conducting-with-leaves-300MusicaNova Composition Fellow Fiona Ryan is a composer, performer, music instructor, and music director who returned to her hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada in 2014 after several years living and studying composition in Toronto. Her music has been performed at various venues in Canada, the UK, and the United States. Her piece Re:Play will have its American Premiere in the MusicaNova Orchestra’s concerts on October 30 and November 1, 2016.

Most recently, she’s been teaching composition, music theory, and musicianship courses at the Fountain School of Performing Arts at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She’s also working on various projects including composition commissions, planning workshops, developing shows, and performing. Her current creative interests include narrative and storytelling in music, musical communication, formal exploration of miniatures and character pieces, and creatively exploring how ideas transform as they are transmitted from one person to another or from one (performance) medium to another. Her Doctoral research included investigating the work and ideas of women composing in Canada, and creatively seeking ways to create compositions for live performance that are relevant for audiences of the digital age.

Fiona plays clarinet and piano, sings, and dabbles in a few other instruments. She’s sung in choirs, improvisation ensembles, chamber music ensembles, rock bands, musicals, traditional/folk music groups, and as a soloist. In addition to composing, performing, and teaching music, she enjoys writing and has written texts for many of her vocal works.  She’s looking forward to the upcoming recording and release of one of her song cycles in 2016/17, and continues to maintain creative connections in Toronto through her involvement with the Toy Piano Composers. 

For more about Fiona, including samples of her music, visit her website at


This interview was conducted via Skype on September 23, 2016 by Bob Altizer, MusicaNova President, with Fiona Ryan, MNO Composition Fellow for October 2016.

How did you learn about the MusicaNova Composition Fellows program?

I got an email through my website one day from [MNO Music Director] Warren Cohen saying he was interested in my music and asking if I could send him a score. It was kind of out of the blue, I wasn’t expecting anyone to be contacting me. He was looking for a piece for this particular program and thought that an orchestral piece I’d written might work. So we talked back and forth and I sent him the music and he said yes, he’d like to use it.

It was great to hear that someone was interested in my music. I’m beginning to build up a little momentum in that way, people contacting me saying they’re interested to see what I have for their particular instrument or ensemble. It’s especially helpful when you’re at the beginning of your career as a composer: even if something doesn’t happen right away, the more people who know about your music, it means there’s more potential of working with them down the road, which is great.

Tell me a little about Re:Play, the work MusicaNova is performing October.

It’s a piece for toy piano and orchestra and was performed once before in 2010 while I was a DMA student at the University of Toronto, so this will be its US premiere. I wrote it for standard orchestration plus toy piano. It was performed in a concert collaboration between Sneak Peek Orchestra (an orchestra that had been started by some music graduate students in Toronto and the Toy Piano Composers collective (of which I am a member). The concert featured premieres of several works, and Re:play was written for that concert.

You never really know what’s going to happen to a composition once it’s out there in the world, but it’s nice to know that it can get noticed and performed again.

The piece itself contrasts serious and playful characters – the somber and playful themes are played by groups of instruments – that interact throughout the piece. The playful theme keeps teasing the somber theme and the dialog between them grows together, emerging as a single idea.

[NB: MusicaNova will use a Schoenhut 37-key Deluxe Spinet in the performance.]

You’re a part of a group called the Toy Piano Composers. How did that come about?

The Toy Piano Composers started when I was in grad school for composition at U of T as a composer’s collective to perform our own music, build our professional experience, and create opportunities to work with performers and get the kind of feedback you can only get when your music is performed. We wanted to compose good quality music but without taking ourselves too seriously, so we included some playful pieces in every concert. I am still a member of this group even after moving back to my home town a couple of years ago. We’re making a recording of some of our compositions this year.

There is actually some literature for toy piano that already exists and I’m hearing more interest in non-traditional instruments. If you study music from the 20th Century you’ll hear some that includes toy piano, like a piece by George Crumb. [NB: the 1970 song cycle Ancient Voices of Children.]

The toy piano has a unique sound and timbre. In Re:play I often pair it with glockenspiel and piccolo to create a child-like sound.

What got you to start composing?

I’d been creating things and making up songs since I was a kid but primarily focused on the poetry side of it as I was growing up. I got more serious about it in high school when I decided I wanted to pursue music and study music at university so that’s when I started writing down some of the songs and little piano pieces. I didn’t have any formal training in composition until high school: at my school you could play in the school band or sing in the choir and take basic theory rudiments, but there was also a more academic course that covered basic music theory and history in more detail, including ear training and composition as well. That’s when I got more into composition, and the first piece I had performed was one that I wrote in my last year of high school.

As an undergraduate music student I was interested in composition but I ended up studying clarinet performance because I wanted to have more experience as a performer. I wanted to be able to look at my compositions from the performer’s point of view – rather than being a composer who wouldn’t be thinking what it was like for the performer. When I applied to graduate school I started off studying music theory, but then I got into a composition program at Newcastle University in Northern England, where I got my M.Mus. [Master of Music] degree. Newcastle University is known for their folk and traditional music program and has standard and popular music programs as well, so I had a very diverse group of musicians around me at that time. I came back to Canada and went to the University of Toronto for my doctorate. That was more of a standard music school environment and was a larger school and city than where I had studied previously.

Who are some of the composers you admire?

Wow, it’s so often in flux that I may forget some. Hmm, who’s my favorite now? You know when you’re growing up if you hear classical music it’s mostly from the Classical and Romantic periods but you don’t get to hear that much from the 20th Century. When I first heard some I wasn’t sure if I liked it, but the one that really grew on me was The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives. He was composing in the early part of the 20th Century, but his work was pointing toward what would come later. There were other 20th Century American composers doing unusual and interesting things, like Harry Partch, who designed his own instruments, and Henry Cowell, whose sounds are still called radical.

At University I was inspired by more recent minimalists like Steve Reich, Terry Reilly, who wrote a lot for the Kronos Quartet, and composers like John Adams, who take minimalist ideas and fill them out a little bit. More recently for my DMA [Doctor of Musical Arts] degree I wanted to know what was going on now, especially in my own country, so I interviewed and researched Canadian composers. Some Canadian composers whose works influenced me include Barbara Pentland and Ann Southam.

I also love early music like Renaissance and Medieval choral pieces, especially how they included performance spaces into their musical compositions: you often hear antiphonal effects – interesting textures created by different sounds happening at the same time coming from different directions. I’m fascinated by that, hearing a part coming from one particular part of the hall or the stage, the

After all that time away, why did you return to your home town of Halifax?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in the big city atmosphere of Toronto (pop. 6.1 million) any longer, where everyone is hurrying and bustling about on their own schedule and ignoring each other. It’s not like that in Halifax (pop. 400,000): life is slower, you can smile at someone on the street and even chat with them without them looking at you like you’re crazy. Halifax is just a place people want to come back to, with a great balance between the town and natural settings. I love being near the ocean, and there’s been a recent growth in interest in localism and agricultural tourism here.

My mom and sister, who live here, saw that Dalhousie University, where I’d gotten my undergraduate degree, was hiring for a bunch of positions in music and suggested I apply. I did, thinking they might hire me to just teach one course, and I got the job. They offered more courses than I was expecting, so I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity to get academic teaching experience and see if that’s what I want to do long-term. I’m now in my third year and teaching theory and comppsition at Dalhousie. There’s definitely a lot I can learn and my students are always challenging me. Researching music for them introduces me to music I haven’t heard before and constantly reminds me of things I learned in the past. There’s a small composition group within the department, so students have a chance to learn from more than one person, so even if they don’t go on with their studies they have more than one perspective. The faculty get along together well, and we’re looking to build a community within the university and have more interaction with the wider music community in the city.

If you could go anywhere in the world to study for a year, where would it be?

Hmmm. It would be interesting to study someplace completely different from where I’ve been so I could find out musically what’s going on that I don’t know much about — though I wouldn’t know where to begin!  Probably somewhere in Europe where it would allow me reconnect with my UK friends. And I’ve met so many visiting composers from other places who bring things completely different from what I do that I could learn from them. And I met an interesting German composer while in grad school at U of T who invited me to come study at his university. I sometimes get “you should come here” from colleagues in New York. It wouldn’t get much to get me to travel, if and when I have I’d have the budget to do so. If I got some kind of windfall I’d do some research first, and find artistically interesting places where I can learn something new.

Before we go, could you tell MusicaNova audience an interesting fact about yourself?

I really like to do outdoor activities, kayaking or rowing in the harbor, hiking, swimming, and riding my bike. One of my goals is to do a bike ride on an old railway line that’s been converted to a path that runs through Nova Scotia close to the coastline. I’d like to explore the coastline and bike further than I have before. I like to make discoveries.

Thanks Fiona, I’ve enjoyed this chance to let our audience learn a little more about the artist behind the music.   We look forward to hearing Replay in our upcoming concerts!