Questions for Colin Eatock at 65

The invitation from Colin Eatock caught my eye:

“I’m organizing a concert in Toronto on February 20
(my 65th birthday).
The programme will include a new piece by me.
Admission is by donation — I hope you can make it!”

We’ve seen the name Colin Eatock in a few contexts. I’ve heard some of his music. We saw his byline at the Globe & Mail and elsewhere as a writer.

His website says he did his PhD in Musicology, writing about Felix Mendelssohn, and he has also written a book about Glenn Gould.

Colin Eatock beside Ruth Abernethy’s Glenn Gould sculpture

This interview is a chance to find out more about him and the upcoming concert.


Are you more like your father or your mother?

I’d say I’m more like my dad, who was a high-school history teacher in Hamilton for most of his professional life. He was very much drawn to scholarship. And I should also mention that I had an uncle who was a violin teacher. But he was the only professional musician in my immediate family.

What is the best or worst thing about what you do?

Composing music is a real “workout” for the brain – and I’m hoping it will forestall senility! And although I find composing a challenge, it’s not nearly as hard as finding opportunities to have my music performed.

Who do you like to listen to or watch?

If I find a show I like on Netflix, I will shamelessly binge-watch!

What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

It would probably be really useful to be a conductor. But it’s nothing I’d ever want to do! And I’ve avoided it like the plague.

When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?

During the Covid lockdown, I took up cooking, with mixed results. At least, I haven’t poisoned anyone (yet)! I retired from music criticism a few years ago, and I find that I’m very well suited to a leisurely lifestyle.

What was your first experience of classical music?

Listening to classical music was a part of my home life from birth, so I have no memory of being formally introduced to it. I do recall attending Handel’s Messiah as a child, performed by the Hamilton Philharmonic. And my first opera was Don Giovanni, in Chautauqua NY – but I slept through most of it.

The concert is offered by
“St. Wulfric’s Concert Society. Works by Bach, Louis Andriessen, Hans Poser and Colin Eatock.
I notice with the aid of Google that your February 20th concert falls not just on your birthday but also the day that Wulfric of Haselbury passed away in 1154. Please elaborate on the connection, whatever it might be.

Casting around for a “presenter” for this concert, I did a search to find out if any saints’ feast-day fell on February 20, which is my birthday. That’s how I discovered St. Wulfric. It seems that he was a bit of a recluse, so maybe we have that in common.

Please describe the works on the program by Bach, Louis Andriessen, Hans Poser and your own new piece.

When I asked recorderist Alison Melville and harpsichordist Christopher Bagan to perform on my birthday concert, I asked them to play a new piece I composed just a few months ago.

Recorderist Alison Melville (Photo by Colin Savage)

They kindly agreed. My Two Pieces for Harpsichord and Tenor Recorder contains a lot of obvious “baroque-isms,” but the harmonic language is all my own.

Harpsichordist Christopher Bagan (Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art)

For the rest of the program, I suggested Alison and Chis play whatever they wanted.

The Bach is his Sonata BWV 525. It was originally composed for the organ, but it works really well with recorder and harpsichord.

Hans Poser

The Andriessen is his Overture to Orpheus – which is not really an operatic overture at all, but a concert piece for harpsichord. It makes clever use of the difference in timbre between the two keyboards on the instrument. And you can really hear the descent of Orpheus into Hell!

Alison chose Poser’s Seven Bagatelles – and I must confess that I don’t yet know the piece. All I’ve been able to find out about Hans Poser is that he was a German composer who was born in 1917 and who died in 1970. During the Second World War, he was pilot in the Luftwaffe, and he was shot down over London in 1940. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp near Gravenhurst, Ontario.

On your website you ask yourself “What kind of music do you write”, telling us that you began composing at the age of 16 long before the advent of digital notation software.

You include a picture showing two hands manually composing using a pencil and staff paper.

Photo from Colin’s website

Do you still compose with a pencil, or have you at least partially gone digital?

I still do most of my composing with a pencil, staff paper and a large eraser. That’s how I was taught, and it has served me well. I don’t want composing to be too easy, and directly typing the notes into a computer – or playing them into a computer with a keyboard interface – feels a little too facile, and could lead to hasty decision-making. Once I’ve worked out the music on paper, I then “engrave” the music with my computer for a professional-looking score. I find that musicians respect a score that looks just like “real” music.

Do you remember your first teacher and the first things you composed in your teens. And did you keep any of the pieces?

At first, I was self-taught as a composer, reading books about orchestration at the library. Then, I wrote an ambitious orchestral piece that was performed by the Hamilton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. From that point, I decided that being a composer was the most splendid thing a person could be, and I was hooked on writing music. So I went to Western, to study formally.

A couple of years ago, when I was moving apartments, I found an old cardboard box containing my student compositions. I looked through them and was horrified by how bad they were. I chucked them in the garbage – and the world is a better place for it!

You say “my music is tonal”. In the 1970s when you started, classical music was often modernist and dissonant. When you began were you encouraged to find your own voice even if that voice was tonal, or were you in any way pressured to emulate famous composers of the time?

In my student days, I tried my best to be a good little modernist. Certainly, this is what most of my composition teachers strongly encouraged. And I struggled for a long time, before I found my own voice, in a more tonal idiom. Yet I’m glad I had the experience of being immersed in modernism. It freed up my thinking about music. Although my music is now based on a tonal harmonic language – you’d have a hard time finding a chord in my music that Brahms never wrote – I try not to be one of those composers whose music is essentially an exercise in nostalgia for some glorious past. I like to think that the present is present in my scores.

You say “Mostly, I write choral music and songs“ which leads me to wonder about your relationship to the church: one of the places in my experience where tonality is welcome.

I’m very much drawn to the traditions of church music, and some of my choral music is based on sacred texts, in either English or Latin. But my choral music is intended for concert performance, not for liturgical use. And most of my choral music is simply too difficult for the average church choir, so you’re not likely to hear it anywhere on a Sunday morning. Also, I’m not affiliated with any religious denomination, and I haven’t been for many years.

Speaking of churches and church music, your dissertation concerned Felix Mendelssohn, a composer whose spiritual compositions I admire. What drew you to him as a subject?

It was a kind of pragmatism, I guess. I wanted to study a composer who was connected to Great Britain – so I could get a research grant to go and live in London for a year. I recall having dinner with a friend, and talking about various continental composers who lived or worked in Britain. He said, “What about Mendelssohn – didn’t he spend some time there?” I replied, “Yes, he did. But I’m sure that subject has already been researched to death. For a PhD dissertation, you’re expected to do something original.” Then I looked into it – and discovered, much to my surprise, that there wasn’t much scholarly research done on Mendelssohn’s time in the UK.

Eight months later, I landed at Heathrow. Of course, it helped that I liked his music.

Did the Mendelssohn you studied during your dissertation influence either the way you compose, write criticism or the sound you aim for in your compositions? Do you in any sense think of yourself as a romantic?

I was struck with how Mendelssohn was a “Janus-faced” composer, looking back to historical models, while also very much engaged with his own era. Maybe there’s something of that in my music, as well.

Describing your music you said “My music is rarely virtuosic, although it demands a high level o precision from performers. (So they tell me.)
Could you unpack that?

I suppose that’s a bit of a boast. But I guess I was thinking about how delicate and thin-textured my music often is. It doesn’t give performers anything to “hide behind”: a wrong note really stands out!

Who is your favorite composer? Is there a music you enjoy merely for pleasure / fun, distinct from your appreciation of the art of that composition?

Music for pleasure? What a strange question! Pretty much everything I listen to is intended for (my) pleasure. The only time I put the “pleasure principle” on hold is when I attend a contemporary music program even though I suspect I probably won’t like it. I think it’s a good idea for composers to keep up-to-date on what other composers are doing — even if what they’re doing sounds like a train-wreck.

And to answer your first question last, my tastes are pretty broad, and I don’t really have a favourite composer.

Some composers were just hitting their peak in their 60s, doing their best work. Do you have any big projects ahead?

At present, I’m producing a new CD of my music: of compositions for choir, and also music for chamber orchestra. In the fall of 2021, Sinfonia Toronto recorded some of my orchestral music. And in the fall of 2022, Choir 21 recorded some choral pieces. So I now have over an hour of repertoire in the can. It’s all currently being edited to perfection. The disc should be released this spring on the Centrediscs label.

Front cover design for the upcoming CD

After the CD has been released, I’ll be able to look to future projects. It will be interesting to see what direction my inspiration takes me in.

You’ve combined different professions, at a time when it’s very challenging to afford living in Toronto. Do you have any advice on day jobs or side hustles for young composers wondering how best to survive?

Hmmm … I may not be the best person to answer that question. Music journalism worked for me, for a while. But these days, there’s very little money to be made, writing about music.

Of course, teaching has always been an option for composers. Everyone knows that.

If I may address your question more broadly, I’d like to see the list of “proper” occupations for composers expanded to include everything. To say that a composer who works as a music teacher is a “professional” composer, and another who works as a tax accountant is “just an amateur” is really just snobbery.

Is there a teacher or influence you would name who was important to your development?

The best composition teacher I ever had was John Beckwith, at U of T. Sadly, he passed away recently.

I can also call myself a student of R. Murray Schafer. He taught for one semester at Western while I was there, and I attended his classes. But his approach to teaching composition was nothing like the traditional nuts-and-bolts method; it was more abstract and philosophical. To this day, I ask myself how his instruction influenced me. I’m sure he did, somehow, but it’s hard to put my finger on it.


Colin Eatock February 20th 7:30 St Wulfric’s Concert Society In Recital Works by Bach, Louis Andriessen, Hans Poser and Colin Eatock. Alison Melville recorder, Christopher Bagan, Harpsichord. Heliconian Hall, 35 Hazelton Ave. By donation ($20 suggested)

There’s lots more wonderful content to read at Colin’s website (click here). Colin has also shared the following track from his upcoming recording.

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