In June 2021, I received a mysterious phone call from a number I did not recognize. It was Dr Sharon Azrieli, founder of the Azrieli Music Prizes. She informed me that I had been awarded the 2022 Azrieli Prize in Canadian Composition.
Azrieli Music Prize for Canadian Music
The prize package consists of a generous commission to create an orchestral work that answers the question, ‘what is Canadian music?’. It was announced that the new work will be premiered by the Orchestra Métropolitain de Montréal on October 20, 2022 at the Maison Symphonique along with those of my two fellow Azrieli laureates, Iman Habibi (Jewish Commission Prize) and Aharon Harlap (Jewish Music Prize).
Birds Calling… From the Canada in You for Sho, Sheng/Suona, and Symphony Orchestra
This was by far the biggest work I had ever created: a 28-minute work for sho (Naomi Sato, Japanese mouth organ), sheng (Zhongxi Wu, Chinese mouth organ)/suona (Chinese shawm), and symphony orchestra based on the 450+ birds that live, migrate, or nest in Canada.
Decolonizing Orchestral Music
I began the 2nd year of my PhD by researching how to compose for the sho, sheng, and suona. It was important to me to feature the Japanese and Chinese solo instruments. The sho represents my Japanese Canadian heritage, and the sheng/suona represents the Chinese Canadian community. Together with the Orchestra Métropolitain, I wanted to create a new type of Western orchestral art music that is inclusive and representative of Canada’s multicultural society.
I also had much to consider as a settler-immigrant who grew up on the unceded traditional lands of the Coast Salish people, namely the xwməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl ̓ ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations – now colonially called Vancouver. Given Canada’s dark history, I could not compose a straight-forward celebratory fanfare.
Many Canadian birds are not Songbirds, but more of them are singing ‘O Canada’
I quickly ran into challenges. Many of Canada’s iconic birds are not songbirds. Canada geese, puffins, Arctic cranes, snowy owls, Anna’s hummingbirds – we Canadians love them all, but their ‘songs’ consist of screeching, grunting, whooping, and crowing.
Then, I discovered that the White Throated Sparrow (the bird that sings the national anthem, ‘O Canada’) has been expanding its habitat because of global warming, and they have been teaching other birds to sing its song. https://gizmodo.com/a-viral-new-bird-song-in-canada-is-causing-sparrows-t-1844245103
Moment of Truth: The Gala Premiere in Montreal on October 20, 2022
I flew into Montreal from Tokyo where I spent a few days rehearsing with Naomi Sato while her instrument was being reconditioned to play in tune with the Western orchestra. Zhongxi Wu was doing similar technical work with his sheng at his home in Vancouver.
Members of the orchestra were seated in the 3 levels of balconies above the stage. My strategy was to create an immersive bird soundscape where the birds would appear to be flying around in the sky.
I was intensely nervous…
I am happy to report that the premiere was fantastic! The ensemble performed with incredible virtuosity and musicality. It was clear that many of the performers were truly moved by the music. I was also touched by their artistry and love for their craft.
The gala evening had so many wonderful moments: the fabulous cymbal vs suona duo, the orchestra tutti that sounded like a forest of birds, the sho vs sheng duo, the wonderful leadership of Maestro Alexandre Bloch, and many more. I will never forget the audience listening with tears in their eyes and the rousing standing ovation
Many thanks to my supervisors Richard Rijnvos and James Weeks for their advice and encouragement as well as the academic, research, and artistic support from the Music Department, Durham University, and the Azrieli Foundation.
Photos by Danylo Bobyk.
Azrieli Foundation: https://azrielifoundation.org/
Department of Music: https://www.durham.ac.uk/departments/academic/music/
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