Month: March 2016

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.

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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

“The Lady Gertrude” and Shanghai Dim Sum

Gertrude0003That darn composer Doug Schmidt presented me with a real challenge (so I thought) for premiering his new work “Sirens” on Esprit’s March 31st concert. He included a part for a harmonium – a real old-fashioned pump organ with air pumped into bellows with two foot pedals. (The player has to steadily pedal alternating feet to keep up the air pressure and simultaneously play at the keyboard – and change stops as necessary!) It’s one thing to do this with hymns or chorales, but imagine trying to do this playing complex new music rhythms!

Gertrude0000Naturally I wondered where we would get such an instrument in good condition. Doug was thinking ahead and, from Saigon where he now lives, began forwarding me Canadian Kijiji links to possible organs. These were not helping much in the search but finally there was a possible instrument to be viewed in northeast Markham – in the far reaches of Suburbia. Alexina and I got in the car and drove there to discover that the instrument was for sale at $250. The owner, who was downsizing, wasn’t interested in renting it out and it was the size of an upright grand piano. Even if Esprit bought it, the moving charges would have been exorbitant (Markham to the rehearsal hall, then to Koerner Hall then to — where?). I could not imagine finding storage for it and trying to sell it after the concert.

Ding Tai FungDriving back to Toronto along Highway 7, we were astonished at the vast malls that have sprung up there – seemingly filled only with Chinese restaurants. All was not lost for us on this adventure. We turned in and discovered the Ding Tai Fung Shanghai Dim Sum Restaurant – very special and different from what we usually find downtown. This made the trip worthwhile.

But – back to the harmonium. What next? I spent a couple of hours on the phone in a further unsatisfactory search. Then, our musicians contractor, Christine Little, suggested I call David Olds at New Music Concerts about our need. He recommended I contact Dawn Lyons and Den Ciul, harpsichord builders, restorers and providers, who I’ve worked with before when we needed a harpsichord. Their company is called Claviers Baroques.

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I called Dawn and – AMAZINGLY! – Dawn and Den had the perfectly-sized, perfectly in tune, easily transportable harmonium in their living room. In all her glory, she is named “The Lady Gertrude”. She will be ours for the concert. At last, relief! But, it gets better.  Dawn and Den (and Gertrude) live two blocks away from me in High Park.

Somehow it’s fitting that the harmonium in Doug’s piece represents the main character of the work – a sailor lured by sirens to his demise on the ocean deep. I hope you’ll come and hear Lady Gertrude at Koerner Hall on March 31st!

— Alex