Review: Singing the Earth

I think I’d be able to write quite a bit about Singing the Earth, last night’s new work by Toronto-based composer Anna Höstman, if I had the chance, however I only have about 600 words or less to talk about it  so that will have to do.

Singing the Earth’s purpose was to “offer fragments and glimpses into this very special place.” That place was the Bella Coola Valley in the Central Coast area of British Columbia, where Höstman spent her childhood. The work, which was written for Continuum music and mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, and conducted by Gregory Oh, was split into eleven parts and combined with video recordings of the natural features of the valley, as well as interspersed interviews with its residents.

Höstman, who has an extensive resume already, displayed her skill in creating music that was delicate, yet had something of a backbone to it. In particular, Höstman’s piano writing was (and is) very impressive. Lonesome Lake, the ninth movement (which was for solo piano), was reason enough to attend. The fifth movement halling, which was an arrangement of an old Norwegian Slått (a folk music piece for fiddle), was also a favourite of mine. A mix of melancholy and something else, the arrangement was smooth and very lovely.

The work wasn’t without its odd or unsatisfactory moments. Höstman mentions in her program notes that a song she had worked on, only made it to the final product of the final movement in the form of a three minute ‘introduction’, wherein only the instrumental accompaniment was heard. I also wasn’t as keen on the film and video installation that was being projected behind the musicians during the work. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of things like this. Not that it wasn’t nice to see images and video of the valley and its contents, but I’ve usually been more distracted from the music by the images in these sorts of works, and in that way, I think it takes away from the music and the work that the composer put in.

The tenth movement, Glossary was also an odd piece. Accompanied by the ensemble, the mezzo sang not a poem or a story, but instead, a list of all the flora and fauna found in Bella Coola. This text came from Thomas Mcilwraith’s appendix to The Bella Coola Indians, an anthropological study from the 1920s. The notes mention that the effect of industry has been devastating to the valley over the years, and no doubt it has, but without having read those notes, I don’t think I would have fully grasped why someone was listing off everything in the valley in song.

Above and beyond what I liked or didn’t like, Höstman clearly displayed her skill as a composer. Technically speaking, I found no problems with the work. The text was set beautifully, especially in the last movement, and the music took on an appropriately atmospheric tone for the material at hand. Marion Newman’s singing was something to be admired, as was the skill of the musicians and conductor. This didn’t seem anything like a simple piece which most people could pull off; The music pulsed and moved along in complex lines, being tossed from instrument to instrument or in other places had a subdued, delicate feel to them. Talented hands were certainly needed for this work.

There is one last performance of the work tonight, same time, same place (the Wynchwood Barns up near St. Clair West), and I’d suggest taking a look. With so much on display, you’re sure to find something you like.

– Paolo Griffin

2 thoughts on “Review: Singing the Earth

  1. Hi Paolo! Just to perhaps quickly disentangle a confusion: the 6th movement you mention entitled “Field Notes” is actually without any text. It’s purely an instrumental work.

    The list of flora and fauna is actually sung later in the 10th piece entitled “Glossary.” This glossary comes from McIlwraith’s appendix to “The Bella Coola Indians,” an anthropological study from the 1920s.

    The significance for me in including the glossary is that McIlwraith originally named all the local plants and animals in English and Latin. This was common to the study of ethno-botany and ethno-zoology during that time.

    However, to try and reflect more current concerns towards language revitalization for First Nations peoples, I started changing the glossary back to Nuxalk. In other words, if I could find the Nuxalk term for an animal or plant in the online language resource “First Voices”— a website which is concerned with language renewal in Canada— then I replaced the English word with a Nuxalk one.

    And to explain the reason why “I wish I could see through these mountains” wasn’t sung in the piece (#11), it’s merely that it is the cultural property of the family who wrote the song and I wanted to respect their wishes.
    I hope that’s helpful!

    • Fantastic Anna! Thanks for the comment. The article has been amended as needed. I wish I had been able to see the show maybe twice more, as I really enjoyed it, and I felt that given the material, one viewing was not enough to fully grasp everything that had been going on in the piece (visuals and all). Hopefully we get to see it again.

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