Programme notes: Island Arióso
Awhile ago, my wife Frances and I took two grandsons on a whaling canoe
trip with a Kwakiutl guide, near Tofino. We landed on Islands, and
sandbars, tracked otters, made gooey ducks spray etc.. It is a lovely
memory. On the cautionary side, you might not want to try this at home
as grandsons are loooong on”splash” and short on “paddle”! You might
spend the next two days in a hot tub!
I asked our guide if he could sing us a whaling song? He shook
his head sadly and said, alas, that he couldn’t – he would have to ask the
village elders, as each song belonged to its village. He did however,
consent to sing us a harbour song (microtonal with Balkan rhythms).
At one time there were at least 417 different tribal languages nearby, in
a small area. How to communicate peaceful intent while you travelled the
waterways was an issue?
Our guide explained that within recent memory every village on each island
had a whaling song, or at least a paddle song. If you passed by in your
and didn’t sing your paddle song, the entire village came out and
attacked you! Non singing, or singing the wrong song, meant hostile
intent! I live in a small Indian village on a big Island, so I thought
wouldn’t it be a terrific idea to create village paddle songs for string
orchestra representing, say five major Gulf Islands?
This idea coalesced with the Victoria Chamber Orchestra orchestra’s desire
to commission a string serenade and voilà!
1) “Saturna” is named after a Spanish naval schooner “Santa Saturnina”.
The legend of St. Saturnina is that she was the daughter of a German
noble, who pledged a vow of celibacy at 12. At 20 her parents arranged a
marriage for her, which she fled. The Saxon lord to whom she had been
pledged pursued her from Germany to France. He found her hiding with
some shepherds and working as a maid. The lord attempted to take his
promised bride. She resisted, he decapitated her. The lord
mysteriously perished in a fountain. The townspeople then witnessed
Saturnina carry her own head in her hands to the church of St. Remi, where
she was buried.
Saturna, obviously, had to be the “slow” movement: magisterial, solemn and
serene. Imagine approaching the island by stealth in a dark whaling
canoe. Out of the mists, formidable boulders suddenly, threaten your
path. Out of the forest gloom on the banks all manner of dark “Emily
Carr” trees tower through the mists. You don’t trifle with Saturna!
2) “Mayne” features Alto Flute, Odaiko drum and Japanese
percussion. Much of the time it’s in a rhythm of 5/8. A rhythmic
palette of constantly changing 2’s and 3’s takes us out of the normal
corridors of the city in which we run and off to the free country air of
the islands. Difficult rhythms demand lots of rehearsal time, and Mayne,
alas, will have to wait for another occasion to make its appearance.
3) “Galiano” offered a perfect excuse to write a sultry Spanish dance! I
began with the most common Flamenco rhythm. If you picked up a guitar in
a sunny Spanish outdoor café, the basic rhythm would be one of the first
rhythms you would instinctively create. Galiano sometimes seems to me to
dance like a mirage in the sunlight, when you approach it.
4) “Pender” opens with teasing, plucked strings. North Pender is more
urban and South Pender is more rural, so I played with the musical idea of
simple country lower strings and “sophisticated” upper strings. North
Pender features Magic Lake which hosts an annual lantern festival on New
Years Eve. I imagined walking near Magic Lake and hearing frogs, insects
and loons calling out at dusk. Cathy Reader creates loon calls on the
musical saw, while Alison Crone’s answers on alto flute.
5) “Saltspring” – Street Dance at Moby’s!- In the nineteen fifties, Moby’s
(currently an oyster bar) hosted a street dance. Streets were blocked off
and the whole community came to dance away the evening. I imagined a
young street fiddler turning up to play and dance her heart out before an
enthusiastic crowd. This is the piece that asks a chamber orchestra to
step most outside its usual persona: to become a gamine, dancing street
fiddler. The movement requires a great deal of extra rehearsal time and
must wait for another day.
One of the suggestions that was made to be by the commissioners, was to
incorporate the idea of some sort of theme of “conveyance” i.e. a “ferry”
theme. I couldn’t countenance the idea of just sitting on a low D as
ferries pass one another, but I thought “What about the idea of suggesting
routine “ferry announcements”? i.e. by having a theme come along, more or
less out of nowhere that suggests we have to interrupt our newspaper and
get off the boat, or dash out of the house and meet someone at the ferry?
Musically, any kind of interruption to the flow of the music, is still an
interruption, so the risk is it might not make sense until one can hear
the “ferry theme” variations in context, nevertheless, I tried.
I owe Don Kissinger an enormous debt of gratitude for coming up with the
idea of a piece for his beloved Gulf Islands, and a tremendous “hats off”
to Yariv Aloni, the orchestra and all those involved for having the
immense courage to commission new work, and putting their hearts into it.
Sinfonia Toronto, conducted by Nurhan Arman, will next perform the suite
Dec 7, 2012 in Toronto.