The members of Vancouver new-music sextet Standing Wave are ready to do whatever it takes to realize a composer’s vision. In the service of art, they have “prepared” their pianos, struck their strings with diverse objects, and mastered microtonal tunings. It’s only recently, though, that they’ve spent some of their rehearsal time barking like dogs—but who wouldn’t, if asked by Anna Pidgorna?
“They were great!” the Ukrainian-born, Canadian-raised sonic explorer reports, reached by phone at New Jersey’s Princeton University, where she’s finishing a doctorate in composition. “We did a workshop in the fall, and I had them doing all these funny noises with their voices—croaking like frogs, howling—and they were totally up for it. Really good sports! Not every classically trained musician would be comfortable doing that.”
Pidgorna wasn’t asking the Standing Wave players to do anything she wouldn’t do herself. In the ongoing process of turning Helen Humphreys’s novel Wild Dogs into an opera—we’ll hear an excerpt at Standing Wave’s upcoming concert, Wild, with soprano Carla Huhtanen—she’s gone well past her previous fascination with bird- and folk-song and into truly wild terrain.
“One of the things I did, researching this project, was watch a lot of YouTube videos of wolf packs,” she explains. “I was listening to dogs as well, and then I sat in the studio and imitated them, creating my own artificial dog packs with my voice. And then together with the ensemble we looked for ways to transfer them to instruments also. So it was this process of absorbing information through my own body, and then trying to get other people to do the same.”
Vancouver arts producer Robert Carey initiated the project after encountering Humphreys’s book. And after reading it herself, Pidgorna knew she’d be the right composer to work with librettist Val Brandt in bringing Wild Dogs to the stage.
“What’s interesting about it is that it all takes place outdoors pretty much,” she says. “And the author really brings in a lot of sounds of nature. Birds, and there’s the feral dog pack in the woods, and there’s frogs… It’s all there, and it’s described on the page, but it really made sense to turn it into a musical piece, because then you could lift those sounds off the page and make them real.
“That’s one of the things that really appealed to me,” she continues. “And the other thing is the character Lily, who’s going to be the star of the scenes that we’re presenting. She was brain-damaged as a child and still kind of retains a childlike view of the world, so it’s through her that we really perceive all these nature sounds. It was just fascinating for me to see it from her point of view.”
Lily’s sense of wonder, Pidgorna adds, resonates with her own approach to creation. “Being an artist,” she says, “you have to retain the ability to play. That’s what Lily’s doing in the forest: she’s playing with these sounds and actions. So my approach has been to try to inhabit her character. I sing through her lines and try to imagine what it would be like for her in the forest. I crawl around on the floor on all fours if I need to. If she’s supposed to be communicating with dogs and growling at them, then I do that.”
Will there be growling on-stage? Pidgorna doesn’t say, but it’s safe to say that opera has rarely been this feral.
Standing Wave presents Wild at the Orpheum Annex on Wednesday (May 24).