Nicole Lizée

Photo: Steve Raegele

Although we live in neighbouring boroughs in Montréal, it’s on the phone that I speak with composer Nicole Lizée. But instead of creating distance, the object we’re using to communicate becomes a subject of conversation: has she ever considered composing a piece for telephones? She has, after all, made music using vintage video games, toys, novelty instruments like the stylophone, and a plethora of strange objects throughout the years. “No, but that’s a good idea, I’ll add it to my list of projects,” she says with a laugh. Maybe she’s joking, but it would come as no surprise to anyone if she actually did it at some point.

And don’t go thinking it’s just a gimmick; these elements, usually foreign to serious or concert music, are part and parcel of the composer’s creative approach. “The objects I use all have a sentimental value,” she says. “At a very young age, I started keeping a list of dream objects that I wanted to integrate in my work, stuff I grew up with, like the E.T. game, an absolutely unplayable videogame for the Atari 2600 considered the biggest flop ever in the history of videogames. Or the Omnichord, a bizarre instrument that I purchased as an adult, but that fascinated me ever since I heard it in the Eurythmics song “Love is a Stranger.” They’re imperfect objects, and therein lies their beauty, to me.”

Lizée is fascinated by obsolete technologies and their sometimes haphazard operation. Raised in a small Saskatchewan village, she grew up in a treasure trove that her father filled with all kinds of electronic devices he repaired and collected. Her unusual musical path took her from Chopin to heavy metal, movie soundtracks to ‘80s pop. She took this baggage with her in the McGill University classrooms where her eclectic approach wasn’t always unanimously approved. “When I presented Nicole Lizée my Master’s project, a concerto for turntables, certain members of the faculty applauded my originality, and others told me that it wasn’t a real instrument and that it couldn’t be included on sheet music.” Says Lizée. “Which is ludicrous, because, as a matter of fact, I had created a notation system specific to that instrument!”

Since graduating, her bold creative approach has been validated on many occasions: commissions came from all over the place – the Metropolitan Orchestra and Kronos Quartet, among others – and she’s received several prestigious awards. The latest of which is the Jan V. Matejcek Award for new classical music, which she received during SOCAN’s 2017 Awards Gala in Montréal, after a unanimous decision by the jury.

“I was touched, because what means the most to me is the recognition of my peers and of the industry,” says Lizée. “The kind of music I do has nearly zero chances of ending up on the radio, so awards like these are helpful in promoting my work. I’ve immediately noticed increased attention to my work after I won the Jules Léger Award from the Canada Council for the Arts in 2013.”

Since 2012, her projects have grown exponentially, including several works inspired by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, where she manipulates and re-mixes them in a dialogue with solo musicians or orchestras. When she’s not composing for herself or creating her own images, Lizée’s is a highly prized and sought-after musical collaborator.

“I’m so thrilled to see people coming to me, because they recognize and appreciate the specificity of my work,” she says. “I recently received a request from Pat Steward, who was Bryan Adams’ drummer for a long time. He saw one of my concerts in Vancouver and really liked it. After contacting me, he commissioned a piece and simply said, ‘Do your thing.’ That’s the kind of collaboration I find exciting.”

Among the numerous projects that will keep her busy in the coming months, there’s the recording of Death to Kosmische, the piece commissioned by the famous Kronos Quartet, which catapulted her to success on the international scene. She’s also working on a collaboration with the band Collectif9. During Printemps Nordique, in April, she’ll present – alongside Innu rapper Samian – a work for the Montréal Symphony Orchestra inspired by Native legends.

“I don’t care about the genre, as long as it’s a bold and creative project,” says Lizée. “If I’m allowed to maintain my vision, and everybody works from the heart and with integrity, I’m happy.”

The news hit us like a bomb. On May 24, 2016, we learned that Gord Downie, lead singer and lyricist for the Tragically Hip, had incurable brain cancer. When he passed away on October 17, 2017 at the age of 53, a nation came together to mourn our loss. Enough tears fell to create a sixth Great Lake, immense and deep.

The impact of the Tragically Hip’s music on Canadians is also, like that Great Lake of Tears, immense and deep: Nine No. 1 albums, seven No. 1 singles, 13 Top 10 singles and 16 JUNO Awards. The CBC broadcast of the band’s final hometown Kingston concert on their Man Machine Poem tour, on August 20, 2016, what many felt certain to be their farewell tour, was viewed by more than 11 million Canadians – about one-third of the population.

On that night, I was among the capacity crowd at the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, watching the swan song concert on the bar’s TV screens. After the band played their last note and the members took their bows, Gord Downie remained alone on stage, saying goodbye. A few feet to my right there was a woman with her hands to her mouth, her eyes brimming. She was not alone. All across the country, we were all floating in that Great Lake of Tears.

The Tragically Hip, with Downie as their poet, wrote songs that tapped into the soul of a nation. How? By following the old adage: write what you know, write who you are. By doing that, many of the Hip’s songs achieved cultural iconic status in Canada; the campfire song seal of approval. “Bobcaygeon,” “Wheat Kings,” “38 Years Old,” “At the Hundredth Meridian,” “Ahead by a Century,” “Fifty-Mission Cap,” “New Orleans is Sinking,” to name a few.

The best songwriting connects us to something. It lets us know we’re not alone in experiencing life’s ups and downs. The music of Gord Downie and the Hip connects us to ourselves, not only as human beings, but also more specifically to ourselves as Canadians. While eschewing easy jingoism or flag-draped nationalism, they told stories about us and the places we live – joyous and painful, epic and esoteric, mountainous-magnificent and small-town weird.

Though Downie’s lyrics were often oblique and cryptic, there’s something to be said about the places he took us. We’re locked in the trunk of a car. We’re plunging over the falls in a barrel. We’re in a club watching a stripper collapse in a coughing fit. We’re privy to a confession from the survivor of a nautical disaster. Tragically Hip songs introduce us to some fascinating and extraordinary viewpoints.

Downie’s lyrics often plumbed certain kinds of experiences – visceral and furtive – and re-cast them with poetic aplomb. Spitting from a bridge just to see how far down it really is (“Cordelia”) or the “dangerous tug” we feel when looking over the edge from on high (“Gift Shop”). But they could also be shrewdly poignant (“Well, she was nineteen seventy / Burning like a cigarette long season”). And consider one of the band’s most beloved songs, “Ahead by a Century,” where Downie’s lyrics play with time and tense in an almost cubist way; past, present and future overlapping like images emerging through thin veils of wax paper.

Poetry is a way of seeing. It’s clear from his writing, and even from the way he spoke, that Downie saw the world through a poet’s eyes. (In addition to penning literate song lyrics, Downie was, of course, a published poet – having released a best-selling collection of verse, Coke Machine Glow, in 2001).

He said in a 2012 appearance on CBC’s Q, “I’m interested in how the words make me feel, and trying to capture them in a certain way, and not screw with them too much; not let my intellect diminish the creative power.” So even if his lyrics could be enigmatic, there was a feeling that came through. The language, the imagery – whatever it means – speaks to us.

“Music brings people together. So my function in anything I do is to help bring people closer in.”– Gord Downie, to The Winnipeg Free Press, May 31, 2016

In the final year of his life, when he knew his time in this world was coming to a close, Gord Downie chose to keep making music. It’s the kind of music projects he chose that speaks to the measure of the man.

When the sun rose on the day after that final Hip concert in Kingston, he began working on Secret Path, a project that encompassed an album, a graphic novel (with Jeff Lemire) and a film, all about the true story of a 12-year old Ojibwe boy named Chanie Wenjack, who died of exposure while trying to walk back to his home after fleeing his mistreatment at a residential school in northern Ontario in 1966. Downie created music that told a story of the pain our Indigenous brothers and sisters suffered in the residential school system; the work, the music, in the service of reconciliation.

His final project, completed before his passing and released posthumously this past October, was a solo album called Introduce Yerself, a collection of songs, each addressing a specific person that has meant something to him. Here was Downie once again honouring the connections and the love in his life.

“Music is…a popular rallying point – at its central core, it’s a way for people to get in touch with the best parts of themselves and to voice the love in their hearts.” – Gord Downie, to Bullfrog Power

At its best, this is what music does – it connects, re-calibrates and reconciles. It moves us – quite literally. It shifts us from one place, one thought, one feeling, one perspective – to another. It moves us closer to our better selves, towards our most human and feeling selves, even if just for the duration of the song. The work then becomes ours, to take in that feeling and hold it, to carry it forward. It’s another kind of reconciliation: to reconcile our everyday selves with that better self we find in song and art – to cultivate the best parts of ourselves and incorporate them more and more into our daily living.

Gord, your music is part of us. You are part of us. Your songs help us celebrate our best times and face our hardest paths. We will continue to sing your words and dance that crazy dance with you, through the mysteries of what we mean to each other – and we’ll do it together, because your music brings us closer in, helping us to reconcile who we want to be and who we are.

Cory Crossman

Cory Crossman

A Music City: What does this really mean? Nashville claims the official title, and rightly so – as the home of The Grand Ole Opry, with a rich musical history that includes a seemingly inexhaustible wealth of hit songs, seminal records, and iconic venues such as The Ryman Auditorium (“the mother church of country music”).

Recently, more North American cities are adding this designation to their marketing and tourism efforts — realizing the economic, social and cultural impact that music has on a community. Opening a Music City office, as a liaison between bureaucrats and the industry, is one way to formalize these efforts. In Ontario, as with the cities of Toronto and Hamilton, London is one of these trail-blazers.

In recent years, London has mapped out a strategy and hired a music industry development officer, Cory Crossman, whose main roles are to make connections between the music industry and City Hall, and to educate and advocate on behalf of the local music industry.

“It’s not just about the musicians, but the industry and all of its elements… all the jobs within the music sector,” says Crossman. “I compare the music sector in our city to an iceberg: there are small bits that float above the water – the artists – but there are dozens of people behind the scenes and out of the spotlight. To make a Music City you need all of those elements.”

FUEL is the acronym summarizing The London Music Office’s goals. It stands for:

  • Foster music education and incubation
  • Unite the music business
  • Engage the musicians and artists
  • Liven events and venues.

Some early successes Crossman credits to his office include the Music City Exchange, a program allowing London artists to perform at marquee events in Toronto and Hamilton; it also helps artists from those two sister markets to perform in the Forest City. September of 2016 marked the first time that London hosted The Canadian Country Music Awards (CCMA), bringing in more than $8.4 million to the city. That was led by Tourism London, but other successful events that the London Music Office organized and hosted include the Canada’s Music Incubator (Coalition Music) Bootcamp and the city’s first-ever music career day. One hundred people were projected for this free event, and 190 registered. Topics included songwriting, production, music synchronization, publishing, royalties, radio tracking, music promotion, venue management, social media, public relations, industry development, and incubation.

Behind the scenes, The London Music Office is working, on an ongoing basis, to make changes to the by-laws governing amplified/live music on patios. Crossman is hopeful by the time patios are open for business in 2018, they’ll have a revised by-law that helps local artists.

London: Music City by the Numbers (2015)

  • $7 million: amount London artists made from SOCAN – earned by 1,144 music creators and 59 music publishers
  • 53 live music venues
  • 875 music students at post-secondary schools in London
  • 4,520 live music events held in the city.

To truly understand a sector or an industry, one needs to first understand the demographics that drive its growth. In the summer of 2016 The London Music Census captured figures from the 2015 calendar year. Over the six-week timeframe, 1,536 surveys were filled out. A major focus was to determine barriers that exist to music in the city, so that the London Music Office could look to potential solutions.

At a high level, the census results show the majority (45%) of musicians in London are between the ages of 20-34. Most musicians (89.5%) perform popular music genres such as; R&B, Roots, Country, Rock, Pop, Alternative, Jazz, Folk, EDM, Indie, Punk or Metal. Of the surveyed musicians, 83 per cent reported identifying as male. The Forest City’s musicians are a young, emerging demographic. Another key census finding showed that London’s music industry businesses aren’t applying for funding grants. The reasons vary, but a common theme emerged: London businesses largely don’t have the ability to submit for granting opportunities, citing the lack of time and low past success rates as major contributing factors.


Poesy (Photo: Chelsea Brimstin)

SOCAN member Poesy (a.k.a. Sarah Botelho) is one of London’s rising stars. She started playing music in the city about three years ago, and from the outset noticed a diverse and supportive scene.

“The more London is becoming a music city, the stronger those bonds and those communities are,” she explains. “The city itself is dynamic musically, because London is a city that really feels like a town. It’s possible to play at every venue in London, and get to know all of the people involved: sound engineers, bookers, club owners, other musicians, etc.  And it’s a much more personal exchange than I’ve felt in other music cities.”

Poesy says another way The London Music Office has really benefited London as a music city is through their involvement in helping new talent get established.

“Before I started getting involved with various London Music Office opportunities, hardly anybody in London knew who I was, or had heard my music,” she says. “Getting selected to play at London’s Canada 150 Sesquifest event [a Music Office initiative] really helped get my name out there… having support from the city you’re in really lights a fire under you.”

Chad Price, a London singer-songwriter, agrees. He says the music scene in London is alive and well, “bursting with talent” in so many genres.

“There’s definitely something good going on here right now, and I’m proud to be one of the people contributing to this momentum,” says Price. “What makes London so special and dynamic is that there is a real musical community beginning to take shape. As artists, we’re doing everything we can to help each other find success and not just be thinking about ourselves. I will be out there rooting for acts like Texas King, Poesy, Ivory Hours, Jessica Allosery, and Genevieve Fisher, just as much as I will for myself. We support each other, and it’s also great to have an organizational body and advocate for London music in the London Music Office.”

Chad Price

Chad Price (Photo: Craig Chambers)

Price adds that the support from the city is also helping to inject some new life and confidence into London’s music scene. On a personal note, it has helped the songwriter better disperse his music. “I was the recipient of a grant from the London Arts Council’s Community Arts Investment Program this year, and used those funds to create several videos bringing awareness not only to my music, but also to culturally and historically significant landmarks in the city.”

Live music venues are key to supporting and incubating any music scene. With 53 live music venues, ranging from large-scale arenas (Budweiser Gardens) to more intimate spaces with varying capacities (The London Music Club, Call the Office, Aeolian Hall) the London scene is healthy and growing.

Looking ahead, numerous exciting initiatives are underway in London, led by Crossman’s team and supported by partners such as the London Arts Council, the city’s Culture Office, and Tourism London. The London Music Strategy, which Crossman inherited, aims to promote culture as a key part of economic growth and quality of life as identified in Council’s 2015 -2019 Strategic Plan and the Cultural Prosperity Plan for the City of London.

“When I was in high school I was asked by my guidance counsellor, ‘What do you want to do for a living?’” says Crossman. “I was 16 years old, and told her I liked hockey and music. She replied, ‘There’s no career in those, so go find something else!’ That conversation always stuck with me. What we’re trying to do is show that there are so many opportunities to get involved in the music industry, and arm students and the public with the message that these opportunities do exist.”