Q and A with Jan Järvlepp: Composing a life in music

Jan Järvlepp. Photo: Claudette Bockstael

The Ottawa based cellist and composer Jan Järvlepp has written a new piece that will be performed by two young musicians from our town John Kofi Dapaah and Raphael Weinroth-Browne. You can hear The Rise and Fall of the Avro Arrow at 8 p.m. on Aug. 31  at Beechwood’s Sacred Space, 280 Beechwood Ave. You can get tickets at harmonyconcerts.ca. You’ll also be able to hear another work called Brass Dance in the opening concert of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra’s season in October. But before all of that Jan Järvlepp talked about his work and much more in this interview with ARTSFILE.

Q. Tell me a bit about you. 

A. I was born in Ottawa in 1953 to Finnish and Estonian parents, who moved here in 1951 after the Second World War and my first language was Finnish. I started speaking a lot of English when I went to kindergarten at age 5. So I grew up in a European Finnish-speaking family and my parents really never took up American culture. CBC Radio was often on as they played mostly classical music back in those days. I never paid attention to it as I figured it was adult music. I was attracted to pop music.

Q. What got you started in music? 

A. I had some ill-fated piano lessons as a child. I begged for lessons after hearing my mother play the piano for the first time. The instrument seemed like a magic box to me. I couldn’t believe the sounds coming out of it. However, the piano lessons were boring drudgery and I soon lost interest. So did my brother. We had to play dumb little pieces from the Toronto Conservatory books plus the usual scales and arpeggios. Also, the teacher smelled of sweat. My brother ended up taking up woodwind instruments and I took up string instruments.

Q. When did you start composing? 

A. I was composing before I knew it. I would try to make up things on my guitar, which I started playing at age 12 after seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. We didn’t have TV until I was about 11, so I managed to survive much of my childhood with my attention span intact. I remember trying to make metallic sounds by picking close to the bridge of my guitar in an effort to make it sound like an electric guitar as much as possible. I especially liked the lower strings. So I was doing what might be called little riffs involving power chords. But I had no idea that I was doing composition. I was just doing something that I thought was cool like riding my bicycle with no hands.

Q. Please talk about your composing style?

A. I would call what I do a European/American fusion. Considering my family background and my place of residence, my music is simply autobiographical. As a teenager I played cello in the Ottawa Youth Orchestra as well as playing electric guitar in a rock band. So you could say that I was bi-cultural. Some people are offended because I use the word American instead of Canadian. Well, where do you think 12-bar blues, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, soul, funk, Dixieland, Broadway, Fender guitars and Apple computers came from? And culturally important influences like Mad magazine, the Three Stooges, Hullabaloo, Batman, dragsters, Kraft Dinner, Coca-Cola and Woodstock. The list goes on and on. I was not a Hank Snow or Paul Anka fan.

Q. What moves you to write music today?

A. I can’t help it. I was born that way. When I get too busy with rehearsals, gigs, teaching and other activities, I get frustrated because I have to stifle my urge to create music. I just went through a bad period. My brother died of cancer three years ago and I was taking care of him. Then I was the executor and had a lot of stuff to take care of. My father died last year and I was once again executor and I had been taking care of him, too. All of my relatives are on the other side of the Atlantic so I was the go-to guy for family matters. So the worst is over now and I’m getting back to composition. I am hoping to do a piece for steel drums and orchestra because I know a suitable soloist. I am also interested in unusual combinations of instruments.

Q. One example of your work is the very well-known Garbage Concerto. Please tell me about that?

A. This is a prime example of unusual instruments. One sunny summer day in 1992 I looked at the overflowing recycling bin in my kitchen and whimsically said ‘I could do something with that!’ I quickly pulled out a bunch of glass jars, metal cans and plastic bottles and started experimenting. The then-conductor of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra David Currie actually liked the idea and the premiere of the work took place under his direction in 1996 at the NAC. It took me four years to prepare that piece. It was much, much more work that it seems. There were times when I worked daily wearing earplugs trying out new things on the instruments made out of garbage. The glass and metal instruments were very loud.

Q. Another piece that is pretty well known is In Memoriam written with your brother in mind. Tell me more. 

A. That was actually written in the palliative care ward of Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga. My girlfriend and I went in every day to spend time with my dying brother. We read every magazine and newspaper that we could find as well as books and articles on the computer. We drank lots of coffee as time passed very slowly. Finally I started jotting down notes on blank manuscript paper while sitting right next to my brother, who could no longer speak. I didn’t know if the piece was going to be any good. After he had passed away, I returned home and entered the music into the notation program of my computer. Out popped an expressive lyrical piece of slow romantic music! I can honestly say that this is the most sincere piece that I have ever composed.

Q. You have recently written a piece for the pianist John Kofi Dapaah and Raph Weinroth Browne cellist. Please tell me about The Rise and Fall of the Avro Arrow.

A. Actually there is story to that. The three-movement piece, known as Three Moments in Canadian History, was commissioned with a grant from the Ottawa Arts Council to be played as part of the Canada 150 celebrations in 2017. Unfortunately, the intended performers disliked the piece and didn’t play it. I told my former cello student Raphael Weinroth-Browne about this state of affairs and was pleased to learn that he was in the process of founding a cello and piano duo. So Raphael and pianist John Dapaah will be performing one third of this set of three pieces in their upcoming recital but they plan to premiere the entire work in a future recital, probably in the new year. Better late than never.

Q. Is that a typical subject for you — the Arrow being such an iconic Canadian story?

A. No, I don’t usually do that sort of thing. Here I tried to capture the energy and motion of the subjects in the two fast movements Driving the Last Spike into the Canadian Pacific Railway and The Rise and Fall of the Avro Arrow. So the question is: How do you depict a locomotive and a jet plane with cello and piano. There is no instruction manual for this, like there is no manual for how to write a garbage concerto. You just have to figure it out.

Q. Tell me about your work as an educator. 

A. I’m not a born teacher. I can see that by comparing myself to those that are. However, I taught so much that I got good at it, in spite of myself. Practically speaking, gigs and commissions go up and down, particularly after stock market crashes. But teaching tends to be steady from week to week. I can look back and say that I have contributed to many peoples’ musical backgrounds and Raphael is an outstanding example of that.

Q. These days you do not seem to be tied to a particular institution/employer.

A. I have been a freelancer ever since I graduated in 1981. That’s because I entered a worsening recession and promptly got part-time positions in the OSO, the Nepean Symphony Orchestra and, when the opportunity came up, at the school board and at uOttawa. I have had much freedom over the years but that has meant a compromise in income. Fortunately I don’t worry too much. That lifestyle would drive others crazy.

I have played cello for 52 years and I am now at the point of hanging up my G string. I am leaving the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra after 38 consecutive seasons to become a full-time composer. At age 66, I have now passed the official retirement age of 65 and, of course, this is a moment of reflection. The more I thought of it, the more I concluded that all roads lead to composition. I will play some more guitar. I may play some more cello, in church for example. But no more Zarathustra or Rite of Spring for me.

Share Post
Written by

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.