Give her shelter: TSO composer Emilie LeBel captures the angst of our times in new work

Emilie LeBel is a composer in residence with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Her piece, unsheltered, will have its world premiere in Ottawa on Nov. 11.

Emilie LeBel was in her first year at university in Victoria, B.C. when her life plan was shattered. She had intended to study the trumpet and pursue a professional career but she broke her jaw in an unfortunate accident that set her back.

She left university and turned to studying audio engineering. She worked in a recording studio for awhile, but eventually she gave that up. (Ironically she’s married to a sound engineer). At age 26, she decided to return to school and study music. Along the way she discovered a passion for composition. That decision actually suited her personality better, she said.

She’s a self-described introvert and didn’t truly enjoy being on stage. Composition fit the bill proving that sometimes things work out the way they are supposed to after all.

These days LeBel is an assistant professor of music at MacEwan University in Edmonton and she is also the RBC Affiliate Composer with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. After graduating with her doctorate from the University of Toronto, LeBel worked at the University of Montana in Missoula.

While with the TSO, she will write three pieces, one a year during her residency. Her second piece, the 10-minute-long work called unsheltered will get its world premiere on Nov. 11 as the TSO makes its annual visit to the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall stage. The orchestra led by Sir Andrew Davis will also play Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19, featuring the soloist Karen Gomyo and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93.

LeBel tends to be influenced by the world around her and the zeitgeist of the age. A key common denominator today is anxiety and worry. There’s lots to be worried about, of course, including climate change and its impact.

Last spring, northern Alberta was burning — again. As far as LeBel was concerned where there was smoke there was music … so, she said in an interview with ARTSFILE, that she began to forge an idea, a storyline, that would become unsheltered. She’s finished the piece but she hasn’t heard the full work performed and won’t until rehearsals later this week. She admits to being a “little nervous,” but she’s also “excited to hear it. It has been in my head for half a year so it will be nice to not have it only in my brain. It will feel real then.”

The idea of our changing climate, which has spawned more frequent and intense fires, is personally important to LeBel, but her work, unsheltered, is a multi-layered idea that is about “our environment and our homes and our country and (also about) an acute awareness of how lucky we are in Canada and how good we have it,” she said.

She has a sense that many of us are nervous wrecks and looking for shelter either physical or psychological. “There is a palpable sense of anxiety everywhere right now. And the piece ended up taking that worry on, more so than an overt emphasis on something like the environment.”

When she was sitting down to work on this piece, she had spent a semester teaching Baroque music as a result the very early sketches of the piece have some Baroque bass lines. This is nowhere near the style she works in.

Beginning a piece is difficult. LeBel said she has to work through some early problems and pitfalls for the piece to begin to take shape as a concept. As she was starting this particular piece, the fires were burning and that took the work in a very specific direction.

“Art takes on whatever is around you and artists take on that role of reflecting their time. How could the piece not take on that energy.”

She was also at the same time reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book Unsheltered. It gave her a title and the piece became very much about shelter and refuge and worry, she said.

In her program notes for the Ottawa concert she also quotes a line from the Book of Worry by the poet Joanna Doxey:

In this humming and doubled land, hold worry, only me
and I get older or I grow farther from myself and
I always most love the moment before now…

She says she liked the quotation because it seemed to encapsulate the humming worry but also hope and nostalgia, themes that were emerging in her music.

Her musical style has been described by others as offering “textural landscapes.” She believes that’s an apt description for her orchestral music.

“I think a lot about texture and colour. The piece won’t sound like a melody and a harmony.” Her music tends to be more experiential rather than literal.

“The piece is more about this humming energy, the restlessness and the worry. It’s a tenuous, slippery feeling.” This shows up, for example, in long glissandos played by the strings and the trombones, she said.

The orchestra is a palette of textures — dense or coarse, heavy, light, crystalline, pure or smooth.

“For me there is a strong correlation between the sound and how I think about the visual or the tactile.” That means she has a storyline that lays out the highs and lows of the piece. For example, after all the nervous tension, the piece does end on a somewhat hopeful note.

“When I think about audiences, you can’t expect everyone to like or dislike something. All I can hope is that they sit with it for the 10 minutes it takes and let it wash over them and maybe they feel something. Maybe they feel deeply moved by the music or maybe it makes them feel connected to other people. I am trying to connect to something universal. I’m not trying to tell people what to feel or think, I am offering up a moment of contemplation and a chance to feel” part of something with others.

She says she is always amazed by what some audience members come up with after a performance of her music.

“These are things I would never anticipate. I enjoy that moment of surprise.”

Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Where: Southam Hall
When: Nov. 11 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and 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.