11 Pieces about a Place. This work is an artistic response to the people, environment and spirit of the Bella Coola Valley of coastal British Columbia. It draws on historical and contemporary sources in four languages (Nuxalk, Norwegian, English and Japanese) to create 11 short pieces about an isolated and beautiful place—
1. moss 2. smallpox 3. potlatch ban 4. three Bella Coola stories (the folly of deer, mink and cloud, herring and olachen) 5. halling 6. field notes 7. cannery 8. quiet; stille 9. lonesome lake 10. glossary 11. near
Created with Sto:lo installation artist Dylan Robinson, Kwagiulth mezzo soprano Marion Newman, Patrick Nickleson, the kind assistance of people from the Bella Coola Valley, and Toronto’s Continuum Ensemble, Singing the Earth incorporates text, installation, video, audio interviews, photography and erasure poetry.
The two years of research and creation that went into this work was supported by the Canada Council, Ontario Arts Council, K.M. Hunter Foundation, Toronto Arts Council, the Mcleans Foundation, the European Research Council, the Universities of Toronto, Alberta, and The Center for Indigeneity in the Contemporary World at Royal Holloway (University of London), and Smayaykila Films, as well as a partnership development grant from SSHRC, which allowed us to travel to the Valley on three different occasions. During these visits we interviewed many local residents about their culture and history, about loss and regeneration of language, and about changing relationships with the environment. We also spent hours upon hours walking through the Valley, along its rivers and creeks, through its moss and devil’s-club-filled forests, filming, photographing, and listening.
The result is a concert-installation in 11 parts for mezzo soprano and chamber ensemble in four languages associated with the Valley that offers glimpses into this very special place: its history, stories, and ongoing currents of loss and change.
The work integrates music, installation, interviews and found texts (for eg., a glossary of flora and fauna from the Valley, fragments of Norwegian emmigrant ballads and folk songs, Nuxalk stories, and a 17th-century Japanese poem).
Some of the remaining texts were created through erasure, a process which took hundreds of hours to complete. I “wited-out” most of the text of McIlwraith’s 1920s anthropological study The Bella Coola Indians, leaving fewer than 10 words on each of the 672 pages. Erasing this proportion of text was significant as a reflection of language loss over the 20th century: in 1890, there was 100% fluency in BC first nations languages. By the year 2010, this had plummeted to 5.1% fluency. While in Bella Coola, we learned that increasing both the understanding of and everyday use of the Nuxalk language in the community is very close to the heart of many local residents.
Our installation also contained video projections that cast images onto long banners of paper hanging from ceiling to floor like ghosts of trees throughout the space.
For instance, images of the town Church being floated across the Bella Coola river after severe flooding (1930s), archival photos of the nine Nuxalk dancers who went to Germany (1895), footage of huge numbers of logs taken from clear-cut forests, and closely-filmed objects from the museum and Norwegian heritage house.
After seeing one of the two sold-out evenings of this event, reviewer Leslie Barcza (barczablog.com) wrote: This is unlike anything I’ve seen before…the most lucid piece of anthropology I’ve ever encountered in a live presentation…. A work of hope, a direction for the future, and a beautiful pathway to our past… I found myself in the middle of extraordinary moments, hauntingly beautiful and completely new. (Read the full review)
- Review from Coast Mountain News
- Musicworks preview article
- Toronto Star preview article
- Singing the Earth program
- Creative Collaboration Website
credits: trailer created by Ryan Scott, with footage of Bella Coola from Cry Rock by Banchi Hanuse