In this instalment of Earmark, we catch up with Associate Composer Benjamin Sajo about responding to the pandemic with an increased need to write for oneself, moving to Nunavut and the role that music educators play in young musicians’ lives. 

CMC: How have you been adapting to the pandemic? Are you still collaborating, writing, editing, listening, researching? What has been your form of artistic engagement?

Benjamin Sajo: Thank you for asking a very challenging question. When we were first “hit”, I was home alone with my dog, and spent—like many of us—many hours looking at the ceiling. Suddenly, all the stresses of my life compelled me to write—as corny as it sounds. I just had to write, for myself especially. I had a startlingly holy-moly prolific time just writing. I can’t explain it beyond how it just felt so automatic, like a snowball of creation. Before I knew it, I had written nine short orchestral works inspired by Beethoven’s nine symphonies, in honour of his two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary. I called them “The Beethoven Episodes,” as preludes for them. His music got me started as a lover of classical music as a child, and so that love I feel I return with these compositions. They were also my first submissions to the CMC library, and I find that personally fitting.

Before the Pandemic, I was working as a private music teacher and supply teacher in Ottawa. For the former, the lockdown was very disconcerting, but when we reopened, I was able to connect with several students—especially the younger children—virtually, and experienced the whole process of trying to give them piano and guitar lessons with a little lag yet, wizard-like, nevertheless manage the gizmos that would keep us on the air.  

As a supply teacher, I had to travel every morning to a new school, wear the face shield and the face mask, and witness the bravery and tenacity of those who were determined to give and receive a formal education. The most bittersweet part for me was witnessing the anxieties and existential predicaments of our established music programs, especially those that were thriving within the performance paradigms (choirs, bands, orchestra, jazz bands) come to terms with embracing some sort of paradigm shift while nevertheless staying true to themselves and never sacrificing the quality of their programming. Now, as the Pandemic recedes, we’re witnessing, in these music classrooms, masters of two worlds, who know how to conduct and lead from the podium and who can now mix and mash-up electronic what-have-you.  

One happy highlight came when the first CD packages of my Great War Sextet: Canadian War Poetry with Trombone & Strings came, featuring some real amazing musicians: I’ll list them, because if it weren’t for their flair and dedication there would be no album: maestro Pratik Gandhi, trombonist Felix del Tredici, and the string team of Marianne Di Tomaso, Essie Liu, Maxime Despax, Jake Klinkenborg, and Vicente Garcia, produced by Mike Mullin! Though I wasn’t able to throw a party, having those CD’s in my hands—my first large-scale recording project—felt very much like an affirmation that things can only go upwards. It had me thinking of the balloon song from Mary Poppins Returns, where there’s “nowhere to go but up!”  

Speaking of up, I’m currently living and working in Nunavut, teaching English and music (and learning a lot of new music and sounds, too, from the Inuit music scene) in Gjoa Haven! And now I’m an Associate Composer of the Canadian Music Centre, which is an exciting dream come true, as long ago as when I first took a train to Toronto to check out an archival CD recording and score of R. Murray Schafer before the age of streaming— I look forward to new collaborations and opportunities. I don’t know what the future may bring,  

but there will always be moments of drought and moments of creating, and we live for the second one. 

CMC: What got you excited about music at a young age? 

BS: What didn’t? I’ve always been an easily enthused person. I used to ride my toy cars on the family piano, and there are still chips on the keys to this day (have yet to be ticketed!) I loved movie themes, TV themes, but I almost exclusively just listened to classical music and film scores growing up when left alone to my own devices—dancing and air conducting to Beethoven symphonies, that kind of thing. My sister Rebecca’s clarinetting definitely was an influence, too, and my mother introducing me to the Great American Songbook.

I took piano lessons when I was relatively young but found a greater pleasure in composing more than I did learning pieces. To this day, I’d much rather sight-read something for fun than spend time practicing something to perfection (that kind of shapes my pedagogy, too!). But things really kicked into gear from two sources: When I become a trumpet player, and when I began composition lessons with Wayne Irschick, a brilliant local teacher and composer who would push me hard to tears of effort in keyboard harmony and theory, and to this day is my paragon of what a great music teacher should be—patient, open-minded, calm, and inspiring, to say the least.

In high school, playing as part of the jazz and concert bands, I would make opportunities to write for them; I knew the players, they were my friends, and I wrote for them what I knew and—I hope—they enjoyed. The pleasure of collaborating with musicians and synching our joys in the creation of a new work continues to be my favorite thrill of this whole journey.

But what got me excited, and what still gets me excited to this day? Figuring out the musical “magic tricks” that inspire emotions in both performers and the audience. That sounded sleazy and manipulative; what I meant to say was that I’m fascinated by the power of music to trigger feelings of empathy in others—how music can be a medium of transfer for love, joy, transcendence, and their opposites into the imaginations of others.

CMC: What is an important music concert you attended? 

BS: When I was at McGill, I soaked in the McGill Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, sometime in 2012, conducted by maestro Alexis Hauser. I never heard the piece before. By the final double bar-line, my bones were rattling, and I was so profoundly shaken I had to stay seated for several minutes. Absolutely outstanding and indescribable. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that they were all students, and it was also their first time.

CMC: What have you been listening to lately?

BS: Now that I’m in Nunavut, I’ve been listening to a lot of Inuktitut songs. I jam when I can with the local Youth Music Program, and love the diversity of styles, both traditional and fusion (pop, rock, country, gospel, and classical). Music is also an excellent way to learn a language, especially the beautiful parts of that language.

I’ve been making a conscious effort to listen to a lot of pop music, especially club anthems and EDM—what the kid’s are listening to these days. I’m diversifying my listening to be a better teacher and composer.

Oh, and I just want to say I went to my first ever Yellowknife classical concert recently, the Longshadow Festival! Absolutely brilliant.

CMC: What is a significant insight that a mentor shared with you that has guided your practice? 

BS: I am happy for the diversity of mentors I’ve had. There were those who would encourage me to write for their ensemble as a regular contributor, and I’ve had those who would rip into me with baffling accusations of “kitsch” (whatever that means, and I still think you’re an awesome teacher, sir, so no hard feelings!). One teacher, Peter Paul Koprowski, a brilliant composer at Western, once said to me, “Someday, Ben, you’ll have to make a choice between jazz and classical–actually, you know what, forget what I said. You just keep on doing what you do.” And I’ve been doing that ever since.

CMC: What is the most important lesson you would share with your younger self regarding your music?

BS: I wouldn’t change a thing for myself. But, if there’s any advice I could give to younger composers, it’s this: don’t be afraid of reaching out to performers (including your school band or choir). Some demand to be paid a fee (and that’s good!), some just want to play new repertoire to keep themselves occupied (and that’s good!). Never judge the motivations of others, we all have different journeys. Lastly, spend as much time reading and self-directed learning about a diversity of theoretical techniques and styles—don’t be limited by your professor’s curriculum plan. Otherwise, you might never know what pan-triadic chromaticism is, or transformation theory! Be confident and humble.

CMC: Tell me about a project/work of yours that you are particularly proud of.

BS: To quote Jack Kerouac, “I’m going to marry my novels and have little short stories as children.” Over the last ten years, I’m particularly proud of a series of never-performed orchestral concerti inspired by James Turner’s Map of Humanity—“Abandonment” and “Hedonism” (trumpet concerti), “Wisdom” (harp concerto), “Reason” (contemporary music ensemble), Abomination (piano concerto), and “Fools Paradise” (flute concerto). I’m proud of them because they’ve always started off as extra-musical intellectual puzzles: “How shall I use the golden mean?” “How can I translate Hebrew gematria into music?” Each one would begin with near-crippling self-doubt: “why bother?” “how long will this take?”, “I’m not getting paid to write this!” etc., and, lo and behold, a few months later they’re done. They’re also my most personal and introspective compositions, meditations as much as means to an end. I need to go over them and tidy them up before publication, but in each of them I put a lot of heart, and though I hope someday they’ll be performed, I’m just so happy they currently exist as a dark and mysterious legacy.