Composer Nickel puts his faith in music

PhD students usually present a public defence of their dissertations. Typically, the audience for these minute dissections-sometimes, eviscerations-is small: friends and family who have also endured the ink-stained wretch's slog along the stations of the academic cross. Larry Nickel is a doctor of musical arts candidate in composition at the UBC School of Music. While he won't be in defence mode until the spring, his project's unveiling, and most important test, comes this Saturday night (December 3) at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. There, the University Singers, the UBC Choral Union, the Trinity Western Choir, the UBC Symphony Orchestra, and three soloists-a heck of a lot of firepower for a student work-will put his dissertation, a Requiem for Peace, through its practical paces. It's an ambitious piece: 15 movements, with text in 11 languages, each expressive of pacifist ideals.

Ten days before the event, in the cozy quarters he shares with his wife, Edna, at UBC's Green College, Nickel was jitters-free. His equipoise is not without reason. The piece, though untested, is hardly unmediated. He's lavished three years of attention on the writing, As well, it's had the eyes and ears of his adviser, Stephen Chatman, and the guidance of choral specialist and Vancouver Bach Choir music director Bruce Pullan, who will conduct the performance. And although the Requiem is Nickel's most ambitious work to date, he's no duffer when it comes to writing for voices. He's the com?poser in residence for the West Coast Mennonite Chamber Choir, a topnotch group with 13 recordings to its credit. He also wrote and arranged a great many pieces for the choirs and ensembles he directed during his 25-year tenure at the Mennonite Educational Institute in Abbotsford. And it must be said that faith, of which he has plenty, imparts confidence. Also, anyone who has hovered on the mortal brink, as Nickel has-a near-fatal bout with encephalitis in 1989-is bound to bring a certain perspective even to something as intimidating as a world premiere.

Nickel was a child when God and music staked their formal, lasting claims. He remembers picking off the high notes in Mrs. Fast's choir when he was only three, remembers the extravagant red bow ties and white gowns. He remembers how his father would sing, rather than tell, bedtime stories, and how the family, in that old-fashioned Mennonite way, would harmonize at home or on car trips. He remembers very specifically the day he named himself a Christian. At the age of eight, after listening to a teacher in vacation Bible school talk about Jesus and sacrifice and redemption, he and his friend David Friesen got down on their knees and signed up.

The godless cynic hearing this story expects the beat pause, the wry smile, the "Can you believe it?" shake of the head. It doesn't come. The capper turns out to be "I just thought Jesus was the coolest guy." Although his beliefs have been tempered and changed and challenged over the years, he thinks so still. In a way, Nickel's faith might be said to resemble his music: accessible, not reliant on dissonance, designed for ease of listening and pleasure of singing-in a word, conservative. That's a word he readily and unapologetically applies to his compositions. It's not a stance many artists rush to embrace, and it might be that his indifference to fashion marks him as a kind of radical fringe dweller. Certainly, his unclouded idealism and the way he and Edna live simply, with few material encumbrances, can't be said to be the way of the majority.

Nickel is a good storyteller and after a few family fables you may get the idea that this same principled eccentricity, if that's what it is, is bred in the bone. He loves, for example, to talk about India, where his family moved when he was a child, where he went to school, and where he's often returned. Why India? Revelation, really. It happened in Burnaby. His father, a mechanical engineer, was driving home one night. He skidded on black ice. The car rolled, flipped into the ditch. The roof caved in, save for above the elder Mr. Nickel's head. God's hand. Battered and bruised, but still in one mobile piece, he staggered home, walked into the house, and announced, "We're becoming missionaries." Just like that.

In India, they lived in a Mennonite community where some fundamentalist elders took umbrage with Nickel and his brother's fondness for the Beatles. The only way they could safeguard Sgt. Pepper was to conceal the album in a suitcase and bury it in the forest. Now and then, they'd disinter their treasure, and listen to it in the bathroom, flushing the toilet and running the water as aural camouflage.

Ironically, says Nickel, it was the Beatles who stirred his own urge to write; the demon rock 'n' roll that set him on the long and winding road of praising God in song. It's taken him all the way to the doctoral door, and a dissertation with a message that boils down to "Give peace a chance." Lennon and McCartney would be pleased; likewise, we can suppose, the Mennonite elders. Reconciliation at last. A reason to say Amen.