Bengt Hambræus and the Canadian Dream (1)


Per Broman


Shortly after the composer and musicologist Bengt Hambræus immigrated to Canada from Sweden in 1972, he began writing articles on Canadian musical life intended primarily for Swedish periodicals and journals. (2) These texts had two main functions: to inform international readers about the musical life of a country often overshadowed by the United States and to serve as a means of communication for Hambræus, who wished to stay in contact with his home country. His earlier articles, which dealt mostly with contemporary instrumental and electro-acoustic music, were written to inform non-Canadian readers about contemporary Canadian music history, and to demonstrate that there does in fact exist a Canadian musical life readily distinguishable from those of the United States and Europe. Even in his early writings, Hambræus connects to three important principles of Canadian national identity, principles dating back to the first colonies on what is now Canadian soil, namely nature, multi-ethnicity, and the French-English language debate. Later he would discuss a fourth principle, the question of the First Nations' status.

This article draws upon a small and undeveloped part of my dissertation, "Back to the Future": Towards an Aesthetic Theory of Bengt Hambræus (3) which deals systematically with Hambræus's musical writings, which comprise more than 300 articles and three books, written during the course of over half a century. My dissertation exposes some of his views, concepts, and rhetorical tools, but does not deal specifically with the ways in which he discussed Canada.

Hambræus emigrated from Sweden for a number of reasons. During the last years of the 1960s, Hambræus began to feel a certain discomfort with Sweden. At the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation, where he had worked for some fifteen years, he had advanced as far as was artistically stimulating. He was head of the department in charge of planning live recordings and could hardly have continued to ascend within the radio hierarchy without giving up his daily work with live music. He would, in his own words, have become "an old bureaucrat."

Hambræus was also quite disturbed by the new radical political movement that had emerged in Sweden during the 1960s. During the '60s a loud left-wing group of young composers aimed at making an impact on society, rather than engaging in serious studies of the musical material, something of uttermost importance for Hambræus. A true anecdote illustrates the sentiments of the 1960s' movement: During György Ligeti's guest professorship at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, a seminar was scheduled with the graduate composition students. No students turned up, however, as they were out on the streets participating in a pro-Cuba demonstration. (4) For Hambræus this was a sign of too much talk and too little musical action. He did not seem to mind the left-wing rhetoric at that point. (5)

McGill University, which Hambræus visited during a lecture tour in 1971, seemed to offer a very suitable and rewarding combination of duties. Higher music education in North America did not draw as sharp a distinction between performance and musicology - as compared to the system of conservatories and universities in Sweden and in most of Europe. McGill presented him with the opportunity to give courses in his many areas of expertise and interests, which included musicology, organ performance, and composition. His encounters with the highly multi-cultural society in Montreal and with students from all over the world resonated with his earlier international responsibilities at the Swedish Radio. In Montreal, he also found a fascinating selection of romantic organs, an interest he had since the 1940s when he participated fiercely in the debate over the renewal of the organ collection in Sweden. (6)

In his earlier articles intended for a Swedish audience, Hambræus discussed individual Canadian modernist composers, with a particular emphasis on his colleagues at McGill, alcides lanza, Brian Cherney, and Bruce Mather, as well as colleagues at French institutions around Montreal. (7) These articles related to his earlier interest in the modernist tradition which had developed through his participation in the Darmstadt Summer Courses during the early 1950s. Later he would write about electro-acoustic music, and particularly about the role of Hugh Le Caine as a Canadian pioneer. (8) These articles provided basic introductions to the music of these composers and were very informative for Swedish readers, most of whom had never heard of any Canadian composer, with the possible exception of R. Murray Shafer.

His earlier articles were not only introductions to a number of composers and works, however. In these articles, Hambræus also provided a diverse cultural picture of his new country. In as early as in 1973, in the article "Fragments from Montreal," he discussed the multi-ethnicity of the city. Hambræus felt right at home, since he was fluent in French. He found the city entirely interesting and stimulating. He describes his own neighborhood and how fascinating it was just to take the bus downtown through the Italian, Hasidic, and Greek neighborhoods. In this article, Hambræus had begun to assume a defensive stance regarding Canada, vis-à-vis the United States. Canada was his country now, and he expressed a skepticism toward the US similar to that felt by many Canadians. He emphasized, for example, the advantages afforded by a national radio corporation, such as the CBC, as opposed to the decentralized and commercialized American system. The US represents an important external "other" for Hambræus, as it has so many times throughout Canadian history. (9)

Hambræus's articles were to some extent quite naive when discussing national characteristics and resonated with a stereotypical image of Canada as a sparsely populated country whose people were obsessed with images of nature. Hambræus often offers a romanticized view of Canadian Nature in his writings and writes early on about the different fauna and the different species of birds compared to Sweden, and points out that the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada (10) has entries such as "Lake" and "River," in which works inspired by different natural phenomena are discussed. His descriptions could almost have been taken from W. L. (William Lewis) Morton's The Canadian Identity, (11) from images inspired by the Group of Seven, whose paintings of wilderness, free of civilization represent and embody Canadian nationhood today, and from descriptions of Canada by authors such as Margaret Atwood and Northrop Frye. (12)

In 1986 Hambræus published his most extensive article devoted exclusively to Canadian music, "Kanadensisk musik: finns den?" "Canadian Music: Does it exist?". (13) It was published in Artes, an interdisciplinary arts journal, in an issue devoted to Canadian art and literature, and thus reached a somewhat larger audience than his other articles, which had been published in musical periodicals. After providing a cultural and historical background, Hambræus sets off by asking the obvious question: What is Canadian music? In his article, Hambræus doesn't provide a straight answer, but offers a number of examples of interesting musicians in Canada, including both composers on the art musical stage and non-art musicians such as Gilles Vignault. He considers Canadian musical life "youthfully eruptive." It seems that it is impossible to make conclusive statements about what Canadian music is for Hambræus. The closest definition seems to be "the music produced by musicians living in Canada." The musical culture is aimed, in Hambræus's view, at connecting a people, or groups of people within the larger community - a notion in line with Pierre Elliott Trudeau's national doctrine: Canada should be built upon the notion of "Multi-culturalism within a Bilingual Framework." (Trudeau, incidentally, passed away only one week after Hambræus in September of 2000.) For Hambræus, Vignault is to Quebec's national identity and the French historical heritage, what Shafer is to Soundscape and environmental music, yet, they are both part of the Canadian community. Again, the parts of the Canadian mosaic must be seen as an antithesis to the gigantic country south of the border and as a manifestation of the Canadian identities.

There is another reason why Hambræus saw Canada and its multi-culturalism in such a sunny light: He arrived only a few years after the largest cultural manifestations in the nation's history, the Expo 67 and the centennial celebration of Canada the same year, and just a few years before the Olympic games in Montreal in 1976. He didn't have to experience the October crisis of 1970.

He saw the best sides of McGill. In his eyes, it was a well functioning research and teaching institution where everybody got along. He had also experienced McGill during its most expansive period, during which its music department had developed into the most prominent institution in the country, for instrumental music, musicology, composition, and music theory. For Hambræus it seemed almost as if each year had been even more interesting than the previous one: from building the electronic-music studio during the 1970s to developing his seminars in performance practice - a graduate course which proved immensely attractive, particularly to international students who contributed to make this course a truly multi-cultural experience. During the beginning of the 1990s, however, McGill had experienced serious fiscal problems, and the consequences started to affect the music department at the time of Hambræus's retirement. It was the right time to leave McGill. His career was crowned by being named professor emeritus in 1995 and finally being nominated as the university's candidate for the Molson Prize in 1997.

In Hambræus's writings, Canada is cast as something of a multi-cultural and multi-aesthetic paradise. But he also provides quite serious criticism, where cultural policies and politics are concerned, taking aim at the lack of true understanding of the nation's multi-cultural nature. There are no previous political comments from Hambræus, nothing about René Levesque and the Parti Québécois' takeover in 1976, the separatist referendums, or the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. He had never even commented on the political situation in Sweden during the 60s in any obvious way.

However, the First Nations' three-month standoff with the federal and provincial governments on the Kanehsatake reservation by Oka, just outside of Montreal in 1990, was a pivotal event for Hambræus, after which he began to more openly express political opinions in his writings on Canada, in this case taking the side of the members of the First Nations. The standoff was triggered by the town of Oka's attempt to enlarge its golf course, not knowing, or simply ignoring, that the land they wanted to use was part of the Mohawks' old burial ground and had a particular poignancy for the community. The First Nation's land claim was not disputed, but its claims were turned down in court.

Hambræus's program notes for his chamber-orchestra work Nocturnals (1990) provides a very explicit political statement: he wanted the instrumentation of the piece to be identified with traditional native drumming and thus to draw attention to the situation of the members of the First Nations. He calls the treatment of the members of the First Nations "apartheid" and argues, somewhat naively, that the standoff had enormous support from all the First Nations as well as from the "white" population. The fact was that the standoff was highly controversial even within the Mohawk community and created an immense tension between the Warriors and the rest of the members. (14) But the comparison with South African apartheid is not as far fetched as one would think. As Eva Mackey has argued, the building of a Canadian identity has many times followed a path of what she calls "brutal policies of extermination and cultural genocide." (15)

Hambræus's comments are particularly interesting as he had finished the piece prior to the standoff, so the Mohawk drumming that could be heard on radio and TV during the standoff could not have inspired him. But the question was very important to him and I believe he wanted to make up for his earlier silence - he had never commented on First-Nation issues before. Hambræus did not try to nuance the series of events that took place, everything was black or white. He even went so far as to call the standoff perhaps "the most important people's uproar in the history of Canada or North America" making Canada a center for development on the continent, even in this negative sense.

In the continuation of his program notes, he makes a valuable point by changing the perspective on the old language debate in Canada and the focus on multi-culturalism through the impact of immigrants:

And suddenly we have been reminded [...] about the social meaning in what has long been known as a statistical and linguistic-historical fact: among the aboriginal peoples in Canada [...] there still exist more than fifty independent languages which represent their own traditions and daily customs (in other words, it is something completely different than the European and Asian languages that are spoken among the many immigrants in Canada). But very few "white" Canadians understand even one of these more than fifty languages. Instead, they are trapped in the political quarrel over which of the colonial languages, English or French, should dominate here or there in the provinces. (16)

It's a very sharp comment indeed, and could hardly have come from someone deeply engaged in the ongoing French-English language debate. Rather, it represents the perspective of an outsider. In this respect, Hambræus espouses a novel and interesting view of Canada and Canadian culture, in that he exceeds the boundaries of Trudeau's dualist language policy. For Hambræus, issues regarding the First Nations are questions of today, in contrast to traditional Canadian discourses emphasizing the First Nations' historical significance, in building a national identity. The issues of the First Nations were quite neglected even in as contemporary a document as the Charlottetown Accord. (17) In this respect, Hambræus is following the interest in contemporary and modernist issues that he developed in Sweden.

Hambræus does not only give recognition to language issues outside of the prevalent binary discourse, but recognition also became important for his pedagogy. In his performance-practice class he encouraged students to talk about their own cultural backgrounds, if they wanted, and created a community of difference in the class. The class became very popular among the students, probably because of the possibility of being recognized. His opinions on recognition coincide to a large extent with those of his McGill colleague, philosopher Charles Taylor, although Hambræus never acknowledges having read anything by him. Taylor and Hambræus favor a Normative Multi-culturalism, in which all cultures are equally valuable. (18) Although not a completely unproblematic standpoint, it worked well in the context of a graduate seminar in music.

To a large extent, Hambræus believes in what Stuart Hall calls the "narratives of nationhood in Canada, nature, tolerance, and multi-ethnicity. (19) The official Canadian doctrine often used the metaphor of a mosaic as a contrast to the American "melting pot" in order to describe the cultural and ethnic interaction. Hambræus quickly adopts this doctrine. He was an ideal citizen for Trudeau's vision, bilingual and embracing multi-culturalism. Hambræus sees the mosaic in Montreal, the most residentially segregated city of its size in North America, (20) rather than seeing just a segregated city. For Hambræus the glass is half full, not half empty. But he also hints at problems with this mosaic metaphor. As Mackey argues, "Representing Canada as an unfinished mosaic, a mosaic with no picture, implies that Canada has no culture and no identity [...]." (21) Hambræus's descriptions of Canadian musical life hardly appear to be anything more than name dropping. But it is problematic to consider Canada from a European perspective, as a traditional nation state. Kenneth McRoberts has even argued that "Canada cannot be thought of as a single nation. [...] Canada might be better understood as a "multinational' entity. (22) Somewhere along the line, Hambræus realizes this, since he in his later texts never tries to describe Canada in terms of anything other than snapshots of the mosaic, rather than providing a big picture of a Nation.

1. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Canadian University Music Society Annual Meeting as part of "Toronto 2000: Musical Intersections," in Toronto, Ontario, on November 5, 2000.

2. Apart from the articles mentioned below, these include Aspects of Twentieth-Century Performance Practice: Memories and Reflections (Stockholm: Kungliga Musikaliska Akademien, 1997); "Utblick pä Nord-Amerika: Ny musik i Kanada" [Outlook on North America: New Music in Canada], Nutida Musik 15, no. 4 (1971/72), 40-43.

3. Publications from the Department of Musicology, no. 57 (Gothenburg: University of Gothenburg, Department of Musicology, 1999).

4. Gunnar Valkare, Öppen konstmusik: aktörer, värderingar, samband runt kompositionsklassen vid Musikhögskolan i Stockholm 1956-1970 (unpublished thesis, Gothenburg: University of Gothenburg, 1988), 32.

5. Hambræus's ideological stance is discussed extensively in my dissertation, 232-45.

6. "Anteckningar 1976 - mer eller mindre sammanhängande ..." [Notes 1976 - more or less coherent ...], Nutida Musik 20, no. 3 (1976/77), 21-23.

7. Unga tonsättare i Kanada" [Young Composers in Canada], Nutida Musik 17, no. 3 (1973/74), 46-49 and "Fragment från Montreal 1973: Utblickar, inblickar, episoder" [Fragments from Montreal 1973: Outlooks, Insights, Episodes], Nutida Musik 17, no. 2 (1973/74), 42-46.

8. Hambræus's original title was "Från Hugh Le Caines elektroniska tonredskap till färdigfabricerade synthesizers" [From Hugh Le Caine's Electronic Sound Equipment to Readymade Synthesizers], but was published as "Från NRC till CEC: en snabböversikt över canadensisk elektronmusikhistoria" [From NCR to CEC: A Quick Overview of Canadian Electronic Music History], Program book from the Skinnskatteberg-Uttersberg Electro-Acoustic Music Festival, June 1-3, 1990.

9. See, for example, Eva Mackey, The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada (London: Routledge, 1999), 145.

10. Edited by Helmut Kallmann (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981).

11. One example of Morton's will illustrate this. "Canadian life to this day is marked by a northern quality, the strong seasonal rhythm which still governs even academic sessions; the venture now sublimated for most of us to the summer holiday or the autumn shoot; the greatest of joys, the return from the lonely savagery of the wilderness to the peace of the home; the puritanical restraint which masks the psychological tensions set up by the contrast for the wilderness roughness and home discipline." William Lewis Morton, The Canadian Identity (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961), quoted after Mackey, 1999, 45.

12. Frye writes for example, "To feel 'Canadian' was to feel part of a no-man's-land with huge rivers, lakes, and islands that very few Canadians had ever seen. ... One wonders if any other national consciousness has had so large an amount of the unknown, the unrealized, the humanly undigested, so built into it. Rupert Brooke speaks of the 'unseizable virginity' of the Canadian landscape. What is important here, for our purposes, is the position of the frontier in the Canadian imagination. In the United States one could choose to move out to the frontier or retreat from it back to the seaboard. In the Canadas, even in the Maritimes, the frontier was all around one, a part and a condition of one's whole imaginative being " Such a frontier was the immediate datum of his imagination, the thing that had to be dealt with first." Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden 1971, 220, quoted after Mackey, 1999, 45.

Atwood suggests, "And these paintings [by the Group of Seven] are not landscape paintings. Because there aren't any landscapes up there, not in the old, tidy European sense, with a gentle hill, a curving river, a cottage, a mountain in the background, a golden evening sky. Instead there's tangle, a receding maze, in which you can become lost almost as soon as you step off the path. There are no backgrounds in any of these paintings, no vistas; only a great deal of foreground that goes back and back, endlessly, involving you in its twists and turns of tree and branch and rock. No matter how far back in you go, there will be more. And the trees themselves are hardly trees; they are currents of energy, charged with violent colour." Margaret Atwood, Death by Landscape, 1991, 121, quoted after Mackey, 1999, 45.

13. Artes 12, no. 3 (1986), 67 - 77.

14. See, for example, Maurice Tugwell and John Thompson, The Legacy of Oka (Toronto: Mackezie Institute, 1991) and Craig MacLaine and Michael S. Baxendale. This Land is Our Land: The Mohawk Revolt at Oka (Montreal: Optimum, 1990) for two very different accounts of the events.

15. Mackey, 1999, 14.

16. Hambræus's unpublished program notes for the premiere of the work in December 1990. "Och vi har t.ex. plötsligt erinrats om den rent sociala innebörden i vad som länge varit känt som ett statistiskt och språkhistoriskt faktum, nämligen att det bland Canadas [sic ] ursprungliga invånareùd.v.s. de olika indianstammarna ... fortfarande existerar drygt femtio självständiga språk som representerar deras egna traditioner, dagliga seder och bruk (det rör sig alltsä om något helt an-nat än de europeiska och asiatiska språk som talas av Canadas [sic ] otaliga invandrargrupper). Men ytterst få "vita" canadensare[sic] behärskar ens ett enda av dessa drygt 50 språk utan hamnar i stället i ett politiskt käbblande om vilket av kolonialspråken, engelska eller franska, som skall dominera här eller där i landets provinser".

17. Kenneth McRoberts, Misconceiving Canada: The Struggle for National Unity (Toronto, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 265.

18. See Charles Taylor, "The Politics of Recognition," Multiculturalism and "The Politics of Recognition" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), and Per Bauhn, "Normative Multiculturalism, Communal Goods, and Individual Rights," Multiculturalism and Nationhood in Canada: The Cases of First Nations and Quebec (Lund: Lund University Press, 1995).

19. Mackey, 1999, 71.

20. Behiels, Michael D., "Quebec and the Question of Immigration: From Ethnocentrism to Ethnic Pluralism, 1900 - 1985," Canada's Ethnic Groups (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1991), 5.

21. Mackey, 1999, 105.

22. McRoberts, 1997 261.