“Some may say that I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing.” – Florence Foster Jenkins ...
When Michael Westwood asked me to compose a new piece for the November 9 concert in his Toronto chamber music series, I said sure! When he suggested that the piece be on a theme around memories, I got more than I bargained for.
Various chapters in my life flooded my heart and soul, many very painful. I settled on one incident from my childhood growing up in Ottawa that had been kept secret for 30 years, up until now…
In February 1987, I was 12 years old and a grade 7 student at St. Joseph’s Junior High School in Ottawa. One day, a classmate and I got in a fight in the boys locker room before the start of gym class. For the life of me, I cannot remember what the fight was about but I remember quite vividly all the series of events that were to transpire…
As my classmate and I jostled on the floor and chaos ensued amongst everyone else, the gym teacher barged in and told everyone to knock it off! I had not yet changed and I was the last to leave the change room. I was so enraged by my classmate for starting the fight, that I went to his stall, took his pants and threw them in the garbage bin. The last laugh would be on him when we returned from the gym and he would have to fish his pants out of the stinky garbage.
Forty-five minutes later, we all returned to the change room and my classmate was looking for his pants. I couldn’t wait to see his reaction when he found them in the garbage! Then I saw him look at the trash bin but he didn’t see them in there. To my horror, I realized that the janitor had emptied the bins while we were in the gym!! I remained silent as we all marched off to our next class, minus my pant-less classmate.
Thirty minutes later, the Vice Principal pulls all the boys out of class and lines us up asking each of us, “did you take his pants?” When he came to me, I gave a stone-faced, “no”. The pants were never recovered (obviously) and my classmate had to wait until 5pm for his parents to bring him another pair from home – it was the dead of winter.
To this very day, every time I visit Ottawa and pass by that school on the corner of Scott and Stirling, I think of that day and feel the equivalent of having gotten away with murder. As innocent or even amusing as this incident sounds, I have never lost the feeling of guilt. Before composing this piece, no one other than my wife ever knew the truth.
This composition attempts to musically capture the shame, guilt and anguish I have felt over this incident for the past 30 years. The soprano sings no words, only syllables, symbolizing how I kept this a secret all these years. The clarinet and soprano are almost always in unison, attempting to convey a reinforced emotional melody and almost in essence, creating a new instrument. The piece starts aggressively and gradually works its way to an uneasy calm. This is what I normally feel when thinking back – the initial shock of the memory gradually fading away until it comes back again.
Reliving this shameful chapter in my life through music has been hard, but therapeutic. I’m glad Mike asked me to write this piece and I’m sure the premiere of Memories of Place Past – St. Joe’s on November 9 will do justice to these emotions.