Classical Junos: Who should win the composition of the year award?

For the first time, women outnumber men among the nominees in this category.

For the first time, women outnumber men among the nominees in this category

Composer Nicole Lizée was awarded the 2017 SOCAN Jan. V. Matejcek Award and is composer in residence at Vancouver's Music on Main. (Steve Raegele)

In preparation for the 2019 Juno Awards, which are coming up on Sunday, March 17, we've been analyzing the four classical music categories.

So far, we've looked at the large ensemble category, the solo/chamber music category and the vocal/choral category. Now, we turn our attention to the nominees in the fourth category, classical composition of the year.

This year's nominees are:

  • Ana Sokolović, Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes
  • Bekah Simms, Granitic
  • Cassandra Miller, About Bach
  • Nicole Lizée, Katana of Choice
  • Vincent Ho, Arctic Symphony

No matter who wins, it will be a first Juno Award for one of these composers. Sokolović, Lizée and Ho have one prior nomination each; Simms and Miller are enjoying their first Juno nods this year. And this is the first time since this award category was created in 2003 that women outnumber men among nominees.

It's a deserving field. Who's missing?


We loved Go by Contraries, the September 2018 Centrediscs release featuring three song cycles by Andrew Staniland performed by Martha Guth, Tyler Duncan and Erika Switzer. Of the three cycles, Peter Quince at the Clavier stood out for its especially effective setting of poems by Wallace Stevens. It calls for a baritone with exceptional range and a pianist able to imbue the score with gravitas. (Duncan and Switzer do it justice.) We were hoping it would get some Juno recognition.

Moving on, here's our breakdown of the five nominated works, including predictions for who should win and who will win.

1. Ana Sokolović, Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes

Ana Sokolović is a professor of composition at the University of Montreal. (André Parmentier)

This new work came to us via the National Arts Centre Orchestra's album New Worlds, which is also nominated this year for a classical Juno in the large ensemble category. A 28-minute cycle of seven songs in six languages, Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes is conceived as a sort of European tour, guided by countertenor soloist and chorus with full orchestral accompaniment. The songs are ingeniously connected by swooshes of percussion that transport the listener among the different locales.

Highlights include: the eponymous "Golden slumbers," which starts as a ravishing duet for countertenor and solo violin and then becomes a cascade of shimmering massed sound; "Tarantella del Gargano," a folksy love song; the spellbinding "Guter Mond" (streaming above) with its choral clusters; "Durme, durme," a haunting countertenor solo, unaccompanied apart from occasional punctuation by muted trumpets; and "Dodole," which recalls Carl Orff's Carmina Burana.

Like every good trip, this marvelous work includes discovery, beauty, thrills and repose. It's also a welcome addition to the concert repertoire for countertenor.

2. Bekah Simms, Granitic

A native of St. John's, Nfld., Bekah Simms released 'impurity chains,' a collection of her compositions, on Centrediscs in September 2018. (Bo Huang)

Receiving the 2017 Toronto Emerging Composer Award enabled composer Simms to write this new work scored for flute, clarinet, trumpet, violin, viola, cello, electric guitar, electric bass, synthesizer and percussion — the same instrumentation as Fausto Romitelli's Professor Bad Trip Lesson II, one of Simms' favourite compositions. Granitic runs about seven minutes and situates the listener in a destabilizing sonic environment.

"Granitic implies a great firmness, a type of unfeeling power," Simms explained to us via email. "I was really just thinking about raw sound, what I could create with this type of ensemble, how the sounds could be obscured and made mysterious, and how they could coalesce into something recognizable (genre-wise) but only near the end."

This music is cacophonous, jarring, oppressive — and totally engrossing! Sounds emerge from a void and ricochet against one another in what seems like organized chaos. Granitic may lack the scale of the other nominated works, but it makes up for that with striking originality.

3. Cassandra Miller, About Bach

Cassandra Miller is associate head of composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, U.K. (Andrew Parker)

Miller's string quartet About Bach won the 2016 Jules Léger Prize, Canada's highest honour for new chamber music, giving it serious momentum. It's the centrepiece of Bozzini Quartet's 2018 release Just So, an album devoted to Miller's music.

The five-minute excerpt, above, gives a sense of the 24-minute work's non-developmental nature. Pervading the entire composition is a repeated ascending scale, a Bach fragment, played alternately by the violinists two octaves above the rest of the ensemble. Meanwhile, the other three musicians play, in homophony, a sort of chorale whose rhythm has run amok. The repeated motif first fascinates, then hypnotizes and ultimately serves a devotional function, focusing the listener's attention. The piece seems to go nowhere while also taking you everywhere on a self-reflective, meditative journey.

Most music aims to engage your mind; Miller's manages to free it, which leads to a whole new type of listening experience.

4. Nicole Lizée, Katana of Choice

Winnipeg-born Ben Reimer is a contemporary drumset specialist living in Montreal. (Emily Gan)

Upon listening to Nicole Lizée's Katana of Choice, performed by Ben Reimer and TorQ Percussionist Quartet on Reimer's album of the same name, we were so amazed by its rapid-fire metric shifts that we immediately contacted Reimer to find out if the music was actually performed that way, or if it was in fact some editing-suite trickery.

"100 per cent performed," he replied. "Once you spend serious time doing it, it becomes fairly natural."

Lizée describes the piece as "a duel-based, visual novel-style video game ... inspired by wuxia martial arts and film noir," and to create that sound world, she calls for drumset, glockenspiel, guitar, kaossilator, stylophone, pop gun, balloons, synthesizers, typewriters, vocals and foot stomps. Yes, there's a lot going on, but the sound is so creatively organized that the piece's various episodes unfold like successive levels achieved in a video game.

And like a video game, it's fun, intense and incredibly addictive.

5. Vincent Ho, Arctic Symphony

Vincent Ho received his 1st Juno nomination in 2018 for his percussion concerto The Shaman. (Hans Arnold)

Ho was inspired to write Arctic Symphony following his stint as an "artist onboard" for a tour of Canada's Arctic on the CCGS Amundsen. "We visited many Indigenous communities to learn about their culture and how the current state of the environment had impacted their way of life," he writes.

Arctic Symphony is a 38-minute symphonic distillation of that experience, from the sounds of the Amundsen's motor to the gusting Arctic wind, to the strains of "Qauma," an Igloolik song celebrating the arrival of spring. There's a cinematic quality to Ho's score, inviting the mind's eye to summon dramatic seascapes and tundra views. A more vivid evocation of people and places you're unlikely to hear.

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra commissioned Ho to write Arctic Symphony and their recording of the work — alongside Ho's The Shaman — was nominated for a classical Juno in 2018 in the large ensemble category.

Here are our predictions.

Should win

Weighing the merits of these five works is like comparing apples and oranges: each sets its own destination and has unique means of getting there. But we found Lizée's Katana of Choice to have the most ambitious concept of the five, and to be perfectly convincing. It deserves the Juno Award.

Will win

The jury will be swept away by the beautiful arc and assured writing of Sokolović's Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes. The Juno Award will go to her.