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"The experimental nature of the festival is known to musicians far outside of Saskatoon" - Rodney Sharman's works to be performed at Strata Festival of New Music

Updated: Jun 10

by Scott Roos

Rodney Sharman photo by SD Holman

Guest Composer Rodney Sharman's renowned music, featuring the Strata Ensemble at Remai Modern, will be performed this Thursday, June 13th, 2024, 7:30 PM. In collaboration with OUT Saskatoon, experience the exquisite Riverview Room performance of Sharman's compositions. Sharman, originally from Biggar and now living in Vancouver, is one of Canada’s most performed composers. We caught up with Sharman ahead of this up and coming event to chat with him about his life and his music.

NSMZ: So here's what I've been wondering the whole time is, how does a guy from Biggar, Saskatchewan end up being a critically acclaimed respectable composer like you are now?

Rodney Sharman: Well, I think it's relatively common for people from small towns, especially from the era that I'm from, to excel at something…. In a sense, if you're a curious and focused child, you have the time. If you've got the right parents, you can devote yourself to something that you love. In my case, I was fortunate enough that there was a lot of music in my house. It wasn't classical music. My mother loved to sing and had a beautiful alto voice and played the piano. My sister played the piano and the organ. So we had an electric organ and a piano at home.

I played the recorder in school like other kids. I had piano lessons when I was very young.

I sang in the Anglican choir. I was a boy soprano. I was also really fortunate because I had this great band teacher when I was in grade seven Ronald McCormick, who in addition to being charismatic, was a wonderful musician; a Good trombone player.

There were all these brothers who played brass instruments. They had a quintet, The Bitner brothers. I will never forget them. I was allowed to play clarinet with them. I played Dixie, improvising with the top as they played it, when the Saints and things like that.

What I remember was, in school we had a pretty good, if maybe a little lopsided concert band in terms of who was playing what and how many instruments there were. I only had (Ronald McCormick) him for one year, then there were two other music teachers. 

The music that we listened to, in what I guess would be now called a music appreciation class was from a really good textbook: Making Music Your Own. It was a really new book in the early 1970s. 

So, even though it was a small town, I had a really good background. And because I practiced, even though I didn't have a (private) music teacher. I taught myself clarinet and then taught myself the flute because the only flute player in town graduated. I thought it was like this really super exotic instrument and that nobody played it and that I want to play what nobody else played. And same with the oboe, except for that I was really bad at it, but I was good at flute.

I was good enough (at flute)  that when I auditioned for  the Saskatchewan Summer School of the Arts for the concert band, the first year, I was their principal clarinet for the B level band - the junior band and then I auditioned the next year for orchestra. I was playing second flute piccolo and also bass clarinet when they needed a bass clarinet in  the Saskatchewan summer school of the arts orchestra. I would have been 15 and then at age 15, like right afterwards my parents moved to Victoria where I was able to go to the conservatory where ironically, you know, Saskatchewan's most famous classical musician had just moved, Murray Adaskin, who had been conductor of the Saskatoon Symphony and the man who brought those beautiful Amati instruments to the university of Saskatchewan, wonderful composer. I started studying with him in Victoria and because my parents knew who he was, there was an initial respect for him.

Now my parents didn't pay for my composition lessons. I paid for them myself. I went out and I got a job as a busboy and because I had facial hair, I was, you know, a waiter and then a bartender while I was still under age. So, you know, I paid for my lessons myself, but when my parents discovered that I wanted to be a musician, they withdrew financial support, but they always were supportive in a kind of moral way. They went to my concerts and things like that. So, they loved to hear me, and they loved to hear me perform as a performer.

NSMZ: Okay. So, where was the aha moment for music composition?

RS: Well, I was writing music from the time I was 10, but it wasn't so much an aha moment as it was what I love to do because we had those instruments in the basement. And I was already a kind of sound freak. I would put books on top of the organ to make these (chord) clusters. And I would take the bottom off of the piano so that I could strum on the strings and muck around with the pedals, keep the sustain pedal down.And I would record all of these things on my parents cassette recorder. I don't have any of those tapes anymore. I wish I did but that's where I started and then tried to write notated music as best I could with the skills I had when I was a little older.

And then because I had never seen a score until I was, you know, 13, maybe I was, I was writing out all the parts over the top of one another and they weren't lining up. So if the first clarinet had more notes than the second clarinet, it would end two or three pages later than the other instrument. Like I didn't, I didn't understand. Later I learned that there are lots of medieval things. Well, I think that there are renaissance parts songs that are like that where the where the parts are in different places, but they were separate. They didn't try to put it all on one page.

NSMZ: So I mean, is that kind of, you know, your personal influence? From what I've heard of the stuff that you sent me, there’s a lot of kind of chamber music sounding stuff. But I mean, are you kind of dipping into, I mean, I know you're using contemporary scales and chords and things like that, but are you dipping into a more medieval kind of influence when you compose?

RS: No, no, there are, there are a couple of, there are a couple of pieces that do have a medieval influence. I wrote a piece for solo cello that actually uses Gregorian chant. And I have a, now that I think about it, I have a piece for spring quartet and an Arab instrument called an oud, which is like a fretless loot. And  I use medieval techniques in a couple of pieces where I do something that's called a mensural cannon. It's a round like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, but there are different speeds and they happen at the same time. I do actually use medieval techniques. I've never thought of some of myself as somebody with a connection to medieval music, but now that you say it, I see that there are pieces where that's the case.

NSMZ: I wish I could, you know, say there was some, you know, intelligent reason why I asked that question, but it was more accidental.

RS: You sensed something into it.

NSMZ: Well, I really like medieval music. I like the sparse nature of it. And I like the simplicity of it. There's a lot of room, I think in a lot of medieval music too. I don't know if that's because it's more modal or what, but I mean, I don't know, maybe that's what I'm picking up in your own work is that it's really, what would the word be? I hate to sound pretentious, but like, you know, there's an organic nature to it. It's really alive, I think, and I'm even thinking about, you know, the piece “Famous Last Words”, for instance, there's this kind of simplistic beauty of it where the music can stand alone, but also the words can stand alone, but here you put it together and it makes this wonderfully gorgeous piece.

RS: Thank you. Thank you. That piece, that constantly ascending line, the notes of the harmonic series again and again, and we hear the harmonic series differently because of the notes that are sustained beneath them. And yes, I suppose there is a kind of real simplicity to that piece.

NSMZ: Yes and I totally want to get back to chatting a bit about that piece specifically a little later on. But yeah, I was searching for the words, simplicity is probably, you know, the wrong way of saying it, but yeah, I do agree with you there. I think, there's that ethereal nature to it. That's what I love about a lot of contemporary music is that, maybe you're not so constrained to rules as much. Where's your thoughts on that in terms of your own compositions? Are your compositions following something that's really set in terms of your schooling and so on and so forth, or have you kind of over the years sort of veered away from that or was there some specific influences with guys like Cage and Varese and even like somebody like Charles Ives that's enabled you to take the direction you have in your own work? Where does this all sit?

RS: Every piece invents its own rules or, should I say, I invent rules for every piece, a kind of consistency of language, but I don't feel constrained. You're quite right, I don't feel constrained by things. If I feel the need to use extended techniques or sounds that are outside the realm of ordinary instruments, I will go there. I sometimes mix renaissance and baroque and modern instruments together. I hardly use electronics anymore, but when I have ideas for them, I use electronics as well. My skills weren't as good as they were, I mean, I had an old fashioned tape recorder and analog and like the old fashioned synthesizers, those of the skills I had, I only had beginner skills with digital music. And I still only have beginner skills with digital music. I didn't explore that.

You had mentioned earlier that I write chamber music, and this concert is my chamber music, my vocal music, a couple of pieces for solo piano, a piece for solo guitar, it's really focused on this sort of smaller things. But I've written chamber operas, I've written dance works for ballet and for modern dance companies, I've written for orchestra. But (for the Strata Festival concert) there are smaller pieces.

NSMZ: Ah yes of course. I definitely knew that you wrote for larger ensembles too. So with you coming to the Strata Festival of New Music, as we were talking about, I know they're performing more chamber orientated works but you're also doing, what was the word, you’re mentoring, on the Saturday, young and up and coming composers as well. So now I'm thinking in terms of that, like what's that going to look like, the mentorship and so on and so forth?

RS: It's going to take the form of a masterclass and what that means is that the student presents their music to me in front of the other students. So it's not a private situation. It's a group situation, the idea of being that you learn from others. It's a very common way of teaching in Europe. It's less common right here because of the, I guess, exposure and the, you know, you're exposing your music not one-on-one, but in a room with your colleagues. So there's a degree of vulnerability in a masterclass. Maybe students need a degree of sort of philosophical bravery, perhaps, to present their music in front of your colleagues as well as the mentor. Because your colleagues may say something to you and, you know, what the mentor says to you is going to be heard by everybody. But it is a really wonderful way to learn. I'm all for them. I think (masterclasses) are great. I was pleased that the Strata Festival decided on that format rather than private lessons. Although, I'm happy to give private lessons to students in Saskatoon as well while I'm there and I already have been giving a couple of them online.

NSMZ: So then like in terms of the importance of a festival like the Strata Festival, maybe you can articulate a little bit on that?

RS: Well, the Strata Festival is certainly known to people in Vancouver. In part because of Brian Garbet, who is one of the members of the board (of the Strata Festival of New Music) and who has pieces in it almost every year. The experimental nature of the festival is known to musicians far outside of Saskatoon. It's considered an exciting annual event.

NSMZ: I guess we could go a little bit into the “Famous Last Words” concert which is what the festival has decided to entitle your particular event. Is there anything that you would think in terms of the performances of your music for this concert? Is there anything that you'd like your audience to know about them that that isn't already like out there?

RS: Yes, there are several different pieces being performed on the program. Some of them are like reimagining other music. So they're performing one of my opera transcriptions. I take famous arias from the 19th and 18th century, even in one case, 17th century opera and reduce it to the two hands of the piano. Sometimes I put musical graffiti all over the top of it, sometimes quite exposed, but always transformed in my own voice, my own take on, on opera, but always filled with love. 

There's a rather strange one that I'm kind of excited about hearing, which is for piano, flute, soprano, and baritone, which is a transformation of Mozart's “La ci darem la mano” come, you know, “take me by the hand” from Don Giovanni. It's a seduction aria and the vocal parts are exactly like Mozart's, but it's got this flute, but I wrote it for a competition where the three winners were soprano, a baritone, and a flute player, and they had nothing for them to play.

They had nothing for them to perform together with the pianist. So it was a very, very specific commission from the CBC asking me to please do something for this. So I'm excited about hearing this. There's going to be a song for voice and guitar, a song for voice and flute. So it's different combinations of flute, guitar, piano, and two voices. 

The piece “Famous Last Words” is one of the more recent pieces on the program. It's scored for flute and piano with a doubling toy piano. So there's a kind of electronic and a kind of naive sound to the strange distorted sound to the ensemble with text of the last words of the famous and not so famous, often describing the dimming of the light. It's a common experience for people who are dying, but also there's a piece that was my first piece written during the pandemic, called “Missing You”. I'm excited about hearing those pieces too and working with Saskatoon's best musicians.

For further information on this event and others that are happening as part of this coming week's Strata Festival of New Music, click HERE.

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