Alexina’s Posts

George Crumb: Music Like None Other



We never studied the music of the American composer George Crumb in music school, but it was his music that struck me as being truly unique when I was a young composer. It was different in so many ways from the music that I had been analyzing in theory class. He had developed a sound world that was so evocative, spiritual, haunting, and personal. It touched me. He explored unusual timbres, placed unusual instruments into the ensembles, devised new extended vocal techniques for singers. He made me realize that contemporary music could be really beautiful as well as being intellectually satisfying.

When I first opened the scores, they looked stunningly unusual. He wrote all his scores in the most fastidious hand. Parts of his compositions are in the shapes of spirals, circles and crosses. Many pieces lacked bar lines, which was revolutionary at that time. When I first saw that technique, I couldn’t figure out how the musicians would play the music!

One of the great benefits of being an Esprit Orchestra audience member is that you get to hear music you might never have the opportunity to hear live. This includes me.

I have never heard Crumb’s A Haunted Landscape in concert, but on Sunday, November 20 Alex and Esprit will offer me that very rare opportunity.

Hear it first with Esprit Orchestra on Sunday, November 20 – yet another Canadian premiere!

— Alexina Louie O.C.


Sunday, November 20th

Esprit Orchestra

Alex Pauk, Music Director

Koerner Hall

273 Bloor St W.


Concert 8:00

Pre-concert chat 7:15

For more information about Esprit’s November 20th concert, and where to buy tickets, click here.

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….!


My Chinese Opera Gong by Alexina Louie

From the time I was a child growing up in Vancouver, I have been mesmerized and excited by the loud percussive music of the Lion Dance which is always performed as part of Chinese New Year celebrations. Each year, our father would take us to Pender Street to witness the exciting ritual. The gongs, drums, loud firecrackers, as well as the energetic moves by the martial arts practitioners under the weighty lion’s head, stirred me then and continue to do so now.

alexinas-instrument-1Of course, I had no way of knowing that those early exposures to Chinese ritual and music would become part of my musical language. Eventually I began to collect some Asian instruments because I found them beautiful.

In 1973, our father decided to take our whole family back to our village in China for the first time. Ours was one of the first groups of western Chinese allowed into China – a trip filled with indelible memories. We were a part of a group of several families who went back to our ancestral villages.

alexinas-instrument-3I purchased my sheng on that first trip. It is a most unusual-looking instrument. The seventeen pipes of the sheng, a reed instrument, rise from a semi-circular cup-shaped base. The player exhales and inhales through a mouthpiece creating reedy-sounding chord clusters as well as individual notes.

On that same trip, I found my guqin (a fretless zither, the most intimate of instruments – it is said that its most delicate tone is the sound of your pulse on the string!) hanging in the window of a Chinese musical instrument store in Shanghai. A crowd of Chinese people all dressed in Mao jackets (Mao was still alive), crushed into the little store, curious about what I, a foreigner (foreigners were unheard of at the time) who curiously looked somewhat like themselves, was doing, banging loudly on Chinese opera gongs to find ‘just the right ones’ to carry back with me. My enthusiastic noise-making caused much amusement.

alexinas-instrument-2These and other instruments have followed me from China to California, where I made my home for ten years, and now to Toronto. The inspiration of Asian instruments and music (dense chord clusters, bent tones, unusual glissandi effects, musical gestures that convey the contrast and balance of Yin and Yang) can be heard, dramatically brought to life in my Imaginary Opera which Esprit is performing on Sunday, January 24 in Toronto. If you attend, you will be hearing my very own Chinese bender gongs brought back from that trip in Pursuing The Dragon, the last movement of my piece.

Although there are no singers in my composition, it is theatrical and highly dramatic. In each movement, I provide evocative music and invite the listener to conjure up his/her own imagined opera scenario.

The excitement of Vancouver’s Chinese lion dance exists in the wild finale of Imaginary Opera.


Esprit chats with Canadian Composer Alexina Louie about her work, Imaginary Opera – to be performed on Sunday January 24, 2016.

Louie’s Imaginary Opera integrates the composer’s Eastern and Western approaches to music through both intense and quiet, mysterious dramatic musical events reflecting contrast and balance as in the principles of Yin and Yang.