“Blacks in America face a lot of discrimination.”
“That’s not true, look at Halle Berry!”
The point, as I patiently explain, is that the American composer scene differs from the Canadian in the same way our societies differ economically: inequality is through the roof. Here, I know composers who can’t keep up with their commission schedules and others, just as accomplished and hard-working, who can’t keep their rent paid; in Canada, no one composer’s a superstar, but every one of them seems to be getting along fine. Montreal post-grads half my age muse about how they wish they could make it in the U.S., and then excuse themselves because they have to go finish their third orchestra piece because it’s being recorded next week. I’ve only found one Canadian composer who wouldn’t admit to any orchestral performances, and she was into electronics. I told one young thing that many of my friends go years between commissions, and many had never had an orchestra piece played at all. She looked at me in wide-eyed wonder: “What do they do instead?” I wanted to laugh incredulously, but I said, “Well, they play their own music, the make electronic realizations, they write pieces and get their friends to play them, they form their own ensembles.” Of course, things are going downhill in Canada as everywhere, and the tragedy this week was that CBC radio has announced that it will no longer make CDs of studio recordings of Canadian works, only live recordings. Well – imagine if NPR announced it was going to start publishing even live recordings of American works! We’re so far down everything looks like up to us.
Canadians feel that they can’t get arrested internationally. In this respect they’re much like Australians, and I have to wonder if in both cases it isn’t partly because those two countries do such a good job of creating a viable music scene for their native composers that there’s not a huge incentive to tour elsewhere. (Ireland may be the same way: I signed up my name at the Irish Music Center in Dublin, and they’re so assiduously promoting local music that somehow they sent me four copies this week of Volume 7 of Contemporary Music from Ireland.) I realize that Canadians like Tim Brady, Denys Bouliane, and Gordon Monahan, and Australians like Vincent Plush, actively promote their music internationally, and it’s difficult to gauge a metric for success in individual cases. But in general, Canadians and Australians can all make some kind of living staying home writing pieces for local orchestras, and no sense of collective desperation drives them to other continents in search of recognition. The U.S.’s experimental jazzers and composers of the (ahem) Downtown persuasion have to go to Europe to find audiences and support, and Europe has been very good to them. Hell, if I were kept busy writing tone poems for the Albany and Buffalo Symphonies, my little jaunt to Amsterdam last fall would have felt more like a vacation and less like a last-ditch career effort. I see what the Canadians mean about not being lionized in Europe like many Americans are, but the option of being able to stay home and have your music played strikes me as a decent trade-off. To live in a viable, functioning musical society, however humdrum, is no small shakes.
What seems to poignantly gnaw at the Canadian soul, I think, is the lack of a major, internationally recognized Canadian symphonist, some towering archetypal figure that represents the country like Elgar does Britain or Tubin does Estonia or even Sculthorpe does Australia, a Glenn Gould of composing, some font, some Charles Ives, from whom the national music flows. They’ve got R. Murray Schafer, a very interesting experimentalist whose music, I admit, in all these years, I’ve never managed to get a firm overall sense of. They’ve got Claude Vivier, one of the stars of the Spectralist scene, whose reputation is on a real upswing lately, and whose output, however tragically truncated by his early death, is nevertheless highly varied, fleshed-out, and well recorded. And whom they nevertheless seem to resent for some reason, and you have to wonder to what extent the perception of musical politics is muddied by troubled Anglophone-Francophone relations. Vivier has acquired the enviable reputation of being the one Spectralist composer whom even those who are dubious of Spectralism in general manage to admire, but perhaps he is seen more as Quebecois than Canadian, and certainly not as someone whose music represents something distinctly national. It reminds me of Morton Feldman’s rationale for why Elliott Carter became famous: “America needed a WASP Copland.”
As someone who was once the designated Canadian music reviewer for Fanfare magazine, I’ve long admired the country’s unique blend of French sophistication and New-World free-wheeling experimentation. (I tell them I’m more in touch with my Inner Canadian than most Americans.) It is, indeed, difficult to get a sense of what could be archetypally “Canadian” about Canadian music. We have that same problem in the U.S. too, but each subgroup claims that what it’s doing is the real American music, and we ignore all the others and feel fine. I’m sure there is some glass ceiling that the Canadian composer thinks himself helpless to burst through. But I’ll tell you the advice I’ve been most often giving my composing students lately: go to grad school at McGill, or York University, or the University of Toronto, or Simon Fraser, establish residence, and spend the rest of your life writing music and getting it played, and waving bye-bye to your indigent, day-job-slaving American cousins.