For world-renowned Regina composer Laura Pettigrew, music is colour. Pettigrew has synesthesia, a condition in which one of the five senses – in this case, hearing – is perceived as other senses, such as sight. Every instrument is a different colour for her, and a completed orchestral piece is like a beautiful painting. “I, like visual artists, continually work to expand my palette of colours to musically depict the subject matter of my works,” she declares. “I research ethnic instruments, incorporating them into works with modern instruments, creating a wide array of hues by the vibrations of columns of air in wind instruments or over vocal chords, pressure on strings in piano, and pressure with mallets on percussion instruments, in addition to the palette of synthesized sounds and sounds from the environment.”

Pettigrew also lives with Bipolar II disorder and is on the autism spectrum. “I don’t consider it a disability; I consider it a blessing. If you consider it a disability, you’re victimizing yourself, because you don’t really learn about yourself as a human being.”

Bipolar II is characterized by a movement between depressive and hypomanic states. Diagnosed after the devastating death of her father, Pettigrew was originally prescribed medication and repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation to manage her symptoms.“I told [my psychiatrist] I could not undergo more treatment, as I need the sound in my head. Thus, I live with it and try to manage the best I can and, most importantly, avoid stress, which is difficult. Writing works is my solace, as it allows me to express myself completely without interruption in my thoughts.”

Audiences respond strongly to the emotion and meaning Pettigrew imbues in her compositions. She often sees people crying while they listen to her works. “Writing music is part of my soul. It’s how I express everything. A director for one of my commissioned works said to me, ‘I can hear you in the work, and it made me smile.’ If I can touch one person’s soul, it fills my heart with great joy.”

Her path to becoming a composer was a winding one. While she has been musical since she was a child – she played flute and sang from a young age, and her Kindergarten teacher even taught her to conduct, which she did for all class concerts – she went into nursing after high school. However, as an empath, she found the profession emotionally and physically exhausting. She went on to do accounting for her father. Then, at the age of 37, as a single mother juggling a full-time job, two part-time jobs and teaching music, she returned to school to study flute performance. That career was cut short due to a glass that shattered in her hand, causing her to lose feeling in her middle finger. “I was taking a music composition class, and the professor said, ‘Laura, you’re a composer,’” she remarks. “So, I switched to a bachelor of music in performance and composition and did my master’s in composition.”

Pettigrew had her first work published as an undergrad, a huge accomplishment that kicked off a career that has seen her works performed throughout Canada and the United States, as well as in Italy, Belgium, Portugal, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Luxembourg and Cyprus. She is often commissioned to write works for specific soloists, ensembles and orchestras, including for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as part of Canada’s 150th celebrations. Many who request commissions have limited resources, so Pettigrew turns to the Saskatchewan Arts Board for grants. “When individuals are asking you, ‘We’d really like you to do this, but we don’t have any money’, I’ll write a grant. I’ll find the time to write that for you. That they have that great faith in me and support me as an artist, that’s just beautiful to me,” she says. “I love what I do, and I feel so blessed that I can do it. I honestly could not do this without the support.”

 

Photos:

Top: The 2009 Regina Symphony Orchestra world premiere of Laura Pettigrew's composition, Tunnels of Moose Jaw, for which she received a Saskatchewan Arts Board grant

Middle: Laura Pettigrew

Bottom: The 2019 debut of Pettigrew's Dochas with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra

Photos courtesy of the artist