When I asked composer and performer Owen Pallett if he liked his job, his answer wasn’t quite what I was expecting:
“When you take [being a musician] on as a full-time job, it becomes much less enjoyable,” he said. “The moment all the joy got sucked out of making music was the moment I had to quit my job to do it full-time. Rather than looking at it as something you want to pursue because you have an interest in pursuing it … it’s an occupation that you should do if you feel as though there’s nothing else that you’re good at.”
While I can’t speak to Pallett’s other potential talents, his career has been prolific. He has collaborated with well-known artists and bands such as Arcade Fire, Taylor Swift, and The Pet Shop Boys (to name a few). His contributions to the score for the 2013 film Her received an Oscar nomination. His 2006 He Poos Clouds received the prestigious Polaris Music Prize. His orchestral work has been performed by Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Luminato Festival, and the Britten Sinfonia (again, to name a few).
Despite all of this, Pallett still questions his choice of career: “It’s something I grapple with all the time.” Setting aside the self-acknowledged pessimism, Pallett admits that “there are aspects of the job that make it all worthwhile.” I was relieved to hear Pallett admit this because his contributions to Canadian music cannot be underestimated.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra recognized this when they selected Pallett to be the curator for their 2017 New Creations Festival. I asked Pallett what he hoped to achieve with his curation:
“The first thing is that I maintain a commitment to diverse programing […] including as many racialized composers and female composers as possible,” he said. This was particularly important for Pallett considering the TSO’s 2016 New Creations Festival was criticized for neglecting to include any female composers. This year, Pallett made an effort to include prominent Canadians such as Tanya Tagaq, Cassandra Miller and Nicole Lizée in the festival. “It is the only responsible thing you can do as a curator,” he explained.
As he continued to discuss his objectives as festival curator, it became clear that Pallett’s artistic vision for the festival is bound up with the inherently political nature of Canada’s sesquicentennial. When I asked Pallett what he thought of the mixed feelings surrounding the C150 celebrations — the premise that there’s too much celebration and not enough critical reflection on Canada’s more problematic past — Pallett was quick to note that he has “unmixed feelings” on the matter:
“Canada is a country that continues to be a very present tense thing that requires a lot of criticality to survive […] I think that it is the role of artists to try and do their best to be on the right side of this critical expression.”
I asked him if he thought programming for the New Creation Festival contended with this.
“You know, I’m not wearing a shirt with Justin Trudeau’s face and an X on it, it’s not exactly that overtly political. But, I think that in the field of new music […] in this most abstract form, you have the capacity towards great methods of political expression.”
This was certainly true this past Saturday evening during the first of three concerts for the 2017 New Creations Festival. Tanya Tagaq’s Qiksaaktuq — a piece dedicated to missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls in Canada — was an inexplicably stirring musical experience. Tagaq’s performance captured the pain, grief, violence and wild injustice that is embodied in this ever-present Canadian crisis.
Pallett’s own musical contribution to the festival — an orchestral song set titled Songs from an Island — will have its world premiere, performed by the TSO and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, this Wednesday. He jokingly referred to his five-movement work as his “no content piece” owing to its emphasis on silence and emptiness, which Pallett hopes will foster “a constant feeling of transience and instability.”
Beyond chatting about his curatorship, one of the highlights from my discussion with Pallett involved hearing about his position on the relationship between classical and popular music. I find Pallett’s negotiation of the “classical” and the “popular” to be one of the most notable features of his musical style and career trajectory; he seamlessly and productively inhabits two traditionally separate musical worlds. But when I raised this idea, Pallett sharply suggested that he does not subscribe to this way of thinking about music:
“I don’t make distinctions between popular and classical forms,” he said. “It’s classist […] there’s no reason why there should be this implied hierarchal importance of one form of music over another […] I shut anyone down who uses those terms at this point.”
I agree that these sweeping terms are inherently problematic, and that they can give rise to unproductive associations with respect to musical value. But archaic hierarchical implications aside, I suggested that this is still how many people interpret and understand musical style:
“We need to re-educate them,” Pallett asserted. But when I pressed him to elaborate on this, Pallett maintained that he “just writes the music.”
While total seamlessness between musical worlds and genres is certainly ideal, I’m less certain that musical culture is totally there. I’m even less certain that the best way to get there is to “shut anyone down” who happens to interpret and organize musical style through the “popular” and “classical” framework that is still so ingrained in cultural practice today.
I am more certain, however, that artists like Owen Pallett are pushing traditional boundaries in productive and promising ways. Pallett’s creative activities are encouraging ears to be “wide open to all possible musics.” And, evidently, this is getting us somewhere. Pallett’s musical output and creative activities transcend conventional expectations of genre; he breathes new life into what it means to be a composer in the twenty-first century.