Composer Karen Sunabacka often finds inspiration in the everyday beauty, sounds and stories of the places in which she’s lived. In August 2018 she completed a choral piece for choir and audience titled We All Sing for Conrad Grebel University College. In January 2018 the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra commissioned and premiered her piece #DryColdConversations, a piece about the cold winters in Manitoba. In February 2017, the Montreal Metropolitan Orchestra premiered her work “The Prairies” which was part of a bigger piece called De Natura Sonorum, a commissioned work with four other composers to celebrate 150 years of Confederation. De Natura Sonorum was nominated in Québec’s 21e Prix Opus in the category Création de l’année (composition of the year). In September 2016 the Regina Symphony Orchestra commissioned and premiered her work Across the Grasslands. Fascinated by the sounds of wind and how natural sounds can turn into nightmares, Karen collaborated with hyper-flutist Cléo Palacio-Quintin to create a 10-minute piece titled All Night A Dark Wind Blows for flute, voice and electronics. Cléo premiered the work in Montreal and toured western Canada in February 2016.


Along with pieces about the natural beauty and winds of the Prairies, Karen has recently been exploring her Métis and Manitoba heritage. She composed Mama’s Painting: Louis Riel’s Dream about her Métis Grandmother, Lenore Clouston in 2015.  In 2013 the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra commissioned and premiered two works: Never to Return, a piece about Karen’s great-great Grandmother Mathilda who suffered from mental illness and Born by the River, another piece about her Métis grandmother Lenore.


Karen, who has deep roots in Manitoba, is now an Associate Professor of Music at Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo. She has also taught Theory and Composition and took a turn as the Music Department Chair at Providence University College from 2007-2017. In January 2018 she was a Mentor Composer for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s Composers’ Institute. An active member and past board member of the Canadian New Music Network she continues to be on the board of Groundswell, Winnipeg’s New Music Series and NUMUS, Kitchener-Waterloo’s New Music Series. She founded Pressure Waves in Winnipeg, a regular part of Groundswell’s Emerging Composer program.

November 2018 | Photographer: Rebecca Croft

“Soloist Mélanie Harel premieres the English Horn Concerto by Métis-Canadian composer Karen Sunabacka, whose music is notable for its poetry and charm”

—Concert Notes, Orchestre Métropolitain

“Sunabacka creates a brilliant sense of space, placing musical events next to recorded speech, amplifying the concept of conversation. Sunabacka displays an incredibly in-depth knowledge of instrumental technique, finding string effects with a near perfect imitation of crunching snow.”

—Kevin Baldwin on #DryColdConversations

“The resulting composition was a powerful testament to a family of artistic visionaries, and, more importantly, one Metis woman's journey toward uncovering her historically lost identity.”

—Claudia Garcia de la Huerta on Mama's Painting: Louis Riel's Dream

“The piece was inspired by the grasslands of Manitoba and Saskatchewan and that was easily recognizable. With a firm beginning featuring brass and drums, the piece soon gave way to strings which made it easy to imagine soft, gentle breezes blowing through the grasslands. Through multiple build-ups, the piece finished with an emphatic and powerful climax.”

—Jeff Dedekker on Across the Grasslands

In fall 2018, Colette Simonot-Maiello published a scholarly article titled “Decolonizing” Riel, that analyzes Sunabacka’s work Mama’s Painting: Louis Riel’s Dream. The article can be accessed through Project Muse.