John Rea | The Canadian Encyclopedia


John Rea

His Com-possession (1980), commissioned by CBC Radio, won the Jules Léger Prize for chamber music in 1981. Vanishing Points, commissioned by the National Youth Orchestra, was premiered by the Esprit Orchestra in 1983, and was later performed by the Toronto Symphony and Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

Rea, John

 Rea, John (Rocco). Composer, teacher, administrator, b Toronto 14 Jan 1944; B MUS (Wayne State) 1967, M MUS (Toronto) 1969, PH D (Princeton) 1978. John Rea studied with John Weinzweig, Gustav Ciamaga, Milton Babbitt, and Peter Westergaard. He won a BMI Award to Student Composers (1968), third prize in the International Competition for Ballet Music (Switzerland 1969) for The Days/Les Jours, and the John Adaskin Memorial Award for Anaphora (1970). The orchestral version of The Days/Les Jours was premiered by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Marius Constant in 1974. Rea's opera The Prisoners Play, a work using serial techniques and composed for an audience of children, was commissioned in 1972 by the University of Toronto Opera Department, which gave the premiere 12 May 1973 at the MacMillan Theatre. The York Winds commissioned Reception and Offering Music and premiered it 22 Mar 1976; and Jeux de Scène was composed for the Vancouver group Days Months and Years to Come (Magnetic Band).

His Com-possession (1980), commissioned by CBC Radio, won the Jules Léger Prize for chamber music in 1981. Vanishing Points, commissioned by the National Youth Orchestra, was premiered by the Esprit Orchestra in 1983, and was later performed by the Toronto Symphony and Montreal Symphony Orchestra. His orchestral work Time and Again was premiered at the arts festival of the 1988 Calgary Olympics. The Canadian Chamber Ensemble premiered his Kubla Khan in May 1989 as part of The Fifth Stream conference and festival at Wilfrid Laurier University; the work was also performed by the Nouvel ensemble moderne in New York in June 1990. Rea's other commissions have included Treppenmusik (1982) for the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ), premiered in October 1982; Le Petit Livre de Ravalet (1983) for the CBC French network, premiered 9 Nov 1983 by Ensemble Claude-Gervaise conducted by Rea; Over Time (1987) for the Orchestre métropolitain, premiered in Montreal in March 1987 and also performed by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Quebec Symphony Orchestra; and Las Meninas (1990-1), premiered 14 Apr 1991 by the US pianist Yvar Mikhashoff. Big Apple Jam (1987-91) was premiered in Montreal 19 Mar 1991 by the Midi-Ensemble of the SMCQ.

Rea's piece Objets Perdus, written in 1992 for the Arditti String Quartet, won him his second Jules-Léger Prize. The Nouvel ensemble moderne (NEM) premiered Débacle on Radio-Canada television in 1993; Accident for chamber orchestra, jointly commissioned by Radio-Canada and Radio France, was premiered in Paris 2 Feb 2004. He has continued to explore his interest in music for the stage with Alma & Oskar (melodrama from beyond the grave), premiered in 1995 at the CBC National Competition for Young Performers; Sacrée Landowska, premiered by the Ensemble de musique contemporaine in Feb 2001; and a critically acclaimed re-orchestration of Berg's opera Wozzeck, for 21 musicians, premiered by the NEM in 1995. Many of Rea's works have been performed at festivals in Canada, the US, and Europe. He received an Opus prize as composer of the year for 2004-5.

Rea's Compositional Style

Rea frequently makes reference in his works to historical European music and non-western (eg, Indonesian) music. His music encompasses a variety of styles and influences, but always shows a concern with structure and a quest for originality of language. A frequent theme in Rea's compositions is the interplay of fantasy and reality. He has described his music as alternating "between a poetics related to the projection of an acoustic geometry and another associated with the projection of narratives or of a certain theatricality" (Musicworks, Fall 2002). His early Piece for Chamber Orchestra is expressionist, while Anaphora began his exploration of serial techniques. In Reception and Offering Music he turned to Tibetan ritual music for inspiration. He has experimented with the use of electric instruments in Some Time Later (1986), premiered by Campbell Trowsdale and the Armin Electric Strings, in which he explores the capabilities of the Raad string instruments and makes use of sampling; his piece Homme/Papillon (2002) uses a Yamaha DC7 PRO Disklavier along with an orchestra.


Rea began teaching composition and theory at McGill University in 1973 and was dean of its Faculty of Music 1986-91. He was composer-in-residence in 1984 in Mannheim, and for the 1991 summer music festival Incontri in Terra di Siena in Italy. He was a founding member of Les Événements du neuf and Traditions musicales du monde. He joined the artistic committee of the SMCQ in 1982, and is a member of the Canadian League of Composers and an associate of the Canadian Music Centre. He is a member of the editorial board of the new music journal Circuit.

Selected Compositions

The Days/Les Jours, ballet. 1969. Ms

The Prisoners Play, opera (Paul Woodruff). 1973. Ms

Com-possession 'Daemonic afterimages in the theatre of transitory states.' 1980. 2 chamber ensemble (tape). Ms. McGill University Records 83019 (Laucke)

Une Fleur du mal. 1992. Sop, clarinet, violoncello and percussion

Canto di Beatrice. 1992. For two sop and two violoncelli, melodrama

Alma & Oskar (melodrama from beyond the grave). 1995. Voice and piano, National Competition for Young Performers of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; version for two voices and orchestra, 1996

Urfaust--tragédie subjective (after Goethe and Pessoa). 1999. Incidental music, Théâtre UBU

Sacrée Landowska. 2001. Music theatre


'Richard Wagner and R. Murray Schafer: two revolutionary and religious poets,' The Canada Music Book, 8, Spring-Summer 1974

'Conversation between Brian Cherney and John Rea,' Array Newsletter, vol 2, Fall 1974

'Franz Liszt's "new path of composition": the Sonata in B Minor as paradigm,' PH D thesis, Princeton U 1978

'A root awakening: some sense and value in transcultural music,' Vice Versa, 25, 1988

'Reflets dans l'eau... bénite,' Circuit, vol 1, no. 2, 1991

"Gradus ad Infernum: entrevue avec Ferdinand Larven Niemantz, «penseur de la musique» et auteur de Musical Compositions of the Century," Circuit, vol 9, no 2, 1998

"Nashville ou Darmstadt: le masque mortuaire de la postmodernité," Circuit, vol 9, no 2, 1998

"Wozzeck: Alban Berg's masterful operatic," La Scena Musicale, 1 May 2000

"In nomine Zappa, Zappatore: Sketch of an Hypothesis (S/Z2) + (sv/gv)," Circuit, vol 14, no 3, 2004


Piece for Chamber Orchestra (1967, rev 1971). Ms

Hommage à Vasarely. 1977. Ms. RCI 658/McGill University Records 81013 (McGill SO, Mayer conductor)

Vanishing Points. 1983. Ms

Litaneia (Aristophanes). 1984. Mixed chorus, orch. Ms

Over Time. 1987. Ms. Centrediscs CMC-CD-3188 (Orch métropolitain)

Time and Again. 1987. Ms

Zefiro torna. 1994

Einer nach dem Andern!. 1994. Chamber orchestra

Homme/Papillon. 2002


Sonatina. 1965. Fl, piano. Ms

Prologue, Scene and Movement (classical Latin palindrome). 1968. Sop, viola, 2 piano. Ms

Sestina. 1968. Chamb ensemble. Ms

Fantaisies and/et Allusions. 1969. Saxophone quartet, snare drum. Ms

Anaphora. 1970. Chamb ensemble. Ms

Reception and Offering Music 'Anaphora IV.' 1975. Ww quintet, percussion. Ms. Mel SMLP-4040 (York Winds)

Jeux de Scène 'fantaisie-hommage à Richard Wagner.' 1976. Hn, oboe, violoncello, piccolo, fl, piano, mar, 3 glockenspiel, blacksmith's anvil. Ms

Les Blues d'Orphée. 1981. Fl, clarinet, viola, violoncello, piano. Ms

Le Dernière Sirène. 1981. Ondes M, piano, percussion. Ms

Médiator '...pincer la musique aujourd'hui..'. 1981. Chamb ensemble. Ms. RCI 570 (Événements du neuf, Rea conductor)

Treppenmusik. 1982. Saxophone quartet, 4 clarinet, violin, viola, violoncello, double-bass, tape. Ms. Centrediscs CMC-2085 (SMCQ)

Glide Reflexions. 1984. 2 clarinet, 2 violoncello. Ms

Les Raisons des Forces Mouvantes. 1984. Fl, alto fl, string quartet. Ms

Spin. 1984. Str quartet, piano. Ms

Some Time Later. 1986. RAAD string quartet. Ms

Big Apple Jam. 1987-91. Saxophone quartet, tape. Ms

Kubla Khan. 1989. Chamb ensemble. Ms. (1991). University of Montreal UNMUS-105 (CD) (Nouvel ensemble moderne)

Objets Perdus. 1992. String quartet


What You Will. 1969. 2 or 4 hands. Jay 1971

Anaphora II. 1971 (rev 1972). Ms

Las Meninas. 1990-1. Ms

Also Le Petit Livre des 'Ravalet' (1983) for early music instr, tape, and 4 narrator, and Offenes Lied (1986) for 2 soprano and clarinet, both manuscript; and 2 works for tape, S.P.I. 51 and STER 1.3 (both 1969), recorded on Marathon MS-2211

Further Reading