‘I Had The Piano To Give Me Breath’: 5 Questions With Composer Carol Ann Weaver

Carol Ann Weaver is a celebrated Canadian composer whose music has been heard throughout North America and in parts of Europe, Africa, Korea and Paraguay. Her genre-bending music ranges in style from classical to jazz, avant garde to folk, creating new fusions of roots and art music, much of it colored by her long standing passion for African music. Exploring various edges, she has composed for turntablist, worked with soundscapes, drum circles, acoustic and electric instruments, and created dramatic and theme-oriented productions and festivals. Her Sound in the Land Festival/Conferences at University of Waterloo have brought together composers, performers, scholars, ecologists, ecomuicologist, ethnomusicologists and listeners from all over North America, Europe, South Korea and Africa.


1. When did you first discover your passion for music?
I was always passionate about music. My mom says they were playing recordings of Mendelssohn’s Elijah soon before I was born, so there you go! Me and Felix! Bonded for life! He has led me by the ear, ever since.

My mom, two sisters, and I lived at Grandpa and Grandma’s house, after the sudden tragic accident that claimed my father before I was two. Grandpa (Chester K. Lehman, former dean at EMU), was a seriously musical person, with a passion for Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and played this music non-stop, as I grew up. So, I picked up his passion, effortlessly. (Wow, these days, you send kids off to music camp to teach them to ‘appreciate’ and do things in music. Back then, it all came to me without my asking! And it changed my life.)

I remember when I was about 3 or 4, someone coming over to our house, playing Chopsticks in the ragtime style, and I’d never heard anything so fun. I had to go outside and run and run and run, up and down the sidewalk. This was my first experience of ecstasy! And then, a few years later, one particular time I heard Mozart, I realized I was totally so hooked, I didn’t know what was happening to me! And a few years later on, when I got to start playing the Beethoven Sonatas, it was like I entered into a kind of enchantment and mystery, available only to those of us who had discovered the secret code! I had never felt soooo rich before! It was like I had just received the ‘meaning for life.’


2. Who (or what!) are your musical influences?
I’ve already alluded to some of my musical influences in the first question — my grandfather and his classical music library, the music I was able to play on the piano. But probably even deeper, and earlier yet, was the incredibly wealthy tradition of a cappella singing, and the central role this singing had in all of our lives. Church — we sang some 5 or 6 hymns per Sunday; any meetings, another 3 – 4 hymns; at mealtime yet another hymn; in our family worship (well we ‘had’ to go through with these moments in life!), yet more hymns; and if anyone hummed or sang around the house, it was for sure, hymns. When I was six, I remember asking my mother how to sing alto. I will never forget — she taught me the basics in about five minutes, and I’ve sung alto ever since! So, singing in parts was, in our background, next to godliness. A monotone was, to us, like a person without a soul (though, of course, we’d never utter this!)

And then, the chorus programs (choir concerts, but we never called them ‘concerts) at Eastern Mennonite College (now University). We’d haul off, listen to these by the fistfuls. Some brought in nearly a thousand listeners. And there would always be a time when all thousand of us could sing something together. Choral music was our group music, and it was all a cappella. I’m sure that’s why music theory and ear training and playing by ear has always been easy or ‘natural’ for me, since I was hearing parts, before I was born, singing them soon afterwards, and ‘thinking’ them the rest of my life, as in developing a kind of inner ear for harmonic complexities.

Further influences were my various piano teachers, since age 7, on to adult years. Naturally, I poured out my heart on the piano, and by age 10 or so, began making up my own music, for both piano and voice, and have never stopped! Also, very important to me were the very special ‘community concerts’ we heard when I was a child. I was 12 years old before I got to hear a real, live orchestra. By then, I had fantasized what it would be like to hear this music live! So, when I finally did, this was another moment of sheer ecstasy. Also, I fantasized even ‘touching’ a violin. When I finally got to take a few violin lesson later on during High School, it was almost too late to transfer my musical passion into this squeaky-sounding wooden body holding those four stubborn strings! But I had piano to give me breath.

I was so lucky to be able to play piano as a child since my mother lived in an awkward Mennonite era in Eastern USA, when certain dictatorial bishops would not allow pianos in the homes of Mennonite ministers, which my Grandfather was. So, my mother had begun to play, but the piano was taken away from her, causing a kind of deep grief one can hardly describe. Thus, my own playing piano was for not only me, but also her, so it seemed! That influence, via my mother’s own musical passion, is still there, guiding my life! (An extremely insightful essay about the banning of pianos in Mennonite homes in early 20th century is written by my sister, Kathleen Weaver Kurtz, writer, historian, and therapist with a Doctorate in Pastoral Counselling, as found here:
Readers’ responses are equally insightful.)


3. Has your Mennonite background affected your relationship with music?
For me to be alive, was for me to be Mennonite. There was no other option, as I grew up. We were ‘born’ Mennonite, like a person would be ‘born’ Chinese, or Bantu, or First Nations. Only at age 10 or 12 were we in a position to even question being Mennonite. “Mennonite” ruled everything we thought, looked like, dressed like, ate, read, listened to, sang, talked about, and believed in. . . My only place of ‘escape’ from this identity was in playing the piano. . . it was my land of freedom. Yet, now that I understand this profusion of Mennonite-dom in my early (and later) life, I am so grateful that I “had” a background at all! Something to claim, something to decide about, something to depart from and/or return to, something to keep, something to lose, something to critique and something to understand. So, my background had everything to do with how I was able to absorb and learn music. It ‘was’ me, and ‘was’ how I heard and played and now compose music.

My Mennonite background influences me every time I think of two notes in relation to each other.

Mennonites (where I come from) are strong and natural harmonizers, so harmony always came readily to me. I thank my Mennonite background for helping me hear pitch, harmony, and for allowing me to have to take necessary detours into sheer atonality and ‘disharmony’ to compensate for all the ‘nice’ harmony we sang in our churches.

Mennonites (again, where I came from) basically had soggy, even rotten rhythm. . . no respect for the timings of notes. Like, if there was a whole note at the end of a phrase, we’d only sing as many beats of that whole note as was deemed important by the song leader. There was no sense of a strong inner beat, just a sort of generic ‘longer’ or ‘shorter-ness’ applied at the whim of the singers or song leader. Strange irony, indeed, that the very people who most respected a strong ‘inner life’ seemed not to maintain a musically strong inner pulse! Maybe it, too, came from the Anabaptist caves in Europe where they could scarcely afford to have their long, chant-like hymns heard. So, because of that, I’ve become ultra concerned with/addicted to/fascinated with rhythm, pulse, meter, cross rhythms, counter-rhythms, polyrhythms, or just one strong beat! (We were taught that tapping one’s foot to music was ‘of the devil’.) So, now, one must compensate for what was lost! African rhythms have breathed new life into me, now, for decades! Playing music with Africans has helped me travel to necessary places which were not available in my Mennonite background.

Chaos music and chance music have also been important contrasts to the über orderliness of Mennonite thinking and Mennonite music. So, I’ve had more than my share of ecstasy with music from the ‘wild side’ — whether from John Cage or Pauline Oliveros or many others who have freed music from it’s tight bar lines and musical ‘plain coats’ and ‘head coverings’, as it were.

We were not allowed to listen to soul, jazz, blues, rock, pop, R&B, and such forms of music when I was young. If this music came over the radio, we had to turn it off immediately. It was the devil’s music. So there was much compensating I needed to do, here! The full irony, for me personally, was when I was asked to teach not only jazz music, but popular music at a Mennonite College in Ontario (Conrad Grebel University College/UWaterloo).


4. What do you do when you’re not creating music or teaching?

When I ‘create’ music, I’m not so much ‘creating’ music as ‘listening’ to what is ‘there.’ As I listen, I begin to hear music that wants to be sounded. And as I listen more intently, I hear, more exactly, how the sounds are shaped, and where they want to go. Sometimes I let my fingers (on the keyboard) find what’s ‘out there.’ Sometimes I find this while sitting in my backyard, or sometimes, while walking alone, listening, listening. And sometimes, Mother Nature gives me her music — either in the raw form, via my own hard-won field recordings of sounds in the natural world (whether in Africa, here in Canada, or elsewhere), or by my ‘stylizing’ what I hear in the natural world, and composing it for orchestra or other groups of instruments.

Teaching is but a verbal/sonic expression of ideas to others who are willing to listen. There is no formula for good teaching. If the learner is eager, teaching happens without effort. If there is resistance, one must work hard to find small, or pithy elements which can be broken down, dissected, imparted, and digested — sort of like feeding whole foods to a very young child. When I ‘think’ I’ve communicated some ideas eloquently and ingeniously, I usually discover that the ideas may have died in the air between me and the listener/learners. And when I’m sure I’ve communicated nothing at all, sometimes I’m told that my utterances have made a life-changing difference. Teaching usually sits somewhere between communicating nothing at all and communicating a kind of uncanny wisdom which lies well beyond me, the so-called ‘teacher’.


5. What is one thing you wish people understood about Mennonites (or, alternatively, what Mennonites understood about Mennonites)?

I would love for everyone to understand their own roots, and respect where they came from as a gift of life. No one group of us, here on earth, has purchase on truth. But all of us have been given a chance to live because of/in spite of where we have come from. As Jon Snow says in Game of Thrones, when asked what bonded his strange group of cohorts together, “we’re all breathin.” And that’s what we are doing, as any one cultural group. We are living into the next moment, courtesy of our mothers, fathers, communities that gave us birth. For us ‘not’ to appreciate and thank this heritage, and for us ‘not’ to want to understand it, is for us to turn our backs on our human history and wander out into a wasteland devoid of gratitude and flexibility; devoid of story, wisdom, humour, and pain; devoid of love and even anger; devoid of that which makes us human!


Other recent interviews with me are done by Judith Klassen in Rhubarb, the issue on Mennonite New Music, Summer 2015, Number 37, pp 9-13, and Clarisse Tonigussi for the Association of Canadian Women Composers eJournal ACWC/AFCC Fall/Winter, pp 34-38 https://acwcweb.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/acwc-fallwinter-2017-journal.pdf
Also, I wrote about my growing-up years in Departure and Return, (Stonegarden, 2016) http://stonegardenstudios.ca/gallery_details.php?KW=&S=dateD&P=2&ID=21


(feature photo: Carol Ann Weaver at Gobal Mennonite Peacebuilding Conference & Festival, Conrad Grebel University College)