Karen Sunabacka

Associate Professor of Music, Undergraduate Officer and Advisor for Music
Karen Sunabacka

(519) 885-0220 ext. 24245
Office: CGUC 1108

Music Living-Learning Co-ordinator

BMus, University of Manitoba, 2000
MA, San Francisco State University, 2003
PhD, University of California Davis, 2008

Research Areas:

Women’s voices in electroacoustic music; women, girls and media images; Compositions that explore her Métis and Manitoba heritage (including works about her Métis grandmother Lenore Clouston and her great-great Scottish grandmother Mathilda Clouston); the sounds of the Canadian wilderness (including prairie storms, the wind, and Manitoba winters.)

Courses Taught:

Music 111 - Fundamentals of Music Theory
Music 270 - Music Theory 1
Music 271 - Music Theory 2
Music 370 - Music Theory 3
Music 371 - Music Theory 4
Music 376 - Composition Seminar
Music 390 - Special Topics: Orchestration and Arranging

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Karen Sunabacka is an Associate Professor of Music at Conrad Grebel University College, where she teaches Music Theory and composition. Karen often finds inspiration from puzzles, stories and her Métis and mixed European heritage. She has deep roots in the Red River Settlement (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, an 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) …our inner lives were entwined…embroidered with the same pattern for solo piano (2021) and The Place Where the Creator Rests (2022) for piano trio and spoken voices.  

In demand as a composer, Karen enjoys the challenge of finding a balance between teaching, composing, performing, and keeping up with her favourite science fiction and fantasy series. Karen’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, Andromeda Trio, the Indigo Trio, and many other ensembles and solo artists.

Karen Sunabacka teaches a music class at a piano

Selected Publications:


  • The Place Where the Creator Rests for piano trio and spoken voices. Text by Joyce Clouston. Commissioned and premiered by the Andromeda Trio on May 14th, 2022. Length: 24 minutes.
  • A Reel Waltz for string trio. Commissioned and premiered by the Indigo Trio on April 23, 2022. Length: 5 min.
  • “…our inner livers were entwined…embroidered with the same pattern” for solo piano. Commissioned by Naomi Woo and Virtuosi Concerts and premiered by Naomi Woo in an online Virtuosi Concert on March 20, 2021. Length: 4 min.
  • Wandering” for solo bass clarinet. Premiered by Kathryn Ladano in an online NUMUS concert on April 16, 2021. Length: 5 min.
  • “Gloria” for SATB choir. Commissioned and premiered by the Winnipeg Singers on February 26, 2020. Length: 5 min.
  • English Horn Concerto in Memory of Beverly Clouston for Solo English Horn and Orchestra” (commissioned by Orchestre Métropolitain) Premiere: October 10, 2019. Length: 19 min.
  • “I Wasn’t Meant for This for viola d’amore and percussion” (commissioned by Park Sounds with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts) Premiere: October 6, 2019. Length: 12 min.
  • “Ripples for viola and cello” (commissioned by Karla Hamelin and Ames Asbell with the support of Texas State University) Premiere: October 28, 2019 in Austin, Texas. Length: 8 min.
  • “We all Sing for choir and audience” (commissioned by Conrad Grebel University College) Premiered in September 2018 and performed throughout the 2018-2019 academic school year. Length: Varies depending on chosen parts to be sung, and the number of repetitions, but generally between 3-7 min.
  • “#DryColdConversations” (commissioned by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra) Premiered on January 31, 2018 in Winnipeg, MB during the New Music Festival. Length: 12 min.
  • “IV The Prairies” for De Natura Sonorum a five-movement collaborative piece for orchestra, where each composer wrote a movement depicting their own natural region of Canada. (Commissioned by Orchestre Métropolitain Montréal) Length: 5 min. Premiered on February 22 and 24, 2017 in Montreal.
  • "Across the Grasslands" (commissioned by the Regina Symphony Orchestra) Premiered on September 17, 2016 in Regina, SK. Length: 5 min.
  • "All Night a Dark Wind Blows for hyperflute"(commissioned by GroundSwell, written for Cléo Palacio-Quintin). Premiered by Cléo Palacio-Quintin in Montreal on February 4, 2016 and then toured in Western Canada. Final concert in Winnipeg on February 24, 2016 presented by GroundSwell. Length: 10 min.
  • "Mama’s Painting: Louis Riel’s Dream for Piano Quintet" (2 vlns, vla, vcl, pno) (commissioned by Agassiz Chamber Music Festival with the support of the Manitoba Arts Council). Premiered at the Agassiz Chamber music festival on June 6, 2015. Length: 20 min.
  • "Never to Return for string orchestra" (commissioned by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra with the support of the Manitoba Arts Council). Premiered by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra on 27th November 2013. Length: 10 min.
  • "Born By The River for string orchestra" (commissioned by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra with the support of the Manitoba Arts Council). Premiered by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra on 19th February 2013. Length: 5 min.
  • "Curlicue for solo piano" (commissioned by the 2010 Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts) Performed by all competitors recorded for broadcast on CBC radio 2 during April 30 – May 2, 2010. Length: 10 min.

Selected Activities:

Conference Papers/Presentations

  • “Composing Louis Riel’s Dream: Exploring the history of the Red River Settlement through family stories and music.” Presented for Conrad Grebel University College’s Eby Lecture series (ONLINE). Waterloo, ON. Oct. 21, 2021.
  • “Reclaiming the Voices of Métis Women in Mama’s Painting: Louis Riel’s Dream” Presented at the Nora Conference 2019: Border Regimes, Territorial Discourses and Feminist Politics on the pre-proposed panal “Auto/Biographies of “Indigenization”: Reclaiming Home” with Lori Campbel, Julie Kate Seirlis and Heather George. Reykjavík, Iceland. May 24, 2019.
  • Music, Canada 150 and Indigenous Peoples” workshop given to campers and staff at the Ontario Mennonite Music Camp at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, ON. August 21, 2018.
  • “Composing our Stories: Inspired by Family and the Prairies” presented for McNally Robinson’s Meet the Composer series in Winnipeg, Canada. March 2016.
  • “Composing my Music” presented to the Composers’ Workshop at the Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge, England. November 2014.
  • “Pre-concert talk with Conductor James Sommerville and composer Karen Sunabacka about Never to Return” presented for McNally Robinson’s Meet the Composer series in Winnipeg, Canada. A Special pre-concert presentation for the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. November 2013.
  • “’This is My Story’: Listening to the Female voice in the Electroacoustic Music of Wende Bartley and Diana McIntosh” Presented for Listening in/to Canada. The third annual Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Music in Canada working group (a sub group of the Canadian University Music Society), in Sackville, New Brunswick. May 2011.
  • “Her Voice, Her Sound, Her Scream, Her Story: Women Composers, Performers and Characters in the Late Twentieth Century”presented for Lift Up Her Voice: Women’s Identity in Theological, Historical, and Artistic Perspectives. The Annual Faculty Forum at Providence University College in Otterburne, Manitoba. November 2010
  • “’That Other Voice, Wordless and Terrible’: The Life Giving Screams of Rachel Cameron, Alice Bag, Yoko Ono and Buffy the Vampire Slayer” presented for The Second Annual Symposium of The Canadian Institute for the Study of Pop Culture and Religion in Winnipeg, Manitoba, November 2010.
  • “Screaming Away Death and Violence: Alice Bag, Yoko Ono and Buffy the Vampire Slayer” presented for Space of Violence, Sites of Resistance: Music, Media and Performance a conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music in Regina, Saskatchewan. June 2010
  • “Women Composers, the Female Voice and Electroacoustic Music” presented for Feminist Theory and Music 10 conference in Greensboro, North Carolina. June 2009.


  • May 2022: The Place Where the Creator Rests by Karen Sunabacka, Text by Joyce Clouston. Performed TWICE in Waterloo (May 14 at the University of Waterloo, May 20 at the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society). Performed by the Andromeda Trio with Karen Sunabacka.
  • April 2019: We all Sing by Karen Sunabacka. Conducted final performance of commissioned piece for “Grebel Sings!” at Conrad Grebel University College Convocation 2019. Waterloo, ON.
  • May 2018: Mama’s Painting: Louis Riel’s Dream by Karen Sunabacka. Performed by the Winnipeg Chamber Music Society (Gwen Hoebig, violin; Karl Stobbe, violin; Dan Scultz, viola; Yuri Hooker, cello; David Moroz, piano) and Karen Sunabacka, narrator at a GroundSwell series concert in Winnipeg, MB.
  • February 2018: Mama’s Painting: Louis Riel’s Dream by Karen Sunabacka. Performed by Marcus Scholtes, violin; Sharon Lee, violin; Rebecca Diderrich, viola; Miriam Stewart-Kroeker, cello; Heidi Wall, piano; Karen Sunabacka, narrator at a Conrad Grebel Music Department Noon Hour Concert in Waterloo, ON.
  • February 2018: A Mother’s Prayer for solo cello by Karen Sunabacka. Performed by Karen Sunabacka at a Conrad Grebel Music Department Noon Hour Concert in Waterloo, ON.
  • July 2018: 100 Very Good Reasons Why---(for 100 electric guitars) by Tim Brady. Conductor for Part 3 at The Stratford Summer Music Festival in Stratford, ON.


  • January-February 2018: Mentor Composer for the Winnipeg New Music Festival Composers’ Institute. Gave composition lessons and masterclasses, was a panelist for numerous workshops and pre-concert talks and assisted student composers during rehearsals and performances.   
  • The Canadian Music Centre (CMC), Associate Composer (since summer 2010)
  • The Canadian League of Composers, Member
  • NUMUS, Board Member since 2018
  • Groundswell (Winnipeg’s New Music Series), Board Member since 2006
  • Canadian New Music Network, Member, Board Member 2010-2012
  • The International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM), Member
  • April-May 2014: Faculty director and coordinator of tour to Fortaleza, Brazil. Taught Composition and Cello masterclasses and performed with local musicians. Performance of "Curlicue (for solo piano)" during a final collaborative production of Providence University College and the Universidade Estadual do Ceará
  • Founder and first Director of Pressure Waves a new composers’ workshop in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Fellowships and Awards

  • February 2018: Finalist for the 21e Prix Opus (2016-2017) in the category Création de l’année (Composition of the year) for the piece De Natura Sonorum by Hartery/David/Ware/Sunabacka/E. Champagne, commissioned by Orchestre Metropolitain (Montreal).
  • February 2009: And There Was a Great Calm, (the winning work of the CMC Emerging Composers Composition) performed at Winnipeg’s New Music Festival on February 2. 
  • June 2006: University of California Graduate Student Teaching Award.
  • June 2006: Graduate Student Association Travel Award.
  • 2003-2007: Valente Fellowship, University of California, Davis.
  • 2001-2003: Nagel & Pone Scholarships in Music, San Francisco State University.
  • September 2000: On the Shores chosen work to be performed by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestrain Vancouver, BC in a Reading session.
  • 2000-2001: University of Victoria Teaching Fellowship and Cathcart Bursary.
  • October 1999: Awarded a trip to attend Contrasts, an International New Music Festival in L’viv, Ukraine.
  • April 1999: School of Music Representative in Students’ Teacher Recognition Reception.
  • 1998 & 1996: Richardson Scholarship in Music.
  • 1997: Leonard Isaacs Scholarship.