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  • Christopher Butterfield


    Mollie Kaye

    UVic’s School of Music turns 50 with one of its first grads at the helm.

     

    BACK IN THE 1960s, when the University of Victoria’s music program was in its infancy—and classroom space at a premium—there was a fortuitous juxtaposition of audio and visual, one that birthed a fundamentally collaborative community. The physical spaces may have improved and expanded, but the prevailing spirit of the place is one that supports cross-pollination of the disciplines, leading to the boosting of creative potential that launches graduates on paths toward fulfilment and success.

    “When I was a student, we didn’t have a music building; we were at the end of the education building, right across the hall from the visual arts department,” says Christopher Butterfield, a composer, professor and current director of UVic’s School of Music. “We all hung out together; it always made me fond of an interdisciplinary approach.”

     

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    Christopher Butterfield (Photo by Ken Straiton)

    Butterfield took his first classes in the music department in 1969, but recalls with a laugh, “I bombed completely—flunked out.” He went back a couple of years later, more prepared to participate in the new program. “It was kind of an amazing place; there were incredible teachers here, we did wonderful stuff. I remember the four years I spent as a student being a very happy time. I don’t think the school has fundamentally changed,” he says, even though enrolment in the department has nearly doubled, and ample classroom space allows for full encapsulation of the musicians and composers.

    The journey that led Butterfield from cradle to captain of the University’s music department had both visual arts and musical components, but music was consistently the predominant expression of his own creative spirit. “When I was at school, I learned a lot about visual art, and hung out with a lot of artists—I married one at one point,” he laughs. “I think it’s important for people to know about other disciplines; they have a lot to teach a composer about form, time, structure. We need all the help we can get, so it’s useful to look at things outside music: architecture, poetry, film, cooking, whatever.”

    Like many musicians of his generation, he started out in an atmosphere of fierce rigour and harsh exactitude—the polarity of the free-wheeling, “anything goes” 60s and 70s arts paradigm. When that openness was offered to him at UVic, it built on his foundation of solidly-won skills, and Butterfield is cogent of the fact that now, in the post-hippie digital age, some particular skills can’t be glossed over; they are essential to supporting the creative process.

    “I teach first year composition, and have for 25 years. We don’t use computers; we use pencil and paper. It’s like drawing; it’s good to be able to draw from the subject and sketch, sometimes your pencil goes off in funny ways, you say, ‘I wouldn’t have done that if my hand hadn’t gone to sleep…’ You have to have some real knowledge of instruments in order to compose successfully, that’s what it boils down to. It’s not a matter of picking out any note and plunking it down; you have to get there from somewhere, and you have to leave there and go somewhere.”

    Butterfield advises his composition students to “know the common sense of the instrument” they are writing for, and “what works and doesn’t work. The only way around that is to work with instruments, work with people, get them to show you things. Ask about range—can you get from here to there? It never ends, you never get to the end, figuring out what will work and what will not.”

    UVic, Butterfield explains, is somewhat unique in being exactly the sort of place where composition students and student musicians can learn from each other this way, by working collaboratively—where composers can delve deep into how to play instruments, and musicians can have fresh opportunities to apply their artistry to new, exciting, creative work. “It’s always been part of the culture of the school that you can get your peers to play your pieces. That isn’t always the case in other [schools].…it’s something that contributes hugely to the spirit of the place. What the composers are writing can be pretty demanding and challenging, and the [student musicians] get right in there and do it.”

    His students can trust that he knows whereof he speaks, since his credentials and successes have contributed to the arts far beyond the confines of UVic. His stage, chamber, vocal, and multimedia works have been performed across Europe and North America. He studied as a boy chorister with Sir David Willcocks at King’s College, Cambridge from 1961–66; earned his bachelor’s of music in composition with Rudolf Komorous at the University of Victoria; studied at the State University of New York; and co-founded a rock group and did performance art. He was resident composer of the Victoria Symphony from 1999 to 2002, and his works are recorded on the Artifact and CBC labels. In 1992, he was appointed assistant professor of composition at UVic, and in January of this year, became director of the UVic School of Music.

    I ask if this recent ascendance to such an enormously significant leadership and administrative role has impacted his experience on campus. “To say it’s different would be an understatement,” Butterfield says wryly, but, “I have extraordinary people in my office. That’s the pleasure of it. In the administration end of things, they’re all way smarter than I am. They save my bacon daily.”

    Part of agreeing to the director post was taking on the happy—but behemoth—task of coordinating of the School of Music’s 50th anniversary festivities. The musical programming aspect is clearly Butterfield’s “happy place,” and he is especially excited about the “big concert” scheduled for early December. “We thought we’d go to town on performing—have lots and lots of performances, mostly using alumni who we would bring in to do recitals and concerts, and that has worked really well,” he enthuses.

    To celebrate their 50th anniversary, from December 1-3, the school will be having their first-ever reunion, and the December 2 Gala Concert evening’s scale is magnified by that context. Maestro Timothy Vernon will conduct the UVic Chorus & Orchestra in G. F. Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum, Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, and Beethoven’s Coriolanus Overture. School of Music faculty pianist Arthur Rowe and trumpeter Merrie Klazek will appear as soloists in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 for Strings and Trumpet. “That’s a big show,” Butterfield comments. “It’s kind of exciting to have Tim here to do it with us…Tim’s in the amazing place of having this opera company [POV] for the last 25 years; it’s an amazing thing to have in a town like this.”

    Butterfield's greatest satisfaction, he says, comes from seeing UVic graduates go on to shine. “I’m passionately interested in…what happens to students I might have taught here…It’s amazing what’s being done by people who used to go to school here.” To name just a few: Gordon Wolfe (BMus ’93) is Principal Trombonist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and teaches the country’s top young brass players at the Glenn Gould School. Cassandra Miller (BMus ’05) is an artistic director, composer, and winner of the 2011 Jules-Léger Prize for New Chamber Music. Elsewhereless, a chamber opera composed by Rodney Sharman (BMus ’80) with libretto and direction by Atom Egoyan, has been staged over 35 times in several countries. A recent facebook page set up for alumni got inundated with positive recollections naming the specific qualities of collaboration, connection, and community that Butterfield himself revelled in as a student—and continues to foster as an instructor and school director. “[This school] seems to generate its own community,” he says. “People are definitely part of the thing in a larger way than just coming to classes.” 

    UVic Chorus & Orchestra Gala Concert, December 2, 8pm, Farquhar Auditorium, UVic. Cake reception follows. $10 for alumni (ONECard required), $25 regular, $20 seniors, $10 students. www.finearts.uvic.ca/music or 250-721-8480.

    Victoria writer and musician Mollie Kaye enjoys collaboration and community-building as the soprano voice in The Millies, an a capella vocal trio.



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