By Juliet Palmer,
Canzona magazine, 2011.

Once upon a time, a family travelled by ship to a tiny coastal settlement in New Zealand. As the ship came within view of the shore, mother and daughter clutched each other and wept, longing to return home.

After flying for hours over the vast Pacific Ocean, a sliver of land comes into view just below the wing of the plane. Panic and relief rush through me as I wonder, how will I ever manage to leave again? And yet, how good to see that first tiny glimpse of home.

The first arrival is that of my great-great-great-grandmother Flora and her daughter Juliane in Port Ahuriri from Copenhagen. The second is my own childhood memory of return after several years of living in Singapore. Both images summon the conflicting emotions of the journey away and towards home. Why do I still feel like a New Zealander after twenty years living in North America? How did I end up making my home in Toronto — and what does home even mean?

My teachers at Auckland University’s School of Music imparted a strong sense of New Zealand identity alongside an awareness of our place in the wider world. John Elmsley — fresh from studies in Brussels and Liège with Henri Pousseur and Frederic Rzewski — connected us to compelling current compositional ideas in both Europe and North America. Our ears were opened! Later on Sue Frykberg appeared seemingly from out of nowhere (Canada, actually). Sue had a very different approach to composition – she was an outspoken feminist, creating works which mixed audio technology with domestic technology, and showed me that being an artist, travelling and working overseas were all possible.

Another incredible window on the world was the university library’s audio collection. This was in the days before you could download anything from anywhere onto your iPod! After spending hours trying to glean some pleasure from a stack of LP’s of East Coast U.S. “heavyweights” — Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions — I stumbled upon a record of American ‘Electronic women’ from the ‘70’s. It was pure gold, a real turning point for me as a composer — a galvanizing mix of early guiro-scraping Laurie Anderson, fellow New Zealander Annea Lockwood’s collage of animal and sex sounds, and Pauline Oliveros’ ground-breaking ‘trance music’.

Adding further fuel to the fire and to my desire to spread my wings was Phil Dadson, my professor in time-based art at Elam School of Fine Arts. Phil serendipitously introduced me to pianist Nurit Tilles after a concert by the Steve Reich Ensemble in 1990. Nurit suggested that I get in touch with Meredith Monk and go to work for her in New York. And so I did, spending five months as her intern in 1991. I was her apprentice when she created and premiered Atlas at Houston Grand Opera. I was fascinated by the way Meredith handled interdisciplinary work on an enormous scale.

Once I was living in New York I got in touch with Annea Lockwood. Although she was a New Zealander, I had barely heard of her except for that one rare LP in the library. And then…there she was in person, at a café in the West Village, so supportive and encouraging — she made anything seem possible! Annea defied a lot of conventional thinking about music, and it seemed, back then, as though she’d been written out of New Zealand music history. By the time I met her she had made her mark in England with the Piano Transplant series and The Glass Concert. Once in New York her acute sense of timbre and place revealed themselves in works such as A Sound Map of the Hudson River and World Rhythms

During my doctoral studies at Princeton University, visiting composer Eleanor Hovda inspired me with her way of dancing sound into space. I remember a solo piece in which she bowed a cymbal for its entire duration, a meditation on the blooming overtones and shifting timbre of the resonating metal infused with the gracefulness of cross-country skiing. Eleanor encouraged me to understand my music as a way of understanding myself – who I was and where I had come from: a kind of personal sonic geography. I started to think about tectonic plates, volcanoes and disjunct sonic worlds.

“…how many sojourns, the gathered feet, the flight of horses,
the vein of railway, the stray of airplanes,
we brace our transience on the hurtling planet…” 1

Dionne Brand’s poem, painted on an alley wall in Toronto’s Somali neighbourhood, is part of a large mural project celebrating the UN Declaration of Human Right. Article 13 upholds the freedom of migration, a freedom which has seen Toronto grow to a metropolis of over five and a half million people speaking over 140 languages, a place where successive waves of immigrants are creating a 21st century Babel. I am one of those immigrants, having made my home here since 1998. Although peak oil looms and climate change adds a guilty tinge to our wanderlust, we continue to zip about the globe, disrupting ties of family, land and identity — global citizens on the lookout for opportunity and new beginnings.

The opportunities I have had to make for myself in Toronto are a big part of the kind of work I do. I arrived a few years out of graduate school, too old for the competitions which Canadians use to rank and star-spot composers. When I arrived in Toronto I was met by general indifference from the composing establishment. One composer welcomed me with the comment “Just what we need, another composer”. By contrast, the dance community responded with curiosity and warmth. Perhaps they could understand more readily where I’d come from — the Meredith Monk connection and my association with the Bang on a Can Festival helped. Choreographer Bill James gave me my first gig – two works in Water Sources, an outdoor festival of interdisciplinary works created for public water features. Composer Peter Hatch (artistic director of the Open Ears Festival) heard my music and reached out to support what I was doing. I’ve found it’s the smaller ensembles and soloists — Continuum, Toca Loca, Eve Egoyan — that take more risks. They’ve made it possible for me to act on Louis Andriessen’s advice to “write what I want to hear”.

The abundance of talented singers in Toronto has profoundly shaped my growth as a composer. Christine Duncan, a true vocal chameleon, brings her five-octave range to works fusing gospel, throat-singing, bel canto and everything in between. I first collaborated with mezzo-soprano Vilma Vitols on Room. Performed in an outdoor sculpture at the edge of Lake Ontario, the music is punctuated with her deft flamenco footwork. Flotsam & Jetsam proved Vilma’s dedication with a chilly sub-zero video shoot in the waters of Lake Huron. Most recently, our relationship bore fruit in Voice-Box, spurred by Vilma’s dual talents as an opera singer and amateur boxer. The number of Toronto companies supporting new opera creation is remarkable: Tapestry, Queen of Puddings, Toronto Masque Theatre, Soundstreams, among others. It also means smaller collectives (like my own urbanvessel) have a larger context in which to create new work.

The notion of sonic geography still fascinates me — listening for the distinct sounds of New Zealand’s birds, but also the tram bell in Lisbon, the scrape of a snowplow in the middle of a snowy Canadian city, and the resonant ping of stones bouncing across a frozen lake. An understanding of acoustic ecology influences sonic identity, but so do the complex strands of culture. We don’t create in a void — identity flows from the language and forms with which we give shape to musical thought. We want to be part of a conversation which will be understood, and so we adapt our mode of communication to make sense to those around us. History plays a large part in this. In Canada there is a strong link between composers based in Montréal and those in France. English-speaking composers, by contrast, speak a musical language closer to Dutch, British, or American composers. Perhaps it sounds more like the actual language we speak — rhythmic, clipped, terse. A coherent national identity seems less and less possible (or even relevant) in a country as geographically and culturally vast as Canada.

Since founding urbanvessel in 2006, I have produced a series of works blending dance, music and theatre. These performances often find their inspiration in the urban environment – from a sweatshop and the city streets to a public bath and the boxing gym. As global migration alters our perception of home, I am moving towards a creative process which relates to our immediate community — to people, place and space. Brand’s poem underscores my own quest for belonging: I am one of those countless “inalienable nomads, global citizens…heartsick for the true world, compelled to place we search for place.”

Should young composers travel and seek inspiration away from home? That decision is a personal one, and will be different for each composer at different times in their life. When faced with turning points in my work and life, I often recall the advice my teacher Louis Andriessen gave to me: “Fear is a bad counsellor.” Don’t listen to fear when it tells you not to do something. It’s probably the best reason, artistically, to tackle something new. I find I’m often in a state of terror as I leap into the void. Exhilarating.

— Juliet Palmer (2011)

1 Article 13 by Dionne Brand