We started following the thread of this idea through our work in early music and period instrument performance, in both our individual artistic practices and in our work with the Schoen Duo. Performing composed music of the 1500s to 1800s on replicas of antique instruments of that time is an artistic practice that is very centred in the European art music tradition. As Canadians, we wondered what the music of that same time period would be like on the North American continent. This led to research on music during the time when the first European settlers were arriving in what would eventually be known as Canada.
That research became even more site specific, as we explored the idea of taking an “archeological” approach, and looking at what kind of music would be created at a specific location by subsequent waves of human activity. These investigations started to inform our creative practice, and the first piece to come out of this was “Red River Dances”, a piece for flute, native american flute, baroque flute, baroque violin, spoons, and phrase sampler looper. This piece deconstructed a Metis fiddle tune into its component influences of Indigenous, French, and Scots musical material and built it back up again using the looper.
Red River Dances:
The next step:
We realized that a site specific composition needed to include the sounds of the natural environment before adding any sounds created by human cultural activity. We had an opportunity to work with that idea when we received a grant from the Edmonton Heritage Council and Edmonton Arts Council to create a piece that was site specific to Rossdale, the part of Edmonton where the original fort was located. The funding from the grant gave us the resources to explore the use of video projections and to collaborate with the Mountain Soul Singers, a powwow drum from Makwasis who had family roots in the Rossdale area. The resulting piece, the “River Crossing Soundscape Project” used the traffic sounds from each of the bridges that cross the river into the Rossdale area to set a rhythmic impulse over which we layered music and sound representative of all the cultural activity that took place over the history of the area. This included eagle bone whistle, Cree drumming and singing, Metis fiddling, French, Scots, and Ukranian folk dance and song, and an improvised blues, using both period and modern instruments, and a phrase sampler looper. Each section of the piece began and ended with the sound of the leaves and water in the natural environment of the river valley, and the audience participated freely in those parts of the piece by making sounds with leafy branches and jars of water that we provided.
Traffic sounds from Low Level Bridge – Highland Whiskey (trad. Scots strathspey) – Jingle Dance (trad. Cree) – leaves & water in the North Saskatchewan River valley
Traffic sounds from Macdonald Bridge – The Red Haired Girl (Scots tune) – Round Dance – leaves & water in the North Saskatchewan River valley
You can hear the whole thing here:
Our current project is a concert program based on the seasonal winds. We completed the first two parts of the program, “Boreas the Winter Wind” and “Zephyrus the Spring Wind” and performed them at McDougall United Church and at the University of Alberta, Augustana campus, in January 2020. This program is regional but not site specific, using environmental sounds and images collected in northeastern Alberta and northwestern BC, and incorporating music by composers who live in northern areas (Finland, Iceland, Netherlands, Canada). We collected wind sounds and images, and wove them into a program of composed pieces, arrangements, and improvisations that all referenced the wind or the change of seasons. This project employed more electronics, using electric recorder, electric violin, digital delay and effects along with the looper and the usual collection of period and modern Indigenous and European instruments. We plan to complete the program with summer wind and autumn wind sections in the near future.
As we complete the “Winds” program, we are also collecting materials for two upcoming projects, both of which are again site-specific. We hiked up to the headwaters of the Fiddle River (near Miette Hot Springs in Jasper National Park) and collected sounds from all the little rivulets, which will form an original composition for solo violin and water sounds (yes, for Fiddle River and fiddle 😊). The other project involves collecting images and sounds from the same spot in the Mill Creek Ravine over several months, and creating a piece that reflects how the sounds change with the seasons.