Trevor Grahl - Canadian Composer Abroad

Jennifer Waring’s interview with Trevor Grahl

The Canadian composers in Correlation Street – Trevor Grahl, Christopher Mayo and Gordon Williamson - all came to Continuum’s notice through our Call for Scores, and they all live abroad.  It’s more by chance than design that they have all ended up on the same programme, but is there something to the fact that their work stood out in the Call?  Is the desire to explore, to expose one’s self to new influences also reflected in a more exploratory kind of music?  This proposition does not imply that good training is not to be had in Canada – but perhaps the effect of this good Canadian training would be most beneficial to foreign students for whom the whole structure of society, way of living and making music, was different than what they knew (at least at the post-graduate level) – as is the case for Canadian composers studying abroad.  Being abroad, in other words, is broadening. 

I put questions of this nature to Trevor Grahl, who has written a new work, Pierement Parade (commissioning through the Canada Council for the Arts) for the concert.  The responses are interesting – come out to hear his new piece and speak with him in person.

JW: What has the Netherlands provided you as a composer, either artistically or in terms of a career?

TG: I suppose the first thing that comes to my mind about the musical and artistic climate in this country is a pervasive sense of freedom, plurality, and self-exploration, and also there exists a genuine interest from the part of the public. Previous to coming here, I found myself in what I considered and felt at the time to be a very restrictive and inhibited environment. I felt I was looking at the wrong things and doing the wrong things, because the right things weren’t allowed. It was as if people were shutting themselves up in tiny little houses they had constructed for themselves, occasionally catching a glimpse of the stars through a crack in the ceiling. I think that the opportunities and environment of the Netherlands, together with my teacher and friends here, were able to open the door of my little house – or more appropriately, help me smash it completely and see something that I had almost forgotten about.

JW: What’s the view of Canada (read the Canadian new music scene) from where you are?

TG: Well this is a bit difficult since I haven’t lived in Canada for so long. Previous to my time here, which is now about three years, I had lived in California, working on a master’s degree for two years. I’m sure a lot has happened in five years, and also I’m not a student anymore, which changes perspective to quite some degree. I can say, from my vantage point here, far away from Canada, that I think what’s slowly happening is quite positive. That meaning most of my colleagues with whom I cut my teeth at McGill some years ago are now taking the (new) musical environment of this country into their own hands and doing something with it – trying to make it theirs. You have many obstacles in Canada (distance, for example, which is very important) which don’t exist here in NL, and I really respect anyone trying to overcome these to make something that they care about. I care about it too, and, although I’m not there at the moment in person, consider it a special privilege to return and participate in shaping this musical culture in my own way, too.

JW: You say in the programme note of your new piece Pierement Parade  that you’ve always been fascinated by mechanical musical instruments. Can you say why?

TG: This, too, is difficult, since it’s hard to define an attraction to something and make it palpable to others! First I would say I’m attracted to the magic and sense of wonder that we all probably felt when we suddenly heard for example, a music box for the first time: a sort of “how does it do that” aspect of awe, wonder, and technical inquiry. Even still today, in a world where so much is digitally automated, there remains an other-worldly quality about these instruments. I see the “perfect imprecision” that results from the sometimes clunky and unreliable mechanisms of these instruments as a sort of consequential but inadvertent means of expression sort of reversing the intention of such instruments as a deus ex machina (but here, our god-machine has no emotion and sometimes makes mistakes!), and I’m very attracted to that. The obvious thing, having the machine play machine-like music is one thing, but I really enjoy hearing these devices perform music that we think of as more “personal” or “expressive”. The machine can’t interpret, only read, and this is an interesting tension and also interesting for a creator. Seeing, touching, hearing, (smelling, even!) are all part of our delight when experiencing one of these machines perform – a multi-sensory experience which is not quite fully replicated if we examine any digital counterpart (a max patch, for example) which, though no less impressive, exists in a much more abstract sense.