It’s no small task creating music for an Indigenous origin story rooted in the cosmos.
But that’s what Eliot Britton faced as the composer and sound designer for Trace. Toronto-based Red Sky Performance's multimedia contemporary dance show has won Dora Mavor Moore Awards for outstanding choreography and outstanding sound design and composition.
“There’s a lot going on conceptually with the stars and traditional knowledge—and dance and choreography,” Britton tells the Straight in a phone interview.
According to the University of Toronto professor of composition and music technology, job one was understanding the large-scale concept. Next, he says, was calibrating the emotional intensity of scenes for this Anishinaabe story. Then, he talked to the executive and artistic director, Sandra Laronde, as well as the choreographers and dancers, about their ideas.
“A lot of it is dealing with the logistics of what the dancers need to support the choreography,” Britton explains. “The material doesn’t start with me, necessarily.”
In many instances, he points out, the choreography was already well developed before he wrote the music.
“So I’m there to create something that supports that, and kind of blends in with the story elements,” he adds. “But a lot of it is about movement. It’s not so prescriptive as trying to explain a story—like a film.”
At other times, the music came first. As for inspiration, he was guided by sound worlds described conceptually by Laronde.
“Then I will go out into the world and really dig into related materials,” Britton reveals. “A lot of Trace is built up out of the sounds of my great uncle’s violin because I come from a Métis background on my dad’s side.”
The proud member of the Manitoba Métis Federation also drew on the sounds of Nelson Naittuq Tagoona, a throat singer from Baker Lake who integrates beat-boxing into his performances. Tagoona’s imaginative work has given birth to the term throat-boxing.
In addition, Britton wove in futuristic synthetic elements because Trace was not intended to be a presentation of something that looks or sounds old.
“I want it to sound as fresh as the choreography is fresh, if that makes sense,” he says.
That’s in keeping with Laronde’s vision of elevating and expanding contemporary Indigenous performance in Canada.
One of the challenges for Britton was coming up with music quickly enough to meet the demands of an evolving stage production that integrates the human and natural worlds.
“So much of what I do is slow and meticulous and it has to be built one little piece at a time,” he says, “whereas dancers are vibrant, living creative beings that create things, and it all kind of comes together in the moment.”
To speed up the composing process, Britton relied heavily on technology to create what he describes as a “bio-organic sound”.
“The music-tech set-up is what allows me to keep up with the dancers and deliver something that is inhumanly complicated at the rate they are doing stuff,” Britton says. “If I didn’t have computers, I would be stuck behind a piano barking orders at performers in real time. Then everything would probably be limited to what you could do in 1940.”
Being Métis gave him a distinct advantage because the Anishinaabe creation story was definitely not new to him. When he attended school in Manitoba, this was a big part of what students discussed in school.
In addition, his uncle gave him a book about American Indian myth and legends, which included the creation story.
He notes that as a composer with a background in dance-music production, orchestral music, and instrumental music, there is no cooler project than working on Trace within the context of Canada in the 21st century.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’m part of something that is connecting with people in a way that’s positive,” Britton says. “It isn’t just about always examining the past but is instead kind of really looking toward the future.”