Homo Universalis, A Path Still Relevant Today

Alexandra Fol, DMus, CTh

As someone who originates from a country with very few organs, where the predominant religious tradition preclude the use of instruments in places of worship, I learned of the instrument from reading biographies of great musicians past – Buxtehude, Bach, Messiaen. They all had one thing in common – facility in both composing and performing. In some cases composers, such as Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Xenakis, excelled as true homo universalis, people well-versed in at least one field other than music, people with a large culture générale.

My parents, both university professors, encouraged my pursuits, at no point implying that composing, performing and writing would become mutually exclusive, or would “compete” for my attention, a notion I did quickly encounter upon emigrating to the US (and later, to Canada), where the concept of career – in music or otherwise – implied, and still does, following a single-track, very specialized field of professional fulfillment. A common narrative would be that my composition will “slow down” a performance career, or that my semi-regular concerts would tragically “detract” me from composing a presumed masterpiece.

The pull towards specialization would sometimes be so great that well-wishing fans of my organ playing began to caution me against programming too many unknown and/or contemporary works as this would undermine my ability to pull an audience to my concerts. Similarly, the variety of composition commissions I started to accept, would prompt unsolicited comments from fellow composers who would warm me that my willingness to compose a piece of Gebrauchtmusik, or a cell phone ringtone would weaken my appeal to “traditional contemporary music ensembles” (notice the paradox in this phrase) or to “academic selection committees”, academia still seen as the single respectable career path for a composer holding a Doctor of Music degree.

In spite of naysayers and the occasional attempt to convert me into a single-path musician, consolidating the various expressions of my musical personality has allowed me to forge professional realizations that draw a diverse audience and clientele. My latest CD under the Disques Benedictus label, features me as an organist of traditional Western Christian sacred music. A Salve, Regina of mine, shows me as a composer to people who might not have otherwise listened to a contemporary music work. The CD includes also the first original (non-adapted from previously existing music) work in the Mohawk language, composed by Canadian Jean-Pierre Couturier and sung by myself, a project that included research, language lessons, trips to the Kahnawake reserve in Québec and coaching with native speakers. The premiere at the reserve and the support of members of the Mohawk First Nation, provided an unusual visibility of the release. In my view, my diverse interests only enhanced rather than reduce the final repertoire selection and project realization.

Nowadays, with the proliferation of unpaid internships, “working for exposure” and the encouragement of volunteering with disregard to ethics and quality, means that simultaneous aptitude in composing and performing becomes a necessity for living as an independent artist, at least in Canada.

Where I am in life I absolutely need to maintain a diverse stream of musical activities (read, income) to pay my bills. I admit I am mystified, for example, as to how composers who cannot perform make ends meet.

There are only that many composition teaching jobs and no full-time opening in Canada has been announced in years. Even the largest Canadian commissions would not amount to a livable yearly income, but would include a lot of work. I am fortunate to always find paid writing work – but it is not guaranteed, not enough to live on, and who known if or when my luck would run out.

Similarly, with so few full-time organ jobs in Canada, how can our art, our mission, survive the grim reality of always seeking supplementary income? And how much precious repertoire research time and practice time has to be sacrificed to seek out additional work, or to complete a boring administrative task that has been given onto a music director who would have otherwise learned a new work?

The problems cannot be adequately addressed by the musician community, because taboos sadly seem to exist pertaining to organists who are victims of “volunteer replacements” and who supplement their playing with non-music related jobs.

In writing this piece, I hope to connect with women who may be share some of my experiences. Together, we are stronger.

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