This article was originally published by FYIMusicNews.

Clarinetist, composer, conductor and educator Phil Nimmons was born in Kamloops, B.C., on June 3, 1923. He later graduated from the University of British Columbia and went on to study at the Julliard School of Music in New York and at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

Nimmons is a founding member of the Canadian League of Composers, established in 1950, and was a co-founder, with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown, of the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto from 1960  to 1966. Along with leading and composing for various bands, he was director emeritus of jazz studies at the University of Toronto’s faculty of music. His compositional work includes contemporary classical works and more than 400 original jazz compositions.

In 2005, I sat down with Phil Nimmons for this conversation.

Reading through your discography with titles like Atlantic Suite, P.E.I. Suite, Jasper and Caribou County Tone Poem, one can’t help recognizing you have a great love for this country. Does the remarkable landscape influence your composing?

In the beginning, as far as writing is concerned, I don’t feel that’s necessarily so. I think the creative process is in all of us in some shape or form. In my case, I think there was this drive to be creative right from my teens. I think the landscaping tendencies started when I began writing dramatic music for the CBC in Vancouver in the late ‘40s. I wrote some things at the time for Dick Diespecker, who was a war correspondent and had written a program called Anthology. I wrote dramatic music for that before I went to New York and studied. That would have been around 1944 or ‘45. Leaping beyond that, I eventually came to Toronto to study at the Conservatory and ended up writing for J. Frank Willis, who was a producer of dramatic shows on the CBC who came from Halifax. At first, we did nothing but sea stories. Even before I got to the east coast, I felt I had been transplanted from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. We did a program called The Days of Sail, which was all about the sailboats and slave trade. So I wrote about Peggy’s Cove, Lunenburg and Sable Island before I got there. Eventually, my sister and her husband became residents at the University of New Brunswick. I would say not overtly, but by osmosis. I’m developing a relationship with the geography of the country. People still ask when I am going to do something about the Pacific Ocean, which I guess is in the back of my mind.

Do you have a favourite workplace that inspires you — a room or locale?

No, not necessarily. When you ask that question, I wonder how the heck I created some of those lovely things when they came from my debris-filled studio in the basement. It was a mess of papers, pens and ink with cigarette burns on the ivory keys of my piano and glass stains from drinks. I do like having a piano handy when I get an idea. I really work it to death, trying to see how many mutations I can get into it. Eventually, I often end up doing the original idea. I used to work at it hard and shout up to my wife, Noreen, “Listen to this.” Then I’d say, “Listen to this other one. Do you hear it?” It would be only a difference of a 16th note or something. Noreen would reply, “Just write it.” I know when I teach, I tell my students to be quite curious about the potential for variations. But I can do that in my head. It doesn’t matter where I am.

How does the writing process begin — with a motif, an unusual harmonic sequence?

All of those things could be sources, but ideally it is to find some kind of motif that is the seed so full of potential that once you start to work with it, it almost writes itself. I’ve had a couple of occasions where that happens. The musical seed will be strictly musical. In addition to that, I look for all kinds of ways of developing ideas, like maybe taking my birth date and make a tone row out of it. You mentioned Caribou Tone Poem, well, that’s based on my birth date and mixed with thoughts. Being born in Kamloops, I have really vivid memories. We left there when I was seven in 1930, but my grandparents remained. We used to go back and forth all of the time. I remember Kamloops being so hot you could almost fry an egg on the sidewalk. It’s located on that plateau between the coastal range and the Rockies where all of those cities like Kelowna and Vernon are. I also remember two mountains, Peter and Paul, which were north of where we lived. There used to be great electrical storms with the lighting bouncing from one peak to the next. I use my birthday as a tone row and make certain changes to it, I might come up with something that’s not precisely based on my birthday, but becomes the initial motivator to do something different. Eventually, you’ll come up with something that has potential for development whether melodically, harmonically or rhythmically. I’m a great believer in form. It’s probably the most important thing everywhere – even our lives have to have some kind of form to communicate effectively.