G e t t i n g T o K n o w T h e C o m p o s e r s
1.) Could you catch us up on some biographical facts?
I was born in 1980, the middle child of three, raised out in the country in Campbellville (as an adult I’ve lived in Hamilton). My siblings and I are extremely close. My childhood was pretty much ideal — I spent a lot of my time outside in nature living in imaginary worlds, and also spent an inordinate amount of time recording myself on my tape recorder and later video camera, singing, practicing accents, telling stories, and generally being ridiculous. I wrote and illustrated stories all the time, loved to dance, and loved to act — I was constantly putting on shows every chance I got with anyone I could convince to join me. Most of all, though, visual art has been basically on par with music all my life (here’s some shameless self-promotion: ). Something deeply important to me is to identify as a “creative person” rather than a “composer” only, even though I certainly devote most of my creative time and energy to music.
2.) I know you play piano, and quite beautifully! When did you begin playing? Are there any interesting stories you could tell us about learning to play?
My piano career began around the age of 3 — I shocked my mom by playing the theme to her favourite soap opera out of nowhere. The first piano piece I composed was for forearms rather than fingers — it was called “Sunset”, and I still remember how to play it! I started lessons at 7, and around 12 years old when I switched teachers and piano performance/competition became a big deal, music became full of pressure, stress and anxiety for me. I only really composed once a year for various festival competitions at that point. I forced myself to hang on until I was 16 to get my gr. 10 RCM, but honestly, my piano studies left quite a bitter taste in my mouth! I turned to guitar and songwriting, but nothing “classical” for a decade, and no formal composing — I poured myself into visual art more than anything. I casually took some creative writing and illustration courses at Sheridan, and some fine art courses at the Dundas Valley School of Art, but I was 28 by the time I started my undergraduate degree in music at Laurier. Better late than never!
Rebekah Cummings (b.1980)
3) Do you play any other instruments?
I sing, play guitar, and also hand drums (djembe, doumbek, cajon, etc.) — untrained in all. I often play hand percussion with various bands and ensembles, and teach a rhythm class based on improvisation and the Takadimi rhythmic language. I love rhythm, especially when changing asymmetrical meter and fragmentation are involved — it’s probably my favourite aspect of music.
4) When did you know you wanted to become a composer?
Not until I was 27! I’m such a late bloomer! I’ve always felt more like a “creative type” in general, so composition fit into that broader category and didn’t really take precedence when I was younger. But in my late 20’s it just HIT me — I was a composer and I needed professional help! I literally blurted it out to a friend in the car one day out of nowhere and started bawling. I immediately bought a piano and retrained myself with all my old gr. 10 exam pieces in order to audition at Laurier to study composition. It was a quick, shocking and certain decision, and I haven’t turned back! Ever since, I’ve either been studying composition or teaching it — between my BMus at Laurier and starting my Master’s at U of T, I established Zamar Hamilton, an initiative to train young composers in my home town and curate concerts of their works (
5) Can you tell us a little more about your composition style?
My compositional style is heavily influenced by my Balkan roots — my mom is Bulgarian. The Way I Dream is actually one of the few pieces of mine that doesn’t reference it overtly (though it is heavily modal, which is another significant aspect to my style, and I suppose the sections in 7/8 and the frequent augmented 2nds are like a bit of Balkan seasoning thrown in there!). Especially as an adult, I’ve had a deep need to identify with my Bulgarian heritage, and I’ve done so primarily through music. But even as a child, before being exposed to much world music, I was composing pieces with a Balkan flavour (along with some Middle Eastern, Spanish and Celtic colours as well). I can’t help but believe that our DNA must carry generational cultural influences we can’t always explain. This totally fascinates me. I love to explore these sounds, and I celebrate the unique musical expressions of every culture! I’ve always tried to expose my students to as much world music as I possibly can. There is AWESOME stuff out there, and it’s endlessly inspiring!
6) The Way I Dream consists of quotes by Anne, but you wrote the poetry that glues the quotes together. Would you say that you are also a poet as well as composer?
Back in high school I wrote poetry constantly (not that I was necessarily any good at it, haha), and musically I like to think of myself equal parts singer-songwriter and composer. I wouldn’t presume to call myself a “poet” as much as a creative person who uses words creatively, just like I might use colour or sound or movement! I do love language!
7) Does the poetry from The Way I Dream "hit home" in any way?
Definitely! I can’t help but plant a little seed of myself into any work of art I produce — for me personally, this is how the art lives and breathes and remains authentic. I’ve always related to Anne of Green Gables quite a lot, especially in terms of the way she’s enraptured by the beauty around her and fascinated by the mysteries of the world. I’ve always wondered and mused about basically every little detail about every little thing (it makes life exhilarating AND exhausting, haha). I also wanted to highlight Anne’s wonderful combination of childlike delight and deep wisdom — it’s an ageless/eternal quality that I love, and aspire to grow in as I age. Lastly, I wanted the text to somehow glorify LOVE as the “be all and end all” — the greatest, most beautiful mystery — this is a belief I hold to strongly, and I think Lucy M. Montgomery would give me the thumbs up on that!
8) Do you have any childhood memories that involve music?
One of my favourite musical memories was in Bulgaria when I was sixteen — we were staying in a Roma village up in the mountains with the most beautiful people you can imagine, sharing meals outdoors with dozens of people and playing traditional instruments and singing together under the stars — my family would share our Western-sounding songs and they would teach us their folk songs — it was as though we were 200 years in the past in some perfect world where life was only about sharing community, family, music, nature and food. It’s one of my best memories ever.
9) Is there anything else you would like performers and audience members to know about you?!
Here’s my short bio and a link to my Soundcloud page:
Rebekah Cummings is a Master’s student at the University of Toronto, studying composition with Christos Hatzis. After graduating with honours of high distinction from Wilfrid Laurier University in 2012, she established Zamar Hamilton, a unique initiative to mentor young composers and curate concerts of their new works in her hometown, Hamilton. Rebekah’s music has been performed by a wide array of ensembles and soloists, including the Cecilia String Quartet, the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Orchestra, the Waterloo Chamber Players, the Maureen Forrester Singers, and the Kitchener-Waterloo and Georgian Bay Community Orchestras. In 2016 she won the University of Toronto’s String Quartet Composition Competition, along with the Ann H. Atkinson Prize in Electroacoustic Composition. Her Bulgarian roots have inspired much of her music to date with a Balkan-infused flair, and emotive intensity and quirky humour often interplay in her work.
1.) Could you catch us up on a few biographical facts? A native of Rossland, B.C., Jean Ethridge (1943- ) began her formal study of music as a piano student of Helen Dahlstrom. After completing her ARCT diplomas in performing and teaching in 1962, she studied piano with Boris Roubakine and composition with Jean Coulthard at the University of British Columbia, graduating with a Bachelor of Music degree in Composition in 1967. In 1967-68 she studied composition with Bernard Stevens, and piano with Denis Matthews and Eric Harrison at the Royal College of Music, London, England. The summers of 1978 and 1979, she was a participant in the Composers' Workshop at the Banff Centre. From 1970 until 1992, she lived and worked in Victoria, B.C. Presently she is a resident of Salmon Arm, B.C. Jean Ethridge has written for opera, chamber groups, orchestra, voice, women’s chorus, and keyboard.
Her works have been performed in many countries, and have been broadcast by the C.B.C. She has written a full length opera, “The Ballad of Isabel Gunn” to a libretto by Stephen Scobie, which is based on a true event from the Hudson Bay Archives, about an Orkney lass who dresses as a man to work in the fur trade in Canada in the early 1800’s. A demo CD of five selections from the opera was recorded in 2007 with members of the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Simard, and Alexandra Babbel, soprano. The musical idiom is accessible, with beautiful melodies, rhythmic vitality, and some folk song-like material.
2.) It says in your bio that you are a pianist. When did you begin playing?
I played the piano by ear and made up tunes at the piano before I could walk.
3.) Do you play any other instruments or sing?
I have sung in choirs, played the violin a very little, and I am an amateur on the Celtic harp.
4.) When did you know you wanted to become a composer?
I was born a composer!
5.) What is your favourite part of being a composer?
The act of composing is very gratifying.
6.) How did the idea for "Child Face" and "Offering and Rebuff" come about?
When I choose poems to set to music, they must resonate deeply within me, and then the musical ideas flow in response to the feelings they evoke in me.
7.) What does Carl Sandburg's poetry mean to you?
I like Carl Sandburg's poetry. It certainly evokes feelings in me.
8.) What attracted you to begin writing for voice?
The voice is the most sublime instrument! I don't know of a more expressive sound.
9.) Do you have any childhood memories that involve music?
My father played the piano by ear and he and I played duets by ear on the piano when I was very young. My childhood memories involving music are all joyful ones.
10.) Is there anything else you would like performers and audience members to know about you or your songs "Child Face" and "Offering and Rebuff?"
Even though I composed these songs many years ago, they are examples of my best writing and I am delighted that you chose them to sing at your concerts.
Jean Ethridge (b.1943)
1) Could you fill us in on a few biographical details? (personal as well as musical)
I was born on November 11th, 1957 in Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic. In 1968 the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, and we could see seven tanks on the street below the windows of our apartment. My parents Rudolf and Gina Skarecky didn’t want my younger sister Simona and me to grow up under communist repression, and so our family left for what was supposed to be a long weekend in Vienna – so far it has been 48 years long! In Canada I grew up in Waterloo. I studied composition at Wilfrid Laurier University with Barrie Cabena. My main instrument at university was French horn, so that I could continue to study piano privately with Erhard Schlenker. I also began teaching piano, which I have continued to do ever since. I’ve always loved to sing, and I sang in choirs for many years. As a student I spent several summers working at the Jasper Tramway in the Rocky Mountains. My piano piece Tekarra is named after the mountain where two of my friends and I got lost in a blizzard while hiking and had to be rescued by a helicopter.
In 1986 I went to do a Master of Music degree in composition in Sydney, Australia. I had traveled halfway around the world in order to study with Peter Sculthorpe, and though I had corresponded with him, you never really know how it will work till you meet in person. I went to his house to meet him and we sat in the kitchen, ate crepes he’d just made, and talked for five hours – I knew it was going to be fine! Sydney was a wonderful experience musically and in other ways. I had opportunities to write music and hear it performed, as well as make some lifelong friends, whom I’ve recently had the opportunity to go back and visit.
Returning to Canada (Mississauga), motherhood became part of who I was when my daughters Renata and Juliana were born – composing at the piano with a baby in a snugli, learning to be really focused so I could actually get some music written, composing quite a few children’s songs and lullabies! When the girls were a bit older I became a Waldorf teacher, taking a class from grade 1 to grade 5. Waldorf education integrates music, art, and creativity into the curriculum in a wonderful way, so it was an opportunity to explore new areas. Later I went back to teaching music, including a preschool music class for whom I continue to write songs – most recently about Canada.
In 2009 my new husband Paul and I moved to a house near Binbrook (close to Hamilton). I love living in the country, seeing the trees and fields and birds out of the sun room window where I write music and paint – I have been painting with acrylics since 2003. I often compose and paint in parallel, finding that the two media cross-pollinate in all kinds of ways that can create something unexpected.
I continue to teach piano and theory and examine for the Royal Conservatory. I do photography, sometimes write poems, swim all summer, like to stay in touch with friends (even write real letters and cards, although I will admit email is easier). Paul and I like to travel – one of our favourite places is the South Island of New Zealand, but we also love the Rockies... each new place is special in its own way, and home is special too.
My music has now been played and sung in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. I enjoy writing for specific musicians, and have collaborated with some on pieces that include improvisation – such as The Land Sings for two bass clarinets, percussion and organ, which was commissioned and premiered in March 2017 in Waterloo by Numus Concerts. I have written for solo voices and instruments, for choirs, chamber groups, and orchestra. My piece Streams for large orchestra was the first music played in Hammerson Hall of the Living Arts Centre when it first opened in Mississauga. My one-woman opera Emily, the Way You Are celebrating the life and work of artist Emily Carr has been performed a number of times and is always well received by audiences. I have recently created and performed several piano pieces in response to photographs exhibited at the Heliconian Club – the latest for piano with singing bowls and wind chimes.
2) When did you first begin taking music lessons? Can you share any stories about your first years of learning?
I started taking piano lessons when I was about seven, living in Prague. At the very beginning before my grandfather bought me a piano, I practised on a table. It might not make a sound, but it can build a good hand position! One time I had to take a street car home from the music school on my own, and somehow ended up at the other end of Prague! It was pouring rain and dark by the time I finally got home – I can imagine now how worried my mother must have been! In Canada I studied piano with Dorothy Davis and later with Erhard Schlenker, with whom I did my A.R.C.T. Both of them trace their “musical family tree” to Beethoven and Haydn, so I’m in good company!
3) It is clear from your writing that you understand the voice very well. Can you explain a little about your relationship with singing?
I’ve always loved singing. I grew up singing Czech folksongs, carols at Christmas, all kinds of music. I made up songs as a child. My sister and I sang in a children’s choir in Prague, and were supposed to go to our first choir camp on the very morning when the Russians invaded – so we didn’t get to go!
In Waterloo I grew up singing in several choirs at First United Church, and later became assistant to Nixon McMillan, the music director. My first compositions when I was a teenager were for voice, settings of words that were meaningful to me – some were from the Bible, some were poetry. I was very fortunate in that Nixon would have his choir sing whatever choral music I wrote – so I got to hear it brought to life by live voices! In Sydney I sang with The Contemporary Singers, and in Canada I sang for over twenty years in the Gallery Choir at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto. Its musical tradition includes unaccompanied music from Renaissance to contemporary, as well as Gregorian chant – which I have grown to love and which continues to influence my composing. These days I do a lot of singing with my preschool music class, so my higher range gets lots of practice that way although I am more of an alto.
As a composer I have always loved setting text to music, and some of my favourite poetry that I have set is by P.K. Page. There are poems by John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Margaret Avison, Viggo Mortensen.... and my own texts as well. I have collaborated with poets, for example with Di Brandt who wrote the libretto for my Emily Carr opera. In the early stages of that we spent a day improvising together, at first with her doing words & me playing a piano, but at one point we switched – which was a really interesting experience!
4) When did you know you wanted to become a composer? Was there one moment where you instantly knew that writing music was your calling, or did it happen gradually?
My first compositions were settings of texts that inspired me. By the time I was in grade 12 and was trying to decide in which direction I wanted my life to go after highschool, I had already been composing for some time. And although I tend to be the kind of person who makes lists of pros and cons and thinks things through quite carefully, the decision to go into music (like most of the really important decisions in my life) wasn’t made that way – I just knew!
5) How did the work Green and Gold come about? What was the process?
In 2001 a poetry conference was held at the University of Windsor entitled “Wider Boundaries of Daring – the Modernist Impulse in Canadian Women’s Poetry”. Part of it was a concert of contemporary Canadian composers’ setting of the poetry of Canadian women. The organizers of the conference (including Di Brandt, which is how I met her) wanted poet P.K. Page to be represented, and I was commissioned to set some of her poems to music.
I found two of the texts and was looking for a third one when a friend suggested Sisters. The recurrent colour images in the poems gave the cycle its name. P.K. Page is also a painter, and it so happened that when I went to see an exhibition of her artwork right after the premiere concert, the very last image I saw there was her small, exquisite painting of stylized flowers which I had no idea existed, which was entitled "Green and Gold."
6) You mentioned you knew P.K. Page. Could you talk a little more about that relationship?
Picture a petite, elegant, 86-year-old woman, full of life and fun, sitting in an armchair in an animated conversation about current affairs at midnight with a crowd of young people surrounding her, hanging on her every word. This was P.K. (Patricia Kathleen) Page (1916-2010) at the opening reception of "Extraordinary Presence: The Worlds of P.K. Page" in Peterborough in 2002. She WAS an extraordinary presence! I first met her on that night. For that symposium I had set to music her wonderful poem Planet Earth, which had been read simultaneously in New York, the Antarctic, and the South Pacific to celebrate the International Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations. We stayed in touch after that, mostly by email. I had tea with her in an outdoor cafe by the harbour when I visited her in Victoria, and she took me to see Emily Carr’s paintings and birthplace. The last time I saw her was in 2006 when she came to Toronto to read from her new book Hand Luggage.
She kept writing. Aug. 2008: “I've had a productive time -- have 5 books coming out. Five! The first is called (not by me) "The Essential P.K. Page", the second is a children's book... the fifth is another children's book. Second childhood maybe. Next year a book of new poetry. I also had an art show in May that sold quite well, so I'm not complaining. I can't move about much now. My body won't cooperate. But I'm far from bored....” And Nov. 2009: “I get older and older but still have books coming out. How long this can go on, who knows. I am 93 tomorrow. Too old. Don't aim for it.” She was quite an amazing person, living life to the fullest, keeping her sense of humour, and sharing it with us in some beautiful evocative poetry.
7) What do each of P.K. Page's poems in Green and Gold mean to you?
Sisters brings to mind the ups and downs of life with children. As the mother of two girls I’m quite familiar with the dynamics of such a relationship. In the lyrical, serene sections of the piece I quote in the piano part lullabies I wrote for each of my daughters, weaving them into the texture and into each other.
Summer is full of wildness and greenness and life, chorused with fern, lustred by the sun, with a lacey tree, chlorophyll, and green blood... images of nature that feel exciting and exhilarating.
I find the images of Evening Dance of the Grey Flies so delicate and lovingly crafted, very evocative and very clear, and the end of the poem just stunning – if the end of life can be like that, then all is well....
Jana Skarecky (b.1957)
Jana Skarecky in 2016
Painting by P.K. Page entitled "Green and Gold"
P.K. Page and Jana Skarecky's daughter Renata together in Toronto (2006)
Martha Hill Duncan
1) Could you give me a sort of timeline of your musical life? Milestones perhaps?
My story begins with my mother who grew up poverty in East Texas but managed to go to school in nursing thanks to a generous aunt. Both of my parents loved music, and my mother especially loved to sing. She would even wake up the family up by singing in her sleep! Because my mother sang all the time, I sang too. I didn’t know as many songs as my mother, but I do remember swinging on a backyard swing, making up my own songs instead. Even then, I knew that singing made me feel joyful and empowered. When my father asked what instrument I would like to play, I chose the piano. On the day the piano arrived, I remember my mother playing it on the driveway before it had been moved into the house and being both in wonderment of her playing but also a bit jealous that she was playing my piano!
In Houston, Texas in the late 1970’s, a new public performing arts high school was opened up in an old Jewish synagogue just in time for me to begin my first year. I auditioned for drama and piano, but got in as a piano major. A short time into the program, I was asked to audition for voice as there weren’t enough funds to maintain a solo piano program. I finished the rest of my high school years as a voice major and went on to study voice, piano and finally composition at The University of Texas at Austin.
In the last year of my program, I met my future husband on a train to Mexico City with my older sister Mary. As he entered the train with several university friends, I heard his voice before actually seeing him and was immediately attracted.
My husband, Martin Duncan, was also studying at The University of Texas in Austin, finishing a PhD in astrophysics. Eventually, we married and ended up in Kingston, Ontario, where we continue to live today. I became a Canadian citizen in 2012, and teach piano, compose, and conduct the Kingston women’s choir, She Sings!
2) Can you remember the moment you decided you wanted to be a composer? Or did it happen gradually?
During high school, I attended a performance by faculty member and composer Thomas Borling, who during this particular prepared piano performance, put his head inside the lid of the piano. It was so thrilling that I knew then and there that I wanted to be a composer!
3) What drew you to the poetry you chose for 'Singing in the Northland?'When I first moved to Kingston, Ontario I felt very homesick, isolated, and disconnected. I resolved to immerse myself in “Canadian-ness.” I went to the Queen’s University and the Kingston public library and began searching through volumes of Canadian poetry. I chose the poems in Singing in the Northland because I could relate to the plight of the recent immigrant and found much of the late 18th/early 19th century poetry “just as fresh and timely” as if it had been written today.
4) Can you tell us a little about the process of creating 'Singing in the Northland?'
I wrote these volumes for my daughter, Claire, who was just developing her young singing voice under the tutelage of Dr. Nadia Izbitskaya. My goal was to keep the vocal range comfortable while at the same time creating an interesting contemporary piano accompaniment full of surprises. When I write, I never think of key first. I always try to allow the text to drive the process of the melody and the rhythm. I want the singer to sound like they are making up the song as they go because it fits so well with the text. I hope that I’ve accomplished that with this set!
5) What is your favourite musical memory?
I remember when I was little, hearing Sheherazade on the radio one night when I was falling asleep in the dark. For me, it was an epiphany.
6) What is your favourite work that you’ve written?
If I had to choose a favourite vocal work, it would be either Wild Asters or Fire flowers, which I wrote while we were on my husband’s sabbatical in England and Scotland. (These two are from Florals, written for soprano Elizabeth MacDonald.)
Martha Hill Duncan (b. 1955)