Lost and found

Musician and educator Suzanne Windsor-Liscombe (BMus’80, DipEd’91, MEd’92, EdD’14) talks about how she lost her hearing and found her true calling — as a composer of children’s operas

By Tze Liew

Suzanne Windsor-Liscombe. Photo: Takumi Hayashi/UBC School of Music

Suzanne Windsor-Liscombe. Photo: Takumi Hayashi/UBC School of Music

Suzanne Windsor-Liscombe is passionate about music and education. She is also deaf. Having suddenly lost her hearing in 2010, she can no longer hear music or sing in tune, or do many of the things she used to enjoy as a skilled pianist and singer. But in the aftermath of this life-changing event, she has found her unique calling as an educator-composer and librettist, working around her hearing loss to write children’s operas for elementary students in B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

As Head Teacher at Confederation Park Elementary in the Burnaby School District, she and a few colleagues founded an arts-integrated program which saved the school from being shut down – the student body had dropped to only 90 students when they first took over in 2006. She began to compose children’s operas for the curriculum in 2011.

“We were trying to get students to understand what opera was, and also learn something significant about our history [and] society,” she says.

The challenge of writing operas for children prompted Windsor-Liscombe to create what she calls musical-operas. “While there’s some recitative in my works” — that is, dialogue which is sung to move the story along — “it’s too challenging and unreasonable to expect untrained elementary students to take on recitative fully. So the pieces I compose have considerably more spoken dialogue than an opera.”

Her first project was based on a children’s book: Mean Jean the Recess Queen, about bullying on the playground. Working in close collaboration with Bonnie Ishii, Confederation Park’s music and dance educator, she adapted the story for grade four and five students to perform.

“Writing the music and re-crafting the story into song lyrics was just a lot of fun – and very gratifying,” she says. “It worked really well for the kids, so I wanted to keep writing more.”

In the following years she wrote the operas Sadako and Kinderzug, integrating the grade seven studies on World War II Japan and Germany, respectively. Sadako, adapted from Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, tells the true story of Sadako Sasiki, a young girl who died from leukemia in 1955 due to radiative exposure from the Hiroshima bomb. Kinderzug is Windsor-Liscombe’s original story, about a teacher who is determined to deliver three Jewish children safely out of Nazi Germany.

“The kids loved them,” she says. “It’s better than just reading a book. When the kids can become the characters in a certain point in history, they live the history more.”

Scene from Kinderzug. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Windsor-Liscombe

Scene from Kinderzug. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Windsor-Liscombe

Besides helping the students learn through experience, Windsor-Liscombe’s operas give them the opportunity to express their talents, and work together in a community.

“It’s great for encouraging self-esteem. Kids who you thought couldn’t carry a tune came forward wanting to do lead roles, and they were wonderful,” she says. “Then there’s always that one kid who just doesn’t want to be onstage. So they do tech or backstage work instead. Everybody gets involved. It’s really rewarding.”

Bringing community together is important to Windsor-Liscombe. Over the years she has invited parents to volunteer as photographers and technicians, as well as guest artists to help with the productions. “It’s about as professional as you can get in a school gym,” she says, laughing. Recently she had Sadako professionally recorded with UBC Opera students Spencer Britten (BMus’15, MMus’17), Andrea Wyllie (BMus’18, MMus student) and alumna Marie Civaterese (MMus’17). For Kinderzug, she hired Civaterese as an artist-in-residence to help teach the students and sing the lead role.

“The Pearl” — a scene from Sadako. Video courtesy of Suzanne Windsor-Liscombe

“Having Marie here took everything up a level, because the kids got to work with a real performer. The kids loved her, and I think she had a good time too,” says Windsor-Liscombe.

“From our first meeting, Suzanne's passion and excitement for her stories was infectious,” Civaterese says. “We discussed the libretto in detail, and once I started learning the music I could immediately feel her connection to the characters. Her operas are a most special educational tool to teach our history to children in a way that helps them connect with the emotional context of the events.”

Since Windsor-Liscombe first helped Confederation Park transition into an arts-integrated school 12 years ago, the school has flourished. It’s filled to capacity today, with students pouring in even from other districts. Her opera productions are an important part of the curriculum.

Windsor-Liscombe says she pieces the music together bit by bit in her head, relying on her knowledge of theory and cadences.

“Even though I can no longer hear music, I can hear it inside my head. It was like my external world became my internal world. Sometimes I think I’m going a little crazy – but now that it’s internalised, I want to get it out.”

It’s a slow and difficult process, but it works. She believes she is lucky to have had good training from teachers such as Stephen Chatman and Cortland Hultberg while studying at UBC in the late 70s and early 80s. But it wasn't until she lost her hearing that composing became profoundly important to her.

“I used to play for ballets, musicals, sing in choir, direct things, teach, go to concerts. All of that was just completely washed out when I couldn’t hear anymore,” she says. “I think composition saved me. It made me feel like I still had some ability after all those years. More than anything else I’ve done in music, this makes me the proudest.”

Windsor-Liscombe continues to teach and to write about issues that matter to her. Currently she is working on another opera: A Letter to Wanda, which focuses on bullying in its many subtle forms, based on the story The One Hundred Dresses by Estelle Estes. It will be performed next spring at Confederation Park Elementary.

Banner image: Takumi Hayashi/UBC School of Music

Jocelyn Morlock wins WCMA 'Composer of the Year' award

Image: Break Out West

Image: Break Out West

This weekend, School of Music alumna and lecturer Jocelyn Morlock (MMus’96, DMA’02) won Classical Composer of Year at the 2018 Western Canadian Music Awards. The award is the latest highlight in a big year for Morlock that also includes a Juno Award for Best Classical Composition for her orchestral work, “My Name is Amanda Todd.”

Congratulations to Morlock and all of the WCMA nominees! The Classical Composer category was dominated by faculty and alumni from the School of Music’s vibrant Composition Division, including Morlock and professors Keith Hamel and Stephen Chatman.

Learn more about composition at UBC School of Music.

Mushrooms and chocolate, together at last

The following article was originally published over at The Omnivorous Listeners Blog.

By Jocelyn Morlock

If everyone is a musical omnivore these days, composers perhaps even more than others, it seems likely that now and then we’ll mix a couple of things that don’t go entirely well together. Or maybe we’ll mix a couple of things that you wouldn’t think would go well together, only to find that the combination is awesome.


Some years ago, while I was a member of a Balinese gamelan, Gamelan Gita Asmara at the University of British Columbia one of our teachers was talking to us about a class he was teaching in cross-cultural musical interactions, and our conversation digressed from a discussion of musical fusion to fusion cooking. We started trying to come up two foods that just couldn’t work well together, and the most unlikely culinary pairing was mushrooms and chocolate. Raw mushrooms and chocolate syrup — not appealing. Fried mushrooms and onions with chocolate chips on top — also a no-go. Mole sauce was a possibility, although since it was savoury that seemed like cheating...

But I digress — the students in the cross-cultural musical interactions class tried eating some raw mushrooms and dark chocolate together, and it was weird, but it was only a matter of time before someone from the outside world figured out how to combine them in a wonderful way (click the picture):


Back to Gita Asmara, at one point in time we had a small group that learned a gamelan Kotekan on electric guitars and drum kit, and that was improbable and weird, and fun to do. More strange and delightful to my ear was listening to Gambang Kromong — a sort of mashup style of gamelan music from Jakarta. This recording of Stambul Bila includes gamelan instruments, Hawaiian style slide guitar, and Dixieland trumpet. I love it. 

For several years the music director of our gamelan was Dewa Ketut Alit, one of the most amazing and unusual composers I’ve ever known. He’s written some great music for Çudamani, and for the ensemble he founded in 2007, Gamelan Salukat. Alit’s music might combine multiple gamelans of different modes, or incorporate Western instruments — whatever he does, it is always surprising (if not downright shocking) and exciting.

Among the best concerts I ever attended was a sold-out show by Robert Ashley and Jacqueline Humbert at Vancouver’s Western Front. Ashley, who died in 2014, was a deeply iconoclastic composer of what is referred to as opera, but bears little resemblance to Puccini, Wagner, or any other opera I’ve listened to. The first piece of Ashley’s I ever heard, "Automatic Writing" —

— takes as its starting point Ashley’s involuntary vocalizing from Tourette’s syndrome. This is one of the more unlikely premises for vocal music that I’m familiar with; the result is hauntingly beautiful.

When Ashley and his colleague (co-conspirator?) Jacqueline Humbert were performing at the Western Front, the entire experience was joyfully surreal. Something happened at the beginning of the event that set the mood for me: Jacqueline Humbert came onstage looking rather operatic, wearing this elegant black cocktail dress and a somewhat large, flashy rhinestone necklace. I was sitting near the back of the hall and it took me several moments to realize that the rhinestone necklace spelled out the word FUCK in glorious capital letters. One of the pieces they did was Au Pair (first part is here, other parts also available on YouTube):

Ashley and Humbert are having something of a dialogue — Ashley’s part is a combination of listener/commentator/Greek chorus as Humbert tells the strange story of a group of middle-class neighbours who all decide they want au pairs for their children. Their desire to employ trendy European nannies leads to a bevy of appalling though hilarious consequences. For days, the sound of Ashley’s voice mumbling “au pair…au pair…oh, my…” wormed its way through my ear.

I will leave you with one final video, of the music of Milton Babbitt. In my years of academic study, I had to listen to and/or analyze Babbitt’s music more often than I would’ve liked (to be honest, once was more than enough). To my surprise, The Bad Plus covered Milton Babbitt’s rather dry, cerebral piano piece, "Semi-Simple Variations." No one would expect to say of Babbitt’s music “it’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it” but, well…

Jocelyn Morlock is an award-winning composer and instructor at UBC School of Music. You can listen to her music and read her blog at

UBC Music Alumni and Students Receive 2016 SOCAN Young Composer Awards

UBC Music alumni with degrees in composition were awarded Young Composer Awards from the SOCAN Foundation (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada).

The Sir Ernest MacMillan Awards

1st Place: Hoi Chak Roydon Tse (BMus’13) – Genesis 2015
3rd Place: Joseph Glaser (BMus’14) – Ecstasis

The Serge Garant Awards

2nd Place: David Storen (MMus’16) – Mångata

The Pierre Mercure Awards

3rd Place: Hoi Chak Roydon Tse (BMus’13) – Meditation

The Godfrey Ridout Awards

1st Place: Katerina Gimon (current MMus student) – Elements


Celebrating the Centennial

Students’ Fanfares Celebrate 100 Years at UBC

From September 2015 to May 2016, UBC has been celebrating its Centennial year, and the School of Music has played a part in the festivities. Centennial activities at the School (and beyond) included UBC Opera Ensemble’s Centennial Tour of BC and collaborations with the Beijing Central Conservatory’s Opera Centre; roundtable discussions with distinguished alumni; a free public conversation with jazz great Branford Marsalis; and ten new fanfares commissioned from alumni and current students performed by the School’s large and small ensembles. Nova Pon (MMus’15, current DMA student) and Aidan Wong (current BMus student) were among the student composers chosen to write a fanfare; Nova for saxophone quartet and Aidan for brass quintet.

Nova Pon  Photo: Nova Pon

Nova Pon
Photo: Nova Pon

For Aidan, the commission was a new experience. “I’ve composed for hire before, but those pieces weren’t necessarily commissioned works for a set ensemble. I’ve composed music for student films and art student animatics where I was given ‘more or less’ free reign. I’ve also had many friends request I compose pieces for them. Typically I’m just grateful that as a student, I have performers willing to ask for pieces and perform them at a high level and so I don’t charge for those works,” he says, considering his Fanfare his first “real” commission. For Nova it was old hat. For eight years she taught music privately and freelanced as a composer in the Calgary area, generally working on one commission or other for various musicians and ensembles.

Both composers took the commission in stride. For Aidan, the stressful thing was not composing to a deadline, but writing for brass quintet for the first time. Nova felt the pressure, but, “it’s a nice sort of pressure; like a springboard to bounce off of for ideas,” she said. “Most of my projects are like that so I’m used to it by now, and the deadline was reasonable.”

Both also found the Centennial theme inspiring. Nova researched the history of the university and took her inspiration from its coat of arms and early motto, finding the heraldic language poetic. The title of her piece, Waves azure, a sun in splendour, an open book, springs from that. “At the surface level, the piece has textures of waves that ebb and flow out of each other contrasted with bright “sunny” harmonies in shimmering textures. The idea of the open book, and phrase ‘Tuum Est’ in the coat of arms, translated as “it’s up to you” was also part of the work’s inspiration,” she says. Aidan’s Fanfare for Brass Quintet is a jovial, high energy, and triumphant fanfare, as he sought to create a celebratory energy in honour of this event.

With the ongoing Chan fanfares, UBC Contemporary Players ensemble, orchestra and wind ensemble reading sessions, and other composer’s seminar opportunities, there is no shortage of chances for students to hear their work performed at UBC and beyond. “Additionally, I find that many of the performances of my pieces have come from the connections I’ve made within the school,” says Aidan. “Opportunities come up in that manner as well, as long as you look for them!”

Other recent publicly performed works by the pair include Aidan’s several works in the final UBC Composer Concert of the school year in April, and Nova’s recent pieces for the Sonic Boom and Sound of Dragon Festivals. She’s also working on some operatic collaborations with Renaissance Opera’s re:Write workshop.

UBC Music nominations from 2016 Western Canadian Music Awards

Congratulations to UBC School of Music faculty and alumni for their 2016 Western Canadian Music Award Nominations!

Classical Artist/Ensemble of the Year

  • Couloir: Ariel Barnes and Heidi Krutzen (faculty)
  • Turning Point Ensemble and musica intima
  • Paolo Bortolussi (faculty)

Turning Point Ensemble includes several UBC Music faculty:
Jeremy Berkman trombone
Brenda Fedoruk flute
Vern Griffiths percussion
François Houle clarinet
Benjamin Kinsman horn
Heidi Krutzen harp

The nominated recording, Thirst (Redshift Records), includes Karen Wilson (BMus’74), producer and Will Howie (BMus’04), recording engineer and digital editor.

Classical Composition of the Year

  • Songs from the Rainshadow’s Edge – Benton Roark (MMus’07, DMA’13)
  • Birds of Paradise Lost – John Oliver (BMus’82)
  • 15 for Piano – Howard Bashaw (MMus’84 and DMA’89)

World Artist of the Year

  • Mazacote

Malcolm Aiken (MMus’09) is a member of Mazacote.

The 14th annual Western Canadian Music Awards show will be hosted on Thursday, October 13th, 2016 at Casino Regina.

Congratulations to all our friends nominated by BreakOut West!

Awards and Announcements Digest: Fall 2015

News from our Alumni: Bogdan Dulu

October 7, 2015
Pianist Bogdan Dulu (DMA ’15) will be touring Eastern Canada in the 2016-2017 season as a newly signed Jeunesses Musicales Canada artist. More information

Gene Ramsbottom honoured at Funds for the Arts on the North Shore

October 30, 2015
Fund for the Arts on the North Shore honours clarinetest and UBC Music Sessional Lecturer Gene Ramsbottom this year at their 2015 Tribute to the Arts awards on Friday November 6 at the Griffin Arts Projects Gallery. More information

Laura Widgett

Laura Widgett

UBC Opera at Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions!

November 2, 2015
‪UBC was well represented at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (@MONCAuditions)! Congrats to our UBC Opera student Geoff Schellenberg and alumna Laura Widgett, who now move on to Seattle!

Carter Johnson

Carter Johnson

UBC Music Students Carter Johnson and Nicole Linaksita compete at OSM Competition

November 9, 2015
UBC Music Students Carter Johnson and Nicole Linaksita will compete in the finals for the 2015 Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) Manulife Competition for PIANO & PERCUSSION | Piano Class A category. The 2015 OSM Manulife Competition will be held from November 17 to 21, in Montreal.