In the interview below, I have the opportunity to chat with the incredibly talented Dr. James Wright, a Carleton University professor, and his grad student and fellow musician and composer Matt Devost. This spring they were heavily involved in the Listen Up! project, the flagship community outreach program by the Ottawa Chamber Music Society who also run the Chamberfest. James and Matt worked with students at Adrienne Clarkson Elementary School throughout the year to teach the basics of composition and put together poetry and melodies they used later as the basis of their six-movement composition called Canada Is. With students taking the reins in the creative process, the final result was a world premiered performance with Grphyon Trio and Jackie Hawley’s Cantiamo, featured the new work for choir and piano trio by James and Matt.
Indeed, the composers’ involvement in collaborating with Cantiamo extends much further back. James was the composer who inspired the start of Cantiamo when he asked Jackie all those years ago to get a group of girls together to sing his song If I Were the Moon at the Writer’s Fest – incidentally the same song the Training Choir learned and performed this past year. Just as James sparked the beginning of Cantiamo, he and Matt share much inspiration and wisdom with young musicians in their conversation below. As James said in sharing advice, “music takes incredibly hard work and dedication but it always rewards the effort to strive for excellence tenfold.” Another thing that struck me that is so relevant for Cantiamo singers and their families is that early musical exposure, whether it was listening to their mothers play Bach or Chopin on the piano, or singing at family gatherings, profoundly shaped the rest of their lives. This is such a great testament to the value of singing and making music together from a very young age.
1. What are your earliest musical memories? What were some of your first inspirations and pieces?
MATT: My earliest musical memory was dancing gaily around the living room as a toddler while my mother played Bach on the piano. Around the same time, my immediate family would spend time in the evenings listening/meditating to Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Andrea Bocelli – in the dark, so that we weren’t distracted by external stimuli. Looking back, this kind of musical appreciation experience was profoundly impactful and has largely shaped how I conceptualize and value music.
Regarding my inspirations, I would say that I am influenced by everything I hear – bad and good. I went through a number of phases while growing up – from pop punk to classic rock to 80s hair/glam metal. It wasn’t until high school that I really got into the blues (my gateway into jazz) and classical music.
JAMES: My mother is a pianist, and hearing her play Chopin and Strauss Waltzes when I was growing up was an important early inspiration. Crooning “Tin Pan Alley” songs and the music of Broadway musicals around the piano at family gatherings is also something that left quite an impact on me. I would say something similar about the rich ballet repertoire that I was exposed to during the many years when I worked as a ballet pianist. The profoundly moving sacred choral music tradition of the Anglican church music is similarly something that has never left me, and the first time I heard a symphony orchestra (in Waterloo, Ontario) was an awe-inspiring experience for me. The songs of Elton John, and progressive rock by bands including Genesis, ELP, Yes and Gentle Giant, also had an significant impact on me during my teen years. To this day I feel as though I can still hear the expert voices and advice of the piano and composition teachers with whom I had the incredibly good fortune to study.
2. Your faculty profile for Carleton University refers to you as a musicologist. Please tell us more about what that is and how you go about your work.
JAMES: As a musicologist, I have conducted research and published books and articles on music theory, music philosophy and aesthetics, the psychoacoustics of music, film music and historical musicology (including research on Glenn Gould, Arnold Schoenberg, and the life and work of Canadian film music composer Eldon Rathburn).
3. Could you talk a little bit about how you developed your compositional philosophy?
MATT: As a young composer, I am still evolving and learning. My philosophies regarding musical composition are ever-changing, but the one thing that’s stuck over the years is my belief that creators should strive to be genuine; to challenge what people think is “right,” to take criticism gracefully (not to heart), and to take chances. Many of my favourite composers were extreme and polarising in their times.
JAMES: I agree wholeheartedly with Matt’s statement. If the performers enjoy giving life to the musical ideas I have written down, I have confidence that audiences are likely to enjoy them as well. When working with poetic texts in vocal or choral music, I try to let the sounds, images, meaning, phrasing and rhythm of the text show me how the musical setting and ideas should take shape. I like to create gratifying challenges for both performers and listeners, but only up to a point. Whether the performers are professionals or non-professionals, I feel that tackling musical challenges will always be most gratifying and successful when the performers know that they have not left terra firma entirely.
4. James, you were there at the very beginning when Cantiamo came into being. Please tell us that story and about your involvement with the choir from the start.
JAMES: I will never forget when Jackie and the newly-formed Cantiamo Choir performed my “If I Were the Moon” (a setting of poetry by Sheree Fitch) at the Writers Festival more than a decade ago. It was Cantiamo’s very first public performance. The calibre of Jackie’s leadership and the response of the choristers and audience made it clear that aextraordinarily brilliant new youth choir, with a unique philosophy and musical mission, had just been born!
5. Given you are both teachers, how has that influenced the rest of the musical work and research you do?
JAMES: Since I am paid to teach, I’m hesitant to divulge a not-so-well-kept secret: the truth is that teachers generally learn at least as much as their students do from their teaching. This is due to the process of examining your own knowledge in order to try to figure out how to convey it best, and also to the seemingly boundless pool of new creative ideas that students always bring to their lectures and learning experiences.
MATT: Yes, because of the diversity in Carleton’s student populations, I have been blessed with exposure to a plethora of incredibly interesting musics and philosophies.
6. James, your research has focused, at times, on Schoenberg and the Vienna Circle. What resonates most about their work for you and for music today?
JAMES: What resonates most for me in the lives, thought and work of the members of the Second Vienna School is their passionate quest for new territory in musical language and musical expression. They thought deeply about what music is, how it is constructed, and what it means to express oneself musically. Their works may present unique challenges to performers and listeners, but their courage and their passion for the exploration of musical thinking and musical expression has been an abiding inspiration for so many composers who received their training in the late twentieth century, including myself.
7. You both worked on and composed for the Listen UP! Project. What have you enjoyed most and learned while working on this project?
MATT: Working with Cantiamo, Gryphon Trio, and the good people at Adrienne Clarkson Elementary School (ACES) was an extraordinary experience. Hearing this beautiful collaboration come to life has been one of my favourite musical experiences ever!
JAMES: I hardly know where to begin…collaborating with the wonderful creative staff (Kathy Goodsell, most prominently)and students of ACES… collaborating with Jackie and the Cantiamo choir..collaborating with the extraordinary Gryphon Trio (we are so fortunate to have them in Canada!)…Rob Kapilow’s attention to detail, to poetic text, to music education, and to classical music advocacy… and last but certainly not least was collaborating with the uniquely and diversely gifted Matt Devost!
8. Do you have a favorite ‘desert island’ list of recordings or songs that are especially meaningful to you that you’d like to share?
JAMES: My ‘desert island’ list would include the following, in no particular order, and much more:
– Igor Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms
– Béla Bartok, Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta
– Claude Debussy, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
– Francis Poulenc, Gloria – J.S. Bach, Goldberg Variations
– J.S. Bach, B-minor Mass
– Orlando Gibbons, This is the Record of John
– Thomas Tallis, Spem in Allia
– Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs
– Alban Berg, Seven Early Songs – Arvo Pärt: Fratres
MATT: Among my favorites would be:
– Ravel’s String Quartet in F
– Webern’s 5 Movements for String Quartet
– Ruth Watson Henderson’s Voices of the Earth
– Howells’ Like as the Hart, A Spotless Rose
– Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool, Miles Ahead
– Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!- Nick Drake’s Pink Moon
– Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon
– Jacob Collier’s In My Room
9. What advice from your experience and education in music would you have to pass on to young choristers considering music as a vocation?
JAMES: You will know in your heart whether music is your vocation. Music heals, music expresses the inexpressible, and music reaches across cultural and political barriers to bring humanity together. Music takes incredibly hard work and dedication but it always rewards the effort to strive for excellence tenfold. Above all, do not let anyone tell you that music is a frill, or that it is not something that you can or should dedicate your life to, as a vocation. If you are not afraid of hard work, if you love and feel music deeply, and if want to explore and share that passion with others, you should have no hesitation in putting music at the core of your future and vocation.
MATT: To be as cliched as I can: follow your dreams. The best pieces of advice I can give are: don’t settle for less, work hard, treat yourself well, be social, and pursue themusic that you enjoy the most! A big thank you to the wonderful Cantiamo singers! You rock! To many great adventures ahead!