Dr. Fiona Ryan - Composer


She/Her - Fiona Ryan is a Nova Scotian composer who specializes in composing vocal and instrumental music. Fiona currently lives in Halifax, NS, where she composes, teaches, tutors, writes, and works as a music director and performer. Fiona's music was featured on two recordings released in 2017, one of which, Lady of the Lake, was nominated for classical composition of the year at the 2018 East Coast Music Awards. Fiona's compositions often incorporate dramatic and literary elements, and her work has been performed in Canada, the USA, and the UK. Fiona holds a Doctor of Musical Arts in composition from the University of Toronto (Canada), a Master of Music in composition from Newcastle University (UK), and a Bachelor of Music with a concentration in performance from Dalhousie University (Canada). Fiona's creative interests include creating work that explores relationships between music and writing/narrative/communication and exploring the creative possibilities of transforming ideas from one art form to another. www.fionaryanmusic.com

I met Fiona a few years ago when I moved back to Nova Scotia. We had mutual friends and I was encouraged to pick her brain about the music scene in the city. We ended up talking over coffee about many things and realized we have a lot in common. Last year, when programming for my university group, I asked Fiona if she would re-vamp an orchestral piece of hers for winds and thankfully she was on board to do so. When I started this project, she was one of the first people I contacted to chat and she kindly agreed. I think she has some phenomenal ideas about identity and composition. I hope you all go check out her work.

{Jacob} - So, you are a newly identifying queer person! Which is different from everyone I’ve talked to so far for this project. Congratulations! How long has it been?

{Fiona} - I am! Just over two years. I suppose almost two and a half at this point.

{Jacob} - Before identifying as queer, how much time had you devoted to thinking about your own identity and composition?

{Fiona} - A fair amount actually. While I was completing my doctoral studies, I worked on a project that looked specifically at women composers in Canada. In that project I talked a lot about gender and nationality as a facet of identity. I am also a woman composer from the maritimes who has lived in different provinces, and abroad. That has forced me to think about my identity, who I am, and what I bring with me when I’m living in a different country or area of Canada. So, certainly I had explored these ideas about composition and identity before, but it hadn’t been through a queer lens. However, despite not looking through a queer lens, I think there may be some common themes, because there is also a sense of otherness to being a composer whose gender does not fit the stereotypical image of "composer". That is to say, I am a woman composer, living in a world that has been largely dominated by men throughout history. I don’t think I am conscious of that every time I write something, but it is something that is an inescapable fact. I think it comes across more when I write for voice. I have always been drawn to telling stories of women because that is my experience. Those are stories that speak to me. Why would I tell the same stories as a dead, white, european man? That’s not me!

{Jacob} - It most certainly is not. I think you’re right that in vocal music it is maybe easier, or more transparent, to tell stories that relate to your lived experiences. If, for a moment, we put that in the context of the wealth of literature written on feminist and gendered musicology, how would you feel about ascribing a Susan McClary-esque analysis of your own work? Or if not McClary, Marcia Citron? That, what you write inherently encompasses your queerness and femme identity. Your melodies are inherently queer. Or if not, that the people or ensembles you choose to write for have a conscious or unconscious bias.

{Fiona} - Well. I’m not sure. That is a massive question. I think, for me, it is too early to tell. It has only been a short while that i’ve identified as queer. But, maybe it has been there all along, underlying, even if I wasn’t aware of it.

{Jacob} - Maybe you’ll look back on something you wrote ten years ago and it will suddenly seem very queer.

{Fiona} - Absolutely. I have always had the need when I write for large ensembles for players to not be stuck in the roles that they traditionally play. I don’t want the tuba to have to play OomPahs. The violins don’t always need to play a big beautiful soaring melody. Let’s give that to someone else. That may not be terribly queer, but I think it could be! I don’t think it’s a stretch to think of it that way. Certainly now, whenever I do that, I will think of it as a conscious queering of instrumentation. No one else may notice.

{Jacob} - I think about that a lot. Sometimes in my head I’m “queering” something. To me it is really radical and subversive, but no one else reads it that way or notices. But, to me it is a big deal.

When I was preparing to come talk with you today, I tried to make a list of queer, lesbian, femme-identifying composers. I fell pretty flat. As someone who has studied women composers, do you have a better list than what I’ve come up with? Which, admittedly is basically nobody.

{Fiona} - Actually, the problem is I don't know how big a list it may be, as we don't always tend to talk a lot about the lives of women composers, so their queerness may not always be visible. Certainly there are queer women (/femme people) in the popular music world who have influenced my music, but I can think of a few from the world of classical and avant garde/experimental music who have been influential to me, in particular Pauline Oliveros and Ann Southam.  Maybe a more relevant list of composers for me would be people who could be categorized as "other" in some way. It is something I have always looked for and appreciated when listening to new music or art. When I was doing my doctoral research, there was something along these lines that became clear to me: That if you are not a white, cis-male, heterosexual, european, composer, suddenly many of the rules of composition just don’t apply in the same way. You no longer have to pay homage to these composers.

{Jacob} - Let alone not having to abide by the rules of homage to those composers, there is a complete freedom from even having rules. The from the beginning, you can strip away some of that compositional-lineage conversation and just write as you. Is that accurate?

{Fiona} - Exactly. There is no way that I will ever write something that is from any perspective those composers had, so I don’t even have to pretend to try to write from that place. I’m completely free to write my own experience. But, at the same time, that can feel isolating. To not be part of a school of composition. Especially given that I didn’t begin composing until relatively late in my studies. I didn’t have a youthful idolization of a composer, or group of composers. I drew from a nebulous cloud of constantly changing influences.

{Jacob} - Do you think it is more common for composers to have a more linear trajectory? Becoming obsessed with one person and trying to emulate their music in your own voice. To be a composer you need to have such a strong background in music, theory, and history to even begin to write pieces. Without trying to emulate at a young age, I suppose then it makes sense to not begin until you’re older.

{Fiona} - I think it is common for people to begin writing because they become fascinated with a specific sound or genre. It’s not that I didn’t write pieces when I was young. I’m sure there is a score somewhere written in messy rainbow marker that I have stashed away in an old book or closet.

{Jacob} - The rainbow marker is a pretty Freudian signifier…

{Fiona} - I hadn’t thought of that! Yes, it is. But I didn’t seriously start composing until my masters. So by then I had so many different influences in my life and I knew very firmly what type of program and teacher I wanted to build a relationship with. There are many “old boys clubs” in composition programs and I knew that wasn’t for me. I do think though that my fairly circuitous route to composition was good for me. There are things we don’t know about ourselves and who we are that come through in music. It is also true that if we try too hard to bring those out, sometimes we get in our own way. I think starting later and coming in to a program fresh without too many ingrained rules about composition allowed some of those things to come through in my compositions. I could try and write a really queer piece, but it probably won’t be authentically my voice at all.

{Jacob} - Maybe that is why the queerest work comes from those composers that spent their entire careers in the closet. That they were actually trying so hard to pass that the music they wrote came out so very queer. It wasn’t forced. It was their inherent selves that created such queer music.

{Fiona} - I can only imagine how that is going to change the way we think about those composers as we start to look at them through a queer lens, but also how composers are more and more free to write in complete openness in the time they live. Imagine if all those closeted composers had been free to express their identity openly. What music would have been written instead! I’m excited to be old and look back on the beginning of the 21st century to see if there was a shift. Particularly in places like Canada where there have been actual changes that give queer people more freedom and equality.

{Jacob} - Which brings me to the question that I’ve been asking everyone, regardless of discipline. What is the next frontier then in queer composition? What is the next barrier to get past?

{Fiona} - There are a couple things that come to mind. One is that until an orchestra, or theatre, or mainstream performance company can have entire season of queer, femme-identifying, LGBTQ performance that we haven’t hit true equality. There have been hundreds of years of performance that didn’t include one person that wasn’t a white, cis-male, hetero, european. Until we can program a years worth of programming that incidentally doesn’t include any of those traditionally programmed people, we still have work to do. The second thing, is that when that day comes and we have entirely “othered” seasons of programming, we will need to get past the barrier of people complaining about it or noting it as something special. When that season is announced and nobody bats an eye, then we’ve completed some good work.

Photo credit - Emily Jewer at MJ Photographics

Photo credit - Emily Jewer at MJ Photographics