Maurice Blackburn studied music (piano, organ, composition, improvisation, harmony, counterpoint) at Université Laval from 1937 to ’39, and, at the same time, with Claude Champagne and Georges-Émile Tanguay. After getting a grant from the Québec Government, he entered the New England Conservatory in Boston (1939-41) where he studied with Quincy Porter and Francis Findlay and attended lectures given by Stravinsky at Harvard University in 1940.
In 1941, at the request of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) he wrote his first film score, Maple Sugar Time. It was the beginning of a long career as a film music composer, which ended in 1983. He first worked in Ottawa, then in Montréal where the NFB offices and studios were relocated in 1956. From 1942 to 1948, Maurice Blackburn explored the film medium. He scored the music for about thirty documentaries. Following in the steps of the Belgian composer Arthur Hoérée, he improved the technique for writing sound directly on film with Norman McLaren, whose first experiments in this area dated back to 1933.
From 1949 to ’64 Blackburn polished his musical composition for documentaries. He worked on more than forty films addressing issues as diversified as urbanism, hunting and music. However, his most noticeable work during this period was his collaboration with McLaren on Blinkity Blank (1955), a film that won thirteen prizes including the Palme d’or (Golden Palm) at Cannes. In the 1950s, he started working as an instrument maker in order to better achieve the sounds he wished to reproduce in music.
During the 1960s, he started working on feature films, and co-wrote the music on Claude Jutra’s À tout prendre (1963), one of the very first independent movies in Québec. In 1965, he composed the music for the first feature produced by the NFB, Le Festin des morts. In 1967, he wrote the music for a film presented at the Québec’s Pavilion at Expo ’67, and a slide show entitled Six formes musicales audiovisuelles for the Jeunesses musicales Canada’s Pavilion, Man and Music. In 1969, he directed an animated film, Ciné-crime. In the 60s he also built a reputation as an editor, adopting an acoustic music approach to the soundtrack in films such as Je (1960) and Day After Day (1962). In 1971, he implemented the Atelier de conception et de réalisations sonores within the French Animation Studio. From then on and until he retired in 1980, he conceived the soundtrack on more than twenty animated films, eleven documentaries and four feature films. The last film he worked on was Narcissus by Norman McLaren. As conductor, he directed his own works as well as works from other NFB composers. In 1985 the Composers, Authors and Publishers Association of Canada (CAPAC) (now SOCAN, the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) had listed 414 titles of original film scores either signed by Maurice Blackburn alone (approximately 200), or by Blackburn and collaborators. If we add re-recordings of stock music excerpts, we find Blackburn’s music in almost one thousand films.
While he pursued his career with the NFB, his symphonic and lyric works were presented in concert in various cities and countries: Charpente in Montréal (1944-48), Prague and London (1946); Ouverture pour un spectacle de marionnettes in Montréal (1951); Pirouette and Une mesure de silence in a tour by the Jeunesses musicales Canada (1960-61). Twice he received grants that allowed him to study in Paris first with Nadia Boulanger (1946-48), then, in 1954-55, to spend some time with Pierre Schaeffer’s Groupe de recherche de musique concrète (GRMC) at the Radiodiffusion-télévision française (RTF) (now ORTF, the Office de radiodiffusion-télévision française), while composing. In 1954, the UNESCO invited him to participate in a conference of film score composers in Cannes. In 1983, he received the Albert-Tessier prize from the Québec government for his entire work. The daily newspaper La Presse quoted him saying: “The film produces its own music.” In 1989, during the NFB’s celebrations of its 50th anniversary, a posthumous tribute was given to Maurice Blackburn, who still keeps his status as an Associate Composer of the Canadian Music Centre (CMC).
Louise Cloutier, taken from the booklet of the CD Filmusique-Filmopéra (Analekta, AN 7005/06) [xii-96]