I’m so pleased that I’ve been afforded the opportunity to share with you the celebration of Alexina Louie being presented with the Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize at Esprit’s concert on October 6th. The Council asked her a few questions about her art for PR purposes and used snippets of the answers in their announcements. You may be interested in the complete answers that she originally provided – see below!
– Alex Pauk, C.M.
Founding Music Director & Conductor, Esprit Orchestra
1. What inspires you in your art practice?
For me, composing is an act of self-expression and a means of communication. I was an awkward and shy child. Eventually I learned to express myself through music. It didn’t happen quickly nor did it happen easily. I didn’t know then that all the disparate artistic, cultural, and musical experiences I had would ‘go into the hopper’ and contribute to the very complex path of forming my own unique musical voice. So many experiences contributed to the development of my voice – from playing cocktail music in Vancouver’s Devonshire and Georgia Hotels as a university student every weekend (I thought that was déclassé compared to my more esoteric musical studies at UBC), to teaching piano students, following the Chinese Lion dance with its drums and gongs and firecrackers up and down Pender Street every Chinese New Year with my family, or watching the Sunday evening Japanese samurai films at the movie theatre on East Hastings.
Transforming these experiences into meaningful compositions is big task. It’s difficult to explain the amount of skill that my art form takes. After all, composers are dealing with something that is hardly there. Sound is so ephemeral and yet you have to control so many parameters of mere vibrations of air. The result can be so captivating and so profoundly moving.
2. What are you most proud of in your artistic career?
I’m proud of my large catalogue of wildly diverse compositions. They range from pedagogical piano pieces for children, a full-length main stage opera, my ‘ground-breaking’ comedic five minute made-for-TV operas (created with my collaborators, director Larry Weinstein and librettist Dan Redican), to more unconventional, leading edge compositions.
In my pieces I aim to create something captivating, magical, touching, inspiring. It doesn’t matter if the work is meant for a young piano student or the audience of National Ballet of Canada, I cannot be satisfied with my work unless I aim high. I also avoid writing the same piece over and over, a trap that is easy to fall into. However, pushing boundaries and propelling yourself into new personal artistic territory can be frightening.
The compositions listed in my catalogue span many decades. You can hear my musical voice taking shape in the earlier pieces. There are works from those formative years that still affect me deeply. They still ring true after so many decades.
When O Magnum Mysterium: In Memoriam Glenn Gould is performed, it still moves me. On that day in 1982 when I heard of his death, I was full of sadness as I thought about the premature passing of this great pianist. His death made me think about what it takes to be an artist. The absolute devotion required to create art so often totally consumes you. What remains after you’ve given so much of yourself in your life as an artist? Gould died so young. By the time I finished composing this work, I came to realize that if your music is authentic and communicative, it will exist long after you are gone. It was a cathartic piece for me.
3. Is there an anecdote about your career that you would like to share, and, if so, what would it be?
In 2008, I was commissioned by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra to write a piece which would be taken on its first tour of Nunavik in Northern Quebec. It was to be scored for seven members of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra plus two Inuit throat singers with Kent Nagano conducting.
From the time I was a music student, I have been mesmerized by the sound, the power, and the unusual nature of the incredible tradition of throat singing. How do you take such a powerful aural tradition and make a new, meaningful composition in combination with musicians of a fine symphony orchestra? The singers don’t read music and symphony musicians don’t usually improvise.
How do you create a composition that fully and imaginatively integrates the sound world of two great traditions? The challenge froze me to the core. If I didn’t find the right solution, it would be a horrible disaster. You cannot take one tradition and just stick it onto another.
To find the right solution I listened to a recording of throat singing day and night for two months. It was our family’s dinner music. It was playing in the car as we drove our children to their music lessons. I just could not find my way ‘in’.
Then one day, I had the recording playing while I was sitting at the piano. The light finally went on. I remember that moment so clearly. When that breakthrough happens in the creative process, it is a huge relief. It’s a beautiful moment.
I was nervous before the premiere performance up North. How would the people of Nunavik react to hearing their familiar throat songs integrated with instruments (like a bassoon) which they had never seen or heard before? I worried needlessly. They were wholeheartedly enthusiastic when they experienced my piece, Take The Dog Sled.
Years later, the National Arts Centre Orchestra took the piece on their Northern tour. The day after it was performed in Iqaluit, I sat as an audience member in a different NACO concert. I took a seat in a gymnasium beside two elder Inuit women. They looked at me and recognized me as the composer of the piece they had heard the previous night.
“Where are you from?” they asked.
“I’m originally from Vancouver.”
They responded “Yes, but where are you from?”
“Oh…I’m Chinese, born in British Columbia.”
They laughed spontaneously. “We thought you were one of us!”
As I recall that moment, tears come to my eyes. I had truly succeeded in my artistic creation – this despite my fear of failure to do justice to this ancestral Inuit tradition, the limitations placed on me, as well as other challenges. I had touched the people for whom the piece was written. Although the challenges seemed insurmountable and the effort great, the rewards were even greater.
4. Which work by another artist would you like to have created and why?
This is a difficult question. Of course, there are several musical compositions that I could name. Even looking outside my artistic discipline there are so many works of art that amaze me.
I can clearly remember my first visit to the Villa Borghese in Rome. I was awestruck when I saw its Bernini sculptures. The fingers of Pluto pressing into the thigh of Persephone are shockingly lifelike but are carved from Carrera marble. The sculpture seems so real that you can feel the weight of the flesh.
However, it is Bernini’s sculpture of Apollo and Daphne that I find even more virtuosic. Bernini captures the very moment when Daphne is transforming into a laurel tree. Here also, the subjects’ fingers and fingernails are stunningly realistic. But the most impressive element of the work is how the sculptor was able to convey motion in stone. How could he catch this very moment of transformation in time? He created the swirling cloth, the texture of the hair flowing behind a fleeing Daphne as her skin changes into bark and as her fingers spontaneously become laurel leaves. How did he chisel each delicate leaf out of stone without chipping or breaking the marble? The stone is so imbued with life and is so finely carved that it seems translucent. Such skill and artistry is truly inspiring. Standing before these sculptures is a breathtaking experience that cannot be replicated in a photo.
Human beings can inflict such pain, misery, and horror upon one another. In contrast to the dark aspects of human nature, the thought that we are capable of creating works of such brilliance brings me joy and fills me with optimism. These and other visual, musical, and literary masterpieces of such lasting and profound artistry fill me with awe and continue to move me deeply.
Blog Written by:
Alex Pauk & Alexina Louie
Don’t miss your opportunity to hear music by Alexina Louie, and see her officially
receive her Molson Prize at Esprit Orchestra’s season opener:
I Hit My Head and Everything Changed
Sunday October 6, 2019
8:00pm Concert | 7:15pm Pre-Concert Chat | Koerner Hall,
TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning,
273 Bloor St. W.