Tone Cluster celebrates diversity and community with music for 25 years

Tone Cluster has been performing together for the past 25 seasons.

For the past 25 years, Ottawa’s LGBT2 choir Tone Cluster has been making music together. ARTSFILE asked Tone Cluster’s Artistic Director, Kurt Ala-Kantti some questions to get a sense of the history of the organization and its next concert featuring the powerful piece of music Tyler’s Suite. Here are his answers.

Q. Please tell me about the founding of the ensemble.

A. Tone Cluster began back in 1994 as a group of friends singing madrigals with a guest appearance at an Ottawa Men’s Choir concert (that’s what the choeur gai d’Ottawa Gay Men’s Chorus was called at the time). Sue Farley, one of our founding members, is still with the choir today.

We’ve changed quite a bit over 25 seasons: our tag line back then was ‘Tone Cluster, a chamber choir,’ now we’re registered as a not for profit, have become more visible in our diversity as ‘quite a queer choir,’ have released two CDs, and have travelled across North America.

Q. What kind of music does the ensemble perform?

A. We have an eclectic mix. For example, last year our tour programme included a renaissance motet, a Broadway show tune, a piece by Pentatonix and a new commission by a local, queer composer.  We also like to support and promote queer and Canadian musicians through commissioning their work, inviting them as guest performers and singing their pieces.

Q. Has the membership evolved as the community has changed?

A. I feel the membership is similar but the labels change. For example, we use queer as an umbrella term for those of varied sexual orientation, gender identity and relationship orientation, for other folks the definition may be a bit different. We’ve also always welcomed allies, partly as a safety net for those who may be closeted, and partly to build bridges in community.

I guess the biggest change is in the numbers of singers who feel more comfortable being in the choir. We have more straight singers who feel comfortable joining a queer choir, and more queer singers who feel more comfortable being out. For example, we’ve had more members directly labeling themselves as asexual, trans or non-binary.

Q. What purpose does it serve (or does it want to serve) both musically and in the community?

A. Actually, we just addressed this very topic with a mission statement review and confirmed that we want to “strive for excellence and celebrate diversity, in music and in community”.

We celebrate diversity through focussing on a variety of community groups, at least one a season in our concerts, and through performing a variety of music. Using music to explore differences also allows us to confront difficult topics. For example, we were pretty vocal around the fight for equal marriage at the time, and at our last concert we had Capital Rainbow Refuge speak, an organization supporting queer refugees.

Q. Please tell me a bit about yourself and why you are involved?

A. I’ve been involved in choirs and in music for most of my life, from singing in the Ottawa Regional Youth Choir to becoming the Director of Music at St Thomas the Apostle Anglican Church and founding my own choir, Harmonia.

I was invited to apply for the position of Tone Cluster’s Artistic Director back in the summer of 2011. Now, eight years later, we’ve travelled to several national and international choir festivals and hosted one, which has been quite a thrill.

Over my years with Tone Cluster their strong stance on inclusion really speaks to me. Their willingness to work hard makes for very satisfying performances.

Q. This is a special year. What has the ensemble been doing? 

A. It has been such a rewarding season. 

We always include some special events: this year we sang in the MosaiK choir festival and put on our main fundraising event, Show Tune ShowdownTM (where musical theatre teams compete singing show tunes), and of course our regular three concert season.

Our first concert, in November, was All. That. Jazz. a journey through different styles of jazz, from swing to Sun Ra and from a capella Manhattan Transfer to avant-garde, experimental jazz. We were thrilled to have Ottawa’s professional jazz group, Rakestar Arkestra as our guests.

Our 25th anniversary concert was in March, We Still Got Issues. It highlighted the challenges we face as a society from equal rights to climate change, with related music and multimedia presentation. Guest conductor, Jane Ramseyer Miller, the artistic director of GALA Choruses (an international association of LGBT choruses) was featured, as was Biindige’amaazo,  a local, indigenous drumming group. 

Finally, we come to our June 1 concert. It’s not just a concert but a whole project on anti-bullying that brings together community with special workshops, two school assemblies and the concert.  As well as hosting Harmonia Choir, Tone Cluster is pleased to include Director, Lee Carter, and his Nepean High School Choir. We even have a special guest, Canada’s, out, country star, Drake Jensen. Drake has been a staunch supporter of Ottawa’s queer community and of Tone Cluster.

Q. On June 1, Tone Cluster is presenting an important and emotional work, Tyler’s Suite. Tell me about it. 

A. A few years ago, I was invited to the Lincoln Center to perform in a mass concert with members of Tone Cluster and Harmonia. The second half of that concert was a nine movement piece Tyler’s Suite under the Direction of Dr. Timothy Seelig. 

The message of inclusion and anti-bullying, as well as the quality of the music really spoke to me and I knew I had to bring this beautiful experience home to Ottawa. Tone Cluster’s board has been warmly supportive, both financially and through their volunteer time. Our producer, Gianluca Ragazzini was also instrumental in securing a grant from the U.S. Embassy to help make this premiere project a reality.

The music, with movements from the perspectives of Tyler’s mother and father, and with so many in our community who have lost friends, it is indeed an emotional work; there have been tears shed in rehearsal. There is also so much hope from the inspiring message of what community support can do.

Q. Why June 1?

A. It is close to the anniversary of Tone Cluster’s inception, but also falls into the intricate window of logistics: when the special guests, venue, Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre, artistic team and three choirs could all make it work.

Q. Tell me who is coming to town? 

A. We have two very special guests coming from out of town. Dr. Timothy Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, a skilled choral clinician, and one of the forerunners of the queer choral movement in North America. He is also the reason Tyler’s Suite exists. Seelig worked together with the  composer Steven Schwartz (of such musicals as Pippin and Wicked) to commission eight other composers to write movements of the story of Tyler Clementi’s life and passing.  We are thrilled to work with him this week. In addition Tyler’s mom, Jane Clementi is coming.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about Tyler, his mom and the organization that is working to combat bullying?

A. Tyler Clementi was a skilled violinist, cyclist and gay youth. After an episode of cyber-bullying at university he died by suicide.  I confess, my spare words do no justice to the vibrancy of Tyler’s life and the complexities of his situation. 

Tyler’s death created a great deal of media attention and in the aftermath, Tyler’s mom, Jane, now Chief Executive Director, co-founded the Tyler Clementi Foundation with her husband Joe. The foundation provides education on the impact of bullying, including cyber bullying, and the importance of accepting those marginalized by society, especially LGBT teens. She is a passionate speaker and we are very fortunate to have her with us at our concert and at Nepean High School for their school assembly.

Q. Anything you want to say that I have missed…

A. It is Tone Cluster—quite a queer choir’s privilege to offer the Canadian premiere of Tyler’s Suite to our community for free on Saturday, June 1, at 7:30 pm, in the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre.

For more 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.