Leslie Uyeda, Composer

By Janet Danielson

as if everything she has ever been begins, inside, to sing. — Lorna Crozier, from “A Summer’s Singing,” in Everything Arrives At The Light (McClelland and Stewart, 1995)

Leslie Uyeda has made an enormous contribution to the musical life of Vancouver as pianist, vocal coach, conductor, music director, and composer. Her musical versatility, her uncompromising commitment to excellence, and her skilled interpretations command the respect of musicians and audiences alike. At McGill, Uyeda studied piano with Dorothy Morton, who herself studied composition under Violet Archer, so Uyeda’s distinguished woman-composer pedigree stretches back two generations. After Montreal, Uyeda went to Winnipeg where she launched her career as producer for the CBC, chamber music pianist, opera rehearsal pianist, and eventually Chorus Music Director at Manitoba Opera. Moving to CBC Toronto, she later joined the music staff of the Canadian Opera Company. By the time Uyeda arrived in Vancouver she had worked not only with Manitoba Opera and the Canadian Opera Company, but also L’Opéra de Montréal, Opera Hamilton, the Banff Centre, and the Chautauqua Institute of Music in New York. From 1992 to 2004, she directed the Vancouver Opera Chorus.

Uyeda’s arrival in Vancouver coincided with a burgeoning of interest in new opera. Her unflinching approach to challenges made her a sought-after new opera director. She knew how to run a rehearsal, how to get the best out of performers, and, with unerring musical midwifery, how to deliver new music, alive and kicking, to thrilled composers and their audiences. She conducted David MacIntyre’s The Architect, my own The Marvelous History of Mariken of Nimmegen, and Ramona Luengen’s Naomi’s Road. Always on the forefront, Uyeda wrote Canada’s first hockey opera, Game Misconduct, a year 2000 collaboration with the late Tom Cone; and the first lesbian-themed opera, When the Sun Comes Out, a collaboration with poet Rachel Rose, commissioned by the Queer Arts Festival and premièred in Vancouver in 2013. Uyeda is lauded for her ability to write for singers. In his review of When the Sun Comes Out, Gregory Finney wrote: “Uyeda’s vocal lines were melodious, musical, and above all SINGABLE! . . . Her understanding of fach (voice type), range and even vowel selection shows a deft hand that understands both the needs of the singer and the needs of the audience.” In recent years, Uyeda has also written for chorus and built up a substantial corpus of art song, composing over forty settings of Lorna Crozier’s poetry and four song cycles on poems by Joy Kagawa.

Uyeda’s compositional career has not followed the now-standard path of a university degree in composition and induction into one of the various academically-legitimized stylistic enclaves. Rather, she has become a composer through a more time-honoured path, through the mastery of an instrument and its related performance repertoire. Her formidable knowledge of art song and opera provides her with a rich palette of musical languages and devices.

It is difficult fully to appreciate Uyeda’s extensive stylistic palette through the one-dimensional lens of modernism. The modernist obsession with purification—the purification of nature from culture, of the past from the present (as trenchantly formulated by Bruno Latour)—sends the listener in entirely the wrong direction, tut-tutting at triads and muttering at modulations. Uyeda’s music is better understood using two Latourian concepts: that of the hybrid, in which both nature and culture are intertwined; and a spiral temporality, in which “the future takes the form of a circle expanding in all directions, and the past is not surpassed but revisited, repeated, surrounded, protected, recombined, reinterpreted and reshuffled.” (Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, translated by Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 75.)

Uyeda’s fascination with song grows out of a love of theatre and a sense of awe at the capacity of the human voice. The voice, for Uyeda, is “the most phenomenal gift of being alive.” Voice and gesture perform the vital role of conveying intentions, mobilizing, and engaging: imagine the chaos of misconstruals in a world where instant communication were limited to texting and email.

Song is a paradigmatic hybrid form. Uyeda’s songs exemplify the maxim of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. She doesn’t merely take a poem and write an accompaniment to it: the text forms the music, and the music in turn becomes a “brand new home” for the text, whether a bordello for tarty tomatoes or a starlit cradle for a real baby. Her initial starting-point is rhythm. Uyeda selects poetry that resonates deeply with her, and sets about internalizing its rhythms until the music starts to come to life through the text. Uyeda’s approach is best seen in actual examples, such as the opening bars of Peas from her cycle, The Sex Lives of Vegetables, where the sung rhythms correspond to the natural rhythms of the spoken text. From a delicately hinted F-G7 harmonic progression in the first three bars, a B7 chord bursts into bar 4, “sweet burst of green in the mouth,” leaping a major sixth up to the climactic high F# on “burst,” and then leaping back down to the lower F#-A to resolve the phrase. The B-major arpeggio suggests Schubert’s Die Böse Farbe (from Die Schöne Müllerin), which is not only in the same unusual key of B major, but also about the colour green. Regardless of possible historical precedents, Uyeda’s multi-dimensional transformation of word into song is clearly the work of an adept.

Lorna Crozier enthuses about Uyeda’s settings of her poetry: “Leslie has been able to hear the cadences of my poems. She ‘gets’ it and slips it sideways into the most stunning music for instruments and singing voice. She’s given my words another house to live in, all the windows open wide, light pouring in. She translates what I’ve written into the language of piano and clarinet, into the breath and vocal conjugations of a soprano. The poems love it! I love it! What more can I say?”

In her instrumental writing, Uyeda also exhibits an ability to revisit, recombine, and reinterpret. Her Lullaby for Maya for flute and piano retains a traditional rocking triple metre reinforced by harmony that alternates between F major and E diminished chord over a drone F. But the supple, quasi-improvised flute line and irregular phrase lengths give Uyeda’s lullaby a spontaneous, drifting feeling. The flute soars to a climactic high E at the midpoint of the piece, and then makes its way downward while a gentle Bb chord makes its only appearance, pulsing gently for ten bars. Uyeda sustains the tension by returning to the Edim/F chord during the flute’s stepwise descent, echoed by the delicately sparkling piano. Finally at bar 89, the F chord returns, grounded this time by a deep bass F. At this point, according to Maya’s parents, baby Maya (displaying her sophisticated grasp of musical form) invariably falls asleep.

Whether Maya’s response is natural or cultural is a moot point. Uyeda’s concerns lie elsewhere, in giving voice to those whose voices have been suppressed, and in getting to the heart of the human condition. This has led to a remarkable collaboration with Crozier, best described by Crozier herself:

Leslie asked me if I’d be interested in exploring a relationship between a mother and daughter. I said, “No,” because I’d recently completed a memoir in which I said I’d written extensively about my own mother and felt I had nothing more to say.”


Then I went home, and a few days later sent her 16 pages of a mother/daughter dialogue. She’d planted a seed that burrowed into my heart and brain and wouldn’t let go. While I wrote it, unlike in the writing of my other poems, I had a musical score running in my head. Ordinarily I read every line of my poems out loud over and over again until I get the sound right. This time I sang (under my breath) the lines. I imagined crescendos, sotto voces, and pauses.


Of course the music that existed only in my head and that led me through the dialogue bore no resemblance to what Leslie composed. But the feeling of it, the emphasis, the softness or loudness, the shifts in mood and tone paralleled what she ended up creating. I couldn’t have imagined, however, in my limited musical mind, the beauty, the subtlety, the grace she brought to the words, layering each line with extra force, extra power. I couldn’t have come close to her brilliance. She spun her magic to make the two women come to life on stage. Her music makes the piece heartbreaking, vibrantly human, haunting.

The Uyeda/Crozier work Your Breath, My Breath: Dialogue for a Mother and Daughter will be performed in Vancouver in June of this year. Crozier adds, “She honours me and my writing with her talent, her amazing ear, her loving and particular attention. We understand each other; our art understands each other.”

Kandinsky’s 1912 manifesto Concerning the Spiritual in Art set the agenda for twentieth-century art with its depiction of the artist as inevitably lonely and misunderstood. In Uyeda’s music, by contrast, we see art in the service of mutual understanding. And why not?!

The Leslie Uyeda Celebration concert, presented by the Canadian Music Centre in BC, takes place on Friday, March 9, at 7:00 PM in the Murray Adaskin Salon, and is dedicated to International Women’s Day.

The performance is completely sold out. 

For more information on other upcoming concerts in the Murray Adaskin Salon Concert Series, and to find out about future concerts, please visit our website.