École polytechnique

Hildegard Westerkamp

École polytechnique

  • Hildegard Westerkamp
  • Year of composition: 1990
  • Duration: 19:40
  • Instrumentation: churchbells, mixed chorus, bass clarinet, 2 trumpets, percussion and stereo fixed medium
  • Commission: Montréal musiques actuelles / New Music America
  • ISWC: T0705095937

On December 6, 1989 fourteen women were shot to death by Marc Lépine at the École polytechnique in Montréal (Québec). A few months later I was invited to write a composition for the festival Montréal musiques actuelles / New Music America 1990 in Montréal. The resulting composition École polytechnique is dedicated to the fourteen women.

This dedication is the essence of the piece and is what gives the piece its meaning: as a woman and composer I cannot remain silent about this event and the impact it has had on myself and many others. I want to “talk back” to it. I also want to make room to remember it, to feel what needs to be felt, to breathe, to heal, to hope, to transform energies, and to understand the work that is ahead of us. I invite all listeners to take full advantage of this 20-minute time-span of École polytechnique (a lot longer than it took Marc Lépine to kill 14 women) to listen inward and search for what is sacred, what cannot be compromised, what cannot be allowed to be killed inside us and therefore not in the world. École polytechnique is meant to provide the sonic / musical environment for such a journey inward.

This piece is also about life and death in a more general sense. It is about human life rhythms, their violent destruction — destroyed with the same kind of violence that creates wars, kills people, abuses children and the natural environment; a violence that is born from violence, where experience of human warmth, compassion and love is missing, where nothing is sacred or worth protecting — and it is about the recovery from such violence, a process of healing.

École polytechnique is like a journey: it takes us from life (symbolized by heartbeat and breath on the two-channel audio) to violence, death, and aftermath, to the underworld of suffering and mourning, and finally to healing and a renewed energy for life.

On the unusually balmy Saturday of November 3, 1990 École polytechnique was premiered along with A Call to Prayer by Alvin Curran and Alma mater by Claude-Paul Gauthier in a stunning outdoor performance in Montréal during the festival Montréal musiques actuelles / New Music America 1990. The piece was written for the eight churchbells in the bell tower of the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), for the Chœur de l’UQAM, directed by Miklós Takács. Additional performers were Lori Freedman on bass clarinet, Lisa Rodrigue and Véronique Lucignano on trumpets, Daniel Fortin on percussion, and Johanne Latreille played the bells in the tower.

École polytechnique was commissioned by Montréal musiques actuelles / New Music America 1990. I would like to thank Hal Wake and Jeffrey Dvorkin of CBC Radio, André Rhéaume and Thérèse Champagne of Radio-Canada for supplying the newscast of the killings, as well as Lori Freedman, Sal Ferreras, and Tom Parriot for consultation on the instrumental parts.


  • November 3, 1990, Montréal musiques actuelles / New Music America: Concert, Outdoor – Angle rue Saint-Denis / boulevard de Maisonneuve Est, Montréal (Québec)