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Monday December 20, 2010

Minimalist sound, maximum impact

Canadian composer of new music was in search of a feminist aesthetic: 'repetitive and life-sustaining'

Special to The Globe and Mail

Less than 48 hours before she lost a long battle with lung cancer, the composer Ann Southam sat listening to a radio station as it broadcast the well-known Humming Chorus from Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly. "Imagine being at the first performance of that!" she exclaimed to a friend. "What did people think of it?"

That was Southam all over: the attentive listening; the sense of wonder, the questions (which were never rhetorical); the absence of artistic snobbery; the ability to experience everything in life as if it were a "world premiere" - even when breathing itself had become a struggle.

Southam is one of Canada's most revered composers - the creator of mesmerizing electroacoustic pieces that helped establish modern dance in Canada, ecstatically shimmering pianoscapes such as Glass Houses, and the haunting, contemplative music of her last decade, including the "immense, mysterious piano piece" Simple Lines of Enquiry, which New Yorker critic Alex Ross included on his list of the top 10 CDs of 2009.

Southam, who was made a member of the Order of Canada earlier this year, blazed a trail for women composers in a notoriously sexist field. She was also a transformational philanthropist, a proud feminist and a woman who inspired devotion in friends and colleagues, all of whom will miss her piercing intelligence, warmth and wit - not to mention her exclamations of "holy patoot!" "jeepers!" and "what a hoot!"

Southam's path was not always easy - she battled chronic self-doubt, and endured the "social nightmare," as she called it, of "growing up gay in the 1950s." But over her half-century career, she remained true to her singular artistic voice.

"When you hear Ann's music, you know it is a piece of hers and no one else's," says pianist Eve Egoyan, for whom Southam wrote many of her late works. "This was especially unusual early in her career, when composers in this country were just starting to break away from contemporary European sound worlds."

Southam was born in Winnipeg on Feb. 4, 1937, to Joyce Mary Southam (née Lyon) and Kenneth Gordon Southam. Her father was a great-grandson of William Southam, founder of the newspaper dynasty that bore the family name, and held senior positions with Southam Press Ltd. When Ann was three, the family moved to Toronto, where she lived for the rest of her life.

As a child she studied piano in a house full of music. Her father had an extensive record collection containing both classical and popular music; her mother was "a natural pianist," and "a great storyteller," the composer said in an interview last April. "The magic and mystery of life really turned her on, and I was inspired by that. That's one of her gifts to me."

Kenneth Southam died in 1952, when Ann was 15; it was around that time that she started to compose - partly "as an emotional outlet," she said.

After leaving school, Southam found her way - via secretarial college and the University of Toronto's Music Faculty - to the Royal Conservatory of Music, where she studied composition with Samuel Dolin and piano with Pierre Souvairan.

Dolin created "a very free world" for his students, she said in April.

"He always felt that rules were there to be broken." And Dolin never condescended to Southam because of her gender - "we were all just composers."

Dolin introduced Southam to electronic music, and it was love at first splice, so to speak. So in 1966, when a young choreographer named Patricia Beatty asked Dolin to recommend a young Canadian composer, he sent her to Southam.

Beatty was ecstatic over the first score Southam wrote for her - Momentum, for a piece inspired by Macbeth; in 1968, when she co-founded the Toronto Dance Theatre (with Peter Randazzo and David Earle), Southam became the company's resident composer. Over the next 15 years, she would create 30-some electronic compositions for the TDT, using a Synthi AKS - a compact studio that literally fit in a small suitcase.

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