The Composer And The Snake

SnakeThe premiere of my composition ‘Sirens’ by the Esprit orchestra was spectacular. I love it when I write a piece and Alex, through his conducting, is able to inspire such a great interpretation from the performers that the piece sounds much better than I imagined. He also went to such great lengths to find an elusive pump organ that is an integral component to this composition making it slightly unique and giving it an unusual flavour. Being a composer is often not an easy task, but when a work is performed so well and received by the audience, that makes it all worth while. Those feelings often last long enough to give energy to begin the next composition.

After this very successful premiere of my piece and a long 28 hour trip back to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, I returned the next day to my hectic teaching schedule.  I was helping my advanced students make recordings of their performance repertoire to submit for their International Baccalaureate Diplomas. This progressed well into the evening.

At around 22:00, I noticed  a cute visitor in the outside entrance to my classroom. I found him stuck in the bottom of the stairwell and he couldn’t get back up the stairs. The school is by the river, so I used a piece of paper to herd him into a large tupperware container and let security put him out. He was really fast and aggressive, rearing up like a cobra and jumping. I checked online and it seems this is an adolescent Malaysian Pit Viper. There is no anti venom, certain death from a bite – and babies are as poisonous as adults. No wonder he was so arrogant! This is one of the many interesting things about living in Vietnam! There is no shortage of inspiration.

— Doug

Douglas Schmidt’s most recent piece for orchestra, Sirens, was premiered by Esprit in our March concert at Koerner Hall. For pictures, click here.

Also see “The Lady Gertrude” and Shanghai Dim Sum

Two Composers Under One Roof by Alexina Louie

People often ask Alex and I what it is like having two composers in the family. Letʼs just say itʼs lively! Our household has been particularly ʻexcitingʼ lately as we are both finishing new pieces at the same time.

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Alex is writing his biggest and most profound work, Devotions for The Elmer Iseler Singers and Esprit Orchestra complete with expanded percussion section, and I am writing my smallest work, Small Beautiful Things, a set of eleven pedagogical piano pieces. Devotions premieres on Esprit Orchestraʼs final concert of our 33rd season on March 31, 2016 at Koerner Hall.

Devotions was inspired, in part, by the writings of Lao Tsu about the Tao, an ancient Chinese philosophy of life, as well as lines from a Japanese martial arts text and indigenous peoplesʼ poetry. Its movements have titles that reflect these profound words and ideas: Wondrous Tao, Be Brave!, Lifting Hands, Mask, Luminous Spheres Ascending.

On the other hand, one of the short pieces in my set of eleven is called Little Balinese Dancer. It was inspired by the lovely, enchanting, magical child dancers who performed for us in Bali. I recalled their expressive eyes, hand gestures and the unique way their bodies moved to the Balinese gamelan music. I wanted to capture their movements to the lilting cadence of the music as the dancers moved so expressively to its hypnotic rhythms and exquisite colours.

x IMG_5596Another of my pieces is called Little Grey Bird, a composition that was inspired by a small unusual visitor who came to our bird feeder every day for several weeks this past winter. It was most unusual because it sat on the feeder from early morning until the sun went down, day after day. Our family became very attached to our little grey bird. Then one day, it disappeared. I felt compelled to write a piece that would do honour to our small friend. Not wanting it to be a sad ʻrequiemʼ for our bird, I needed this piece to be charming but not saccharine. After several attempts and many drafts, the thirty-seven bar composition caught just the right, sweet tone.

What is it like in our home when we are both composing? As a hint, letʼs just say that we have completely opposite working methods. Alex works at a computer. I play every note at the same baby grand piano that I had when I was a piano student. Alex loves working into the very wee hours of the morning. I like to sleep!

What is it like when both of us are writing a film score together? Youʼll have to ask our daughters!

Itʼs an interesting household.

Note: I am still trying to persuade Alex to be one of my pre-concert chat guests. He is being evasive….!

Alexina

“Goose Bump Music: Finding, Sounding, Liberating” by Hussein Janmohamed

Finding

Music found its way to me at a young age. When I played music I was in my ‘happy place’. I learned to play the recorder in grade one and then saxophone and clarinet in elementary and junior school. I sang ginans (Ismaili devotional hymns) and cultural songs at the jamatkhana (prayer hall), and actively partook (with my family) in the Ismaili Marching Band.

Hussein_Cgy_Ismaili_March_Band_80s

Ismaili Marching Band

It was not until High school, however, when choir found its way into my life. Since then, choral music has been central to connecting to my faith, building friendships, and informing my social conscience.

Goose Bumps

My family emigrated from Kenya, Africa to Alberta in the 1970s. Racial slurs, prejudice and discrimination were the norm. Life was not easy and we did not accept being translated negatively by others. Somehow we found a way (motivated by faith) to hold strong to our cultural values and positively respond. Creativity and community involvement empowered our response through which we also better understood, negotiated and constructed our identities.

For me, music became the bridge. I really enjoyed singing—at jamatkhana (prayer hall) or in choir because when I sang with other people I felt connected. I especially loved choir because we got to layer our voices and create harmony. When we were totally in sync with each other a magical feeling would fill the room. We knew this feeling by the goose bumps forming on our skin, and the electrifying chills running down our spines—a kind of spiritual feeling—the same kind of spiritual feeling I felt reciting ginans in jamatkhana. It was in these goose bump moments when we truly felt unified. Nothing else mattered—not our difference(s) nor the impacts of racism. What mattered was being in the same room with others and making music together.

Sounding

My friendships, community bonds, and sense of identity were organically shaped by these multiple ways of making music. Over time these different musical experiences began to intersect revealing new possibilities for bridging cultures and making music. At first I added vocal layers and harmony to ginans—a very simple exercise that not only sounded cool but also somehow linked my spiritual and material lives. Different ways of knowing the world amplified each other. I was excited by the musical outcomes and continued to experiment with patching together music from different parts of my life to express identity and respond to the realities of our world. If I could feel goose bumps singing other people’s music with them, could they not feel goose bumps singing my music with me?

ICT at Night

Ismaili Centre Toronto at Night

Nur: Reflections on Light

In 2014 I was fortunate to receive a commission from the Aga Khan Museum to write a site-specific piece for the Ismaili Centre Toronto opening. The piece drew from the Verse of Light (24:35) from the Quran and explored the ineffable qualities of spiritual and physical light. I imagined music where waves and particles of light would dynamically co-exist—suspended in time and holding multiple voices in an interwoven fabric of sound. The more I worked at it the more I saw the piece as a way to envision a society where diverse peoples could mingle compassionately in each other’s light.

Iseler and Ismaili Singers at Ismaili Centre Toronto Opening

Elmer Iseler Singers and Ismaili Choir at Ismaili Centre Toronto Opening (photo credit selfie)


Liberating

The Elmer Iseler Singers premiered the piece with six Ismaili singers from across Canada. This would be the first time I would experience those choral goose bumps performing along side musical friends a piece of music that represented my identity and that was sung in my community setting.

I felt a sense of liberation. I felt elation. I felt pride. Most of all I felt hope—hope in the power of music to undo past hurts, bridge understanding and tell our stories anew.

Coda

In a world where Islamophobia, ‘clashes of ignorance’ and negative representations of Islam are prevalent I hope that more composers and musicians will have the courage to stand up and sound out their understanding of a peaceful faith that is rooted in compassion and committed to the uplift of society. I am grateful to the Esprit Orchestra and Elmer Iseler Singers for recognizing these global tensions, and opening their musical doors so we can be in the same musical room together.

My deep thanks also to mentors, friends and family for walking with me on this musical journey. I hope that going forward we can together discover musical ways of knowing that make it possible for all people to speak, and in so doing shape, reshape and compose our collective identities.

— Hussein