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  • Writer's pictureAdam Sherkin

An Uncommon Canadian at the Keyboard

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

A modest bunch, Canadians tend to be.

For many artists in Canada, growing up as a music student has meant exposure to – welcomed or otherwise – contemporary Canadian composers. Such prescriptions appeared on pedagogical lists and exam repertories. Unfortunately, even understandably, many young performers took fellow Canadians for granted. Reasons exist as to why the system favored foreign Eurocentric, and American composers but regardless, true appreciation for a pioneering generation of early century Canadians has rarely been cultivated in young students.

Now consider the Canadian composer and feminist, Ann Southam. She advocated for Canadians in the arts and evolved her own notable career, all the while cohabitating a compositional world heavily dominated by men. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s producer, Eitan Cornfield, once said, “Ann Southam blasts the stereotype of the Canadian composer. She is proudly, politically female, in a stuffy male universe.” Indeed, Southam’s music was heard often in Canada, both on and off the CBC airwaves. As a resident of Toronto and a long-tome advocate for composers in her community, Southam’s name was a (near) household one for those listeners interested in CanCon (ie. “Canadian Content”) and the influential musical figures of a preceding generation.

For young Canadian pianists, it was challenging not to be aware of the major keyboard cycles Southam wrote over a late twenty-year span, forming her final creative period from the 1980’s through to her death: Glass Houses, Rivers and Pond Life. These were written with – and mostly for – formidable interpreter, Christina Petrowska Quilico. Southam had begun working on Rivers in the early ‘80’s and was in search of a “whiz-bang pianist” to realize her music. Enter: Petrowska Quilico. The artistic relationship between Petrowska and Southam has been well documented, with Petrowska herself speaking much on the subject. Petrowska Quilico’s Southam discography is an impressive testament, seminal in its artistic achievement and dazzling in its dedication to this rather Canadian music.

Truly more of a curated set or album list than a chronological cycle, Pond Life was my own introduction to Southam’s piano catalogue, declaimed in the expert hands of Petrowska. It was a cool, mid-September evening in 2008 when I first experienced this ”virtuosic, introspective music,” in full recital at Toronto York University’s Tribute Communities Hall. Petrowska Quilico brought Pond Life to stage in a sparkling, vibrant 90 minutes of pianistic song. I arrived at this performance with a sense of respect and deference to a composer- interpreter partnership I knew to be especially significant in the annals of Canadian music. I left it with a humble certitude that this was a unique and significant art, enough to be heard around the world and enough, undeniably, for Canadian composers of new generations to honor, study and build upon. Soon after, I was to discover the contributions of another proponent of Southam’s piano music, Eve Egoyan. Egoyan’s recording of Simple Lines of Enquiry infamously made critic, Alex Ross’ Ten Exceptional Recordings list in 2009 (The New Yorker).

Since that mid-autumn day, I have come to revere Southam’s Pond Life, Rivers and Glass Houses – the latter of which has become more and more popular abroad, a top-seller in print from the Canadian Music Centre – with admiration and a sense of inexplicable familiarity. Southam once said of the Autumn season itself: “When you’re out in a field and the grasses are just singing, it’s like life is singing. You can hear all little things happening . . . the same thing for birds in the Spring - or frogs - a kind of a constant singing . . . for me that is a metaphor for life: it’s this constant song.”

Southam found a way through the tangled thickets of late 20th century minimalism and sang it afresh, on her own terms. The “minimalism” of Ann Southam is minimalism born of a unique voice, from a unique perspective. There is honesty, integrity, subtlety - even humility - in Southam’s late period. Through seemingly simple means, she found a Canadian musical dialect of our time: an expressive art that is both tonal and textural, understated, sometimes elusive, but ever noble.

Many exponents of mid-to-late century minimalism were male, mostly American, with their own “authoritative” takes on this aesthetic. And so Southam sought a different tack, thereby striking the heart strings of the north, hardly American and decidedly un-British. Her prowess as a creative, masterful feminist bore singular and lasting musical fruit, “writ by hand, played by hand” unexpectedly, at the acoustic piano. She often cited women’s work as an impetus and extra musical inspiration for her minimalist keyboard renderings. Today, in 2023, we can expand this scope to perceive intricate subtleties through a kaleidoscopic of repetition, linear processes, and a motivic compulsion drawing the listener in to familiar music: quiet, even homely; nourishing and plainly Canadian. A new generation of pianists has taken up the challenge of interpreting Southam, with ever keener ears, including Vicky Chow, myself, Timo Andres, Adrienne Kim, Amelia Grace Yates and Sarah Cahill.

Former regional director of Canadian Music Centre Ontario Matthew Fava, often proselytized Southam’s music. He proudly wore a t-shirt reading, ”Ann Southam is my Hero.” He was – and still is – well tuned in his adoration. Musicians and audiences outside of Canada seem, only now, to be awaking to the talented spirit that is Ann Southam. Let us pre-existing devotees continue to share and champion her creative output, thirteen years on from her death, ever contributing to a gathering global appreciation for this composer’s spirited world, born of constant song.

Adam Sherkin is a pianist, composer, writer and artistic director of Piano Lunaire.

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Ann Southam’s minimalist music at the keyboard brims with a life-pulse, a rhythmic joy, that is warmly, ruthlessly tonal. On Saturday, December 9th at New York’s Tenri Cultural Institute, Piano Lunaire presents COMPOSERS IN PLAY VI: Portrait of a Canadian Minimalist. Pianists Adam Sherkin, Adrienne Kim and Sarah Cahill are featured. For tickets: click here.


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