Tales from Abroad: Composing in Canada

Credit: Theodore Teichman/Assistant Photo Editor Credit: Theodore Teichman/Assistant Photo Editor

“Yeah, I wasn’t really too sure what to expect, but I was surprised, you and the other Americans are so nice and normal!”
“Ummm, thank you? Hahaha”

That was on day three of my time in Montreal. Well, not in Montreal, but about an hour outside at the Orford Music Center in Orford National Park. I was there for a music composition festival for two weeks with a population of students from around Canada, France, and America. In total I spent 30 hours in Montreal itself (including my hour and a half trek trying to find the Gare d’autocars to catch my bus to Orford on the first day. Oh, and I got on the wrong bus).

Montreal itself was fantastic! This city is one of the most beautiful, dynamic, and culturally rich cities I have been to and I will definitely be coming back (maybe for the Université de Montréal) even with the nine months of complete ice age. But my most impactful experiences were in the middle of the Quebec forest-land with all of these people I had barely just met.

My roommate and I were the youngest composers there; we are both twenty, but he is six days older. We think we got put together because we were the two young composer dudes with long hair so they thought we’d get along. They were right. And I think it was only about 30 percent the hair. He was from Alberta, but goes to school at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Apparently, Winnipeg is a very cool trendy city. I had no idea. I had to have one of the other composers explain to me what the differences between Saskatchewan and Manitoba were. He’s from Saskatchewan, but apparently there’s pretty much nothing there. Quite a few composers were from Montreal, one from British Columbia, one from Toronto, one from New York, one from Iran, one from Taiwan, and others.

The composers would all eat together in packs and chill in the pub, “Le Garage” (it was in fact a garage), in between running off to practice rooms to work out some sections of pieces they were frantically trying to finish. However, from the beginning I was of the mindset that I was there to make as much music and learn as much as I possibly could, not to make friends. Besides meals and seminars, I isolated myself to work. And work. And work. But somehow I noticed I was slowly being absorbed into this tight-knit group; all the composers would sit together at meals and concerts or to write music (or to watch X-Files, which the Canadians were weirdly into). As I progressed through my cycles of inspiration and crippling self-doubt of music writing, I found that I was, in fact, making friends, even though I had specifically planned to avoid that. It was unfortunate for that original plan that all these people turned out to be really interesting and inspiring and challenging and irresistible as friends. We watched the shooting stars in a meadow in the forest, sung karaoke of ABBA and Queen at “Le Garage,” ping ponged with the professors, and celebrated hard after the concert we had all been working for. As we were studying everyone’s music I found myself understanding more about what it meant to be human; and as we were hanging out I found myself understanding more about what it meant to make music.

When I told the Canadians that I was writing an article about my travels to the exotic land of Canada they instantly began suggesting that I had to tell everyone about how they all ride polar bears to get places and only eat mooseflesh for every meal, I mean, that and poutine and maple syrup. Well, actually, the last two are pretty accurate: we were given a pitcher of maple syrup with every meal. A pitcher! And every fast food shop served poutine (it’s fries with cheese curds and gravy and it’s fantastic). Instead, I decided to write about what I learned from all these different personalities and varying cultural experiences about what it meant to be a composer (and sometimes being a composer means being attacked by moose if you're Canadian).

My last day in Orford national park it was raining, but I had decided at the beginning of my weeks there that I would climb up Mont Orford once I was finally done with all the hours and existential self-doubt of the music and workshops and seminars and concerts and feedback sessions. It wasn’t just raining, it was pouring. And I also didn’t have a car. And the base of the mountain was seven miles away.

I rented a bike and trekked up the winding road to the mountain base and began the journey up the mountain already soaked. As I reached the top, emerging through the clouds of fog, I stood there in the damp grass barefoot and shirtless in the rain. After all was said and done, I was here overlooking the grey and green landscape in this moment of cathartic stillness. I had grown immensely as a composer and had made friends with all of these French speaking, polar bear riding, maple drinking Canadians and was thrilled to see what music everyone would make next. And hopefully I'd be returning to this moose filled tundra in the near future to see more amazing works by all these new-found friends and colleagues.