As a brief preface, I should mention that this is a personal bio and not a list of achievements (if you are looking for program or press materials written in third person: see press kit). This bio offers an entry into my story and perhaps some point of reference for interpreting the music.
As a child I spent a lot of time singing in a choir at the Anglican boy’s school I attended in Toronto. The experience of singing regularly in this context left a deep impression on me – the old traditions of Anglican liturgy resonated and eventually left a permanent mark on the way I see the world. My parents had a strong appreciation for art and music. We spent time at art galleries and went to concerts together. I remember seeing Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet each year at Christmas and witnessing the Group of Seven paintings along with other iconic paintings and sculptures. Among these early memories, two stand out: seeing and hearing a live performance of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and witnessing some of the artwork – the masks and totem poles – of the North American North-west coast Native cultures.
As a young adult, I attended the University of Waterloo where I studied physics. Alongside courses in quantum mechanics and electromagnetism, I also took elective courses at the small Mennonite College where I was in residence. Some of these electives were in music, some in theology, and some in peace and conflict studies (PACS). These courses fueled a strong appetite for adventure – perhaps this nomadic impulse came from my Australian roots – eventually leading me to study PACS overseas; most formative for me were the experiences of studying the life and writings of Mahatma Gandhi at the Gandhian Institute in central India, also studying the Qur’an and participating in inter-religious dialogue at an Islamic seminary in rural Indonesia.
Music, as an area of formal study and as a profession, came relatively late for me – only after branching out from physics to other areas of science and eventually to anthropology and cultural studies. During my time as a graduate student, I developed a keen interest in social activism. I went to protests, wrote letters, signed petitions, lived in intentional community where we dreamed about realizing utopian systems for living together. These experiences made me aware of how important it is to expose injustice through peaceful demonstration, yet also how difficult this goal is to accomplish without alienating those who are not already galvanized in their views.
Throughout this meandering journey, I cultivated a private education in the art of writing and directing music, often taking significant periods of time to simply write and learn on my own. More recently, the opportunities to write, perform, research, and teach music have presented themselves in abundance. I’m very thankful to the teachers and mentors who encouraged me to pursue a life-long dream: Leonard Enns (who was also my conducting teacher), then later Ka Nin Chan, Stephen Chatman, John Roeder, and Dorothy Chang. I am particularly grateful to Christos Hatzis and more recently to Elder Margaret Harris, both gifted teachers who not only taught me how to make music, but who also enabled me, so that my understanding of music could mature
Why do I write and perform music?
The experience of understanding music more deeply deserves a few more words. During my years of residency at UBC, I founded and directed a group of talented choral singers under the name: Vancouver Peace Choir. The idea behind this project was to use music as a way to build bridges across religious, social, and political divides. Part of this idea arose from my disappointment with social activism, often experiencing public protest as a self-serving exercise: the protesters get a lot of angst off their chest, but the public remains indifferent. I felt that there must be a way to use music to speak out about injustice without being forceful with ideas – in other words, put the ideas in circulation and then let the music do the talking. Our first concert was in 2009. We celebrated earth-day. Since then the group continues to grow both in numbers and in the diversity of people who sing. Many of the most significant performing experiences of my life have happened because of this group. The emotional intensity in these performances usually happens because the music touches a chord at a place that needs healing.
The search for ways to engage the healing power of music has also led me to understand it differently. While living in Vancouver, I began attending gatherings with members of the First Nations community. I attended healing and drumming circles with a group called Hummingbird Ministries, led by Mary Fontaine who is a member of the Cree Nation working at building bridges between First Nations people and other cultures. Later, I was invited to become a member of the Margaret Harris Traditional Aboriginal Cultural Society where I learned many traditional Aboriginal skills and cultural ways – bead-working, sewing, making moccasins, drum making, and Cree songs and dances written by Grandma Margaret. I began to hear music with new ears and to respect and understand these new ways of listening. For me, this transformation in the way I hear music was also a transformation of identity – a new way of being. It was also marked with the adoption into a new family and the gift of a new name, Nipiy in Cree – means water.
More recently, my search for inspiration has lead me back to much of what I learned while living in India, both from Gandhi and from the principles of Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satyagraha (truth seeking) that he upheld throughout his life. This truth-seeking impulse has lead me to study the philosophies of the East more fully, and to embrace these sources of inspiration in the context of the wider contributions of the great peace-makers and spiritual leaders, including Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Rama Krishna, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, and more recently, Sri Chinmoy. The vision of a just and peaceful society, where “no one is a stranger unwanted, none” is embodied again and again in the art, music, and life-stories that remain from their legacy.
Is there a thread that ties all of this together?
I feel there is. If I were to choose a way to expresses an underlying intent, I would use a phrase something like “explorations with truth” – for me music has been one of the main motivators. Music has a unique way of reaching us at a deep level. Sometimes this exposes our truths, as members of our community and as individuals. These musical experiences that resonate in our hearts can offer us healing and transform us. These are spiritual experiences… soul experiences where music is shared as a profound gift. Deep truths emerge, we let go of anger and prejudice through tears and loving release. As a writer, director, as a teacher and researcher, my goal is to search for ways to express these deeper truths – emotional truths, subjective truths – and ultimately to create the spaces where such healing moments are possible.