Everett Hopfner, pianist
Gifted pianist, champion of Canadian repertoire, fellow student and good friend Everett was brave enough to be my very first interview subject. Our sprawling conversation about Canada's unique new music landscape took place in Everett's kitchen in Stuttgart, accompanied by a delicious apple crumble he had made. Check out my episode on his wonderful podcast, "ALL EARS!"
J: Let's start with a summary of contemporary music in Canada, including prominent movements and popular styles.
E: We’re a small country that punches above our weight in the international scene in some ways, but there are only 35 million of us, so we often get drowned out by trends in the States. Even in Canada we play a lot of American composers, and much of our pop culture is American.
[Trends in Canadian music] are really based on geography, going back to the early foundation of Canada. Canada is a large country that’s sparsely populated, and the major centers are far apart from each other. Early on in Quebec there were a lot of French Catholics, and that cultural heritage is continued in the French settlements even to this day. Quebec is very protective of its own cultural traditions because it is such a linguistic and cultural minority in North America. Farther west you have Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver. Within these major centers with so much distance between them individual music scenes have developed. Vancouver historically has a large Asian population, beginning with Chinese workers in the 1800s. There’s quite a lot of Chinese influence in general society, and also the music now, western composers writing for traditional Chinese instrument ensembles, for example.
Of course in Canada there’s a very long tradition of pre-European contact from the First Nations peoples. Their music is now being studied and observed... Along the east coast in Canada you have a huge influence of traditional Acadian, Irish and Scottish music; highland dances, bagpipes, etc.
J: Could you describe one or two emblematic Canadian works?
E: My first exposure to Canadian music was through a man named Rémi Bouchard. He’s actually distantly related to me somehow. He’s from a French Canadian community called Laurier, which is a ten-minute drive away from my hometown, Sainte Rose du Lac. He writes music that on first listen sounds not experimental by any stretch. I find it very meaningful, though, because I know the history of where his music comes from. It comes from growing up in a small Catholic French town on the plains of Manitoba where he became at age sixteen the town musician, because he took lessons from the local nuns until he became better at it than they were, so he became the church musician so he started writing music. And he comes from this whole tradition of singing the French hymns. His music is rooted in that sound world still, even though he’s in his late seventies now.
The man basically planted himself in the town of Neepawa and in the following fifty years became a very prominent local piano teacher and wrote a bunch of piano music for children that became very popular around the country, but he is so ingrained in his community. He volunteers for many local organizations, and runs a music festival in the spring to tie in with the town festival... he has really entrenched himself in the community. It’s a tradition that I really care about now, and it’s something that I’m starting to see as a very worthwhile goal as a musician, to be so entrenched in your community.
I play some of his music, and he’s written pieces for me in the past that I treasure. But they’re a niche part of my repertoire. I know they belong so strongly where they’re from. I don’t know how Rémi’s music would be received here. That’s something I struggle with a bit, because I love his music but I know that for an outsider it maybe sounds simple, or too conservative. But knowing the man personally and knowing his heart, I’m able to strongly connect with his music. I know there are people like him all over Canada that we just don't hear enough about. If you talk about Canadian music you have to talk about local community engagement.
J: What is your experience as an Ausländer in Germany, musically as well as personally?
E: I used to be a big fan of John Adams and Steve Reich, and still am to some extent, but seeing how dense the music is here, and how every measure is packed with meaning and intricate sounds, sometimes I look at the prevailing schools in North America and think oh, this is somehow less interesting. I just see a lot less music in this music! There’s a lot more music per inch [here], or per minute. I’m not sure that more complicated equals better, however.
When I perform [Canadian music] for German audiences, I do my best to speak beforehand about the music. I think this is something we should do generally, but especially when there might be a cultural gap, it’s important to throw out a line about something you can listen for. You have to give some kind of context and take away the opportunity for people to just sit there and think, “Oh. I don’t like this.” They might not like it anyway, but at least it’s nice give them something to grab onto, instead of just basing a judgment on the first four notes.
I’ve also seen very negative reactions to [Canadian composer] Claude Vivier’s music in Canada. I’ve seen similar poor reactions to Stockhausen. The perception [from the audience] might be, oh this person is only playing this music because politically it’s the nice thing to do. That’s not the truth. There are millions of reasons to play Vivier. His music is stunning and extraordinary and beautiful and complicated and messy and I love it. His piano solo, "Shiraz," right at the beginning has fifty-five repetitions of the same chord... If you know the Stockhausen Klavierstuck IX you’re more ready to engage with the piece. An interesting side note to Vivier is that his music has recently reached new audiences through concerts celebrating gay composers. I have a dear friend who is working on creating an internet database of African American music, seeing how African American history can be translated and shared in modern classical music. These broader cultural identities bring this music together even if the styles are radically different. Whatever it is about you that ties you to a community could be used as a branch to celebrate you.... It seems like the modern emphasis on cultural dialogue and understanding is really being felt in the new music world, at least in North America.
J: How can the performance of contemporary music be political?
E: “Political” is an interesting word, because I think a lot of the time, at least in our circles and at our stages of our careers, politics is local. To have your concert programmed locally, you need local supporters. Yes, choosing to play contemporary repertoire can be a political statement, whether or not it’s actually intended to be one, because there will be people on those grant boards who think, “I don’t like this music, so I don’t want to hear it.” ... There are certainly conservative currents running through a lot of these organizations. Thankfully we’re seeing a lot of people in our generation just deciding to stop dealing with that and to make our own platforms to promote this music, and have people who like it come and support it.
J: How have political developments in recent history affected your musical career?
E: The current conservative government in Canada has really done a lot to harm the cultural landscape in Canada. For one thing, the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) was a major hub for contemporary music, Canadian music, and classical music.... It used to be that every province or CBC center in Canada had a live recording satellite truck, and every week on the main CBC channel there was a designated time to broadcast classical music. That was really a way for Canadians to share their music with each other and break down geographical barriers. The first province to go was Saskatchewan: They lost their truck due to overall budgetary cuts in the CBC. That meant that CBC lost the capability to record any live concerts in Saskatchewan.... Since last year, now every province has lost this capability. Now, if you want to get your concert broadcast on CBC it has to be either in Vancouver, Montreal, or Toronto. These are already the most well-connected, strongly supported hubs of cultural life in Canada anyway. That’s not to say that people playing there don’t need national attention, but they already have significant pockets of attention. Places like Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, and Calgary still have vibrant cultural scenes, but they need that support.
Canadian pianist Everett Hopfner is celebrated for his passionate and inventive performances of contemporary music. A winner of the Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition, he is a strong advocate of new Canadian repertoire and aims to engage music as a tool for community development. Everett is currently completing graduate studies in new music at Musikhochschule Stuttgart in Germany. His podcast "ALL EARS" is a new platform for emerging musicians who are making differences in their communities.