To perform her most recent piece of music, Ontario composer Abigail Richardson will rely on the strings, the brass and the organ, as well as a pile of ceramic tiles. The tiles, just the regular kitchen-bathroom variety, make a sharp noise when scraped against each other, rather like a skate blade cutting across ice, and that is exactly the sound Richardson needs.
Her most recent composition is music for The Hockey Sweater, the iconic Roch Carrier story about a boy in Sainte-Justine, Que., a diehard Montreal Canadiens fan whose tattered old jersey is replaced, to his horror, with a brand new one from the hated Toronto Maple Leafs. The work was commissioned for young audiences by the Toronto Symphony, the Calgary Philharmonic and the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, and will make its official debut in a pair of concerts Saturday at Roy Thomson Hall.
"I really limited myself to the characters," Richardson said, explaining how she uses the nagging strings to suggest the narrator's proper mother when she insists he must wear the blue-and-white sweater rather than offend Mr. Eaton by sending it back to the store, and the big organ to suggest the stern lectures of the young vicar as he coaches the hockey team. But she also picked up some Quebec fiddling for her introduction, borrowed some brass from the Canadiens' and the Leafs' own theme music, and, of course, added the sound of those tiles. She travelled to Ste. Justine with the author last summer, saw the house he grew up in, played the local church bells and asked him what sound he remembered most from childhood.
"He said, 'Ah, the sound of the blades on the ice,'" she said.
The commission, a long dream of Toronto Symphony director of education Roberta Smith, includes narration by Carrier himself. Richardson considers it a piece of narrative music, rather like opera, except that Carrier reads rather than sings.
"The hardest thing was how to put in the text," she said. "With a singer it's integrated … but Roch wasn't reading music; he doesn't read music."
Richardson, now 36 and living in Dundas, Ont., had last read the book in Grade 3 in Calgary, where it struck her as typical of the hockey-mad nation to which she had recently immigrated from Britain. "At school, at that point, there was so much rivalry between the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers," she said. "I thought, okay, that is just the way things are in Canada. The hockey culture was bizarre."
Richardson's immigration, however, proved the making of her musical career. As a child in England, she had slowly gone deaf due to a series of infections that caused scar tissue to grow in her ear. The loss was so gradual she had unconsciously learned to lip read, and did not believe the doctors who told her she had lost her hearing. When her engineer father was relocated to Calgary, her family was asked to prove she would not be a burden on the Alberta health care system and British doctors were marshalled to give three separate diagnoses that the six-year-old Abigail had no hope of recovering her hearing.
"It was quite traumatic," she recalls. "I had teams of doctors looking at me and telling me what I perceived was not true. It was a scary thing."
The third doctor, a family friend, did offer some hope: "Calgary is a dry climate. It may help." Sure enough, within a few months in Canada her hearing returned. She started music lessons late – "My parents did not put me in it, for obvious reasons" – but took up the flute in Grade 6 and could not be separated from a neighbour's piano. Still, she was planning to become a doctor until first year university. "I was sitting in biology class one day and a light bulb went on. I knew I had to go into music."
The Hockey Sweater will be performed by the Toronto Symphony at 1:30 and 3:30 on Saturday, by the Calgary Philharmonic Sept. 30, 2012, and by the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa in 2013.