5 questions: composer ThierryTidrow, winner of the 2014 Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music for his work

5 questions: composer ThierryTidrow, winner of the 2014 Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music for his work

Posted 12 December 2014
Thierry Tidrow (Photo: Deen van Meer )

A Canadian composer who’s making waves: Thierry Tidrow, winner of the 2014 Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music

Franco-Ontarian composer Thierry Tidrow is the winner of the 2014 Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music for his work Au fond du Cloître humide. Thierry has collaborated with many performers and ensembles across Europe and North America, including the Asko-Schönberg Ensemble, the Ereprijs Orkest, Utrecht’s Insomnio, the Talea Ensemble, the New York Miniature Ensemble, the Bozzini String Quartet,the Chiara String Quartet, Berlin’s Ensemble ApparatEnsemble Proton Bern, Cologne’s Ensemble Garage, Erik Bosgraaf, Brian Archinal, Continuum Contemporary Music and the Dutch National Opera Academie (DNOA), which under the direction of Javier Lopez-Pinon and Lucas Vis premiered his opera Less Truth More Telling in January 2013His piece It had something to do with the telling of time… was nominated for both the Gaudeamus Music Week 2011 and the Toonzetters 2011, and his piece Silk Hole was awarded a commission prize at the Ereprijs Orkest’s Young Composers’s Meeting 2011. In 2014, both Less Truth More Telling and Violon et Clarinette were awarded SOCAN Foundation Awards.

In 2009, he earned his Bachelor of Music degrees in honours composition and theory at McGill University, where his composition teachers included Brian Cherney and Christoph Neidhöfer. As a Fondation Ricard and Canada Arts Council Fellow, he received his Masters degree from the Conservatorium van Amsterdam in 2011 (under Richard Ayres) and an Advanced Studies diploma at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg in 2013 (under Brice Pauset).

Born in Ottawa in 1986, Thierry currently lives in Cologne, Germany.


Video: Less Truth More Telling (2011/12) one-act opera for two singers, two speakers and chamber orchestra [30 min.], music by Thierry Tidrow; text by Matthew Ricketts

Thierry agreed to answer a few of our questions about himself and his work.


One morning you woke up to find that you’d won the Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music. What does this mean to you?

I’m still amazed! In Canada there are so many interesting composers, young and old, who are writing unique and fascinating music, that I’m both delighted and surprised to have won such a prestigious and sought-after prize. Obviously I am very happy to have received a prize of this importance, since for an artist, a prize like the Jules Léger is not just a nice reward, it’s also a form of recognition for our art, for all the hours of work and all the sleepless nights that have paid off in the ultimate goal of all art: to communicate, to provoke thought, and to stir emotions.

You began singing very young (at the age of nine) and studied singing for a long time (at university). What brought you to contemporary music? Can you imagine having gone in another direction?

Oh yes. I love singing, and I think the core of my music today still has an inherently lyrical aspect. I came into the world of music through choir, singing with the St. Matthew’s Boys Choir in Ottawa, and it was thanks to my discovery of the great vocal works of Bach, Mozart, Britten, Byrd and Palestrina that I knew from a very early age that I would be a musician for life.  I sang a lot right up to my studies at McGill University, where I wanted to study Early Music Performance as well as composition, since in my teens I had developed an obsession with composing in every moment of my spare time (including the time originally intended for algebra homework!) and would play Stravinsky full blast on every school morning. However, in trying to juggle performance and composition, I soon realized that it was impossible for me to follow two such highly demanding paths simultaneously. I was thus faced with an extremely difficult choice. It’s a decision that I don’t regret, even if it still is a bit bittersweet to see my former fellow singers becoming opera stars. But then I console myself quickly enough by reminding myself that I’ve written an opera! Actually, that’s precisely why I chose composition as my profession - in the end, creation is something absolutely incredible which, in cultivating our imaginations, leads us to constantly surpass ourselves and produce whole worlds that we never even thought possible.  

What is a typical day of composition for you? Where does it happen: at the computer, at an instrument?

Neither! I write absolutely everything down on paper and then, given that my writing is virtually illegible for anyone but me, I transfer the notes to the computer while listening to my favourite Radio-Canada/CBC podcasts (I feel the need to put in a plug for our embattled national broadcaster). For me, there’s nothing creative about working at the computer:  it’s merely formatting, a mechanical job comparable to housework. In acoustic music I think that it’s important to write on paper and not on machines that sap both your energy and your spirit, nor on an instrument that could ‘give’ you the notes. I have to find the notes, the sounds, the gestures and the drama of each piece of music within myself; it’s only once I’ve reached the advanced phases that I use tools to fine-tune my ideas, and then I’ll resort to the piano, the metronome...

The magic always happens on paper, and usually in cafés. I like to be alone in a crowd, and I feed off the energy of cafés, where there’s a mix of readers, diligent students, talkative groups of friends and more. For me, a good café is a sacred place where the muses of caffeine and atmosphere invariably pay me a visit.

What are you doing in Cologne? Do you think your time in Germany will have an influence on your music? What does the international stage represent for an artist?

My sense of adventure guided me toward Europe. After studying in Amsterdam and Freiburg thanks to the support of the Ricard Foundation and the Canada Council for the Arts, I moved to Cologne. For me, it’s an ideal city: festive, welcoming, dynamic both culturally and socially, and well-positioned in the heart of Western Europe. I wanted to stay in Germany for a while, since I had been captivated by the language from my very first experiences through Bach and Schubert. And because I spent many years studying the language and culture of the masters of the classical canon, Germany was an obvious choice for me. But it’s clear that I’ll come back to Canada one day, since I miss my country, my family, my friends, my colleagues and, believe it or not, even the winter!

One of the biggest challenges for a Canadian artist is breaking into the international scene, and that’s easily explained: we’re isolated in North America, and often even in our own regions of this country that is so huge and so compartmentalized (this is the greatest challenge in the country, in my opinion). That is one of the main reasons I wanted to discover Europe at an early age, and those were the years that allowed me to explore several scenes, create friendships all over and understand what it really means to be North American, Canadian, and Franco-Ontarian. My experience abroad has left a huge impression on me and helped me to better know myself and grow as an artist, since we learn so much about ourselves in learning about others.

You won the Jules Léger Prize for your work Au fond du Cloître humide. Tell me about the piece.

This piece was commissioned by Continuum Contemporary Music[1] in Toronto, an ensemble composed of violin, cello, clarinet, flute, percussion (to date, all instruments that inspire me enormously), and  ... piano. I am not a pianist and I’ve always found the instrument limited in several respects. Of course, you can play a fugue for 5 voices and chords with more than 10 notes, but it’s an instrument that is nonetheless limited when you think about timbre, glissando, vibrato, crescendo on a single note, or about microtones (the frequencies between the notes of the piano); in short, all the things that a voice can do easily do without any effort! 

But instead of avoiding the instrument, I decided to confront it and put it at the heart of the action as a solo instrument. In my recent work, I’ve been trying to talk to the past by initiating musical exchanges with either a particular composer or style that intrigues me and that I am inspired of having a conversation with. For me, the piano inevitably evokes the 19th century, and so that’s where I got the idea of evoking the great piano master Chopin – not the showy composer of the Grandes Valses Brillantes, but the more intimate, more melancholy poet. I decided to intertwine my 2 favourite works, 2 preludes that I find terrifyingly beautiful. This reference is not just a tribute; it’s also a way of finding and situating my ‘self’ in relation to the ‘other’ that is very defined, in this case the material of Chopin. Thus we are in a world of sound that is sometimes very Tidrow, sometimes very Chopin, but always ‘under the influence of’ Tidrow, where even the moments that consist of almost pure transcription are nonetheless imbued with an extremely personal interpretation. The title, Au fond du Cloître humide (In the depths of this damp cloister), is a quote from George Sand, drawn from a memoir she wrote in Majorca upon hearing her lover play this famous chromatic and heartbreakingly tragic prelude.

What are your plans on the musical front? Where do you think your music will take you?

I have a lot of musical projects for the future – we'll just have to see how it all works out. Currently I am interested in the concept of voice and I’m looking into new and exciting ways of integrating it into music. For example, my last work for British Columbian clarinetist Heather Roche is entirely played and sung simultaneously, which makes for fascinating colours and acoustic effects. I am also writing a semi-theatrical piece whose working title is Cantata for the very talented Basel percussion quartet Ensemble This Ensemble That; instead of only working with music at the forefront, here noise, speech, song and movement are treated as equally important features and are used to explore the diverse facets of masculinity.

But in terms of major projects, I can’t give you a clear answer. There are an infinite number of possible artistic directions right now, and that is precisely what stimulates me. One thing I can say for sure is that so long as I keep a sense of humour, a love of life and a healthy imagination, the music will guide me.

Interview prepared by Lolita Boudreault


Jules Léger Prize 
Awarded annually, the Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music is a competition for Canadian composers to encourage the creation of new chamber music and its performance by Canadian chamber groups. The $7,500 prize was established in 1978 by the Right Honourable Jules Léger, then Governor General of Canada.

The competition for the prize is administered by the Canada Council for the Arts, which also funds the award, selects and manages the peer assessment committee and promotes the winner. CBC/Radio-Canada broadcasts the winning composition.

The jury made a special mention of two other works submitted for the Jules Léger Prize: 

  • Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery by Marc Sabat
  • Cloche sur table by David J. Foley

[1]Continuum Contemporary Music had received a grant through the Canada Council’s program of Commissioning of Canadian Compositions for the commission of this work.


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