Music from the New Wilderness has an impressive scope

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A Western Front New Music production. At the Cultch on Tuesday, February 11. Continues until Saturday, February 15

Although Music from the New Wilderness doesn’t reference any show tunes, “bewitched, bothered, and bewildered” is how audiences might feel at this dauntingly complex production’s conclusion. Awkwardly formed but almost perfectly executed, this four-part map of the junction between nature and technology struggles to cohere. It also offers sustained passages of beauty, sorrow, insight, and imagination.

Western Front New Music director DB Boyko chose to frame her Rio Tinto Alcan Music Award–winning project as four smaller artistic ecosystems, each realized in a different manner and with a different cast. Adhering to the mantra “Think globally, act locally,” she then set the project’s geographic focus on two areas where technology and nature have established an uneasy cohabitation: the Broughton Archipelago on B.C.’s central coast, and the Nicola Valley, in its Interior.

After that, the artists were free to work independently—save for Alicia Hansen, who was tasked with putting their abstractions into more accessible form.

Appropriately enough, the final product traversed peaks and valleys both topographic and conceptual. But the night started off on a high point—and at sea level—with when you’re looking for something, all you can find is yourself. A collaboration between electroacoustic composer Adam Basanta and ethnographer Jennifer Schine, this brought Echo Bay museum-keeper and lifelong Broughton resident Billy Proctor into the mix as well, their voices embedded within a near-symphonic surround-sound matrix of electronically treated environmental sound. The piece progressed from Montreal-based Basanta’s uneasiness to Proctor’s obvious contentment, but otherwise eschewed narrative in favour of an impressionistic flow—a strategy that nicely depicts a region shrouded in rain-coast mist, where time itself hangs suspended.

Skipping to Hansen’s piano-based songs made for a brutal transition, though, and her initial “Echo Bay”, inspired by Proctor’s life, seemed mawkish in comparison to the constantly shifting, immersive atmosphere Basanta and Schine had established. By the third of her five pieces, however, our ears had calmed and Hansen had grounded herself in her own deep concern for the environment—a concern that made even more sense when she emerged at show’s end cradling her first child, born just weeks before the project’s completion.

If Hansen’s work proved beguiling, Christian Calon’s 31 Objects from a Landscore brought botheration into play. Built out of recognizable sonic fragments—rain, thunder, more rain, and a locomotive’s whistle—it supposedly examined “the visible surface of a continent”, but its only possible locale was the inside of Calon’s computer. 31 Objects is a formally accomplished, if conventional, electroacoustic composition, but it was out-of-place here—and whoever decided to fill the Cultch with chemical fog in order to achieve some rudimentary lighting effects did the audience an injustice.

Dessert soothed our stinging eyes, however. Jesse Zubot’s 41 Songs of Love and Despair: The Songs of Therese and The Potato Gardens Band marked the debut of the violinist’s new string quartet and a rare public airing of the wax-cylinder recordings that First Nations musician and herbalist Therese Keimatko made in 1918. Zubot’s music ranged from grainy scratch notes to surprisingly lush and consonant chordal passages, but it was always in synch with the Douglas Lake singer’s gutsy voice—and with her great-granddaughter Krista Belle Stewart’s projected images of ghostly faces and Okanagan dirt. Zubot’s avant-folk sensibility worked particularly well with the Potato Gardens Band recordings: the long-dead musicians, playing Native flute and jaw harp, seemed just as present as violinist Joshua Zubot, violist Jean René, and cellist Peggy Lee.

Even with its flaws, Music from the New Wilderness is impressive in its scope. Now if we could only do something about the smog… Hmmm. Could that be part of its message?

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