Stories from ACWC Members- Interview with Brenda Muller by Pat Morehead

This article explores the history of the Ardeleana Chamber Trio under the
guidance of Brenda Muller. This article answers the questions submitted by
Patricia Morehead.

From her roots as a classically trained cellist, Brenda Margaret Muller has
gone on to create conceptual art events that weave together poetry, music
and song. Working as a Musician, Poet, and Composer, as well as Artistic
Director for the past 33 years, Brenda has created inter-arts events across
the province, founded and directed the Ardeleana Chamber Music Society,
and released 6 recordings with her trio, Ardeleana, including a CD of her
original cabaret songs, Wolf At My Door, and the first CD to feature only
music by Canadian women – Spinners of Starlight (1997).

Pat Morehead questions; answers, Brenda Margaret Muller, March 29, 2021

Why did you choose the cello as your primary musical instrument?

My Grandfather was one of the first Champion Fiddlers of Grey County – although
he considered himself a violinist, as in those days the term “fiddle” was
derogatory, and in truth he was the concert master of the very first Orchestra in the
Saskatoon area. He had arrived there, incidentally, by covered wagon during the
thirties when the prairies were nothing but dust and wind. My earliest memories
are sitting beside him in my deceased Grandmother’s rocking chair at his last farm
in Dundalk, Ontario, rocking and tapping my toes as his large, arthritic hands
somehow caught the spirit of the tunes. I was not allowed to dance in the house as
my grandparents were staunch Methodists, and my Grandmother’s spirit was
always present it seemed, but I would rock so hard that he would say “must be time
to milk the cows”, and with this anytime-of-day signal we would head up to the
barn and play and dance for his 100 head of cattle. It did seem to help the cows let
down their milk, and yes, I believe I can still milk a cow by hand.
In Ontario at the end of grade 6, prior to attending Junior High, we were all given
an ear test, and those with the “best” ears were put into strings. My father, who
loved cello, mercilessly played me Jaqueline du Pres in a performance of the Elgar
Cello concerto, until the opening theme was an ear worm for me! When fall rolled
around, I walked into class with a plan to be assigned cello. Fortunately, I was too
tall to play violin but not tall enough for bass – so I didn’t have to use my plan.
Cello it was – I was so excited I could think of nothing else for weeks. Of course I
immediately learned thumb position so I could play fiddle tunes – or tried to
anyway. I carried the cello on the long walk home from school EVERY night, in
love with all its possibilities – happily reducing my already meagre practice time at
the piano!

Give a short history of the Ardeleana Trio. For how many years did the trio
perform and an approximate number of public concerts and where?

The Ardeleana Trio was formed in 1985 – and became incorporated as the
Ardeleana Chamber Music Society in 1987. Laurie Glencross, a consummate
flutist, and I, a recovering writer and cellist (recovering from the un-creative
confines of university performance training and formal essay writing), believed
that chamber music was the best way to advance our cause as musicians. In our mid
–twenties at the time, we made a pact with each other to promote new music and
become the best musicians we could by practicing together daily for three hours.

Our process was extremely important to us – an hour a day of unisons and rhythm
drill, then a stint of playing “easy music” but making sure it was perfectly in tune
as a warm-up, and then slow-motion tuning and complex rhythm practice, coupled
with learning to hear the subtleties of chord tuning together so that melodies grew
organically from within harmonies or counterpoint and so sound colour was an
integral part of each piece. We practiced for hours in “neutral” or with what Janos
Starker called “negative sound” until we could feel the sounds moving inside us in
a way that informed our overall interpretation of the piece. It was a
phenomenological approach, very much under the influence of Method Acting, but
for a nervous performer, which I was at that time, it worked.

Most importantly, Laurie taught me to laugh at my mistakes instead of irately
beating myself up every time we fell out of tune or struggled with impossible
rhythms by fiendish young composers. Although we no longer play together (after
17 years of intensive rehearsing and performing) I will always be grateful to her
for the gift of laughter. Together we developed a way of working that incorporated
a great ability to move forward and not get stuck on who was right and wrong in
rehearsal. Thank you Laurie – that philosophy is still around in the Ardeleana
Chamber Music Society to this day. It is indeed our saving grace.

Somewhere along the way I realised I was a frustrated composer and poet more
than a performer, and so began to try to find ways to combine poetry, new music,
dance and art to create conceptual art events or “happenings,” as the 60’s would
have dubbed them. The process was indeed more important to me than the product.
I loved the relationships we had with our network of composers, artists, musicians
and dancers, and never got tired of experimenting and developing new possibilities
with them.

Exploring the interfaces between music, art, poetry and dance is still endlessly
fascinating to me – I am currently working on a “Creative Community Happens
Here” project we initiated with a group of sixth graders in Humphrey, Ontario –
and we are moving between cave paintings and whale songs to discover archetypes
to sustain us in the pandemic – all from material I have been working on since the
inception of Ardeleana in 1987.

Laurie and I teamed up with different pianists over the years – often for 5 or 6
years at a time, and polished the repertoire for our instrumentation to the fullest
extent possible. We commissioned and premiered 120 – 150 works of music by
young Canadian composers over the course of the next 17 years. The Ardeleana
Trio averaged close to 30 concerts a year – most of them with small audiences, but
because of their various interdisciplinary initiatives and premiers, the programs
were a vital part of the new music scene at that time. Many young women
composers wrote for us, knowing we would workshop or perform their music when
no one else would take them seriously.

We improvised with poets and painters regularly – and that became an important
part of our interdisciplinary language. The results of our inter-arts work was
showcased in our “A New Kind of Concert” series – held 4 times a year in Toronto
on Fridays and Saturdays, and then in Sharon, Ontario on Sunday afternoons. Each
performance featured at least one work of new music and one artist of a different
discipline, to varying degrees of success.

Ardeleana also produced 6 recordings and CD’s, including Spinners of Starlight,
the first CD to feature only music by Canadian Women. Bonnie Shewan Burroughs
(Jeffries at the time) joined us in the early 1990’s and became our landmark pianist. She brought discipline, skill and incredible musicality to our trio. Other CD’s included Carol Ann Weaver: Daughter of Olapa, which I co-produced with Carol Ann with Ann Lindsey, now an award winning folk, jazz and rock violinist, and Wolf at My Door – my own CD of original “Cabaret” songs. It was quite a network – Terril MaGuire from Toronto Dance Theater, Alexandra Caverly-Lowery, then a professor at York University in Dance, M. Travis Lane, still one of Canada’s leading poets from Fredericton (no zoom – she flew into see us occasionally) actor/chanteuse and painter extraordinaire, Randi Helmers, and strong women composers like Ann Southam, Mary Gardiner, Carol Ann Weaver, Jana Skareky, Jean Anderson Weunsch, Kye Marshall, Nancy Telfer, amongst others, were writing and working with us. Conversations and rehearsals were
stimulating and lively and flowed with big ideas. Mary and Ann were my main
thinking buddies, with Mary often letting us rehearse at her house on her
Bösendorfer piano.

As time progressed, and I became increasingly experimental, we rehearsed more
and more at a little hall in the Theater District of Toronto known as Artword
Theater, and became their “musicians in residence.” Working in the world of
actors, I began to through-write works with poetry and music and create
interdisciplinary theater events. Gradually the two founders, Laurie and I, grew
apart, with Laurie wanting to focus on just playing, and me wanting out of the
performance/product-driven mentality. After 17 years Laurie went back to get her
doctorate in the United States where she became a flute professor, and I went broke
on a long and winding production called the Artemis Café! I went back to teacher’s
college at 45 and worked my way out of debt, teaching high school part-time for
14 years and finally retiring in 2014. Somehow I have ended up running an
orchestra and community arts hub in Parry Sound, and find myself busier than ever
as I try to integrate new music into the local arts scene here.

I know you performed in Alaska. How did this happen and an anecdote about the
trio’s participation would be interesting? (The event in Alaska organized by
Suzanne Summerville brought together three American Women composer formed
organizations in the USA (International League of Women Composers, Women in
Music and American Women Composers) that met in Fairbanks, Alaska, and went
on to become the International Alliance of Women in music.)

Our trip to Alaska was the trip that really made us take our role as promoters of
Music by Canadian Women seriously. We realised we had to when we could not
find ANY grant money to support us from either the Ontario Arts Council or the
Canada Council. Nobody considered an International Festival of Music by Women
in any way artistically significant.

Women’s music was seen as inconsequential by many at the time. An influential
reviewer in the Star all but made fun of us for being women, and made patronizing
comments about the feminine nature of the group. Funders looked at us askance
for being middle-aged women, and ‘mouthy’ women at that.
We had been rejected by the Toronto Arts Council for another project the year
before, and had come to expect failure in grant applications. We appealed the TAC
decision regardless. The appeal committee was chaired by composer Harry
Freedman.

“Why did this group not get money?  Isn’t this exactly what we are supposed
to be funding?” he asked.  A committee member, who happened to be the principle French Horn of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, replied that he had “wondered why we didn’t have any men in the group.”  I quipped that “It was odd, but all the men just seemed to leave”, which for some reason they all found hilarious, and they granted us our first grant of $1000.  It was an enormous amount at the time! They were the only funders behind us for years – and the trip to Alaska a few seasons later was way beyond the scope of their grants.

Finally, after exhausting all the possibilities, we turned to Ann Southam and Mary
Gardiner and pleaded for assistance. They had set up a fund to help women
musicians a year before that (it may have been intended for the AWC – not sure)
which contributed $2000, enough to pay our air fare to Alaska. The Governor of
Alaska at that time provided us with accommodation and food at the request of the
organisers of the festival.

Within 20 minutes of our arrival in Alaska we were to be on stage in front of an
audience of over 1000 people, performing Spirit Essence by Mary Gardiner and
Jean Anderson’s Trio– both commissioned by us and recorded on our CD. There
was a mad scramble to find our suitcases and concert attire as we got off the plane.
I didn’t own a pair of decent shoes at the time, and didn’t have access to my old
sandals easily, and so without much thought about it, I went onstage barefoot –
simply not done in those days. I still remember hearing the Italian Console
sneering at my lack of shoes after the concert! Most countries had sent dignitaries
to the event – but not Canada. The moment is still clear in mind – it only amplified
for me the total lack of support from either our provincial or federal government,
adding to the subtle embarrassment of having to ask the Governor of Alaska for
financial support we were unable to muster at home. It was very odd to be at such a
prestigious event with no financial support from your own country. Most of the
women composers came however – taking the coastal cruise to Alaska. Seeing
them there was indeed incredibly wonderful.

During the festival I was kept beyond busy. I learned and performed a piece on a
daily basis. We did one noon hour recital of our own music, in which we played
Southam, Telfer, Anderson, Skarecky and repeated Mary Gardiner’s piece. On the
way to the concert I ran into Gerhard Weunsch, who smiled his rapacious smile,
and said “Don’t wear your shoes!” “I’m not going to!” I said, and we shared a laugh. I didn’t, and didn’t for the rest of almost my entire career with the trio. I still don’t if I can avoid it!

Why did the group decide to make its first recording?

Ardeleana needed something to get our name out in the Toronto Music Scene – we
needed to establish that we were more than just a flaky group of women wandering
around doing poetry, music and dance in concerts. We sold the old 6’ grand piano
in our warehouse studio in Newmarket to raise funds, and also pre-sold a few
copies of the CD – maybe 5 or 6 copies.

The pieces on Spinners of Starlight were part of an interdisciplinary show we
developed for our concert series in Toronto: High Aprons – the Journey Songs of
Canadian Women Pregnant with Music. This carefully interwoven conceptual art
piece included selections from a long poem entitled “The Witch of the Inner Wood”
by a wonderfully witty woman poet from New Brunswick, M. Travis Lane, as well as poetry by several Canadian poets, including myself. I had developed an improvisationall -composed setting for Travis’ work, in collaboration with Laurie Glencross, our flutist, and the woman actor working with the group, Randi Helmers. The set, or installation, for the performance was a collection of dead and diseased Sumac trees from a deserted property near my small house in Sutton, Ontario. A simple lighting design of three footlights cast fantastic shadows when placed beneath the sumacs’ gnarled trunks and branches. We were able to rent 3 footlights from Christie Lights for $18 per performance, and they provided the most perfect touring lighting imaginable.

I would get to our venue, usually a church, about two hours in advance of a
performance, with the sumacs piled carefully in a borrowed truck. After unloading
them, I would screw the sumacs into the heavy stands I had prepared for them. I
would set them up on pews or chairs, so that their fungus-covered, twisted
branches would wind up the pipe organs, window frames, pillars and pulpits like
dancing stag-horns at a pagan ritual.

It was before the official release of the CD that we went to Alaska. We set up a
mini-tour for ourselves on the way, and performed the entire
poetry/music/installation show at three or four venues. The shows were generally
well received, but just the title of the poem with the word “witch” in it was nearly
enough to get us evicted at intermission when we did a performance at a Mormon
Church in Vancouver! Witches and sumacs were not welcome.

A few years later in Ottawa, we were relocated from the National Arts Center
concert due to renovations at the Centre, to prestigious St. Andrews Anglican
Cathedral, opposite the parliament buildings. At the doorway to the Cathedral a
minister stood glaring at the trees. He greeted us with determined, folded arms,
saying “You can’t bring those trees in here! This is where the Queen comes when
she visits!”. I argued that the trees were no dirtier or more pagan than a Christmas
tree, and got nowhere. I finally flung my hands over my head and cried out
dramatically “THESE are not trees! These are the bones of the earth! These are
Ezekiel’s bones risen again from the dead! Let them in!” And, to my surprise he
did.

That performance was sponsored by Violet Archer, and she loved the trees.
Needless to say, the poor farm boy who drove our trees to Ottawa on his Dad’s flat
bed truck nearly got a ticket for holding up traffic in front of parliament buildings,
where he anxiously circled and repeatedly stalled, flashed his lights hopefully, and
awaited delivery instructions.

Initially, there were all sorts of discussions as to what to call the CD. To begin
with, CD’s were a new technology at the time. This made everyone slightly
worried – it was all a lot of change. People in our team were squeamish about the
original title as some thought of pregnancy as “dirty.” The final discussion, with all
composers except Nancy Telfer present, was held around the big wooden table at
Mary Gardiner’s home. Exasperated after what seemed liked endless nit-picking
over names, I looked at Ann and said “We should call it Sex Sells” and Ann added
“and Crime Pays!” We had a fit of giggles, and then I suggested they leave it with
me over night, as officially I was the director. I finally decided to take the title
from a poem I wrote for an old woman who lived near me, and with whom I had
enjoyed many an early morning walk through spider-web, dew-laden grasses. We
had used it in the High Aprons event just before playing Nancy Telfer’s piece –
and Mary and Ann agreed on the name. Jana approved whole heartedly, as she was
a poetry fan, as did Jean, and I didn’t dare consult anyone else.
It was only after we released the CD that I got a phone call from David Parsons,
who at that time was working for the Canadian Music Center in Toronto. “Do you
realise this is the first recording to feature only music by Canadian Women?” he
said. I had no idea.

The release of the CD was at the Heliconian Club in Toronto. I did not expect
anyone to be there, but I wanted to thank the composers somehow for their faith in
us and their incredible music. I had no money for bouquets for all the women
involved, and so I bought a dozen roses from one of the street people selling
flowers at the corner of Rosedale Valley Road and Bayview on my way to the
club. I had one rose for each composer, and each person involved – with one extra
for Mary Gardiner – who had done so much to make it all possible.
We set up at the club, still somewhat discouraged by the total lack of reviews and
support for the CD, slow sales and the lengthy time between the tour and
the launch. There was a silence amongst us as we waited, and then one by one,
what seemed like every prestigious woman musician in Toronto, every woman
who had helped move us forward, walked up the centre aisle on the old blue-tiled
linoleum floor, and sat down. The club was packed but still oddly hushed. It was a
small hall, seating only about 120, so some had to listen in the vestibule and a few
more were in the courtyard and on the street. I vividly remember how surprised we
were at the palpable respect – we were just not used to it. We were fighters –
always struggling desperately to be heard as women and artists. This listening, this
quiet, was entirely new for us. It was born of a generous solidarity – a respectful,
caring solidarity I had never felt before in my life.

I still remember my eyes filling with tears when Pearl Palmerston, the first woman
violinist to be co-concert master of the Toronto Symphony, walked in. Mary
introduced the trio somewhat tersely – I think herself emotional, and when we
started to play the room was still completely hushed. We played Mary’s piece, and
Ann’s, and a few selections from everyone else’s. When we finished playing
everyone stood up, and greeted us not so much with thunderous applause, as with
thunderous respect. We had finally done it – with the release of the CD, women’s
musical voices were being heard in a way that represented genuinely the ethos of
the women’s movement at that time. It was a moment when the world shifted a
little – and made a little more space for women, for our way of working as artists,
and for who we all were together.

Tell us of any major roadblocks along the way that might be interesting to know.

A complete lack of funding due to the fact we were unconventional, early thirty’s
women ( and not wearing a ton of make-up) and playing new music was the
biggest obstacle. The times were just shifting from hierarchical power dominated
structures to the possibilities of collaborative, innovative business models based on
more traditionally feminine values. It was decidedly NOT politically correct at
that time to do what we were doing – everyone was intent on making music fit a
business model based on a hierarchical male norm. Although I was director in
name, we operated largely by consensus, and worked through artistic ideas in a
very collaborative way. That meant nothing was cut and dried – and this was
definitely not acceptable to the arts councils. That being said, David Parsons and
the CMC and the ACWC were great friends to us – Carol Ann found us concerts at
Conrad Grebel College, Jana was unflagging in her support and composing of
pieces for us (and in insisting after she heard some of my songs that I join the
ACWC), and Laurie and I created events and played concerts all over Ontario.
Mary and Ann were indispensable – our last performance as a trio was at Mary’s
funeral, with Ann present. Ann Edwards was the pianist at that time.

The CD was recorded in three days – as I stated earlier, we had to sell our studio
grand piano to raise funds. We played for our Thanksgiving dinner that weekend
by playing at a hotel restaurant north of Toronto where an adventurous young chef
agreed to turkey dinner as payment – after being in the studio for 8 hours. We used
to think that if anyone else had to record under the circumstance we did they just
wouldn’t do it – but we loved it in the end. Living close to the edge has its merits –
there is a freedom and synchronicity in all that happened, and it kept us alive
artistically.

How to acquire the recording would be interesting for the membership of ACWC.
I believe the CMC has a few recordings left. I have 5 and some copies of the first
printing that didn’t have the songs separated properly. The CD had to be re-printed
by Sony. It is really time to re-release the CD – and give it a second life – even if
we do a small run. 2023 will mark 30 years since the release.

Brenda Muller

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