Alexandra Stréliski is making a musical world all her own

Alexandra Streliski

It’s been an improbable rise to prominence for the Quebecois pianist Alexandra Stréliski .

After all she plays ‘neo-classical’ music on the piano she has had all her musical life. It’s not the kind of music that necessarily sells out large halls, but that’s is what is happening for the young woman from Montreal who is the daughter of Polish Jews and has lived in Paris as well as Montreal.

Her music may sound like the emotional, moody side of Claude Debussy and Erik Satie and the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but while she acknowledges their significance musically, she is not channelling these composers.

“I’m a very intuitive pianist. I’m not very much of a geek that I look at repertoire and study technique. It’s really not my style. I get influenced by stuff naturally.”

Still she does concede that, as she is part French, she is ware of French composers. And she also loves film scores especially by Philip Glass. Other people that catch her ear are composers such as Chopin “all the composers that I played when I was younger. I wouldn’t say that I study them, I just have a natural tendency towards a similar style perhaps.”

Instead her music evolves naturally at the keyboard and is driven, she said, by feelings and intuition. This very instinctual presentation is what caught the ear of the Quebec filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée who used music from her 2010 CD Pianoscope in his 2013 hit film called the Dallas Buyers Club. 

That led to credits in another Vallée film called Demolition (2016) and on the trailer for the HBO TV series Big Little Lies and another HBO venture Sharp Objects. Not bad for a McGill music student (who was at the conservatory at McGill throughout her childhood), and graduate of the Universite de Montreal in music who has spent the past several years working for a film and advertising production company. But’s she’s chucked all that with the release on her latest CD called Inscape which is equally as intuitive as its predecessor.

She says her new album reflects a period of her life that was in transition. “It’s a very personal, intimate album very much aligned with how I express myself.”

Speaking from Carleton Place, where her step-mother lives, Stréliski spoke about all of that in an interview with ARTSFILE before a sold out concert Friday night at the National Arts Centre.

“I have been playing the piano since I was six years old. It’s pretty much what I do. But I have been working in the film and ad industry for a while doing music.”

The stardom thing, especially in her home province of Quebec, has happened really fast, she said.

“I started doing really big shows in a very short amount of time. That’s been a bit of an adjustment.”

The popularity of her music today has her somewhat mystified.

“It’s quite interesting to see how mainstream it possibly it can get. I think it’s possible some people might listen to someone like Taylor Swift and my album too. It is part of a genre you would call modern classical now. I think it’s just accessible and I think we sort of recognize each other through our emotions and modern classical music has a direct way to pure emotion and imagination. I think we all have that in common and I think that’s why the music is actually so mainstream.”

Whatever it is, it works. She’s selling out shows and touring pretty much everywhere.

And she has left the advertising world.

“It was fun for me to do that for awhile because I was doing a bunch of different styles and I had to focus and I was working with this kind of person and that kind of person. And I had to translate music into their words. That was fun. But after awhile it got a bit shallow.” She also has said she was burned out.

“I learned a ton about the business of music, something many musicians are learning how to do these days because of the massive upheaval in the music industry.”

Still, she realized she wasn’t going to develop as an artist if she stayed.

“I always felt like I needed to do something else too, so it just kind of caught up with me.”

These days she is reaching into the rest of Canada and the world.

“It started so fast in Quebec that we focussed there. Globally, I have been putting out music for a decade and I have a fan base pretty much all over the world. Now we are starting to put out anchors everywhere including in English Canada.” Expect to see her in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton in the next year or so.

“I still don’t believe it’s happening. It’s not computing in my head. I just show up to a concert I play my stuff there and I say hi to the people. And I’m amazed at how many people are there.

“If that happens to be my life, I’m just grateful to be able to travel and play my music. It’s a gift, but it is a bit weird.”

In her case, like many others, it is about timing.

“For some reason for some people it just aligns. But you have to focus on your art first and put out a really good record.”

Her Ottawa show is a solo piano performance. But it’s more than that. She has a set of sorts and imagery that accompanies the performance.

Essentially she sits inside two translucent veils, for sake of a better word, upon which some illustrations of the album are projected.

“It creates a reflected space and I’m in between.”

The staging indicates she has learned from the film business but she is also responding to what people tell her about her music.

“A lot of people tell me they get images when they hear my music. When it happens to a famous film director it gets noticed, but it happens to everyone. I wanted to bring some of that to the stage. And I wanted to bring my own sensibility to the stage.”

Her audience, she said, is made of some people who are not used to a piano recital.

“I wanted to create an experience that would really stand out for them.”

The success of this current ‘production’ has Stréliski thinking about what the next level of this kind of performance could be.

She did direct films when she was young and could have worked in film if music hadn’t worked out, she said.

“I think it is so interesting how you can take the sound track out of a film and stand it on its own and people will recreate the film in their heads while they listen.”

She says she has fully recovered from the burnout that saw her quit her ad job, leave her partner. If she hadn’t she wouldn’t be touring. Nor would she have a new CD.

When she plays she says she gets in a trance-like state where she “doesn’t exist any more” and just channels the music. “Your brain gets in the way. It needs to shut down and let the heart and the fingers lead the way.”

In a similar vein, Stréliski doesn’t write her music down. “I was a very bad sight reader.” In fact, she said, “I base a lot of my composing on improvisation.”

Every time she creates, she said, she just sits down at the piano and starts. In a way the piano is a way for Stréliski to express herself.

“I don’t think I could express that much emotion with words. I needed some medium to express myself and it was really clear it was the piano.”

Alexandra Stréliski will perform in the NAC’s Azrieli Studio on March 22 at 8 p.m. The show is sold out. For information:

Share Post
Written by

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.