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Ann Southam: the stubborn pioneer

Editorial Staff

By Michael Morreale

Ann Southam knew that in order to be a great composer, you have to be a little bit stubborn. You have to resist influence and criticism in order to develop your own unique voice. 

She traced her musical beginnings to two childhood memories. Like many others, she would explore her parents’ LP collection. Her favourite was Ravel’s Bolero, which she would play over and over. Her second love was the bagpipes, which began while hearing them at various wedding ceremonies. From these two memories come repetition and drone, two central elements of her compositional style.

Southam went on to become a pioneering composer in the 1960s. Her curious mind took her music to various corners of the musical sphere. Experiments in electroacoustic music and modern dance set her apart from her, overwhelmingly male, colleagues.

A self-identified feminist, Southam thought of her music as being grounded in woman’s experience. In an interview with the Globe and Mail, she explained: “In the very workings of the music, there's a reflection of the work that women traditionally do, like weaving and mending and washing dishes — the kind of work you have to do over again.”

Longtime collaborator and friend Eve Egoyan puts it best: “She’s a role model. She was a woman who pursued her voice, and who was supportive of other women, and was a very caring kind person, and commanded her musical space with an honest musical voice, but didn’t impose it.”

Ann Southam passed away in November 2010. Her composition Glass Houses, no. 5 was posthumously nominated at the 2012 Juno Awards in the classical composition category, and can be heard in the video below performed by Christina Petrowska Quilico.