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  • Musicians' Lives and National IdentityThe Year in Canada
  • Alana Bell (bio)

A notable trend this year in Canadian life writing has been the proliferation of texts by and about Canadian musicians. Canadians have been the subjects, writers, and directors of powerful music biographies, memoirs, and documentary films. This year also saw the culmination of one of the most significant music life writing events in Canadian history—the death from terminal brain cancer of Gord Downie, lead singer of the iconic Canadian rock band the Tragically Hip, and the publication of numerous texts by and about Downie composed in the final year of his life and immediately after. Here I consider several music life narratives of significance: Measha Brueggergosman's Something is Always on Fire, Tom Wilson's Beautiful Scars, and three other recent texts concerning Downie. Taken together they exemplify a range of possibilities for life writing about music, and their deployment of the familiar music life writing themes of work ethic, community, and professional success juxtaposed with personal challenge—all portrayed against a backdrop of regional and cultural history—help to present a timely portrait of Canadian identity as we entered our 151st year as a nation.

Something is Always on Fire, Measha Brueggergosman's unflinching and formally interesting memoir, radically inscribes contemporary women's experiences into classical music biography—a groundbreaking achievement given that few Canadian women classical musicians have been the subjects of biographies or writers of memoirs at all. Brueggergosman, an award-winning opera singer who has achieved a celebrity status rare for classical performers in Canada, acknowledges that she is young to be writing a memoir. However, she is prompted to examine her life because she finds herself at a moment of significant flux: she is turning forty, her "marriage has broken down," and she "is shocked to discover" she's "broke" (135). She is wrestling with "the implications of starting to parent my boys on my own … while also maintaining my career," and "putting out fire after fire" has become overwhelming (135). The "fires" in her life are not unprecedented. Brueggergosman's divorce and financial struggles are simply the fire of the moment. Addressing topics [End Page 20] such as body image—Breuggergosman was once morbidly obese and underwent gastric bypass surgery—illness—she experienced a torn aorta in her early 30s—and loss—shortly after her aorta surgery, she lost her twins in utero—this book not only writes the female body into classical music, but explicitly links the body to the work. Brueggergosman repeatedly reminds the reader that her "body is [her] instrument" and that what happens to her body necessarily affects her career as well (52). Brueggergosman's premise that despite career success something is always on fire is a revisiting of a popular celebrity life writing trope that professional eminence is often accompanied by personal challenge. While the high points of her career have been very high, Brueggergosman writes frankly about how being a child prodigy affected her relationships, convincing her that her needs were "the only ones that matter," an attitude that leads to her ongoing marital infidelity, and, ultimately, divorce (4). She also emphasizes the multi-faceted work that goes into her career, noting that "The phases of [her] creative process" include everything from administrative work to the mundane tasks of parenting, thus integrating her domestic life with her opera career and refusing to romanticize her celebrity (16). The passages in which Brueggergosman addresses the music business and the more technical aspects of her process are fascinating, but the focus here is primarily on her attempts to balance her demanding career with her roles as a wife and mother.

While Brueggergosman's memoir is a highly personal portrait of her as wife, mother, and singer, it is also the story of a racialized woman working in a field not known for its diversity. Though she recognizes "it might make for a juicier memoir for me to tell a coming-of-age story about a scrappy black opera singer pulling herself up by the bootstraps in the face of small-town racism," she refuses to dwell on racial inequity that she feels does not apply (23). She...


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