I met Alexina Louie many years ago in New York. Two of the pianists I managed at Columbia Artists Management — Ralph Markham & Kenneth Broadway — were performing a suite she had written on tour. It featured a movement beautifully evocative of gamelan music and I’ve never forgotten it. I had never before heard such a hauntingly beautiful piece of music. And I have wanted to present this concert ever since we launched this series three years ago.

To understand Alexina’s music is to trace a quintessentially Vancouver story. Born in Chinatown, her first memory of Chinese music was her father taking her to a Chinese New Year celebration as a child. (All quotes excerpted from an interview with Olivia Adams from a research article ‘Asian Influences in Alexina Louie’s Piano Music.’)

“It was a very small, local, and personal celebration down Pender Street and we would follow the Lion Dancers and drummers down the street. My father’s family business was importing and exporting Chinese food. We would have an offering on a bamboo pole. Some meat and lettuce leaves tied around a box of money for the community. The lion dancers would come by and do a special dance.

I was thrilled with the drumming and the clanging of the Chinese cymbals and the firecrackers. I always found it moving. I never knew why then, but now it’s obvious that it’s because I’m Chinese that it strikes such a chord within me.”

Can you imagine, for a second what it’s like to grow up in such a rich, vibrant culture? The spicy, flavourful foods? The shared language spoken at home. The unique customs, celebrations and holidays that make life seem so full of meaning and so much more fun as a child? 

Then consider, for a second, a completely different image, if you will. Have you ever seen the newly released film Apollo 11? They restored never-before-seen original footage to spectacular colour and IMAX resolution. It’s a jaw-dropping, dramatic, mind-blowing film. The scenes where they are flying behind the dark side of the moon so close you think they might reach out and touch it, completely cut off from Earth and alone in the Universe, are spectacular. 

But watching the film, you can’t help notice that almost every single face pictured is white. And almost every single engineer in the control room – there are several hundred – are men. They all have short hair, mostly brush cuts. They are all wearing square, black, horn-rimmed glasses. The women, pictured outside picnicking with their children to watch the launch, all have bouffants, bobs or beehives. The mass conformity the film reveals seems so oppressive.

Is it any wonder we all rebelled against that? Referring back to my opening question, can you imagine growing up as a young girl in such a wonderfully colourful, vibrant home life, then being thrust into such a conformist, square, rigid society that frowned on all of the colour and noise and vibrancy of everything you’ve known before? 

Zina, as she is known to friends and fans, went on to study composition at UBC with a beloved teacher, Cortland Hultberg. But it was only after moving away to California for advanced studies that she began to escape the restraints of orthodoxy and embark on a lifelong voyage of discovery that would eventually bring her full circle back to her childhood, her family, and their roots in China.

“California opened my ears, introduced me to oriental music and, in doing so, helped me to find my own voice. If I hadn’t gone there I probably wouldn’t have become a composer.” (Alexina Louie)

After graduating, a crisis of musical identity — a search for her original voice as a composer — inspired a deeper search and sent her reaching back to those childhood roots, inspired in part by a family pilgrimage to China.

That struggle, that conflict between west and east, between family and society, between her own cultural identity and the rigid conformity demanded by society at that time and by the compositional orthodoxy of the day, is at the heart of Alexina Louie’s profoundly evocative, completely original  music. 

“For a period of about six years, I studied: Asian, Chinese and Japanese instruments, folklore and Korean and Indonesian, to really understand Asian music – all of these, and of course Chinese instruments and philosophy.”

She also explored North Indian raga music and Javanese gamelan music. She immersed herself in the eastern philosophies of Yin and Yang, Zen theory, and Asian art, and they began to influence her compositions.

So the beginnings of her original voice were formed by philosophy, through instrumental study, forged by the reading of poetry, and through meditation. Eventually, the voyage of discovery that began in San Francisco came full circle. She discovered that her family name translates as “rain on the field,” meaning “thunder.”

Edward Duan, piano; Joan Blackman, violin; Jane Hayes, piano; Alexina Louie, composer; Jennie Press, violin; Isadora Nojkovic, cello; Tawnya Popoff, viola; Sean Bickerton, CMC BC Director.

As Olivia Adams observed, Alexina’s compositional identity is grounded very much in her understanding of her own personal identity. Adams wrote: “Through reaching for her Asian heritage she created her own unique voice in a fusion of east and west. There is no one who composes music in the style Louie created. Her music adds a unique voice.” The way she rebelled against the strict compositional orthodoxy of her day, and the completely unique synthesis she created to bridge those worlds, has produced a body of work unlike any other. Alexina Louie is one of the most important voices writing in Canada today.

To bring this circle fully round, I mentioned at the beginning of the program that I first encountered Zina’s music through duo-pianists Ralph Markham and Kenneth Broadway. They have been life-long friends and champions of her music. Fittingly, it was their twelve year-old prodigy Edward Duan who performed two works for piano on this program, the second of which, Fastforward, was written just after he was born.

The concert we staged, our Celebration, provides a mere glimpse into the fascinating, evocative, exotic, complex, stormy and shimmering world of the music of Alexina Louie.

UPDATE: Alexina Louie won the 2019 Molson Prize from the Canada Council a week after our Celebration of her music!