Crusader, Curator: Attuned Composer Reaches Milestone

Noteworthy on Canada’s music scene, composer Jocelyn Morlock has become an eloquent example of the new “new music.”

VANCOUVER – It’s been a particularly eventful spring for Vancouver-based composer Jocelyn Morlock. Her violin-piano duo Petrichor (2013) was played by members of the Metropolis Ensemble in New York. She curated an autobiographical program in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s latest series of new music chamber concerts. She wrote Strange Loops to commemorate the centennial of the orchestra’s founding in 1919. And her My Name is Amanda Todd (2015), which mourns and celebrates a young victim of cyberbullying, was taken on tour to France and Sweden by Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra.

‘My Name is Amanda Todd,’ by Morlock, went on tour to France and Sweden.

Morlock is about to turn 50, and as her extended tenure as the VSO’s composer in residence ends, she finds herself one of the noteworthy figures on Canada’s new music scene. It’s worth considering why Morlock’s work has such appeal, and why she has become such an eloquent example of the new “new music.”

Morlock hails from the prairie city of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her first degree was a bachelor of music in piano performance from nearby Brandon University, a small school with a strong music program. For graduate work, she moved to the West Coast and Vancouver’s University of British Columbia. After completing her DMA in 2002, she decided to stay on.

In recent decades, Vancouver’s international reputation as a desirable, if very expensive, place to live has changed the nature of the city. Musical infrastructure is solid and growing, but there are many composers living in the region and rather few opportunities for regular employment.

Pane view: Morlock, pouring coffee,  pursues a frugal lifestyle that allows her time to compose.  (Von Loewen)

Morlock ignored all that. She had never particularly wanted to teach. With occasional commissions and a good number of part time jobs, both musical and non-musical, she was able to support a frugal lifestyle that allowed plenty of time to compose. In her 20s and 30s, she created a significant catalogue, including her Exaudi for choir with solo cello (2004), Music of the Romantic Era (2005), an hilarious postmodern quodlibet, and concerto for two cellos and orchestra, Aeromancy (2011).

[To sample Morlock’s music, visit these pages at SoundCloud and Spotify.]

Morlock has a runner’s lean physique and a passionate interest in her West Coast environment. Many of her pieces are inspired by birdsong, and her titles often direct listeners to natural phenomena. Petrichor, for example, evokes the pleasant odor rainfall produces after a long dry spell, a perennial delight to anyone who has spent time on Canada’s prairies. “The truth is,” she says, “that I spend so much time indoors writing music that I go outside when I’m done and walk around and think about titles.”

Morlock’s interpreters include cellist Ariel Barnes, VSO music director Bramwell Tovey.

Her appointment to the post of composer in residence for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra seemed obvious to many, but came as a surprise to Morlock herself. The orchestra had employed a succession of (male) composers in residence. Charismatic British-born conductor Bramwell Tovey was in the final years of his long stint with the orchestra, and no doubt sensed it was high time his audience heard a woman’s voice.

A daffy onstage chemistry manifested between them. Tovey, well known to Hollywood Bowl and New York Philharmonic audiences, has a quick, very British wit; Morlock demonstrated she could more than hold her own with the conductor. Their introductory conversations took most of the pompous mystery out of new music, their crosstalk act emphasizing that new music could be exciting, even amusing and entertaining.

Morlock listens in the Orpheum, the Vancouver orchestra’s home.

Together, Morlock and Tovey programmed several large new music festivals and added more and more contemporary repertoire, both Canadian and international, to the symphony season. Morlock curated a series of chamber ensemble concerts in the Orpheum Annex, a 200-seat venue created, in the best Vancouver manner, as a bonus public space, a trade-off for extra height on a high-rise complex downtown on what used to be Vancouver’s pre-war Theatre Row.

There was a game plan for Morlock’s programming, beginning with a mix of regional, national, and international composers. Audiences saw that local composers could (mostly) hold their own with more established figures. She chose a fascinating blend of works, some included to enchant the audience, others to challenge it. And the series quietly achieved gender parity.

In this regard, Vancouver audiences already shared a heightened awareness of women who composed. From the immediate post-war era until the turn of the 21st century, Vancouver was the home of Barbara Pentland (1912-2000) and Jean Coulthard (1908-2000), major figures in the Canadian scene. Morlock welcomed further generations, including Kelly-Marie Murphy, Nicole Lizée, Emily Doolittle, Emilie LeBel, and Katerina Gimon.

Creating music as a member of an orchestra is very different from merely writing for orchestra. Players become known entities, valued colleagues, and friends. Impressing audiences with a standalone performance is one thing; bonding with them over the course of several seasons is a different process. Morlock demonstrably understood her assignment as extending beyond (merely) writing music. She was a tireless, very public advocate, chatting in formal and informal settings with increasing confidence. Though public speaking will never be high on her list of favorite activities, her dry wit and ability to befriend listeners paid handsome dividends.

Certainly the extension of what was supposed to be a two-year term to half a decade showed her appointment was working well. When Tovey left the orchestra last season, the VSO decided to emphasize continuity by keeping Morlock on during the first year of new music director Otto Tausk’s tenure.

With the performance of Strange Loops on the June 11 Centennial Gala, Morlock will have created ten works for the orchestra. Attending each premiere in turn, I have been particularly struck by the scope of Morlock’s orchestral thinking. Her works embrace a full range of orchestra possibilities, including larger forces than most composers regularly command; she takes risks, yet her core aesthetic remains personal, unpredictable, and quirkily compelling.

Morlock’s life and career center on her adopted home city, yet her national profile has mushroomed. Her work now features on the programs of most Canadian orchestras, and smaller works for chamber ensembles and voices have been commissioned nationwide.

Canadian composers only rarely receive sustained international attention; Morlock may prove an important exception. My Name is Amanda Todd had its U.S. premiere in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, programmed both in a regular season concert and as a school run-out – particularly apt given its theme (Todd committed suicide at the age of 15). Solace (2005) was given its American debut by Houston’s River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, conducted by David Danzmayr.

Summing up her time with the orchestra, Morlock says, “It has been a huge privilege to write for, and work with, the outstanding musicians of the VSO, with visionary maestros Bramwell Tovey and  Otto Tausk, and with president Kelly Tweeddale. Now, going forward, I’m planning on writing more diverse repertoire again – more chamber music and more choral works. And seeing what the future holds.”

David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and American Record Guide. He is academic coordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College, and teaches at the University of British Columbia.