Lest we forget: New music presents the poets’ view of war

Benjamin Sajo. Photo: Elizabeth Ann Conlon

The story of war is told in many forms. Among the most evocative are the poems written by those who served. The Ottawa composer Benjamin Sajo has created a piece of music that celebrates the poems of lesser known Canadian writers who put pen to paper to capture their feelings about the battlefield. Sajo’s work will be performed Nov. 9 and 10. Before the performances, he answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Tell me a bit about yourself, Benjamin

A. I am a composer of contemporary classical music. I grew up in the Greater Toronto area, mostly in a town called Holland Landing, but with time in Kenora, King City and Kettle. My mother was an English and drama teacher, active with the Sears Ontario Drama Festival. My dad was a stay-at-home father and real estate agent. My grandfather was a philosophy professor at the University of Montreal. His family fled Hungary following the revolution in 1956. My aunt is professional harpist Erica Goodman.  My sister, Rebecca, is a teacher and professional clarinetist, part of the duo Acclarion, with her husband, accordionist and composer David Carovillano. 

I currently work as an occasional teacher for the Ottawa Carleton District School Board and as a music teacher at Capital City Keyboards. I am a member of Ottawa New Music Creators, a non-profit dedicated to the new music cause.  My wife, Elizabeth, who is trained in equine-assisted therapy, and I are working towards fundraising for a therapy farm, “Friendship Farm,” to help people in this way.

Q. From where does this interest in music come?

A.  I’ve always been musical. Perhaps it was my sister who initially inspired me to pursue this life. Perhaps it was the reform Jewish melodies that were simultaneously folkloric, classical and jazzy.  I’ve always been fascinated by the emotional magic inherent in the alchemy of melodies, harmonies and other music elements.  I’ve always experienced life as a series of musical metaphors — the rhythms of the day, the sighs and smiles of regular existence. 

 I began piano in Grade 2, though I found it more interesting almost immediately to compose rather than practice. My lifelong teacher and friend, Wayne Irschick, now the music director of Riverside United Church, holistically taught me everything from RCM piano repertoire to 12-tone theory and baroque counterpoint. Most recently he helped prepare and perform the music I wrote for my wedding which was a Jewish Catholic mass and a big band set.

In high school and university I played the trumpet, including with the Newmarket Citizens Band, but my real passion has always been composition.

My tertiary studies occurred at Western University, studying composition under David Myska, Paul Frehner, and Peter Paul Koprowski. At McGill, for my Masters, I studied under John Rea, Chris Paul Harman, and Brian Cherney, and the late Jan Jarczyk. … The hardest lessons I found involved dealing with different people’s rigidity regarding aesthetic propriety.  For example, debates involving what is or isn’t kitch, what is or isn’t avant garde, what is or isn’t worth our time to listen. To me, what matters most is an artist’s sincerity in whatever medium, but it took a long time to reach this personal truth.

I now work as a music teacher. I used to run the music program at the Ottawa Jewish Community School, and now as a high school supply teacher I get my happiest thrills when called in to do band classes. I love seeing how different teachers set up their programs. One of my dreams is to design a high school curriculum that teaches music through composition.

Q. Why composition?

A. Composing has been my most personal outlet not just to express feelings, but to explore the universe around me. … What if I could interpret my rising and lowering blood sugar readings — I have Type 1 diabetes — as gradually more consonant or dissonant chords? Composing is as close as we can get to a mystical art these days. … It’s intellectual, metaphysical, and very esoteric, yet its results can be sensed in an infinite number of ways.

In terms of style, I am post-modern. Modernism is the desire to not repeat the past, to be new, different, to deny tradition. A post-modern approach builds the future by revisiting the past and playing with those historical elements that serve the purpose of the current moment. For example, in this piece, I wrote the music in a classical style that would have been familiar to the poets of the era: post-tonal Expressionism in the vein of middle period Schoenberg paired with English pastoral styles reminiscent of Holst. This was an era of sudden and dramatic changes in aesthetics, a Romantic (optimistic) versus a Realist (pessimistic) outlook. The poems are not sung, but recited. … For me, newness is not in the tool, but in the creative remixing of what’s worked before.

My favourite composers are J.S. Bach, Gustav Mahler, George Gershwin, Paul Hindemith, and R. Murray Schafer, all of whom are, as well, my greatest stylistic influences.

Q. Tell me about the Great War Sextet.

A. This project takes six poems by authors who participated on the front lines of the First World War, and sets them to music. Each setting includes a dramatic recitation of the text. I decided not to have them sung because I wanted the words to speak as clearly as they were intended. Each reading is followed by a solo prelude performed by one of our string musicians, followed by a group performance. The trombonist represents the Unknown Soldier, and the strings represent his psychological state and the world around him. You will hear the song of a nightingale, the simmer of a morning mist, the startle of the afternoon guns, the impatience of soon-to-be war horses straining at the start.  A recurring motif is The Last Post.

This project has been in the works for the past five years.

I’ve intended, with this composition, to bring forward to the public the works of poets whose fate called them to horrific and terrifying experiences they could never have possibly imagined. These days, when we consider wars around the world, we have the media to present us the realities. A hundred years ago, the only second-hand knowledge people had of war was Romantic tales of adventure and gallantry, propaganda regarding the glories of empire-building, heavily edited newspaper articles sometimes with visual sketches or black and white photos. No sound recordings, not yet even significant amounts of film footage. Idealist young men, scholars, farmers, doctors, thrown into the ultimate crucible. Yet, rather than become mute by the terrors, they turned to poetry. 

We are beyond grateful for the funding bestowed by the Ontario Arts Council. Their support in this project occurred just as I was accepting how the life of a professional composer may never happen for me.  Other than my wedding, I haven’t had a professional performance since graduating from McGill (2013). After almost a decade of finding myself, this experience has reopened the door of possibilities

The musicians involved are all excellent and acclaimed emerging artists from across Canada. Felix Del Tredici, our trombonist, is active in Montreal, New York, and internationally. The string quintet features Marianne Di Tomaso, Essie Liu, Maxime Despax, Jake Klinkenborg and Vicente Garcia. Pratik Gandhi conducts.

Q. Tell me about some of the poets and their poems.

A. Perhaps one of our nation’s greatest tragedies is our amnesia regarding other fine writers who, either recovering in a hospital or hunkered down in the trenches, or tending our war horses, wrote their own powerful verses. In 2015, I was teaching abroad in England, and in a public library I found the book We Wasn’t Pals: Canadian Poetry and Prose of the First World War (Exile Editions), which is an anthology compiled by living poets Bruce Meyer and Barry Callaghan.  The performance includes John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, W.W.E. Ross’s Soldiery, H. Smalley Sarson’s Love Song, William H. Ogilvie’s Canadians, Bernard Freeman Potter’s Smoke and Adelard Audette’s No Man’s Land. I hope these poems will be also be heard on Remembrance Day one day. I hope this concert helps in this case.

The Great War Sextet
Featuring: Felix Del TrediciMarianne Di TomasoEssie Liu, Maxime Despax, Jake Klinkenborg and Vicente Garcia. Pratik Gandhi conducts.
Where: Arts Court Theatre
When: Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: MacKay United Church
Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: greatwarsextet.ca, at The Leading Note and at the door.

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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.