Composer, Poet, Photographer
he challenge of an exhibition of his clay works as a complement to the colourful quilts of Ralph Beney encouraged Geoff Stevens to follow new directions this past year. Vessels and plates have been enriched with landscape and story themes. A rising spirituality sometimes finds expression in non-functional forms. “I’m moving in a sculptural direction,” Geoff says. “The vessel will always be an enormously potent, fertile and voluptuous form for me. I’ll never leave it entirely, but I’ve discovered in myself an endless font of images, the creative blood flowing. It’s challenging, mysterious, even scary and I have a desire to realise it.”
In the early 1970’s, the introduction through a friend to clay and its potential spun Geoff ’s life around. He was in his final year of Psychology and Philosophy at York University, about to do his bachelor’s thesis on Phenomenology. Captivated by clay, which he found “engrossing, hypnotizing”, he failed to attempt any thesis, until a wise professor understood the impasse. Geoff changed the subject to The Psychotherapeutic Uses of Clay, wrote the paper in two weeks of outpouring synthesis and earned top marks.
Some people hear the name Robert Evans and associate it with photography. Others think of Evans, the composer. Still others know him as a retired music teacher. He is all of these and more. This talented creator has been an Elora resident for the last twelve years and has distinguished himself not only as a prolific creator but also as the man who likes to go for walks in winter wearing shorts.
Robert was born in Toronto in 1933. Although his father Gordon was not musical, his mother Nelda encouraged him to sing. His first musical memories involve singing in John Hodgins’ choir at Grace Church on the Hill. Here he learned to sing, read music, and play the piano and organ. At the young age of eight, he sang for Sir Ernest MacMillan.
As a teenager, he got a job playing piano in a dance band. His parents had a cottage in Muskoka, and at that time it was a regular occurrence for big band greats like Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and others to perform at the dance halls. “Everyone could afford it back then, and I listened and learned by osmosis. I experienced the joy in music.”
He attended the Faculty of Music at U of Toronto from 1954-58. There he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Glenn Gould, Jon Vickers, Harry Somers, Teresa Stratas, and others. “Of course nobody was famous yet, but we all learned together.” His earliest compositions date from this time.
Robert believes that humanity is gained through contact with the arts.
Robert’s first job out of university was teaching strings at a junior high. After modest success, he was promoted to the Head of Music at Victoria Park Secondary School. “These were great years and I still get together with my colleagues.” It was a fortunate time to be a music teacher because the atmosphere was enlightened and the limitations for experimentation almost non-existent. In 1965, Robert became the Assistant Coordinator of Music for the North York school district. This was the perfect position for him because he had the opportunity to develop curricula that he had already tested in the classroom. He enjoyed sharing his experience with teachers in a consultative role.
In 1970, he bought his first camera. He received a Canada Council Grant to study contemporary music for young people. After a year’s trip to England, Warsaw and Prague he settled in the South of France and began to experiment with light in photography. Most of his pictures were landscapes taken with natural light. He was interested in getting closer to the spiritual essence of nature, hoping to “see things with different eyes”.
All the while he was writing music. He studied composition privately with Samuel Dolin who encouraged him to explore new directions. John Weinzweig and Harry Somers were also significant influences. His last years in teaching were not as enjoyable due mainly to the demographic changes that caused the arts to take a back seat to more “practical” concerns. Robert believes that humanity is gained through contact with the arts. Armed with this personal creed, and because writing was beckoning, he took early retirement in 1989. He headed for Auckland, New Zealand where he taught a five-month stint in a private college. Many photos came from his travels to South Island, Fiji and Hawaii.
In May of 1991, Robert settled in Elora and began to learn how to market himself as a composer. Taking risks is inherent in the arts. “You have to put money out to make money.” His compositions have garnered several awards including first place in the Amadeus Choir Christmas Carol Competition. Subsequently, this exuberant, syncopated carol “Ring-a-the-News” has been recorded five times. In 1996, he hosted a three-day festival at the Wellington County Museum. “A Flourish of the Arts; In Your Own Back Yard” was a series of four concerts that sought to demonstrate the interaction of the arts. The combination of 22 artists, composers, singers and instrumentalists was inspiring and when asked about it, Robert says, “I did it because no one else had done it yet and it needed to be done.”
His association with St. John’s Anglican Church has deepened his faith. Many of his compositions are sacred including “Shalom”. This vocal piece which uses the word for peace in 32 languages is a cappella, save for a pedal D tone, wind chimes and a drum. With this piece, Robert makes a profound political statement: occasionally hate intervenes, but it is always squashed by peace. Often inspired by tragic events, he wrote “Kyrie in MEMORIAM” in response to September 11. In 1998, he was commissioned by the Toronto Children’s Choir to write a cantata. His response, “For the Children”, won the National Choral Award.
The exhibition “Passages” held at the Wellington County Museum, in 2003, included “Carved by the Sea”, a CD of “Cantata 4”, with the Tactus Vocal Ensemble. A handmade leather book of photographs and poetry attempted to break down the barriers between the arts to make “vital connections”. Robert considers this past decade to be the richest time of his life. He considers himself lucky because when he reaches a point in his creating where the next idea isn’t coming, he turns to writing poetry or shooting pictures knowing that in an hour or a few days, the path will emerge. “I love tangents and find that the lines that don’t go straight are often much more interesting.”
Every year, he vacations in France. He calls this his “what if” time. It allows him the chance to explore new voices, and to look at new ideas. He comes home to Elora with a deepened understanding of who he is. “When I come to understand who I am, then I can offer others something to think about.”
For more information including examples of his photography, log onto his interesting personal website www.evansartworks.com
by Patricia Reimer, Spring 2003
I love tangents and find that the lines that don’t go straight are often much more interesting.
UPDATE – 2004
In 2004, “Song of Becoming” for chamber orchestra was accepted at the Saskatoon Symphony Festival of New Music. Evans was announced as grand prizewinner in the Outside the Bach’s Choral competition in Fort Worth, Texas. In March Evans was finalist in the Mattia Poetry Competition. The score, notes and CD of “For the Children – Cantata 2”, were accepted by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre for their exhibition and archives. His Cantata “Bridges” was based on the poems of youth at Portage (near Salem, ON), Quebec and Nova Scotia, following their journeys from alcohol and drug addiction through rehabilitation, hope and redemption.
March 10, 2005. Robert Evans died after living the most creative period of his life in retirement from teaching. he enjoyed new commissions, broadcasts, new recordings of his work by Tactus, as well as winning photography and poetry awards. He will be missed in our artistic community. His piano is willed to the Elora Festival, and fittingly will be played at many coming concerts.
His funeral at St John’s Church, Elora, was unique and unforgettable. The combined choirs of the Elora Festival Singers and the Parish Choir of St John’s Church sang five of Robert’s original compositions.