Owen Underhill | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Owen Underhill

Owen Underhill. Composer, conductor, teacher, flutist, b Regina 26 Jan 1954; B MUS (Victoria) 1975, MA (Stony Brook) 1978. Owen Underhill was raised in Edmonton and Victoria, BC.

Owen Underhill

Owen Underhill. Composer, conductor, teacher, flutist, b Regina 26 Jan 1954; B MUS (Victoria) 1975, MA (Stony Brook) 1978. Owen Underhill was raised in Edmonton and Victoria, BC. He studied composition 1971-5 with Rudolf Komorous at the University of Victoria and was a member of The Composers' Group (seven young composers who gave concerts 1973-5 in Victoria and Vancouver, and toured Europe in the summer of 1975). He studied 1975-8 with Bülent Arel at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he also organized concerts of new music. Following the completion of his Master's degree he studied analysis at the Darmstadt Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in 1978, and computer sound synthesis at MIT in 1979.

Teaching Appointments; Other Activities
Underhill was a visiting composer 1976-7 and taught 1977-81 at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, where he created a composition program and founded an electronic music studio. In 1981 he began to teach composition, theory, conducting and performance at the Centre for the Arts at Simon Fraser University (as full professor in 1993, and as director 1986, 1994-7, 1998-2001, 2006-7). He has been a central figure in the new music scene on the West Coast, initially as a flutist and as co-music director of Western Front New Music (1982-3), as a member (from 1981) and artistic director (1987-2000) of the Vancouver New Music Society, and as frequent conductor of Magnetic Band. For the Banff Centre for the Arts' Theatre Arts Summer Program he was music director in 1998, and for the Prairie Festival of New Music he was composer-in-residence in 1999. In 2002, he co-founded the Turning Point Ensemble, of which he has been co-artistic director; the group toured Canada in 2005 with the mezzo-soprano Judith Forst in music by Barbara Pentland, and has been involved in interdisciplinary projects including a staging of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale (2006).


A versatile and wide-ranging conductor, Owen Underhill has led performances of his own music and that of many other contemporary composers, across Canada and occasionally internationally. In addition to Vancouver New Music, Turning Point and Magnetic Band, he has conducted groups including Arraymusic, the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and the Victoria Symphony. He has appeared many times on CBC Radio (often leading the CBC Radio Orchestra), and has conducted his own and others' works for several recordings, including two for CBC Records and three with the Turning Point Ensemble.


Works by Underhill have been commissioned by organizations including Arraymusic, Ballet British Columbia, CrossSound Festival, the National Ballet of Canada, Vancouver Cantata Singers, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and by individuals including the trombonist Jeremy Berkman and the clarinetist François Houle. Underhill's music has been performed often in Vancouver as well as across Canada, and in London, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Taipei.

As a composer, Underhill strives to reconcile radical and conservative forces. His earlier music is eclectic, often influenced by extramusical subjects (visual arts, poetry). His earlier works (eg, Calico 1978 and Escalator 1982) explore different soundscapes within a basically atonal idiom, sometimes reflecting Underhill's fascination with juxtapositions of contrasting material, and collage. He later explored fresh ways of using tonality: Northern Line, Angel Station (1986) for string quartet is tonal, but with only minimal reference to clichés and progressions of the past; the solo marimba work Partita (1983) pushes the concept of tonality to its dissonant limits. In later work, Underhill has sought a clear, direct expressive language and an intuitive approach to structure and discourse. He is drawn to unusual instrumental combinations and innovative approaches to polytonality. In works like Trombone Quintet and Still Image, he integrates extended techniques (singing and playing on trombone, multiphonics on clarinet) into simple homophonic textures. Collaborations with contemporary writers and use of historical texts (Boethius, Dante, Aquinas, Henry Vaughan) have inspired several compositions.

The strong interdisciplinary inclination of the Simon Fraser faculty has inspired Underhill to write several works for dance and theatre, including incidental music for a 1984 SFU production of Sam Shepard's play Suicide in B-flat. His opera The Star Catalogues, about the 16th-century astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, was premiered in Vancouver 21 Oct 1994 and broadcast by the CBC. With Michael Bushnell, he created three narrative ballets choreographed by John Alleyne, two for Ballet British Columbia (The Faerie Queen, premiere Vancouver 23 Apr 2000; and Orpheus, premiere Vancouver 23 May 2002 and Western Canadian tour, 2002), and one for the National Ballet of Canada (Tristan and Isolde, premiere Toronto 14 May 2003).

Memberships; Awards; Appointments

Underhill is a member of the Canadian League of Composers, for which he was vice-president 1990-3, and of SOCAN; and is an associate of the Canadian Music Centre, for which he has also served as vice-president 1996-8 and 2006- .

Owen Underhill's awards include first prize in the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra du Maurier Canadian Composers Competition (1994, Lines of Memory); the Simon Fraser University Dean of Arts medal for academic excellence (2001); a Juno nomination for best classical composition (2002, Love Songs); and an outstanding classical composition award from the Western Canadian Music Awards (2007, Canzone di Petra). In 2009 Underhill was named an ambassador of the Canadian Music Centre.

Selected Compositions

The Star Catalogues, opera in 2 acts (Marc Diamond). 1994. Mezzo, tenor, bass, SATB chorus of 4 voices, recorder, b cl, tbn, keyboard (Baroque org, hpchd, piano), perc, viola da gamba, str quartet

Boy Wonder, ballet. 1997. Sop saxophone, perc, str quartet

The Faerie Queen (with Michael Bushnell), ballet, music after Purcell. 2000. Fl, ob, bn, tpt, hpchd, perc, str quartet

Orpheus (with Michael Bushnell), ballet, music after Gluck. 2002. Fl, cl, hn, tbn, harp, perc, str quartet

Tristan and Isolde (with Michael Bushnell), ballet. 2003. Orch

Gray Glove. 1985. Sop, orch

Labyrinth of Ears. 1990

From Angel Station: In Memoriam John Cage. 1993

Lines of Memory. 1993

The Revealing. 1995

The Faerie Queen Suite (with Michael Bushnell). 2002. Chamber orch

Prelude to Tristan and Iseult. 2002

World of Light. 2007. Tenor, orch

Chamber and Instrumental
D Moon 3. 1975. Cl, tbn, perc, guitar, piano

Calico. 1978. Fl, ob, cl, bn, hn, vn, va, vc

Darmstadt Triptych. 1978. Piano

They will sew the blue sail. 1979. Cl, bn, tpt, tbn, vn, db, perc

The Imaginary Winter Kaleidoscope. 1979. 2 pianos

Two Preludes. 1982. Guitar

Escalator. 1982. Fl, ob, vn, vc, piano 4 hands, perc. Rec. by the Vancouver New Music Ensemble, on West Light (Centrediscs CMCCD 3689, 1989)

Partita. 1983. Marimba. Rec. by Rick Sacks, on Strange Companions (Artifact 003, 1990) Dompe. 1986. Fortepiano or piano, vn, vc. Rec. by the Trio des Iscles, on Among Friends (Centrediscs CMCCD 6098, 1998)

Northern Line, Angel Station. 1986. Str quartet

Gradation in Crystal. 1983, rev. 1986. Fl, ob/Eng hn, 2 keyboards (piano/org and hpchd/org), perc, vn, vc

Dedication, 6 pieces. 1987. Piano

Celestial Machine. 1988. Baroque fl, vn, viola da gamba, hpchd. Rec. on Celestial Machine: Music of Owen Underhill (Artifact ART 022, 2000)

At the Window. 1990. B cl, tpt, vn, db, 2 perc. Rec. on Celestial Machine: Music of Owen Underhill (Artifact ART 022, 2000)

Tenebroso. 1991. Accordion

Bay of Dew. 1991. Woodwind quintet, piano. Rec. by the Arcadian Winds, on Bay of Dew (Arcadian Winds AW 02, 1997)

Swizzle Stick. 1991. Cl (b cl), tpt, 2 perc, piano, db. Rec. by the Arraymusic Ensemble, on 25 Miniatures (Artifact ART 025, 2001)

Hinge. Version A (1995): Piano, fl/picc, ob/Eng hn, cl, b cl, perc, harp, vn, va, vc. Version B (1995-6): Piano, fl/picc, ob/Eng hn, cl/b cl, perc, vn, vc, db. Rec. on Celestial Machine: Music of Owen Underhill (Artifact ART 022, 2000)

HB 25. 1996. Fl, Eng hn, b cl, perc, piano, vn, vc, db

String Quartet No. 3--The Alynne. 1998

Trombone Quintet. 1999. Tbn, str quartet

Two Songs without Words. 1998-99. Vibraphone, piano. Rec. on Celestial Machine: Music of Owen Underhill (Artifact ART 022, 2000)

By Backward Steps. 2000. Vn, harp

The Gaze. 2000. Cl, vn, vc, piano, perc

The Geometry of Harmony, in 10 parts. 2001. Fl/picc, ob/Eng hn, cl, vn, vc, db, perc, piano

Cantilena. 2002. Vc, piano

The Widening Gyre. 2002. Fl, ob, cl, b cl, bn, tpt, tbn, harp, piano, perc, vn, va, vc

Laments and Dances. 2003. Cl/b cl, tpt, 2 perc, piano, vn, db

Prelude--Veni Emmanuel. 2003. Tpt, org

Canzone di Petra. 2004. Fl, harp. Rec. by Lorna McGhee and Heidi Krutzen, on Canada: New Works for Flute and Harp (Skylark SKY 0603, 2006)

Five in Three. 2003. Str quartet, piano

One Page Sonata. 2004. Piano

Sakalaka. 2007. Fl, cl, tbn, vn, vc, piano

Still Image. 2007. Cl quintet

Yeats Songs. 1987. Sop, vc, piano

Exit the King (Ionesco). 1989. Sop, piano

A Song from Solomon. 1994. Bar, piano

Song of the Dodo (Meredith Quartermain). 2005. Sop, b cl

Remember (Christina Rosetti). 2007. Mezzo, alto fl

Aleutian Madrigals (Jerah Chadwick). 2008. Alto, tenor, bar, bass, chamber ensemble (fl, hn, tbn, perc, piano, vn, vc)

Holy Spring (Dylan Thomas). 1979. Chorus, 8 pitch-pipes

Arbre. 1977. Chorus, piano, perc, accordion, guitar, mandolin, celesta Love Songs. 1984. Chorus. Rec. on Celestial Machine: Music of Owen Underhill (Artifact ART 022, 2000)

Psalm 8. 1996. Chorus, org

Surge Illuminare. 1997. Chorus, org, optional tpt

Songs of the Common Day, comprising "The Pea-Fields," "The Brook in February," and "The Mowing" (Charles G. D. Roberts). 1998-2001. Children's chorus, piano

Magnificat. 2001. Chorus

The Pleasant Life in Newfoundland. 2004. Male chorus

Psalm 23 (In Memoriam Barbara Burnham). 2004. Chorus, piano

Veni Domine. 2005. Chorus, woodwind quintet

A Middle English Songbook. 2007. Chorus, chamber ensemble (fl/picc, ob, cl, bn, harp, hn, tpt, tbn, vc, db


"The new tonality," Musicworks, Spring 1988

"Prevailing trends in the music of British Columbia," in Musicanada 2000: A Celebration of Canadian Composers, ed. S. Timothy Maloney (Montreal 2001)

Further Reading