Suggested Listening Special Edition: O Canada

Happy Canada Day to all my friends and readers in the Great White North!  To celebrate, here are five awesome works by five awesome Canadian composers.  Some you may have heard of, while others remain in obscurity, but they all proudly represent the musical contributions of their home and native land…

  1. Hugh Le Caine: Dripsody 

    A scientist, composer, and motorcycle hobbyist from northwestern Ontario, Hugh Le Caine (1914-1977) was a pioneer in the field of electronic music.  As a physicist with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), Le Caine studied atomic physics and was involved in the development of radar technology.  Initially, his interest in electronic music was a hobby — at home he tinkered with instruments and designs — but after inventing the Electronic Sackbut, now known as one of the first synthesizers, the NRC allowed him to work on electronic instruments full-time.  Though remembered more for his scientific contributions than his musical ones, Le Caine was one of the earliest composers of musique concrètea school of electronic music composition that manipulated sounds from the natural environment (rather than synthesizing purely electronic sounds, as the opposing school of elektronische Musik encouraged).  Dripsody is a prime example of musique concrète: Le Caine created it in 1955 by recording the sound of a single droplet of water, and using electronic means to distort and transform the sound, lending it rhythm and melody and turning it into something truly remarkable and musical.

  2. Howard Shore: “The Fellowship” from The Lord of the Rings 

    Hailing from Toronto, Ontario and a graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of MusicHoward Shore (b. 1946) needs little introduction.  A childhood friend of fellow Canadian Lorne Michaels, the brilliant mind behind Saturday Night LiveShore worked for five years as SNL‘s music director and even appeared in a number of sketches (like this one) before turning his talents to the world of film.  With three Academy Awards, three Golden Globes, and four Grammys under his belt, Shore is perhaps best known for his scores to the Lord of the Rings films.  “The Fellowship” is the main theme heard throughout all three movies in the trilogy.  With heroic brass fanfares, mystical vocal harmonies, folk-like flute solos, and rich string texture, Shore truly captures the magic and mystery of the Shire.

  3. Violet Archer: Four Songs 

     Violet Archer (1913-2000) was born in Montréal, Québec and began her formal studies in piano, organ, and composition at McGill University, graduating in 1938.  In 1942, she traveled to NYC for the opportunity to study with famed Hungarian composer and musicologist Béla Bartók; later, from 1947-49, she continued her studies in the States with two degrees from Yale under the tutelage of German composer and pioneer of 20th-century music Paul Hindemith.  As a percussionist, she performed with the Montréal Women’s Symphony Orchestra and New Haven Symphony Orchestra; as an educator, she taught at McGill, University of Alberta, and Cornell.  Drawing inspiration from sources ranging from folk music to 20th-century harmony, Archer’s works — including these four songs — reflect an eclecticism that defines her compositional career, and that late Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester captures in the above performance.  With three imaginative settings of texts by Canadian poets — “First Snow” by Arthur Bourinot, and “Cradle Song” and “April Weather” by Amy Bissett England — as well as a dark and dramatic setting of Psalm 23, it is clear why Violet Archer is considered one of Canada’s greatest composers.

  4. Colin McPhee: “Ostinatos” from Tabuh-Tabuhan 
     Hailing from Montréal, Colin McPhee (1900-1964) made history as the first Western composer and ethnomusicologist to study the Indonesian island of Bali.  A former student of French-American avante-garde composer Edgard Varèse, McPhee was involved in experimental, “ultra-modern” music composition until he and his wife, an anthropologist, moved to Bali for her work.  It was there that McPhee encountered gamelan, a traditional and highly unique percussion ensemble of Bali and Java (listen to a sample here), which enormously influenced his compositions for the rest of his career — including Tabuh-Tabuahn, a 1936 work subtitled “toccata for orchestra” and which translates to “collection of percussion instruments.”  Though scored for standard Western orchestra, McPhee incorporates what he calls a “nuclear gamelan” comprising two pianos, celesta, xylophone, marimba, and glockenspiel to give the piece the sound and spirit of a traditional Balinese ensemble.  Ostinato, from the Italian word for “obstinate,” refers to a highly repetitive rhythmic and melodic element; as the first of three movements from Tabuh-Tabuhan, “Ostinatos” harnesses repetitive, percussive fragments in an energetic ode to the Balinese gamelan style.
  5. Imant Raminsh: Ave, Verum Corpus 

    Though born in Ventspils, Latvia, Imant Raminsh (b. 1943) came to Canada when he was only five years old, and became a Canadian citizen six years later.  After studying violin at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory and then graduating from the University of Toronto, he studied composition, violin, and conducting abroad in Salzburg at the Universität Mozarteum.  Upon returning to Canada, he became involved in various orchestral, conducting, and academic engagements throughout British Columbia, all whilst composing and publishing an impressive repertoire of instrumental and especially choral works, twice winning the “Outstanding Choral Work” category of the Canadian National Choral Awards.  Ave, Verum Corpus, written in 1972, is based on a 14th-century Catholic hymn (you can read Latin and English versions of the text here).  Vancouver-based musica intima, “Canada’s most exciting vocal ensemble,” brings to life the gorgeous, celestial harmonies and longing dissonances of Raminsh’s composition.

Want more Canadian composers?  Check out “Six Canadian Composers You Should Know” (Colin Eatock), “Canada” (Mark Morris’s Guide to Twentieth Century Composers), and the Canadian Music Centre.


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