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Experimental composer Nicole Lizée on defying classical standards and winning the Jules Léger Prize

Andrea Warner

Today it was announced that Montreal-based experimental composer Nicole Lizée has won the coveted Canada Council for the Arts Jules Léger Prize for new Canadian chamber music with her work White Label Experiment.

Avant-garde might be the most fitting description of Lizée’s compositions, which have incorporated everything from chamber to electronic to pop to Atari to turntables. Though her work riles some classical purists, she’s twice been nominated for the Léger Prize in the past and has received more than 30 commissions in her young career, including l’Orchestre Métropolitain, Kronos Quartet and BBC Proms. Kronos founder and violinist David Harrington counts Lizée’s compositions among the most challenging he’s performed in the quartet’s four decades.

The 40-year-old takes a certain amount of pride in ignoring the status quo. Her reputation is akin to a successful Dr. Frankenstein, operating within the field of sound and art rather than corporeal reconstruction. A brilliant musical scientist, Lizée’s madness is as steeped in method as any traditional classical composer, but she’s all about discovering the unimaginable.

CBC Music spoke with Lizée about what the Jules Léger Prize means to her, why she hates being labelled a “female composer,” her unconventional compositions and what it means to be an architect of future sounds.

Can you tell me a bit about White Label Experiment?

It was commissioned to commemorate [John Cage’s] 100th birthday, so I sort of took that and ran with that. I remember hearing his prepared piano pieces when I was in my undergrad and I remember thinking, "Oh my God, of course, this is brilliant. You put stuff inside the piano and completely change its function. It’s almost an electronic instrument." I was blown away by that.

When I was thinking about this piece, I took his quote, "Percussion music is revolution," from around 1939, and I took the word revolution and applied it to turntables. In the percussion quartet, I placed everybody to simulate a turntable, so there’d be a lot of exchanging of materials to simulate the spinning of a record on a turntable. They also all had portable turntables and it’s part of their multi-percussion setup. So, they hit a spinning turntable as part of their rhythmic material, which creates kind of a crazy sound I was really into.

And also I would take records and prepare them to create rhythms, so scratch them up and tape them to create these very specific rhythms, and also by doing that you create kind of a tempo and a groove. Over top of that, the fun part was getting the band and myself to play in a completely different tempo. You’d have these crazy, glitchy patterns and grooves superimposed on top of one or the other.

The other thing was raves, I’m fascinated by rave culture and the way it came to prominence in the '90s, and of course Cage’s affiliation with dance music and I thought, "What would it be like if John Cage had a rave in 1992?" I imagined he would be a lot of fun at a rave and there would be typewriters there and these prepared turntables and crazy, highly rhythmic, episodic high-scale roller coaster rides. I kind of structured the piece as a rave with the very meticulously planned moments fading into each other: fast-paced, frenzied moments fading into the cooling down to the climactic sunrise signaling the end of the rave.

What does it mean to you to win the award?

It means a lot. It’s the major award in Canada and it’s something that I’ve wanted for a very, very long time. It’s the result of your peers, colleagues and other artists in Canada sitting on a jury and from a large group of submissions, picking your work as being worthy of this award. It’s a blind jury and they don’t know who the composer is. I’m well aware of the high quality of submissions, so winning this, being deemed worthy of winning this, is of course a huge honour.

You must have run up against people who said you can’t do the kind of composition you want to do.

Definitely. From the very beginning when I was at McGill, there was a division among the faculty. I’ll just say that. People that were supporting me and people that weren’t. They were sort of afraid, I guess. The word would be fear, there was a definite division among the faculty about what I was doing because at the time, my thesis was a work for ensemble and turntables and it was completely unheard of. People thought this is crazy, it’s not music, whereas others thought this is the future, this is forward thinking ... I’m a firm believer in following your heart, or whatever, and at the same time not being afraid to try new things and experiment, which is what music has always been in my opinion.

Do you take pleasure in defying people's expectations?

Yes, I do. It’s true to myself, it goes with my origins, because it’s something I’ve been doing since I was very young. It feels very natural to me. It would feel unnatural to keep doing the same thing or to do what is considered acceptable, which I don’t find interesting whatsoever. For me, the joy, the excitement lies in discovering new sounds. It’s always about new sounds and perspectives and discovery and development, and that’s what art has always been for me.

The people I’ve followed and admired for all my life are those types of artists. [Lars] von Trier or Stanley Kubrick or many, many musicians have always pushed boundaries and if it weren’t for that, where would music be? It would be very, very static. So it’s not as though I’m consciously every time "I have to do something different, I have to do something different," it’s just something I’ve always done.

Do you hear a commonality between disparate sounds that other people don’t, or do you create cohesion by fusing them together?

When I use something that may not be expected in a specific context — for example, the turntable in the concert hall or the stylophone merged with a string quartet, two sonorities that it’s not expected that they would go together. I think it stems from my formative years. My dad is an electronic salesman and repairman and collector, so from a very young age I was exposed to these other-worldly sounds, but there was also a lot of classical music playing, and a lot of easy listening, those vintage, kind of surreal '60s easy-listening records, and at the same time, I was sort of discovering MTV.

So all these sounds, music and what wouldn’t typically be described as a musical sound: a stylophone, an oscillator or something that was a major part of my youth, the Atari 2600. Those sounds are definitely part of my rhythm, and there’s pitch to them and they did saturate my subconscious. So as I developed as a composer, to put those sounds alongside a string ensemble is very natural to me, and ultimately leads to a whole different sound world that for me is very natural.

When I was young and playing in band, I don’t recall us playing any compositions by women. Were you aware when you were starting out that women composers were somewhat rare?

I wasn’t aware of it. When I was in my teens, I started playing drums and certainly all of the drummers I admired and listened to were all men, but I was not aware of it, I just did it and didn’t care that I was the girl drummer in town. Same thing with composition, it was only later that these things were pointed out to me that it was dominated by males. And certainly now it’s in the forefront, there’s a lot of discussion about this, and in the world of conducting as well. But in all honesty, I just did it, and while I’m aware of the history of it and what’s going on currently, I just did it. When I was 12 and I was the only girl skateboarding, I didn’t care, I just did it.

When I see in writing, "A great female composer," like, it is 2013. If we were talking about the NFL or NASCAR, maybe, but I think there are fine examples of fabulous women in the arts for a long time now. It can be irritating — but I’m just going to do what I do and not care that I’m a female doing it. Nothing’s going to change my mind.