Meet Gavin Fraser, one of our 22-23 Composer Fellows whose work For dappled things premieres at our May 13 concert, Beethoven 5!
Gavin Fraser (1993, he/him) is a composer hailing from Antigonish, Nova Scotia. His work “often balances on a tightrope between static beauty and violence” and has been described as “fresh with pithy modesty” (NY Classical Review ’17). Dreams, the ocean, ecological restoration, and storytelling are all sources of inspiration for Gavin.
Recently featured on CBC’s Tapestry (‘22), Fraser’s music has been performed across North America and Europe. He has collaborated with artists including Barbara Hannigan and the EQ ensemble, Jonathan Crow and Philip Chiu, among many others. He is currently working on the Canada Council-funded work SIRENS with singer and pipe organist Esther-Ruth Teel, combining music, poetry and film to subvert the misogynistic roots of sirens from Homer’s Odyssey.
Fraser has received numerous awards, notably the Karen Kieser Prize in Canadian Music (’22) and the first-place award in the electroacoustic category from the SOCAN Foundation (’22). He recently completed his doctorate in composition at the University of Toronto.
Q&A with Canadian Composer Gavin Fraser
ABOUT GAVIN FRASER’S NEW PIECE
HPO: We’re looking forward to hearing your new work on May 13. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Gavin Fraser: This piece exists as an emotional storm for me. I was in mourning while writing this piece, having lost a dear friend unexpectedly. I threw out my original concept for this piece and felt I had to write what I was experiencing or the music would be inauthentic and hollow. There was a pull for this piece to be a quiet, slow and sad mediation, but that was also not completely accurate to how I was feeling. I was in shock, feeling sadness and anger, but also experiencing bouts of surreal gratefulness for life and for the friendship I had shared with my departed friend.
During this time, I revisited Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, particularly his poem “Pied Beauty”. In the text, Hopkins praises the beauty in things that are strange, dazzling with many colours or riddled with splotches. Though the text is very joyful, reading it from the perspective of grief felt incredibly potent and made me feel seen. I immediately latched onto this text, using it as inspiration for the music. The musical material combines an array of influences, from early Baroque to Beethoven to medieval dance with interruptions of intense dissonance.
For dappled things is a weaving and not always straightforward journey through a storm of many forms, and a celebration of the messiness, brokenness, and beauty of living life. We are surrounded by dappled things!
ECHOES OF BEETHOVEN
HPO: How would you describe the style and tone of this piece?
Gavin: The music draws from a lot of different influences. The seed idea of the work is a sorrowful lament inspired by Baroque music. This short motif transforms, interrupts, and filters through influences from medieval dance, Beethoven, contemporary music styles, and even electronic effects (like a guitar delay pedal). The piece is a colourful sonic journey portraying both the dramatic outbursts and quiet moments of mourning.
HPO: Are there any interesting musical elements in your composition that we can listen for during its premiere?
Gavin: The piece is a stylistic tapestry, which is something that surprised me while composing it. I did not go into the piece with the idea that I’d be drawing from so many different places, but the essence of portraying grief led me there. Something to listen for is the main motif at the very beginning of the piece. This was inspired by Baroque sigh motifs, also called laments. Through the dizzying style changes, the lament motif is the anchor. It transforms throughout the work and appears in (hopefully!) unexpected places. Also, for fun, audience members can listen for and pick out my little musical nod to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
THE MANY HATS OF GAVIN FRASER
HPO: Abigail Richardson-Schulte, with whom you work closely as a composer fellow, told me you practices many art forms. She inspired me to ask the question, “What doesn’t Gavin Fraser do?”
We know that you are a composer and a vocalist. Can you elaborate on all the aspects of the arts that are or were a part of your life?
Gavin: That is very kind of Abigail to say! I started with piano lessons at age 4 (then stopped around age 11) and started singing in choirs. Next, I discovered my love of playing bass guitar and electric guitar in my teen years. This lead me to becoming a vocalist and guitarist for metal bands. I cut my teeth on improvised jams with friends and bandmates, experimenting in different musical styles which, to this day, influence my compositions.
Then, I discovered filmmaking thanks to my high school music teacher. I developed skills in directing, editing, and filming through many summers jobs with a local film organization in my hometown. Through film, my love of writing was born. Writing little screenplays and stories morphed to poetry, and I currently write libretto for my opera projects. I also published poetry in an arts journal under a pseudonym during my masters’ degree.
Musical movement was also very important to my artistic growth. I studied modern, ballet, step and tap dance through my formative years. Unfortunately I don’t practice dance in the same way today, but I still love to dance. Its importance on my compositional voice becomes more and more evident as I continue my artistic growth.
HPO: What originally led you to pursue such a rich diverse path through the arts? Did you always know composition would be your calling or are there other art forms that you wished to pursue?
Gavin: While I didn’t grow up in a musical family, they wanted to give me the full breadth of possibility. This included introducing me to music and dance at a young age. Writing music came from some natural place for me. I always preferred writing my own music to learning music for lessons (oops!). Though I wrote my first piano composition about dinosaurs at age 5, I never thought about being a composer until university. I was planning on getting a music education degree but came out with a performance degree and composition minor. Ever since then I’ve been choosing the path that seemed most creatively engaging.
I owe choosing composition to my early-stage mentors, namely composers Andrew Staniland and Dinuk Wijertane. I’ve been really blessed to have had supportive and helpful mentors throughout every stage of my creative life. Going forward, I want to keep building relationships and collaboration with like-minded artists. For me, collaboration is the most meaningful and difficult creative practice, and I find it the most joyful and fulfilling. I’m starting to put together a full-length opera with orchestra, so that’s a shorter-term plan. Beyond that, I also have dreams of directing a feature-length film at some point. We’ll see what happens, but that would be so cool.
ORCHESTRAL TO METAL: MUSIC THAT INSPIRES GAVIN
HPO: Who are some orchestral composers that most inspired your taste and style in this genre? Can you give us some listening recommendations to discover and share why you love this work?
Gavin: The first orchestral piece that comes to mind is Ukranian composer Valentyn Silvestrov’s Symphony No. 5. In my work, I want to attain the level of dreaminess, the fusing of disparate elements into beautiful sounds, and the emotional spectrum that Silvestrov creates in his fifth symphony. I also love the work of Arvo Pärt, specifically how he creates mystical and emotional music through simple processes. Check out his Te Deum for 3 choirs, prepared piano, string orchestra and wind harp.
HPO: Are there non-orchestral pieces/songs that inspire you that you’d like to share with us?
Gavin: Pauline Oliveros and her creative practices involving improvisation and her development of deep listening inspire me. In her work, she combines improvisation, poetry, ritual, meditation, and a joining of amateur and professional musicians for performance. I appreciate the communal aspect of this practice and the focus on real-time collaboration. It pushes you out of comfort zones while being highly accessible to many people. From popular music, I am inspired by the complex rhythms and use of genre fusion in the metal band Meshuggah’s music, particularly the album Catch Thirtythree. I would also recommend listening to Tyler the Creator’s Hip-Hop/RnB album Igor, a masterpiece in storytelling and production.
WHAT’S COMING AND WHERE TO FOLLOW GAVIN
HPO: What are you up to outside of this HPO commission? Are there any projects coming up for you that you are excited about?
Gavin: This has been a big transition year, in a great way. I finished my doctorate in composition from the University of Toronto in August of 2022. Now I’m getting the ball rolling in the freelance composition world, grant writing, gigging, all that sort of stuff. Currently, I’m working as a composer, and as a professional singer with the Christ Church Cathedral Choir in Montreal.
An upcoming project that I’m very excited for is titled SIRENS, funded by the Canada Council for the Arts. Premiering sometime this summer, the piece is for a singing pipe-organist and includes electronic effects and video projections. The project deals with recontextualizing the mythological sirens from Homer’s Odyssey. It explores the innate misogyny inherent to the portrayal of these creatures, and how we might dismantle it. It’s a heavy topic but it has been exciting creating the musical landscape to explore this. The research into Greek lore and iconography has been very rewarding. Also, I’m collaborating with the amazing singer/pipe-organist/artist extraordinaire Esther-Ruth Teel on the piece, who also is my wife!
HPO: SIRENS sounds like an amazing project. How great that you get to write for your wife!
Our final question for you is where can our audience follow you online?
Don’t miss this world premiere of for dappled things by Gavin Fraser!
Saturday, May 13 at 7:30pm
FirstOntario Concert Hall
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