by T. Patrick Carrabré ¦ September 20 2017
I was on the road quite a bit during the dog days of summer. If you’ve ever driven across the Prairies, then you know that radio reception has never been the best, so we rely on compact discs or downloaded music. Our vehicle has a built-in hard drive that copies any disc that’s loaded in to play, so it serves as a nice snapshot of my recent listening. Although now that I’m so bound to my phone and Spotify, I will admit that I kept switching back and forth.
The omnivorous listening range is definitely obvious, going from Arcade Fire and Coldplay to various versions of my upcoming album, Crazy and a couple of discs by Montreal indie band Esmerine. But the two I want to compare here are both out on the Centrediscs label—Jocelyn Morlock’s Halcyon and Carmen Braden’s Ravens.
Jocelyn made a recent contribution to this blog (Mushrooms and Chocolate, Together at Last). I’ve known her since she was a student here at Brandon University in the early 1990s, just starting to explore her creativity. It has been wonderful to watch her mature as a composer and to see that her quirky, even sometimes silly side still comes out on occasion. “Halcyon” encompasses this range, with a fair chunk of the album taken up by two sets of songs. The witty texts of Perruqeries, with text by Bill Richardson, all deal with artificial hair. For example, “Bobby Hull” tells the story of how the hockey star lost his toupée during an on-ice fight. Jocelyn’s music is sarcastically muscular, sneaking in a little quote from the old Hockey Night in Canada theme for good measure.
But for me it’s the three gorgeous works featuring cellist Ariel Barnes that never fail to send me to a good listening place. The title track pairs Ariel with pianist Corey Hamm and returns Jocelyn to a musical theme she loves—birds. In this case it’s the Kingfisher and the Greek legend of Alcyon and her husband Ceyx. It’s a complicated story, but in the end they get turned into the birds. The music is lyrical and ethereal, with the bird calls trading back and forth between the piano and cello, until the cello line turns into a long beautiful melody. “Shade” (for cello and vibraphone) covers similar territory, but with more breathing room for sounds to just sit there and mellow.
The album’s closing piece has the title “Aeromancy,” which is the term for divination of future events by observing atmospheric conditions. This is a concerto for two cellos and string orchestra. Here Ariel is paired with Joseph Elworthy and the Vancouver Academy of Music Orchestra. Twice the cellos, twice the beautiful melodies, as they intertwine around the same musical ideas—sometimes beautiful and bright, at others dark and mysterious.
I’ve also listened to Carmen Braden’s Ravens quite a bit since it came out in January. She’s become a bonafide rising star over the last couple of years, with James Ehnes touring her “Magnetic North” and collaborations with the Gryphon Trio. Carmen is the personification of omnivorous composing! This album includes electroacoustic music, more-or-less straight-up string quartet and violin/piano pieces and indie/alternative songs. There’s even a jazz influenced piece (“Winter Lullaby”) complete with some tasty substitution chords. The classical-new-music pieces and electroacoustic sounds are almost used as connectors, between singer-songwriter-style tunes like this:
Carmen lives in Yellowknife and the album was recorded there, at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre. It covers her musical interests, going well beyond the normal range of genres that most composers could embrace. She uses the banjo for its down home feel (“Small Town Song”), not as an unexpected tone colour. It all comes across as completely natural for Carmen, who also takes on the role of lead singer. Here’s a teaser video that was put together to promote the album.
The result is a celebration of the sub-Arctic, its sounds, its people and its environment. The production leans towards a DIY sound, a bit raw in spots and more “produced” in others. For us omnivorous listeners, it’s a wonderful glimpse into what happens when the traditional barriers between genres just don’t exist. A world where the personal is the most valued.
Musicworks has a feature on Carmen in their current issue (#126). In it there’s a quote from Allan Bell (her former teacher at the University of Calgary), where he says, “the next thing is for her to really discover and uncover what her own voice is.” I’d say that the result may not conform to expectations. Carmen and her musical ideas are less concerned with a homogenous, recognizable sound and more about realizing a continuum of delicious possibilities. I will definitely be listening.
The end of summer is also the time when I indulge in one of my guilty TV pleasures—So You Think You Can Dance. We’ve watched since its beginning and I always find the musical choices of the choreographers to be interesting and a bit unusual. But one name seems to continually pop up (at least twice in this season), that of the post-rock group Son Lux, who are a particular favourite of Travis Wall. The main talent behind Son Lux is the classically trained composer and keyboardist Ryan Lott. I’m continually drawn to the heavily manipulated vocals. It’s a cool aesthetic.
So the dog days are over and Fall has arrived, as has my new album (Crazy). As Tim Brady mentioned in his contribution a couple of weeks back, mixing a new disc doesn’t leave your ears much room for other listening, so I was thankful for the long car trip in August. It gave me an opportunity to open my ears up again. I am happy to be back writing a new piece (called Just Society and scheduled for the Winnipeg New Music Festival in late January) and I am happy to be able to listen to my album with fresh ears. This is one of the videos that grew out of the Street Media documentary on the whole project (“Burnt”).