Known and Unknown
Interview with Composer Rodney Sharman and Pianist Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa

It is truly incredible to witness the profound bond between composers and performers and the level of dedication and passion that goes into producing new and impactful music. Rodney Sharman and Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa collaborated on their album Known and Unknown, which features Sharman’s works from 1978 to 2021. The idea for the album came from Rachel, but there is a preoccupation with piano sonority, resonance, and decay from Rodney’s earliest piano pieces (Lento) to the most recent (Known and Unknown), creating a continuity that colors the entire album.

Rodney Sharman, an established and well-recognized composer, started composing around age ten but started composition lessons when he was 15. He said:

Rodney Sharman

Rodney Sharman © SD Holman

In retrospect I was and remain a sound-freak (as a Dutch student once called me). Making new music was an urge and I followed it. I first used the staff paper in those little books that music teachers still use for lesson notes. I am from a small town, and had never seen an ensemble score; in my first pieces I simply wrote the instrumental parts from beginning to end not lining up the bar lines, so if the 1st clarinet had more notes, it ended later in the score than the 2nd, etc. My parents had a Bell and Howell cassette recorder, and I would take the panel off our big old upright, strum and scrape the strings, place books on the keys of the electro home organ to make clusters, sometimes recording, then improvising over the recorded layers. I tried to purchase score paper to write my first orchestra piece around age 13-14, there was nothing to be found in my hometown of Biggar or the music stores in neighbouring Saskatoon. I ended up drawing staff paper myself and mimeographing it at the school. I didn’t start composition lessons until age 15 with Murray Adaskin after my folks moved to Victoria in 1973.

The album features both his latest and earlier works. When I asked him if any particular pieces represented him the most, he responded:

As I said above, there is something of a preoccupation with piano sonority, resonance, and decay from my earliest piano pieces. I would say all the tracks on the album exhibit some part of my artistic personality, but if I had to choose representative pieces: Notes on ‘Beautiful’, Wounded, Opera Transcriptions: Tristan and Isolde, and Known and Unknown. Curiously, three of these four were written expressly for Rachel on themes she suggested.

Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa, the pianist of this collaboration, is half Japanese and half Danish; she said:

Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa

Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa © SD Holman

My grandparents sailed two different oceans to settle on this continent about a century ago. I grew up in Calgary, under Treaty 7, land of the Niitsitapi, the Oceti Sakowin, and the Métis nations, and I now live on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh territory, more recently known as Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Although her childhood dream wasn’t to be a pianist but a “mugucian” like magician Doug Henning on Sesame Street, she was introduced to the piano at age 4 when her mother noticed her talent. Today, she is recognized among Canada’s foremost contemporary music pianists.

When I asked her if she had always liked “new” music, her response was:

I don’t always like “new” music, and I sometimes play “old” music—I’ve been working on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, for example. But in the end, for me, art-making always comes down to friendship, and it’s really nice, when I have a question about a piece, to be able to ask the composer about it. That’s so much harder when the composer is dead.

The album Known and Unknown includes a piece with the same title. According to Rachel, it has a beautiful story behind this work:

Composer Rodney Sharman and Pianist Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa "Known and UnKnown" album cover

Known and Unknown is a rare example of a patron-initiated commission. My dear friends Ken Gracie and Philip Waddell attended a concert where I performed Rodney’s works in February 2020. Afterward, they asked Rodney to write me a piece about my relationship with my mother, Inger Iwaasa. Mom was living with me at the time, navigating dementia with remarkable grace and humour. She chose a medically assisted death only a few months after Ken and Philip commissioned the work, so it became a memorial piece, a gift for which I will be eternally grateful. Rodney asked me for my Mom’s favorite music and wrote a transcription of the aria “Ich habe genug” from the Bach cantata BWV 82 that became the title work of the album Known and Unknown. Rodney has created something really special, juxtaposing the natural decay of the piano sonority against very specifically timed chord releases, a profound meditation on presence and absence.

Rachel started playing Rodney’s pieces in 2000, and in 2016, she decided to make an album of his works. However, the pandemic and her mother’s death put a pause on the recording process. Eventually, the full album took four recording days between February 2021 and October 2022.

A co-founder of the Queer Arts Festival with visual artist SD Holman (pronoun: art), whose artwork is featured in the album, they accomplished many of the first, including the first lesbian opera in Canada (When the Sun Comes Out by Leslie Uyeda and Rachel Rose); the presentation at very first completely Two-Spirit- and Indigequeer-curated festival at QAF 2017 UnSettled (featuring visual art curated by Adrian Stimson and Cris Derksen’s epic Orchestral Powwow) and the founding SUM gallery (currently Canada’s only queer-mandated gallery).

While they both stepped down to focus on their art practices, Rachel clearly sees what she wants to advocate for. She said:

As a musician, I try to be the change I want to see in the world. So when I’m curating concerts, I program a lot of pieces by queer composers, by women and gender diverse composers, by IBPOC composers—great work that is often unjustly underrepresented in the concert hall and the airwaves. I’m also really interested in interdisciplinary work, combining music with theatrical performance, with visual art, with conceptual art. In addition to Known and Unknown, I have two other projects being launched in 2024: an album of Leslie Uyeda’s music, The Sex Lives of Vegetables; and a film collaboration with composer Hildegard Westerkamp and director Nettie Wild, Klavierklang.

In addition to the above projects Rachel mentioned, the collaboration between Rodney Sharman and her has never stopped. Rodney Sharman is working on two new monodramas for Rachel, one on Romeo and Juliet and another text-based piece on themes of consent and the performer-composer relationship (Rachel’s impetus).

Let’s listen to the album released under Redshift Records while we wait for their new productions. It’s available for purchase on Redshift Records’ Bandcamp site.

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