By Anita Malhotra
Ottawa-based composer Colin Mack’s evocative pieces for piano, chamber ensemble, orchestra and voice have been broadcast and distributed by CBC Radio, Radio-Canada, Galaxie and the National Film Board. On July 11, 2011, a concert dedicated to his work was held at Ottawa’s Music and Beyond arts festival. Anita Malhotra spoke with Mack at his home on July 22, 2011.
AM: Tell me about your earliest experiences in music.
Mack: My mother was my first piano teacher, so I began piano at the age of five, and three or four years later – I was living in Victoria at the time – I started taking piano lessons at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. We moved to Ottawa when I was about 12 or 13 and I continued piano lessons with Douglas Voice and later with Jean-Paul Sevilla at the University of Ottawa. Although I did some composing as a teenager, I didn’t seriously begin writing music until university. In my third year I decided to stop piano performance and concentrate on composition, studying with Steven Gellman.
AM: Where did the impetus come from to express yourself as a composer?
Mack: I remember being struck by Debussy’s Hommage à S. Pickwick, where he cites God Save the Queen in his tongue-in-cheek prelude, and I wrote a pastiche of this when I was 12 or 13. Later, it was the influence of Olivier Messiaen – my first pieces were definitely influenced by his music and his modes. I was also influenced by the freedom of being able to improvise at the piano, and taken with the fact that the music that you see on the page begins this way – in the mind and often in a very vague way.
It was only after performing music for a while that I began to understand that I could write music, or at least aspire to write music like some of the classics that I’d been playing for 10 or 15 years. I think the idea that that music is not written in stone – that there are many, many choices that go into writing the music that ends up being performed – interested me.
AM: Which other composers and teachers influenced you during your studies?
Mack: I went on to study at the University of Montreal with André Prévost and Michel Longtin and Serge Garant, so for example, one piece that I’ve written is definitely influenced by Serge Garant. It’s Starry Night, a piece for piano solo, and it’s a mixture of jazz and 12-tone music. If I hadn’t studied with him, I don’t think I would have thought of the music or attempted to write it. Another influence I had was Ligeti, particularly in an orchestral piece that I wrote called Fête des Couleurs – October’s Night.
AM: As a student with Michel Longtin, you conducted interviews for your piece Winterseen about the relationship between the composer and the performer. What exactly were you exploring with those interviews?
Mack: I had interviews with Robert Cram, the flutist, and my piano professor, Jean-Paul Sevilla. These were performers that I have a lot of respect for and who have large repertoires, and I used that as a springboard to get some ideas for what I might do to write music that was easier to relate to for performers.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, new music was somewhat ghettoized. There were a lot of new music performing groups and that’s what they specialized in doing. And the performers that played traditional classical music often didn’t know much about the repertoire that these groups would play, or they weren’t interested in it.
That has certainly changed in 20 or 30 years. In the classical music world, musicians realize that they depend on composers to breathe new life into their repertoire, just like composers depend on performers to give life to their creations. So there’s a lot to be learned from each other, and the idea that creating new music is all about doing something completely new and untravelled is less of an issue now. I don’t think the audience is interested as much as composers in “new” discoveries in composition for their own sake. I think one of the reasons for that – certainly in North America – is that composers tend to be tenured university professors, and their raison d’être is they need to be constantly discovering new things.
AM: Have you consciously adapted your style over the years to make your music more accessible to audiences?
Mack: I’m definitely aware of the difficulty of getting things performed, so I’m always trying to find ways to minimize difficulties during rehearsal. It’s amazing what things performers can get bogged down in that you don’t think of. I write at the computer now – it’s very easy to play things back on the computer that aren’t necessarily as easy to play back live on an instrument.
In the ‘90s I began to use a music program to compose, and that’s influenced how I write. Something you have to be careful with working on computers is that you don’t get trapped in writing music that is too easy because you’re writing for something that is set up to be written a certain way. For instance, it’s pre-set to write with time signatures and key signatures – traditional notation. It’s a lot harder to use a computer to come up with graphic notation if you want that it in your piece. By hand there’s a lot of freedom to do, so in that sense maybe it’s easier to be more obviously original. There’s definitely a trade-off involved, but there are benefits to using computers, and most composers my age and younger have made that transition.
AM: You’ve composed a fair amount of vocal music. How do you go about composing music to accompany text?
Mack: There’s a lot of poetry that I like that doesn’t speak to me musically, so I think there’s something to do with what I consider to be the musicality of the text that makes me want to set it to music. That being said, once I get the text, there’s a rhythm in the text that doesn’t always mesh with the rhythm I have in the music, so adjustments have to be made, and usually they involve cutting or altering words. But I try to be as respectful as I can be of the text. Working with something that’s from a poet like Gwen MacEwen, who died in 1987, I didn’t make very many changes to the text, but working with a poet or librettist who’s alive, there are many more possibilities for interplay.
AM: How did your series of pieces A Canadian Gallery come about?
Mack: That began in 2010 as an initiative between the CBC and the National Gallery of Canada and Julian Armour. The National Gallery of Ottawa wanted to promote their Cybermuse online artwork collection, and the CBC came up with the idea to commission 10 composers. That got cut to five and I didn’t make the cut, but was still part of a concert. Because I wasn’t part of that five, I had the freedom to find a painting that I wanted. I ended up choosing Maligne Lake by Lauren Harris. My wife Claudia and I, for our honeymoon in 1978, went to the Rocky Mountains, and saw our first live moose at Maligne Lake. It’s a beautiful lake in Jasper National Park, apart from the fact that I love Lauren Harris as an artist. That one movement got performed in 2010 at this concert of Canadian composers. And then I received a commission from the City of Ottawa and decided to extend that idea, so I chose three other paintings and wrote that music, and the full quartet was premiered this year.
AM: To what degree are you conscious of yourself being in the Canadian tradition – of being a Canadian composer rather than simply a composer?
Mack: The fact that I live in Canada will have some bearing on the music that I write, but I don’t think about trying to be Canadian or even trying to be minimalist or traditionalist. I think about it more as there’s something in me that needs to compose and I just try to write music that speaks to me. And in Canada I think there’s such a wide variety of styles when I listen to them – music that I hear live or through the Canadian Music Centre – that it’s difficult for me to summarize and say, “Oh, that’s Canadian.”
AM: What are some of the challenges of being a composer of the type of music that you write?
Mack: Classical music is not a huge part of the musical market, and new music is a small part of the classical music market, so finding space in that is a huge challenge.
I certainly don’t write music for money – you don’t pay the bills with composing. I have to supplement my composing with other musical activities: teaching and piano tuning. That’s true for virtually all classical composers – either they’re earning their living teaching at a university or music school, or some other way.
So I guess the challenge is, “How do you find the time to compose? How do you find that necessary time to create, because you still have to earn a living?” And there are more composers in my field than there were 30 years ago, and there’s less money for commissions, so that’s a challenge for everyone in my field. I feel fortunate in that all the music that I’ve written has been performed and I make a point of trying to get it performed and getting feedback from performers before I publish it, because I think I have a lot to learn from the performers and what they might have to say about making something more effective or easier to play.
AM: What was your reaction to attending the concert of your work at the festival Music and Beyond?
Mack: I was honoured to have such great musicians performing my music. It’s hard enough to get one piece performed. To have a concert of your music performed by top-notch musicians is kind of unreal, actually. It wasn’t as much of a retrospective as my CD Imprints, but still it was a good cross-section of my music. Most of all it’s very gratifying to get that kind of recognition, to be plugging away for 25 years and have an impresario like Julian Armour put his seal of approval on your music – to say it is worth listening to for an hour, and know that an audience will sit and listen to it.