A Life's Story
April 22, 2023
‘Force of nature’ leaves new-music legacy
Avant-garde artist Diana McIntosh co-founded GroundSwell
By: Chris Kitching
Diana McIntosh defied convention and carved a path for fellow writers and musicians during her celebrated career as a contemporary composer, performer and actor.
The avant-garde artist, who died Dec. 16, 2022, introduced performers and audiences to new creative possibilities, while attracting listeners to Manitoba’s music scene.
According to those who knew her, she was serious and profound in her professional life, yet daring and innovative through, in part, her use of theatrics and humour.
“Diana was a force of nature,” says composer David Scott, executive director and artistic co-ordinator of GroundSwell, the new-music organization which McIntosh co-founded in 1991.
“Her success was not only that she could write the music, but that she had the talents to do the whole package,” adds friend Bill Stewart. “She had this tremendous output as a result of her focus and energy.
“I think, sometimes, she was kind of underestimated.”
While the focus was new music, McIntosh’s work also appealed to classical enthusiasts.
Scott recalls a GroundSwell concert in an equestrian barn, where she rode in on a horse and incorporated a dressage-like show into the performance.
Years earlier, he watched in wonder as the driven and dedicated McIntosh, a pianist and vocal artist as well, portrayed her self-described alter ego: fictional “country bumpkin” Maude Pilly from make-believe Dandelion, Man.
“It was so out there and wacky. I couldn’t believe it as a young composer myself,” says Scott.
For someone who wasn’t interested in legacies, McIntosh left her mark on the world of music, especially at home in Canada.
The since-rebranded television channel Bravo once declared her a national treasure, while she delighted audiences in Canada, United States, Europe and Kenya.
An avid hiker and climber, McIntosh was born in Calgary in the shadow of the mountain range that inspired some of her compositions.
Her age was something of a mystery. Some online sources listed conflicting years of birth (1932 or 1937).
According to Stewart and friend Glen Simpkins, who worked together to write an obituary published in February in the Free Press, she lived in the now and didn’t think age was relevant.
McIntosh, who did not have children, was predeceased by her husband and occasional “roadie” Grant, who died in 2010. The couple married in 1957.
A chartered accountant, Grant took care of the administrative responsibilities of his wife’s career, allowing her to focus on her music. He also served as a collaborator and sounding board, friends say.
“He was the backbone that gave her the freedom and creative opportunity,” says Simpkins, the couple’s longtime neighbour on Kingston Crescent, where McIntosh lived for more than 60 years.
McIntosh became a fixture of Canada’s new-music scene, after graduating from the University of Manitoba in 1972.
She later served as the U of M’s composer in residence, while going on to teach creative workshops in other universities and conservatories.
In the 1970s, McIntosh co-founded Music Inter Alia, the first contemporary music series in Western Canada, with composer Ann Southam.
McIntosh described the series as “contemporary music for people who don’t like contemporary music.”
“There was nothing around like it at that time,” says Scott, crediting McIntosh with helping to break down barriers for female composers.
“She was operating in a world dominated by men, to an extent,” says Scott. “It was a bit of an uphill struggle to make a name for herself locally and nationally.”
In the 1980s, Scott became McIntosh’s sound man while she performed small gigs in rural Manitoba. Some were held in people’s living rooms.
“It was quite innovative for the time,” says Scott, who learned from her willingness to collaborate and make herself available to students, fans and colleagues. “Diana was always open to seeing things from a different perspective.
“Personally, she was very warm. She was interested in other people. You don’t always get that with composers or artists because they’re so driven by their own projects.”
McIntosh spent 14 years as Music Inter Alia’s artistic director until a merger led to the creation of GroundSwell in the early 1990s.
She served as GroundSwell’s co-artistic director and, at times, board president.
Nationally, she was familiar to listeners of CBC Radio or viewers of CBC TV, which aired a documentary called Serious Fun With McIntosh in 1990.
Her creativity was in demand beyond Canada’s borders, however, with some of her 70-plus works commissioned by international orchestras, ensembles or performers.
One of her best-known works Through the Valley: Milgaard was commissioned by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra for the Winnipeg New Music Festival.
The performance in January 2001 received a standing ovation.
“That one really caught the ear of a broader public,” says Stewart. “For a work of new music, that was something out of the ordinary. It brought her a great sense of accomplishment.”
McIntosh was friends with Joyce Milgaard, whose son David was wrongfully convicted of murder and imprisoned for more than 23 years.
Featuring a pianist and narrator, McIntosh structured the text partly from her talks with Joyce, according to the composer’s website.
Composer Michael Colgrass, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, would later hail Through the Valley: Milgaard as a “triumph of the human spirit,” and the best piece for narrator and orchestra in decades.
McIntosh was also recognized for incorporating multimedia and new sounds into her work.
“I want to bring people into the world of contemporary music and to see how exciting and special it is to see music happen for the first time,” she told the Free Press in December 1989. “I’m really more involved with the present than the future.”
A year later, her one-woman show, Solitary Climb, featured a keyboard sampler with mountain gear sounds and a slideshow of photos of her climbing mountains.
“She was good at reaching out in ways to get people interested,” says Stewart. “She opened doors in a lot of ways for what I’ll call the new-music composers.”
The McIntoshes were avid climbers. Their shared love for mountains was one of the things that made them a perfect match, says Stewart.
Her work was influenced by their travels to destinations such as Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and the Rocky Mountains.
Simpkins describes McIntosh as a “social bug,” who enjoyed walks in St. Vital Park, sipping on iced cappuccinos and watching figure skating.
She was devout in her Christian Science faith, serving in many offices of the First Church of Christ Scientist in Winnipeg.
Her faith and concept of God were the basis for the values and principles that guided her life, her Free Press obituary states.
After deciding to retire, McIntosh’s last season with GroundSwell was 2019-20. A concert to celebrate her work was unable to go ahead due to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic.
GroundSwell is working on new plans to pay tribute to her, says Scott.
McIntosh may not have been one for legacies, but GroundSwell is still going some 30 years later.
Composers and musicians who learned from her are still entertaining audiences around the world. Her scores were left to the U of M’s archives, and her two beloved grand pianos will find new homes.
“She has a legacy, whether she wanted it or not,” says Stewart.
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