Minimalist’s rich musical legacy

Ann Southam chose to become a prominent composer rather than a socialite

As an heiress to the Southam newspaper fortune, Ann Southam could have chosen the life of a socialite. Instead, the Summerhill resident ensconced herself as a prominent Canadian composer, content with wearing simple pants and a sweatshirt, even to concerts where others wore long gowns.

Even then, she wasn’t out to make bundles of money composing.

“There’s not much money in that, unless you’re playing pop music,’’ says pianist Christina Petrowska-Quilico, long-time friend and Southam’s protégé. “You do it for the love of creating something beautiful, and that’s what Ann did.

“She didn’t try to become famous.’’

Southam, a pioneering composer of minimalist music, a philanthropist of note and a member of the Order of Canada, died Nov. 25 after a two-year battle with lung cancer. She was 73.

Born in Winnipeg, she spent most of her life in Toronto, studying at the Royal Conservatory of Music, where she would later spend many years as an instructor of electronic music.

She was one of the first women to receive attention as a composer in Toronto, specializing in creations for dance companies and working with the likes of Patricia Beatty, Carroll Maguire, Danny Grossman, Eve Egoyan and Julia Sasso.

“She didn’t like writing for orchestras,” says Petrowska-Quilico, who is also a professor of music at York University. “What made her special to me was (giving me) the freedom to allow me to interpret her music.”

Petrowska-Quilico will perform the last major set of works by Ann Southam at the launch concert for her latest CD, Glass Houses Revisited, on March 17 at Glenn Gould Studio, 250 Front St. West.

Because she wasn’t controlling, Petrowska-Quilico says, much of the music Southam had written appeared to be without much direction.

“She gives the performer the freedom of feeling comfortable in making the music their own,’’ she said, noting that Southam often told her: “‘I trust your musical judgment completely.’”

Southam wove her love of nature into many of her compositions, including “Rivers and Pond Life”. And as a committed feminist, she also felt her music was grounded in women’s experience.

“In the very workings of the music, there’s a reflection of the work that women traditionally do, like weaving and mending and washing dishes — the kind of work you have to do over again,” she told the Globe and Mail last year.

Petrowska-Quillico said her friend and mentor was a joy to work with.

Five years ago, when Southam and Petrowska-Quilico got together to discuss Rivers, the latter’s puppy wandered into the music room, making a beeline for the manuscript.

“The puppy peed all over the music,” she recalls. “I was very upset, but Ann just said, in her wonderful sense of humour: ‘I hope that isn’t a comment on my music!’”

Southam leaves behind brother Kip and step-sisters Jane Meredith and Judy Weeks.

About this article:

By: Danny Gallagher
Posted: Feb 24 2011 4:56 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto