In the midst of a nation-wide discussion about violence against women, an Ottawa jazz vocalist and choral composer is presenting a musical memorial to the 14 women murdered in the Montreal Massacre.
This Saturday – 25 years to the day after that tragedy – Elise Letourneau will unveil her Requiem for Fourteen Roses at Knox Presbyterian Church. It's a major, concert-length production involving 40 choristers, five soloists, and an eight-piece instrumental ensemble.
Its message is hope and remembrance.
“It's about making sure that we stay open to talking to each other about it. Because it's been 25 years and so many of the same things are still happening. And we can't forget. We have to keep talking about it,” Letourneau said.
But both the music and poetry included in the concert look beyond anger to finding solutions, she said. “I don't want to leave people with a sense of hopelessness. It's not about going to hell in a handbasket or anything. Personally I would rather hope that one way or another it can be figured out – and I hope I live to see it.”
"Somebody's got to write a requiem"
It's a project that's consumed most of a year (in fact, she's still making minor changes to the music) – and almost got derailed by a life-threatening medical emergency along the way.
One year ago, she was talking with some friends and the topic came up. “And it was like, 'Look at the calendar, can you believe it's been almost 24 years? And 25 coming up?' I casually said, 'Yes, somebody's got to write a requiem.' And in the company at the time, everybody sort of looked at me because I was the obvious choice. I was the only choral director in the conversation.”
“Once the idea was out there, it wouldn't let me go. It wouldn't go away. Aspects of it started coming together for me. I started looking at different texts and finding texts that would work together.”
A little while later, she had a long conversation about the idea with local jazz writer Lois Moody. “What was fantastic about that conversation was – she's not the sort of person who will tell you what she thinks you ought to do. But she asks all these great questions that draw it out. but don't draw it out if the idea isn't baked enough. After I had that conversation with Lois and she asked me all those questions, I realized 'OK, this is something I can definitely commit a year of my life to.'”
Until she had spoken with Moody, she didn't realize how much of it had already been put together in her back-brain. “She forced me to articulate it by the questions she asked me about it.”
The piece doesn't include any depiction of how a gunman singled out and killed the women, mostly engineering students, at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, because he reportedly hated feminists. Letourneau said she wasn't trying to represent the event itself, “those terrible moments at the school.”
Many of us have done our crying now, so that on the day of the concert we can actually give this to our audience.
- Rachel Beausoleil, conductor
“But the music does start out with women's voices by themselves, and bells and solo flute to call people to that space, and just focus people and get them to that quiet space. And then it starts with remembering the names [of the women] in a call and response type of fashion.”
The massacre itself has had such resonance – whether as shock and disbelief, or grief, or fury at the gunman – that the requiem wasn't an easy piece to write or rehearse.
“The singers have all had to work on the emotional side of this piece because it's so powerful. We have to approach it as artists, as we're giving this piece away. We have to deal with all the emotion that builds up in us,” said Ottawa vocalist Rachel Beausoleil, who will also conduct the concert.
“Many of us have done our crying now, so that on the day of the concert we can actually give this to our audience. Because it's not about us it's about giving it away to the audience. So we're very mindful of doing the emotional work we need to do ahead of time because it's such a heavy subject and yet very very complex.”
Letourneau said that “there were definitely uncomfortable moments. There was a lot of processing that I had to do as these things came up, in order to move through and come back to a place where I could be objective and artistic, and I could pay attention to the craft of what I was doing.”
Chorister Mike Steinberg said he found the music very emotional: “It is music that will bring a tear to more than just a few eyes.”
He said he didn't “really have a specifically male perspective on the program, but certainly as a human being it saddened me a little bit that there was a need for this kind of memorial service. But unfortunately there are some human beings that are so ill and don't know how to express their feelings except through violence.”
Remembering each woman killed
While based on the standard requiem form, the piece is not explicitly religious. It includes poetry with “sacred elements” by Nobel-Prize-winning Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, and by thirteenth-century Sufi mystic Jallaludin Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks). Letourneau set them to music.
Tagore's poems are “timeless and there's so much passion in them and I chose ones to move from darkness to light as we moved through the Requiem. The earlier ones are darker, and they're just gorgeous, gorgeous poetry. And he was also a musician so it's almost like the music was already in there if you looked for it.”
Letourneau said she included Rumi's poems in the requiem because they gave added hope and a view to the wider picture. “The Water Wheel”, for example, speaks to “community and looking out for each other”, she said, with lines like “'stay together friends, don't scatter and sleep' and 'Our friendship is made of being awake'.”
The requiem will also include short individual tributes to each of the women killed, performed on two flugelhorns and two trombones. “Right from the start I knew that I wanted a musical tribute to focus on each of the young women, because we need to. We need to remember them, we need to say their names. So I wrote a piece for each of them.”
Letourneau didn't find a lot of information on any of the women, so she based the music on their photos, their names, and their circumstances as women studying for a non-traditional career – something she could empathize with having studied jazz in male-dominated classes at Berklee.
“I had their faces and whatever tiny little details [I could find] here and there on-line. I did find it helpful, every time I sat down to write, I brought my iPhone and I put their picture right beside me. And make of it what you will, I also found about half-way through, that I found it was easier if instead of bringing down one cup of tea to the piano, I brought two cups of tea. I ended up drinking both of them, but it started to feel a little more like a visit, when I was writing for them.”
A year ago, Letourneau led the Capital Vox Jazz Choir in two concerts dedicated to the choral music of the late jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck. Did learning that music have an effect on this composition?
“How could it not? He did it so brilliantly. At no point do I recall specifically thinking 'What would Dave Brubeck do in this one?' but being just fresh off doing all of those Dave Brubeck choral pieces, that integrate classical and jazz so beautifully, it must have made its mark.”
A life-threatening illness which almost stopped the project
In late September, Letourneau ended up in hospital with a life-threatening illness, and had emergency abdominal surgery. “I think that had the gut thing not happened, things would all be done right now. But I probably lost about five weeks to that.”
She's still recovering. Luckily, Beausoleil, who is assistant director of Vox Eclectica Women's Chamber Choir, was able to run choir rehearsals while Letourneau was bed-ridden. She will be conducting the requiem because Letourneau is still not physically strong enough.
“Even from the very first week, the choir didn't miss a single rehearsal. I went splat and Rachel was right there from the very first rehearsal. Rachel didn't miss a beat. She's got all this music internalized. It's been fantastic.”
This is the first concert-length piece Letourneau has written, although she has won or been a finalist for several major choral awards in Canada and the U.S., and had her compositions performed by top Canadian choirs. She said that hearing her works done by those choirs helped her “realize what's possible” and gave her the confidence to attempt a full-length composition.
She's also an experienced jazz vocalist and teacher, and will release her fourth album (with pianist Brian Browne) in early January.
Letourneau has founded two Ottawa choirs: the Capital Vox Jazz choir, now in its eight year, and Vox Eclectica Women's Chamber Choir, in its third year. Both choirs are part of Saturday's show, along with the Elise Letourneau Singers. Also performing will be Letourneau on piano, Joan Harrison on cello, and musicians active in the local jazz community: Mike Tremblay on flute, John Geggie on double bass, Mark Ferguson and Ryan Purchase on trombones, and Nicholas Dyson and Roberta Archibald on flugelhorns.
Featured as soloist will be Toronto jazz singer Sienna Dahlen, who sang on Mike Rud's 2014 Juno-winning album, Notes on Montreal. She will be singing the two poems by Rumi solo, as well as improvising as the choir sings the Sanctus and Benedictus sections of the piece.
Letourneau said that she had Dahlen in mind for the solos right from the beginning, based on having heard her CDs and seen her in concert in Ottawa. When Dahlen agreed in May to take part, she knew “this thing is going to go forward. That was actually the deal-breaker.”
“I wanted somebody who could be interpretive and who could improvise, but who also was comfortable with music that isn't necessarily written on a strict jazz form. The pieces that she's doing, they're almost like art songs but they have a jazz sensibility to them.”
Jeremy Burko, the cantor of the Agudath Israel Congregation, will sing the “Eishet chayil”, a Jewish prayer taken from the Book of Proverbs in the Bible. “It loosely translates to 'A woman of valour' and speaks to a woman's strength.” In addition, local singer Mark Mitchell has a tenor solo, and Letourneau, Beausoleil, and Dahlen will perform a trio piece.
Our best allies in this are good men. And the training the boys get, sometimes it's just as unrealistic as the training the girls get.
- Elise Letourneau
Letourneau only heard about the Montreal Massacre the day after it occurred. That afternoon, she was on Boston Common, and her now-husband, Tim Bedner, was asking her to marry him.
“We got engaged on the afternoon of December 6, 1989. I didn't actually know about what happened in Montreal until the next day because ... well, often Canadian news is kind of slow in the American news cycle. But also the family and friends that you call when you get engaged or you want to share that kind of news, like we were so happy and they just didn't want to burst our bubble.”
She said she initially felt surreal, similar to how she felt on 9/11. “It's that same 'Pinch me, somebody wake me up, it's really happening' [feeling].”
But since then, her own reaction to the massacre has become more complex, and particularly while writing the piece. “I don't view it like a 20-year-old any more.”
“Over the years it's become a touchstone for violence against women. And it should. But it's also a lot bigger than that, at least to me. Because I've often thought about the issues that it does bring up for women – but there's so many issues that it brings up for men as well.”
Men also need to be involved in the discussion, for example with White Ribbon, a campaign organized by men working to end men's violence against women, and its focus “on what does it really take to be a good man. ... Our best allies in this are good men. And the training the boys get, sometimes it's just as unrealistic as the training the girls get.”
“I also have thought so many times about the men in that classroom, when they were separated out. So many times the question has come out: why didn't those guys do something? Why didn't they run in on their horses and lead the charge or whatever? But [she hesitates] how would they have known what to do in that situation? I wouldn't have known what to do in that situation. Of the people in that room, as far as I know the one person who stepped in and objected was Annie St-Arneault. She was the one who stepped in front of those women and tried to talk him down and she was the first one shot. But I've often thought, you know, the burden that those young men must carry. And I wouldn't have known what to do if I had been one of them.”
And then there's the question of the victims, both those killed and injured that day and later. “My heart, of course, has gone out to the families of the young women who were shot. But also I've thought so many times about Monique Lépine [the mother of the shooter]. She was absolutely demonized in the media as if she had raised spawn of some sort. What an awful, awful position for a mother to be in! And I thought the media was so unfair to her at the time. She also lost a child that day. And then later on she lost her daughter as well on a different day.”
And even the shooter – “I'm so not letting him off the hook, please don't interpret it that way, he did an awful, awful thing.” But, picking her words carefully, she wonders why he didn't get the mental health and other support he needed. “When people are so confused and isolated that much, how did they get there? They didn't get what they needed to not be in that terrible, terrible place, to do that awful thing.”
It's good that society is discussing questions of what does it take to be a good man, and the issues of violence against women far more now than 25 years ago, she said. But “it's 25 years and these issues still are not solved.”
Beausoleil said the requiem is part of the current dialogue about violence against women, inspired most recently by the Jian Ghomeshi firing, and the allegations of sexual harassment against several MPs.
Elise has written something that changes the world. It's crossing boundaries. Left right and centre, she's crossing boundaries of genre, she's crossing through classical and jazz, she's crossing through boundaries of language, she's crossing through boundaries of cultures and religions and faiths, And she is showing that music can do that.
- Rachel Beausoleil
“So many issues of violence against women all around the world are coming to the surface at the moment. And I really do believe that we're witnessing a turn in attitudes towards women from every perspective. From a male perspective, from a female perspective. How do we carry ourselves and how do we treat each other? It's just simply no longer acceptable to do this and it's really coming to the surface.”
“But I think this musical work just comes right in and participates in that dialogue and shows that through a art form we can change things. We can bring a message to an audience to people in recognition of these events – they have to stop. It has to stop. That's what this musical work does. It moves us to be better.
“And so Elise has written something that changes the world. It's crossing boundaries. Left right and centre, she's crossing boundaries of genre, she's crossing through classical and jazz, she's crossing through boundaries of language, she's crossing through boundaries of cultures and religions and faiths, They're all represented, different faiths and cultures are represented in this work. And she is showing that music can do that. It's happening; we're in the middle of it now and history will show that.”
– Alayne McGregor
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