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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 3 November 2010

Otto Joachim: Always Ahead of his Time

by Caroline Louis / November 1, 2010

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When the Conseil québécois de la musique handed out the 2007-2008 Opus Prizes on January 27, 2007, in Montreal, it awarded the “Tribute Award” to the German-Canadian musician Otto Joachim.

A look back on a distinguished career

Otto Joachim is best known as a composer, but he distinguished himself in several fields throughout his long career. From his youth, during the interwar years, until his death, he worked as a violinist, a violist, a chamber music player, a teacher, an electroacoustic musician and a period instrument builder. He also composed a wealth of music for the contemporary Canadian repertoire.

Forced to flee Germany when Hitler came to power in 1934, Joachim lived in Asia for 15 years, first in Singapore and then in Shanghai. In 1949, because of the Communist takeover of China, Joachim was forced to flee Shanghai with his wife and newborn son and embarked on a voyage to make their way to Brazil. A stop in Montreal to earn money for the rest of the voyage gave him a sense of freedom and familiarity and he decided to stay.

The 1950s were pivotal years for Joachim. He started off as the solo violist for the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and the McGill Chamber Orchestra. In 1955, he went on to found the Montreal String Quartet, which devoted a large portion of its repertoire to Canadian music. He became a teacher at McGill University and the Conservatoire de musique du Québec in 1956 and that year he started his own electroacoustic music research studio. In addition, passionate for period instruments, he founded the Montreal Consort of Ancient Instruments in 1958. (Incidentally, in its permanent collection the Canadian Museum of Civilization has five Renaissance instrument replicas crafted by Otto Joachim).

From 1964 onward, Joachim’s main musical activities were teaching and composition. As part of the modernist avant-garde movement, he experimented with sound art and composed serial, aleatoric and electroacoustic music. He composed an electroacoustic piece called Katimavik for the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 67. He also wrote for the CBC, creating a series of three works that explored the relationship between sound and light. In 1977, the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec commissioned Uraufführung, a piece for 13 instruments accompanied by electroacoustic sounds.

In 1969, Otto Joachim was commissioned by the Société Radio-Canada to compose Illumination II, which resulting in him becoming the first Canadian ever to receive the prestigious Paul Gilson Award given by the Communauté radiophonique européenne. On his 75th birthday, he conducted the Windsor Symphony Orchestra for the premiere of his composition Mobile für Johann Sebastian Bach and in 1990, his works were featured in a tribute concert held at the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur in Montreal and broadcast by the CBC. The Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society awarded him the Prix de musique Calixa-Lavallée in 1990 and he was dubbed a knight of the National Order of Quebec in 1993.

Of the more than 30 works that Otto Joachim wrote, one of the most searing was a socially demanding piece for orchestra and narrator titled Stacheldraht (Barbed Wire) which told the story of one woman's experience at the hands of the Nazi's in Auschwitz Concentration Camp. He wrote many works for children including his 12 Twelve Tone pieces for piano, Kinderspiel for Trio and 6 pieces for guitar. Many works were composed and dedicated to his son, guitarist Davis Joachim

Radio Canada's chaîne culturelle produced a “Tribute to Otto Joachim” CD in 2000. It includes various interpretations of his works, performed by the SMCQ Ensemble (conducted by Walter Boudreau), the Molinari Quartet, the Orchestre métropolitain du Grand Montréal (conducted by Joseph Rescigno), the cellist Guy Fouquet and the CBC Instrumental Ensemble (conducted by Otto Joachim himself).

Those who knew him

Guy Fouquet is a cello and chamber music teacher, and a member of the string orchestra at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montreal. He knew Joachim for many years, having been a student in his chamber music class before he became his colleague at the conservatory. Fouquet remembers Joachim as a serious and demanding teacher with a great sense of humour and warmth for his students.

Fouquet interpreted Joachim’s solo cello piece Paean on the previously mentioned tribute album. In order to be as faithful as possible to the composer’s vision, he worked with Joachim before making the recording. When asked about this experience, the cellist couldn’t stop laughing: “Joachim was extremely uncompromising about the end result and about following the score!”

However, Fouquet appreciated the composer’s flexibility when it came to interpreting the piece. He let Fouquet perform with his own voice. Above all, Guy Fouquet admired Joachim’s musical knowledge, versatility and curiosity.

Yves Daoust is an electroacoustic composition teacher at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal. He explained that Otto Joachim’s musical works were often written with a very specific process and that they demonstrate an instinctive musicality. Listeners can easily feel the composer’s love for technology and performance. On a personal note, Daoust was very impressed by Joachim’s great energy and his also being an accomplished  violist, composer and electroacoustic artist. He’s especially grateful that Joachim co-founded the conservatory’s electroacoustic studio in 1971, along with Micheline Coulombe St-Marcoux and Gilles Tremblay. This was an important contribution to research and development in electroacoustic music.

Kevin Austin is an electroacoustic professor in Concordia University’s music department. He collaborated with Otto Joachim in the 1980s and then joined him at the head of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community. For Austin, the composer’s contribution to Canadian music comes largely down to his presence and faithful involvement as one of the leaders of the musical and artistic community. (Joachim was also a painter and sculptor). Because of his broad knowledge and varied interests, he was always able to bring an original perspective to musical composition. Austin also sees Otto Joachim as a man who was continually ahead of his time. He was a forerunner for certain musical trends, as was shown by his passion for early music, period instruments and, of course, electroacoustic music.

Translation: Samantha Rideout

» The original French text was published in the February 2008 issue of LSM.
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