Initially, Jocelyn Morlock did not feel as if she could compose a piece of classical music about Amanda Todd.
Despite being an award-winning composer, Ms. Morlock was not sure that she could portray Amanda’s story in a positive way. The B.C. teen, who was a victim of cyberbullying, died by suicide in 2012.
“Jocelyn had a tremendous sense of justice,” said Mark McGregor, a close friend who was Ms. Morlock’s roommate when they both studied music at the University of British Columbia. “She was very much motivated by this idea of giving voice to people who didn’t necessarily have a voice. And, I think that was really an important thing for her when she was composing that piece.”
It’s safe to say that Ms. Morlock, who died suddenly March 27 in Vancouver at age 53, succeeded in her quest. My Name is Amanda Todd, went on to win a 2018 Juno award as the year’s top classical composition.
Commissioned by the National Arts Centre, My Name is Amanda Todd was performed by the NAC Orchestra across Canada in 2017, and throughout Europe in 2019, as part of the multimedia production Life Reflected. The piece continues to be performed by various groups, helping to spread awareness of cyberbullying and related issues, including the stigma inflicted upon its victims, exploitation, teen suicide and mental-health struggles.
But the Juno was just one of many accolades that Ms. Morlock earned in a career that spanned almost three decades and produced numerous pieces performed around the world.
“She’s written a series of fabulous works for orchestra, for chamber groups, for solo instruments,” said Alexander Shelley, the NAC Orchestra’s music director. “And, I think one of the things that one can say about Jocelyn’s music is that it speaks to both performers and to audiences. It is music that is very much from the heart; it’s very much accessible. And, I’m confident, because of that, that it will endure, that it will be music that we hear often, and for many years to come – in the concert hall and on recordings.
“Really, even though her life is cut short too soon, that’s a tremendous legacy to leave behind because not many artists of any stripe – not many people – manage to create something in their lifetime that will be celebrated and enjoyed long after they’re gone. And I’m really confident that she’s one of those people.”
Ms. Morlock’s family has not disclosed the cause of her death.
In addition to composing, she educated and championed other composers. For the past decade, Ms. Morlock was a sessional lecturer at UBC, where she obtained master and doctorate degrees in 1996 and 2002, respectively. She was also the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s first female composer-in-residence (2014-2019) and the first composer-in-residence for Vancouver’s Music on Main (2012-2014), which has produced hundreds of events involving upward of 2,000 musicians.
“I think one of her great legacies was creating so many opportunities for composers,” said Mr. McGregor, a flutist who also serves as the artistic director of Vancouver’s Queer Arts Festival.
Ms. Morlock was passionate about providing opportunities for young, BIPOC, female and LGBTQ composers and those from other underrepresented groups. If not for commissions that she granted for the VSO, Mr. McGregor said, many marginalized composers would not have had an opportunity to write for the orchestra, and its players would not have heard music from unfamiliar perspectives.
“She really revolutionized the way the symphony programmed those concerts,” he said.
Jocelyn Victoria Morlock was born Dec. 14, 1969 in St. Boniface, Man., now part of Winnipeg. She was the elder of two children born to teachers Len and Brenda (née Schmidt) Morlock.
Ms. Morlock’s brother, Jeff, said she was his best friend and role model while they were growing up.
“She was gifted, and her gifts were powerful, and she devoted herself to creating and sharing. And, she was gracious, even when I was too young to know what that word meant.”
Ms. Morlock’s eagerness to learn and sense of adventure rubbed off on her “more hesitant” sibling. She learned to read – simply through her parents reading to her – before reaching school age.
“We were so lucky to have such a beautiful daughter who sailed through her childhood,” said her mother. “She loved us and loved her brother and loved life. She learned so quickly. She could do so many things. She’d always be surprising us with something new.”
From ages seven to 17, she took lessons on an upright piano purchased for the family by her maternal grandmother, Marie Schmidt. Having excelled academically in high school, Ms. Morlock earned multiple scholarship offers and pursued a music degree, majoring in piano, at Manitoba’s Brandon University.
But chronic hand tendinitis derailed her dream of becoming a professional pianist.
Patrick Carrabré, then one of her professors at BU and who now directs the UBC School of Music, encouraged her to focus on composition. After obtaining her Bachelor of Musical Arts degree in piano in 1994, she worked in BU’s music library for two years while also composing pieces, and started her graduate studies at UBC.
James McLennan, a Winnipeg-based singer who attended BU and UBC with her, said Ms. Morlock’s hand problem was serendipitous, because it gave her more time to focus on composition.
“Which is where her talent was really obvious,” he said.
He recalls listening to one of her pieces for the first time.
“It was like I could hear her personality – and her music was strange to me,” he said. “It was like hearing a person come alive in the sound of this music.”
While pursuing her doctorate, Ms. Morlock achieved global critical acclaim with Bird in the Tangled Sky, which was performed at the 1999 International Society for Contemporary Music’s World Music Days in Romania. (She loved birds and birdsong features prominently in her works.) Exaudi, which paid tribute to her maternal grandmother after she had passed away, was nominated for a Juno in 2011.
“I find her music to be evocative. It is lyrical, can stand still and have momentum at the same time,” said John Estacio, an Edmonton-based composer whose piece I Lost My Talk was part of the NACO’s Life Reflected production.
Each piece, he added, takes the listener on an emotional journey.
“I think this is a journey that Jocelyn went through, not only in several of her compositions, but also in her own life.”
Ms. Morlock spoke openly about her mental-health struggles with Mr. Estacio, Mr. McGregor and many others in the hope of helping others.
“This was a hugely important thing – not just for younger people, but for everyone,” Mr. McGregor said. “In classical music, there’s still this very antiquated tendency to glorify the busy, to overwork without consequence. She was someone who a lot of us could talk very plainly to about self-care, and about burnout, and about depression, without any fear of judgment.”
She also empathized with others on their career battles.
“As a peer,” Mr. Estacio said, “it was a pleasure to sit down with somebody and be real and talk about music-making and share some war stories, because there’s a few working composers in this country but there’s not a lot of us.”
Michael Kirchmayer, a Vancouver-based composer and former student of Ms. Morlock at UBC, said she strived to understand other people’s struggles.
“She was just one of these people who really encouraged me to do the kinds of compositions that I really wanted to do, regardless of how they might be received, or how controversial they might be or subversive they might be,” said Mr. Kirchmayer, who likes punk and heavy metal music along with classical.
Lara Deutsch, an Ottawa-based flutist, said Ms. Morlock “really committed” to forging a path and creating an opportunity for others.
“She was always thinking about other people – never about her.”
Shortly before her death, Ms. Morlock completed The Uses of Solitude, a piece about isolation commissioned during the COVID-19 pandemic’s peak for Ms. Deutsch’s group, Trio Kalysta. Ms. Morlock accepted the project on the condition that a female or BIPOC composer be included, and donated her mentorship services, Ms. Deutsch said.
“She cared deeply about all of the major issues of our time, and immersed herself in those,” said Sean Bickerton, B.C. director for the Canadian Music Centre, which promotes composers, their music and events.
But she deflected praise and was highly critical of each piece while writing. She hated it at the outset and liked it near deadline.
“And then, of course, we’d give the premiere and the premiere would be fantastic,” said her common-law husband, John Korsrud, a composer, producer, trumpet player and leader of the 18-piece Hard Rubber Orchestra.
When composing My Name is Amanda Todd, she only found “a route out of the sadness” of Amanda’s story by talking to the teen’s mother, Carol Todd, Mr. Shelley said.
“It was remarkable,” said Ms. Todd of the turnaround. “She said, ‘I see it. I can do it.’”
Ms. Todd said Ms. Morlock captured Amanda’s essence without ever having met her.
The two women became friends and, after raising a $30,000 endowment, established the annual Amanda Todd Legacy Music Therapy Award of Distinction for students attending Vancouver’s Douglas College. (Music therapy is a multifaceted process designed to improve people’s physical and mental health.) In Ms. Todd’s view, the award now stands in Ms. Morlock’s memory.
“She was able to see through Amanda’s tragic story to find hope and resonance,” she said.
In addition to her partner, Mr. Korsrud, Ms. Morlock leaves her mother, brother and numerous relatives.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this obituary gave incorrect names for Alexander Shelley, the NAC Orchestra’s music director, and Sean Bickerton, B.C. director for the Canadian Music Centre. This version has been corrected.