Q&A: Dean McNeill talks music and poetry ahead of collaborative SJO concert

The work of U of S music professor and SJO artistic director Dean McNeill will be featured in the upcoming concert on Oct. 22, 2022.

Dean McNeill is no stranger to multidisciplinary concerts, and the Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra’s (SJO) first of the season is another new twist for a jazz show. 

The SJO concert “Poetics of Jazz” on Oct. 22 will feature poetry by local Saskatchewan writers set to music by Saskatchewan composers, along with a presentation of the Margaret Atwood-inspired Atwood Suite by Canadian composer Andrew Rathbun. The concert is being co-presented by the SJO and the SaskTel Saskatchewan Jazz Festival. 

McNeill, a music professor at the University of Saskatchewan and the artistic director of the SJO, spoke with PodSask ahead of the concert. 

Q: Where did the inspiration for this concert come from?

A: It came up from a few places. Number one, Andrew Rathbun reached out to me — he’s the one who wrote the music for the Atwood Suite. And I thought “Man, this is some great music, I’m a fan of Margaret Atwood … she’s a Canadian icon.” Her work is very important, and this is a way to shine a light on her work, shine a light on her poetry, and create interesting intersections between music and poetry. 

That begs the question, what are we going to do for (the rest of the concert)? And then I thought, Saskatchewan has so many great writers, from the Yann Martels to the Bill Waisers, and some friends of mine are poets. So I said, let’s team some poets up with some composers. 

Q: Who did you get from the community for the show? 

A: We took the (Saskatchewan) Poet Youth Laureate and hooked her up with an established, but young, composer. We took the poet who won the Paddy O’Rourke Poetry Scholarship … and teamed her up with another composer. 

Some of these tunes are going to be spoken word with the music behind it. Some are going to be music where the poet created the text and the composer has put music to it — so it’ll be sung. I’m doing one of each of those. For example — I worked with Glen Sorestad, who was the Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan back in the 90s. We’re going to play this piece of music, and Glen is going to come onstage and say his poem. And then I’m doing another one with a friend of mine, Michael Bradford … he wrote a poem, and I wrote music to that poem. 

Q: So what’s the full concert going to look like and sound like?

A: It’s a mishmash of poems and music. That’s really the theme of the concert — I don’t even know what some of these pieces are yet! We’ve had rehearsals, but the poets haven’t all been able to be there yet. It’s going to be exciting to have our next rehearsal, when we get everyone in the same room and see what this is going to be like here. 

Q: As a composer, how do you approach working with somebody else’s art, trying to combine your art with someone else’s?

A: I’ve done stuff with historians and English professors and art and art history professors, and I’m doing something coming up with a mathematician, and actors and dancers of course. So you’d think that working with a poet is like low-hanging fruit, that it would be “easy.” It’s not. It’s just the opposite, in fact. How do you create something new without trivializing or sacrificing the original? It’s a tall order. I don’t know how we quite do it … we’re trying to do this with things that aren’t, in a sense, meant to go together. That’s one of the great things about art. And one of the things I’ve learned over the years is don’t tell artists what to do. Create a space and empower them to do something. 

Q: When you’re putting the Atwood Suite into this concert and asking Saskatchewan composers and writers to try to do the same thing, how do you think the local artists will do?

A: That’s a great question. I’ll be able to answer that five minutes after the concert … I like it when people step up to the plate and take a swing at things and hit it out of the park in cool ways. I think we have a lot to offer as a province, and I think this is an example of doing that. 

Q: What are people going to take away from the concert next Saturday night?
A: Well, there’s that saying that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. I hope they take away that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s some very special music and some very special artists. I hope people will feel like they were part of something very special and very sincere, because that’s how we roll.

The Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra concert “Poetics in Jazz” takes place Saturday, Oct. 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the Broadway Theatre. The concert is also being live-streamed. You can find your tickets online at saskatoonjazzorchestra.com.

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