The Canadian Music Centre calls out to new ears

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Recognition is a relative thing in the arcane world of modern composition. “You could be the most famous contemporary-music composer in Canada,” says Kelly-Marie Murphy, “and you’d still only be known by, like, 120 people.”

She’s exaggerating, of course. Hundreds more must know of the Ottawan’s work: she’s had her pieces performed by symphony orchestras from coast to coast, as well as by such luminaries as cellist Shauna Rolston, clarinetist James Campbell, and the Borealis String Quartet. Millions who might enjoy her relatively accessible music have yet to hear it, however, which makes her suggestion that Canadian composers “have to band together” all the more pressing.

Fortunately, there’s an organization that’s fostering exactly that kind of shared purpose: the Canadian Music Centre. Born in 1959 as a specialized music library, it’s now expanding, thanks to digital technology, into distance education and live webcasts. The CMC’s Vancouver office launches its new B.C. Creative Hub this week with Lunar Tunes, a fundraising concert that will feature the Vancouver Bach Choir’s Leslie Dala conducting a chamber ensemble in performances of Murphy’s Sur les pas de la lune and early modernist legend Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.

“What we’re doing is a whole new initiative, basically to try and reach new audiences,” says CMC regional director Bob Baker, in a separate telephone interview from the organization’s Vancouver office. A composer himself, he adds that the Creative Hub is in part a response to CBC Radio’s near-total abandonment of noncommercial music. And while the centre’s webcasts will fill some of that gap, Baker says that the key to winning the public’s interest is getting its attention at an early age.

“We’ve started this program called Composer in the Classroom, and it’s been a huge success,” he says. “It’s literally sending composers to work with kids in schools on the process of creating new works. Unfortunately, we could only send composers to schools around the major urban centres, ’cause that’s where most composers tend to live. But now, with this distance-learning initiative, we’re starting to ‘send’ composers all around B.C.—and with that same equipment, we’re able to start webcasting different concerts from our space here, and also remotely.”

Although the CMC—which recently remodelled its space to incorporate a small performance venue—hosts dozens of concerts, seminars, and score-reading workshops throughout the year, Lunar Tunes is the brainchild of soprano Heather Pawsey, a strong supporter of the centre’s efforts. And the way she put the concert together exemplifies how useful the organization’s 22,000 archived scores and 12,000 online audio clips can be to the resourceful musician. Initially, she wanted to sing Pierrot Lunaire, to mark the 100th anniversary of this epochal work’s debut. When Baker suggested Pawsey pair it with something Canadian, she searched the CMC database for scores with the same instrumentation and came up with Sur les pas de la lune.

Any other similarities between the two pieces are unintentional, says Murphy. “Even the moon reference is completely coincidental,” she explains, adding that although she knows the Schoenberg piece well, she was more inspired by the poetry of Philippe Jaccottet. “I was drawn to this particular poem because of its symbolism, with all of the elements of moon and water and earth and grass. The two pieces will work very well together, but it was not my master plan. That’s the story of my career: happy accidents!”

And, of course, she’s also benefited from the help of the Canadian Music Centre, which is striving harder than ever to ensure that Canada’s musical culture remains vital.

Checking out the CMC, says Murphy, is “the first step for anybody who is interested in learning about Canadian music.

“I think we’re really lucky in Canada that we have such a wonderful resource,” she adds. “I’ve travelled a lot, and I realize that not every country is as lucky as we are.”

Lunar Tunes takes place at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward’s Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre next Thursday (September 13), and will be streamed live at the Music Centre website.

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