On Sunday Jan 21 at 7:30 in All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral, Chronos Vocal Ensemble presents Inward ~ Onward!
At the centre of the program is the world premiere of “Chosen Family” – a major multi-movement work by Edmonton composer Stuart Beatch, commissioned by Chronos with the support of the Edmonton Community Foundation and SOCAN. Stuart took time recently to speak with writer and former Chronos singer Iain Gillis, to talk about music, composing, and his relationship with texts.
Music doesn’t really exist…
…until it’s performed in real time.”
I had the pleasure of speaking with Stuart Beatch over a glass of Portuguese red during the first proper snowfall of the winter. Like the snow, we covered a lot of ground — an early crisis of conscience; tools, techniques, and harmonic language; commissions and collaborations; and what might lie ahead…
How did you get into composing?
I started dabbling in composition while I was in high school, mostly instrumental music. For years, I never had anything performed – it was just something I loved doing. A turning point came when I was in the last year of my education degree, when Dominic Gregorio started as Director of Choral Activities at the University of Regina. It was his first position after finishing his doctorate; he was enthusiastic to start new things. One of the first things was a composition competition, which I won. That was the first performance of my first choral piece, about 11 years ago. He did another competition in the winter semester, which I also won, and gave me my second choral piece performed.
I was not involved in the choral scene at all, I had sung maybe two years of my life – I’m a trumpet player by trade – that was the moment at which I realized that this was something that I enjoyed doing. I really liked working with text. I felt like the medium of choirs fit my music a whole lot better. I had a crisis of conscience when I was finishing my education degree of realizing, like, do I really want to do this? Is this what I want to do for my career? And no, it definitely wasn’t.
Very few people can make a full-time living doing just composition.
Do you have a day job?
I do, yeah, working for an insurance company as a writer on their marketing team. I’m at my computer, and then I’m off at the end of the day and I don’t think about it. It’s so much easier for me to leave that space to create and to do the things that I love doing.
On your website, you’ve branded yourself as a Canadian choral composer.
Do you have any concerns about being pigeonholed?
I’ve been focusing on choral music and vocal music, and now in recent years focusing a lot on queer-themed music as being the main kind of niche that I do. I’m not sure if [instrumental music] is where I want to keep going because I love working with text so much. I’ve kind of branded myself as a queer composer, and that’s now a lot of the themes in the music that I’m doing…
I think every artist has multitudes within them, that there are lots of ideas I have, and lots of things I can do, and lots of projects I’d love to do. It just is about finding the time to do them, finding the people that want to make it happen.
A favorite saying of Brahms was: “to be a good musician, you have to read a lot.” That’s always stuck with me, as being true.
You read quite widely…
[leaves and re-enters the room] This is my stack of chapbooks of all the poetry and things that I want to do at some point, people I want to work with, projects I want to make happen, poems I want to set to music. Just a million ideas, and I keep finding new books that jump out at me. In the last couple of years, where I’ve been trying to go down this road and working with more queer poets, trying to explore more projects that I want to make happen, I’ve had a lot more joy in doing what I do and really enjoying the process of writing music, really digging into poetry.
Do you have a text that you would love to set someday?
[leafing through the stack] What’s in here? A couple poems by John Barton for sure. His poetry is just gorgeous and sexy and fantastic. There’s this book by Kevin Cantor, Please Come Off Book, a couple in here, especially one called “People You May Know”, which deals with sexual assault that is just gut-wrenching, that I would love to set to music one day if I can find the emotional opportunity to do so.
One that I’ve wanted to set for a long time, by a poet called Chen Chen, is “i love you to the moon &”. The poem is very silly and talks about living on the moon growing lots of moon veggies. It’s just so fun and so joyful. I think that’s really what I want to keep doing in my music: more joy and more of the music that I want to hear.
It’s early 2024: do you make musical resolutions? Is that a thing?
It’s not. I mean, it hasn’t been a thing, but I suppose it could be a thing. Just to continue making music with the people that I want to make music with. I think especially writing queer music and working with queer artists, being able to do something not focused on the commercial aspect, but just focused on creating music that I want to hear with the people that I want to make it with, with poetry that I love.
Erstwhile musicologist Iain Gillis was among the original members of Chronos Vocal Ensemble.