Composer Karen Sunabacka often finds inspiration from puzzles, stories, and her Métis and mixed European heritage. She has deep roots in the Red River Area (what is now known as Manitoba, Canada) and feels a strong connection to the Métis, Scottish, Swedish and Finnish cultures. This mix of cultural connections sometimes creates conflicts and new perspectives which she finds both interesting and challenging. Her music reflects this cultural mix through the exploration of the sounds and stories of the Canadian prairies.
She often collaborates with her Métis mother, Joyce Clouston, who is a writer, Indigenous Cultural Carrier, and social worker. Together they have completed numerous works that explore family stories and the intersections of Indigenous-Settler relations and philosophies. Pieces they have completed include: Mama’s Painting: Louis Riel’s Dream for piano quartet (2015), I Wasn’t Meant for This for viola d’amore and percussion (2019), English Horn Concerto: In Memory of Beverly Clouston (2019) and …our inner lives were entwined…embroidered with the same pattern for solo piano (2021).
Sunabacka’s compositions have been commissioned and premiered by the Montreal Metropolitan Orchestra, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, the Regina Symphony Orchestra, Park Sounds and many other ensembles and solo artists. Recent commissions include Gloria (2020) for SATB choir, commissioned and premiered by the Winnipeg Singers; a piece for viola and cello titled Ripples (2019), commissioned, recorded and premiered by Ames Asbell and Karla Hamelin, based at Texas State University; and Wandering (2020) for solo bass clarinet, and premiered by Kathryn Ladano during an online NUMUS concert.
Inspired by the natural beauty of Manitoba winters, she wrote #DryColdConversations (2018) which was commissioned for and premiered by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The Montreal Metropolitan Orchestra premiered her work “The Prairies”, the fourth movement of a larger piece called De Natura Sonorum (2017), a commissioned work involving four other composers, to celebrate 150 years of Confederation. De Natura Sonorum was nominated in Québec’s 21st Prix Opus in the category Création de l’année (composition of the year). In 2009 she won the CMC Prairie Region Emerging Composers’ Competition with her work And There Was a Great Calm about a prairie storm, with a subsequent premiere by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.
In great demand as a composer, Sunabacka enjoys the challenge of finding a balance between teaching, composing, performing, and keeping up with her favorite science fiction and fantasy series. She is an Associate Professor of Music at Conrad Grebel University College, an affiliated college of the University of Waterloo.