SOCAN is mourning the loss of award-winning composer Phil Strong, who passed away on Dec. 3, 2022, at the age of 59, after a battle with amyloidosis, a rare illness, for which he was being treated. Much appreciated in the Canadian music and arts communities for his calm demeanor, sharp wit, and great skill, Strong composed music and designed sound for film, dance, theatre, musical performances, art installations, and educational outreach.
Among those reacting to Strong’s passing on Facebook, artist, singer-songwriter, and composer Kurt Swinghammer called him “a unique, gentle, generous and most brilliant creative spirit.” On the same platform, bassist, singer-songwriter, and composer David Woodhead, who often worked with Strong, called him “one of the most talented and inventive people I’ve ever met and hung out with.
Only a few months before his passing, Strong earned the most recent in a string of honours, this one at the inaugural edition of the Canadian Screen Music Awards (CASMAs), held Sept. 27, 2022 at El Mocambo in Toronto. He was honoured in the category of Best Original Score for a Short Film, for his work on In the Wake of Progress, directed by Ed Burtynsky – the soundtrack for which he was recruited by the legendary producer Bob Ezrin. Typically, in his acceptance speech, he deflected the glory from himself to those with whom he’d collaborated.
At the time of his passing, Strong – working alongside his life partner, singer-composer Laurel MacDonald, and their colleague composer Cathy Nosaty – was starting on the production of Moving Parts, for Denise Fujiwara of Fujiwara Dance Inventions, slated for August of 2023. This would be the fourth edition, and culmination, of a multi-year project. Each year (pausing for COVID), Strong would arrange the music for, and musically accompany, a new 45-minute dance and choral production, which premiered either at Harbourfront Centre Theatre at The Power Plant, or at the summer Dusk Dances event in downtown Toronto’s Withrow Park.
Strong grew up in Sudbury, ON, playing piano and drums, and tried his hand at composing from an early age. After a stint playing drums and singing alongside Laurel MacDonald in Toronto quartet 3 Our Tour in the ‘90s, his interests led to a vital audio internship at the Banff Centre for the Arts. There, he came into contact with many artists, who imparted their craft and insight in the art of soundtrack creation. Since then, Strong had scored the soundtracks for more than 30 films, as well as dozens of dance productions and art installations.
Working, writing, and performing together since the early ‘90s, Strong and MacDonald teamed up to score several films, including Year Of The Lion, which earned a Gemini Award for Best Original Musical Score in 2003. The following year, Strong generated a combined sound design and musical score for Continuous Journey, which generated two more Gemini nominations; one for Best Music and another for Best Sound. In 2010, Strong picked up another Gemini for his original score to Cat Ladies. Strong and MacDonald also earned a Canadian Screen Sward nomination, and a 2021 SOCAN Award win for Achievement in Made-For-TV Movie Music, for You Are Here: A Come From Away Story – which detailed the true story behind the hugely successful stage musical Come From Away.
Strong was the principal composer for Christopher House and Toronto Dance Theatre for more than a decade, creating soundtracks for nine major dance productions – and earning the first-ever Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Music in Dance (for Timecode Break). He was nominated for a Dora again in Outstanding Music and Design for EUNOIA, Denise Fujiwara’s piece based on Christian Bök’s seminal book of poetry.
As an installation designer, Strong was tasked by John Oswald to design a 14-channel surround sound system (as well as some multi-channel composition) for the multi-screen video installation, Stress, by Bruce Mau. This piece debuted at the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in the year 2000, and continued on an international circuit. Phil again collaborated with Oswald to create A Time to Hear for Here, a permanent 35-channel audio installation in the Royal Ontario Museum. He also engineered immersive surround compositions for Sara Angelucci’s Anonymous Chorus and Su Rynard’s As Soon As Weather Permits.
Strong produced albums for several recording artists, and contributed to collections of sound and music, as well as releasing soundtracks from his film scores and dance productions. Lusciana’s Lullaby, produced for Laurel MacDonald, became Echoes Radio’s Best album of 2005. Storas, which Strong produced and arranged for Mary Jane Lamond, earned an East Coast Music Award for Best Solo Album in 2006.
Strong also headed up a Film Sound & Music course for a decade, and was involved in outreach recording and production at the University of Toronto School. He was also known to perform on the T.O.O.B. – an electro-acoustic instrument of his own design.
SOCAN extends its deepest condolences to Laurel MacDonald, Strong’s family, his friends, his musical colleagues, and anybody who’s ever enjoyed his music.