Andrew Balfour

Andrew Balfour

Looking back on the first few months of the pandemic, Andrew Balfour recalls being in “an absolute state of shock.” The composer and artistic director of Winnipeg-based chamber choir Dead of Winter recalls, “After I’d realized the seriousness of [COVID-19] globally, I was even starting to think, ‘I had a good run. I was lucky enough to do what I wanted for this long. Maybe I’ll have to get another job.’”

Balfour, like other composers in the field of contemporary classical music, was for a time completely derailed by the constant postponement and cancellation of live performances. Most often, composing is a matter of devising a score and then handing it off. So while other music creators were able to live-stream from home, or make recordings, or collaborate remotely with other songwriters or bandmates, or continue to produce soundtrack work, composers were left working solo, on music no one would be able to hear – including themselves – for an indefinite period of time.

In theory, it would be ideal to work with few distractions and no engagements. In practice, this was rarely the case. For Corie Rose Soumah, a SOCAN Foundation Award-winning young composer from Montréal, who’s studying for a Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) degree at Columbia University in New York, the pandemic’s psychological toll meant “the question of productivity was an irritation: ‘I can’t see my family, I can’t see my friends, I’m staying in this apartment with a cat – and then I have to compose?’”

“The question of productivity was an irritation” – Corie Rose Soumah

Corie Rose Soumah

Corie Rose Soumah

Composers were also cut off from workshopping their pieces with performers – which is especially a problem when you’re writing adventurous music that explores extended instrumental techniques. New Brunswick-born, Ottawa-based Sophie Dupuis, President of the Canadian League of Composers, says that during lockdown, she “missed being able to go to a friend’s house and be, like, ‘Hey, I don’t know much about the trumpet. Can you try a few things for me?’ It’s a challenge to find a substitute for this kind of connection.”

Changes in living conditions can affect a composer’s style. Soumah had long been inspired by the stillness that could be found in the downtime of everyday life in cities – as heard in her sparse, enigmatic 2019 work for bass clarinet and percussion, Trois situations urbaines. But during lockdown, she says, even as public spaces became physically emptier, they “became anxiety-filled. Subways, grocery stores, and public spaces in general didn’t have the same ‘nothingness’ to them – so I’m moving forward to more ‘filled’ music, rather than [sounds] interacting with silence.”

Once the initial shock of the pandemic subsided, many composers took the opportunity to re-think their approach, both to specific pieces and in general. Balfour, who is Cree, had – along with fellow Indigenous composers Eliot Britton and Cris Dirksen – already written pieces for a performance called Captive, originally intended for Dead of Winter’s Truth and Reconciliation series in May of 2020. When the concert was pushed back (it’s now scheduled for May of 2022), the composers were given the option to re-work their music. Says Balfour, “We thought it would be more powerful; we were all ‘captive’ at the time, in lockdown. I wrote an entirely different piece. I think that’s happened quite a bit in the composing world. People have more time to approach things rather than being rushed.”

“Extended deadlines were a relief” – Sophie Dupuis

Sophie Dupuis

Sophie Dupuis

For Dupuis, “Extended deadlines were a relief. They gave me the chance to achieve something I actually wanted to create. After that first year, things started to feel familiar, and the vaccine was starting to be distributed widely, which relieved some of the initial stress, and gave space to imagination and planning.”

Over time, outside-the-box thinking led to online performances, often pre-recorded and featuring the smaller ensembles for which contemporary classical composers predominantly write. In October of 2021, Dupuis was able to sit in remotely on a rehearsal of her new piece, Wingless Birds Can Fly Too, before it was premiered online by a quartet of flute, saxophone, piano, and percussion, distanced and separated by plexiglass, at the Canadian Music Centre in Toronto. The concert, presented by the Association of Canadian Women Composers, was called Building Up. Says Dupuis, “my piece is about a journey to building ourselves up as individuals, with a lot of setbacks along the way that make us stronger.”

Dupuis points to how the period of reflection imposed by the pandemic “has been intensified by the nationwide awakening to under-served and under-represented populations, and voices that were finally amplified.” Indeed, the widespread connections fostered by online platforms during the pandemic led to important conversations about social issues, and about how to reach a more diverse, younger audience. Across Canada, says Balfour, choirs were talking not only about how to stop their performances from becoming super-spreader events (special “singing masks” can help), but also about “de-colonizing the repertoire and organizations.” The name “Dead of Winter” itself emerged from these conversations, replacing the ensemble’s original “Eurocentric, classical” name, Camerata Nova.

Balfour has noticed that in the choral world, non-Indigenous choral directors are now more likely to approach Indigenous composers’ music with “the proper renumeration, the proper protocol, the proper way to approach First Nations languages. That’s very encouraging, because with the discovery of the young ones’ bodies at residential schools, this has been a devastating time. It means a lot to the Indigenous community to be finally heard.”

“It means a lot to the Indigenous community to be finally heard” – Andrew Balfour

Soumah now finds herself busy with commissions, and while she’s excited, she’s also wary of tokenism. She says, “Just thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement, the classical sphere is like, ‘Well, it’s not really a problem for us. We’ll just perform one piece from a BIPOC composer and move on.’ I think [change] has to move in structures.” Classical ensembles and organizations, she says, “have the chance to take a stance and move forward. Some of them are, but I just wish it was faster, because we really need it.”

As in-person performances slowly return, some classical organizations will inevitably be looking to put bums in seats by programming beloved, “safe” popular classics. And yet, Balfour has noticed “new music being commissioned across the board – whether it’s community choirs, professional choirs, [or] high school/collegiate choirs, I’m seeing a new commitment to new Canadian music.” Imaginative performances are on the rise as well. Soumah looks forward to participating in Montréal’s 2022 Festival Unisson, in which performers will play her solo works for their instruments, in front of one audience member each. “The concept is about intimacy, and hearing the instruments in very close proximity,” she says. The concerts will emphasize the kind of physical connection that lockdowns cut off. “I think it’s a beautiful project.”

Among Dupuis’ commissions are a work for the B.C.-based Naden Navy Band about the experiences of military sexual trauma (MST) survivors, and another for a cross-cultural project by Toronto’s PhoeNX Ensemble that involves Canadian and Chinese composers. “Things like boldness, individuality, and fairness expressed in art really inspire me,” she says. “My values are more apparent in the type of work that I’m doing now.” The reflection imposed by the pandemic has allowed her to work in what she calls “a more peaceful and grounded way.”

Says Balfour, “I’m lucky enough to come out of this feeling a bit more confident in my writing. Most people I know are expressing this idea of not taking things for granted. Whenever you come through an unprecedented time, there’s always a shift in collective thinking. The closest example is the trauma in the collective memory in the aftermath of World Wars I and II. I don’t think we went through anything quite as drastic, but billions are still affected. It will be interesting to see what comes out of this, artistically. It’s kind of an exciting time.”

FM – the acronym of François-Maurice – Le Sieur has long stopped counting the films and TV series that he’s scored. The definitive trait of his music is that it illustrates the subject at hand, but never obfuscates it. His latest work can be heard on Tou.TV’s series Doute raisonnable, but he’s also launched an album of solo compositions. Piano, Désert & Machines was born of the inspiration provided by the piano when the man has some free time.

“A lot of artists work on multiple platforms – video, instrumentals, songs, TV – but I’m a film buff,” says FM Le Sieur, as an opener. “Screen music isn’t just one aspect of my work, it’s everything I do – and like to do.” In other words, his intense desire to share is what motivated him to release Piano, Désert & Machines. “I liked listening to it, it’s relaxing, and even though I’ve been in a band before and I did compose other stuff than screen music, I’d never actually done an album like that,” he assures us.

He first re-visited a few pieces written for Émile Gaudreault’s films and then, without thinking about it, he drifted towards inspiration from Steve Reich, an artist he greatly admires. “Serenade for Steve Reich” opens the album, even though the clear connection between the piece and Reich’s melancholy only became evident after the composition was done.

“Whether I’m working on an ad, a TV series, or a film, I always get flashes of music when I look at moving images,” says Le Sieur. “That’s why my album of compositions certainly wasn’t pre-meditated,” he adds, about the genesis of the project. “When the pandemic hit us like a shovel in the face, I took some time off to have fun. I worked on the project, and also on a violin concerto that’s on a tablet somewhere at home.”

But once he was done recording those bits of “fun,” he still craved moving images. “I don’t like the ugly layout of iTunes, where you listen to songs without cover art,” he says, giggling. “At first I always used still lifes or images of solitude and isolation, then, finally, I let myself be carried away by the photos of Luc Robitaille, who I know. His impressive images guided me for the remainder of the project.” He humbly admits that he was moved by his own pieces, which led to the creation of the album. “I don’t want to imply it was an accident, but I had time on my hands and a strong desire to make music for myself. As with many projects, if my creation moves me, I know it can move others.”

A chameleon of musical composition, he knows how to find his place in a project without taking centre stage. His music plays a secondary role, but a strong and essential one. He’s the man who says a lot without uttering a single word. “I’m a good subject for silly things, or for dramas. I do bespoke,” he says. But how does one know if one has hit the target? “Everything I do musically is a happy accident,” says Le Sieur. “The software I use is always recording, even when I didn’t hit the ‘record’ button. That means I sometimes find stuff I totally forgot about. And in the end, some magic happens.”

Work on Doute raisonnable was supposed to start in June of 2020, but the pandemic changed those plans. “It’s a story about the creation of a sex crimes squad inside the Montréal police department. It’s incredibly well-written, dark and intelligent. But there’s also a kind of fragility, because of the victims. It’s a series that’s demanding of its audience, and I like that,” confides Le Sieur. He consciously doubled down on being at the service of the story, to avoid yanking the viewers out of the delicate subject matter. “I played with textures a lot and tweaked sounds, like the violin for example, so that they were two octaves lower and sounded even sadder,” he says. “I didn’t even go near more flamboyant instruments.”

If the TV projects were indeed paused or at least slowed down by the pandemic, Le Sieur is rapidly going back to “normal life.” “I’m going to work with François Avard again for the first time since Les Bougons,” he says. “It’s an irreverent and intelligent script, a reflection on society, that revolves around a college professor who’s fed up and decides to move to the countryside.” Work will also start soon on Season Two of Doute raisonnable, as well as two other “secret” projects that should come to fruition in the spring. “There’s also my violin concerto that I should probably release,” he says absent-mindedly. “Maybe an album of violin, if I feel like it. Maybe not, if I don’t. We’ll see.” Well, we’ll hear, as it were.

Lou-Adrianne CassidyOn the morning of the release of her second album, Lou-Adriane Cassidy posted on social networks a list of the things she learned while making Lou-Adriane Cassidy vous dit : Bonsoir. Among them: “We can do everything, when you think about it.” And since we’re talking, we ask her to elaborate.

I was with Thierry Larose and Al [Alexandre Martel, the album’s co-producer and her boyfriend],” she says. “We were working on Thierry’s new song after micro-dosing LSD, and during my trip, I wrote ‘We can do everything, when you think about it’ in my phone. I felt it in my very core, and it became a leitmotif for the whole album.”

Her first album, C’est la fin du monde à tous les jours (2019), largely followed a concept of songwriting more associated with the tradition of the great interpreters to which her mother (Paule-Andrée Cassidy) belongs, rather than that of the unbridled freedom of rock. Among the other learnings on the aforementioned list: “I have learned to be proud of myself.” That’s no small admission.

“It’s like I always felt like what I was doing wasn’t in line with who I was,” says Cassidy. “I thought, ‘It doesn’t have to be a big deal, your art isn’t supposed to represent the whole of who you are.’ But I was always uncomfortable with the image I gave off, and who I felt I was in my life.” It’s no surprise, then, that this exhilarating sophomore album feels like the thrill of meeting someone for the first time.

Hubert Lenoir, for whom she was a backing vocalist, is a shining example of an artist refusing to be anything other than himself, in all circumstances. “Every other day I still have doubts and think that I suck,” she laughs, as if not to imply that she now knows all the secrets of Zen and self-love. “But I have this certainty that I’ve achieved what I wanted. I’ve understood that it’s possible to be proud of yourself in the creative process.”

Somewhere between ’70s soft rock (a style dear to Alexandre Martel) and the elegant cockiness of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, LouAdriane Cassidy vous dit: Bonsoir shines – not only through good taste and a mastery of its references, but also through that rare wisdom of not making a song last just to make it last. “It’s not because the songs are short that they’re coitus interruptus,” jokes the singer, not missing an opportunity to jump on a sexual metaphor, since it’s a theme that permeates that album.

It’s undoubtedly a slippery subject, but Cassidy embraces it with just the right combination of clarity and impressionism that allows her, and her writing partner Martel (him again) to avoid the sad-sack metaphors with which the “deed” is often associated. Has a man’s ability to not climax too fast ever been celebrated more beautifully than in the line “Je sais que tu sais m’attendre avant d’arriver” (“I know you’re able to wait for me before arriving”)?

“It was always a balance [between vagueness and clarity] that I was trying to achieve,” she says, noting that she even allowed herself to write texts whose meaning only became clear to her after the fact. “J’espère encore que quelque part l’attente s’arrête” opens the album with the vigour of a superbly incisive guitar line, and the deceptively nonchalant grace of a voice that seems to be able to accomplish anything is a perfect example. The singer only understood recently that the song is about orgasms.

“It used to be really unpleasant when I wrote by myself,” says Cassidy. “I was never satisfied. I would just give up and think, ‘It is what it is,’ just because I was fed up.”

“It’s important to have jokes on an album,” Martel often said to her, a belief that should be taken as a reminder: maybe it’s when we take ourselves the least seriously that the most fertile ideas emerge. “Prends-moi… pas pour une conne,” (“don’t take me for a c__t”) she sings on “Entre mes jambes” (“Between My Legs”), fully assuming the pun. “I would never have allowed myself to write lines like that on my own, because I would’ve been convinced they’re lame,” says Cassidy. “But having someone with me that says ‘No, there’s a good idea in there, keep digging,’ was incredibly nourishing.”

“Is this fun, or what?” we hear her say at the end of “Je suis arrivée,” a question that’s greeted by the laughter of a child, namely Odile, Martel’s daughter, whom Cassiday had on her shoulders while recording her vocals to calm the impatient child at the end of a long studio session. “Is this fun, or what?” became Cassody’s modus operandi. In short, the pleasure derived from creativity is probably the only element one is able to control. Or to boil it down to its simplest expression: fun is fun.

“We need to learn to be gentle with ourselves, to put less pressure on what we’re creating and tell ourselves repeatedly that it’s OK to make mistakes,” says Cassidy. “We need to know our strengths, yet when we’re good at something and it comes easy to us, we tend to value that thing less. But in a creative process, quality is never guaranteed. Whether it took you six minutes or two years to write a song means nothing. Sure, you need to have ambition, be thorough, and want to push your limits – but at the end of the day, you have so little control over the end result. The one thing you control is how you’re going to experience the process.”