Chamberfest: The healing power of Jeffrey Ryan’s musical scars

Jeffrey Ryan. Photo: Wendy D Photography

How would you set the word phosphatidylinositol to music?

Well, if you are the Vancouver-based composer Jeffrey Ryan, you fashion a lullaby and have it sung in the round. And so he did with this word that is contained in a poem about scar tissue. It is a compound that helps form a scar from a wound.

The poem was written by the novelist and poet Michael Redhill. Ryan has set those words to music in the new composition called Scar Tissue which will premiere on Friday with the Gryphon Trio and the vocal ensemble Nordic Voices.

The project, Ryan said in an interview with ARTSFILE, started more than two years ago when Ryan’s old buddy Roman Borys of the Gryphons approached him about a commission for the trio’s 25th anniversary.

Ryan has written for the Gryphons before and has worked on their Listen Up! projects in schools in Powell River, B.C. and in the Northwest Territories.

“I love writing for voices and Roman thought I would be a good fit for this project. He wanted something that would involve a small vocal ensemble.

Ryan has produced 40 minutes of music, but that length is not a problem.

“At this point in my career, 40 minutes is not a stretch. I am being asked to write bigger pieces now. I have written an hour-long piece for a dance company and six years ago now I wrote Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation which was an hour-long oratorio.

“Every piece is a stretch in some way. I learn something in every piece that I write and I try things I have not done before.”

The idea behind the title Scar Tissue comes from a conversation with an expert on scar tissue named Glenn Prestwich, who also had helped found the Sounds of Science Commissioning Club that backs new music based on science.

All of that was right up Ryan’s alley.

“My music is often inspired by scientific concepts such as astronomy, or the natural world. I had a chat with Glenn Prestwich and started to look around for ideas.”

The first idea Ryan came up with was astronomy based. That didn’t work because the scientists had just backed a musical project based on astronomy.

In the course of discussions the artists learned that Glenn and his colleagues have been exploring ways of dealing with scar tissue.

“The more we talked, the more we realized a scar is a universal thing we can all relate to. There are physical scars and emotional scars. There are geological scars. A forest fire is a scar.

“A scar always starts from a perfection or a unity. Then there is some kind of disruption or wound. That’s followed by recovery but  you never go back to the way you were before. You have a scar and you carry it with you and it shows you have recovered.”

It was a useful metaphor. There is an optimistic side of a scar, Ryan said. It means the wound has healed.

“This scarring allows us to move on. Regardless of what causes the wound, we heal and we go on to live another day.

Once the subject was selected, Ryan and Redhill spent a lot of time talking about the arc of the piece. And then Redhill set to work. At the halfway point he sent some text to Ryan who started to explore the music.

“In these kinds of collaborations I want to have a sense of how it’s going,” Ryan said. “I want to know what the writer has in mind.”

From composer’s point of view, Ryan said, “not every word is pretty to sign and not every word is actually is comfortable to sing.” So he wanted to see what roadblocks there might be.

“What he sent was amazing and it immediately started to make music in my head, which was fantastic.”

Eventually Ryan received a poem in nine parts.

“It has a mathematical structure to it and I’m a math geek. The first part is nine lines of nine syllables, the next is eight of eight, the third is seven of seven.” And on it goes to five which is where the wound occurs. Then it heads back to nine.

The first poem is “entirely his own words then gradually little words or phrases from other poets are infused in the poetry.

“There are those elegant structures in the poetry and I’m always interested in finding elegant structures in the music. It was a perfect marriage. It was a joy to set the words.”

There is a lot of trust involved in this process between the writer and the composer, Ryan said.

“To me, working with writers is a real collaboration. It has to be a meeting of the minds when both are creating from the start. The words are just as important as the music, but there are several hundred years of western classical tradition that has often ignored the writer.”

The arc of the piece begins with everyone together “because that’s unity. In the course of the piece, little solos emerge and different combinations of voices and instruments take place. In the middle it is very chaotic.”

The piece then starts to gradually come together and by the final movement everyone is performing together again and unity returns, Ryan said.

Ryan also played another role in the development of this piece.

He was the first to meet Nordic Voices and he helped recruit them to sing the music.

“We were talking about ensembles that fit with the project. Their name showed up early. A few weeks later they were in Vancouver to do a concert.”

Ryan went to the show and met the singers after that “it all fell into place.”

Eventually he would find himself in Oslo in November with the Gryphons workshopping the score.

It is always really important to get a chance to do a workshop with the artists, especially with vocals, he said.

“Every time you write a piece you want to write to the performer’s strengths so you show them off well. So the idea of a workshop is so important.”

They spent several days working on the 240-page score.

“We could work through every movement. There were lots of little details that we worked out. Doing this last November meant I could send a final version of the music two months before performance.”

Chamberfest presents The Gryphon Trio and Nordic Voices
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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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.