Thoughts on my Concerto and the Bishop project

10/26/20133 min read

From a letter of Giuseppina Strepponi to her husband Verdi , 3 January 1853:

…'And you haven't composed anything? You see, you do not have your poor Livello in a corner of your room, tucked away in an armchair, saying to you 'This is beautiful, Wizard (one of her nicknames for him). This is not. Stop, play that again. This is original.' (Mary Jane Matz, in her magnificent biography of Verdi, translates 'Livello' as 'Pest' - which is baffling, since the word seems to mean 'Level' - the one who provides equilibrium!)

It gives me inordinate pleasure to know that Verdi and I have at least this in common: a blessed 'Livello' who knows better than we do what it is we are trying to do, and whose participation in the process is essential if we are to 'open up the little boxes and let our magnificent (ahem) musical ideas out of them.' (her words again).

I've just finished my Concerto for Orchestra, perhaps the most intensive gestation of my career (nine months!), commissioned by the Montreal Chamber Orchestra and their marvelous conductor Wanda Kaluzny, in commemoration of the orchestra's fortieth anniversary. I have already spoken of how difficult it was for me to accept Jocelyne's retirement from singing, the closing of the chapter of my life when the rich vibrant fabric of her voice was my raw material. But our collaboration has, if anything, only intensified. The question as to whether I was a text-bound composer - one whose peculiar and limited gift was confined to working with poetry and languages - has, I think, been resoundingly answered in the negative. I felt very much as though I were wandering into an unknown region, one which obliged me to find out what it was that I needed to say without the intermediary of a text. It has been an exhilarating experience, and I think that some of that exhilaration has found its way into the music! If you are in Montreal on April 15, 2014, please come to Salle Bourgie and hear the work - together with Haydn's last symphony, Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin and Rossini's bassoon concerto.

I would be baffled by the attempt to say in words precisely what the 'Concerto' evokes, though I know that the piece would be very different if we had not gone to Russia, and that it enabled me to explore previously unsuspected regions of my psyche. The composer Alexandre Tansman (who wrote a magnificent Concerto for Orchestra himself), speaking of Stravinsky, said: 'the aim of art is to provoke an emotional reaction, not to express one…' The relationship of music and emotion is a slippery one to grasp, but I would place Tansman's aperçu side by side with E.M. Forster's 'How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?' Neither formulation is perfectly satisfactory, but in some sense composing is like digging: searching for nuggets, crystals, shapes.

Or like Elizabeth Bishop's Sandpiper: 'looking for something, something, something…'

My friend the poet Lawrence Raab has just alerted me to this saying of Adrienne Rich: 'Poems are like dreams. In them you put what you don't know you know.' This encapsulates precisely my experience with this Concerto.

Which brings me to the other great project of these past few years, the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary project, culminating in Suzie LeBlanc's wonderful new CD on the Centrediscs label, 'I am in need of music.' It was a joy and an honour to be part of this project, instigated by Suzie in conjunction with Sandra Barry and John Barnstead, founders and guiding spirits of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia. The CD features Bishop settings by Alasdair MacLean, Emily Doolittle, Christos Hatzis and myself, performed by Suzie, the Blue Engine String Quartet, and the Elizabeth Bishop Players under the direction of Dinuk Wijeratne - whose glorious capoeira-inspired work Brazil, January 1, 1502 is too large in all senses for the confines of a CD - IMAX might do it justice, or at the very least a DVD in HD! The beautifully produced package includes a booklet with the texts of all the poems and extensive notes in English and French, and a DVD of a pilgrimage Suzie took with filmmaker Linda Rae Dornan, retracing a Newfoundland trek undertaken by Bishop in 1932. The sensitive sonic artistry of John D. S. Adams and Ron Sneddon is fully worthy of the undertaking, which is high praise indeed. I urge you to buy it: it's available at,,, through the Canadian Music Centre at - and as a download on itunes.