left. The interest for me lies
in the interaction between the overlapping patterns of notes and the melodic
motives that this produces. There are no quotes from Schubert, but for me there’s
a vague reminiscence of Schubert in this music.” The other solo piano work,
Glass Houses No. 9, is one of a series of pieces written in 1981. I ask
about the title, Glass Houses. Does it refer to the popular adage about
people who live in them not throwing stones? “Perhaps, but not directly. The
‘glass’ part of the title I actually got from Philip Glass. The repetitive nature
of the music rather reminded me of him. The word ‘houses’ then came to me by
word association. In this case, it probably refers to the structure. But if
you want to take it as an adage, that’s OK.” What is the structure of this music?
“It consists of a lengthening thread of melody spun out over a left-hand ostinato.
This melodic thread is made of ‘accumulating tunes’. I was inspired by the sound
of Scottish and Irish fiddle music.” I ask how she developed this fondness for
Celtic fiddle tunes. The answer is not one I expect. “When I was a kid, we used
to listen to Don Messer on CBC Radio. Don Messer and His Islanders were on three
times a week. So Celtic fiddle music was something that was literally in the
air when I was growing up. It weaves its way into a lot of my music.” That answer
is typical of Ann Southam. Once again, I am reminded of the strong individuality
of this woman and her music. No matter what performing medium she uses, the
end result always has her stamp. She is truly the “webbestre”, the weaver of
Gary Kulesha is a native Torontonian. Although principally a composer, he
is active as both a pianist and a conductor. Mr. Kulesha has been the Artistic
Director of the Composers’ Orchestra since 1987. His conducting activities are
extensive, and he has premiered literally hundreds of works. He has guest-conducted
frequently with several major orchestras throughout Canada, and has recorded
for radio and CD. Although he is well-known as a specialist in 20th-century
music, his repertoire is extensive, ranging from little-known Baroque music
through to the music of our time. Mr. Kulesha’s compositions have been commissioned
and performed by noted Canadian and international orchestras and soloists all
over the world. Several of his works are recorded on different labels, including
CBC Records, CentreDiscs and RCA Redseal. At various points in his career, Mr.
Kulesha has held composer-in-residence positions with many organizations including
the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, the Canadian Opera Company, the Banff
Festival and Festival of the Sound. In 1995, he was appointed Composer-Advisor
to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, where his duties include composing, conducting,
and advising on repertoire Mr. Kulesha taught composition and electro-acoustic
music at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, and currently teaches composition
and theory at the University of Toronto, where he is also the Director of the
Contemporary Music Ensemble. In addition, he teaches conducting at the Royal
Conservatory of Music, and directs the RCM Contemporary Music Ensemble.
Eve Egoyan is a concert pianist trained in standard repertoire, now specializing
in the performance of music from the turn of the century and new works. In addition
to her solo work, she performs with the contemporary music ensembles The Burdocks
and the rioT Trio. Eve has a powerful ability to bridge the gap between contemporary
composers and the audience. Her intense focus, command of the instrument, insightful
interpretations, and thoughtfully constructed programmes welcome the audience
into unknown territory. Composers have a uniformly high regard for her performances
of their works, often considering them definitive. Eve Egoyan studied at the
Victoria Conservatory of Music, the University of Victoria, the Banff Centre
of Fine Arts with György Sebok, Hochschule der Künste in West Berlin with Georg
Sava (German Academic Exchange Scholarship), the Royal Academy of Music in London,
England, with Hamish Milne (Commonwealth Scholarship), and in Toronto with Patricia
Parr (Chalmers Award).
Stephen Clarke is a renowned pianist specializing in new music. He was a
student of the famous Swiss new music exponent Marianne Schroeder and has studied
composition with James Tenney. Mr. Clarke has appeared as soloist with the Los
Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, performing Tan Dun’s Pizzicato Piano
Concerto, with the Composers’ orchestra, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra,
and in numerous recitals across North America and Europe. He performs regularly
with ensembles such as Arraymusic, the Colorado Quartet and Nexus. Many composers
have written for him, including Michael Hynes, Chester Jankowski and Udo Kasemets.
The Composers’ Orchestra, now in its thirteenth season, grew out of an organization
of composers and musicians called the Canadian Contemporary Music Workshop.
The CCMW was created in 1983 to “promote the creation and performance of works
by Canadian composers, the interaction of composers, performers and audience”.
The Composers’ Orchestra has read and performed over a hundred works, including
many première performances. Over one hundred Canadian composers have received
one of their first professional performances with this ensemble.
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SOUTHAM: Glass Houses - The Music of Ann Southam