“What role has your upbringing in the countryside played in your musical style?”

I’ve been thinking about your question, when you asked if my music was often inspired by nature, or by my upbringing in the countryside. At first I was annoyed by the question itself, I took it to be an all-too-Canadian notion. I mean, do we all still have to be all about the Group of Seven? I love them, but is there something else we can aspire to as Canadian artists? Once I named a piece after a bay, and someone told me they could “hear the bull kelp” – groan! The very mention of nature can reduce any complex musical attempt down to a tone-poem about pastoral escapism. But lately, in struggling with a new piano piece, I’m coming back to the nature-inspiration question, and I’ve got to acknowledge the importance of it.

Swanwick Road

I’ve been stressed about this piece for months now. What the HECK do I do with solo piano? A whole bunch of notes, always hit with those little hammers, like 88 little billiard balls. It’s the epitome of that “lattice-work of expression” I always try to get away from. It’s so much easier to make a string quartet sound like birdsong than to make a piano sound like, well anything besides a piano. So – as a result, for this piece I’ve been thinking about other piano music (instead of other sounds in my environment) as my source of inspiration, and finding myself, well, uninspired.

After some frustrating weeks with it, I finally sat down and brainstormed the different ways a piano could be used to recreate a natural sound environment (with ambience and resonance and all), listening to my favorite birdsong field recordings and thinking about the sounds of walking on the beach as a kid, etc – and suddenly having a million new ideas, finally a way to proceed with this piece. So, I guess I have to admit this is important. But I have to say it’s not about nature-sounds, I think it’s a much broader question about musical history, lineage and the politics of creating stuff.

I find that, when I use existing music as an inspiration for creating new music, I get caught up in the dialogue about musical lineage. I find myself thinking about how the “academy” will think of how my music relates to my teachers’ music, or to the music of the prominent men out there who have come to exemplify the various artistic movements we read about in the history books. This leads me to focus on my musical tools, as if they form the topic itself. But then, how interesting is a piece that’s “about” a technique? How boring is that?

Inspiration from nature gets me away from this trap, and allows me to stand on my own feet. But it’s not the birdsongs themselves – it’s the sense of place, the memory of a certain experience that the sounds conjure with immediacy, a feeling of surprise or discovery – and it’s a way to think about forms and shapes that have no relation with (either for or against) the sonata form. The music becomes about me and my personal experiences, instead of about the current musical trends. The distracting interest in trends (and their related tools) is an addictive roundabout of one-upsmanship. I can spend too much time there (as I think we all can) tricking myself into thinking there is some cultural validity in my desire to impress scholars I’ve never met.

On the other hand, this focus on nature-sounds (or any other extra-musical point of departure) allows me to be creative instead of reactive, and helps me to make decisions outside of what I think other people expect of me. The art becomes egocentric – it’s just about myself, my ideas, my perceptions, my personal life. And as a woman, as a Canadian, as an anglo stumbling around Montreal, etc – it’s uncomfortable (and political?) to be so arrogant. To give value to my intimate perceptions through public performance and droplets of public funding – this process puts my personal thoughts on a kind of pedestal. But it’s just me, I’ll never be in the history books, and I’m not interested in the history books – but somehow what I do is considered of value sometimes. And this implies that any schmuck can do this kind of thing, an implication that is itself of social and political interest.

After all, I have 80% bad hair days, I make blunders at parties, have highly questionable social skills, I fall for the wrong people, I miss my gym membership payments and get my card confiscated, the bathroom scale terrorizes me, I read bad self-help books, I never return emails, I get embarrassingly overbearing when I drink even a little bit, I spend too much time on facebook, I miss the bus every time, I mutter to myself in public when I’m stressed, I hate clothes shopping, and have poor taste in shoes. So yes basically, a schmuck.

And yet a performer’s practice time / investment / international tour will get behind what I think of my favorite hymn tune mixed with what I think about those crashing wave sounds (and the even louder scraping-sucking of the pebbles as they roll back under the next wave-to-come), or mixed instead with the sound that the flock of screeching red-winged blackbirds made at the end of Swanwick Road when my step-mom threw the birdseed in the accustomed spot, combined of course with the smell of moss and mud and the sound of the open fields around us, with forest and ocean far enough away as to be only almost heard, implied but absent. And all I have to do is to be there, to hear whatever I hear, and to feel whatever I feel about it.

This isn’t to say that my music is all about nature-sounds, not at all. It can be about any experience in life, a story, a conversation, a taste, love and friendship, any part of a personality or sexuality, other art forms, and yes, occasionally even other concert music. But this is just to say that I’m tired of the old dialogues and same old questions – are we more like Stravinsky or Schoenberg? are we tonal or not? what’s your tuning system? what category do you stand for? new complexity or new simplicity? accessible or academic? spectral? indeterminate? serial? These questions all imply that we think we’re so important that we’ll get in the history books if we answer the questions just right. But I’m sorry, that’s all very boring. I’d prefer some fresh air.

“For [Jane Austen and the readers of Pride and Prejudice], as for Mr. Darcy, [Elizabeth Bennett’s] solitary walks express the independence that literally takes the heroine out of the social sphere of the houses and their inhabitants, into a larger, lonelier world where she is free to think: walking articulates both physical and mental freedom.”
― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking