John Gordon Armstrong sees new piece as ode to late father

John Gordon Armstrong, a professor of composition at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Music, can’t overstate the skill of the University of Ottawa Orchestra. In fact, he thinks so highly of the student orchestra that he is trusting them to play his newest piece 2017, on Nov. 10 at St Joseph’s Church.

“The university symphony is fabulous,” said Armstrong. “They might not be quite as good as the National Arts Centre Orchestra, but it costs a lot more to go see them, and the cost differential is a lot greater than the sound differential. (The University of Ottawa Orchestra) always rise to the occasion.”

Professor Armstrong—a trained guitarist—went into university with the intention of becoming a high school music teacher. But as the years went by, he found himself wondering whether he would end up studying the guitar or composition after he completed his undergraduate studies.

“It’s hard to pin down the exact reasons why I did what I did, but I chose to study composition,” Armstrong said.

A University of Toronto alumnus, Armstrong moved on to the University of Michigan to complete his doctorate, and eventually found his way to the University of Ottawa in 1993.

Armstrong began writing 2017 four years ago in August 2013. His compositional process typically involves starting one piece, finishing it and then moving on to the next, but for 2017, he wrote seven or eight pieces in between. Doing that, he finds, can be frightening.

“When you’re working on something, if you leave it, and then come back to it, you got to figure out where you were, and restart, and there’s always the danger of it becoming incoherent,” he said.

The piece is very personal. As he was nearing completion, Armstrong found one of the moments reminded him of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which brought back memories of his father—who used to work listening to opera. This led Armstrong to realize that not only had he turned 65 this year, but his father would have been 100. Being a monumental year for both of them, it was only fitting for the title to be simply 2017.

Speaking of his compositional process, Armstrong said that “a composer’s greatest tool is a very large eraser.”

While Armstrong may no longer use pencil and paper, he transfers his same techniques to the notation program Finale. So while the technology has changed, the music has not necessarily followed. The particular compositional method—the way in which a work is created— is not as important as most people believe.

“A lot of people talk about compositional method as if that’s important,” Armstrong said. “What’s really important is that you don’t sign your name to it until it’s good.”

Professor John Gordon Armstrong’s composition 2017, premiers on Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. at St Joseph’s church, performed by the University of Ottawa Orchestra, alongside pieces by Stravinsky and Shostakovich. The performance is free, though donations are appreciated.