A Canadian Composers Crisis, Music and Canadian Identity.

Posted on by Joseph

Below is the original text for my Terry Talk delivered on
November 3rd, 2012 at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada:

Hello Everyone.

My name is Joseph Glaser and I’m a Canadian composer, but then again, what does that mean? The fact is that as a nation we have no idea who we are, and furthermore this situation is fairly unique in the world. When people think of Canadian culture we often get a heavy emphasis on maple syrup, hockey and our cold winters, but these trivial factors really tell us nothing about who we are. Are we, as Margaret Atwood has said, too preoccupied with the issue of survival in this climate to care about issues like culture? Are we, as Yann Martel has stated, a nice hotel for people of all nations to live in, but not really call a home? The question I am getting at is, if Canada is such a slippery fish to define as a nation, how does one create truly Canadian art, and in my case music.

For the past six months I have been working on the great Canadian symphony, a work that will capture the hearts and minds of all young Canadians and once and for all solve the mysterious nature of the Canadian identity. Great. Now how do I do that? There are several problems with writing the “great Canadian symphony”: First, in order to write a definably Canadian work I must first work out what Canadian means. The other problem is then to translate that into music. So let’s go on a journey to discover what actually goes into writing a Canadian piece.

What is a Canadian: by far the most popular definition of Canadian has been not American. Seems to fit. But that’s rather negative isn’t it? The composer Arnold Schönberg objected to the term atonal to describe his music because it is a negative term, I will similarly reject “not American”. So, to look for a positive definition of Canadian I looked towards theories of identities.

Over the summer I took a course here at UBC taught by Professor Richard Cavell. This course searched for links between sexuality, literature and Canadian nationalism. Wonderful, I thought, all I need to do is substitute literature for music and done, but it’s not so simple. In the course we discussed three different theories of sexual identity, essentialism, constructivism and performativity. It seems that theories of sexuality are the most advanced when talking about identity because our sexuality is so much a part of who we are that it is hard separate the two. So let’s begin with essentialism.

Essentialism is the theory set out by Freud that sexuality is a representation of our subconscious, a leftover from back before this thing called civilization, basically that sexuality is a representation of our essential self. So can we translate this to nationality? Well many have. The basic idea is that one may find the essential quality of a nation’s people if you study its folk and its primitive past. Alright, great. Now, can we translate this to music? Again, yes, and many have. Many composers of the early modernist period tried give their music an essentially national flavour, none more so than the composer Béla Bartók. Bartók collected many volumes of the folk music of his native country in order to study its idiosyncrasies and create a Hungarian national music. The composer Leos Janacek even went so far as to transcribe his native Czech into musical notation. So can this work with Canada? Let’s find out. I’m going to take the Quebecois folk song “Alouette” and make an original entire Canadian piece right now. [Play Allouette with simple harmonization] This is how a 19th century nationalist might do it and call it “Fantasy on a Canadian Folk Song” or “Canadian Folk Dances” or even “Songs of my People”. If I wanted to be a bit more modern I might harmonize it rather than with chords with open fifths or fourths to represent (as the American composer Aaron Copland did) the vast empty spaces of our country. [Play new version]. There we have a new piece, that is modern and entirely Canadian, wonderful news! But did that resonate with you? First of all I’m playing a Quebecois folk song for a British Columbian audience, so is this really the “Songs of Your People”. Ok so scrap the folk song, we still have that empty landscape stuff right; that interesting stuff with the fifths and fourths? Well yes, and so I wrote a piece. [Play Northwest Fanfare][Give it a couple of minutes] I wrote this piece as a musical evocation of the geography surrounding Vancouver. Those trumpets you heard at the beginning represent the mountains and this part here represents the ocean. [Play second part]. And at the end we get both together, which is where all the drama is. [Play third part]. So there, a Canadian piece. But all this talk about mountains and oceans is really rather local isn’t it? After all what does someone from Saskatchewan know about mountains and ocean? Also if we really subscribe to the essentialist philosophy we are talking about primitive Canada, and essentialists would say that that scenery doesn’t even belong to me. Aside from our native population we are all immigrants here, so can we really lay claim to the land?

So that’s problematic. The next theory we studied was the philosophy of Michel Foucault, which has been termed constructivism. The basic gist of constructivism is that our sexual identities are located in discourse. Rather than sexuality being a natural essential part of our being it is rather learned and constructed from discourse on sexuality. Alright… can we apply this to nationality, yes but it’s harder. One of the main things Richard Cavell was trying to do in that class was exactly that. I actually find it easier to explain this one in terms of music. Rather than look towards the essential nature of Canada and Canadians (whatever that may be) we look towards the history of Canadian music itself. Believe it or not, there actually is a history of Canadian art music and no it has nothing to do with Justin Beiber. In my research, I came to identify three major styles of Canadian composition, the Montreal style, the Toronto style and the Vancouver style, the three major population centres and it just so happens, the three cities in whuch I have lived. The Toronto style is marked by a reverence for American serialism, which is a systematic and orderly use of all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. However the Toronto composers (Harry Somers and John Weinzweig) had a somewhat ambivalent relationship to serialism, while most of their music stems from it there is also a strong influence of Canadian folk music that often breaks with the rigid pitch structures of serialism. The Montreal composers, Jacques Hétu and Claude Vivier are, understandably more influenced by the French composers. This means their music relies less on a formal pitch structure and is more concerned with the qualities of sound itself for the basis of materials. The Vancouver composers, revolving around Jean Coulthard, take a more sensual approach to composition. They are most interested in creating pieces that are simply beautiful. So if the future of Canadian composition is based on its past then it stands to reason that a new Canadian work would combine all the elements of the three schools, and I believe I’ve done this in my piano work Reflections. The piece starts out with a sonically exploratory section based off similar types of chords answered by a high whole tone gesture. In this section I am channeling the Montreal school in my exploration of sound. The next section is contrasting in that I take more qualities from the Vancouver school. This section has two elements a pretty melody in thirds with some open fifths in the bass (you remember those wide open spaces right?). The third, central section is a systematic Torontonian deconstruction of the chord that starts the whole piece. So let’s hear what that sounds like all together. [Play recording].  Still, I’m not satisfied, because doesn’t that sound forced? I seem to be so concerned with fitting in to a Canadian model of composition that the style of that piece just becomes an exercise in nationalism rather than any true representation of my voice as a composer. So on to the next theory.

The final theory I learned in class was the theories of the philosopher Judith Butler. Judith Butler posits that sexual identity is neither a result of our natural tendencies nor are we identified by our discourse on sexuality, in fact Foucault himself said that all discourses serve to regulate us into a discussed category. What Judith Butler poses, is that rather, we are defined by what we do, our actions. People may perform in certain styles (such as a heterosexual or homosexual style) but their sexual identity is constantly being redefined by every sex act they perform. So can we apply this to Nationality? Yes, but the main question is what does a nation perform? And to this I say that a nation performs art. All of the great civilizations are remembered for their art. In many ways the history of the world is a history of art.  For example let’s take my symphony. This is the main theme of the entire piece. Now this piece isn’t in the Montreal style, nor the Toronto style and not really the Vancouver style either, and there’s not a perfect fifth to be found, but it is entirely Joseph Glaser, and Joseph Glaser is a product of Canada. This piece is the intellectual offspring of Canada and thus contributes to its identity.

So it seems like I’ve had the question backwards the entire time: it is not a question of making my music definably Canadian but that my music defines what Canadian means. In this way art shows us who we are.

Thank you.

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