Gillian Smith was nine when a music teacher visited her Halifax school to play his violin for the students. She was instantly drawn to it. “I loved the sound and wanted to learn it as soon as possible,” she recalls. In the years that followed, Smith let herself be led by her passion for the instrument, developing a love for the music of contemporary composers along the way.
So when it came time for Smith to conceive of her first album, she knew where to turn. “I knew I wanted to do an album of music for solo violin,” she says, acknowledging the long history of music for the instrument, dating back to Johann Sebastian Bach’s powerful compositions. But she also knew that she wanted to perform contemporary work written by women, who continue to be under-represented in classical music repertoire.
The result is Into the Stone, which includes the music of five composers, all of whom are Canadian (and all but one, SOCAN members): Ana Sokolović, Alice Ping Yee Ho, Veronika Krausas, Katie Agócs (BMI), and Chantale Laplante. Recorded at First Baptist Church in Halifax, the album was produced, engineered, and mastered by Jeremy VanSlyke on his Leaf Music label, with financial support from FACTOR.
“Each of the pieces featured on the album is a really great piece,” says Smith. “Each one has a specific and dramatic story, and a dazzling array of colours, textures, and timbres. I was really drawn to these pieces; each has its own sound world.” The album’s title is drawn from Krausas’ composition of the same name, which was in turn inspired by a line from a poem by Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen, that asks, “What lives inside the stone? Miracles, strange light.”
“My top priority is to serve the composer in terms of being true to what they’ve put on the page.”
“I would say that each piece on the album is rooted in a tradition of violin playing – and not taking us too far outside of that – but also expanding the possibilities for the violin,” says Smith, describing contemporary violin music’s range of sounds, created by doing things like playing close to the bridge of the instrument, or plucking its strings. She also revels in the music’s polyphony, which draws multiple melodic voices from a single instrument at the same time.
In creating the album, Smith says she worked hard to serve each composer’s original vision, while also putting her own mark on the music. “My top priority is to serve the composer in terms of being true to what they’ve put on the page,” she says. “Beyond that, it’s a process of imagining for yourself how you want it to sound and to bring it to life.”
She connected with each composer early in the process of creating the album, getting to know each a little better in the months that followed. Indeed, when Smith launched the album at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio in October of 2019, one of the composers, Alice Ping Yee Ho, joined her on stage to talk about her piece, Caprice, which demands both technical skill and musicality.
Smith, who holds degrees in violin performance from the Eastman School of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, as well as a Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Minnesota, says she’s excited about the chance to expand the audience for contemporary Canadian classical music. She’ll be playing music from the album as part of a concert at Acadia University, where she teaches part-time, in January of 2020, with more concerts to come.
“I’m really passionate about music being written now,” says Smith, “and really enthusiastic about exploring that repertoire as much as possible and playing that music as much as I can.”