Boxing, we’re told, is the quintessentially male sport. Joyce Carol Oates, in her 1985 book On Boxing, even says this: “Men fighting men to determine…masculinity…excludes women as completely as the female experience of childbirth excludes men. The female boxer violates this stereotype and cannot be taken seriously—she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous….”

Toronto composer and sound artist Juliet Palmer, a founding member of the interdisciplinary performance collective urbanvessel, disagrees. Palmer’s Voice-Box, with librettist Anna Chatterton and choreographer Julia Aplin, is about women who box, and it takes them very seriously indeed, using boxing as a metaphor for making a distinction between violence and aggression, and for understanding the positive value of aggression.

“Aggression is a very gendered issue,” says Palmer, who initially came to North America from her native New Zealand in 1990 to work with Meredith Monk in New York, earning a PhD in composition from Princeton in 1999. She now lives in Toronto. “If a woman is aggressive, she’s often sidelined. But positive assertion is how we act in the world, how we get things accomplished.”

The initial idea for Voice-Box, commissioned by Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, came when opera singer—and accomplished boxer—Vilma Vitols approached Palmer about bringing the worlds of opera and boxing together.

“It took us a while to find the form for Voice-box,” says Palmer, whose previous works with urbanvessel include Slip, a site-specific performance for bathhouse (performed at Toronto’s Harrison Baths), and the much-acclaimed Stitch, an a cappella work for three female singers whose central metaphor is a sewing sweatshop. “Often there was the urge to push towards narrative, which wasn’t helpful. We’re exploring the structure of the sport — it’s more of an event than a story.

“It was a collaborative process, with the librettist there from the beginning. We spent time in the gym experimenting with training routines and vocal improvisation to see what impulses were triggered by the physical language of boxing.”

The piece, structured in a series of “bouts,” involves four protagonists (yes, there’s some real boxing) and, as in much of Palmer’s vocal writing, shifts fluidly between styles, exploiting the particular skills of its performers—improviser, jazz and gospel singer Christine Duncan; actor and opera singer Neema Bickersteth; actor, comedian and boxing coach Savoy Howe; and Vitols, whose expertise ranges from Baroque opera to contemporary music.

“I write specifically for different performers, and I adapt what I’ve written in collaboration with them,” says Palmer, whose chamber and orchestral music is more abstract and complex than her theatre music. “If they have great improvisational skills, I make sure they have that option; if their strengths are in interpreting precise notation, then I do that. The challenge is in how those different voices can share the same space. Each has a different emotional register that I want to access.”

To expand her understanding of the voice in dramatic contexts in different cultures, Palmer has studied South Indian singing, Japanese folk singing and Georgian singing—to name a few. In Voice-Box, Duncan uses Tibetan throat singing to make the idea of aggression clear in the music. “It’s in your face and uncomfortable,” says Palmer, “a deep, multiphonic sound that’s non-feminine and aggressive.”

There’s also a chorus of grunting sounds taken to extremes, an operatic duel, a tango, an electro-acoustic score that recycles sound endemic to the gym and the sport—bells, punching bags, squeaking ropes—and a cheesy, pre-recorded boxing theme.

That theme goes public for the first time when Voice-Box premieres on Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage Series in Toronto, Nov. 10-14. We hear it’s a knock-out.

It’s fitting, somehow, that Catherine MacLellan compares songwriting to gardening. After all, the Prince Edward Island-based singer-songwriter is unabashedly obsessed with the latter. She admits that these days, her garden is where she finds her inspiration. “I really love digging in the dirt,” she says with a laugh. “A lot of things come to me there.”


For MacLellan, the songwriting process is as mysterious as a sprouting seed growing into a full-blown plant. “It’s similar in the sense that you don’t have total control of it,” she explains thoughtfully. “You do what you can…. You can put compost in the ground, but then it’s kind of up to the seed.” MacLellan describes her own rather organic songwriting process as one wherein she waits for a “song feeling” to strike, rather than adhering to any sort of strict writing schedule. “Basically, I just feel a song coming on, and then I sit down and write it.”


It’s an approach that has served her well thus far. With three albums under her belt, MacLellan’s honest, unpretentious and heartfelt approach to music-making has earned her heaps of praise from both audiences and critics alike. Most recently, she won both Female Solo Recording of the Year and Folk Recording of the Year at the 2010 East Coast Music Awards for her album Water in the Ground, along with Solo Artist of the Year at the 2009 Canadian Folk Music Awards. In the last year she also represented PEI as part of CBC Radio 2’s Great Canadian Song Quest, and took home a handful of prizes — including both Songwriter and Album of the Year — at the 2010 Music PEI Awards.


Though MacLellan jokes that she first starting writing “bad songs” at age 10 (her brother’s cigarette smoking was an early theme), she says it was the death of her father, singer-songwriter Gene MacLellan, from suicide in 1995 that enabled her to find her voice in music. “I was a shy kid,” says MacLellan, who was 14 at the time, “and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I hid in my room and wrote all these sad songs. That’s really how I got started.” MacLellan says songwriting is still her preferred method for exploring things that are hard to talk about. “I’m still on the path of writing songs about emotions that I can’t find the words for in everyday conversation.”


MacLellan, who was born in Ontario but grew up in PEI, credits her father for showing her what was possible for her own musical career. “We would come home from school and he’d be editing a song or writing one with a guitar,” she recalls, “and that was how he made his living. I think it gave me the idea that I could do it.” But thanks to the early exposure, she also knew better than to romanticize life in the music industry. “I knew it would be a struggle, but it was one that I was willing to take up.”


Though MacLellan acknowledges her reputation for making melancholy music, she is currently embracing a more optimistic outlook in her songwriting. “I don’t want to leave a legacy of ‘I’m so sad and my life is so hard,’” she says with a smile, crediting the birth of her daughter, Isabel, now four, for helping her to find some lightness. “Suddenly it wasn’t about me any more. My perspective definitely changed.” Though she acknowledges the pull to write sad songs about things like break-ups, MacLellan says she realized she didn’t want to keep herself stuck in that rut. “I wanted to get myself out of the pattern of sadness and misery. I want to be happy!”


On the cusp of getting to work on her next album (“I have a big backlog of songs,” she says), which she hopes to have realized within the next year, MacLellan says she’s grateful to get to make music for a living. “I don’t have these grand dreams,” she says. “Mine are really practical. My one dream was to get to do this for a living and to not have to do another job — and now it’s about what I have to do to keep this going.”


She acknowledges having a dream come true, however, when in February, she shared a stage with musicians Gordon Lightfoot and Gord Downie as part of a behind-the-music concert presented by the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, wherein an emerging artist is invited to perform with more established musicians. “I can’t believe it actually happened,” she says, the disbelief at playing with two of her musical heroes still palpable. “I don’t see how it can get much better than that!”


At the end of the day, however, MacLellan says she feels privileged to come home to her daughter — and to her garden. “I’m kind of a homebody,” she says, acknowledging that her touring schedule gives her a best-of-both-worlds balance between big-city stimulation and small-town community living. One more dream, she says, is to find a way to make touring “more meaningful and less crazy.” Then, MacLellan says, she really could imagine doing it for the rest of her life. “I’m a practical dreamer,” she says. “I like attainable dreams.”

Translations prior to Fall 2010 are currently unavailable. 

Christian Clermont est certainement l’un de nos compositeurs de musique audiovisuelle les plus prolifiques. On ne compte plus les collaborations et distinctions de celui qui a donné naissance aux trames sonores de 5051 rue Des Ormes, Les hauts et les bas de Sophie Paquin et Aveux, pour ne nommer que celles-là. Sa capacité à assimiler tous les genres et cultures musicales sont certainement au cœur de ce succès. Peu importe le défi, il sait sortir de son chapeau la couleur mélodique qui lui collera parfaitement.


Son apprentissage, il l’a tout d’abord fait à la percussion : « J’ai commencé la batterie au milieu de mon secondaire. En secondaire cinq, je me dirigeais en sciences, mais j’ai réalisé que je ne me sentirais pas à ma place. Je suis donc allé en musique au Cégep Sainte-Foy. Je partais de loin et j’ai dû travaillé fort. L’année suivante, j’ai été accepté au Cégep Saint-Laurent, » relate-t-il.


Le désir de devenir compositeur est venu un peu plus tard, lors d’un périple de ressourcement dans l’Ouest canadien. « Je me suis dit que j’allais entrer en composition. Je suis donc allé à l’Université de Montréal, en électro-acoustique. Il faut dire que j’avais découvert la musique classique alors que j’étais au Cégep. J’ai eu un coup de foudre total pour la 40e symphonie de Mozart. J’ai lâché les percussions pour le piano. J’ai aussi fait du jazz et des arrangements en apprenant le travail de studio. Je suis vraiment resté dans cette bulle durant quatre ans. Mais j’avais beaucoup de questionnements en même temps que j’étais dans cette bulle. Le déclic s’est fait un peu plus tard, après l’université. Je me suis monté un petit studio. J’y ai enregistré certaines musiques de films pour des amis, sans trop savoir que j’allais faire ça de ma vie. J’ai ensuite demandé à mon père de m’endosser pour monter un vrai studio. Je me suis mis à enregistrer de la musique de film, mais je n’étais vraiment pas bon au début! » avoue celui qui travaille maintenant en compagnie de sa conjointe, Agnès Ménard, et du musicien Charles-Antoine L’Écuyer.




Beaucoup de contrats corporatifs et surtout de nombreux voyages auront finalement permis à Christian Clermont de devenir le compositeur qu’il est aujourd’hui. « Je suis tout d’abord allé à Dakar en Afrique durant deux semaines, juste pour rencontrer des musiciens et prendre des cours. Les voyages sont ensuite devenus une partie importante de ma démarche, » souligne celui qui s’est rendu régulièrement aux États-Unis afin de rencontrer d’autres compositeurs et suivre des formations. « J’ai appris à travailler en équipe et j’ai développé une vraie passion pour plein de genres différents. Tout est parti de l’université, où j’ai joué autant du classique que du jazz. Chaque projet est différent. Dans Aveux, il y avait beaucoup de cordes. Dans 5150 rue des Ormes, le réalisateur voulait de l’électro-acoustique. J’ai ouvert mon piano, qui est devenu l’élément central. Toutes les textures et percussions venaient du piano, » explique-t-il.


Et la chanson populaire ?


En musique audiovisuelle, on est bien loin de la chanson populaire, avec ses boucles et refrains accrocheurs. On pourrait penser qu’un compositeur désire parfois sortir de l’ombre et obtenir la reconnaissance du grand public. Et Clermont a bien failli faire le saut il y a quelques années, avant de renoncer au projet. Ce n’était que partie remise! « J’ai voulu sortir un album il y a dix ans. J’avais cinq chansons, mais je ne les trouvais pas assez bonnes et j’ai laissé tomber. Plus récemment, j’ai dû composer des chansons pour certaines séries comme Les hauts et les bas de Sophie Paquin. J’ai alors mis des tounes de côté et j’y ai pris du plaisir. C’est un autre monde. Je crois que la clé est que je sorte de mon studio pour enregistrer. C’est en train de se faire. Mais dès le départ, c’était un hobby et je veux que cela continue de cette façon. Je travaille là-dessus depuis trois ans, » indique-t-il.


Outre son premier album, qui pourrait bien voir le jour dans les prochaines semaines ou mois, Christian Clermont a d’autres projets en tête. Il y a ce disque de compositions instrumentales, également en chantier, ainsi qu’un désir avoué de collaborer un jour avec Céline Dion et le Cirque du Soleil. « C’est sûr que tout ce que je fais en ce moment va finir par me mener quelque part. Il faut juste que je trouve la formule pour que je reste aussi passionné. Sinon, tout perd son sens, » dit celui qui a pourtant remporté cinq prix de la SOCAN et reçu des nominations aux Génies, aux Gemini ainsi qu’aux Gémeaux, notamment cette année dans la catégorie Meilleur thème musical pour la série Aveux.