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Q&A with Ottawa composer Jan Järvlepp

By Curtis Perry on July 13, 2015

A prolific and eclectic composer (his Garbage Concerto recently received its second local performance with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra this year), Jan Jävlepp is one of Ottawa’s hidden musical treasures. Thankfully, the Music and Beyond festival saw it right to dedicate an entire concert on Monday, July 13th, with only his works on the program – a rare feat for any composer. I had the chance to speak with Järvlepp about the creative process, his experience, the economy, and the new piece that will be premiered at the concert.

Apt613: What is a composer, in your own words?

A composer is a creative artist who uses sound for expression rather than visual images, movement or words. Of course, these sounds are usually ordinary musical notes, except in the case of some avant-garde styles where found sounds or what is considered noise are employed.

You’ve seen and done quite a bit in the world of contemporary chamber music. Is there any particular experience that stands out to you?

I’ve lived long enough to have lived through a period of stylistic change. When I was a university student in the 70s, I was forced by my professors to write atonal modern music which was complex and considered to be “progressive”. That has gradually eroded giving way to our current postmodern world where tonality and simplicity are possible, and even diversity of styles.

That being said, you’ve chosen/managed to stay in Ottawa – why is that, as opposed to a city like Toronto or Montreal?

I graduated from UCSD into a worsening recession in the fall of 1981. I couldn’t find employment anywhere because budgets were being cut and people were being let go. So I came back home to Ottawa and promptly joined the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra and the Nepean Symphony Orchestra. I did freelance gigs around town, taught cello and got my recording business going. So due to the lack of full-time employment opportunities, I became a self-employed freelance musician. The choice was made for me by circumstances. As a result, I enjoyed plenty of artistic freedom.

At what point, if there is one, did you realize that composition was definitely your life’s calling?

Actually I had some confusion about that. Initially I was a little more performance-oriented and earned my living by playing the cello after university. Yet, I wasn’t interested in learning new sonatas or concertos and I did orchestral auditions somewhat half-heartedly. I slowly began to realize that composition is really the thing and cello is my living. Now that I am over 60 years of age, I can see the day when I quit the symphony and become a full-time composer. But as long as the economy is in the sewer, I better not quit anything just yet.

As a postmodernist, your music has been influenced by many styles – Hispanic, flamenco, Arab, and Nordic, say, to cite your biography – as well as many unusual combinations of instruments. In your working method, how do you manage all of these seemingly disparate influences?

An easy answer to that is that you don’t try to do too much at one time. Gershwin blended two things generally – jazz and European music. Trying to blend too many things at one time might lead to some cheap variety show that is not well integrated. Making unusual mixes of instruments is more of a fun technical challenge. There is a time when you sit down and say “What the heck am I going to do with these things?” That can be very stimulating and lead to musical answers.

Do you have a set process for composition? What do you need (or not) in your working environment?

Actually I have different ways of working. Sometimes I am improvisatory and carefree and at others time rather premeditated and intellectual. I guess it depends on mood. Sometimes I have a day that is a real dud and then I might as well go do laundry or vacuuming. I find that reading high-level analyses of great compositions to be stimulating – for example, the James Hepokoski book about Sibelius Symphony No. 5.

Peace and quiet is what I need in my working environment. It can be in the city or out in the country by a lake. I like large blocks of undisturbed time like 6-8 hours, preferable starting in the morning.

The “Trio No. 3”, featured in the upcoming Music and Beyond concert, is a new piece. What can the audience expect to hear? What inspired it?

This piece is quite intense. It was written the year after my wife left me and, as you can imagine, I was not in a good mood. So that set the tone. Things bothered me a lot that year. For example, telephone and internet surveillance, surveillance cameras all over the place and reading about drones used by the US Govt. I don’t believe that any of this is to track terrorists. It is to suppress ordinary citizens like us. It seems that the novel 1984 is coming true and that is very bad news for personal liberty. My parents moved here to the N. American continent in 1951 to get away from the Soviet menace. Now we are growing our own police state, it seems. So I am making my commentary through music. While not a cheerful piece, I am hoping that it is meaningful and exciting. I would like to mention that this work is the result of a City of Ottawa Arts grant.

Hear the music of local composer Jan Järvlepp as part of the Music and Beyond Festival, at Dominion-Chalmers United Church today (July 13th, 2015) at 4:30p.m.

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