Sketching Maps: Deciphering Canada’s New Music Scene

i. impetus & method

When Music on Main’s Composer in Residence Nicole Lizée approached me on the occasion of the ISCM World New Music Days 2017 to give some insight into Canadian new music culture for non- Canadian composers, I wondered how to possibly tackle such a broad subject. As an active composer, sound artist, and educator living and working outside of Canada for eleven years now, I wondered what the perspective of this separation might bring to the discussion. Though I am perhaps less tuned in to all the local undercurrents bubbling up across the country, my distance, however, allows me to observe our cultural climate from the vantage point of both participant and outsider.

Since the goal of ISCM World New Music Days 2017 in Vancouver is to connect, provoke, excite, and engage a diverse and global audience in a contemporary and more casual format, I thought I would likewise take this call as an opportunity to experiment with the way I write and think about new music.

Rather than composing a formal academic essay, following this brief introduction, I will move to a more visually exploded, experimental patchwork cartography inspired by some of my own compositional techniques. This way of illuminating the Canadian new music landscape shares a similar interconnectedness and recombinancy of ideas, allowing freedom for the reader to find individual pathways through the material in real time. My hope is that by leaving multiple options open, a plurality of perspectives can be revealed and discussed.

(above: From “The Rite of Spring Sketches 1911-1913” Facsimile Reproductions from the Autographs, Published by Boosey & Hawkes, 1969)

Using hand-jotted fragments of material roughly written with different colors of ink, or torn out of different coloured sketch-pages pasted into large scrap books, Igor Stravinsky created collages of shufflable ideas – flexible manuscripts that allowed his brain to associate freely and find new relationships between his materials. I have transitioned to using similar strategies in my own compositional process using Digital Audio Workspace (DAW) sketching. I see my work as an extension of this way of thinking: using blocks of recorded sound to draw up detailed mockups. This interface helps me imagine alternate links between sound objects, while playing with how they might be superimposed and proportioned. I have grown to really appreciate this non-linear, non-chronological approach to brainstorming.

(Above: Screenshot of Di Castri’s Logic Pro mockup for “Tachitipo”, 2016)

I also find it useful to make storyboard mockups to sketch out “scenes” or gestural tableaux, particularly for my compositions that involve the movement of musicians and/or props through space. As a technique, it lends itself well to discovering and focusing interconnections between a network of ideas, while giving increased mobility to play around with ordering. I think it also encourages a more collaborative approach between the composer and performer, and the active engagement of audience members who may interpret their own meanings, associations, and narratives more readily.

(Above two images: Storyboard Sketches & Diagrams for Di Castri’s “Tachitipo”, 2016)

ii. mind mapping

I have taken the spirit of these compositional sketch strategies as a model to create a mind map that aims to represent certain general aspects of Canada’s current new music scene. These topics include: The Great Expanse, Funding Mechanisms, Institutions, Grass Roots movements, Technology/Intermedia, and Identity. This rough topography is not a finished work in itself, but rather a skeletal invitation to flesh out, reconsider, and brainstorm new creative possibilities. I hope that it will stimulate further reflection, especially for those who might be less familiar with our country’s particular cultural climate.

For the purpose of this exercise, I have chosen to filter the map’s ideas and concerns through a personal lens, which may not be representative of the experiences and views of all Canadian composers (I do not know that a handful of pages could possibly do justice to such a venture). As J. Brian Harley states in The New Nature of Maps, “far from holding up a simple mirror of nature that is true or false, maps re-describe the world…in terms of relations of power and the cultural practices, preferences and priorities”. One of the fundamental challenges with map making after all, is how to decide to reduce the complexity of the characteristics to be mapped.

While preparing this essay, I tapped into the hive mind, polling several musician and composer friends through social media from around the country and abroad to add detail to this map of ideas. A landslide of information poured back at me – more than can be crammed onto one small sheet. It was very encouraging to learn about the many innovative activities happening across the country though, and to hear from such diverse perspectives. Perhaps a next step would be to find a digital wiki-like platform to continue to expand, improve, and alter this map collaboratively into ever more detailed branches – an interactive and changing representation for further consideration by both participants and scholars studying the current musical landscape. I have chosen to include some examples of artists, organizations, festivals, ensembles, etc. at work in Canada today, but this is by no means a comprehensive listing. I have used examples representing some of the diversity of Canadian new music through regional representation across the wide spread of our physical geography, however I acknowledge that the map tends towards the major cities I have worked in.

I also want to clarify my use of the term ‘new music’ here as referring to experimental, creative music (i.e. not mainstream/commercial production) coming out of the classical concert/art music tradition, but also bleeding over into the areas of improvisation, electronic music, sound arts, site-specific performances, and intermedia arts. We are in a time when the very idea of genre is being put into question. Many artists are working between categories and see no problem with this blurring of borders, in fact they are fuelled by this heterogeneous practice. What I am exploring in the map is therefore a limited sample of all the new music currently being developed in Canada, but since the intention of this series of essays is to provide a platform for composers to talk to composers, I have chosen to focus on these particular sites of creation (as defined above) for now.

I believe that our musical reality as Canadian composers is rich, complex, diverse, messy, complicated, inspiring, individual, flexible, and very much a work in progress. It is my hope that this cartography will reflect some of this mentality, and might serve as a productive springboard for further discussion both at home and with the artistic community internationally.

iii. questions moving forward

It seems clear that music making in Canada is thriving with ever more composers, ensembles, opportunities, and organizations doing inspiring and meaningful work. So what steps can we take to continue forward? The map outlines what I believe are issues many Canadian composers are thinking about, particularly questions surrounding the topic of identity. While these are questions that no one really expects to find clear-cut answers to, they invite an important process of collective and individual searching that can help us to build a more inclusive and dynamic new music community.

In his excellent recent lecture at the Indigenous New Media Symposium, indigenous media maker, scholar, artist, and storyteller Jarrett Martineau posed the following questions: “What stories are we telling? Who are we reaching? What are we supporting? and Who are we accountable to?” I would thus like to propose some further questions that might help us steer the Canadian new-music scene into the future:

Where have we come from and where are we headed? How can the exploratory power of experimental new music be used to address our increasingly diverse population and what can we do to have our audiences reflect this reality? What must be done to welcome new voices into our community? How can we be more tuned into the “silences” and “absences” in our programming, commissioning, organizations, institutions, leadership, and schools? What concretely will we do to improve these gaps? How do we encourage true diversity vs. tokenism? What can we do to fight the pitfalls of a “Canadian Feedback Loop”? How can we help our music to circulate internationally? Become known outside the borders of our country? How can we move towards “externally facing artistic practices” (practices that embrace a spirit of interconnectedness with the public, with the outside & natural world) as percussionist Steve Schick speaks about in his New Music Gathering keynote speech? What can we do to better support and sustain one another in our music-making?

Asking ourselves such questions provides an opportunity to re-think, re-shape, re-define, re-question, re-sensitize, and re-mix to build a new music scene we can all feel proud and inspired to work within.

Zosha Di Castri. October 2017. New York, USA.

Zosha Di Castri is a Canadian composer/pianist living in New York where she is an Assistant Professor of Music at Columbia University. You can learn more about her work at

Music on Main commissioned this essay to share insight into Canadian music at ISCM World New Music Days 2017 which took place in Vancouver, Canada November 2-8, 2017.

ISCM2017 was presented by the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), the ISCM Canadian Section, the Canadian League of Composers / la Ligue canadienne des compositeurs, and Music on Main.

Support for The Composer Essay Project is generously provided by SOCAN Foundation.