Lawrence Cherney on Soundstreams and Artistic Success

Lawrence Cherney is the Creative Director and Founder of Soundstreams, a Canadian music creator, who for the past 30 years has been working to develop unique compositions that have garnered attention the world over. The staff at PP has covered their last 4 performances and were floored at what we found. Naturally, we wanted to speak to the man whose direction has been bringing such bizarre creativity to our home and native land for three decades about the upcoming season and what it means to succeed as an artist.

Lawwrence Cherney

What are you most excited for in the upcoming 2013/14 Soundstreams season?

Oh, that’s like asking which of my children I like the best. Well, they’re all great shows but they’re all quite different. Let’s put it this way: The most unusual thing coming this year, just in terms of genre is that we’re producing an opera at the end of the season.  It’s really quite a dream team we’ve put together between the composer, director, designer and lighting. We’ve got pretty high-class talent putting this on.  It’s exciting because it’s not [being put on in] a found space, but we’re going to make unusual use of the Ada Slaight Theatre in Regent Park.

SoundMakers is a great project! Where did the inspiration come from?

“It was certainly a number of people who worked on it over a period of 3 years. It was really occasioned by the fact that the concert season that just passed was number 30 and we were looking for special ways to think about that. Of course, it’s all fine to say ‘And now we’re 30!’, [but] we wanted to come up with something that would capture what it means to have been in business for 30 years. We’ve worked with a lot of composers and commissioned a lot of works over that period of time.

SoundMakers is an attempt to do a couple of different things at the same time. One of the reasons, of course, is to remind people of the wealth of music that we’ve created over the years. The other thing that’s important is that we want to find another way to engage the public as opposed to passively listening; which of course is a great activity too. We thought we could find something to bring them into our world.”

SoundMakers functions on two main levels. One where you can search through 100 of the selected Soundstreams performances from the past 30 years (even based on your current mood) and another where anyone can grab samples, or fragments, of music to create your own compositions.

“We’ve found that some of the people who are sampling the music are, in fact, actually going and listening to the whole compositions. I think that was the impetus for the project, and we also just wanted to create something that was fun.”

Lawrence credits the thousands of hours put in by his staff in forming the website and going through the archives to dig up the work on SoundMakers with how well it turned out and feels that it’s only the beginning.

“It’s was worth their time. We know it’s only beginning. It’s not just something [and] now it’s done, it’s up, we’re finished. We see it as something we’re going to be gradually expanding on… almost a lens which other things we’re doing can be expanded on.”

After 30 years in existence, what are the greatest lessons you think that other arts and culture organizations can learn from the successes of Soundstreams?

“I think it’s the other way around. I’m still learning from other arts organizations.

Well, I think–as with a lot of other areas of life–we’re better off when we work with others. I can honestly say that I’ve never had an idea that didn’t get better for sharing it with other people and, in this case, sharing with other organizations. Before you know it, other organizations will take the original idea and make it into something much more than a sum of the parts. Of course [one of the exciting things is that] you don’t know where collaboration will go. The great thing is that the idea gets better but you [also] find new ways of reaching people. And that’s what we’re all about.  We’re proud of what we do, but we would like for everybody in the world to know what we’re doing here. Every collaboration brings the possibility for others to experience what we do for the first time. For me, that’s a great opportunity.”

In the 60s, you received funding from the Ford Foundation and the Canada Council to continue your studies. How pivotal was that money in bringing you to where you are today?

Early in a career there are often opportunities that artists have to travel or to do whatever. Lots of artists, they’ve got the goods and it’s hard because they don’t always have the means to take advantage of an opportunity. Anytime the funding is available early in a career to make that happen, it’s a great thing. I know I was very lucky to get the chance to get a world view. The world’s a big place, and the earlier you figure that out the better you know where you need to go to have a bigger picture from the beginning.

In era where arts funding is increasingly in short supply, what would you recommend that individual artists and musicians do to get noticed (and paid) for their work?

“Get really good at what they do.”

[Laughs] “I know. I know.

It’s interesting today… I don’t think it was ever different. There were lots of periods where funding was hard for artists. In past centuries, artists depended on patrons and kings, etcetera and that probably wasn’t too stable either. If you had body odour one day, it could be the end of a career! I’m sure that wasn’t a perfect system either. If a king didn’t like you, God help you.

On the other hand, today there are a lot of different opportunities. Everything from, you know, web funding – which maybe doesn’t produce hundreds of thousands of dollars for anybody right away… It’s not that it’s easy now but there are paths that didn’t exist before. When, suddenly a Youtube goes viral for whatever reason (sometimes it’s stupid) it’s a great thing because if you can do something unusual and have it recognized, it’s something. In the past you’d have wondered what would they ever have done to be noticed.

Arts funding, yes, goes up and down but it also depends on your world view. If we had always been satisfied with what arts councils gave us, I don’t think there’d be a Soundstreams today. In the sense that it’s very limiting. I’m a great fan of public arts funding, I’m not a sour grape. We do very well in terms of public arts funding. But it’s really important, I think, for artists to know, as it always was true, that what they do as entrepreneurs is really important. That doesn’t mean they need to sell real estate on the side, but they’re always going to be their best promoters. What’s harder is for him or her to find out what the best way to do that is because everyone is not suited to be a promoter in one way or another.

The schools don’t do us very much a favour. They don’t really offer much in the way of practical advice, which is a shame. In the arts, it isn’t usually about fitting into an existing job. You kind of create an existence. You’re creating a need that wasn’t there. People don’t know they need what you do until you show them that they can’t live without it. That’s really exciting. For the right person, it’s fantastic. For a person who really isn’t suited for that, it’s a lot harder.

I’m sure we can both think of examples of artists who aren’t that great at what they do, but are really famous. And there’s other artists who are really fantastic at what they do. Call me naïve but in the long run, you can’t really stop a good thing. I mean, you have to eat, but as I say, if you’re really good at what you do, people are going to figure it out; but sometimes it’s painful. You can’t sit around waiting.”

If you had to pick your favourite composer, alive or not, who would it be?

[After some contemplation]

“I honestly don’t have one. I know that’s not an answer but I really am interested in a lot of things. It’s not because I can’t make up my mind, but every composer has something unique, something special to say about that time, that place, whatever it is. I find that when I’m getting immersed in the sound world of a particular composer, if I like it, it’s not that I can’t imagine anything else, but I find it impossible to say it’s better or worse.

If you asked me what I would like to listen to at this moment, I’d probably want to listen to Stravinsky because there’s a piece of his that I didn’t know that somebody referred me to for a very good reason. Today, it’s not necessarily my favourite, but it’s something that I really want to go and listen to.”


For more information on Soundstreams and a schedule of their upcoming musical innovations, [visit their website here]

About Seamus Gearin

Séamus once found a $100 bill and gave it to the first person who passed by. He's regretted it ever since.