Canadian composer Ann Southam brought an engagingly quiet life force to the piano keyboard
There is no other new Canadian composition that has affected me as much as Pond Life, the suite she wrote for pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico three years ago (the photo shows Southam, left, with Quilico, in May, 2009).
I found out last spring that Southam was not well, and intended to see if I could sit down and have a nice long chat with her -- but I procrastinated, much to my regret, because her long career as a composer, which began in the early 1960s had, 30 years later, culminated in a simplicity of language and architecture that spoke eloquently of someone who had found the key to balance in life.
She experimented with electro-acoustic music and serialism, but found her real compositional voice in something no less intellectual, but easier for any listener to grasp. She also taught at the Royal Conservatory of Music for many years.
I'm sure that the many pieces she wrote for modern dance companies (especially Toronto Dance Theatre and Danny Grossman) were part of the process of literally grounding her imagination.
I found an interesting quote from a 2008 copy of Musicworks magazine, which contains an interview with pianist Eve Egoyan (another champion of Southam's work). It speaks directly to the sense of lively engagement in the composer's music:
". . . there is a close connection between composing for or playing the piano and other forms of work done by hand, such as weaving, that reflect the nature of traditional women's work - repetitive, life-sustaining, requiring time and patience. But through it all, runs a thread of questioning . . . ."
The more I see, hear and experience, the more I have realised that questioning is a state of being in the world that we often undervalue these days.
Musically, Southam's questioning takes the form of ever-repeating musical motifs that, over time and small changes, coalesce into answers.
Here is Quilico playing "Commotion Creek" from Southam's Pond Life suite at the Glenn Gould Studio:
I thought I'd paste in the official obituary that the Canadian Music Centre sent out on Nov. 26, to fill in Southam's biography a bit:
Ann Southam’s award-winning innovative compositions of new music have been performed in Canada, the USA, throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand. In addition to her international presence she was also dedicated to inspiring students in local communities through many “composer-in-the-classroom” programs in elementary and high schools. Ann was one of Canada’s first prominent women composers. She was on the vanguard of a generation that profoundly and positively changed the landscape and social mechanics of contemporary Canadian music. Ann was an avowed feminist proudly incorporating this in her music.
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1937, Ann Southam lived most of her life in Toronto and studied music at the University of Toronto and the Royal Conservatory of Music. Following her studies she embarked on a teaching and composing career, collaborating with modern dance companies and choreographers including The Toronto Dance Theatre, Danny Grossman, Dancemakers, Patricia Beatty, Christopher House and Rachel Browne. Ann has an impressive catalogue of compositions ranging from her early electroacoustic writing to works for string quartets, orchestra and piano. In collaborating with Christina Petrowska-Quilico and Eve Egoyan for piano, Ann was recognized for her award-winning works for piano recorded on the CMC Centrediscs label.
Ann was an Associate Composer and a dedicated supporter and friend of the Canadian Music Centre. The CMC archival recording collection The Ann Southam Digital Audio Archive was named in her honour. Ann received the CMC/CLC Friends of Canadian Music Award in 2002, was a member of the Canadian League of Composers, founding member of the Association of Canadian Women Composers and in 2010 Ann Southam was named a Member of the Order of Canada.