The Uncommon Sound of Composer Alexina Louie9 min read

1 June, 2009 0 comment

By Tara Quinn


If I concentrate hard enough, I can almost picture the Toronto music scene of thirty years ago. Or, rather, I can almost hear it. I certainly hear it in composer Alexina Louie’s voice as she talks about moving from the West Coast to Toronto in 1980. And I believe that I can hear references of both “coasts” in her music: the exploration of new sounds found in many contemporary West Coast pieces, and the more formal structure, the complexity, of East Coast composers. “You can actually distinguish these different attitudes if you hear two composers played side by side; one, say, from Vancouver, and one from Montreal,” Louie tells me. “There are also different expectations. Of course, these are generalizations,” she allows, “but I think you can hear it in the music.”

It’s hard to generalize about the career and music of Alexina Louie. The daughter of second-generation Canadians of Chinese descent, she studied classical piano with Jean Lyons while also playing cocktail music in posh Vancouver hotels. She developed her formal technique, but also learned how to improvise in her music and her manner—chatting up the room in breaks between songs. After completing her undergraduate studies at the University of British Columbia, Louie moved on to the University of California, San Diego where she studied composition with mentors Robert Erickson and Pauline Oliveros. “Los Angeles had a widespread music scene at the time,” she recalls, “but most were Hollywood musicians, and more film-oriented. A lot of talk about money. After ten years, I found that I needed more. I missed the discussion of the arts.”

In contrast, the Toronto music scene in the 1980s was tight, concentrated, and active. A number of organizations were putting on concerts at the time, even though a gap existed between those interested in more traditionally-oriented works and so-called popular “new classical” music. Into this environment strolled Alexina Louie with a Canada Council grant, a blossoming freelance career in composition, and a big suitcase full of ideas.

I spoke to Alexina Louie on an early Saturday morning in February, after meeting her at an Esprit Orchestra performance of her “Infinite Sky With Birds” the week before. I had also attended her pre-concert talk with fellow composer John Rea, a regular little prelude she likes to do to involve her audience in what they’re about to hear. “I’ve learned that audiences like the educational component,” she says. “It makes them more comfortable, more receptive, when they’re confronted with the music. Rather than a sea of newness, they have a reference point.”

“This isn’t a hobby for me, it’s a burning desire. I want to make a lasting work of art.”

As I listened to her discuss her creative process with Rea, I began picturing Louie at work. I could see her sitting at the piano in a big room, sketching out the different parts. I could sense the anxiety of the blank page, and then the gradual smattering of notes that appear as the piece begins to take shape—in this case, prompted by the vision of a flock of birds rising up in flight. I want to know what’s driving her: how does she get from the image to the page?

“It’s exhausting and it’s all-consuming,” she tells me. “This isn’t a hobby for me, it’s a burning desire. I want to make a lasting work of art. The drive to do this comes from me—it’s a vision of the world as I see it.” For Louie, it starts with an image, the physicality of it, and the feelings embedded in it. The fluttering of birds thus becomes the fluttering of notes, the crescendo of an orchestra rising together in flight.

In the cold, blustery days since our conversation, I find myself walking through my Toronto neighbourhood reflecting on the images in my own world. What would the two dogs playing in the park sound like if they were represented by a couple of woodwinds? How could I layer that with the streetcar rumbling past—more tympani, perhaps? Then what?

From this solitary pursuit of putting image to page, there is another translation—the move from piece to performance. As one of the most-played composers in the country, as well as the most-lauded, Louie also writes to be heard. Her music does not lie hidden in a drawer, waiting to be discovered and admired. After months holed up in her studio, Louie knows how to go out in the world with her creation and work with performers and promoters, editing passages in order to have them played. It is a deeply social process, she tells me: “Eventually you put it out there and the audience receives your gift. It’s an act of communication. Not every piece reaches this pinnacle of its potential, but it does feel wonderful to see something performed.”

“Eventually you put it out there and the audience receives your gift. It’s an act of communication.”

As a freelance composer, Louie relies on commissions from a variety of sources. It might be a string quartet, an opera, or an accordionist. “I might accept a piece because I think that particular performer is amazing. Or I might just do it to learn something, like how to compose for the accordion. It’s about gaining wisdom over a lifetime.” Louie has repeatedly proven her willingness to take risks. She has borrowed as readily from Eastern and Western cultural traditions as from current East and West Coast styles. The blending of different styles and genres takes her further out to the frontier of new music than most composers: from pieces inspired by Chinese orchestral music and tea ceremonies, to Indonesian gamelan, and even James Joyce. Tackling such diversity of form is an integral part of her personal expression. “I could write the same piece over and over again,” she says. “From piano, to cello, to flute quartet. But that doesn’t feel sincere to me.”

Part of her work as a freelancer has also taken Louie into compositions for opera, dance, and film. It is a matter of course, she notes, that to make a living as a concert music composer in Canada, you must look for other avenues to support yourself. For Louie and her husband (Esprit Orchestra conductor Alex Pauk), this meant teaching themselves to write film scores. At the time, composing for film was not taught in universities as it is today, but Louie learned more than a few things from her time in California: “I was very comfortable in that world. Friends in L.A. gave me the experience of sitting in a studio, so I understood the flow and timing of film composition.” Her credits with Pauk include the Don McKellar film Last Night (winner of the Prix de Jeunesse at Cannes in 1998), feature films and TV movies by Jeremy Podeswa including The Five Senses and After the Harvest and numerous NFB shorts, as well as mini-operas Toothpaste and her Burnt Toast series, which was broadcast around the world to great acclaim. Her critical successes don’t stop there—Louie’s work has garnered her two Juno Awards, two SOCAN awards, and an Officer of the Order of Canada. Which makes me wonder: with so much behind her, what else is left for her to compose? What is left undone?

“I like to take a little detour here and there. I’ll try opera, comedy, mass media, and then shift the language slightly to speak to the audience in a new way. I’ll throw in a bit of drum, some jazz licks, and see where it takes me.”

For any composer to embrace such multitudes, one might question what, if any, particular style can be said to define them. Louie quickly notes that her large musical repertoire keeps her both “engaged and employed.” She says that the “tonal palette in [her] blood” runs deep; it is a language she doesn’t just apply to concert music—much of it is based on chords and harmonic structures that she was not taught in any classroom. “I like to take a little detour here and there. I’ll try opera, comedy, mass media, and then shift the language slightly to speak to the audience in a new way. I’ll throw in a bit of drum, some jazz licks, and see where it takes me.”

Louie is not shy about her achievements. She repeatedly tells me about the “extraordinary” accomplishments of her husband’s Esprit Orchestra, how such-and-such a piece has become a “cult classic,” and about the number of doctoral dissertations that have centred around her work. These are the biographical sound bites of a self-made success: Alexina Louie did not come this far in her musical freelance career by being self-deprecating. And she still has a few avenues left that she’d like to tackle.

One of her recent commissions is a piece being performed in Montreal, “Take the Dog Sled,” with a pair of Inuit throat singers. We talk about the dangers of treading in another’s cultural territory, a risk that Louie remains conscious of but not intimidated by.  “You can expand a cultural piece by the Western adaptation, or you can make something cheesy, or something that’s just artistically unrewarding. It’s always a danger.” But her piece was well-received, particularly in Nunavik where it toured with conductor Kent Nagano. “They took it to heart,” she says with evident pleasure and relief. “Some people even told me it captured the experience of the North for them. It was incredibly gratifying.”

Appealing to a wider audience without restraining your artistic goals strikes me as a genuine achievement, maybe one of the greatest. In the world of “new classical” music, which can often seem like an unabashedly exclusive niche, Louie stands out by virtue of her reaching out.

From a classical pianist and cocktail musician, Louie has gone from chatting up patrons in a hotel bar to speaking to whole orchestras, introducing her work at Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall, and giving pre-concert talks at Esprit performances. With advances in media, Louie has found a new audience and a new wave of performers: the YouTube generation. Her piece “Fast Forward” was commissioned by the Montreal International Piano Competition last year; the various interpretations found online are testament to how popular the composition was. Louie also refers me to a piece of hers entitled “Bringing the Tiger Down from the Mountain” (named for a Tai Chi move), which she recently discovered on YouTube. “My daughter showed me a clip, and here was this fourteen-year-old from Montreal just playing the socks off this piece. I wrote him a message and he wrote me back saying how much he loved playing it. It’s an amazing thing for me to see.” As she celebrates her sixtieth birthday this year, Alexina Louie is still learning, still experimenting, and busier than ever.

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