Last winter, while Ben and I were deciding whether or not to move to Winnipeg, I would test myself by imagining my future artist bio for concert programs and such: “After twenty years in Montreal, Jennifer Thiessen moved home to Manitoba in 2021.”
And now that’s what it says.
June and July were spent travelling between our second-floor apartment in Montreal and our cute new green-and-red Winnipeg house to accomplish our two-phase move: flying with our cats and then driving a U-Haul filled with all our earthly possessions across the Canadian shield. During our two quarantine periods, we channelled our adrenaline-fuelled anxiety into renovating the unfinished basement into Ben’s percussion studio and planting a voluptuous garden (in the actual ground!). Later, we found our local grocery stores and wrestled with the paperwork of changing provinces, wrapped in the warm welcome of our families, kind neighbours, and the old friends we keep running into every time we leave the house. (This is a Winnipeg phenomenon. The first time we left our house after quarantine we ran into five different people we know.)
August brought a flurry of unexpected opportunities to play music on porches and trailer-beds. I whipped up a new DAILY ALICE set in the direction I’ve been wanting to go with that project (all viola + voice, more improv and effects). I also played Haydn with a quartet of Winnipeg Symphony folks, sang opera duets outdoors with an old friend (who’s an opera singer!), and strummed bluegrass tunes with a fellow violist-singer-songwriter. I recorded new music in an online collaboration for improvisers and then wrote an article about it. I remembered that playing music is where I’m at home.
Now, it’s September – the start of the new concert season. We planned for this year to be transitional, work-wise, knowing that a freelance network takes time to build. We both have ongoing projects from before our move that will go forward in Montreal and elsewhere as long as travel stays possible, and we are also getting active locally. Still, the echoing question resounds: “So what are you planning to DO in Winnipeg?” The short answer is, “MUSIC.” The long answer is that there are a lot of unknowns, that this is one of the most challenging times of our careers, that we might start a business one day, that we both have some excellent work booked all over Canada, and that it can all be frustratingly hard to explain on the spot in facts and figures.
The work I’m most proud of has developed during times when the future was unknown. When nobody else was hiring me, I would make something happen, driven by the snarly survival instinct of the stubborn person who has decided they are doing a certain thing for a living no matter what: commissioning and performing new pieces, starting and booking ensembles, auditioning for something that seemed out of reach, getting into improv and writing, saying yes to invitations that pushed me past my perceived limitations.
In retrospect, those moments of risk and reward feel kind of smug. However, in the midst of a true leap into the unknown, there are no laurels to rest on. This summer, I leapt out of a community of people working in music that have truly sustained my training and career over the past twenty years, and landed in the place I grew up and where I started university, but which is unfamiliar from a professional standpoint. Our families are here, and there are opportunities for a more expansive quality of life which weren’t possible for us in Montreal. Professionally however, the whoosh of free-falling is still in my ears.
The way I see it, I have two options: hold my breath and hope to be swept into established circles, or spread the wings of my skills and experience and trust the updraft of the community I’m already a part of to give me flight. With this precious second choice as a lens, I can see a host of artistic experiments, creative challenges, and kindred co-conspirators in my flight path.
Professionally, things are full in some ways and sparse in others. I recently composed my first piece for someone else to play, and am travelling to Montreal twice this fall to play with some of my favourite collaborators. I have a couple of projects booked years in advance, and others that are working toward that goal. I have a commission for a long-form work of creative writing due in a year, and opportunities for music journalism.
There are gaps in my current calendar as well. Rather than grasping for something to fill these spaces, I see time to do the creative work that looks like daydreaming before anything can be written down, and time to do the office work of the treasurer, secretary and communications department of my one-person company. Music and words are my business. I believe they are worthwhile work that create moments of joy, beauty, introspection and confrontation. They imagine and provide contexts for people to experience and process their own stories and emotions. I’m committed to all parts of this work, with snarly survival instincts intact.
I have updated the “Calendar” page of this website for the upcoming season, including live shows, written works and online releases. It is a transitional time I am proud of, which will be nurtured and which will grow.
If you are a listener or reader: thank you! You make all this snarly stubbornness worthwhile.