Canadian Composers Interview Series with Stephanie Martin

In our new blog series, Canadian Composers Interview with ACNMP board member and organist Matthew Boutda, we endeavour to illuminate the artistic process of select working composers from across Canada.

An award-winning composer and conductor, Stephanie Martin has wide musical interests ranging from Gregorian chant to gamelan; from Froberger to folksong. A guardian of musical heritage and a creative collaborator, she is known for imaginative programming and for creating sustainable musical communities.

Martin is an Associate Professor at York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design; director of Schola Magdalena (a women’s ensemble for chant, medieval and modern polyphony), conductor emeritus of Pax Christi Chorale; and past director of music at the historic church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Toronto.

Martin’s works have been performed across Canada and internationally by the Vancouver Chamber Choir; Ex Cathedra Choir, Birmingham, UK; Voces Capitlui, Antwerp; Canadian Men’s Chorus; MacMillan Singers; and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Her works are published by Cypress Press in Vancouver, Biretta Books in Chicago, Renforth Music in Halifax and the Canadian Music Centre.

Matthew: Can you tell me a bit about your musical background?

Stephanie: I wanted to be a composer when I was three years old. But I realized that it is hard to launch straight into composition. Years of musical training are required, and my musical training has never stopped. I worked for many years as a performer before seriously embracing composition. When I plugged into the church of St. Mary Magdalene, that’s when my composition switch really turned on.

Matthew: What was your inspiration to pursue composition?

Stephanie: At St. Mary Magdalene’s I had a great instrument to work with. The choir there did not simply rehearse Thursday and sing Sunday. They were a highly skilled and extremely dedicated team. For example, during Holy Week, the choir would sing a dozen services. Devotion like that turns a pastime into a passion. The reward is the beautiful sounds and the ability to create something precious that you could not accomplish on your own.

Matthew: Do you have any advice for budding composers?

Stephanie: I encourage people to look ahead. Realize you are not going to be on the planet forever. Your life is short. If you want to write music, you will have to make some choices, and devote time to your writing practice, just as you would practicing your instrument. My other advice is to recognize that, although composing requires a lot of solitude, you cannot compose into a vacuum. You need a lot of help along the way, so it’s important to respect all of your colleagues, and foster a supportive community.

Matthew: What is a composition/project you are currently working on?

Stephanie: I am working with my librettist Paul Ciufo again. We recently worked together on an opera called ‘Llandovery Castle’ about the Canadian hospital ship torpedoed in the Atlantic in the last months of World War I, and the 14 nurses aboard who all perished. Our next piece will be a lighter subject. Now we are completing a secular cantata for Pax Christi Chorale based on Aesop’s ancient Greek fable ‘The Sun, the Wind, and the Man with the Cloak.’ It will premiere in October 2019.

Matthew: How often do you composer now?

Stephanie: I don’t have a very healthy composition practice. I am a binger. I carve out blocks of time when I don’t do anything but compose. That means I neglect some other important things, but it does mean I can accomplish my writing goals very quickly and efficiently.

Listen to Stephanie’s majestic Easter anthem ‘Now The Queen of Seasons’ conducted by the composer and performed here by Pax Christi Chorale and True North Brass.