Keiko Devaux on Canadian music

Azrieli Music Prizes (AMP) will hold its third Gala Concert later this month. Originally a competition for Jewish music, this edition saw AMP add a new strand, with composers asked to respond to the prompt ‘what is Canadian music?’ 

In the run up to the event IAM caught up with Keiko Devaux, winner of the inaugural edition, to talk about her thoughts on Canadian music, the challenges of writing in lockdown and the impact the prize is already having on her career. 

When I first read the prompt my initial response was ‘I don’t want to answer that question!’ Something about it really stuck with me, so I had to sit and think about why I was so bothered by it – why is this such a difficult question?

I decided that for me to answer this I’m going to have to be pretty political and critical in my proposal. Five years ago I would never have written a proposal like the one I made. But now many organisations are progressive enough to embrace criticism, and AMP is one of them.

In my proposal I said ‘This is a problematic country. It’s beautiful and there’s lots of great things about it, but it is problematic.’ It took me a long time to find the balance between the raw truth of how I felt about Canada, while also opening up and finding the positives.

Keiko Devaux with Sharon Azrieli and fellow AMP winner Yotam Haber

Keiko Devaux with Sharon Azrieli and fellow AMP winner Yotam Haber

I’m Japanese-Canadian on my mother’s side, while my father emmigrated here from France. My own identity is that I’m someone who’s fairly politically progressive, and I am trying to find my voice but not speak for others. I’m also questioning my position in the world of contemporary music, which has its own identity issues.

I realised that even though it seems like a difficult question the answer is actually quite simple: if you live in the area called Canada then you are writing Canadian music. When you look at who lives in this region we have First Nations people, settlers and colonial people, immigrants, people who identify in all sorts of ways. There’s tons of conflict, too.

I’m not going to try and create music about the Mohawk community, as much as I love and respect them, because that’s not my voice. I’m not going to try and represent some kind of Irish fiddler tradition, either – I can’t speak for them.

What I decided was that I’d write a personal piece, but where the personal becomes universal. That was the launching point. So the question became ‘who am I?’

I’ve always avoided writing about being Japanese-Canadian, because as soon as someone sees you’re any kind of minority they say ‘oh you should write about that’. In fact, I’ve been very Western in my approach. But with this commission I started to question this and ask ‘why have I leaned into my white side?’ I realised that I’ve avoided the intersection between the Japanese side of myself and the Western contemporary side of myself for my whole life.

I think this discovery is actually why this prize needs to exist, and my hope is that each person who wins it will create a work that interweaves all their various identities. Over time we’ll have a series of pieces with so many new colours, sounds and histories combined.

It was a really complex piece to write. Because I was writing about something so personal the research took a lot longer. Of course I don’t want the piece to be just about my family – I want it to be universal – but at the same time it is inspired by songs I heard in childhood, the loom my grandparents had in their study, and other things…and so I wanted to make sure it was a good piece!

The actual writing took place during COVID lockdown. Of course there is a perception that all composers do is stay at home and write anyway, but actually a lot of my inspiration comes from my social life; I have friends I go and see and discuss musical ideas with, or I go to concerts where I might hear a violin play a certain pattern and it reminds me of something that I want for my own work. There are all these social interactions that are important for me when I’m processing and working through a piece, and that went away with COVID.

As a result, I found I had to get creative in order to find those social moments that usually help me. I arranged Zoom meetings with family and friends where we could talk casually, but then I’d have the chance to discuss the piece.

I also had to have formalised times off – I’m a bit of a workaholic, and if I am working on something I’ll just do it all the time, which is not a good approach. You have to give yourself time away from a piece. So Thursday nights I would cook, listen to inspiring music, and let my brain settle. Tuesday afternoons I’d have a coffee date. I created all these landmarks to centre myself in the process – otherwise it’s easy to get lost in your own cerebral web.

Keiko Devaux © Marie Isabelle Rochon

Keiko Devaux © Marie Isabelle Rochon

On a personal level, winning the prize has been very affirming. I’m not very young (I’m 38) but I’ve not been composing for a long time, as I took a circuitous route through rock ‘n’ roll music and other things. It was a big challenge for me to go back to university and dedicate myself to this chaotic, beautiful and somewhat financially unstable world. I believed in what I was doing, but everyone has moments of doubt.

So when Sharon Azrieli called me I was super shocked – I was not at all expecting to get it (actually, I think I cried on the phone). You’re not used to getting paid as a composer, and when you are it’s never enough to cover the amount of hours you put in…so yes, it was a very emotional moment!

On a practical level, it helped with my student debt. I thought I was going to have to stop composing and work fulltime for years to pay it off, and I was depressed about that. Now I can keep on going: I have momentum, and this prize allows me to follow my dream.

There are other benefits too: the international performances that AMP organises and the recordings are huge. As any composer will say, financially funding a recording is hard, and it never usually happens until the end of your career. But having a recording throws you into a whole other pool, and you can be considered for things like the JUNO Awards here in Canada. It opens so many doors.

It also has triggered interest from other orchestras. Over the last few years I’ve had all kinds of emails and conversations about potential projects, but then when the AMP was announced suddenly everything became concrete. I had to quickly learn how to say ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘yes – but not right now’. It was hard to go from someone who wasn’t getting a lot of attention to someone that had to negotiate with orchestras. Of course this is just the start – and I think it is going to have a huge impact for the rest of my career.

Keiko Devaux is a composer based in Montréal. Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne will perform her work Arras at AMP’s Gala Concert on 22 October, 20:00 EDT. She will also take part in an online Q&A on 19 October, 19:00 EDT with journalist Mario F Paquet (the Q&A will be in French). The Gala Concert will be streamed free on Medici TV and AMP’s Facebook page, while the Q&A will be hosted on the Azrieli Foundation website. 

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