Research@Schulich: Steve Cowan

Steve Cowan is a DMus student in guitar performance, and his research explores the connection between contemporary guitar techniques and the dialects from his home province of Newfoundland. He is about to present his final doctoral lecture-recital: “Between Speech and Music: Composing for the Guitar with Dialectal Patterns.”

Steve Cowan is about to complete his Doctor of Music here at the Schulich School of Music in guitar performance. Originally from St John’s, Newfoundland, he has performed and taught extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and Europe. His critically-acclaimed debut album Pour Guitare features exclusively Canadian music and has helped to establish him as "one of Canada's top contemporary classical guitarists" (Classical Guitar Magazine). He has commissioned several new works for guitar and given world premieres in major cities including Paris, Toronto, and New York.

Steve has won awards at nine major national and international performance competitions, seven of which are first prizes. An experienced educator, he has given public masterclasses at the University of Victoria, McMaster University, Conservatorium van Amsterdam, the Royal Danish Academy of Music, and more. Steve holds degrees from Memorial University and the Manhattan School of Music.

He is about to present his final Lecture-Recital for his Doctor of Music on March 11th: “Between Speech and Music: Composing for the Guitar with Dialectal Patterns” is open to the public, and more information is on the website. In August he will co-present a lecture on speech and guitar with Jason Noble and Dr. Caroline Traube at the 21st Century Guitar Conference at the University of Ottawa.

Watch a video of Steve performing a work that was dedicated to him in 2015, by composer Gulli Björnsson:

What made you choose McGill for your studies?

First and foremost, I didn’t want to leave Montréal, as I had already been living here for a few years and loved it. Even so, as I began considering my academic future, McGill presented itself as the best option for my goals. The guitar and doctoral programs were a perfect fit for my projects.

How has being a McGill student influenced you and your research?

I wouldn’t say I had much of an idea about what my research or artistic identity actually were prior to McGill. It forced me to focus my projects, collaborations, and presentations into an image that has helped my career in many ways. There is an inspiring and supportive network of mentors and peers to learn from at this institution.

Explain your research in three sentences or less:

I am collaborating with a composer, Jason Noble, to create new electroacoustic works for guitar based on speech. Using field recordings of Newfoundland Dialects as a starting point, we have experimented with technology, guitar techniques and notations in three new pieces that blur musical lines between speech and guitar.

What led you to this particular topic?

I was a big fan of Jason’s music and approached him in 2015, asking if he would be interested in writing for the guitar. As we are both from Newfoundland, we decided to pay homage to NL culture in this new project. An article about disappearing dialects in Newfoundland then appeared in the news, and so our discussion turned to speech-based music as a potential way to celebrate these dialects while they are still a living reality. After listening to existing contemporary music based on speech, our ideas began flowing and we decided to record dialects around Newfoundland as the basis for our own compositional experiments.

What stands out as really adding to the existing knowledge in the field?

Using a program called SPEAR, Jason and I extracted individual partials from speech samples. We devised ways of replicating the sounds of these partials using extended techniques on electric guitar, as well as our own notation to communicate it.

After consulting a PhD thesis by McGill alumnus Dr. Caroline Traube, we learned vowel analogies that can be associated with different plucking points on the guitar.

While imitating rhythmic and melodic inflection of speech on the guitar is nothing new, we have added the dimension of plucking timbre based on the vowel sounds in order to make the sound even more “speech-like”.

What are the practical implications of your work, and who is going to benefit most from the research?

As a performing artist, or in Jason’s case, as a composer, this project is a very personal addition to our output. We are hoping that the speech element helps reach a wider audience than just the niche circles of contemporary music, and that this exposure highlights Newfoundland dialects as a source of cultural pride. From a more practical standpoint, the documentation of our process with regards to computer software and execution on the guitar can provide future composers and guitarists useful tools to work with.

What’s next for you?

I’ll be graduating in May, at which point I will dive into preparations for upcoming concerts, conferences, album recordings, and tours. These will involve further development of the previously mentioned research, as well as other solo or ensemble projects with colleagues I have worked with at McGill.

You can watch a presentation from the 2017 Research Alive series featuring the research of Steve Cowan and Jason Noble:

What advice would you give to new students in your program?

Stay active as a musician outside of McGill, even if it takes time away from your studies. You will gain perspective, clarity, inspiration, and valuable time management skills needed to live the freelance lifestyle that many of us end up working within. Also, befriend those who are ahead of you in your program. They are usually willing to offer help and advice when needed!

Where is your favourite place to study?

In the claustrophobic rooms at 550 Sherbrooke. I focus best without windows and after breathing the same air for several hours.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I have other musical outlets that are more like hobbies. I like to improvise with friends, and I compose experimental rock music for my band SURGEON. This city has a lot to offer in the realm of restaurants, bars, concerts, museums, film festivals… I try to stay aware of all the interesting events happening. It’s easy to get too lost in our own musical worlds... taking good art IN helps put better art OUT.

What is your earliest musical memory?

Demanding my parents play “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys on cassette every time we got in the car. I really loved that song.

If you hadn’t ended up in music, what would your alternate career path have been?

I have a very limited set of skills outside of music. I think I would maybe enjoy being a truck driver. I like long road trips and weird motel vibes.

What was the last book you read?

I’m currently reading a biography of Leonard Cohen. Although I never paid much attention to his writing or music, he led a fascinating life and now I am more curious about his work.