June 17, 2020

Class of 2020: Year of worldwide challenges presents opportunities for composer

Ashley Seward aims to tell new stories in music, welcome diverse voices

While the emergence of a worldwide pandemic and protests that span the planet have made the year 2020 daunting, graduating musician and composer Ashley Seward sees fresh opportunities for change.

“It’s a really exciting time because composers of this generation have the chance to do things differently,” says Seward, BMus’20, who is transgender. “White people like me and others who have come from an economically advantaged place can help make room for voices that traditionally have not been heard.”

As a composer, she aims to tell stories that will engage listeners and broaden their understanding of what is possible not only in music, but also in various aspects of life including education.

  • Photo above: Ashley Seward has felt driven to compose for years. Photo by Danielle Lareau

“There is more room for more Indigenous voices in the arts and there is more room academically for programming that recognizes people of colour,” she says.

There are many ways to bring change. Even history classes that don’t dwell entirely on Western classical music written by white people will enable us to embrace new stories.

Seward has contributed to several major UCalgary productions and performances, notably Key of T and The Fairy Queen. She acknowledges that being part of productions like these has provided her with valuable, hands-on work experience that is important for early career composers.

Key of T is a vocal and music performance that explores one singer’s gender transition with testosterone. The performance in September 2019 featured solo singing, choral music, an electronic soundscape and shadow puppetry. Seward created a 27-minute piece for the production that was performed by an ensemble.

She played trumpet in the orchestra pit for the multidisciplinary performance of The Fairy Queen this year, which included work by music, dance and drama students at UCalgary.

“The University of Calgary has been a big help,” says Seward, who plans to continue her compositional studies as a graduate student in British Columbia with the long-term goal of teaching. “Key of T was a milestone in my career, especially given that I was an undergrad, and being paid for it allowed me to pay the musicians on that piece.”

Seward’s piece For I am Sick with Love was performed by an ensemble at the Rozsa Centre at the School of Creative and Performing Arts, and she considers it a high point in her musical journey. She has also had an orchestral piece read through by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra — a benefit of being a student in the music program at UCalgary — but the performance was cancelled because of COVID-19.

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Ashley Seward, right, has been the recipient of numerous awards and scholarships.

Nicola Betts

Dr. Laura Hynes, DMA, assistant professor of voice at UCalgary, worked on Key of T. She says Seward’s contribution to the production was remarkable.

I think Ashley may be superhuman. It’s not just the captivating sounds that pour off her pages, but she also brings discipline and a strongly developed sense of inquiry to match.

Seward has felt driven to compose for years. Her perfectionist streak guides her to reach out to others who can help her learn and grow. She has been the recipient of the Helen and F.R. Graham Award (2019), Louise McKinney Scholarship (2019), Don Wright Award (2018), F.M. McLeod Prize (2018), and David Frederick Baker Memorial Award (2017).

Allan Bell, a UCalgary professor of composition and music theory, Canadian contemporary composer and Juno Award winner for Classical Composition of the Year, says Seward has been a standout student.

“Seward is among the most talented of the young composers to emerge from the program,” he says. “In addition to her stellar academic work, in her final year of the composition program she created a major work for orchestra, for saxophone quartet, for brass quintet, and for voice and string quintet.”

The contemporary music scene in Calgary is impressive for a city of its size, says Seward, making it potentially fertile ground for new composers and musicians who might struggle otherwise to find a place in larger urban centres. She has got gig and clinic referrals within the city and appreciates the awards and scholarships.

I’ve been given good opportunities and support from the faculty,” she says. “As the only transgender person in my faculty, I will say that there is still work to be done at the university with regards to queer and trans people of colour. Even so, UCalgary, especially the music department, is on a good path. I urge them to continue to embrace different voices.”

Ashley Seward

Ashley Seward plans to continue her compositional studies as a graduate student in British Columbia with the long-term goal of teaching.

Danielle Lareau