Bringing the past to life through music

Local composer Tobin Stokes keeps busy in his Oak Bay studio

Composer Tobin Stokes works on his chamber opera Rattenbury which will be presented Sept. 29 and 30

Composer Tobin Stokes works on his chamber opera Rattenbury which will be presented Sept. 29 and 30

Two computer screens sit atop a desk in Tobin Stokes’ studio. Below his keyboard full of letters and numbers lies a keyboard with shiny black and white keys. In the corner of the room sits his favourite instrument, a large piano.

The 45-year-old composer seems right at home in his Oak Bay studio. After all, he currently spends about 10 hours a day, seven days a week working there.

Stokes usually starts his day around 7 a.m. He likes to spend his mornings writing opera music at the piano and afternoons at his desk – he’s not just a composer, but a musical director, arranger and sound designer, too.

This summer, Stokes is busy preparing for a number of upcoming performances. He’s been editing one of his pieces, known as the Inner Harbour Overture, to play at Symphony Splash with the Victoria Symphony on Sunday, Aug. 5.

The piece, which first premiered at the Splash four years ago, is making a comeback. The Inner Harbour Overture was not only inspired by, but also includes, many of the sounds, such as the horn of the MV Coho ferry and the bell of the Netherlands Carillon Tower, that can be heard on a quiet morning in the harbour.

The original performance also included the live siren from the Johnson Street bridge, as well as the tooting E&N train.

It takes a lot of coordination to play that one part of the piece, Stokes says.

“You get one crack at it, so it’s a little bit frightening,” he adds with a laugh.

Another project he is working on is an opera based on the life of Francis Rattenbury, the famed architect known for the Legislature building and the Fairmont Empress Hotel.

While the idea for an opera has always been something Stokes played with, the actual staged performance of Rattenbury remains a elusive, he says, adding that he’s been working on the opera for about a year.

“It’s still a bit of a dream because there are so many things that need to fall into place,” he explains.

Stokes’ take on Rattenbury will delve into the architect’s life.

“I’m sort of out to investigate how he got into the situation where he was, an old, unhappy man,” Stokes says.

In the meantime, Stokes continues to develop music for the future opera. He plans to present the music in a concert performance at the Empress this September.

The concert will be an evening celebrating Rattenbury, Stokes says.

“His legacy is everywhere, so he’s definitely worth celebrating.”

Stokes is also working with the non-profit group, Explore, to develop Fallujah, an opera based on a U.S. Marine’s personal experience with post-traumatic stress disorder.

While final edits are being done on Fallujah, Stokes says he expects it will premiere somewhere in the U.S.

Stokes also produces music for films and is currently working on a TV series, Apocalypse… When?, for local Asterisk Productions, and a BBC documentary for CBC-TV and PBS.

Born in North Vancouver, Stokes spent most of his childhood in Powell River. He moved to Victoria as a teen and attended Oak Bay High.

He grew up singing, playing the piano and drums. Early on he began writing choral music and developed an interest in computers.

Stokes has a degree in percussion from the University of Victoria, but says, he was always drawn to composing.

“I just love music and love to create music,” he says.

What Stokes enjoys most about his profession is the variety of people he works with and the constant challenges brought about with each new opportunity.

“Every day in the studio is completely different,” he says.

Combining all of his talents and finding a way to effectively tell a story is a challenge, he says, but one that he enjoys.

“Opera, in general, is pretty amazing because it takes all my skills that I’ve learned from every different musical pursuit and brings them all together.”

His knowledge of the stage, writing for a choir, and knowing orchestral instruments help to tell a story with a melody, he says.

When Stokes isn’t in his studio, he likes to spend his time gardening, canoeing, riding his bike and going for walks around his Oak Bay home.

Although he doesn’t usually have trouble focusing or finding inspiration, those activities can help, he says.

“There are some days where there’s a lot less inspiration going on than others, and I just don’t worry about it,” he says. “That’s when I do the business side of stuff.”

Today must not be one of those days, as the soft sounds of the piano flow from Stokes’ studio into the streets of Oak Bay.

Did you know?

Tobin Stokes has been a composer in residence several times, including a three-year writing stint with the Victoria Symphony from 2005-08. He also has on-going roles with the Powell River-based International Choral Kathaumixw Festival and the Symphony Orchestra Academy of the Pacific.

This fall, Stokes will begin a two-year residency with a choir festival in Sweden.