Living a musical life: Hope renewed for Ottawa composer Kelly-Marie Murphy

Kelly-Marie Murphy will have two of her pieces performed at Chamberfest this summer. Photo: Alan Dean Photography

When the Toronto Symphony Orchestra takes the stage Friday night, it will be a very public acknowledgement of Ottawa composer Kelly-Marie Murphy’s great year.

Not only did she get a commission to write a piece of music in honour of Glenn Gould for a great orchestra, last spring she won the first ever Symphony Nova Scotia Maria Anna Mozart prize for women composers and picked up a cool $10,000 and another commission. And, even bigger, she won the $50,000 2018 Azrieli Foundation’s Commission for Jewish Music, the largest prize of its kind in Canada. The award goes to a Canadian composer for  new piece of music that captures an aspect of the Jewish experience. The piece will be performed by the McGill Chamber Orchestra conducted by the Israeli maestro Yoav Talmi on Oct. 15, 2018 at Maison symphonique de Montreal.

These “wins” couldn’t have come at a better time for Murphy, who has had a tough couple of years preceding these announcements.

“Finally,” she said, “it’s been dormant for a few years and finally my name is getting back out there.

“I was starting to wonder if I might need to acknowledge that I need a real job. So it’s nice that this year is going to be pretty exceptional. I don’t expect to be winning competitions by the twos every year. I will take this.”

The Azrieli prize, which was announced on Sept. 5, was a stunner.

“When I got the phone call I was, ‘No way. I’m having a Walter Mitty moment. I listened to the message again and it was the real thing.”

The question occurs: What does Jewish music mean to a non-Jew?

“Composers study everything, at least I think we should be. You can’t grow without that (curiosity). As soon as you scratch the surface of any music you will find ” a myriad influences.

Without that curiosity, Murphy, who was born in 1964 on a NATO base in Italy and is a self-confessed Canadian Forces brat, believes the creative process would stagnate.

“I think it’s beautiful that somebody like me growing up on bases across Canada. How would come to know and love the music of Blind Willie Johnson and Bulgarian women’s choir music. This stuff affects me and touches me.

“When you write a proposal, you are talking about an imaginary piece. I put together this proposal about Sephardic music, thanks to my daughter’s singing teacher who is Jewish.

“I said: ‘I want to put together a proposal’ and she said: ‘You have to study Sephardic music, it is the most beautiful music.'”

The teacher sent Murphy some links and she was captivated.

“We are talking about a culture that has been expelled from everywhere. I can’t reconcile that. My job here is to be observant of the music and put it into something that is new.

Murphy, who just turned 53, believes that music can be a uniter and so she emphasized that point.

“I finished the proposal and thought it would be so cool to write this piece.”

Lo and behold, good things come to those who work hard at their craft.

First things first though, She is writing the piece for Symphony Nova Scotia prize piece which she aims to wrap up by the end of October. It will be performed.

In a sign that maybe she should be buying lottery tickets, she has another commission, this one from the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto for a piece of music that will feature eight cellists, among them the Gryphon Trio’s Roman Borys. This one will premiere in May.

The Azrieli piece is due in August. She intended to feature the harp/cello duo of Heidi Krutzen and Ariel Barnes known as Couloir. Barnes performs with the Vancouver Symphony by the way.

“I’m right between excited and terrified,” she said in the interview, which took place before she headed down Highway 401 for rehearsals of her 10 minute, single movement composition Curiosity, Genius, and the Search for Petula Clark.

She said the commission was intended to celebrate Gould in some way. The TSO has been commissiong a number of new works to mark Canada 150. This one also marks what would be Gould’s 85th birthday and the 70th anniversary of his first performance with the TSO.

When people think of Gould, they often think of Bach.

“I wanted to be as far away from that as possible,” she said about the piece. She also wanted to avoid any hint of the personal idiosyncrasies of Gould.

“I wanted to think about the person. I never met Gould, but anyone growing up as a musician in Canada this is someone you grow up knowing. As a pianist you learn about his interpretations.”

She recalled consulting Gould’s playing of a Mozart sonata when she was a student at the Unversity of Calgary.

“I went to library and decided to listen to Gould’s interpretation and it was different … and I liked it.”

She picked up his influences in her presentation and her professor ripped her to shreds.

“I thought that was unfortunate but didn’t make me think Gould was wrong. I wanted to write a piece that showed his individualism and what he was like as a person. So I interviewed his recording engineer and got a sense of Glenn.”

Gould was passionately interested in everything, she says. He read books by the bucket full and four or five newspapers a day.

“He didn’t delineate between what was worth knowing. He took it all on board.”

When Gould retired from the stage to focus on recording, she said, he was involved in all parts of the recording.

He also embraced making documentaries for radio. One of those was the inspiration for the NAC’s Ideas of North festival next month.

“The one I was interested in was called The Search for Petula Clark.”

In it, Gould is driving to Marathon, Ontario in 1966. On the journey he found that he could only listen to radio within a certain radius of a relay station.

“He found that if he kept the radio on a certain channel at regular intervals he would hear the song Who Am I by the British singer Petula Clark.” That sparked Gould to produce a discussion of the popular song. The documentary was by turns funny and charming, she sys.

Her piece will be played twice by the TSO, a thought which “is terrifying. I have been in this position before but it is different every time. Is what I wrote, what I found interesting going to be interesting to anybody else? It’s scary. We will all find out at the same moment. You can’t look at a piece of music and go ‘Yep, that is a hit’. You just never really know.”

The piece is energetic and features an echo Who Am I in a slow section, she says.

‘I was trying to put into musical terms ideas of curiosity, reflection and playfulness. One thing I managed to get in there is my own love of Bebop music. That has nothing to do with Gould but a lot to do with me. I’m a little worried about that part because it is hard. It’s not impossible but this is the place where it could fall apart. They have to get it.”

It never gets easy because it’s always a new work, she says.

“I’m already having performance nightmares. I have a dream in which I was expelled from an orchestra because my music was nonsense. They took my piece off the program. When I wake up from it,” she says, “I ask ‘Why do I do this work again?’

Bad dreams before performances are one thing. Not being paid for your work is another.

“I have had a few bad years. The last orchestral piece I got was for the Ottawa Symphony a few years ago. Last year I wrote string quartet, a piece for solo cello and percussion piece and none of those pieces got funding.

“I said, ‘Forget it, I’m going to write these pieces anyway and I wrote them for free. They are being performed and recorded.” But there is no money.

This is why this year’s bounty is so welcome.

“This is validation of all the work I have done. It is the life of a freelance composer. It can go up and down and fluctuate. But it doesn’t stop me.”

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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.