Cannabis cantata: Composer reworks Bach on the highs and lows of legalization

A Toronto-based composer and pianist modernized a Bach piece about coffee addition to talk about the Canadian experience of cannabis legalization.

Peter Tiefenbach, a composer and pianist, used the Coffee Cantata as inspiration

Mireille Asselin and Peter Tiefenbach said there were a lot of giggles during rehearsal. (Haneen Al-Hassoun/CBC)

Toronto-based composer Peter Tiefenbach is making a habit of putting modern twists on older music. 

He reimagined Bach's Coffee Cantata — a piece about a father convincing his coffee-addicted daughter to give up the beverage — as the Cappuccino Cantata. In that piece, Tiefenbach recast the daughter as a lonely barista who's in a love triangle with her manager and a frequent customer.

But it was performing that piece at the Stratford Summer Music Festival last summer that led to an even more Canadian twist.

A member of his band was approached by an audience member who suggested they do the Cannabis Cantata next. 

"And that was too good an idea to ignore," he told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Monday. 

Tiefenbach said Mark Fewer, artistic director of the Stratford Summer Music Festival, then asked him to write the piece. Chamberfest then teamed up with Fewer to bring this piece to life. 

Mireille Asselin is one of the singers cast for the Cannabis Cantata. (Haneen Al-Hassoun/CBC)

The Canadian experience 

Cannabis Cantata is an exploration of the different ways the country has reacted to legalization, said Tiefenbach. 

He said the initial reaction was indifference, and people seemed to be waiting to see how the situation played out. 

"Then I started talking to people about it and they told me all sorts of different things. I had some students who said they had friends who went home for Christmas holidays and their parents were smoking up in the den.

"There was a wide variety of experience." 

Mireille Asselin, an opera singer who was cast for this piece, said there's a scene in the cantata where civil servants are grappling with technical issues around cannabis. 

She said working as a civil servant when she was a student helped her pitch in visualizations of civil servant life for the piece. 

"The board rooms and the sort of campuses of buildings," Asselin said. "And so Tunney's Pasture came up and it's such a fun place name, so it got incorporated."

Giggles without the high  

Asselin said she couldn't pass up the opportunity to work with Tiefenbach, whom she's known for years.  

She said the rehearsals were the first time that Tiefenbach had seen anyone's reactions to his text and his music on cannabis. 

"Myself and the two other singers in the show — we have a tenor and a baritone, as well — we've had a great time just sort of playing around and getting our giggles a little bit so hopefully we can keep a straight face this evening," Asselin said. 

The world premiere for Cannabis Cantata is on at the Ottawa Art Gallery Monday night at 10 p.m. 

CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning