Although we live in neighbouring boroughs in Montréal, it’s on the phone that I speak with composer Nicole Lizée. But instead of creating distance, the object we’re using to communicate becomes a subject of conversation: has she ever considered composing a piece for telephones? She has, after all, made music using vintage video games, toys, novelty instruments like the stylophone, and a plethora of strange objects throughout the years. “No, but that’s a good idea, I’ll add it to my list of projects,” she says with a laugh. Maybe she’s joking, but it would come as no surprise to anyone if she actually did it at some point.
And don’t go thinking it’s just a gimmick; these elements, usually foreign to serious or concert music, are part and parcel of the composer’s creative approach. “The objects I use all have a sentimental value,” she says. “At a very young age, I started keeping a list of dream objects that I wanted to integrate in my work, stuff I grew up with, like the E.T. game, an absolutely unplayable videogame for the Atari 2600 considered the biggest flop ever in the history of videogames. Or the Omnichord, a bizarre instrument that I purchased as an adult, but that fascinated me ever since I heard it in the Eurythmics song “Love is a Stranger.” They’re imperfect objects, and therein lies their beauty, to me.”
Lizée is fascinated by obsolete technologies and their sometimes haphazard operation. Raised in a small Saskatchewan village, she grew up in a treasure trove that her father filled with all kinds of electronic devices he repaired and collected. Her unusual musical path took her from Chopin to heavy metal, movie soundtracks to ‘80s pop. She took this baggage with her in the McGill University classrooms where her eclectic approach wasn’t always unanimously approved. “When I presented my Master’s project, a concerto for turntables, certain members of the faculty applauded my originality, and others told me that it wasn’t a real instrument and that it couldn’t be included on sheet music.” Says Lizée. “Which is ludicrous, because, as a matter of fact, I had created a notation system specific to that instrument!”
Since graduating, her bold creative approach has been validated on many occasions: commissions came from all over the place – the Metropolitan Orchestra and Kronos Quartet, among others – and she’s received several prestigious awards. The latest of which is the Jan V. Matejcek Award for new classical music, which she received during SOCAN’s 2017 Awards Gala in Montréal, after a unanimous decision by the jury.
“I was touched, because what means the most to me is the recognition of my peers and of the industry,” says Lizée. “The kind of music I do has nearly zero chances of ending up on the radio, so awards like these are helpful in promoting my work. I’ve immediately noticed increased attention to my work after I won the Jules Léger Award from the Canada Council for the Arts in 2013.”
Since 2012, her projects have grown exponentially, including several works inspired by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, where she manipulates and re-mixes them in a dialogue with solo musicians or orchestras. When she’s not composing for herself or creating her own images, Lizée’s is a highly prized and sought-after musical collaborator.
“I’m so thrilled to see people coming to me, because they recognize and appreciate the specificity of my work,” she says. “I recently received a request from Pat Steward, who was Bryan Adams’ drummer for a long time. He saw one of my concerts in Vancouver and really liked it. After contacting me, he commissioned a piece and simply said, ‘Do your thing.’ That’s the kind of collaboration I find exciting.”
Among the numerous projects that will keep her busy in the coming months, there’s the recording of Death to Kosmische, the piece commissioned by the famous Kronos Quartet, which catapulted her to success on the international scene. She’s also working on a collaboration with the band Collectif9. During Printemps Nordique, in April, she’ll present – alongside Innu rapper Samian – a work for the Montréal Symphony Orchestra inspired by Native legends.
“I don’t care about the genre, as long as it’s a bold and creative project,” says Lizée. “If I’m allowed to maintain my vision, and everybody works from the heart and with integrity, I’m happy.”