Music Rules Composer Gary Kulesha’s World

By Olena Wawryshyn

This fall, the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) premiered composer Gary Kulesha’s latest work, "The Boughs of Music" on October 6 and 7 in Ottawa.  The orchestra will also be presenting his new piece in Toronto on October 21, then in Saskatchewan and Alberta in November.

Having his work performed by the country’s leading orchestras is nothing new for Kulesha, who is often referred to as one of Canada’s most active and visible musicians.

Kulesha’s music has been performed and recorded by many musicians and ensembles around the  world.  His work “Angels” for Marimba and Tape has become a standard repertoire for percussionists. It receives over 100 performances per year. His "Celebration Overture" is one of the most performed orchestral pieces written in Canada.

The 51-year-old composer says he immediately took to music when, at the age of seven, his parents bought a piano.  Before he turned 10, Kulesha, who grew up in a Ukrainian-speaking household in Toronto, had already written his first piece.

“By the time I was 13, I knew there was nothing else that I was going to do with my life…I’ve never had a job that wasn’t musical,” says Kulesha.

Many musicians have difficulty finding full employment in their field, but Kulesha, who trained in Canada at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music and in England and New York, has managed to do this by wearing many hats. Kulesha conducts, plays the piano and teaches. He is the Theory and Composition Department Coordinator at the University of Toronto, where he is also the Director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble.

But composing is central in Kulesha’s professional life. “There’s no substitute for the time spent with a pencil in your hand, with a piece of paper,” he says.

His talent in this capacity has led to many affiliations with ensembles in Ontario. He served as the Composer in Residence with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, the Composer in Residence with the Canadian Opera Company, from 1993-1995 (during which time he wrote his first opera, "Red Emma") and, in 1995, was appointed Composer-Advisor to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO), a position he continues to hold.

“I’m sort of the burr under the saddle of the TSO,” says Kulesha. “My job there is to continue to remind them that they have a responsibility to Canadian music and to contemporary music; it’s much easier to sell tickets to another performance of Beethoven, then it is to a concert of all new-Canadian music.”

The TSO regularly commissions works from Kulesha as does the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, which asked Kulesha to write a piece for their Western Canadian tour this fall.

“I had wanted to write a piece for Karen Donnelly, who is their [NACO’s] trumpet player, for some time,” says Kulesha. “Her trumpet playing is beautiful. I came back and said ‘what about a little piece just featuring trumpet in combination with flutes and strings, and a much smaller ensemble – not a full orchestra’ – and they [NACO] agreed to that, and Karen agreed to play it,” says Kulesha, explaining how "The Boughs of Music" came about.

Inspiration for his compositions comes from many sources.  “I have a great interest in philosophy, art, all the other arts forms, the pop music world, the popular cultural world,” says Kulesha.

To be a good composer, says Kulesha, “you have to be an interested, engaged human being with your eyes open, and then you have to focus that into being a good musician, and then out of that should flow whatever it is that you have to contribute to music.”

"The Boughs of Music" was inspired by a work of fiction. The title was based on a line – ‘I parted the boughs of music, and saw the house that we had made’ – spoken by a character in Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves.“It’s spoken when they [the characters] are in their 50s, getting on through middle age...I’m just entering my 50s now, so there’s a rightness to it for me. There’s a certain autumnal quality to it as well – [as it deals with] what it is that you have made with your life.”

When asked to describe his new piece, Kulesha says that it is atmospheric and lyrical “but there are no traditional tunes in it.”

Kulesha will be travelling with the NACO when they perform "The Boughs of Music" in Western Canada, and he will be giving lectures as part of the tour.  “I have to travel within Canada to make a living, but… as I grow older, I want to travel less and less…It would take a lot to [get me] to back to Europe at this point,” he says.

Despite his current reluctance to venture away from his Toronto home, in 1991, Kulesha made a journey to Ukraine with his wife, the Ukrainian-Canadian composer Larysa Kuzmenko, when they were invited to Lviv by the Composers Union of Ukraine. (The couple met in a music class in the 1970s.) Their works – Kulesha’s "Celebration Overture" and Kuzmenko’s "Concerto" for Vibraphone, Marimba and Orchestra – were performed there during their visit.

“At that time, in Ukraine they were looking around for their lost sons and trying to make connections internationally and open the doors a little bit so they invited us to go,” he says.

Kulesha says that it was “eye-opening” to see how Ukraine’s newfound independence had unfortunate negative consequences for composers and talented performers who had now had to struggle “to figure out what the heck to do to make a living…because the infrastructure has suddenly been taken away from them.”

“They were very well looked after under the Soviet system,” he says. “There was obviously a very high price to be paid for that, but from the standpoint of music, it’s not very high on the list of any government’s priority right now and it was a very protective environment back in the ‘bad’ old days,” he adds.

While in Ukraine, Kulesha says he was asked many times whether he considers himself to be a Ukrainian or Canadian. “I always responded that I consider myself to be Canadian, which was not the answer they wanted,” he says.  “My roots not withstanding I still see myself as essentially a Canadian artist with a Ukrainian background.”

The NACO will be performing "The Boughs of Music" in: Toronto on Oct. 21 at Roy Thomson Hall; in Saskatoon on Nov. 9 at the Centennial Auditorium; in Regina on Nov. 10 at the Saskatchewan Centre of the Arts; in Medicine Hat on Nov. 12  at the Esplanade Arts and Culture Centre; in Grande Prairie on Nov. 13 at the Grande Prairie Regional College; in Calgary on Nov. 16 at  the Jack Singer Concert Hall.