Standing Wave's new program takes wing to Canada's north


That northern terrain has a powerful attraction for Canadian musicians seems obvious: think of Veda Hille’s Yukon Suite, R. Murray Schafer’s wilderness oratorios, or Glenn Gould’s timeless radio meditation The Idea of North. But the elemental aspects of winter surpass national boundaries, and circumpolar composers elsewhere have also found inspiration in the crisp quiet of an Arctic night, in stark, glaciated landscapes, and in the ceaseless struggle against weather that can kill.

Four of those international artists—Alaska’s John Luther Adams, Sweden’s Fabian Svensson, Norway’s Rolf Wallin, and Iceland’s Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson—will be featured in the Standing Wave Ensemble’s Northern Visions, a one-night-only affair that takes place next week. (Also on the playbill will be Marcus Goddard’s arrangement of Terry Riley’s thematically appropriate Half Wolf Dances Mad in Moonlight.) But the program’s centrepiece is undeniably a Canadian effort: the world premiere of Yukon composer and filmmaker Daniel Janke’s Weather Coming. Inspired by flocking siskins and crossbills, it’s a piece that could only have been created under subarctic conditions—and yet Janke cautions us not to read too much into the circumstances of its making.

“You do commissions, and you want to come up with some kind of driving image, and that was the one for this piece,” he says of his avian inspiration, on the line from Whitehorse. “And so that’s really what it is: just an image to go off of. But it’s not an image that, you know, I’m the only one who finds interesting. It’s beautiful, the idea of the shapes that flocks of birds make in the sky.”

The millions of YouTube viewers recently enraptured by a clip of swirling Irish starlings would agree. It’s just that kind of telepathic movement that Janke has encapsulated in his piece.

“It really is about ensemble cohesion,” he says. “In fact, the piece is kind of written like the ensemble is one instrument, which is one of the challenges I wanted to set myself.”

Standing Wave violinist Rebecca Whitling concurs. Janke, she says from her Vancouver home, “was moved by the sight of these birds forming patterns in the sky, and by the wish to sort of directly represent that in his music. It’s very lyrical and beautiful.”

But the importance of ensemble cohesion isn’t limited to Weather Coming alone. “That’s a way of describing what we do as a chamber ensemble anyway, especially a chamber ensemble playing crazy new music,” Whitling contends. “We’re asked to create brand-new colours that have just barely been hatched in the composer’s mind, and to shift seamlessly through these many things while still remaining connected to each other by the intense listening we have to do.”

Those familiar with Standing Wave know that the sextet does this brilliantly—as Janke, an admitted fan, points out. “I just wanted to hear them,” he says of his commission. “Of course, the thing about a group of fine musicians like that is that you can put anything in front of them, and they will make it sound good by virtue of their own musical integrity. So you’re challenged to give them something they can be inspired by.”

Will he succeed? Flock to this show and find out.

Update (October 11): Due to a family emergency, this program has been rescheduled. Standing Wave now presents Northern Visions at the Cultch’s Historic Theatre on November 6 at 8 p.m.

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