The Maple Leaves Are Always Greener…

I got back from Canada the other day, again. I’m trying to cure Canadian composers of their American-composer envy. My standard line is that an unsuccessful Canadian composer gets more commissions than a successful American composer. And they always reply (or maybe I just keep talking to the same guy over and over again), “That’s not true, look at John Adams!” Well. 

“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.


  1. Patrick Nickleson says

    I’m a Canadian music major and I’m interested almost exclusively in the brand of American experimental music you typically write about. I’ve tried and tried to get interested in Canadian composers and it seems to me that there aren’t any. I know it is much easier here to get grants and commissions and such (I recently updated the CV for a composer teacher of mine and he’s had dozens of commissions and hundreds of performances, but it’s not like he’s anywhere near a household name among anyone aside from other Canadian composers), but it seems like the majority of it is written for the local symphony orchestra and because if this, it’s never particularly interesting and the majority of it never gets recorded. Or if it does it’s never released.
    I blame primarily the CBC. For as much praise as everyone gives it, it seems to me like a big waste. They have the mandated levels of Canadian content (as any Canadian broadcaster does), but when Canadian content is defined you realize that any orchestral performance by a Canadian orchestra anywhere in the world, or by any orchestra who was recorded in Canada counts as Canadian content. This means that the whole Canadian content time is spent on Toronto Symphony performances of Beethoven recorded in Germany, and Detroit Symphony performances of Mozart in Vancouver. While I admit I’ve pretty much given up on listening to it, I used to a lot and think that in all that time may have heard only 3 or 4 original pieces by Canadian composers, and they were all pretty boring neoclassical orchestral works.
    I love Canada and plan on staying here, but I just think our music scene does lack a lot to be desired, despite the number of commissions that may be seen on paper. The composers may all be making a decent living, but the only interesting ones I’ve heard personally are MC Maguire (thanks to your posts about him last year), Brent Lee and R. Murray Schaeffer. If you can point me to some I’d be really appreciative, but this has always been an annoying issue to me and it’s nice to finally have a place to address it!
    (Actually we recently held a Canadian Music Festival here in Windsor, Ontario that featured another spectral composer, Francois Rose (he teaches in California now) as well as three really interesting young composers – Andrew Stanliand, Christian Ledroit, and Geoff Holbrook, but again I don’t think any of them have released recordings.)
    KG replies: Very interesting perspective. Thanks, and I hope you haven’t alienated too many of your compatriots.
    And by the way, if you like Maguire, I similarly recommend Tim Brady and Paul Dolden. And I heard a lovely guitar quartet the other night by Antoine Berthiaume and an interesting one by Bernard Falaise. Some of those Canucks can really compose their way out of a wet paper bag.

  2. says

    I think you’re right, much of that Canadian malaise in the arts stems from that unfulfilled superstar fixation. Canadians seem to want to be able to open any textbook of an international scope and see one Canadian name in bold among the usual suspects.
    Trouble is we rarely acknowledge and celebrate the major figures we do have. I think both Barry Truax and John Oswald are big deals, and while the formal/academic music infrastructure in Canada has supported them well over the years, they’re not exactly household names here.
    KG replies: I forget Oswald’s Canadian, but he’s certainly made a niche for himself. I like Truax’s work too, and he’s had such a big presence in American electronic music that we forget *he’s* Canadian.

  3. Patrick Nickleson says

    I meant to put in a disclaimer that I hoped I hadn’t offended any Canadian readers, but I think that anyone who reads your blog would agree with me about us having tons of great orchestral writers, but very little experimental music. It seems our best bet in terms of experimental/rock inspired chamber music is more along the lines of Montreal bands like Godspeed You Black Emperor and such. But even they broke up.

  4. Rob Teehan says

    As a young Canadian composer who just finished grad school in the States, I really can’t disagree with your arguments, Kyle, as much as I’d like to (what artist wants to admit that he ISN’T hard-up?). The orchestras here are really quite supportive of Canadian composers, as are other professional ensembles. Plus – as was discussed recently on NewMusicBox – our government endowment for the arts is much greater, which means more grant money to fund commissions (let’s hope it holds out).
    But before you and your compatriots despair completely, let me point out that there are two major things that the American music scene has going for it that the Canadian doesn’t: one, larger and denser population, and two (a natural side-effect of large population), many more colleges and universities.
    Because Canada’s population centres are generally separated by miles and miles of wilderness, you pretty much have to pick a major centre – Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg, a few others – and tour or travel only within its surrounding area (or fly, which is often prohibitively expensive – P.S., gas and airfare cost way more up here), whereas most spots in the States are within a few hours’ drive of another major metropolis. And if you write music that is valued by the university system – choral and wind ensemble, for example – there are more opportunities in America for performances and residencies. Plus, those universities tend to have more funds available for commissions due to their much higher tuition.
    Anyway, I think the above factors might make it more feasible for an American composer to start his own ensemble and make a significant income touring and doing residencies, a la Bang-on-a-Can, or to have a career based on commissions primarily from university choirs and wind ensembles, a la Eric Whitacre. This means that the American scene can sometimes look more attractive to a Canadian composer who is less interested in, or gets tired of, writing for local ensembles. Of course, the advantages of the above may be offset by increased competition. I don’t know the numbers – has anyone researched Composers Per Capita in either country?
    As far as our national inferiority complex goes, it applies to much more than just composition – there’s a perception that no artist of any kind (or, for that matter, often doctors, scientists, etc.) is every *really* successful until they’ve “made it” in the States. So maybe those of us who pine for the perceived greener pastures are hoping that WE will have a chance to become the first Great Canadian Symphonist – by becoming the next Great American Symphonist.
    But on the whole, I think you’re right – we Canadians should be grateful for what we have.

  5. EmilyG says

    Who resents Claude Vivier? Here in Montreal, he’s very well-liked.
    KG replies: I would suspect that Montreal is the primary base of his support. At the composers’ conference in Winnipeg last year, a few people grumbled that Vivier got famous mainly because of the spectacular circumstances of his death. To say that they resent (or perhaps envy) him is not exactly to say they don’t recognize the value of his music.

  6. says

    Nice to see the attention on Australia’s scene and the mention of Vincent Plush. Having worked with the ever-delightful and impressive Tim Brady for nine years, toured Canada, and being an Aussie, I can confirm that what you say is right – we have a commonality of scene, and things are made easier for us as “art music” composers here than in the US, where so many successful people, when you scratch the surface, seem to have independent means or rich relatives.
    We are rather lucky, no doubt. And better off than in Europe, because there’s not much doctrinaire pressure to conform (is there still in Germany?)
    I think the commonality extends into the singer-songwriter scene too – Feist somehow rings very true to Aussies (and her big hit was written by an Aussie).
    KG replies: That point about independent means is a sharp one, one never allowed to be spoken above a whisper.