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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Q&A | 41 Questions For Owen Pallett

By Ludwig Van on February 21, 2017

Owen Pallett (Photo: Brian Vu)
Owen Pallett (Photo: Brian Vu)

Every so often MT poses 60 questions to a local or visiting artist in Toronto who has made our classical music community that much more interesting. They pick and choose. The minimum response is 20 answers. A kind of Rorschach personality test, if you will.

Owen Pallett is a composer, violinist, vocalist, and arranger who was born and raised in Toronto. Classically trained from an early age, his musical influences have led to a hybrid of styles and approaches. Under the moniker of Final Fantasy, (a name since retired), he developed a violin and vocal style using an innovative looping technique that allowed him to play his baroque-style compositions as a solo act. His 2006 album, He Poos Clouds won the inaugural Polaris Prize, launching his career into overdrive. He has since worked with the National, Taylor Swift, R.E.M., Franz Ferdinand, the Hidden Cameras, Beirut, Brian Eno, Arcade Fire and countless others.

Pallett has been featured at the Barbican, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, National Ballet of Canada, Bang on a Can, and the Ecstatic Music Festival.

You can hear the premiere of a new work for orchestra and Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch at part of the New Creations Festival in Toronto, March 8 at Roy Thomson Hall. Full details, here.

Default drink/cocktail of choice?

Sparkling water

Name your favourite concert hall/venue in Toronto

Horseshoe Tavern, Lee’s Palace, Massey Hall, Koerner Hall, Soy Bomb, Adelaide Hall.

Name your favourite concert hall/venue anywhere

Whelan’s in Dublin, Ireland

Your role models?

Buffy Sainte-Marie

Your favourite sound?

The combination of quietly simmering tomato sauce on the stove and drone music on the stereo

Your least favourite sound?

When the fitness instructor at the gym turns up his headset microphone too loud.

Your favourite smells?

Seven days of not showering.

First thing that comes to your mind when you think about Toronto

Complacency, opportunistic developer shitheads.

The historical personalities, both good and bad, that fascinate you the most?

James Baldwin; Yukio Mishima; Emperor Julian; Ferdinand Magellan; Foucault, Barthes, Kosofsky Sedgwick.

The dumbest thing that you’ve ever done to your hair?

I cue-balled it when I first moved to Toronto and discovered that I have a remarkably unattractively-shaped skull.

What are the three things you’d like to change about Toronto?

Hold the persons responsible for its terrifyingly profit-oriented new developments over the last two decades, and seriously consider solutions toward creating mixed use spaces and housing that isn’t just a trap of financial indenture for new Canadian and young Canadian first-time property-owners; hold all restaurants that charge more than $20-a-plate mains responsible for creating a higher standard of good food, as Toronto’s low-to-mid price dining is unbeatable, but almost every restaurant that charges $20 or more for a main is not remotely worth the expense in this city; bike lanes.

Is there a local music store that could sell you anything?

I actually rotate my patronage about the city to not pay favourites to any one music retailer.

Your first three record store purchases

Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams”, Bjork “Post”, Jean-Michel Jarre “Oxygene”.

If you could board a plane this afternoon, where would it be taking you?

Lisbon, Portugal.

The strangest place you’ve ever been to?

Calgary.  Just kidding, probably Inuvik.  The sunlight is a different colour, the crows (or were they ravens?) were as large as small dogs, the dragonflies enormous as well.  It felt as if that place is far further along in time than the rest of the world.

The three books that you read that made an impact on you in your formative years?

Roland Barthes “A Lover’s Discourse”, Ann Carson “Autobiography Of Red”, Vladimir Nabokov “Lolita”.

Whose musical style do you covet?

Ligeti, or any other composer that is successful or nearly-successful at creating aural representations of the infinite.

Where was the last place you traveled to for work or pleasure?

I lived in Los Angeles for much of last year.  I couldn’t put my finger on why it felt familiar, until somebody told me “it’s basically Mississauga, but hot”.

What is your biggest phobia?

Knives in the hands of others.

Where did you go to school?

University of Toronto.

What did you major in as an undergraduate?

Music composition, I studied with Gary Kulesha and Chan Ka Nin.

The cliché that you overuse?

I use the word “aspirational” a great deal, which some spell-checkers don’t think exists, but I use it to describe when people are making assertions in order to describe the way they wish things were, rather than the way things actually are.  “I’m not an anxious person,” he says, for example, and my mind responds, “you are very anxious and you wish it were not the case.”

The strangest talent that you possess?

I am the fastest eater in the world.

Your three favourite films?

Roy Anderssen’s “En Karlekshistoria”, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, Michael Haneke’s “Code Inconnu”.

Under what circumstances would you join the army?

No circumstances whatsoever.

Your major character flaw?

I am terrifically hard on myself and spend a couple days of a month lying in bed hating everything I’ve ever said and done.

The character flaw in others that you can’t abide?

When people are blind to their own privilege.

How do you know when you can trust someone?

Never trust anyone.

What are you the most proud of?

My live show on the “In Conflict” tour, with my drummer Robbie, my bassist Matt, and my sound engineer Noah.  I felt that we really created something special in that year-and-a-half that we toured that record.

The talent that you wish you possessed?

I wish I had the flexibility and patience to be good at yoga, but I’m not, and it is a constant struggle for me.

What are you listening to as you answer these questions?

Silence.  I tend to listen very intently when music is playing so I don’t put it on passively. I can’t even exercise to music.  The only time I can multi-task with music is when I’m cooking.

What musical instrument do you secretly long to play?

Uilleann pipes, I’m serious, it’s such an amazingly beautiful instrument and I wish I could play them.

What is the one animal that scares you the most?

I’m not scared of animals but I’m terrified of mushrooms when I see them in the wild.

Your favourite curse word?


Name three pieces or composers that you never want to hear again

Though both composers are far more technically accomplished than I’ll ever be, and have my deepest respect, I never want to hear Alfred Schnittke’s First Symphony or Andrew Norman’s Play ever again, for the same reason, as I find that kind of post-modernity cynical and conservative.

Your first memory?

A car accident I was in at age 4, I remember very vividly my head cracking against the side window of my mother’s VW Rabbit.

The first album that made you love music?

I am told that at age two I would put on Pachebel’s Canon or Bach Double Violin Concerto and scream at everyone in the house to shut up and listen.

Three pieces, songs, or arias that you could listen to on repeat for an hour?

I love the sound of analog pressings of Stockhausen recordings, and have several copies of the Kontakt / Gesang Der Jünglinge record that I often listen to on repeat.  I love Kranky as a label and listen to everything they put out and never find myself exhausted.  And my world stops whenever “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” comes on.

The one place that you have the least interest in ever visiting?

Russia.  I have been to places where queer people do not have the same rights as they have in Canada, and although I didn’t experience any violence firsthand, the feeling of being threatened was so oppressive that I decided to not go to places like Russia.  Additionally, I am worried they’d seize my violin if I went there.  And I have no interest in Russian cuisine.  I like their music, cinema and literature, though!  But I’ll enjoy them from afar.

The first three things that you do every morning?

I drink a pint of coffee, run 5 kilometres and lift weights for an hour.

The best way to die?

I’m a big fan of suicide.  I wish that we existed culturally in a society that was more open to the possibility of a controlled, dignified, painless and deliberate end of one’s life, so that the conclusion of one’s existence could be discussed amongst family members and friends, and approached with compassion and understanding and celebration, instead of this supposed nobility of having people age and sicken until they are robbed of all humanity and dignity.

To read more from our Q&A Series, click HERE.


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