Ann Southam : New soundings

Ann Southam (1937-2010)

November 25th of this year marked the fifth anniversary of the death of Ann Southam who died of lung cancer in 2010.  Although a trained composer, Southam was primarily an intuitive composer.  Her works, whether electronic or a 12-tone work for piano, testify to a searching spirit, one who wandered seemingly aimlessly but whose music exhibits a rigorous command of her materials, nonetheless.

Early on, Southam was interested in visual arts, but she turned to composing at age 15 after attending a summer music camp at the Banff School (now The Banff Centre).  After composition studies with Samuel Dolin at the Royal Conservatory of Music and piano with Pierre Souvairan and electronic music with Gustav Ciamaga at the University of Toronto, she began teaching at the Royal Conservatory of Music in 1966. Her association with the New Dance Group of Canada (later Toronto Dance Theatre) began in 1967, and she became composer-in-residence in 1968. She composed many electronic scores for this company, and for other dance companies and choreographers. In 1977, with Diana McIntosh, she helped to create Music Inter Alia, which promoted Winnipeg new music concerts until 1991.

The lay listener might say the Romantic composer or maybe even the 12-tone composer makes sense. How does getting into the electronic studio suddenly make sense?

Southam: One thing that I absolutely loved about that was that I didn’t have to be able to read music very well, which I can’t do, and I didn’t have to write anything down. You could work just by ear all the time. This was also in the early ’60s, so electronic music was pretty much in its infancy, at least here in Toronto. So you could set your own rules. There weren’t these masters and ways of doing things hanging over your head. You could just go in there and have a wonderful time–which I did. There was no worry about whether you were writing something that could be played or not. You didn’t have to find people to play it and didn’t have to worry about whether it suited any instrument. It was just the sound. I loved that. Music was making some sense, and I felt I had some control. Then not too long after that I was connected up with a choreographer and dancer named Patricia Beattie, who had just founded the New Dance Group of Canada. So again I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It just blew me away–the movement. So I had the opportunity to produce electroacoustic music for modern dance. The New Dance Group of Canada shortly became the Toronto Dance Theater, which is now quite well known. I worked with them for a long time, and also other choreographers. I was doing this through the ’60s and the ’70s and into the ’80s and life was making a lot of sense–and so was music.

southam+elecSoutham’s early works were written in a Romantic style, however, she later adopted 12-tone procedures, although never strictly. In the 1980s, Southam began drawing away from electronic music, while simultaneously developing an increasing interest in music by American minimalists Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Glass Houses (1981), for example, is constructed from short tonal units that combine and re-combine, creating an overall sense of lyricism. Around this time, Southam made an important professional ally when she hired the pianist Christina Petrowska-Quilico to record a demo tape of parts of Glass Houses and Rivers (1979-81, rev. 2004). The inspiration she found in such collaborative relationships inspired Southam to write an increasing number of works for acoustic instruments. In 1988, she composed Throughways, for chamber orchestra, with no electronic element. A commission of the Music Gallery, the work was premiered there by the Hemispheres Orchestra 9 Nov 1989.

You say you did electronic work and you loved that. But most of your recent work is not electronic. What happened? Did you move back?

Southam: Yes I did. Just at the point where I started to do a lot of electroacoustic music, I had bought a very beautiful grand piano (which then just sat in my living room), which I never looked at or played. At one point, I noticed that it was there and thought I’d like to start playing it. Also at the same time I was starting to be aware of the minimalist movement. I heard A Rainbow in Curved Air which I absolutely loved, and other things by Terry Riley. I heard music by Steve Reich, and I truly loved it and still do. It’s certainly a very, very different way of working from messing around with electroacoustic sound. So I’ve been exploring that in recent years.

Southam’s return to acoustic composition also came about in part through an interest in the physicality of performing. Four in Hand (1981), written for pianists Jane Blackstone and Ruth Kazdan, is a single-movement work for piano four hands that uses free 12-tone harmony and motifs, which lead to a closing D major chord. The composition essentially has the performer “blasting about the keyboard”. It also demonstrates Southam’s predilection for reconciling the 12-tone system with traditional practices. Re-Tuning (1985), however, is more indicative of the direction Southam’s music took in years to come. Made up of 25 modular sections that are repeated and spun rapidly one into another over an electronic drone, this piece was heavily influenced by Southam’s collaboration with Rivka Golani.

new soundingsSoutham’s 1986 Soundings for a New Piano is one of many works founded on the composer’s everlasting 12-tone row. The music unfolds over twelve short movements and an interlude; Southam indicates in the score that the pieces may be performed in any order or individually. She subtitles the work “12 meditations on a Twelve Tone Row,” and meditations they are. Nine of the pieces are based on a repeated rhythmic sequence in which alternating bars begin with either sixteenth-notes or triplets. This rocking rhythm becomes a kind of mantra, a crystalline see-saw through which the twelve-tone row gradually unspools.

Southam ignores Schoenberg’s rules at every opportunity. Notes repeat frequently, and it is only towards the end of many of the movements that the twelve-tone row is fully stated. Hers is serialism through the lens of Philip Glass’s technique of additive process, in which each repeating phrase accumulates an extra note or notes. Though the pianist depresses the pedal in each phrase, so that the swells of notes amass into washes of sound, the music hardly exhibits any sense of harmony beyond simple octaves—only in the last few pieces do two or more notes sound at the same time, and usually in hollow, consonant intervals.

Alex Ross posted this shortly after Ann Southam’s death in 2010:

I neglected to mark here the death, in late November, of the Canadian composer Ann Southam, whose mesmerizing hour-long piano piece Simple Lines of Enquiry I picked as one of the highlights of the year 2009.  Tamara Bernstein wrote a lovely obituary for the Globe and Mail. It doesn’t appear online, so I thought I’d quote the opening lines: “Less than forty-eight hours before she lost a long battle with lung cancer, the composer Ann Southam sat listening to a radio station as it broadcast the well-known Humming Chorus from Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. ‘Imagine being at the first performance of that!’ she exclaimed to a friend. ‘What did people think of it?'” Elsewhere in the piece, Bernstein observes the intricate balance of consonant and dissonant elements in Southam’s music—a balance that achieves sublime repose in Simple Lines—and quotes her saying, “Isn’t that life, in a way: trying to accommodate dissonance?”

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