Ottawa New Music Creators: Taking a chance on music with composer Derek Horemans

The Ottawa New Music Creators are dedicated to the performance of new and existing Canadian compositions. The organization was formed in 2008 by Evan Ware, James Wright, Colin Mack, Gary Hayes, and Joanna Estelle. For Christopher Goddard, the current artistic director of the ONMC, the focus “has been on maximizing opportunities for local composers.” On Mother’s Day ONMC are presenting a concert called Toward the Sea which features works by well-known creators such as Derek Charke, Jocelyn Morlock and Alexandre David. But there are also new pieces by young Ottawa area composers Kasia Czarski-Jachimowicz, Derek Horemans, and Sean Clarke. All performed by the ensemble Projet ISO. ARTSFILE thought it was a good opportunity to meet these young artists and make them known to readers. Each answered questions about their music and themselves. The following is an edited transcript of an email exchange with Derek Horemans and on Friday we’ll introduce Sean Clarke.

Q. Please tell me a bit about yourself as a musician and composer. How did you start and where are you on your journey?

A. My path to classical composing is somewhat unusual. It’s a bit of a comedy of errors with a bunch of happy coincidences mixed in. I started as a boy soprano, before completely quitting music in middle school. This gave me a firm basis in music for what was to come. Then, I got good at the video game Guitar Hero and from that learned real guitar. From there, I started songwriting and exploring indie/folk music. On a last minute whim, I decided to apply for a music program at St. Lawrence College, where I excelled. The same year I graduated was the first year that St. Lawrence signed an articulation agreement with the University of Ottawa music program, allowing me transfer credits to continue and do a BA in music. This is where I developed my abilities in theory and composition. After succeeding in my undergrad at UOttawa, I entered the Masters program, continuing in composition.

I’m just finishing my Masters now, and am taking a year off of school to consider PhD options, but I’m confident I’ll find new avenues and opportunities to pursue. I still feel a bit out of my element. Coming from Pop music, I don’t have all the storied background and knowledge of my peers. On the other hand, I tend to see things they do not, and come at things from unexpected angles. I like to think that my past as a popular musician helps me be both simpler and more radical.


Ottawa composer Derek Horemans.

Q. Why is composition of new music important?

A. We’re in a bit of a crossroads of new music right now. The old orchestra model is starting to waver, and many place the blame on pop music and worsening tastes. If that were true, new music groups like the ONMC wouldn’t be succeeding all across North America. I think it’s time to start making music with the people sitting across from you. “Old” music has its place, but as the distance of time widens, I think audiences are having a harder time connecting to it. This is where new music comes in. Not only do we have the opportunity to work on and develop music together, between composer and performer, but we have the ability to engage audiences in new ways. The vast array of knowledge imparted to us from the many different composers of the past give us the ability to synthesize something new. I think it should be about finding ways to connect composer, performer and audience. We should be tackling questions and problems in this new information age we live in, and use the world around us to make art for ourselves – all of us.

Q. Tell me about the piece that is being performed? 

A. The piece is called Memories I Never Had, in two movements: The Story and The Self. I wanted to address dementia and Alzheimer’s, and how the loss of memories can be difficult on the individual and on their families. Not only are the stories slowly warped, and lost, but the person who tells them also slowly degenerates, kind of “de-develops.” To capture both these voices, I have each movement set up as a solo for one of the two instruments, while the accompanying instrument has a sheet of responses. They listen to the “story” (the music) and respond as directed to a set of cues – sometimes in agreement, other times not. An interesting technique I used in the second movement: I composed it backwards – from the last phrase, to the first phrase – using the typical style of thematic development I am accustomed to using. The result, I hope, is music that “organically” de-develops too.

Q. Is this typical of your work?

A. I would say it has some typical elements, but also breaks new ground for me. The technique of writing in reverse, for instance, was new to me, and was somewhat challenging. The setting is typical though: a freely, openly played melody with unexpected events, where the performers need to listen, instead of count. I love writing music in this style. I believe that the mindset the performer uses to read a score heavily impacts its performance. I could have written everything deterministically, but I don’t want the performers to count. Counting, from my view, affects the performance and I would rather have the effect of not counting.

Q. Who would you say has influenced your musical thinking?

A. I have to thank all of my music teachers through the years — they each did a wonderful job of showing me things when I needed to see them, and doing their best to let me walk my own path. My peers are always a source of inspiration, and I always have felt like I am chasing the brilliance of someone in my classes or goes to my school – it helps so much to be surrounded by immense talent.

As far as pieces that influenced me, it’s hard to pin down one, or even a few names. Usually, I list the masters of indeterminism before me (Cage, Feldman, Brown, Ligeti, Penderecki, and especially Schafer), if only because I feel their musical contributions are so heavily undervalued. That being said, I think part of being a composer is listening critically to almost all music you hear, and learning something from it. I find myself listening to my daughter’s Disney musicals (currently: Moana) and learning from sources like that. 

That said, I find particular value in music that breaks the boundaries of its own rules. When a rock song forgoes a simple form, or when a classical piece breaks the fourth wall between audience and performers. Those are the pieces that speak to me the most. What is possible if we are just willing to cast out the rules we think we have to follow? Progressive rock/metal, experimental classical music, free Jazz… are the things I strive to understand and emulate.

Q. What is your favourite piece of music all time? Why?

A. I guess I will highlight two pieces, ones that really began my journey down the road of experimentalism. The first is Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question for trumpet, string quartet, and wind quartet. This is set upon a soft background of barely moving, nearly silent strings (the druids, never changing), over which The Perennial Question of Existence (performed by the solo trumpet) is asked. It’s an incredibly powerful, conceptual piece, but it is also haunting, beautiful, and musical. It pushes the boundaries of what ensembles can do (it is an early example of poly-tempo) and uses the concepts of atonality and imitation flawlessly.

The other is Henry Cowell’s The Banshee. This is a work for string piano (played entirely inside the piano, on the strings), and it uses incredible techniques and sound effects to evoke the sounds a banshee would make. It also has a single, three-note melody that recurs, so it is not entirely without music – but the timbres involved, the soundscape background, is perfect for what it is depicting.

Q. Do you listen to all kinds of music? 

A. Yes! Everything has something to teach you. I like to use the example of screamo-metal with my students – it represents and evokes hatred and anger in ways that a classical singer will never be able to. True, it’s because it would damage their voice (and screamo singers tend to do intense damage to themselves…) but the result is something that is inescapably emotive. I have learned lessons on form in indie music, lessons on harmony from Jazz, lessons on rhythm with Jpop. There are nuggets of wisdom everywhere, if you care to look.

That’s just from a practical, academic view, though… I personally don’t enjoy very much music. If I need to passively listen to music (this is very rare for me nowadays) I tend to retreat mainly into indie and alternative, with a smattering of a few other genres, such as melodic metal, hardcore, and folk.

Q. Have you heard your music played before? 

A. Many times. It never gets any easier. In fact, I think it’s getting harder. I get so nervous before a performance. I never know exactly what my music will sound like, as that’s the nature of aleatory. I put all my faith in my performers to transform the hair-brained ideas I’ve drawn on a sheet of paper into something musical. I am always impressed and overjoyed with the sensitivity modern performers have to new works, and their willingness to put themselves out there and really live the experience I am asking them to. It’s a very vulnerable feeling, very humbling. Very special.

Ottawa New Music Creators present Toward The Sea
Where: Beechwood National Memorial Centre Sacred Space, 280 Beechwood Ave.
When: May 13 at 3 p.m.

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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.