On Campus

A Sommer sweep for Schulich grads

Matthew Ricketts, the top prize winner for this year's Graham Sommer Competition for Young Composers.

Story by Erik Leijon

November 2021

Canadian music composer Matthew Ricketts, BMus’09, has lived in New York for more than a decade, but he never feels very far from Montreal. Whether it’s for collaborations, competitions, guest presentations, or, as he puts it, simply “haunting the hallways” of his alma mater, Ricketts always finds a way back to the city where he once studied music composition at McGill.

Ricketts had an especially good reason to return to McGill this September: he won the second edition of the Graham Sommer Competition for Young Composers. The competition, open to Canadian composers under the age of 35, hopes to spur the creation of new works of chamber music.

The competition was created thanks to the support of the late Graham Sommer, MDCM’72, a long-time professor of radiology at Stanford University, who was also a talented pianist.

This year, the first and second prizes, as well as the people’s choice awards, were all won by Schulich School of Music alums.

Ricketts earned the $18,000 first prize for his composition “Still There.” The Sommer Competition gala and concert, at which all the finalists’ works were performed, took place at Pollack Hall on September 26. The $12,000 second prize was awarded to Alec Hall, BMus’07, for his work “The National Anthem.” “Burning in Clarity,” by Michael Kim-Sheng, MMus’18, received the $6,000 People’s Choice Award.

“It was a great experience to hear my piece [performed], and the other four new works, which were all quite different,” says Ricketts. “The jury certainly deliberated for a very long time,” he adds. “So perhaps they also found it challenging to judge the works against each other!”

The jury, chaired by Douglas McNabney, a recently retired associate dean at the Schulich School, included Juno Award-winning composers Brian Current, BMus’96, and Ana Sokolović, music journalist Caroline Rodgers, composer/novelist Nicolas Gilbert, DMus’08, Conservatoire de musique de Montréal professor Helmut Lipsky, and Danièle LeBlanc, the executive and artistic director of Jeunesses Musicales Canada.

The five finalists were commissioned to write new pieces for piano trios.

“All five works were written just for this competition,” Ricketts says. “You had to write for a standard piano, violin and cello, and the length as well was sort of determined at around nine to 12 minutes. That way we created similar-sized pieces, so they didn’t have to a judge a one-minute piece against a 30-minute one.”

Like most composers, Ricketts feels comfortable with limitations. After all, he doesn’t usually get carte blanche or unlimited resources. “Still There” was born from a simple idea that he expanded upon from the comfort of his own home.

“I’m a pianist myself, so I composed the piece at my piano,” he explains. “The piece is very much about fingers on keys, and the choreography of white notes versus black notes on the piano keyboard. And there’s a harmonic system of my own invention, and this system spills out from a basic idea of fingers on white or black keys.”

Ricketts would play the work at home, imagining how it would sound performed by a trio.

While he might now be based in New York, some of the highpoints of his career are closely linked to Montreal.

In 2018, his multi-lingual opera Chaakapesh: The Trickster’s Quest, with a libretto written by award-winning Cree playwright Tomson Highway, opened the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s 85th season. It went on to tour Indigenous communities throughout Quebec, which was chronicled in a documentary film.

His next project, also steeped in Canadian mythology, will be another opera, this one based on “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” a poem by Robert W. Service about a prospector who freezes to death in Yukon. He is collaborating on the project with librettist Royce Vavrek, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for his work on Angel’s Bone.

“I’ve been really lucky to have performances [of my works] in Montreal, more so now than when I was even living there,” Ricketts says. “I’ve maintained a good relationship with my professors in the composition program and returning to McGill is always a special experience for me.”

Helping young composers find their voices

In 17 years, Chris Harman, the area coordinator for the Schulich School of Music’s composition program, has seen countless students pass through the program and move on to bigger and better things in music.
Watching these talented artists find their place begs a chicken or egg question: are those drawn to music composition inherently gifted, or is the program particularly skilled at getting these young minds to communicate through their art?
“It’s very gratifying for a teacher to read about the success of a former student,” says Harman, an associate professor at the Schulich School. “I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to work with many exceptionally talented students. I’m also aware that the work that we do as composers is solitary. So, I often wonder if such a student would succeed regardless of whether we’re there or not. It does reflect well on our program, but it really also reflects on the determination and the talent of the students.”
One of the program’s alums, Matthew Ricketts, the winner of this year’s Graham Sommer Competition for Young Composers, received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2019. James O’Callaghan, MMus’14, and Nicole Lizée, MMus’01, former students in the program, have both been named Composer of the Year at the Prix Opus, Quebec’s top awards for concert music, in recent years.
Harman says preparing the next generation of composers requires rooting them in the past, while also encouraging them to keep an eye on the future.
“Particularly at the undergraduate level, composition students receive a very thorough grounding in topics related to music theory, music history and musicianship,” Harman explains. “We also encourage students to figure out for themselves what is most important in what they want to do. We encourage discussion of their ideas about music.”
Students are taught to think critically about music and to understand the ways in which composition has evolved over the years. One of the goals behind this approach is to foster a degree of caution about whatever musical trends happen to be currently in vogue.
“I would say there are trends that emerge in different regions and at different times,” says Harman. “It’s certainly important to stay aware of key developments. But trends are not necessarily part of an inexorable forward-moving evolution. We enable students to develop an understanding of current trends, past trends and things that were never trends at all. It’ll be up to them to decide what’s most applicable to their own work.”
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