Ann Southam's Beautiful and Unsettling Subtleties

Q2 Music Album of the Week for May 20, 2013

Monday, May 20, 2013

The music of Ann Southam is a bit like the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci: Just as the Italian Renaissance master never seemed to tire of sketching a particular object, like a human hand or churning water, over and over again, so the late Canadian composer frequently continued to explore a single fragment of musical material in seemingly countless guises.

As such, the five haunting piano solos by Southam that constitute “5,” a new recording released by the Canadian Music Center, are probably better thought of as the five connected movements of a single large-scale work rather than a handful of distinct compositions.

Upon first listen, there’s not much that distinguishes the pieces, which were discovered in Southam’s house following the composer’s death in 2010, from each other. They are all meandering in tempo, brooding in mood and basically consonant in tonality. A foreboding thread of dissonance runs throughout each track.

But upon closer inspection, the movements reveal distinctive qualities, following on from one another like the way shadows change as the sun crosses the sky, or tides move in and out from the shore.

Pianist Eve Egoyan masterfully manages to retain the overall consistency of style across the five pieces composed from a 12-tone row while drawing our attention to the subtle changes that disrupt the ever-steady pulse of the left hand drone and right hand chords.      

Harmonies become lush and expansive at one point, only to shrink to a single basic chord later on. Pauses appear in the texture breaking up the flow of the musical line, and then mysteriously recede. A definitive major cadence contrasts with the ambiguity of an unresolved chord. All of these barely perceptible shifts work together to create a musical experience that is at once beautiful and unsettling. 

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Comments [4]

Richard Friedman Music From Other Minds from Oakland, CA

We've been playing Ann Southam's music for quite some time now. It's reassuring that her music is finally reaching a wider public. What is really sad is that she passed away too early to see it.

You can find more of her music at

May. 28 2013 05:07 PM
Eduardo Cervantes

What is "unsettling" about this music? It sounds very settling to me. The recording has so much hiss in it that I can't believe this is a recent recording.

May. 22 2013 01:32 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

This is the first I've heard of the composer, and having heard the entire album, I think she was concerned with experimenting with possible final cadences. Although the pieces have to end at some instant, there seems to be a hesitancy to conclude them. Percy Grainger's "The Immovable Do" was composed on a reed organ that had a "cyphering C" in an upper octave, hence the title. I hear an intentional "immovability" in the left hand ostinato in these pieces. I mention the Grainger piece since it's the only one I've ever heard that's remotely (though very remotely) like the pieces on this album. I'm curious as to whether these pieces bear any relation to her other works.

May. 22 2013 10:07 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

This work is OK (get whatever ambiguity there might be in that description). Very much like an audio of ocean waves, so not offensive - even peaceful.

There are glitches in the audio of track 5, around 12:31 and especially 12:40.

May. 21 2013 02:31 PM

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About Q2 Music Album of the Week

Q2 Music's Album of the Week is our weekly review of the newest and most dynamic contemporary classical releases. It focuses on musical discovery, world premiere recordings and fresh perspectives on today's classical landscape. Read our review and stream the album on-demand for one week only at


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