Thirteen Strings: Andrew Ager Talks of the Town and the music it inspires

Ottawa composer Andrew Ager.

As a teenager, Ottawa composer Andrew Ager used to like to get out at night and hang with his buddies. There was nothing sinister about it, nothing criminal, just a bit of after-midnight wanderlust. So the lads would walk the streets of their Alta Vista neighbourhood and eventually end up the long-gone Lady Jane Donuts shop near Bank and Heron. It was open 24 hours and you could grab a coffee and a surgary treat and talk the hours away.

The memories of those halcyon days have inspired a piece of music that gets its premiere on Oct. 15  at Dominion-Chalmers United Church.

The title and the music itself echo those late-night, early morning talks in the doughnut shop. It’s called The Talk of the Town.

“It is locally inspired,” he said in an interview. “I don’t need to be inspired from elsewhere, we’ve got it all here.”

The piece is part of a massive project started by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra which has been commissioning new works from literally dozens of Canadian composers to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

This particular piece is part of a group of commissions that asked the composers to write a short prelude that would open concerts, Ager said.

The commissions will be performed by the TSO and by an ensemble with which composer had already worked. The pieces are written for the other ensemble which could be a piano trio or, in the case of Thirteen Strings, a chamber orchestra. When the TSO will perform in in December, Ager says it will be played by their string section.

“Kevin Mallon proposed me as one of the composers. He likes my stuff and Thirteen Strings has done a lot of my work over the years.

“The piece is called Talk of the Town because I really couldn’t think of a name. I really couldn’t. I’m sick and tired of names that are all numbers or all lowercase as many are doing these days.” (Maybe you can tell Ager doesn’t suffer the politically correct or what he refers to as the New Music Establishment.)

“We used to talk (in the donut shop) about everything: girls,  music, stupid adults. I was 14-15. I had a room in the basement of our house and so I used to sneak out the basement window and disappear. I got to many of the back streets of my neighbourhood well.”

In honour … imitation … of those discussions the piece is “chattery,” he says. “It keeps changing moods.”

There were no guidelines for the piece from the TSO except the time which is two and a half minutes long.

“In some ways it is very easy to do because it doesn’t take very long to fill two and a half minutes. On the other hand, you might have two and a half minutes that feel like 40 minutes.”

Ager says it will be exciting for strings.

“It’s quick and keeps changing moods. There is a lot packed into two and a half minutes.

“You are talking about young teens yammering with each other ideas comes up and get disputed or forgotten. Strings are very good for that. They are so versatile. They can chatter or they can be long and slow … languid. It’s all in this piece.

The piece actually begins with something Ager wrote awhile back that was never completed.

“I took a little figure from another piece which had not seen daylight. It is kind of chattery and nervous sounding. That was in my head already and I just worked it into this piece. It doesn’t sound at all like the original figure.”

Nothing is ever wasted for a composer or a poet or any artist.

“Just the other day I was looking through boxes and crates and crates of crap. I had to go through it because we have just moved and need the space. I’m not throwing much out because I’m a total pack rat. Really it was just to see what’s there. It’s more like an archeological dig. There’s lots of stuff there that I have forgotten that I wrote going back 30 years.

“I dug up a bunch of material that I realized I’ve used recently. It just swam up again from the unconscious and I used it. It’s all kind of a big sea.”

This is a relatively good time for Ager. His music is being played right now.

He believes it’s because “I’m at point of not caring. If people want to use it they use it. Honestly there does come a point where you just start to think (screw) it, I’m doing it.

Ager has been writing music for 30 years and he estimates he has produced about 80 finished pieces of all kinds from operas to symphonies to string quartets.

Even the university he quit in disgust so many years ago, the University of Toronto, has asked for a volume of his songs. There is even talk of him having to go Toronto to give a talk on his songs. The irony is not lost on Ager.

There is also talk of a staging of his opera Frankenstein, based on the novel by Mary Shelley, in Ottawa.

He is making a go of it in Ottawa and that’s just fine.

“I like being here. It’s my home town. I don’t need to live in some other place. I have spent time in Europe and I didn’t like it.”

Thirteen Strings
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: Oct. 15 at 3 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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.