Review of The Lost Words

by Barbara Ebbeson
Last Sunday, when I was hurtling along west 45th impossibly late for a choir concert with a cute title about magic spells, (I had initially put the wrong address in Google maps) all I was thinking was I could sure use a magic spell of my own to get me there in time.
The concert was “The Lost Words: A Spell Book” and the choir was the acclaimed Vancouver based women’s chorus- Elektra. The two pieces on the program that I was going to hear had been written by my friend Rodney Sharman. I had travelled to Vancouver especially to go to this concert because I’d been around (as I am for most-we’re friends) for the composition of these pieces, had some small input, (and had one of them dedicated to me so jeez I needed to hear that one…. ) Also, poor Rodney had gotten sick and could not attend himself. So I was going there as his representative now too, yet – ay carumba – I was probably going to be LATE! Fingers crossed, driving, wishing …please let me get to the Pacific Spirit United Church. (Which is not on East 49th at all damn you Siri.)
I’d planned to attend the pre concert talk was what I was thinking, so even though I’d missed that, there still might be time for me to make it to this show for 8 o’clock, but it would be dicey. What I knew about the program was it was commissioned pieces setting poems based on words about the natural world that had been dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in favour of words about the digital world – but …oh god…dawning on me -yikes! , the program order would be alphabetical. Rodney’s poems , Adder” and “Bluebell”, would likely be at the beginning. I was in danger of missing his pieces! And -ACK- as I drove up to the church I saw there would also be parking troubles! (The show was sold out.) It was two minutes before 8 as I was doubling back through the alley behind the church- having lowered my sights to now considering risking towing or a ticket to get in temporarily long enough to hear Rod’s pieces… but by then even an “illegal” space failed to materialize. The fear of fines and towing held me back when I’d seen a bunch of them earlier in the alley. There’d been one spot I’d already rejected earlier, across from the venue that now came to my desperate awareness- an impossibly small one – the exact size of my Mini but straddling a speed bump. But as the clock on the dashboard went to 8:03, I slumped in defeat, took my foot off the gas pedal and drifted hopelessly to a halt.
Then, just as I was trying to accept the things I could not change, the first Miracle of the Lost Words happened! (And the reason why I’m sharing my mundane parking and ADHD problems as part of this “travelogue” of what was ultimately one of the best concerts I have ever attended in my life.) I glimpsed movement ahead in the October gloom. There, all along the dark street and in front of me, was a procession of mysterious figures in long black dresses and shimmering scarves gliding towards the church… nuns? priestesses?… No! I was being saved by the arrival of the choir! A couple of these beautiful women paused as my vehicle approached, maybe sensing my plight, and allowed me to turn the corner in front of them past the church, where I then, heroically (I thought), managed to levitate my boxy little car into that spot with the speed bump. With that, I jumped out and did everything necessary to make my way into the venue and up into a balcony seat, as the elegant choir continued to file into the hall below me. Phew! All was well after all. I was there in time for the spells.
And then the Magic truly began.
So, the story (in the program) is that three years ago the artistic director of Elektra, Morna Edmundson,was at a friend’s home and noticed a beautiful book “The Lost Words” and of this came a very big Idea. I remembered this book-a lovely big illustrated anthology of poems that was around in book shops and airports before the pandemic. These poems, by Robert Macfarlane, are all based on words – names of plants, animals and birds – that were dropped from a children’s dictionary in favour of things like “blog” and “voice mail”. The poems were whimsically illustrated by Jackie Morris. And the theme of it was each poem was an incantation that magically brought back the word that had been lost, and with each word the natural world that must never be lost to us, was also being restored. Beautiful book, beautiful idea. I considered it as my heart (which had been pounding since I’d first realized that I was 25 minutes away from the venue at 7:40) began to calm.
So, again, speed reading the program up there in the balcony as Morna introduced the show to those of us who’d arrived after the pre concert talk, it looked like what she did next was to go about securing the rights to use this anthology of poems and these visual images. (That alone would have taken a lot of work and organization I think. I was still banging on at myself about my own lack of organization to even be on time – and thinking “I bet she doesn’t have ADHD”). She then commissioned 10 Canadian composers to set these 20 poems for the Elektra choir and a chamber orchestra. (And grants would have been written – I saw the funding acknowledgments – and we all know how much skill and effort THAT involves). How much she must have believed in this idea to go to these lengths I thought. And what a project – this many commissions all in one show. As far as I could see, there’d been no tonal or other compositional parameters given to these composers other than length of piece and who set which poem, (Rod would have mentioned this.) Though I knew (again, from him) that she’d given them, as much as possible, choice about which poem. There were, therefore, as far as it seemed, no instructions about tonality or how to write other than each composer would write a transition to the next piece (by another composer) that followed it on the program. No applause between pieces. This was going to be interesting.
In the performance each poem would be first read by actor Laara Sadiq, then the piece would be performed by the choir with the illustrations associated with the poem projected on the screen above. The concert began.
Well… I soon found myself sitting up there in that balcony with my heart pounding for different reasons than my own human failings by the time this glorious creation of Morna’s was partially underway. My god what a wonder it was! The actor, the instrumentalists, the Choir, the tech people doing the projections – all were impeccably rehearsed and there was no sign of the kind of jittery imperfection that one usually associates with premieres. Yet there was the excitement still of something very very new unfolding in front of us. In the audience, it felt like how I imagined people must have felt at the premiere of a major symphonic work that was obviously going to be important and performed many many times in the future. (Like back in time – at a Beethoven kind of symphony is what I mean. Yes, likely hyperbole, but that was the initial feeling I got listening to this performance.)
The concert was 85 minutes long and happened without pause for applause nor intermission. Elektra has an amazingly unique sound – rich and textured but with a clarity and melting luminosity in the upper registers which is truly distinctive. Rodney’s piece “Bluebell” utilized this quality in a way that took his (well-known to me, his friend) artistic expression around a corner and into an unexpected realm. Using this choir’s special sound and the “oo” vowel in Bluebell, it felt like he managed to conjure aurally the pure colour blue. The VISIBLE colour. It’s all that stays in your mind after the piece ends – the colour of a bluebell. Speaking of magic, Bluebell, third on the program, made me weep with pleasure. At first I thought that it was only his individual voice that had touched me so deeply in the concert. ( It’s no secret that I adore Rodney’s work, especially the work that incorporates words, as this is his greatest gift imo.) But I soon discovered that he was not the only composer who would touch my heart that night. All the compositions were equally marvellous parts of the whole. All were equally good. To write for this choir must be like writing for a rare and exotic instrument. To hear your piece written for and performed by them must be like hearing your own music come to life for the first time. I began to feel very very sad up there in the balcony for poor Rodney missing this experience.
I also found myself wishing that the show, (though that church is a lovely venue), had been held somewhere more momentous for its first performance – the Orpheum maybe. I felt grateful that this amazing thing was at least being recorded. As I don’t think there were any press people there to review it, and saw nothing preceding it in the press about a project of this calibre about to happen. I found myself wondering in the days that followed – how could this be? 20 world premieres in one gorgeous seamless performance! If this were a symphony or an opera, the world would be paying more attention would it not? Were we writing it off as “just a choir”? (Rolling up to it late just to hear a friend’s piece? I felt a little ashamed frankly.) Yet this was feeling like something too precious to be overlooked.
The concert did not proceed in fully alphabetical order, but started with a sweet piece called “Bramble” by Nicolas Ryan Kelly who also set “Dandelion”. (To be properly alphabetical, the night should have started with “Acorn” but did not- likely because Acorn would have been devilishly difficult to start with.) Rodney’s “Adder” came next (the one he dedicated to me because I helped him to love the poem he said. His first choice to set was “Bluebell” and then, after that, he said he’d take the most unwanted poem-the one the other composers left behind. ) His “Adder” delighted me more than I can say – I “saw” the horizontal S shape that I imagined that the notes would form, I heard the delightful “programmatic” hint of rattlesnake in the percussion. And his inventive slithery use of bows on the marimba!
Ramona Luegen’s first piece – “Conker” was superb too. It was in this piece that the magic first came out into the open. One of the singers took an even larger version of the actual book and sat behind centre stage to read aloud to us parts of this fairytale style poem, which read from the stage as the perfect theatrical prop. The book itself is so large that when it is held in the hands of an adult, the scale is such that it feels like you are yourself a child. The giant sized version really gave this effect from the stage. We the audience were as children – brought into the wonderful memory of hearing a captivating story read aloud to us with all the sounds and visual imagery and emotions that go along with it. I found myself thinking of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. This is the true nature of art – (for me anyway). The return to magic and wonder.
The poems were diverse – some long, some short – as diverse as the language of the composers setting them too, yet nothing seemed out of place or at odds between any of these settings. There was rhythmic contrast, many different tempi and dynamic shifts yet there also seemed to be a constant underlying pulse linking them all. I could feel it emanating from Morna, felt it in my singer’s body. A heartbeat? The footsteps of a journey?
At this point, one thing I would have appreciated more than anything, though, would have been the addition of a projection of the written poems up there along with the visual imagery chronicling the conjuring of these words back into seen form. Then there would have been total immersion into this experience, no further need to look within, (or at the program as the mind struggles to work from the cognitive to the felt). Laara Sadiq performed the poems splendidly and the choir’s diction was so crisp as to make projected text unnecessary to hear the words. But seeing them would have completed the circle of understanding for the listeners. It wasn’t that I wasn’t hearing the words – I just wanted to see them be conjured, to take shape visually as well as aurally.
It was a night of richness and contrast. Katerina Gimon’s pieces,for example, were beautiful yet so different; both used percussion inventively but ”Heron” (“huge hinged heron”) seemed the bigger, broader of her two, while “Ivy” was exquisite in its fitting utilization of the high flying freedom of Elektra’s sound. Carmen Braden’s ”Heather” did a beautiful job of evoking the world below nestled among all its companion plants, and her astronaut soaring “Lark” among exploding suns was as much about the sky above as anything could be. The program ended with Don MacDonald’s “Wren” which was breathtaking but also very different from the tour de force that was his crafty “Raven”. Just like the beginning – (the program could have ended or begun anywhere really) the organic texture of this work just stops at the end of Wren. Yet there was no ending or beginning in so many ways. Marie-Claire Saindon’s “Kingfisher” was terrific midway through, using spoken utterance along with sung to create bird sound texture in the choir part, something that was echoed later on in Eddington’s Magpie and also then in Stephen Smith’s “Starling”. Interesting that this did not happen in an overriding way in the concert though. Likely because such varied percussion instruments were available to the composers. There was naturally occurring balance and order between the lyrical and the percussive throughout – just as there is in nature I suppose. The program order was organic too (not hierarchical other than the alphabet). That, too, was refreshing.
Stephen Smith’s setting of “Newt” was the piece that stayed with me the most after the concert ended though it is hard now to tell you the exact reasons. I just loved how he set it is all and it seemed like (hopefully I’m remembering these audio details right) there was some edgy but elegant salon style transition music that brought us flamboyantly into Monica Peace’s “Otter”. Her piece too had inventive percussion in the accompaniment (which I was later told was something called a “log drum”). Pearce also composed the lovely “Willow” penultimate to the end with its willow sounding instrumental motif – an aural pun which sounded both like the word and like the many shoots of the tree.
Stephen Smith is also the rehearsal pianist for Elektra and he is credited with collaborating with Morna to select the instruments for the orchestra. They both did a fantastic job in this. These instruments were chosen for not only their wide range of colours and expression but also for their portability (so no piano). Part of the vision for this work is that it could be performed outside – possibly in a garden or in a natural space. What a spectacular idea! (I wonder if Elektra will tour with this marvellous concert and whether they will ever come to my community of Gabriola Island? So many perfect natural spaces here for a performance like this one!)
The Orchestra: percussion including marimba (Katie Rife), flute /piccolo (Katherine Watson), french horn (Holly Bryan), clarinet and bass clarinet (AK Coope), violin (Domangoj Ivanovic) and cello (Jonathan Lo). These instruments, more than capable of evoking a full range of colours and textures, combined with the choir – were a perfect medium.
There was a very genuine standing ovation at the end of the night which still felt like small gratitude (to my mind) in response to what we had just experienced. Had this been an opera, the ovation would have been more thunderous. Multiple curtain calls would have been a certainty !!!! Still, we the audience did truly seem to love this new work. Even if we weren’t entirely sure in the moment of exactly what it was we were loving. I guess that was it – it felt to me like we’d just witnessed the evolution of something entirely new. But we weren’t seeing it yet. A new musical form even?
Think about it. This remarkable piece of High Art resulted from the individual work of 10 different composers. What symphony could ever be written by 10 different composers and yet sound like a cohesive whole? Frankly I can’t imagine this ever happening – certainly not without organizational tonal parameters being given up front. A symphony put together like this would likely sound like the dog’s breakfast – how could it not? Given the wide variation of composition styles that typically identify each composer’s “voice” in the 21st century. Even in the time of tonal harmony, when there were “rules” about how to compose, I couldn’t see a communal project being successful. I’m no musicologist but I can’t think of any examples of this ever happening.
A communally written piece that had prescribed parameters to give the thing overall shape or cohesion would likely end up being too homogenous sounding – it would lose the individual genius of its creators. And then it would need other factors to give it meaning or shape. I guess this is the reason why this has not been done successfully before now – before this brave new age of multidisciplinarianism.
(Of course opera was always multidisciplinary via the common inclusion of ballet and the visual feast of theatre, but not in terms of the music itself.)
Because of the multidisciplinary aspect, this “work” was successful in ways that have not been attempted before – at least not that I’ve ever heard of. Yet it is a whole “work” – that’s the part not immediately clear, like an opera or a cycle of songs or a symphony with multiple movements. These choral pieces absolutely belong together – I can’t imagine them not being performed together, now that I’ve heard them all this way (I’m sure they will also all have separate lives, but it won’t be the glorious life they have as part of this whole). This is what is so groundbreaking. A single work has been created using 10 disparate “voices”, 10 separate musical imaginations. Within this context these disparate voices are unified, add depth and colour without detracting from the cohesive whole via their individuality. How?
Maybe it was the choir with their one-of-a-kind sound, or the transitional music between pieces that linked things tonally… or maybe the unifying aspect of the visual imagery as well as the cadence of the “voice” of a single poet. Whatever the glue, something truly innovative was the result.
And I’m going to say it: the creator of this new work, the one whose creative vision it was, who made it – Morna Edmundson – she is the Artist. I hope she will soon be recognized for her important contribution and that I hear this work, her work, again very soon.