Composing himself: Denys Bouliane

Composing himself: Denys Bouliane McGill University

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McGill Reporter
May 4, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 16
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 32: 1999-2000 > May 4, 2000 > Composing himself: Denys Bouliane

Composing himself: Denys Bouliane

| As Denys Bouliane steals a moment to reflect on his loaded schedule, words like "crazy," "unbelievable" and "hectic" punctuate his sentences.


Indeed, he hardly has time to fix himself a cappuccino and breathe as he sits in the basement studio of his St-Henri townhouse. Seconds after ensconcing himself amid a jungle of wires, computer screens and his precious piano, the phone starts jangling again. He scans the call-display with every ring and finally excuses himself when he obligingly answers one caller. "This one's from Europe," he explains.

After squeezing in a few transatlantic words with his friend, Bouliane marvels at this juggling act that's hampering his sleep and leisure time. "I'm afraid I'll lose my footing if this pace doesn't let up soon," he confides.

As a man of triple talents — McGill music theory professor, composer and conductor — it's not surprising that Bouliane is always busy. But the exhausting pace he's currently keeping is being fueled, luckily, by a project he's absolutely passionate about: co-composing the Millennium Symphony, a two-hour concert of new music that will be played on the grounds of St. Joseph's Oratory on June 3. Bouliane will also be co-artistic director of the event, with Walter Boudreau, director of the Société de Musique Contemporaine du Québec, which is producing the event.

Bouliane's eyes don't merely shine, they sparkle, as he describes the event. "It's a monster project," he says, noting the concert will include music by 19 Montreal composers, played by 333 musicians, simultaneously, on 15 stages. Even the bells of 15 churches, in different parts of the city, will take part in the act and ring on cue during show segments.

"This concert will be a world-first," Bouliane continues, adding organizers expect 25,000 people will attend the musical moment that's being staged at $1.2 million and sponsored by various organizations. Countless others will be able to tune in to the live broadcast on CBC Radio.

Three years in the making, the Millennium Symphony will include performances by well-known acts like the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, I Musici, the Nouvelle Ensemble Moderne and Les petits chanteurs du Mont-Royal. Although pieces to be performed bear titles like Purgatory, Inferno, Contemplation and Ascension, Bouliane says, "these themes will be used metaphorically, rather than religiously."

Bouliane's role in the project is threefold: he is writing the music to be played by the MSO and the main score that will link the 19 compositions together, and he will oversee the event and its 15 conductors from the main sound-engineering pit.

But the job doesn't appear to faze him. After all, this is a man who won the 1999 Personality of the Year OPUS award from the Conseil québécois de la musique, a prize equivalent to a Grammy in Quebec's classical music scene. He's also a seasoned composer with 35 works to his name, compositions he describes as "concert music" or "contemporary classical."

Bouliane is used to creating musical experiences that challenge. "Because music is present in most public places these days, society has learned not to listen and push music to the background," he explains. "As a composer, my responsibility is to write music that's strong enough to stand on its own. I try to write music that creates its own world."

That approach has worked well for Bouliane during his 25-year career, whether he's been composer-in-residence for various renowned orchestras or conducting symphonies in cities around the globe including Cologne, Germany, his second home, where he spent 15 years with his wife, soprano Ingrid Schmithüsen.

But the Grand-Mere, Quebec, native is active at home, too. He is director of the Quebec City new music festival, Musiques-aux-présent, presented at the Théâtre du Capitole from May 4 to 6, an engagement that's had him travelling to the Old City every second day recently as he's also conducting the series. He also founded, in 1995, the New Music Symposium that takes place in the Charlevoix region every August. At McGill, Bouliane is music director of the McGill Contemporary Music Ensemble (CME). The 35-piece orchestra is another of Bouliane's passions, as it gives budding young composers and musicians a unique outlet to hone their talents. Not only does the CME perform an international repertoire, it performs pieces penned by students a dozen times a year.

Because many of these concerts are recorded and given exposure by CBC Radio, Bouliane says, "students are subsequently enabled to enter, and win, various national competitions for young composers.

"About 60 compositions have come out of the CME so far," he continues, noting that new music must be performed live if a composer is to perfect her work. "That's when you pick up on all the details," stresses the music composition and orchestration professor.

Improving on details is also the reason Bouliane is eager to complete the Millennium Symphony, maintaining his frenzied pace so that rehearsals with the multiple orchestras can begin.

"When you compose something on this large a scale," he stresses, "you can't improvise."

The only thing Bouliane is leaving to fate is the weather. "Let's just pray it doesn't rain."

Considering the venue, praying might just provide the assurance he seeks.

The Millennium Symphony will be performed at 8:30 p.m., June 3, on the St. Joseph's Oratory grounds. Admission is free. Call (514) 843-9305 for more information.

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