York PhD student’s musical compositions give modern twist to old story

Colin McGuire just can’t stop composing. When Canada’s premier Chinese performing arts company, the Little Pear Garden Collective (LPGC), inquired about commissioning this York PhD candidate and faculty member to compose music for an upcoming show, he jumped at the chance, regardless of his already busy schedule. 

“I’ve been a fan of Little Pear for quite a while and actually getting to work with them has been a great experience,” says McGuire (BFA Spec. Hons. ’01, MA ’03), who is completing his doctoral degree in ethnomusicology. “Seeing the music and dance come together is like magic.”

The Four Beauties of China will take place Nov. 26 and 27 at 8pm at the Al Green Theatre in the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, 750 Spadina Ave. (corner of Bloor and Spadina).

Right: Colin McGuire

The show featuring McGuire’s music, The Four Beauties of China, tells the stories of a quartet of dynamic, powerful women from Chinese history, who were known for their good looks and courage. Two of the beauties are depicted through classical Chinese dance and opera. The other two beauties, however, are given a much more modern twist.

McGuire’s specialty, electroacoustic music that requires loudspeakers for performance, is created largely in the studio (see YFile, July 4, 2008). His work frequently features elements from the music of world cultures and he has often enjoyed working with dancers, so the collaboration on The Four Beauties of China was a natural one.

The music created by McGuire for the contemporary sections of the show is a unique blend of Asian instruments, voices, environmental sounds, synthesizers, sampled sequences, programmed rhythms, drum loops and noise.

“Collaboration is always challenging and rewarding; I come up with things that I wouldn’t dream of when I work alone,” he says.

Given the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of The Four Beauties of China, it is not surprising that there is a strong contingent of York students, faculty and alumni among the artistic talents involved in the production.

Emily Cheung (BFA Spec. Hons. ’02, BEd ’05, MA ’07), artistic director of the Little Pear Garden Collective, co-choreographed one of the pieces with fellow grad Sashar Zarif (MA ’07), who has taught in York’s Department of Dance and brings a Persian flare to the work. Keiko Kitano, who has also taught dance at York, is a featured soloist dancer. Choreographer William Yong of Zata Omm Dance Projects has given master classes at York in the past. McGuire taught digital and electronic music production at York for several years before starting his doctorate in 2008.

“The creation process was totally dissimilar in each of the two pieces I worked on because of the different ways the choreographers like to work,” says McGuire. William Yong wanted the music to come first, while Sashar Zarif wanted the dance to be marked out before McGuire could begin composing.

Composing for the LPGC hasn’t gotten in the way of McGuire’s academics. Earlier this year, he was awarded a Social Science & Humanities Research Council of Canada doctoral award and published an article on “Rhythm Skills Development in Chinese Martial Arts” in The International Journal of Sport and Society (Volume 1, Issue 3). His PhD research is on music of the martial arts and focuses on the percussion ensemble played by the members of a local Chinese kung fu club. McGuire is also a graduate associate at the York Centre for Asian Research.

For more information or to order tickets – $25 for regular, $40 for VIP and $18 for students, seniors and Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists members – visit the Little Pear Garden Collective or call the Dance Umbrella of Ontario at 416-504-6429 ext. 21.