In these days of limited performances, for this month’s column I decided to take up a suggestion made by my ever-inventive editor at The WholeNote, and write a story related to some aspect of my own creative work during this time.
On New Year’s Day of 2020, I had awoken with the inspiration to start a video-audio blog, something that is very new for me. Titled Earth Soundings, my original vision was that for each blog entry I would select a particular natural environment in which to take photos and videos, andf then create the soundtrack in response to the images and my experiences in each specific environment. My overall intention in creating these short nature-based videos was to invite people to take a brief pause in their day to remember and attune to their connection with the Earth, the elements and all beings. A short time of reflection or meditation. At the heart of the project: my desire to contribute in one way toward the restoration of our relationship with nature, for I believe that one of the root causes behind our climate crisis is due to our cultural disconnect from nature.
The guideline I set for myself for these blog posts was to take the photo and video footage on specific days of celebration, connected to either cultural holidays or days on the Earth calendar related to the passing of seasons or phases of the moon. For the music I would select various members of the wider community to collaborate with me. Initially, I released these videos on my Facebook page Earth Soundings (facebook.com/wendalynvoice), again on days significant in the calendar. The videos are also available on my website soundingherwisdom.ca/earth-soundings.
A key point to the story I’m telling here is to reflect a micro-view of what has happened in the larger story of the creative performing arts since isolation, lockdown and distancing have become a fact of life. How do we adapt when we don’t have the same freedom of movement and when live collaborations are not as easy as before? For the first two videos, I proceeded as envisioned, but by the time I was ready to create the next two, COVID-19 had arrived. I was now going to have to find a different approach to creating the soundtracks.
I had begun taking footage for my first video right away on January 1, often considered a turning-point day in people’s lives, with resolutions for change and new behaviour. I chose Grenadier Pond in High Park at sunset as my location and began work creating a sequence with the videos and photos, returning a few days later for some extra shots I wanted to include. Shortly after completing a draft sequence, I visited writer and singer Michelle Tocher who was eager to do some vocal improvisations with me using her new shruti box. We had such a great time together that I was inspired at that moment to invite her to collaborate with me for the soundtrack. The sounds we had made together ideally captured the feeling of the images. We planned a recording session together and recorded one of her original songs along with some free improvisations, which I edited to the image sequence. I posted the video on February 4 to celebrate the season of Imbolc, the cross-quarter day in the Celtic calendar to mark the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
Inspired by my experience with Michelle, I invited another friend with whom I’ve collaborated vocally for many years, Deborah Brodey, to be my collaborating partner for the second video. I returned to High Park to take the footage on the day of the full moon known as the Snow Moon, February 8, and this time headed to one of the forest areas where I focused on trees and fallen logs in the snow – their shapes and shadows in the bright sunlight, as well as some close-ups of tree bark. For the recording session with Deborah, I created five different drones that we improvised to, while watching some of the raw video footage. I then edited these vocal improvisations to create a musical sequence to which I edited the images. It was posted on March 8 to celebrate International Women’s Day.
By that time I’d got to Woodstock!
On that day, I happened to be in Woodstock, Ontario, the town I grew up in, living part-time in my family home. I decided to stay put rather than return to the city. When it came to the Earth Soundings blog, my major question was how to approach the soundtrack. Collaborating as I had been doing was no longer possible, especially since singing with others was portrayed as one of the riskier activities. I turned instead, to resources I had on hand: the old out-of-tune piano in my family home, the same piano I learned on as a child and teenager. I improvised a series of chords on this new partner, rekindling a connection with my younger self. I then processed those recordings through a drone-making tool in my computer, disguising to some degree the funky tuning. For the video footage, I went to another childhood friend, the local Thames River, at the time of the spring equinox. The image sequence takes the viewer from winter into spring, beginning with images of frozen and thawing ice, then turning to flowing river water reflections interspersed with a few budding signs of spring. It was posted on April 8 at the full moon in Libra.
For the soundtrack to the fourth video, I turned to my own relationship with nature. I undertook two separate video shoots just as spring was beginning to really kick in. The first, on April 24, was a couple of days after Earth Day along a country road that featured a bog and small streams. The second set of images was taken on Beltane, the Gaelic May Day festival, May 4, again at the Thames River. The video progresses from the small bog and culminates in unusual footage that I captured at the Thames with the sunlight’s reflection flashing intensely on the river, almost like a strobe light. While gazing at the flashing sunlight I found myself in deep communion with the natural world around me. Using my voice, I translated this natural phenomenon into sound, and the resulting improvisation became the foundation of the soundtrack with additional material I improvised on the Heintzman piano. The special part of the music for me were the recordings of frogs and birds I made along the shores of the river. When I mixed all the elements together, the soundtrack became for me a full integration between the natural world, the musical instrumental world, and my internal self-expression through voice. The video was posted on June 5 for the Strawberry Full Moon.
The fifth video is still in process. The video footage was taken at the time of the summer solstice at the mouth of the Humber River in Toronto at sunrise. I focused on the water itself – the various currents created by the meeting of the river and Lake Ontario, the sunrise on the water, along with floating wildlife. For the music, I invited a colleague from my sound-healing trainings, Muriel Reymond from Chicago, to collaborate with me. I created a drone sequence that went through various chord changes and sent her the file through email. She recorded three takes in a recording studio and sent back the tracks. I’m currently in the process of editing this material and am planning for release on Labour Day, September 7.
In moving from a normal creative approach with collaborators, I experienced unintended expansions to the original idea. This is of course something that occurs naturally, but when it is imposed from the outside, it requires a shift in mindset that can either be embraced or resisted. As each performer, presenter and creator struggles with how to move forward, finding the gold in the need to find new ways of creative expression can often bring about unanticipated discoveries.
Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. firstname.lastname@example.org