One of Canada's most prominent contemporary composers, Linda Bouchard has an international reputation in the world of new music and a list of prestigious commissions to be envied. More than 50 of her compositions, ranging from pieces for orchestras and chamber groups to dance scores, concerts and vocal works, have been recorded on both sides of the Atlantic. Her popular recording Exquisite Fires: Music of Linda Bouchard, was released in 1998 to wide critical praise. The five works on the CD, wrote Tamara Bernstein of The Globe and Mail, reveal "a richness of soul as well as of craft; of emotional range as well as orchestral palette."
At the age of 43, the performer and composer was also the first composer in residence for the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, where she made great strides in bringing contemporary classical music to a wider audience. As well as writing pieces for the NAC Orchestra, Bouchard has also composed for the internationally renowned Kronos Quartet. And, like English composer Judith Weir, she has made considerable headway and gained recognition in the male-dominated world of Western music.
"There have been few women in powerful positions," Bouchard told Peter Goddard of the Toronto Star, "but we're at a time when women are being given a position of power. The milieu of new music is much more open."
Born in 1957 in Val d'or, Quebec, Bouchard had her eyes on a musical career from childhood. Although she has made her name as a composer, Bouchard initially intended to embark on a career as a flautist. After leaving high school, she enrolled in the Universite de Montreal's music program, studying under Lorraine Vaillancourt, who later became director of le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne. Bouchard credits Vaillancourt with opening her ears and mind to the possibilities of modern music.
Intent on furthering her education, Bouchard then transferred to Bennington College in Vermont, where she worked with Henry Brant, a flautist who, like herself, had studied in Montreal. Heavily influenced by the music of Charles Ives, Brant was a notorious eccentric. While she recognized that his unconventional approach to teaching forced his students to address their latent creativity, Bouchard found working with Brant immensely stressful.
"His private lessons were gruesome," Bouchard told Robert Everett-Green of The Globe and Mail. "You had to bring in a lot of work for every lesson, all of it in ink. He'd look at everything very fast, and say, 'You can't do this. You can't do that.' He was against the fancy-looking score. But if he said something was wrong, and you didn't change it, he wouldn't bother you about it. He would respect that."
Bouchard scrambled to comply with Brant's idiosyncratic assignments. He would tell his students to play what he called "going up music" pieces—music investigating all the ways of starting low and ending high. But Bouchard persevered, completed the course and moved to New York where she soon established herself within the competitive classical music community. Writing such diverse works as the 1982 operatic work Triskelion and the 1982 chamber piece Circus Faces helped raise her profile. In 1987, she formed Abandon, a group that made Bouchard something of a celebrity on New York's new music scene.
Became First Composer-in-Residence
Bouchard's career took an unexpected turn in 1992 when she was invited by musical director Trevor Pinnock to become the first composer-in-residence for the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, Ontario. Similar programs had already been adopted by several Canadian orchestras and Bouchard viewed the invitation as an opportunity to connect more directly with the public at large.
When she arrived in Ottawa, Bouchard found the NAC Orchestra's concert season already planned. Aware that concert goers tend to avoid contemporary Canadian music, Bouchard wanted to give the orchestra's repertoire a more personal focus and demystify the music to some degree. She immediately began to make an impression by introducing the old audiences to new sounds.
Influenced by her workshops as a student under Brant, Bouchard introduced a number of programs to encourage public involvement. In the Double Takes program, pieces were performed twice: before and after a discussion about how they were created and what the composer's intentions had been. Bouchard ran Double Takes in parallel with a series of contemporary music concerts, a modern music orchestral workshop, a CD lending library, and various programs for teenagers.
Determined to expose more people to what was on offer from contemorary composers, Bouchard scheduled summer music festivals and educational activities, most notably a program whereby five young composers were commissioned to write pieces to be performed by the NAC Orchestra alongside works by established composers—a big break for unknowns.
"Some people will like 20th-century music once they get to know it, and others will never get to like it, even though they love music by Mozart and Beethoven," Bouchard told the Toronto Star. "I think that is a choice they should be free to make. We should respect their taste."
Commissioned to Write
As composer-in-residence, Bouchard was also called upon to write commissions for the NAC Orchestra and other performers. By then she'd abandoned her Montreal flat and was spending less and less time in New York. The country house outside Ottawa, where she lived with her husband, a writer and software designer, became her base of operations. Bouchard's orchestral piece Ressac was included in her first season with the NAC Orchestra, and was later performed by the orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
As a composer, Bouchard has always drawn on the world around her for inspiration. In 1992, she unveiled Lung Ta, a chamber piece inspired by traditional Tibetan music. In May of 1995, the piece was performed as part of the Encounters concert series presented by the CBC and Soundstream Canada at the CBC Broadcast Centre's Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto. Reviewing the performance for The Globe and Mail, Bernstein observed: "Among the many beauties of this piece was the frequent appearance of chordal harmonies; these drew the listener toward tonal security which was always withheld, creating a sad nostalgia."
In 1996, not long after she had left the National Arts Centre, Bouchard premiered another chamber piece, Compressions, at Montreal's Salle Pierre-Mercure. The piece was written as a protest against Canadian government budget cutbacks, which had resulted in Bouchard's departure from the NAC Orchestra. Appropriately, the work featured a stripped-down ensemble.
For the Record …
Born in 1957 in Val d'or, Quebec; married; children: one son. Education: Studied flute at l'Universite de Montreal and Bennington College, VT.
Musician since childhood; assistant conductor of the New York Children's Free Opera, 1985-88; established new music group Abandon, 1987; guest conductor for the Atelier de musique contemporaine of l'Universite de Montreal, 1990-92; served as artistic co-ordinator of FORUM 91 for le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, 1991; composer-in-residence, National Arts Centre Orchestra, Ottawa, 1993-95; led the NAC Orchestra in the Young People's Concert, 1994; served as musical director and conductor of NAC Orchestra's performance of Mauricio Kagel's Variete, 1994; music director for 20th Century Songs Integration Program at Banff Centre for the Arts, 1994; led master classes at the Banff Centre, 1995; conducted the premiere of her Pilgrim's Cantata at the Oregon Bach Festival, June 1996; conducted the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, February 1998; also appeared as guest conductor with St. Luke's Or chestra, American Dance Festival Orchestra, San Fran cisco Contemporary Music Players, New York New Mu sic Ensemble and New Music Consort; completed a violin concerto for Kim Kashkashia, 1998.
Awards: 4 PROCAN awards; first prize in Princeton Composition Contest and Indiana State Competition; first prize, National Association of Composers, USA, Young Composers Competition, 1981; Joseph S. Stauffer prize, Canada Council for the Arts, 1997; Con seil quebecois de la culture, Composer of the Year, 1998.
Addresses: Record company— Marquis Classics, 30 Ke nilworth Ave., Toronto, Ontario M4L 3S3, Canada. Website— Linda Bouchard Official Website: http://www.lindabouchard.com.
Beginning with brutal brass assaults and alarm-like trumpets, Compressions was described by Everett-Green as "like a contest of unequals." Although heavy on strings that delivered light harmonies, the disturbing undercurrents were barely masked in this disquieting piece in which Bouchard challenged the forces that she saw threatening the future of social democracy in Canada.
Indeed, Bouchard habitually challenges her listeners with her music. Focused and tight, energetic, bright and full of colour, her compositions have more to do with musical textures and the beauty of sound than musical structure. Paradoxically, the composer spends a great deal of time and energy singlemindedly planning every note. "For me, the first gesture always has the most energy and expressiveness," Bouchard told Everett-Green. "I can go for three of four weeks without a break and I'm impossible to live with."
In June 1997, Bouchard's chamber composition, Ductwork, received its world premier during Arraymusic's 25th anniversary celebrations at Toronto's Du Maurier Theatre Centre. Scored for Arraymusic's seven instrumentalists, Ductwork includes much banging on found objects, such as brake drums, metal cans, gongs, and other percussion instruments. The five movements have titles such as "Sheet Metal 2 With Tin Snips," "Louvred for Solo Violin" and "Sheet Metal 3 for Pop Rivets."
Once again Bernstein was favorably impressed: "With duct coming from the Latin 'to lead,' Bouchard seems in this piece to be fully aware of the spiritual and human dimensions of the word, as well as its mundane connotations," she wrote. Although Bouchard made no direct mention of a Tibetan influence in the program's notes, Ductwork is saturated in that country's sounds. The lead trumpets and clarinets echo Tibetan exorcism rites, while the heavy percussion resembles the drums used to scare off demons in these rites.
Bernstein gave the piece a rave review: "The power of Ductwork 's musical imagery, which simultaneously evoked Western materialism, eastern Buddhism and, occasionally, Christianity (through percussion which sounded like church bells), makes the piece speak directly to the imagination, not the mind, as too many compositions do."
Exquisite Fires Released
In 1998, five of Bouchard's pieces were released on the CD Exquisite Fires: Music of Linda Bouchard. A selection of the work commissioned during Bouchard's tenure in Ottawa, Exquisite Fires featured the NAC Orchestra and marked conductor Trevor Pinnock's first recordings of contemporary music.
Exquisite Fires is an orchestral composition based on medieval legends. Presented in nine sections, it builds, grows and flows through repetitions of savage percussion and fanfares. Eternity, Ressac, Vertige, and Songs for an Acrobat comprise the balance of the album. A fine ballet score, Eternity was singled out for praise by William Litter of the Toronto Star on the grounds that it further exhibits Bouchard's colouristic skills as an orchestrator. "This is one of the finest Canadian albums of the season," Littler concluded.
Bernstein, too, was impressed by the album, noting that the delicate winds and Eastern modes that recur throughout Exquisite Fires invoke Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. "At the centre of her exuberance and energy," Bernstein wrote, "there's an unexpected serenity, and an optimism that never excluded complexity and shadow."
Within months of the release of Exquisite Fires, Bouchard was nominated for a 1999 Juno Award in the Best Classical Compositions category for her NAC Orchestra-commissioned Songs for an Acrobat, featuring the poems of Maurice Tourigny and the voice of Canadian baritone Kevin Williams. "The poems by Maurice Tourigny are so evocative and powerful that they made me write music I didn't know I had in me," Bouchard told the Ottawa Sun. The Juno went to Colin McPhee for his Concerto for Wind Orchestra, but Bouchard's nomination was widely considered to be a coup for the NAC Orchestra, a stranger to the Juno spotlight.
Bouchard was also honoured as Composer of the Year by the Conseil quebecois de la musique at its 1998 Prix Opus gala. Bouchard found the recognition by her peers and mentors immensely gratifying, especially as so much of her work veers towards the avant garde end of the musical spectrum.
But her peers' approval has not made Bouchard complacent. Her desire to challenge herself and her audiences remains undiminished as she continues to demonstrate a stunning grasp of the varying shades of the orchestral palette. At the same time, she remains refreshingly direct, unpretentious, and never precious. Her most recent work is always her favorite, and she would rather tackle a new piece than rewrite an old one.
"Some composers think they're going to change history with their music," Bouchard told Everett-Green. "I do it because I can't live without it."
Circus Faces, 1983.
Lung Ta, 1992.
Songs for an Acrobat, 1995.
Booming Sands, 1998.
Fashion Show, 1999.
The Open Life, 2000.
Black Burned Wood/in Dora Ohrenstein's "Urban Diva," CRI, 1993.
Exquisite Fires: Music Of Linda Bouchard, Marquis, 1998. Pourtinade, ECM, 2001.
American Record Guide, November-December 1997, p. 227.
The Globe and Mail, May 3, 1994, p. C5; June 24, 1994, p. D4; May 18, 1995, p. E4; December 5, 1996, p. C4; June 10, 1997, p. D3; August, 20, 1998, p. D2.
Ottawa Sun, February 4, 1999, p. 32.
Performing Arts and Entertainment in Canada, Spring 1995, p. 30.
Toronto Star, July 14, 1993, p. D5; February 28, 1995, p. C3; May 16, 1995, p. B5; May 18, 1995, p. C8; August 22, 1998, p. M6.
Winnipeg Free Press, August 8, 1998, p. B7; February 7, 2000, p. D5.
"Linda Bouchard," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 20, 2004).
Linda Bouchard Official Website, http://www.lindabouchard.com (May 20, 2004).
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