Pater familias: John Gordon Armstrong’s music premiered in uOttawa performance by son Patrick

John Gordon Armstrong celebrated his 65th birthday with concert of his music.

Imagine composing a piece of music and having it premiered by your talented piano-playing son.

John Gordon Armstrong will experience that rush on Nov. 5, when his son Patrick will debut the piece Remember in a concert Sunday that features John Gordon’s music and celebrates the composer’s 65th birthday.

He has had the pleasure once before in 2012 when the Music and Beyond festival put together a concert of his music. Patrick was 16 at the time and he performed one of the pieces.

On Sunday Patrick, who is now in fourth year at uOttawa’s music school, is also playing, with clarinet and violin, a second piece called Abstracts.

John Gordon Armstrong, who is an adjunct professor at uOttawa and is the co-ordinator of the composition sector, is at that point in life when such moments shine pretty brightly.

His musical career began with piano lessons at age five in the family home in Toronto.

He found the instrumental love of his life at age 10 when he picked up a guitar.

“I wanted to be a rock guitarist. That was when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were very popular. I suppose I was thinking about them.

But he never played in a band. At a certain point, he recalls, “a friend said to me he was going to start taking classical guitar lessons and I remember laughing.” And thinking. At 16, Armstrong started playing classical guitar.

He attended university with a plan to be a high school teacher, but, as he says, “I got distracted.” By his fourth year, he was choosing between a career as a composer or a guitarist.

Like Robert Frost, he came to a fork in life’s road. One way was to Nice, France, to study guitar. The other road was to Paris to learn about composition with the legendarily cranky Nadia Boulanger.

“I ended up studying with Boulanger. I was one of her last students. She had a reputation for yelling at people, but by time I got there she was in her 80s and she had sort of softened up.

“I’m also a hard worker and I’m very hard on myself, so I think she might have felt she didn’t have to beat me up.”

Equally serendipitous was his acceptance into graduate school at the University of Michigan. He had applied during his year in Paris and was accepted. Michigan is a respected institution which features the avant-garde composer George Henry Crumb and soprano Jessye Norman as alumni.

After graduation, Armstrong fulfilled his first ambition by becoming a teacher at a slew of universities including Western University, the University of Alberta where he met his wife and Harvard where he was a teaching assistant. he worked on his music at the same time.

Finally he landed at uOttawa where he has been an adjunct professor of music with a pretty fulltime workload for some time now.

That has, for many years, meant that his composition work has taken place mostly in the summer. It has, he believes, limited his output, but you really wouldn’t know it. He has about 70 works under his signature ranging from solo pieces for guitar and piano to orchestral.

“My longest pieces are about 25 minutes. I prefer chamber music.

“I had stopped doing orchestral work basically because I got so tired of having these pieces under-rehearsed, get played once and then forgotten. But I returned to it in 2007 and have produced three pieces, all of which have been performed by the (uOttawa) Symphony. Uncommon Prayers for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra was performed in 2008, directed by Laurence Ewashko. Kaleidoscope was performed twice in 2012, directed by David Currie.

Armstrong admits to a special passion for writing for voice.

“When I see poetry I don’t have to dredge the music up. I just basically hear it in my head. I like that a lot.”

Those who attend Sunday’s concert will hear two vocal settings one called Ghosts III which will feature Armstrong’s own poetry and one called On the Cusp featuring the work of fellow uOttawa professor and local poet Seymour Mayne.

The central work, though, is Remember which is about 25 minutes long which he admits is a bit more than would be preferable for a recital work.

“The pieces start to write themselves,” he says. “For first part, I’m usually cursing and wondering how am I going to get through this. At about the 80 per cent mark, I start to know what it is and all of a sudden it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done. When I’m finished I usually lapse back into feeling very insecure about it again.”

For Remember he had the luxury of having the performer practice the piece in his home.

“It meant I could walk by while he was practicing and say ‘You’re speeding up there.’ He’d yell at me.” But it also turned out that Patrick had ideas that led to changes in the score.

These days Armstrong is relinquishing some of his teaching responsibilities.

“When I was teaching a fulltime load, I was a summer composer. That’s not so bad; it’s what Mahler did. But in the last few years, as I have cut down my teaching, I’ve been able to write more and practicing more too.

“I’m in a sweet spot now. I will be a little bit disappointed when I finally give up teaching because I do like it a lot. I love hanging around with 18-25 year olds.”

He’s also very proud of his students. “I have had a number of students do well. One, Maria Atallah, recently won first prize in one of the SOCAN categories” for example.

Armstrong’s musical style spans a spectrum of sound from the very atonal to the more sweetly melodic. Evidence of both can be found on his personal website.

He’s also written music for Odyssey Theatre starting in 1998. That’s when Laurie Steven, the artistic director needed someone to write some South Asian electronic music for the annual production in Strathcona Park .

“I had done a score for a South Asian dancer.” And so Armstrong got the gig. He subsequently did a piece every year for several years ranging from a Bach-sounding piece to a spooky electronica work for a show called The Raven. He says that was his favourite.

“In my mind now I am retired from theatre work. I haven’t done any shows for the past couple of years. I have other things want to do. Now I just want to write concert music along with some teaching” and playing guitar.

Unlike some aficionados, Armstrong has one guitar. It was made for him in 1983 by the Canadian maker Oskar Graf.

He has a finished CD of his solo guitar pieces and was supposed to perform a concert of them in September but an injury put that on hold for the time being. Injuries are just part of the trade for guitarists. This particular one involved a lot of cramping in his hands. He has suffered other injuries over his career. They mean re-learning how to play each time the injury heals.

After the concert this weekend, you can hear the premiere of Armstrong’s orchestral work 2017 on Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. at St. Joseph’s Church. As well, on Nov. 25, another new piece, The Space Within, will be part of a performance of work by the Canadian composer Vincent Ho and members of the music faculty. On Nov. 26, at GigSpace, there will be a setting of words by the Ottawa poet Susan McMaster to Armstrong’s music in a performance called ImproVisions. More on these shows at johngordonarmstrong.com

So, it doesn’t sound like he’ll be stopping anytime soon. He has his own father, who worked until he was 80, as a role model.

The Music of John Gordon Armstrong
Music at Tabaret Concert
Where: Tabaret Hall. 550 Cumberland St.
When: Nov. 5 at 2 p.m.
With: guitarist ; singers John Avey, baritone and Jordanne Erichsen, soprano; violinist Trevor Wilson; flutist Lara Deutsch; clarinetist Emilia Segura; and pianists Patrick Armstrong and Andrew Tunis.
Programme: Remember (solo piano), Ghosts III (miniatures for soprano, guitar and flute), On the Cusp (baritone and piano, texts by Seymour Mayne), Abstracts (clarinet, violin and piano).
Tickets and information:  613-562-5733 or www.arts.uottawa.ca/live/music.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.