Music in the Hemispheres: An Interview with Alexina Louie

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Image courtesy of ,used with permission

Alexina Louie, Canadian composer. Image courtesy of Alexina Louie, used with permission.

The music of Canadian composer Alexina Louie (b. 1949) reaches out to grasp the very soul of the listener. Its ethereal quality transcends both time and place and leaves the audience, as well as the performers, with a distinct feeling of being in a trance, a dream. The unique sounds and colours of Alexina Louie’s music enlighten the listener, allowing the music, the performer and the audience to experience an idea, to gain knowledge of an emotion.

Alexina Louie: The Woman Behind the Music

The Canadian Encyclopedia, composer, pianist and teacher Alexina Diane Louie has earned a place as one of Canada’s most celebrated composers. Her music is an imaginative and spiritual blend of Asian, North American and Western European influences.

Well-known around the world, Louie has won many prizes, including multiple Juno (Canada’s Music Awards) and SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers) Awards.

Louie began her music education at the age of seven and later supported herself and her music studies by playing the piano at Vancouver’s Devonshire and Georgia Hotels.

She studied at the University of California at San Diego and performed with the San Diego-based Women’s Ensemble, a musical group that specializes in meditative performances through sound and movement. All of these experiences influenced the young artist who would soon make a name for herself internationally as a unique and outstanding contemporary composer.

Although she was born into a very Chinese family in Vancouver, Louie initially felt more connected with her North American roots, particularly her Canadian roots, than with her ancestral Chinese culture.

“When I graduated with my Masters degree, I didn’t feel I had a unique voice,” the composer says. “In order to find out what my real voice was I had to find out where I came from, my musical core. I was raised in a Western and Chinese household, I didn’t really know much about classical Asian music.” 

She continues, “For many years, I had to study Asian music. I had to read about Asian myths and philosophies. I had to learn about Asian instruments and notations. For a period of about six years, I studied: Asian, Chinese and Japanese instruments, folklore and Korean and Indonesian, to really understand Asian music – all of these, and of course Chinese instruments and philosophy.”

“During this period I began to use these musical ideas in my composition and I did find my own voice during that period and just after,” Louie says, “I used these ideas in my compositions.”

The Simple Colour and Power of Louie’s Music

As a piano teacher in the 1990s, I had the privilege of discovering the music of this amazing composer on behalf of my students and included it as part of the teaching repertoire for young Canadian music students. I had a couple of advanced students who took up the challenge of playing some of Louie’s piano compositions from that period.

Changes, from a collection of works entitled Music for Piano (1982), was a particular favourite. This very minimalistic work uses repetitive fragments of sound with subtle harmonic changes, resulting in a very emotional work that speaks to so many performers.

I was impressed, not only with this composition, but also with the fact that these young students were so captivated with this work. It is evident by the number of Youtube recordings by students today that the work continues to captivate young performers.

It is interesting, though, that in the mid-1990s, one of my students decided to enter the Ottawa Kiawanis Music Festival with this piece under the category of Grade 9 Romantic and Contemporary. Changes was up against some stiff competition and so was my student.

Several competitors in this class played Chopin, of course. There was one who played a Robert Schumann piece and another who performed Rachmaninoff. My student was brilliant and she took first place, outshining the Romantic “greats.”

I thought this was a very poignant moment in Canadian music making, that Canadian music could stand up against the more popular “greats” and make itself heard and respected.

Changes and several other Louie compositions reflect a certain affinity towards minimalist music, taking a tiny fragment, a musical idea, and repeating it over and over again with only very subtle harmonic changes.

When asked if this musical style reflected an influence from her studies in Asian music, Louie responded that there was probably a “little hint of Gamelan music in it.”

Gamelan music is a traditional musical ensemble found in Indonesia, particularly Java and Bali. Gamelan instruments are tightly tuned together and the music itself consists of small, repetitive fragments of sound. Gamelan music has influenced contemporary composers around the world and it is not surprising that Louie’s work, which is a subtle mixture of sounds from Asia, Europe and North America, should also reveal similarities to Gamelan music.

Louie has a very personal feel for musical tones and colours. She admits that “this is a technique of using short patterns that repeat and harmonies that change through repetitions. Patterns repeat and harmonies change so subtly that you have to feel the change. The change is a forward momentum in the harmonic shift towards a certain point.”

Not all of Louie’s music is like this. “You will hear the repetitiveness in my work,” she explains, “because at one point in my life the minimalist music was something that I took note of … But initially I was inspired by Gamelon music.”

Music and Poetry

Music has often been compared to poetry and it is often associated with specific poems. When listening to Louie’s compositions, or playing them myself on the piano, I can’t help but feel a sense, a connection, if you will, particularly to Haiku poetry.

Usually associated with the Japanese, Haiku is an Asian form of poetry that North Americans and Europeans have adopted for its imaginative language that conveys an essence of an experience with nature or a connection between nature and the human condition. Haiku is a very simple form of poetry with a very powerful message, often subtly conveyed.

Several works by Louie evidently have a direct connection with Haiku poetry. “I have read Haiku poetry,” the composer says, “and I still read Haiku and some pieces inspired by Haiku. I wrote a piece for harp solo called From the Eastern Gates. There are Haiku movements in this piece.”

One of Louie’s piano works, I Leap Through the Sky With Stars, has a direct connection with a Haiku poem by the Japanese Haiku poet, Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), a provocative Zen philosopher. Dogen’s last statement that he made about his life was a statement about enlightenment, written as a Haiku poem. Translated into English, this poem reads:

For fifty-four years I have clarified

            The highest spiritual endowment;

            I leapt beyond,

            Shattering all worlds.

            Ah! Nothing to search for in the entire body –

            Vibrantly I plunge into the realm of death.

“That poem, I find it very inspiring,” Louie says. “It’s a death poem. It’s written at the end of poet’s life. It’s not a depressing Haiku. It’s not about somberness of death. It’s about enlightenment.”

Using light, repetitive harmonic progressions, I Leap Through the Sky With Stars leads the musician and the listener to their own realm of enlightenment.

Louie’s Music as a Testament to Her Canadianism

Louie composes music that is both universal and thematic. She has written for just about every instrument, including the accordion. Whether universal or thematic, her music always shines as a bold statement of who she really is at heart: a Canadian.

In 2012, Kent Nagano, musical director of the Montreal Symphony, commissioned Louie to prepare a work to premiere during the symphony’s journey through northern Québec.

“He was taking a small core of the Montreal Symphony to northern Quebec,” Louie explained, “and he thought that he would like to commission a work to bring two worlds together, western classical music and Inuit throat-singing or katajjaq. It was a very difficult to compose, as throat-singers don’t read music and western musicians don’t improvise. I had to find a way to make it work together.”

The composer became fascinated by the sound of throat-singers. She immersed herself in Inuit myths and stories and created a seven-movement work for orchestra and throat-singers. She took Inuit songs and stories, like Snow Goose, and built her composition around it. She called the completed work Take the Dog Sled and the Montreal Symphony premiered it in Canada’s far north.

“I would love it if more people discovered this piece,” Louie admits, “because I really do capture the nature of the country in this piece. It’s all about storytelling and the celebration of life in the north and the fortitude of people who have to live in that climate, with 24 hours of night. I really immersed myself in all of these feelings.”

The work truly affected its audience. Inuit were quick to praise Louie for how she captured their life, their stories, their culture, and, of course, Inuit throat-singing or katajjaq.

Music That Speaks to the Listener

Paul Steenhuisen, in describing his collection of interviews with contemporary composers (including Louie), wrote in his book, Sonic Mosaics, “It is a common misconception that it is difficult or impossible to discuss music, and that a piece of music simply speaks to the listener – or not.”

He has a very valid point, as many casual classical music “listeners” tend to absorb the well-known names of music history’s past, while, at the same time, they block out newly-created music.

To Louie, the “best reward is the audience’s response. I don’t write down to my audience. I write with an artistic goal in mind. I’m aiming high in each piece. I don’t write down, I bring them [the audience] along with me, along with my vision, like I did in Changes.”

Listeners, the audience, need to open up their hearts and their ears to all kinds of musical possibilities. As Louie says, “If the listener is open enough to experience a piece of music that is not from 1700 or 1800s, they are quite often taken with my music, even though musical language is the language of today. It is really satisfying when the audience responds to my music. Audience needs to come with open ears and open heart. My music moves people.”

Alexina Louie: Music for Tomorrow

Louie continues to compose and premiere her new compositions around the world. On May 16th, her work, Shattered Night, Shivering Stars, will premiere at the Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra for the Opening Concert of the 2014 Beijing Modern Music Festival under the direction of conductor Zhang Yi.

On May 17th, From the Eastern Gate, a harp solo, harpist, Erica Goodman, performing, will premiere with the Hamilton Philharmonic for the “What Next” Festival of new music.

On May 21st, Imaginary Opera will premier at the 21C Festival in Toronto’s Koerner Hall.

Next year will see more premieres of Louie’s work, including Beyond Time, on May 15, 2015, at Koerner Hall in Toronto, and Infinite Sky With Birds, on May 23, 2015, with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

The sky has no limits for this truly amazing international musical artist.

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