Juno-nominated composer Jocelyn Morlock is one of Canada’s most distinctive voices. She is Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s Composer in Residence having just completed a term as inaugural Composer in Residence for Vancouver’s innovative concert series, Music on Main (2012 – 2014). I reviewed her recent CD Cobalt, having discovered her original voice in one of Tapestry’s opera workshops.
In the immediate future, though, is the VSO’s New Music Festival on January 15-18. Morlock plays a big role, including three separate compositions. Here’s Morlock’s description of the three pieces: “Theft”; “Ornithomancy” and “That Tingling Sensation.”
I. Water Clocks
Theft was inspired by two arresting images found in One Hundred Years of Solitude: the insomnia-ridden town, and the “water-clock secrets of the moths.” In Marquez’s novel, we never find out what the moths’ secrets are, and this mystery intrigued me. The moths are a mysterious lot.
Insomnia, on the other hand, has a manic quality loosely based on the feeling of panic/fascination that ensues when you hear the birds start to sing loudly in the morning after you’ve been up all night.
Water clocks are Klepsydrae, literally water-thieves. Long periods of insomnia will rob you of sleep and sanity, and eventually will kill you. You should get more sleep.
Ornithomancy (2013) (a flute concerto)
Ornithomancy is the practice of divination by observing the activity and flight patterns of birds. Though I’m not convinced of their ability to predict the future, I have a long-held fascination with birds of all kinds. Their energy, flight and songs are beautiful, fleeting and strange – a fertile subject for a flute concerto. In keeping with the idea of bird-like flocking activities, Ornithomancy features many short solos and cadenza-like passages that include soloistic playing from members of the orchestra.
That Tingling Sensation (2014)
The inspiration for this piece stems from the fascinating human experience of being physically thrilled by music. When an experience moves or enthralls you, your hair stands up, and you feel the music viscerally. I think this is likely *the* great reason why people love music – that inexplicable visceral reaction to beauty, to energy, to lovely or powerful sound. (This reaction is known as an ‘autonomous sensory meridian response’, in case you’re planning to Google it.) I’ve named my piece out of love for this ideal, and for the kaleidoscopic and electrifying palette of sounds the orchestra can create.
And so, as first female Composer in Residence of the Vancouver Symphony, and on the occasion of their upcoming New Music Festival, I ask Morlock ten questions: five about herself and five more about her professional life.
1-Are you more like your father or your mother?
I think I’m more like my father, the primary reason being that we have (had? He died in 1999) the same sense of humour. And I always felt like we quietly understood each other even when we weren’t saying a whole lot. He used to send me Far Side Comics in the mail, I still have one up on my fridge, it’s this boa constrictor at lunch, in the process of swallowing an entire pig, and the phone is ringing, and above the boa’s head is the thought “Damn.” We also have pretty much the same eyebrows, which must count for something.
2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a composer of “new” music?
Being a composer of new music is weird because it is such a niche market, if you will…there aren’t going to be thousands and thousands of people who like it, or even care whether it’s good or bad, and yet it is generally the most important thing in my life. That is kind of confusing sometimes.
On a more daily-life/working level, it is challenging because form in music has pretty much exploded and there are no rules left so every time you write a new piece you need to come up with a new set of rules. Form is the most frustrating and contentious aspect of composing these days, for me at least. Sometimes I crave a nice ternary form…
3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?
All kinds of things – some of the most unusual music that I am fond of is Gambang Kromong from Indonesia –
I can hardly believe it happened, it’s a very distinctive juxtaposition of gamelan, Dixieland trumpet, and slide steel guitar. No, I am not making this up.
Canadian composers I’ve been listening to recently include Michael Oesterle, Nicole Lizée, Marc Sabat, Thierry Tidrow, Gabriel Dharmoo, Riho Esko Maimets (and lots more too…) On the less “classical” side I’m a huge fan of Laurie Anderson and of Tom Waits, and generally of jazz singers from last century, especially Dinah Washington. I like watching films a lot but I don’t have enough time…(I’m a fan of David Lynch because he’s a big weirdo…also dead people like Tarkovsky and Fellini…)
4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I would really like to be able to fly. Or to be invisible. I admit both of those are pretty unlikely. I think as far as things that might be attainable, being fluent in more than one language would be very cool, but my most desired skill is to be an awesome tango/salsa dancer. A somewhat unlikely acquisition, given that I’m not especially graceful, nor am I taking dance lessons…
5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
Erm, not really sure. If I don’t work for too long I get a bit weird. Walking around outside is lovely, or hanging out with friends and laughing about silly things. I like dressing up for Halloween and wearing outrageous things now and then but that doesn’t happen too often.
Five more concerning being Composer in Residence at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra
1-Being a composer in residence sounds like a grand position. What’s involved with such a title and what are you expected to do?
I suppose the most obvious thing is write new music for the VSO – I just finished a new piece called “That Tingling Sensation” which will be premiered during out New Music Festival, on January 17th. I also help program the New Music Festival, and our Annex Series which is a set of three concerts of new or newish music – i.e. 20th century classics alongside new 21st century rep. I am also the liaison between the VSO and the composers we work with, and I guess you could say I do a fair bit of outreach/promo, talking to people about our concerts, finding out what’s interesting to audience members, stuff like that. It’s a lot of fun, and there’s a lot of variety in what I’m doing.
2- You’re the first woman composer in residence in the history of the VSO. Is that a big deal?
Funny that – I didn’t think it was such a big deal, but it seems that it is. I am used to being one of relatively few females in my line of work – when I was younger I thought I’d likely go into computer science, and I was the only girl in my grade 12 computer science class, so this is all fairly normal for me. It hadn’t occurred to me that younger generations of composers might want a female role model, but I guess to some extent I am one of those now! (Yikes! Responsibility!)
3-What’s your favourite Jocelyn Morlock composition and what’s so good about it?
What an evil question! Erm, frequently when I’m in the middle of writing a piece it alternates several times a day between being my favourite piece and the worst thing I’ve ever written…currently I think my favourites are my concertos “Aeromancy” (for two cellos) and “Ornithomancy” (for flute.)
[NB Jocelyn didn’t know i’d include the music when she answered… listen for yourself]
If I had to be even more specific I’d pick just the second movement of “Aeromancy.” What’s good about this music? Well, for “Aeromancy,” the cello lines are extremely expressive, very high and soaring, and the way that the two cellos sing together is almost like having one giant meta-cello. The orchestral colours with them are unusual – predominantly quite lush string orchestra in the background, but also a pair of soloistic oboes, horns, and a significant and quite sparkly glockenspiel line. For me this all adds up to a good thing. The form is rather unexpected but non-random, which I also believe is positive. Describing my own music this way is appallingly difficult!
4- The arts often feel very precarious in this country, spoken of as a luxury even as they starve alongside wealthy hockey teams. Please put your feelings about new music into context for us, especially with respect to your post at the VSO.
The performance of new work is what keeps the VSO (or any ensemble) from being solely a repository of aged treasures, rather than a living art form. An influx of the new is the only thing that keeps us from becoming just a museum.
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, with its visionary artistic director, the conductor and composer Bramwell Tovey, makes an unusually strong commitment to innovation and to new music in general.
5- Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
Yes – the late Russian-Canadian composer Nikolai Korndorf was a huge influence on me. I first heard his music ca. 1998, at a time when I found that much new music I was hearing was leaving me cold and I was craving a stronger emotional connection. As soon as I’d heard Nikolai’s music I decided that I had to study with him, and I was very lucky that he agreed to teach me. He was living in Burnaby, BC at the time, having moved to Canada in 1991. Nikolai had an encyclopedic knowledge of standard orchestral repertoire, and was fascinated by and interested in many, many styles of modern music, and it was fascinating (if very daunting!) to learn from him.
The recording of his monumental “Hymn No. 3 in Honour of Gustav Mahler” (recorded on Sony Classic CD “A New Heaven”) was the first piece of Nikolai’s I ever heard, and it made an incredible impression. Other wonderful pieces include “Concerto Capriccioso” (on Toccata Classics’ release of Korndorf’s complete cello music) and “Yarilo” for solo piano (there are several good recordings of it available including ones by Anna Levy and Ivan Sokolov.)
The VSO New Music Festival featuring three compositions by Jocelyn Morlock runs from January 15 to 18.