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Rodney Sharman: 'I go wherever my imagination takes me'

Robert Rowat

"I'm a yoga guy, I'm a foodie and I love the local wine," says Rodney Sharman, composer, self-described hedonistic sensualist and fixture on Vancouver's music scene since 1991.

When we spoke with him recently, in advance of performances of two of his works at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's 2018 New Music Festival, he could barely contain his enthusiasm for his city. "I live near Commercial Drive, which is the old Italian neighbourhood, so you can't get better grocery shopping than here," he continues, "Vancouver, in a sense, feeds all my senses."

Sharman is the recipient of the 2017 Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts, awarded annually by the Canada Council for the Arts in the fields of dance, theatre and music. As a queer artist pushing 60, he feels the $50,000 prize is not only an honour, but also a "vindication" for discrimination he experienced over the years due to his sexuality. "I have spent a lifetime not putting up with that at tremendous cost to myself, economically."

Sharman grew up in rural Saskatchewan, studied in Victoria, B.C., before furthering his education in Germany and the U.S., and has been helping to shape the culture in Vancouver for a quarter of a century. He was the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's first composer in residence, a position he has subsequently held with the Victoria Symphony and the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. Most recently, he has been a concert curator for Early Music Vancouver's New Music for Old Instruments projects.

Our conversation touched on many aspects of Sharman's life and music, from teaching himself flute to writing "graffiti" in his piano transcriptions of opera arias; from losing work because he's gay to the real reason he wears flowers in his beard.

Here are highlights, in his own words.

On receiving the Walter Carsen Prize

"I feel honoured, but I'm also touched because I actually met Walter Carsen. The first time James Kudelka set my music to dance was for a piece called Thrust, which was dedicated to Walter Carsen in celebration of his winning the 2000 Hnatyshyn Award for volunteerism in the performing arts. Without him, the National Ballet of Canada would not be what it is.

"Already there have been more inquiries about my work, and it's been a kind of wake-up call to how many pieces I've written that are not readily available to the public; pieces that I have not yet deposited in the Canadian Music Centre, which is where most of my music is available.

"So, that has been very gratifying. Also, the tremendous outpouring of affection and congratulations from people who either knew my music or came to know it because of the prize and listened to my YouTube and Soundcloud clips."

On growing up in Biggar, Sask.
(population 2,000)

"You know, many rural centres in Canada are where great musicians are from. Sometimes it's because of a really good teacher, sometimes the isolation in a sense assists you in your journey as an artist.

"I was fortunate in many ways. My mother had a beautiful, warm alto voice and played the piano; my sister played the piano and still does. And because we had a piano and an electric organ, our neighbour, Jack Stephenson, who played the sax, would knock on the door and say, 'Would Evie come out to play?' (meaning my mother). We would have house music in the basement with accordion. I'd sometimes play clarinet.

"When I was younger, I would sing. I know the words to dozens of songs from the 1920s, '30s, '40s and '50s. I was also a choirboy in the Anglican choir. I had a piano teacher, but I was a very poor piano student and I took to the recorder.

"I had a wonderful band teacher when I entered Grade 7. His name was Ronald McCormack and he was from Ireland — a very passionate guy. There were all sorts of fantastic brass players in our concert band. And these brothers who had a quintet among themselves, the Bitner brothers, played extremely well. I got to play Dixie with them a couple of times when I was 12 or 13.

"I also listened to the CBC. More television than radio, initially. Glenn Gould hosted a Sunday afternoon program called Music to See. The first opera I saw on TV was Billy Budd; the first dance/theatre piece I saw was l'Histoire du Soldat, which I remember Gould described as 'Josquin des Prez scored for Sesame Street' [laughs].

"I took up the flute and the oboe, and I taught myself both instruments. The reason I learned the flute was because the only flute player in Biggar graduated and left and I thought it was this rare, unusual instrument, and so I learned it, thinking I would be the only one. And then we moved to Victoria and I discovered that it was the most common of all woodwind instruments."

On his predilection for woodwinds

"I have a right thumb that doesn't work very well — it was crushed when I was four — and so I don't have a fully functioning joint on my right thumb, so that's the first thing. You don't use your right thumb at all for any of the woodwind instruments, except for the bassoon.

"But the most important thing is that I wanted to play the violin, and I begged my parents for a violin for my 10th birthday, but [instead] they gave me a plastic violin with nylon strings [laughs]. Years later, after my parents came to accept that I was a musician and were delighted by it, I reminded them about this, and they said they would make the same decision today — they didn't want the sound of a beginner violin in the house.

"So, I would have been a violinist if my desires as a child had been fulfilled [laughs.]"

On his own musical style

"A lot of my ideas come from the resonance and properties of the instruments themselves. For example, in my most recent piece, Snared Harmony, I'm writing for bass viola da gamba for the first time. It has seven strings and I am writing seven-note chords, which is highly unusual. Usually the gamba plays one note at a time, and I'm having them strum like a guitar. So there's this sensitivity to timbre, and the ideas in the pieces come from the tunings and properties of the instruments themselves.

"I have pieces, especially with woodwind instruments, where a phrase length is the breath; I have written pieces where the phrase length is the motion of one up-bow.

"With my vocal music, of course, it's more complex. My cabaret songs tend to be more — how shall we say? — an aspect of my artistic personality, and one of the things that may distinguish me from a lot of my contemporaries is that I go wherever my imagination takes me, whether or not it is embarrassing or kitsch or previously unexplored territory. So regardless of how wild the idea is, or how conservative, I will go there.

'If you listen to my opera transcriptions [for piano], you'll see that many of them involve writing 'graffiti' over the top of the original, or are a distillation or transformation of the piece in some way.'

On the West Coast's booming early music scene

"It's a coastal phenomenon. A number of fantastic musicians, American musicians, are leaving Europe. Dutch funding was cut enormously, so that's part of it. Stephen Stubbs, who's considered the best lutenist continuo player in the world, has moved to Seattle, and all these people are moving to Seattle, Portland, Victoria and Vancouver, and among these four cities, the early music life here has been absolutely transformed. And [harpsichordist and conductor] Alexander Weimann is at the centre of it. He's the music director of the Seattle Baroque Orchestra as well as the Pacific Baroque Orchestra here.

"Early music was one of my first loves. I have a beautiful alto recorder that I have played my whole life. I even played it in the opera orchestra in Freiburg back in the '80s, so in a sense it's reuniting with the passions of my youth.

"If you look at my repertoire, you'll see how many pieces have mandolin and guitar and harp together, sometimes with percussion, sometimes without, and this is a kind of replication of the beautiful continuo sounds that I heard in Nikolaus Harnoncourt's recordings in the 1970s, which had archlute, theorbo, harpsichord and baroque harp simultaneously. And it was all layered so when they would play a figure, it would be smeared by the sounds of the three players playing approximately the same thing at slightly different times, which is also a feature of much of my music. Even my piano music will often 'smear' something with the same material being played at three or four different speeds.

"Victoria was one of the centres of new music for early instruments way back. There was a recorder player who has long since passed, James Kennedy, who used to perform and commission new pieces in the '70s. [Viola da gambist] Peggy Samson gave summer courses and had all these gorgeous instruments, including a set of medieval bells and crumhorns and things like that.

"I am so happy to be part of it again, working with [Early Music Vancouver's artistic director] Matthew White and his vision, and with Alex [Weimann] and his unbelievable, generous musicianship."

On wearing flowers in his beard

"I've been putting flowers in my beard since the mid-1970s, and then of course I stopped when it was no longer fashionable and was clean-shaven for the '80s just like everyone else.

"For my 59th birthday, I asked a friend and his boyfriend, Andrew Shopland, to put flowers in my beard and take photographs. On special occasions, I put flowers in my beard and sometimes, like the one in profile, I took a bunch of violas from my deck and stuck them in my beard about five minutes before the Queer Arts Festival party, and Belle Ansel snapped the photo of me.

"It comes from — and this is part of turning 60 — I am not just a senior artist, I am openly queer and of an age where a lot of my contemporaries are dead. AIDS affected the arts community enormously.

"And I know I have lost at least one university position because of my sexuality: Two of the members of the search committee came to me years later and told me how unbelievably embarrassed they were, and mortified that this was discussed with their colleagues and that this was the main reason that I had not been given a job. So, you know that for every time that happens, there have been a dozen where you don't know.

"So, why do I have flowers in my beard? Because I can. I can be that proud, older homo statesman, and that's very important to me — it's in my cabaret work, it's in a number of queer pieces I've written, queer-themed works, it's in the libretto for Elsewhereless, the chamber opera I wrote with Atom Egoyan. These things are central to my identity and forged in part because of enormous opposition. I see [the Walter Carsen Prize] not only as a vindication, but in some ways as a reward.

"And children see me like this, and whether or not they recognize it as a queer act, they recognize it as someone who, as I enter a new stage of life, is playful and celebrates beauty and is courageous."

Rodney Sharman is the recipient of the 2017 Walter Carsen Prize from the Canada Council.

Hear music by Sharman at the 2018 Vancouver Symphony Orchestra New Music Festival taking place Jan. 18 to 22. Details here.

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