The World Remembers: Composer Jeffrey Ryan imagines the Song of the Soldiers

First World War Canadian soldiers pose for a group picture. Photo courtesy The World Remembers.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about your career as a composer?

A. My professional career really started when I decided I wanted to be a full-time composer, quit my teaching position, and moved to Toronto. I gave myself until I was 40 to see what happened — at 40, I thought there would be still be plenty of time to course-correct if it wasn’t working out, there were plenty of other things I liked to do, like work in libraries or arts administration.

I am grateful to have had some early champions like Susan Haig (then conductor of the Windsor Symphony), composer/conductor Gary Kulesha, and David Jaeger (then of CBC). I took every opportunity to work and slowly build my profile. I did a couple of years as an affiliate composer with the Toronto Symphony, which was a great training ground for writing well for orchestras. My piece Violet Crumble is one of the works that came out of that. (The Ottawa Symphony Orchestra played it on Nov. 4.) Then when I turned 40, I got the gig as Composer-in-Residence with the Vancouver Symphony. So I figured that was a good sign, that I should keep doing this. The residency working with the VSO and Bramwell Tovey was absolutely fantastic. We recorded a CD of my music, called Fugitive Colours, which is currently playing on the Air Canada in-flight entertainment system. The last several years have seen bigger projects and more collaborations (like Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation with Canada’s war poet Suzanne Steele for the Calgary Philharmonic, and Seasons of the Sea with Coast Salish/Sahtu Dene storyteller Rosemary Georgeson for Vetta Chamber Music). I just keep at it, and love every minute of it.

Jeffrey Ryan. Photo: Wendy D Photography

Q. When you are composing, what influences you? 

A. I have several post-it notes near my desk:

Evolve: I always think about how I can push myself, to deeper expression and expanded horizons.

Risk: I always try to do things that are educated guesses but that I’m not 100 per cent sure will work, that’s how a composer grows.

Stay calm, be brave, wait for the signs which was the slogan for the Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour on CBC years ago, which was tongue-in-cheek but I still think it applies.

I am the first audience: People often ask ‘Do you write for the audience?’ and the answer is I am the first audience. If I am not interested in hearing the piece, then no one will be, so I try to listen as a listener as well as a composer. As a full-time freelance composer, I get to live full-time in the world of each piece I am writing.

Q. Have you worked with The World Remembers before the Song of the Soldiers?

A. No, I hadn’t worked with The World Remembers before. I knew something about it because I know people at NACO and I knew that Abby Richardson wrote the first instalment, and that it was included in a NACO tour. Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation happened in Calgary, and got good notices. Then in early 2016 I was at a Tafelmusik concert for a premiere of a choral commission from the chamber choir, and at intermission, a man came up to where I was sitting and tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned around, I looked at his face and burst out ‘Oh, you’re famous!’ It was R.H. Thomson. He asked me about writing Song of the Soldiers because he had just heard some choral music of mine and had heard good things about the Afghanistan oratorio. Of course, I was happy to accept.

Q. What were you told? What did you think?

A. I knew it was to be part of a set, that other composers would write the other movements and that it was a multi-year project. That this would be a short piece for choir and orchestra. These are the basic parameters of what was needed, really, which are decided at the beginning stages of any commission. I love writing for voices, I love writing for orchestra and I love collaborating, so it was exciting to be part of this bigger picture. That first meeting with Robert was in early 2016, but the project had a few delays. Robert and I worked on the text in the spring of 2017, and I wrote the music early this year.

Q. Can you walk me through the piece.

A. It’s about five-and-a-half minutes long. For the text, there are a couple of poems from poets at the time of WWI, notably Leslie Coulson, whose Who Made the Law? is also in Abby’s piece, I think. These poems are a counterpoint to the two main soldier voices in the piece, Canadian Jack Stratford (a relative of R.H. Thomson) and the German artist Franz Marc. The text is drawn from their letters home, in which they describe their experiences. Robert and I both felt it was important to give voice to both sides, and from the point of view of someone on the ground. I translated Franz’s letters from their original German into English, though there is still some German in the text. There is French sung by the women, because it is important to have French represented as well. Jack Stratford was gung ho about the war but you could still hear some of the fear in his words, while Franz Marc was more philosophical and troubled by war and the things he saw people doing to each other.

Q. Can you talk about the music.

A. There’s a lot of back and forth between the men, not that they ever met, but as a contrast to each other. The tenors are Jack and the basses are Franz. Sometimes Jack is more percussive while Franz is lyrical, and then the roles are reversed. The women, in French, provide a counterpoint, kind of like a Greek chorus. The orchestra underneath marches inexorably forward, building little by little until the sound explodes. It resolves into the whole choir singing: ‘Who made the law that men should die in meadows?’ and so on. The question is translated into French and German, so it is asked in all three languages. At the very end, all the men in the choir sing a soldier’s first name, to remind us that there were many many individuals involved and many who did not return.

Q. Do you have a personal connection to the First World War?

A. I don’t really. My parents are both immigrants to Canada, my father from Belfast, Northern Ireland and my mother from Paisley, Scotland. They have stories about the Second World War because they were both pre-teens at that time. As for going back to the First World War, I don’t have any stories.

Q. This is a big anniversary. Are you feeling the responsibility of the work?

A. Well, every piece is about trying to express well what you’re trying to express. That’s a responsibility in every project I work on. But there is also the awareness that this is something big, as Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation also was, and that it’s important to tell the story in a way that touches people.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. My big project this year is Scar Tissue, commissioned by the Gryphon Trio for the trio and Nordic Voices, which is a six-member vocal ensemble from Norway. The Gryphon Trio commissioned new poetry from Giller Prize-winning writer Michael Redhill, and it’s fantastic. It’s a 40-minute piece, nine movements, that trace a journey from unity to wound and disruption, to healing and the “new normal.” The idea of scars is so rich—there are emotional scars, physical scars, geological scars. It’s been a joy to write this piece. We are in Oslo Nov. 6-8 workshopping the piece. This is our one chance, all in one place, to work out all the kinks. I will undoubtedly come back with a list of revisions (hopefully small ones) to be made. These performers are all incredibly inspiring and I am absolutely loving the piece. If you have not heard Nordic Voices before, prepare to be blown away. The premiere will be in Ottawa, presented by Chamberfest, on Feb. 1, 2019.

The World Remembers
Featuring the National Youth Orchestra of Germany with members of the NYO Canada, Orkidstra and choirs from De La Salle and Canterbury High Schools, and the Calixa-Lavallée Chamber Choir from the University of Ottawa.
When: Nov. 11 at 12:30 p.m.
Where: Southam Hall
This is a free concert. For 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.