Modern classical music is often criticized as sounding like a “squeaky gate” compared to the comforting traditional pieces that have been celebrated for hundreds of years. Yet The Guardian’s classical music reporter Tom Service says “the ‘squeaky gate’ can actually be amazing to experience if you’re not afraid of it.”

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HPO Composer-in-Residence Abigail Richardson-Schulte

Despite musical stereotypes between traditional and modern classical music, HPO’s Composer-in-Residence Abigail Richardson-Schulte remained undaunted in her decision to become a composer. Born in Oxford England and diagnosed as clinically deaf at the age of five, Abigail and her family moved to Calgary where the climate is notoriously dry. “They said ‘good luck’ when we finally got into Canada, but within six months I could hear perfectly,” says Abigail. She began piano lessons in high school with an eccentric teacher that had Yosemite Sam cowboy hat. Abigail remarks that “he taught me the survival skills of composition where he made me compose pieces for stories and commercials.”

Having begun courses in science at the University of Calgary, Abigail says she was struck by an academic lightning bolt and realized she needed to pursue a degree in composition. She practiced relentlessly for a year and successfully entered the classical composition program with renowned composer Allan Bell. “While in university, the melody is beaten out you,” says Abigail, “you learn to avoid simple and pretty things and develop your own way around loving beautiful music.” But it was a simple pretty finale to Abigail’s scholarly composition that won her the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers where her music was broadcast in 35 countries.

Although Abigail received her big break at an early age, becoming a recognized modern classical composer can be a heart-breaking experience. Eager composers often write compositions for competitions in the hopes of getting one step closer to critical acclaim. Sometimes composers unite with performers and an arts council to create an application to argue the importance of their project to secure funding for a commission. “The competition never goes away. Someone well respected who is 50 years old has an equally challenging time making their mark as someone who is 25,” remarks Abigail. “There are probably 10 composers working full time and I’m very lucky to be working with the HPO where I was recently commissioned a piece for the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s centennial year.”

William Blair Bruce (Canadian 1859–1906) Times of Tempest    c. 1900–1906. Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Hamilton. Photo: Robert McNair
William Blair Bruce (Canadian 1859–1906)
Times of Tempest c. 1900–1906. Oil on canvas.
Art Gallery of Hamilton.
Photo: Robert McNair

Audiences need to understand the story, place or person behind modern compositions. The HPO’s What Next Festival surrounds the celebration of new classical music where Abigail takes the spotlight each year. A Canadian in Paris is inspired by Canadian born William Blair Bruce whose works were donated to the City of Hamilton in 1914 which were the foundation of the Art Gallery of Hamilton. “I want the audience to have the opportunity to get inside a piece of artwork through a different medium and, most of all, I want them to feel an emotional connection,” says Abigail. She read Bruce’s letters to home where he reminisces of Lake Ontario as he looks upon the east Baltic Sea. The composition is comprised of four movements, each of which is themed by one of Bruce’s paintings.

While Abigail invokes the art of storytelling through her compositions, modern music still carries a stigma for some traditional classical music lovers, but if audiences are prepared for the piece, they’ll understand it better. Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused a riot the first week of its premiere and received high praise in the second week of performances. Abigail believes that it is important to give audiences stories they can latch onto, as she says “I intend to take the listener on a journey, led by the musicians of the orchestra. I want the listener to get inside these paintings just as I had done when letting them inspire the music.”

Traditional music pieces remain at the top of playlists around the world, but modern composers are constantly developing new conceptual channels to tell a story. Audiences should be prepared to release inhibitions, let go and join the composer on their journey.

Abigail talks about the William Blair Bruce’s paintings in relation to her new composition A Canadian in Paris.