Music Issue: Finding new ways to express his passion

Editor’s note: As the Juno Awards 2013 prepare to celebrate the best of Canadian music this weekend, Western Journalism students help us celebrate the best in Western Music. Read the full Music Issue.

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Jason Stanford stands with four students around a stack of electronic equipment twisting knobs and explaining their functions. A tangle of wires leads from the backs of two computer monitors to a microphone and a series of speakers that line the room.

After Stanford explains how to capture sound into the computer, the students take their seats around a wooden table and the class begins. Over the next two hours, the students share and review each other’s compositions. This year, Stanford has returned to the school where he learned to write music, the Don Wright Faculty of Music, to teach three courses in composition.

Composition wasn’t always his ambition. When he first came to Western out of high school in 1996, Stanford was focused on performance.

“I was under the delusion I would somehow be this classical guitarist,” he said. But in his search for a new way to express his thoughts through sound he found composition.

Stanford’s introduction to music happened at age 16, when he took up electric guitar and played heavy metal with his friends.

He soon found metal one-dimensional, and so as he would do throughout his musical career, Stanford looked for new sounds and new forms of expression.

“Radio played a big influence in my early days, as far as my conversion to the classical music stream,” he said.

In his second year at Western, Stanford took composition as an elective and never looked back.

“Performance didn’t feel expressive enough, or at least not the right type of expression,” he said. “Composition was this opening up of this new world of possibilities.”

Even within the field of composition, Stanford has been searching for a new sound. His focus for the last several years has been electroacoustic composition. Electroacoustic music is an umbrella term for music performed and composed with technology, like computers or tape. Stanford describes it as “a venue for creative expression through contemporary technology.”

But Stanford hasn’t abandoned composing instrumental music, preferring to keep his feet in both worlds. “Electroacoustic music is just something else on the composer’s workbench,” he said.

No matter what he is composing Stanford follows a similar process and he says it isn’t as romantic as people might think. “Here’s the thing about inspiration – if you wait around for it, it will never come,” he said.

Composition involves a lot of pre-planning. Stanford first decides what sounds and techniques he wants to use and through this process new ideas emerge. “It all has to really come from the idea of sound,” Stanford said.

Toronto-based composer and conductor William Rowson said Stanford’s music comes from the heart.

He met Stanford in the doctoral program in music composition at the University of Toronto. Rowson has conducted Stanford’s works and composed with him in the seven years they’ve known each other.

He said Stanford’s music is informed by his wide experience. “You might think you are hearing some heavy metal infused orchestral music, but if you look closely he has borrowed techniques from all sorts of contemporary composers,” Rowson said.

But above all, Rowson describes Stanford as a natural teacher. “He explains things incredibly clearly in a way that is very second nature to him,” he said.

Stanford said he never learns more than when he is teaching. He feels honoured to have the opportunity to expose his students to the world of composition.

“This is something I have been working toward for a very long time,” he said. “So to actually be doing this – I feel like I’ve won the lottery.”