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During the early 1960s, Brian Cherney studied composition with Samuel Dolin at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and later with John Weinzweig at the University of Toronto, receiving graduate degrees in both composition (M.Mus.'67) and musicology (Ph.D.'74). During the late 1960s, he attended the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, where he attended lectures given by Ligeti, Stockhausen and Kagel, among others, and lived for a year in Munich while doing research for his doctoral dissertation. Although Cherney has concentrated on composition since 1974, he has also written a major study of the music of Canadian composer Harry Somers (University of Toronto Press, 1975).
Cherney's works include concertos for violin, oboe and piano, chamber concertos for viola and cello, music for orchestra, and much music for chamber ensemble and solo instruments. His String Trio, commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, tied for first place among the recommended works at the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris in 1979 and Into the Distant Stillness, commissioned by the Esprit Orchestra, was recommended by the International Rostrum in 1986. In 1985, River of Fire for oboe d'amore and harp was awarded the Jules-Léger Prize for New Chamber Music.
His music has been performed and broadcast throughout Canada and in the United States, South America, Japan and Europe. Over the years he has received numerous commissions from both organizations and individuals, including the Stratford Ontario Festival, the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the York Winds, the Eckhardt-Gramatté Competition, the Esprit Orchestra, the Trio Basso, the New Music America Festival, Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, the Montreal International Music Competition, the Pierrot Ensemble (Robert Cram), the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Amici, the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players, Rivka Golani, Louis-Philippe Pelletier, Lawrence Cherney, John Grew, Joseph Petric, Robert Aitken, Cary Ebli, Vivienne Spiteri, Paul Vaillancourt and Julie-Anne Derome.
Influenced during the 1960s by Bartók and Weinzweig (among others), Cherney was later influenced by such composers as Ligeti, Crumb, Lutoslawski, Messiaen and Carter. In recent years he has developed a personal style based on a coherent harmonic language and careful attention to temporal proportions, in which certain kinds of music often recur either literally or in altered version from one piece to another. This occurs in two recent cycles of interrelated pieces, one with the word "stillness" in the title (e.g. In the Stillness of September 1942), the other influenced by certain aspects of mysticism (e.g. Illuminations). Many pieces contain allusions to other music, although these references are subordinate to and woven into Cherney's own style, which is intended to create a sense of poetry and mystery through lyricism, colour and multilayered textures.
Since 1972, Cherney has been on the staff of the Faculty of Music at McGill University in Montreal, where he teaches composition, twentieth-century analysis, and twentieth-century history and is currently Chair of the composition Area Committee. He and his wife live in Montreal and have two grown children.
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