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FEATURE | From I Can’t To I’m Ready! — Two Award-Winners’ Paths To Winning Canada’s Largest Composition Prize

By Anya Wassenberg on April 1, 2021

We caught up with Azrieli Music Prize laureates Keiko Devaux and Kelly-Marie Murphy to discuss their experiences in the classical music world, and why they almost didn’t apply.

Keiko Devaux at the 2020 AMP Gala Rehearsal (Photo: Alain Beauchesne)
Keiko Devaux at the 2020 AMP Gala Rehearsal (Photo: Alain Beauchesne)

In Partnership with The Azrieli Foundation.

With a substantial cash prize — the highest for any Canadian composition — and an open submission process, the Azrieli Music Prize competition draws from a deep well of applicants. Still, in 2020, only about 11% of all the applicants were female, and in the Jewish Commission category, that drops to only 6%.

A look at two prior winners — Keiko Devaux, who won the inaugural Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music in 2020, and Kelly-Marie Murphy, who was awarded the 2018 Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music — offers insights and inspiration.

In awarding Keiko the Canadian Commission, the Jury wrote that her music was “interesting, authentic, and in a whole different category. Her compositions are mysterious, compelling and beautiful. Her proposal exhibits a clever and original inquiry into what it means to be Canadian that is both honest and, in a way, hard-hitting.”

She is currently a Carrefour composer-in-residence at the National Arts Centre until 2022, and completing her Ph.D. at l’Université de Montréal. Her exposure to music began early. “I played piano from the age of five,” she says.

Even at age five, when she began playing, she’d find herself improvising. “I was attracted to the creative end of the process.” Still, the road to the role of a classical composer was by no means direct. Her first impetus in music was interpretation, and as a performer, she played pop and jazz. “I found myself attracted to the collective writing process,” she says.

Being a woman undeniably colours the experience of working in music. “I think it can be an obstacle, and it can be a driving force,” Devaux says. “There are definitely countless stories where you feel othered.”

Kelly-Marie Murphy 2018 AMP Gala Rehearsal with Boris Brott (Photo: Danylo Bobyk)
Kelly-Marie Murphy 2018 AMP Gala Rehearsal with Yoav Talmi (Photo: Danylo Bobyk)

While Kelly-Marie Murphy studied voice and piano, composition was never in her sights as a student. “I think I’m a composer by accident,” she says. “I discovered, as I got into these things, that I didn’t like being in front of an audience.”

Murphy’s original intention was to study vocal jazz arrangement, which required taking a general composition program. But, with no direct role models, she still didn’t quite see herself in the role. “What we are presented with is the music of history — dead white guys,” she notes.

“I wasn’t identifying and seeing myself,” Devaux agrees. She notes, however, the importance of new perspectives and the growing movement to recognize the forgotten women composers of history. “It’s quite interesting to see that awareness.”

“Growing up when I did, wanting to be a musician or a composer, I naturally had a lot of male role models,” Devaux says. “As I grew as a composer, I noticed this imbalance and actively sought out to find more diverse role models, and it has become less of an issue. I have a very different relationship with my identity as a composer now, as I now see myself more in these models.”

In her work, Devaux is still influenced by her history as a live performer and blends electroacoustic elements in her work. “I think it’s mostly being aware of the sonic experience,” she says. “I want the experience to be moving and felt. I don’t want it to be so removed or exploratory that it becomes inaccessible,” she says. “It’s important to be honest.”

Jury member and composer Ana Sokolovi wrote about Murphy’s work in her decision. “Kelly-Marie Murphy is one of our best-known Canadian composers. Her work is honest, direct, and of great competence, and we are confident that she will give us a ­work that is worthy of the Prize.” Her works have been performed by many ensembles, including the Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver Symphony Orchestras. Being a composer also means making your work —­ and yourself in a sense — vulnerable.

For any composer, there is outside pressure. “There’s a lot of fear about being not smart enough or not complicated enough,” Devaux says. “I like connecting with audiences.”

“If your music was enjoyed or understood by the masses, you were doing something wrong,” Murphy says. Murphy openly acknowledges her critics. “There are two things you can do about that stuff. I chose to put it out there,” she says. “If you believe the reviews that tell you you’re fantastic, you have to also believe those that tell you you’re unoriginal,” she notes. “Music in the end is a form of communication, and one that I’m able to work in. I want to communicate with my public. But that that doesn’t mean I’m trying to dumb it down in any way.”

COULOIR performs Kelly-Marie Murphy’s prize-winning Double Concerto for cello and harp “En el Escuro es Todo Uno” (In the Darkness All is One) with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in Smetana Hall, Prague, September 2019.

According to the prize guidelines, two prizes award commissions. One to a Canadian composer, another for a new work of Jewish music, and a third to “the best undiscovered work of Jewish music”. While the competition was tempting, neither composer applied the first time it came around.

“I sort of, for a long time, didn’t apply to things,” Keiko says. The typical arc for classical composers includes a flurry of competitions as they start out in the realm. As she points out, many awards have age limits, and as a composer who only began to establish herself in her 30s, they were already out of reach. Hitting mid-career can be a kind of plateau, and it was time to challenge herself. “Or try to throw my hat in the ring of bigger prizes.”

With such a big prize and the inevitable competition, it can be easy to second guess. “In some cases, there is a kind of imposter syndrome,” Devaux notes. Confidence in your work is the key. “I have things to say, and I’m going to say it. I’m going to go ahead and just do it.”

Part of the initial hesitation came from the introspection the Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music commission demands.

“In the beginning, I was stumped,” says Devaux of the idea of creating ‘Canadian’ music. “It made me think of my history and what I am.” She ended up with a very personal take on Canadian identity that incorporated her mixed Japanese/French/Canadian heritage. “I have these contrasting cultures in my life.” The piece incorporates fragments of different pieces, sounds of traditional crafts, and other elements. “It ends up being this dialogue between songs.”

Kelly-Marie Murphy 2018 AMP Gala Concert with Boris Brott (Photo: Danylo Bobyk)
Kelly-Marie Murphy 2018 AMP Gala Concert with Yoav Talmi (Photo: Danylo Bobyk)

“I let it go by the first year,” Murphy says of the AMP competition. “The prize money is amazing,” Murphy notes. “I didn’t feel ready.” She didn’t feel familiar enough with the idea of composing music that begins with the idea, ‘What is Jewish music?’ “The second time, I felt like I couldn’t let it go by,” she says.

It led her to research Sephardic music, and she became entranced by the traditions, the idea and the proposal. “You’re thinking ‘my chances of winning are really slim’. I remember thinking, ‘I hope I get to write that piece.’”

The challenge posed by the competition is worth it. “I would say, do it,” Devaux advises any composers who may be sitting on the fence. “I love composing. I grew up being a team player, and I still am [but] I needed to push myself. It really pushes you to be much more assertive […] and much more vulnerable.”

“It’s an affirmation,” Murphy says of her AMP win. She points out that composition doesn’t garner the immediate feedback and affirmation of performance. “It’s so uplifting.”

As someone who is also a music teacher, Murphy has solid advice for fledgling composers. “Study, listen to a lot of music, look up scores,” she says. “Ask yourself, What does your voice add to this world?”

In addition to the cash prize and premiere, the winning works are premiered at a gala concert. “It’s an incredibly beautiful experience,” Devaux says, reminiscing on her experience working with le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne for the October 2020 AMP Gala Concert. The concert was livestreamed on Medici TV and has since reached over 50,000 viewers in 77 countries. For 2022, the gala will be performed by L’Orchestre Métropolitain under the baton of its Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Along with the premiere comes the promise of two more performances outside Canada, and a recording for release on Analekta. In 2019, Kelly travelled to Warsaw and Prague for the European premieres of her prize-winning work. Keiko will visit New York City and Tel Aviv before the end of 2021 with her piece. It’s a substantial career boost — and one that may just create models for the next generation of budding composers.

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The 2022 Azrieli Music Prizes (AMP) is inviting applications through May 2, 2021 (Commission for Canadian Music and Jewish Music) and August 1, 2021 (Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music). Full details found HERE.

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