Singing Blooms in the Cracks

Her new project might be called Tongue Tied, but Marguerite Witvoet's first major outing as a composer is a sign that she's finding her voice and letting her imagination fly free.

The Ontario-born musician has long been a strong presence in Vancouver's vibrant new-music scene, both as a member of its finest chamber ensemble, Standing Wave, and as a music director and vocal coach for contemporary opera. But in the past few months she's quit the band that she helped start, and enrolled in Peter Hannan's electroacoustic-music classes at Vancouver Community College.

It's a bold step: leaving an acclaimed career as a virtuoso pianist and interpreter for an uncertain future as what the veteran performer wryly calls "an emerging composer". But, as Witvoet explains, everyone has a voice, and it will always find a way to emerge.

"I think of each new direction that I go in as like moving through a building," she says. "You open one door and you walk into one room, and then after you've been in that room a while you see another door, and then you open that door to see what's in that room. I would also say that I've always suspected that I have a creative voice, but it hadn't had the opportunity to flourish. So you might say it's partly out of necessity, because every voice wants to come out. But it's mostly intuition. I tend to follow what my gut says in terms of what's the next step for me. Last year I wanted to pursue some new directions, and so this is what has resulted from taking that time to follow my own path."

Tongue Tied, which makes its debut at the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Friday (October 22), as part of Vancouver New Music's VOX festival, combines all of Witvoet's varied artistic interests: poetry, song, dance, theatre, electronic music, acoustic composition, and storytelling. At the heart of the work, however, is Witvoet's voice, which has only rarely been heard in Vancouver.

"I have done some vocal work, mostly at Standing Wave concerts, and last year I did a CBC recording where I kind of experimented with contemporary vocal repertoire," she notes, adding that Tongue Tied "makes use of throat singing, ululations, nasal singing, yodel-like experiments around the break in the voice, and singing in the cracks of the voice".

"There are certain things that I find I can express vocally that I couldn't necessarily express through the piano," she continues. "The tuning and the layout of the piano are so absolute, but with the voice it's kind of like I'm finding the notes between the keys of the piano--and I think the combination of the two is really great."

Viewers won't get to witness Witvoet's extraordinary keyboard abilities on Friday night, however--at least not firsthand. The pianist reveals that when Vancouver New Music artistic director Giorgio Magnanensi initially approached her about contributing to VOX, she anticipated doing most of her performing from the piano bench. "Then a couple of weeks later he called back and said, 'Oh, by the way, I decided that I'm not going to rent a piano for that space. Is that okay?' So I said, 'Well, I'm glad you're telling me now!'"

Witvoet's piano parts for Friday's show will now be delivered electronically. But what might seem a daunting challenge to any virtuoso has turned out to be a grand creative opportunity.

"As I'm not playing the piano, my body is available to be doing other things," she explains. "So I've been working with [director] James Fagan Tait to create a kind of physical world, and we've been developing a character that has come out of the material."

That character, she explains, was initially inspired by a line from poet and science-fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin. "There's one song called 'Narrowly, Narrowly', and it's based on her phrase 'So this is how an old woman walks: narrowly, narrowly.' I just loved that phrase, and out of it has come a 12-minute piece based on that feeling of walking narrowly.

"I wouldn't say that this character is an exact mirror of myself," Witvoet adds, "but you could say that she's a distillation of a certain aspect. And the idea that I wanted to get across in this show is that there are endless possibilities for every person in terms of how they express themselves and how they live their lives. Sometimes it just comes down to a question of choice. We tend to create our own limitations, so in that regard, this show is about getting out of the box. It's definitely a liberation--and I feel more myself in this kind of integrated effort than in any of my other artistic endeavours so far."