Brent Straughan lives in Sooke and is a member of the Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra.

Love of Islands expressed in music

Local violinist/composer Brent Straughan has created an audio tribute to some of the area's spectacular geographic assets

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

canoe

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.

 

Brent Straughan

 

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