New music brings cultures of Nunavik and Germany together in Ottawa

Gordon Williamson. Photo: Zuzanna Specjal

A free concert in Ottawa on Tuesday will bring together two throat singers from the Canadian Arctic, Winnie and Lisa-Louise Ittukallak, and the  German vocal ensemble Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and accordionist Margit Kern to perform Ottawa native Gordon Williamson’s composition Encounters. The music flows out of a collaboration between the composer, who currently lives in Hannover, Germany and the Avataq Cultural Institute and the community of Puvirnituq in Nunavik. Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart is a seven member ensemble that specializes in the interpretation of contemporary vocal music. The ensemble likes to explore new sounds, new vocal techniques and new forms of articulation. They will get that in this collaboration. Before the concert, ARTSFILE asked Gordon Williamson some questions about his work and his career.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about yourself.

I was born in Ottawa and my family lived in Manotick before moving to Oakville for high school. I had always played musical instruments growing up: I started on the piano, then the clarinet and finally guitar. When it came time to look at university studies, I made something of a last-minute switch: I applied and was accepted to the music program at Dalhousie University in Halifax. I began my studies as a guitarist but I quickly got interested in composition and chose to major in it. It was probably always just a sense of curiosity that made me want to try it, and 20 plus years later curiosity is still the main itch of composing. It’s what drew me to write something for Inuit throat singers and the Neue Vocalsolisten.

Q. Do you fit into a musical box in anyway? 

A. I write contemporary music, which is to say ‘modern’ music for classically trained musicians … orchestra, chamber music, choir, etc.  The music is modern in the sense that I’m not trying to write new symphonies in the style of Mozart, but rather trying to find new sounds and ways of writing music for these musicians. The ‘musical box’ is probably best called experimental, and I would even narrow it a bit further and say that I write experimental music for acoustic musicians (as opposed to a lot of experimental music that uses electronics). Although I do enjoy writing for the voice, it’s not a special focus of my output as a composer.

Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart. Photo: Manu Theobald

Q. How did you get to Germany?

A. In 2004, I moved to Denmark to study composition with Bent Sørensen and Hans Abrahamsen.  I lived in Copenhagen for three years and it was a great introduction to living in Europe. But from Copenhagen it was clear that Berlin is really the artistic centre of Europe and so I moved there after finishing my diploma in Denmark in 2007. In 2010, I started teaching at the Hanover University of Music, at the time it was supposed to be just for a year but I’ve been there ever since!

Q. Can you tell me a bit about Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart. Have you worked with them before?

A. The Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart is a highly unique vocal ensemble that regularly performs some of the most unique and experimental modern vocal music in major festivals around the world. They have a reputation for being able to do most anything with the voice, and so I knew I wanted to work with them on this project with Inuit throat singers. I can say that, even with their years of experience working with voices, the Neue Vocalsolisten were quite astonished to hear live throat singing. I knew some of the Neue Vocalsolisten before this project, we invited the three male singers from the Neue Vocalsolisten last year to the Hanover University of Music, where I teach composition. Several students wrote pieces for them that were performed as part of a larger project featuring new music for the voice.

Winnie and Lisa Louise Ittukallak. Photo: Jode

Q. You are working with two Inuit throat singers. Can you talk about about Winnie and Lisa-Louise Ittukallak?

A. Lisa-Louise and Winnie both live in Puvirnituq in Northern Quebec. Puvirnituq is an important centre for Inuit throat singing and they both grew up singing together. I’ve really enjoyed working with them, they have been very open to answer my many questions and to trying out my crazy ideas for the voice. I’m very grateful to them for this opportunity. Both are also very keen to share their art with the rest of the world. Last year they sang at festival in Mexico, for example, and Lisa-Louise came to Germany this past December where she also performed in Hannover. Lisa-Louise is also a designer. She designs and sews parkas and other winter wear that she sells online.

This project is the first time I’ve ever worked with Inuit throat singers.

Q. Does this kind of vocalization interest you?

A. As a composer, I’m always interested in new sounds and ways of making music and Inuit throat singing has always been something that I’ve wanted to know more about. It’s easy enough these days to find a recording or video on YouTube, but this project is about meeting people and actually collaborating with them in creating a new piece with throat singing.

Q. Please tell me about the piece Encounters. 

A. I’ve been working on it since last summer and the last notes were finished just a few weeks ago. It’s definitely a first for me. At 35-40 minutes, it’s the longest piece I’ve written and also the first time I’ve written for musicians without a background classical music. The throat singers don’t read notated music, so composing for them was a very unique challenge. The piece is about a meeting of these two musical cultures, so there are passages where the throat singers present some of their music and the Neue Vocalsolisten react to it, or passages where the German singers take part in some of the games that the Inuit singers use in making their music. In a sense, the piece is a series of encounters that explores the possibilities of how these two, almost opposing musical cultures, can find new points in common.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. I have a few weeks at home in Hannover and then I’m off to a month artist residency at the Bogliasco Foundation. It’s an American interdisciplinary residency program located near Genoa, Italy. There I’ll be working on a new commission for the Quasar Saxophone Quartet from Montreal, they’ll be premiering my piece Montreal this October as part of their 25th anniversary concert. I’ve known the group for some years now and I’m really looking forward to working with them.

Winnie and Lisa-Louise Ittukallak and Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart with Margit Kern, accordion
Where: Borden Hall, Allsaints Event Space, 10 Blackburn Ave.
When: Feb. 26 at 7 p.m.
This is a free event. 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.