Music

Is Alexandra Stréliski pop or classical? You decide

“I don't pretend to be doing classical music,” she says, and yet she's burning up the classical charts.

“I don't pretend to be doing classical music,” she says, and yet she's burning up the classical charts

'A piano, on its own, is a very vulnerable thing, and I want to share this moment with the listener,' says pianist/composer Alexandra Stréliski of her 2018 album, Inscape. (Raphael Ouellet)

"When I was a kid, my mom would sing Bach's 'Jesus bleibet meine Freude' to me every night," recalls Montreal pianist Alexandra Stréliski. "And I fell asleep listening to Glenn Gould plays Bach."

Early exposure not only to Bach but also Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Liszt made a deep impression on the young Stréliski. "My dad was listening to piano constantly when I was a kid, so that definitely shaped my ear," she notes.

Fast forward to today, and Stréliski finds herself in high demand as a film composer, concert pianist and recording artist specializing not in her father's classics, but in her own compositions — gentle piano songs with wistful titles such as "The Quiet Voice" and "Changing Winds," which she has released on two albums: Pianoscope (2010) and Inscape (2018).

Championed by director Jean-Marc Vallée, her music has been featured in Dallas Buyers Club, Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects.

Inscape was the No. 1 classical album on Apple Music at the end of 2018. Two of its tracks have surpassed 17 million streams on Spotify, and the album climbed as high as No. 2 on classical charts in the U.K. and No. 5 in the U.S.

Alexandra Stréliski performs "Plus tôt" at CBC Music. 3:32

These are impressive streaming numbers for classical music. The irony is, of course, that Stréliski doesn't play classical music, and she's the first to acknowledge it.

"It's hard to classify. It's definitely between film music, ambient and pop," she told CBC Music recently. "It's not pop music, but if you look at it from a classical point of view, it is: it's mainstream, a lot of people listen to it, and it's accessible. Pop-classical music? Classical-pop also works. I don't really care about labels. The real answer is, I don't really know."

But one thing is clear: "I don't pretend to be doing classical music," she asserts.

Music streaming services, however, are built around defined genres, and don't know what to do with Stréliski. For better or for worse, she has landed in the classical catch-all, perhaps confusing some listeners while attracting new ones.

Nocturnes, Mazurkas, Preludes

Stréliski began taking piano lessons at age six in France, where her family had relocated for a few years. Upon their return to Montreal, she entered the McGill Conservatory and when she completed her Collegial II exam (its highest level), she was accepted into the music faculty at Université de Montréal, where she graduated with a bachelor of music.

"For sure Chopin was a huge influence for me," she reflects. "I really enjoyed playing his music — the Nocturnes, Mazurkas, Preludes. I also remember playing Brahms' Rhapsodies; one in particular that I always loved to play."

Stréliski recalls a pivotal moment during one of her piano recitals, which came at a time when she had been questioning whether to continue her piano studies.

"I remember playing this very simple but profound and complex emotional piano piece, an Élegie by Grieg, and when I stopped there was this silence in the room before people started to clap. That's a really powerful feeling, to be all together in silence, waiting. That moment was very significant for me. I was like, yeah, I can't stop."

But she did eventually stop. Not piano, but classical music.

'Advertisement is a great school'

Even before graduating from Université de Montréal, she had begun writing music for TV commercials. "My sister at the time was working at an ad agency and the boss was looking for someone to write a piano piece," she explains. "He couldn't find anyone and my sister was like, 'Well my sister plays the piano, if you want to try.' And the ad ended up really doing well, the music got noticed."

It was a foot in the door of a field that she would work in for a number of years. "Advertisement is a great school," she points out. "Working fast, working with many different people, people who are going to talk to you about music this way and that way. You do that every day. It's a very beneficial working lesson. Now that I do films, those tools are very helpful because it's about communicating with a director, somebody who doesn't necessarily know how to speak the music language."

Writing music for herself, though, provides an outlet for personal expression. "I got kind of tired of having really no purpose. I think it's much nicer to do what I do now — to go onstage and put some nice, soft piano out there — than doing it for an ad, where the end purpose is to sell something."

Alexandra Stréliski performs "Changing Winds" at CBC Music. 3:29

Listeners will recognize the influence of Erik Satie, Philip Glass and Michael Nyman, and in fact Stréliski says she had dreamed of writing music for film since she was a child.

But for Stréliski, notating her music is the final songwriting step. "I never write during the composition process," she explains. "For the film that I'm currently working on, I'm going to work with a choir, so I'm going to need to write some scores. But for my piano songs, I improvise, and I sit back at the piano, and then I change it, and I sit back again and it changes again. It's an organic process. I only write at the end, when I want to release the album, so that people can also play them in their homes."

Along with each album, Stréliski releases sheet music, and dozens of orders arrive daily. "A lot of people tell me, 'Oh, I played the piano and stopped, and I started again because of your songs.' My songs seem very simple and accessible, so people aren't scared about them. They sit down at the piano and they try. It's a great way to put music out. We need more art in the world."

From May 7 to 18, Stréliski is touring the U.K., the Netherlands and Italy. She performs at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall on June 26; her July 4 show at the Montreal International Jazz Festival is already sold out.

Alexandra Stréliski performs "Overturn" at CBC Music. 4:33