A Canadian Composer Bestiary: Rodney Sharman


To be commissioned to write a piece for an orchestra is objectively a pretty big deal. There are so many moving parts to deal with before you get to that first downbeat of the first rehearsal that it’s a miracle it happens at all. You have to have a hundred-ish musicians of sufficient technical expertise, gather them together at the same time, and have them be fed, rested, and sober (We’re looking at you, trombones). You have to have an ensemble leader who knows how to rehearse efficiently, who knows the music, and who is okay with being in front of a hundred people who could at one point think them an imbecile (It also helps to be charming!). You need administrators. Good ones. They need to deal with scheduling, advertising, all the exceptions for everything that has been carefully planned, venues being over-booked, venues catching on fire, artists being over-booked, artists catching on fire, and so on…

There’s also a certain amount of cultural cachet attached to symphonic music that owes itself to the legacy of the composers who wrote it. Composers like Mahler, Beethoven, and Shostakovich wrote big symphonic music believing that they were creating the biggest music of their time. Their audiences granted the music a reverence to match the intent and to this day, we still attach this reverence to symphonic music.

So if writing for orchestra is regarded as being a pretty big deal, it should then follow that people will look at composers who regularly write for orchestra as composers who have “made it”. I experienced a very visceral reminder of this cultural milieu when I sat down for coffee with composer Rodney Sharman, whom I consider to be among the most well established of Canadian composers. We spoke at length about all the popular topics composer talk about (Mainly coffee, what we were writing, and what we wished we were writing instead) but it was when he expressed regret he couldn’t gain traction as a choral composer that I stopped him and asked him to explain himself.

“I feel like I’m a choral composer, but I don’t think anybody else does. I honestly don’t know what it is”.

Rodney grew up as a boy chorister and is often be found in the bass section of local choirs when his schedule allows him the luxury. He’s quite aware of what choir can and can’t do. Also, at least in my experience, choirs are very receptive to new music which is not at all my impression of the orchestral world.

“Even though my music is not always conventionally diatonic, or what you might describe as the every-man level, every part is a melody so that every part sounds good by itself which is the secret of good choral music”.

The choir I sing in, Vox Humana of Victoria, is currently preparing one of his pieces for an upcoming concert: Requiescat, previously commissioned and performed by Vox Humana in 2015. It’s easily my favourite piece on the program and I say this knowing we are performing two of my own works.

Requiescat is a setting of a text by Oscar Wilde; an elegy mourning the death of the poet’s sister. Rodney’s setting is intimate – like a whisper inches away from your ear – and is intoned in a slow rhythmic dirge with lots of space for us to enjoy the sound of delicious harmonies decaying.

Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.

All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.

Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew.

Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone,
She is at rest.

Peace, peace, she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet,
All my life’s buried here,
Heap earth upon it.

“I was introduced to this poem by a teenage student who was studying with me and writing choral music. He thought about setting this for choir and changed his mind and wrote something else. I never forgot it made a great choral text.”

Rodney might be falling victim to the unfair experience of being typecast as an instrumental composer. Choirs will inevitably experience a tinge of fear at the idea of having music written for them by a composer who writes primarily for instruments. The apprehension is easily understood: There are conventions of instrumental writing that a typical choir, or even the best choir ever, can’t easily replicate because they’re just not suited to the voice. Many instrumental composers just don’t have the experience with voices to recognize when they’re asking for something unreasonable.

It gets even worse than that: saying that a musical instrument can only reach you as deeply as you can be impaled by it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to me – if anything, it’s accurate – and I think that voices impale us most deeply of all. So if you’re pushing a voice somewhere it can’t be – even if it’s something as basic as the notes being too hard – the molecular level rejection you experience touches you a little more deeply. And that can be a bad thing.

All that being said, Requiescat is a gorgeous work – and it fits snugly into the voice. My hope is that we get more of Rodney’s choral music into our folders – a hope mirrored by the composer’s family: “My mother who has only heard a couple of my choral pieces – she always felt my choral music was my best music. So I offer it to the universe and hope that it will come back and multiply”.



Interplay 2019: Alouette Meets Her Maker


The Vancouver Chamber Choir’s Interplay workshops are something you should be attending if you’re into choral music and you’re a Vancouver local. They provide the option for people to audit them but the choir really doesn’t do good enough of a job at advertising what a tremendous learning opportunity it can be as an observer.

The premise of the workshops is that participating composers have a piece read by one of the best and most experienced choirs in Canada (And led by one of the best and most experienced choir directors in our hemisphere). During the 30 or so minutes each piece is allocated, composers can ask questions and make suggestions to see how their writing matches up to reality without the pressure of a real world performance.

They are short workshops – but you see a LOT. If you’re a composer you should be doubly ashamed of yourself for not attending as they are treasure troves of new ideas and teachings of good choral writing.

A photo of Alouette I in orbit

I submitted a new piece I had just completed, Alouette Meets Her Maker which is a sort of story-piece for SATB choir. The premise is based on the first Canadian satellite, Alouette I, waking up from her derelict orbit around earth. She first becomes aware of a miscellanea of radio signals bombarding her from earth before she focuses in on a singular mysterious signal coming from deep space. The signal coos to her lovingly before it’s intent is revealed to be malicious. Alouette is sent spinning into a panic and careens towards the planet surface where she explodes in a fiery heap. The piece closes with the last breath of life from her circuits before they are silenced forever.

The piece may seem like a big departure for me in a lot of ways. I ask the singers to employ a wide variety of techniques that challenge their comfort zone: singing nasally, singing in morse code, glissandi that cover their entire singing range, spoken parts, shouting rhythmic plosives, and singing random clusters. In other words, compared to my recent writing, these elements all together might seem like I’ve finally succumbed to lunacy. But you can find all these elements kicking around in my recent music – I’ve been putting little touches here and there to explore what you can do with the sonic palette of a choir. Alouette is simply my first attempt at making it happen throughout the whole piece.

I was surprised that the piece read so well. There are a lot of extra instructions to wade through. Both the choir and Jon gave me some helpful suggestions to sharpen up the piece before it winds up in folders. The experience was invaluable.

I will miss The Vancouver Peace Choir


I may have gone to University to study music, but in so many more ways the Vancouver Peace Choir is my true alma mater. And it’s for this reason that I’m extremely sad to hear that it’s disbanding.

It was while attending University that I was bitten by the choral bug. I became extremely excited about writing for massed voices. But there wasn’t a good cooperative established between the composition department and the choral department. I tried, in vain, to get the choirs to look at my music but they were always to busy with their current performance schedule. Most of what I wrote ended up languishing in a desk drawer.

It wasn’t until after I graduated, and I began singing with The Vancouver Peace Choir, that I was FINALLY given the opportunity to write for massed human voices. Our director at the time, Tim Corlis, knew I was a composer and asked me to write for them.

The first piece was, bye bye blackbird

This opportunity was exactly what I craved!  For a composer, nothing compares to being around for the first rehearsals. You get to see what comes easily to the performers and what they struggle with. This is a powerful learning experience for a composer. It’s okay to ask a performer to do something that pushes what they’re capable of but you have to know when you’re doing it and by how much.

I have so many other wonderful memories of the group…

I remember rehearsing Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei – a choral setting of the second movement of his string quartet. It was an ambitious piece for us to sing for where we were at and the choir was likely relying heavily on some of the stronger singers to keep the tuning up and find the more problematic pitches.

On this particular rehearsal, many of these stronger singers were absent and our director was being gentle with us. When it came time to rehearse the Barber, he made a noise like a a tuba swallowing a used car salesman and suggested we skip ahead to different repertoire. Likely, he was trying to spare us the disappointment of failure.

The choir hummed a delicate revolt the way that choir’s often do and we sung the piece all the way through. We sung it very well. In fact, we never sang it better.

I remember performing Tim Corlis’s Missa Pax at a church in Richmond, BC and almost nobody showed up. The audience may have numbered approximately half of the choir membership. But I remember the intensity Tim brought out of us at the end of the Gloria. It was chilling – and you could see it in his face.

Speaking of Tim, I remember that he would show up to a performance in whatever shoes he was wearing, sometimes knee-high rubber boots and change out of them into Birkenstocks for the performance. The reason for this will forever remain a mystery.

I remember Alec asking what kind of Latin we were singing in and having no idea what he was talking about.

I remember a particular figure I had written in one of my pieces that didn’t follow the pattern established in the rest of the work and the director yelling, “That should be illegal!”

I remember having the opportunity to conduct one of my own works in rehearsal and realizing in that moment that I did not want to be a conductor.

I remember performing a piece by Eric North that opens with a guttural yell (unpitched) from the tenors and basses. Once, during a dress rehearsal I misread a cue and the whole choir to hear me perform it all by myself. Stephen Belanger said to me, “If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong as loud as possible!”

I’ll miss you, Vancouver Peace Choir.

Patrick Stewart Bakes A Cake Hits The Festival Circuit

I’m quite pleased to announce that my collaborative project with The Vandelé Quartet and Kale Beaudry will be screened at 2pm on October 28th at the Director’s Cut International Film Festival. Go Team!


“A vile and corrupt banquet spills out like a drift of soggy pigs, threatening the etiquette and decorum of a luncheon that was almost nice enough for you to be invited to. As dinner guests Percy and Penny VonKrapp make mayhem into the table cloth, those on the sidelines can no longer stand idly by and are called to act.

Patrick Stewart Bakes A Cake tells the tale of good and evil colliding in a surreal skirmish around the dinner table — the armies warring with cutlery instead of swords, and over fine linen instead of land.

At stake? Dinner as we know it”.

A List Of Thanks


Thanks to the quartet – I love that you guys are game for anything. And I love that you made my music sound so good.

Thanks to Creative BC for your funding help – we couldn’t have done it without you.


Thanks to Pyatt Hall, the Wise Hall, and The Western Front – Vancouver need a more venues like you.

Thanks Kale Beaudry – you are a warrior and your camera chops are your sword.


Thanks Don Harder and Marco Del Rio for your help on the recording – and extra thanks to your ears.

Thanks to Chelsea for your gorgeous cakes – one day we will eat some together instead of destroying them.


Thanks Kia and Josh for allowing yourselves to be pelted with cake and milk for two hours.


Thanks to everyone in Vancouver that I’ve collaborated with over the past decade. It’s been a privilege to work with so many great people.










On Your Terrible Taste In Music

brahmstakesashitThere isn’t a person alive whose opinion on music has any weight beyond however much an opinion weighs (I patiently await science’s answer to that one) and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is about to try and sell you something. That being said, we all know it when we hear it: our pulse quickens, our toes tap, and our hips yaw wildly on the dance floor. We can even resort to measuring the dopamine levels in your body to prove that you really do like listening to what you’d never admit to. .

Somehow, despite the measurable effects of good music, the weight of someone’s personal preference will always outweigh anything you can stack against it. If it’s my opinion that Brahms wrote the greatest Symphonic literature of the nineteenth century, then your opinion that listening to Brahms is like taking a giant shit without the satisfaction of having accomplished anything is equally valid. Historically, parties in conflict over whose music was good have manifested this conflict in everything from their politics to physical violence. Conviction in good music once drove Pierre Boulez to interrupt concerts by banging a hammer on the wall and for the Chicago White Sox to host a “Disco Demolition Night” where sport was made of blowing up a crate of disco records. Passionate rhetoric and action has always existed in favour of and against good music but ease of access has made a nuisance of using it divisively.


I’d like to take a step back for a moment and imagine a world where opportunities to discover new music are as limited as our access to pornography (A red herring – they’ve always been perfectly correlated!). In this fantastical place, various gatekeepers control the mass consumption of music and the only way to discover new music is to first know that it exists and get a physical copy of it into your hands. It may surprise you to learn that this mythical place was, for a period of time, unerringly real and occupied a little known nook of history that began sometime in the 90s end extended back to the birth of humanity.

In the 90s and possibly a little bit before as well as after, the Internet happened. But it didn’t just appear suddenly, like a bad smell. It oozed in slowly, like a slightly better smell. It insinuated itself into our existence so discretely that we now have trouble remembering life without it. This ubiquity has had enormous power in smoothing out what were once sharp divides in music appreciation. It used to be that if you listened to rock and roll, you definitely didn’t listen to disco; if you listened to Nirvana, you definitely didn’t listen to Green Day; and if you listened to Berg you definitely didn’t listen to Vivaldi. Your listening habits were a part of how you would identify yourself and “listening wrong” or being accused of “listening wrong” could be construed as offensive and get you socially shanked. Thanks to the internet, modern listeners know little of these divides. Making music available online has somehow neutered the social pressure to listen a certain way. People who appreciate music now have listening habits as diverse as they are. This diversity makes it almost impossible to segregate a group based on their listening habits. To do so would be an impossible exercise.

I am nostalgic for a time when the only way to get access to music was through the record store and live concerts. A part of me believes that making it easier doesn’t necessarily make it better and that people will ascribe more value to something if they have to work for it. Will I cherish the recording, available on Youtube, of Richter’s Moscow performance of Ravel’s Miroirs as much as the concert patrons who braved a Russian winter for the same experience? I’m doubtful. But as a composer, my  goal is to share my music with as many people as possible so how can I criticize a society that’s made the task easier than ever? It’s not really something I’m able to answer and tying myself into knots about it is akin to a fish trying to disprove the existence of water. Instead, it might be more productive to be thankful that your classical music loving peers don’t ostracize you for listening to early AFI and your punk rock friends don’t spontaneously bleed from their foreheads when they discover a stack of Purcell records in your home.

On Why Peter Grimes Is Worth Every Note


I am slightly obsessed with the score for Benji Britten’s Peter Grimes. It does a great many of the things that I wish all opera could do but stubbornly refuses to or can’t. Luckily for all of us, we have an upcoming opportunity to experience a concert performance by The Vancouver Symphony.

I must confess, I don’t actually consider myself an opera fan. It’s a genre that fills me with conflict. When it’s good, it’s the most amazing thing in the world. When it’s bad, it’s melodramatic and painful to sit through. Or worse. It’s also a possibility that my love and hate vacillations put me firmly on the opera fan spectrum. Most of them are similarly tortured by how good it can be and how difficult it is to get there.

Peter Grimes is a score that captures me so easily that I am rarely even tempted to escape its clutches. As far as opera goes, I consider it to be quite accessible. If you’re new to opera, you should be prepared to have your boundaries challenged as the music and subject matter are quite heavy. But there’s also a lot about it that makes it accessible to opera neophytes. A warning to readers: some plot spoilers follow.

The music is a very hooky.


Opera always strives for melody but it doesn’t always care about hooks. I assure you that, as confident as I am about the fact that I mostly wear pants, I am equally confident that melodies and hooks are very different. A melody is a sequence of musical notes that has some kind of internal logic to it that satisfies in some way. A hook can also be that, but it can also be a subsection of a melody or barely even a melody at all.

The chorus of Ke$ha’s, “tik tok” is a hook – but is it a melody? Barely. If it weren’t for the auto-tune you probably wouldn’t even realize she was mostly only singing one note.

Rivers Cuomo of Weezer has arguably one of the great melodic gifts in rock music – and a great gift for hooks as well. It’s very much on display in the iconic, “Buddy Holly”.

Samuel Barber wrote a behemoth hook delivery when he wrote the Adagio of his string quartet. But his music is peppered with hooks. A famous passage about two and a half minutes in to his violin concerto (Played here by Isaac Stern) is a pile driver to the nucleus of our listening apparatus.

Peter Grimes is full of hooks: the four interludes that interpolate the whole work; the a-cappella duet after the opening court scene; Peter’s “Now The Great Bear” aria; the recitative patter in the pub scene; the mob scene; Mrs. Sedley’s chromatic aspersions; and who could forget “Old Joe Has Gone Fishing”?

The story and characters are plausible.

Storyline.gifEarly opera is almost obliquely about gods and goddesses god-ing and goddess-ing. So much so that when Mozart burst forth with operas about the servant class snarkily making their masters look like fools it caused a bit of a scandal. However an element of the fantastical persisted with Mozart’s operas. People didn’t really behave like you would expect people to behave and situations that arose didn’t really run their course in a believable way.

This break with reality works on the opera stage because the whole medium is a bit fantastical. However, it’s a little jarring to modern listeners who have been raised on film. This modern audience can be quite critical of the believability of their fiction and when they bring that savvy to the concert hall it can make a connection to the music more challenging. I can certainly sympathize. I mean, how many times have you confused a close family member with a complete stranger because they wore a different hat? Many of Mozart’s operas rely on the audience’s ability to accept a complete lack of realism at the drop of a hat in order to move the story forward.

This just isn’t so with Peter Grimes. The story stands on it’s own as far as believability and depth (#NoSpoilers)

It takes full advantage of opera’s unique story telling powers

Instead of providing a tableau of songs for us to absorb, the opera takes advantage of the medium itself to help tell the story in ways other mediums couldn’t easily duplicate. Or if they did, they would look silly; like a goose wearing a neck tie, or a trombonist without a case of beer in their hand.

In the first act, when we’re fresh off hearing Britten’s instrumental storm interlude, we’re treated to the residents of the Burrough taking shelter from the storm in a local tavern. Every time a character comes in the door, we hear the storm music from the interlude rage until the door slams shut. If this were film, we would have a CGI hurricane bellowing through the door but as this opera – the orchestra BECOMES the storm.

Also in the tavern scene is Peter’s “Now The Great Bear” aria in-which we get a glimpse of Peter’s internal turmoil. The music is one of the most moving passages in the whole opera. It’s a very unique piece of music that features an Eflat pedal tone that hovers in the air for what feels like just long enough before dropping. When the piece is over, the other patrons of the tavern admonish him for being drunk and Auntie’s Nieces sing that his song is “sour” on the same pedal tone featured in the aria. We, the audience, hear Peter’s torture but the townsfolk are hearing a man ranting and raving like a lunatic.

Later, when the residents of the Burrough form a posse to hunt down Peter, the curtain comes down on the them calling his name in one of the loudest fortissimo’s in all of opera. When we eventually meet up again with Peter on the beach, he’s gone completely mad. The sounds of the posse can be heard off stage but the harmony is altered and the dynamic much more subdued. The posse could be far away, or it could be a reflection of Peter losing his grip with his reality.

If you’re reading this, it’s in a language you understand.

englishThis is actually a bigger deal than you think, but if the vast majority of opera is in a language other than your native tongue than it’s no wonder you wouldn’t connect with it. There’s something about the connection of meaning to sound as it leaves someone’s mouth that makes it more special to us. And if it weren’t special, why would we bother with singing at all? To their credit, performance organizations try to overcome this hurdle with the addition of a live textual translation, but it’s not the same.

The simple act of looking away from the stage to figure out what’s going on jars you back into reality – putting you back in a concert hall instead of the music on stage. They’re helping us understand what going on but they’re not always helping us connect to the voice of that person in that moment. The only way around the problem is to know the language and be there in the moment. And we really ARE talking about a moment here, in the span of time it takes you to look up and comprehend a translation, you’re gone. It’s a frustrating problem that doesn’t really have a simple solution.

The Vancouver Symphony performs a the music from Peter Grimes on Saturday, June 9th and 11th at 8pm at the Orpheum Theatre. I’ll be in the second row.