The Woman in Fleece

Ann Southam, one of Canada’s most illustrious contemporary composers, lived her life as she wrote her music: with deceptive austerity

Illustration by Brian Morgan
The opening fourteen bars of Ann Southam’s Rivers IV, second set, for piano.

On the third floor of Princess Margaret Hospital in downtown Toronto is a room that houses the magnetic resonance imaging machines used in cancer treatment. Listen deeply, and beneath the footsteps of passersby flows a repetitive murmur, a minimal electronic birdsong. In the fall of 2010, just weeks before she died from lung cancer, Ann Southam told her brother, Kip, that this sounded like beautiful music to her.

One of Canada’s most prolific contemporary composers, Southam found beauty in simplicity. Her death at seventy-three capped fifty years of contemplative and often understated, seemingly simple composition. “It’s just a question of simplifying… of seeing how eloquent I can be in as simple a way as possible,” she said in the liner notes for her album Returnings, which was released in late 2011, about nineteen months after she was awarded the Order of Canada for her contribution to the arts and her quiet philanthropy. “I don’t want a billion notes!” she declared.

Born wealthy, she never had to work a day in her life. But unlike Kip, a snappy dresser and a former member of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, Ann was shy and unassuming, seen most often in fleece sweaters and sensible shoes, even at glitzy concert hall premieres of her own material. She preferred turtlenecks to white gloves and gowns, greasy spoons over fine dining, silent philanthropy over personal recognition, the minimal over the maximal. Her no-frills stance informed her music as well: most of her pieces, including her best-received work, Rivers, are variations on what’s known as minimal music. (This April, the Toronto Dance Theatre will debut a new piece based on Rivers, envisioned by artistic director Christopher House.)

The term “minimalism” has been use to describe painter Sol LeWitt and writer Raymond Carver; in the mid-1960s, it was applied to the work of several then underground American composers, including Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young. Taking cues from the early twentieth-century compositions by Frenchmen Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel, and Claude Debussy, minimal music employs consonant tonal harmonies, often played in a droning, hypnotic manner. It is meant to be felt and enjoyed, an exact contrast to the often brash, atonal music that has dominated university composition departments for the past hundred years—music that is difficult by design and, not surprisingly, unpopular. But while minimalism is reviled within academia, it fares much better in pop culture: Reich and Riley are among the most recognized contemporary composers, as is Philip Glass, an American best known for his film scores.

Spare and subtle, minimalism does away with grand overtures and mounting tension in favour of small, gradual changes that slowly reveal hidden colour and texture. This is what appealed to Southam—the volumes contained in the placid—and she lived her life by the same principles. Her legacy has developed similarly: although she never got her big break, she has slowly, quietly, but insistently become one of Canada’s most important composers.

Born in winnipeg in 1937, Ann Southam entered the world with deep pockets. Her father, Kenneth Gordon Southam, was a great-grandson of newspaper baron William Southam, who founded one of Canada’s largest media dynasties. When she was three, the family moved to Toronto, hired a live-in nanny, and soon acquainted themselves with the city’s elite in tony Forest Hill. Her parents enrolled her in the Bishop Strachan School for girls, an institution with roots going back to Confederation.

This was the late 1940s, and girls from proper WASP households were taught not to draw attention to themselves. Ann never felt comfortable in her parents’ rigid world and would argue about having to put on a dress, but she found her own world in music. She played piano at recess, and often went with her nanny to hear the bagpipes at local weddings. She loved the repetitive East Coast fiddle music on CBC’s Don Messer’s Jubilee, and constantly listened to her parents’ collection of seventy-eights, especially Ravel’s Boléro, a one-movement orchestral piece built over an unchanging rhythm that, like Southam’s music, seems to explore entire worlds while remaining in one place. “She always used to say that her music was simply a mask so she could be herself,” says Kip. As she got older, it helped her get through, in her words, “the social nightmare” of growing up gay in the 1950s.

By age fifteen, in 1952—the same year her father died—Ann knew she wanted to be a composer. But composition was a man’s undertaking, as the thinking went, and so Ann, urged by her mother, entered secretarial studies at Shaw’s Business College after high school. She lasted a year before dropping out, then managed to land herself a place studying piano and composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where she met Professor Sam Dolin, a progressive, pipe-smoking type who never differentiated between male and female composers. He taught her the fundamentals, and introduced her to the new world of electronic composition, then known simply as “tape music.”

Still in its infancy in North America, tape music arose from two branches of the European avant-garde: France’s musique concrète, created by manipulating acoustic sounds on tape; and the Cologne Radio Studio in Germany, where artists like Karlheinz Stockhausen were composing with basic electronic signals. The electronic music developing in North America was largely created by splicing tape and experimenting with playback modes (quite literally, music made by hand), and the noises it used were unique rather than replications of acoustic ones. For Southam, it was a “wilderness of sound.”

In 1966, Dolin introduced her to Patricia Beatty, who had just returned from studying modern dance in New York. Like electronic music, modern dance was virtually unknown in Canada. “Maybe a handful of people in Toronto had even heard of modern dance,” Beatty says, “and Ann wasn’t one of them.” The two met at Beatty’s studio above the Pilot Tavern on Yonge Street*, then a hippie haven. “I danced my heart out for her,” says Beatty, “and when I stopped she said, ‘Well, that sure makes the ballet look effete.’ And I thought, ‘She gets it!’ ” Southam began working on a new score for Beatty’s adaptation of Macbeth, and the two became friends. They had much in common, including private school and a serious interest in contemporary art—which, says Beatty, “made both our families very nervous.”

Although she had found a new interior space in electronic music, Southam still inhabited her parents’ conservative milieu. “We weren’t supposed to go south of Bloor Street without a hat and gloves,” recalls Molly Weaver, an old friend from BSS who shared a house with Southam and several other girls until the early ’60s. But dance introduced Southam to a new, more progressive community. “So many people in dance are gay,” says Beatty. “Nobody cared. We were way out there, like a pack of monkeys.” Moving into her own apartment, on Walmer Road in the Annex, Southam drank, smoked, and entered her first serious relationship with a woman. “I could be as moody and as anti-social as I liked,” she recalled in a 2009 Globe and Mail article before adding, in her ’50s-inflected vernacular (peppered with expressions like “jim-dandy,” “jeepers,” “what a hoot”), that sexuality in the dance world was “higglety-pigglety anyway.”

Beatty co-founded what would become Toronto Dance Theatre, one of Canada’s most acclaimed companies. It would establish Southam (who wrote nearly thirty electronic scores for the group, beginning in 1968 and continuing for fifteen years) as a real composer; in turn, her annual donations kept it afloat. This heralded a lifetime of quiet philanthropy for Southam, undertaken out of generosity with a tinge of guilt. While inherited wealth allowed her to devote herself to composition, she worried that her money might compromise her artistic achievements. Unlike her peers, who struggled to obtain government grants and degrees for teaching work, she was never subjected to peer review, never rejected. She wondered if she was good enough. Austerity was both a rebellion and a means of self-validation.

In the early ’70s, Southam, now in her thirties, began to wean herself away from the hard-partying dance world and became more herself: she quit drinking, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, began psychoanalysis, entered a new long-term relationship—and came out to her mother. “Our mother was very angry about it,” says Kip, who stood by Ann. “Her children didn’t turn out the way she wanted, which is often the case. She was never going to have grandchildren.” Ann purchased a home on Summerhill Avenue, in a neighbourhood she deemed “rip-off row” for its outrageously expensive shops. Although it was a modest space (she taped pictures to the wall, and hung a large towel above her bed to conceal a crack in the plaster), she installed a Bechstein grand piano in her living room.

By the end of the decade, electronic music was undergoing a fundamental change, as computers replaced tapes and digital overtook analog. Southam found herself increasingly drawn to the piano, which she had often played but was hardly known for composing on. She toyed with the same simple patterns she had used electroacoustically, spooling out a twelve-tone row again and again, each time in a new way. She likened this process to inquiry: each row answered the previous one with a new question. Slowly, a collection of solo piano pieces, called Rivers, emerged.

For archival purposes, she asked Christina Petrowska Quilico, a Julliard-trained pianist and York University professor, to perform the score. Says Quilico, now York’s director of classical piano, “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is the most boring thing I’ve ever played.’ ” So she sped it up, and then noticed that harmonies began to reveal themselves among the repetitive patterns: the droning left hand created a backdrop that allowed tunes to pop forth from the roaming right hand. Southam removed her tempo markings, and by 1982 Quilico had recorded the entire cycle and was playing sections while on tour in London, Greece, Israel, and New York. Like Rivers, Southam’s next major piece, Glass Houses, a series of solo piano works released by CBC Records, received critical acclaim.

Southam likened this music to traditional women’s work such as weaving and sewing. “We were playing this work of Ann’s called Webster’s Spin,” says David Jaeger, CBC’s highest authority on contemporary classical, referring to a 1987 segment he produced for the CBC Radio program Two New Hours, “and she talked about women’s work, repetitive tasks that she felt were consigned to women, but that they took great pleasure in. It’s manual labour, it’s hard, and it can be wearing, but it is also their tradition and a tradition that results in beautiful things.”

While Southam had yet to adopt the term “feminist,” the best way she could see to change the male-dictated world of composition was not to become masculine, but to embrace femininity. Alongside her friend and fellow composer Mary Gardiner, she helped found the Association of Canadian Women Composers in 1981, with a mandate to help fund and support emerging female performers and composers across the country. And, in the mid-’90s, she began volunteering with the Canadian Women’s Foundation, which supports education, interest-free loans, and job training for women facing violence and poverty. As she had done for the Toronto Dance Theatre, she gave generously but silently.

As she grew older, austerity became a bigger part of her identity, and she increasingly distanced herself from her wealthy background. “I didn’t even know about her money for years,” says Alice Ping Yee Ho, a fellow composer and friend of both Southam and Gardiner. Kip remembers attending a dinner with Ann at the Hazelton Hotel: “It’s not a cheap restaurant—quite a glitzy place, and the sophisticated crowd, bullshit bling was there,” he says. “Ann shows up in her sweatshirt and sweatpants, carrying a Loblaws shopping bag with her stuff in it. I’m sure they were thinking we were bringing a bag lady off the street. They said, ‘Can we take your bag?’ and Ann said, ‘No, no, no, that’s my purse.’ ”

While she was very close with her brother, Southam rarely spoke about her family. “She was always very curious about my family, but she would never talk about her own,” says Ho. “Let’s just say she didn’t enjoy Christmas because of something in the family. She would say something like that, and then add that she’s more comfortable in her pyjamas.” Money, she felt, changed how people related to one another.

Through the ’90s, ensembles performed Southam’s music on stages from Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre to Memorial University in St. John’s, and later at Glenn Gould Studio and Massey Hall in Toronto. Her reputation was building—in Canada, at least—and with it came new commissions and recordings. Around 1998, Jaeger invited concert pianist Eve Egoyan (sister of filmmaker Atom) to play on a new studio recording of Southam’s he was producing, believing that Egoyan’s methodical technique would complement Southam’s softer work. He was right; while Quilico tended to perform the faster material, Egoyan would play many of the slower, subtler pieces. Together, they represented her duality: lively and strong, quiet and still. Egoyan and Southam began working on new CBC commissions, and in 2001 Egoyan premiered her Figures with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Massey Hall.

In 2009, Egoyan and Southam released Simple Lines of Enquiry. Extremely slow and spare, the fifty-nine-minute recording became one of the rare Canadian compositions to garner international attention. New Yorker music critic Alex Ross placed it among his top ten recordings of the year—all the more exceptional when you consider that, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, Canada has but two contemporary composers: Claude Vivier and R. Murray Schafer. Simple Lines spurred a new wave of interest in Southam’s work. Egoyan began receiving calls to perform the piece at venues outside of Canada for new audiences who had only just heard of the composer. Encouraged, Southam hit a creative stride, revisiting her Glass Houses score with Quilico; composing another Egoyan-inspired set of pieces, called Returnings; and working on a modern dance piece called Pond Life with renowned dancer and choreographer Terrill Maguire.

“During these sessions in the studio, Ann mentioned that she couldn’t get rid of this cough,” says Maguire, “and she’d hack away.” While she had given up smoking decades earlier, lung cancer ran in her family; she always felt she would die from the disease, and regularly saw a respirologist. This time, the news was bad, and soon she was undergoing treatment at Princess Margaret.

Although the chemotherapy weakened her, she continued to work. Pond Life debuted in Newfoundland, with Quilico performing the score to Maguire’s choreography. “She was very interested in the therapy, in the machinery and what she thought was cutting-edge treatment,” says Kip. (She also believed the chemo somehow switched on a love for the music of ABBA. “The doctors couldn’t tell if she was serious, but she was,” he says.) When the Order of Canada ceremony was scheduled in Ottawa, Southam was too sick to travel, which saddened her deeply. The award recognized a career that spawned dozens of recordings. Southam had penetrated the male-dominated world of classical music. She had become the opposite of what her conservative upbringing might have made her, and had given her time and money to help empower other women. This is what she would stake her legacy on, quietly arranging to leave some $14 million to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

Four days before Southam died, Molly Weaver took on the uncomfortable responsibility of asking her what music she wanted played at her funeral. There would be no funeral, she responded. “I said, ‘Your friends have to say goodbye to you,’ ” Weaver recalls, and Southam agreed to a small memorial, with Eve and Christina playing the piano. Days later, Weaver arrived at Southam’s house for a visit and was told by her caregiver that she was upstairs sleeping. Breathing but not twitching, she wouldn’t wake up.

“I said, ‘Let’s say something dreadful and see if we get a reaction.’ I said, ‘Sout, we’re going to put you in a dress and paint your piano blue.’ Nothing.”

* The printed version of this story misstated the location of the Pilot Tavern. The Walrus regrets the error.

This appeared in the April 2012 issue.

Jay Somerset
Jay Somerset, an editorial adviser for Musicworks magazine, contributes regularly to the Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, and Spacing magazine.
Brian Morgan
Brian Morgan is the art director of The Walrus.