Tuning My Rocks
The small group of musicians and others involved in the northern tour (a couple of orchestral staff members, and a small documentary film crew) were to head out for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s first tour of Nunavik to Inukjuak, Kangiqsujuaq, and Kuujjuaq in a small twin engine plane.
As the composer of the piece that was especially commissioned for this tour, not only did I feel compelled to find a ‘new’ solution for the integration of the great traditions of Inuit throat singing and Western art music, but I had to do it with a small, set ensemble.
One of the other pieces on the tour was Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat which is scored for seven musicians.
With the MSO’s stipulation that the percussion instruments be limited (because of a lack of space on the small plane) and built around the percussion instruments in the Stravinsky, I feared that this could ‘curb my style’. The percussion list for L’histoire du soldat includes bass drum, field drum, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, cymbal.
Those of you who are acquainted with my love of instrumental colours will know that these are not typically the percussion instruments that provide the shimmering colour (timbre) in my music! I’m used to a plethora of percussion instruments!
Faced with this creative challenge, I was pressed to find inventive solutions. One of the first percussion instruments I heard in my head when I started thinking about the new piece was a marimba. The bad news was that the marimba is a large, bulky (gorgeous) instrument not in keeping with the MSO’s directive.
Of course, the longer I worked on the piece, the more I needed a marimba! What could possibly fit into the underbelly of the small plane?
I sweated over this one for quite awhile, but one afternoon I suddenly got up, ran into the kitchen and unearthed some empty bottles. I started striking them with my kitchen utensils. Different sizes gave you the different pitches from low to high. There was my ‘marimba’ but it was a bottlephone! Not only was it portable, if need be, you could find your instrument along the way! It was great fun playing with different rhythms on my lovely new instrument.
I have always felt that the beginning of any piece is of such great importance. You set the tone of the piece. You capture the ear of the listener. You give a clue about what is to unfold. How to begin a piece that starts you on your musical journey…?
This first movement should be rhythmic in order to parallel the propulsive energy of the throat singing – but how to ‘get into’ the whole piece…I decided to start the composition with the sound of the land.
I have carted with me from my University of California at San Diego days, two hard river rocks. They sit on my piano. The answer to my dilemma about how to begin the whole piece was sitting in plain sight! They are portable (or can be found in any community we would be travelling to) and they are ‘of the land’. Tundra, the first movement begins with the sound of two stones. I found a way to ‘tune’ the rocks by opening and closing my hand as the rock rested in my palm. It must have been a sight to see and hear me improvising on my rocks as I wandered around the house!
The percussion list includes, among other instruments, 4 additional glass bottles for the woodwind and brass players, a slapstick, log drums, a sandblock, and a set of sleigh bells. They are all portable and can fit into the belly of a small plane!
Imagine the sound!
Blog Written By: Alexina Louie, O.C.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of Alexina Louie’s blog on her work, Take the Dog Sled – coming soon!
Don’t miss your opportunity to hear Louie’s work, as performed by Inuit throat singers, Evie Mark and Akinisie Sivuarapik at Esprit’s next concert:
Wednesday November 28, 2018
8:00pm Concert | 7:15pm Pre-Concert Chat | Koerner Hall,
TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning,
273 Bloor St. W.