I had the chance to chat with the multi-talented Clio Em. She is a classical musician who has just completed a research project in Vienna. Ride the Tempo readers are familiar with her fantastic videos. Her main project currently is ‘Gravity Wing’, which is based on her own science fiction novel.
How do you come up with this idea?
“I have always wanted to write science fiction. Growing up on a steady stream of Star Trek, Star Wars, and all the scifi novels I could find, I dreamed of robots and droids and galaxy clusters. But I also devoured Jane Austen’s classics and played piano while picturing Regency dances. For Gravity Wing’s soundtrack I combine my classical sound with other streams and genres, finally bringing together my love for words and my passion for music.”
What’s the story behind it all?
“Isabel is offered an artistic residency on the planet of New Canada, but beginning again on a new world proves difficult. Unexpectedly invited to a lavish society event by the taciturn Serge, she is swept off her feet under an unfamiliar sky. As Isabel and Serge dance in a sci-fi minuet around their feelings, they face the full force of the young planet’s rigid social expectations.”
How does you classical music fit in with your “popular” music?
“People seem to classify music as either “entertainment” or “serious” music. So there is a two-sided approach than some people adopt. I try to avoid that divide. I sometimes write some very unusual things, but I also think they’re also very accessible to audiences and written in a near-tonal language that’s pretty familiar.
Everything I compose is based in some way on my musical training. It’s shown me a specific way to compose and build up things. The more instruments you learn the more techniques you learn, so the better you get at this very specific profession. When I was doing my thesis I was working a lot on opera composition, so I decided to study opera singing. I ended up doing a diploma in it, too, which deepened my knowledge in how to write for voice. After that I studied composition with a focus on voice and electronics.
When I started writing in more popular styles I didn’t go, “Oh well, now it’s pop or now it’s folk.” My thinking was more, “how do I incorporate what I know into this?” If you don’t take your popular music very seriously, as seriously as you take your classical music, it just cannot end up being very good. In fact, I do consider my Gravity Wing pieces classical music, especially the operatic and instrumental works. But even in the folk pieces, I try to stay in a Canadian tradition, like Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen, where they put a real emphasis on the writing. So it’s not so much classical as a genre, but it’s as professional as I can get it within what I’m doing.”
Is the division between popular and serious music still relevant today?
“The division between popular music and “serious” music is becoming less meaningful nowadays because we have different types of music in large concert settings. So for example you have Lady Gaga playing to huge audiences, but the genre comes from a direction other than classical. There’s a lot of crossing over of course, but classical music has its own industrial machine, just as popular music does, and there does tend to be a certain degree of separation, and of differences in approach.”
Tell us about the wonderful videos.
I created storylines for this entire project, which is actually a science fiction love story. I sometimes describe it as “Pride and Prejudice… in space!” Gravity Wing is very atmospheric and takes place on a planet called New Canada. This planet is not perfect but it has a lot of things that we might be familiar with. I use it as a framework to explore our Canada in a re-contextualized setting. Hali Rey created animated films for each song. She’s actually an engineer and a visual artist, and she did them in this very painterly style: her hand drawn elements were integrated with film elements and animation. I perform this music in front of a screen where the videos are projected, so it’s like having the soundtrack to these films, only live. The films deepen the atmosphere of the story. The images are highly stylized and meditative. They’re like a living painting.”
You are coming back to Canada, and going on tour?
“I’m in the process of moving back to Canada from Vienna. My Gravity Wing tour launches in Montréal on May 5 at a gorgeous jazz bar/vegan cafe called Résonance. I’ve invited other musicians and narrators to perform with me onstage, and we interweave my music, story, and Hali Rey’s films. In Ottawa I will be doing a solo at Black Squirrel Books on May 12, then another one in a bookstore in Québec City. Then in Toronto I will be performing at Gallery 345 on June 10 – a very classical-oriented performance with emphasis on the violin/viola part. So each iteration of the tour will be slightly different; all the same songs but slightly re-orchestrated. Vancouver is happening in the Fall, and there I’ll be doing a an orchestral collaboration. Also, I’ll be bringing it back to Vienna in the summer. I’ve confirmed one show in a baroque castle that actually has a moat!
Vienna has been a fantastic source of inspiration, not only for my music but also the novel. The entire city is infused with classical music. I got to do an electronic opera intervention in the Hofburg Palace, in a library that looks like the one in Beauty and the Beast. I got to sing great choral and opera works under fantastic conductors in absolutely breathtaking halls. All these experiences then feed into what I write. I don’t want to write music that no one can feel. I want to write beauty.
Vienna really fired up my imagination with all these baroque and classical halls. There are concerts every evening. The music is so easy to find. But I missed Canada. So in the novel I tried to bring the best of two worlds together: the tradition and musical beauty of Vienna but also this Canadian spirit of originality and creative potential.”
That’s another dimension. How does your fiction writing fit in with your music?
“For me, writing fiction was a natural progression from writing music. I went from being a composer that worked with notes and textures on a score – musical textures and melodies – to deciding that I wanted to write my own librettos and stories and novels. Previously I worked with writers other than myself when composing operatic music, and I’m glad I did because I learned so much about what makes a good script.
I am a voracious science fiction reader, and I had always wanted to become a writer. I’ve been writing secretly since I was 15! It was only in 2015 that I began to publish my stories, that I finally decided, now’s the time to share this. Now I often start with the text and then move on to the music, even if it’s a melody that has no words. I like to ground the music in the atmosphere of the world I build and imagine.”
Featured portrait photo by Tobe Mayr