It ain’t just Baroque: uOttawa’s John Armstrong pairs musical periods for Thirteen Strings

John Armstrong.

Sometimes when John Armstrong composes a piece of music, he knows what it is going to be from Square One.

“It just unfolds and ends up the way I planned,” he said. Other times not so much, added the guitarist, composer and uOttawa music professor.

There are all kinds of factors that can come into play in the writing process. The 10-minute piece called Kindred Spirits is one of those that changed course. The new piece will be premiered by Thirteen Strings on Dec. 3.

“It turned out quite differently than I had planned. I had wanted to write for a particular soprano and strings. I wanted it to be very avant-garde and modernist. But it didn’t turn out that way.”

He didn’t get the grant he was seeking so the idea of a soprano went out the window. And because the piece was scheduled for the chamber orchestra’s Christmas concert “I felt I had to write something that would blend in well with that evening.”

On the program, Kindred Spirits, which is played by strings, sits between the Corelli Christmas Concerto and Scarlatti’s Cantata Pastorale, a pair of Baroque gems.

“So I thought I’d write a piece that would move from one to the other. It starts in a very clear D major using material from the end of the Corelli and over the 10 minutes it ends up in A major referencing the beginning of the Scarlatti.”

In the middle there are things such as seven-note tone clusters which, he said, is a very different musical language. It is 20th century meat in a 17th century sandwich.

“I think it works well but I guess I’ll find out.”

Armstrong, who has been composing for many years, has learned from experience that sometimes you gotta go with the flow.

“I started with a particular idea and as I started working it changed completely. I just let it do that. I find that I end up with better music if I let it write itself instead of trying to force things.”

It is a mysterious process, composition. It seems much like what happens with novelists who find their characters taking their own path through a story.

“I have been writing music for more than 50 years. I’ve changed quite a bit. I used to plan things out a lot more than I do now. I used to worry more when things didn’t work out the way I started.

“I have talked to a lot of composers and (realized) that it is reasonably normal that we write more freely after we have been doing it for a long time.”

What is interesting is that, even though he has experience, “before I start a new piece, I don’t entirely believe I can do it. I have to get a certain way into it and then I will realize it will be a piece. There is no formula; you are always digging something out of nothing.”

In the case of Kindred Spirits, he is pairing idioms. In a way, it seems to represent the chain of composition through the centuries.

Today, with all the information at our fingertips, composers can bring these connections to the concert hall. For example, Armstrong pointed to Kevin Lau’s A Drop of Light, recently performed in Ottawa by the Octagon Ensemble.

“You can find almost everything in his music. There’s a bit of Bach here, Strauss there — he seems able to glue it all together and make it make sense.”

In Kindred Spirits, the beginning sounds a little like neo-classical Stravinsky, he said.

“Then it moves out of that. From measure one to measure 75, the final measure, you will hear dramatic contrasts, but I have worked very hard to make it very gradual. Kevin (Mallon, Thirteen Strings music director) will probably want me to talk to the audience and part of me doesn’t want to say anything and let the audience hear it to see if they can make sense of it.”

The title comes from an overheard conversation between his wife Lori Burns and his son Patrick, who is studying for his Master’s in composition at uOttawa.

“They used the phrase and I thought that would be a perfect title for the piece because it is connecting two Baroque pieces.

Armstrong writes music of varying lengths, but 10 minutes seems about average.

“I am a guitarist and the guitar literature is basically made up of short pieces, so I am very comfortable writing with small resources and writing things that are short.

His son is a past winner of the uOttawa Thirteen Strings composition competition. Armstrong, of course, recused himself, “but I was there. I do think his piece was the best that year.”

There are famous father-son composers. Mozart’s dad Leopold was relatively well known in his day and J.S. Bach’s sons were composers as well.

“We never pushed Patrick. Both our children have been very serious musicians. Both did undergrad performance degrees. My daughter Fiona played the cello but she has gone in another direction.” At uOttawa, there is a mother-daughter team. Kelly-Marie Murphy‘s daughter is in her third year studying composition.

Armstrong says he doesn’t involve himself much in his son’s work.

“I would answer question if he asked, but you have to be careful teaching composition to anybody because it is easy to crush someone and stop them dead in their tracks.”

It is a deeply personal process.

At uOttawa, there is a second year composition course that anyone can take. But if students wish to continue on third and fourth year and beyond, they have to make the grade.

It must be fun to have a former student commission a piece from you as the Ottawa percussion-piano duo SHHH Ensemble (Zac Pulak and Edana Higham) have commissioned a piece from Armstrong. It will premiere in January.

Armstrong has been teaching composition since 1980. He’s been at uOttawa since 1993, but has been teaching composition there for the past eight years.

Over the years, the quality of music-making at uOttawa has risen “incredibly,” he said.

“I didn’t teach much composition at first because Steven Gellman was here. I would take the classes when he went on sabbatical. He retired eight years ago and I took over running the program. I have also run the ear training program for eight years.

“I have abandoned all of that, but I still teach two advanced composition classes.”

Thirteen Strings presents a Christmas Candlelight Concert
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Dec. 3 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.