Dr. Alexandra Fol is a freelance composer, organist, pianist, conductor and writer from Montréal who I met in a Facebook group for contemporary composers. Her music has been performed by orchestras, choirs and ensembles from all over the world. And since she earned her Doctorate in Music, she has been publishing very interesting papers, as well – on the excavation of ancient instruments, for example. As you can see, she has a lot to offer!
We compared lockdowns in our respective home countries. And we talked about the juiciness of improvisation, and her idea for an opera called „Purgatory“ that ends on, as she called it, the „best chord in the world“. It was so lovely to get to know her a little. Because we laughed a lot – Alexandra has the driest humour ever! – and also because even though we’ve never met, parts of our lives are very similar.
The call took place on January 15th, a few days before the start of Switzerland’s second lockdown, and in the middle of a big COVID outbreak in Canada.
Alexandra, how are you doing right now?
Well, I’m home a lot (laughs). I have articles to write. This year, there have been no commissions for compositions. My last commission finished in April. So I’ve had no compositions to write, and no concerts, but at least, I have two, three articles.
Canada is in a pretty hard lockdown at the moment, right?
Yes. I cannot visit anyone, unless it’s a person living alone – and then, only this person for the duration of the lockdown. We can’t do group activities, even outside. And the COVID situation really is pretty bad here. I had to go to the hospital a few weeks ago, and there were people everywhere. There were beds with people in them in the hallway. Wow.
That sounds awful. May I ask, how are you spending your days right now?
I’m doing research for articles. In my last three articles, I’ve written about ancient Thrace, archaeo-acoustics and the reconstruction of instruments. I think now, I’ll go more into aesthetics. I’ll try to apply for projects again as soon as I can, but right now, in Canada, you can’t plan for any projects that involve travel. So this puts a bit of a stop to musical activities.
Are you able to play the organ at all?
I actually have a piano, an organ and a harmonium at home. I’ll show you around.
Awesome! The harmonium is very cute, it’s so small!
Yes! I really love it. So, these are my instruments.
Are you allowed to practice as long as you want?
There is a quiet hour starting at eleven o’clock at night. But I never practice that late anyway. And right now, everything’s in limbo of course. I have a few concerts in Finland in June, but I don’t know if they’re going to take place, and I’m not sure if and how I should be preparing. I’ll play a piece by a fellow Canadian composer – I mostly get hired to play contemporary music. I can play you Bach fugues (laughs), but it’s not what I’m well known for.
In Switzerland, musicians are getting tired. At first, everyone tried to be productive. Now, it’s starting to weigh on people that there’s no perspective for the future. I think that this year it’s going to be even worse than last year. What is your take on that?
I agree. I do. There are some strange rules here in Canada. To keep the funding for projects, you have to plan according to the original timeline like nothing happened, which means a lot of added administrative work. The bureaucratic machine is really not adept to what’s going on. You have to spend funding, even though you don’t really know how. It’s quite nightmarish.
Is there a piece of music that you like to listen to for comfort?
My next thing on the list is a piece called „Cloud Messenger“ by Gustav Holst. My last big piece was a 25 minute choir piece with organ, commissioned by three choirs. Now, nothing’s happening. Especially not for choirs, obviously! Anyway, I’m quite taken by the beginning of the Holst piece. It’s triadic without necessarily being tonal. It sounds very advanced, very contemporary. So this is my new discovery! This is the one I’ll be spending my next few days with.
You’re a scientist, a musician, a performer, a composer – it’s quite a full portfolio! What does that mean for your life?
I wrote an article on the topic, called „Homo Universalis, a path still relevant today“. The different activities compliment and influence one another. It all feeds my inspiration! When I started to write about archaeo-acoustics, I didn’t know that later, I would write the music for a documentary on Thracian rituals. And with the organ, I have the complete freedom to perform as I’d like to, the freedom of exploring. In the organ world, improvisation and experimentation are still somewhat present in the so-called common repertoire, though less than before, because the score has become like the sacred scripture. But as you know, this wasn’t always the case. A few years back I recorded „Prière à Notre-Dame“ by Léon Boëllman, where I put a bunch of appogiaturas and suspensions when the return came… oh, it was so juicy! (laughs). I put it on Youtube and forgot about its existence. And then, last year, a young colleague who’s 20 years younger than me – it’s gotten to the point where my colleagues can be 20 years younger…
… he said that he had seen the video and had really liked the improvised parts. In a way, this helped me become more comfortable with my own deviations. Because there were always people who said that I should concentrate on just one thing – performing, or composing, or academia.
If I’m guessing correctly, you wouldn’t be happy as a specialist in just one field?
May I ask – how do you earn a living?
From playing the organ. The remaining third comes from compositions and concerts. But mostly, it’s from the organ. I don’t know if you know this, but funerals are an immortal business… but who knows how long musicians will be able to earn a living from them. I’m considering exploring the arts management side more. I’m organized, I like to oversee things, it gives me a lot of satisfaction to help bring projects to fruition. Maybe I’ll look for a part-time job in arts management, where I could have one or two days to compose – this would be plenty. I wrote some of my longest works when I had just one day a week to compose because I was so busy with concerts and other things. Some good ones, even.
Looking at your bio, I see that you’re turning forty this year?
I’ll be forty next year… I sometimes feel like I’m still at the beginning, still learning new things. How does turning forty make you feel?
Well, musicians are very long-lived, career-wise. We know of conductors who are in their nineties, pianists, composers who are active for a very long time. The good thing is that the intellectual prowess grows. I’m writing much less music now, but it’s so much better than the things I wrote before. As a composer, I’ve made peace with the fact that I will be discovered when I’m dead. But by the way, my work is here and ready, if someone wants to discover it (laughs).
Let’s say money wasn’t an issue, and there wasn’t a pandemic. What kind of musical project would you like to do?
Well, I have an idea for an opera. It’s called purgatory.
Oh, so it’s about right now, then (laughs)
(laughs). It’s about a female CEO who dies and goes to purgatory. There, she meets the local bureaucrat who says that she has a choice: she can either go to hell or to heaven, and that she can visit both places to see which she likes more. Of course he later turns out to be Satan. And she decides, on the last chord, to go to hell. This last chord, played by the full orchestra, has been in my head since I first started thinking about the piece. It’s the best chord in the world, of course (laughs). With money no issue, I would take a year off, and complete the whole thing.
It sounds awesome. I hope you can put it on stage someday!
I hope so, too!