© Larry Towell
Zosha di castri
Dear Life is based on Nobel Prize-winner Alice Munro’s semi-autobiographical short story “Dear Life” with music by award-winning Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri for orchestra and soprano Erin Wall. It features recorded narration by legendary actor Martha Henry, who gives a chilling reading of an expertly distilled adaptation of the story prepared by writer Merilyn Simonds. Striking black and white photography by Larry Towell (Magnum Photos) is interspersed with creative imagery that is projected on screens which surround and immerse the orchestra in a 3D environment. Visual design by Montreal’s Normal. (This work premiered September 16, 2015). Duration 23 mins.
The production of Dear Life is made possible in part by Kenneth and Margaret Torrance and friends.
"The orchestration evoked the sounds of southern Ontario, including rain, wind, snow and Canadian geese. Tempering the dissonance, and supporting Munro’s pre-recorded text narrated by Martha Henry, the balance was kept in check with soprano Erin Wall."Michael Vincent - Musical Toronto
In late 2013, I was introduced to the book (Alice Munro's Dear Life) by a friend at the NAC and read it with enthusiasm, in awe of her vital, penetrating intellect and the universal soul of her writing. When I reached the final short story, itself titled “Dear Life”, its reference to a poem and depiction of childhood sensibilities awakened a connection in my mind to Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, a work that culminates in a poem illuminating a child’s vision of heaven. I always intended to open my first season with a new Canadian commission and here, I found an inspiration. Since then, the work has taken on extraordinary form and scope with the involvement of Zosha Di Castri, Donna Feore, Merilyn Simonds, Martha Henry and Larry Towell.
I received the invitation to write Dear Life just days before giving birth to my first child. Although my better judgment told me that composing an orchestral work of this proportion in the early months of motherhood was total insanity, there was something about the project that lured me in.
Perhaps it was the story. Munro’s words struck a chord: a portrait of a mother-daughter relationship over a lifetime, an artist coming into her own, realizing her “Otherness” but also the universality of lived experience. I admired Munro’s flow, her flashes of memories half-recalled, perhaps fictional, perhaps autobiographical — ambiguous and at times startlingly straightforward.
And so, I have attempted to tell the story in my way: through music, sound, and experimentation. Martha Henry’s voice guides us through the adapted text as our trusted narrator. The singer, however, is treated differently. Her material is made of fragmented text and invented sounds, a visceral response bridging the divide between the abstractness of the music and the concreteness of the spoken word. Her presence comes in and out of focus both musically and dramaturgically. At the beginning, her voice is fused with the orchestra, but gradually she emerges as a distinct, independent entity.
The orchestra wavers between absolute music (non-representational textures, sometimes static, sometimes spastic), and what I think of as archetypal music – music from our collective unconscious; memory music, rusty warped hymns, the sound of migrating flocks, a melody sung to oneself, the embodiment of nostalgia via the re-orchestrated sound of phonograph static. This is the spectrum from which I work to try to create different musical spaces, from the story within the story (the Netterfield fable), to the doggerel poem sung near the end of the work. Under the pastoral beauty of these reminiscences lurks the thrill of danger, violence, misfortune, and yet forgiveness and acceptance is what we walk away with. There is something so fundamentally human about this story.
Alice Munro once wrote:
“A story is not like a road to follow… it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth […]. And you, the visitor, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time.”1
It is in this way, I hope, that listeners will experience my house of sound.
1 Introduction to the Vintage Edition, Selected Stories, 1968-1994 (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).
When the NAC Orchestra approached me to adapt Alice Munro’s story “Dear Life” for symphony, I was in the process of reading all of Alice Munro’s short stories, in order. Rereading, rather, as I had waited impatiently for each new story to appear since I read Dance of the Happy Shades as a girl of eighteen. I grew up in a small town not far from Alice Munro’s home town, longing like her to escape. As I became a writer and got to know her, I was inspired by her unsentimental, clear-eyed embrace of the world she was born into, a world she has explored in literature for fifty years.
From her most recent story of several thousand words, I was asked to distill a work of only five hundred words that would be the basis for the symphony and for Martha Henry’s recording. All of the words are Alice Munro’s; I have added none of my own, though the order of some events has been shifted for clarity.
It is a testament to Alice Munro’s generosity as a writer that she welcomes the creative play that an adaptation entails. And it is a testament to the authenticity and purity of her prose that such distillation is possible, the essence of her characters and themes vitally present in this new version of “Dear Life.”