Mythic Birds of Brigadoon

Last Friday, my bass clarinet and I arrived at Music Camp on the Canal in St. Peter’s, Nova Scotia to learn that the wonderful American composer Lee Hyla had just died.  I did not know Lee all that well, but I admired his music greatly and was always happy to run into him and to encounter his calm, respectful manner.  It’s probably entirely due to Lee that I learned to play bass clarinet, thanks to hearing his “Mythic Birds of Saugerties” put into flight by the inimitable Tim Smith years ago.  Mathew and Eric introduced me to Lee’s music and Tim’s playing back in the early 1990s, when a piece like “Mythic Birds” circulated on precious, lossful, multigenerational cassettes and when its inventor could remain a mystery—no website, no Facebook™ post, no blögue, and maybe one CD released so far.  Lee’s pre-tweet birds opened up a sonic world I could never have foreseen: the bass clarinet splatting and grooving down below, then sailing up into the stratosphere to play a plaintive, mournful tune.  There was a pulse!—contrary to the “music of avoidance” identified around the same time by Scott Wheeler in his Contemporary Music Review article.  I’d never known contemporary  concert music could be so raucous and moving at the same time.

When I first came NoSco and encountered Cape Breton’s traditional music, far from the concert-music scene down South, I joked that I felt like I was visiting Brigadoon, the Scottish village that appears for one day every one hundred years and disappears again.  I thought I might just disappear into an enchanted mist of Celtic music, never to return.  I finally confessed to a Caper friend that I believed he lived on a magical, mythical island.  I thought he would talk me down from the heavens, or out of the mist, but instead he said, yes, this is a magical place.  People who live here seem to recognize and appreciate what they have.

Saturday night the Music Camp faculty all played the All-Star concert at the church.  For the second time, I was stunned to be on a program with so many of Cape Breton’s musical luminaries, while I am a part-time performer and new to Celtic music to boot.  Even more, this is the only venue where I look out into the hall and see that maybe 80% of the audience could easily be up on stage playing their own tunes.  The musical culture here is extraordinarily sophisticated, as well as generous, and it’s astonishing how much shared understanding there is.  One person starts singing “The Island” or “The Mary Ellen Carter,” or “Heading to Halifax,” and the whole crowd joins in.  A fiddler plays a reel and someone puts down a beer and gets up to dance.  A banjoist and a bodran player trade instruments and play one as expertly as the other.  A twelve-year-old girl leads a band that includes men five times her age.  But the bass clarinet, I gather, has seldom driven across the causeway to honk along.  As it turned out, I was making my bass clarinet debut in our All-Star concert, in my duo Fork and Spoon, with Charles playing guitar.  We cooked up some jigs, reels and airs, and I ventured down to the lowlands where the tunes don’t usually go.  Here in the land of the fiddle and the mando, my bass clarinet—dubbed by Charles as “The Big Fella”—made quite a few friends.  (Later Bob called it “The Bazooka,” and added, “I mean that in a complimentary way.”)  Highly aware of my role as little fish in this great pond, it was very gratifying when Roger said, “It was worth coming home just to hear that low note at the end.”  (Or did he say, “to hear it end?”  Probably not—that’s not the way musicians talk to each other over here.)  Later Roger asked me about the bass clarinet, commenting specifically on its wide range.  I told him a bit about the way the instrument breathed its way into concert music, moving from a low-register extension to a solo vehicle, expanding the sonic palette of notated music.  And even when it’s played up high, where the regular clarinet could go—well, why not have that bass clarinet cry its lonely song instead?  Why not make it a little more difficult and dangerous, and thus more poignant?

After meeting Lee’s music all those years ago in the remote island we call “contemporary concert music” (do we?), I got to know the intrepid Jean Kopperud and was fortunate to work with her on a project or two.  And there are too many other wonderful bass clarinetists/wind players to mention: Michael Lowenstern, Ned Rothenberg, and the wonderful duo Sqwonk, made up of Jeff Anderle and Jon Russell.  (I was telling Roger how high these guys can play.  Also a composer, Jon writes fabulous music for bass clarinet, including one for nine Big Fellas.)  Perhaps others were onto its beauty/beast appeal along with or even before before Lee and Tim.  But whoever broke the four-minute mile mark, there’s now a whole crew running around the tracks.  Dianne Heffner and I played in a band years ago; Alan Kay glowed through one of my CDs; I’ve met Michael Norsworthy only briefly; and I know Demetrius Spaneas only from Facebook™.  I am looking forward to working more with Amy Advocat and Matt Sharrock of Transient Canvas—Amy plays clarinets, and Matt plays marimba, another instrument that has worked itself into prominence in recent decades.  It seems fitting that these two outliers meet up in center stage.  I have begun to dream of rumbling low Cs.  Perhaps this meeting of strangers is something like my unfamiliar bass clarinet groaning through the Celtic tunebook.  I wonder if Lee liked strathspeys.

In the Cape Breton church of tunes, no one seemed impatient or uninvolved; I didn’t see any covert (or shameless) glances at glowing screens to find hockey scores (though I confess I was checking them later after the concert ended—the double overtime went almost as late as our jam session).  After Fork and Spoon finished our first set in the All-Star Concert, ending with Chris Crilly’s blistering “Jack McCann”—which requires me to shift the Big Bazooka into overdrive and to huff and puff to blow Jack up—the audience gave an unrestrained round of appreciative applause.  I told them I don’t see that too much at classical concerts.  (After we left the stage and the others played their sets, they continued to cheer, all through the three-hour program.)   But if we were to work on our cheering technique, Lee’s music would be a great place to start.

As I finish writing, by the Bay overlooking Jerseyman’s Island, a heron flies by.  A heron sighting is one of my greatest delights—perhaps made even more special by its infrequency.  Julia says they look like dinosaurs.  They might be mythic birds.  Thank you, Lee for the birds of Saugerties; I would not have brought the Big Fella to Brigadoon if I had not learned your myths all those years ago.  And condolences to those who were close to Lee; I know from your own words that you have suffered a great loss in his departure.

—Posted by Barbara A. White

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