From Landscape to Soundscape: The Northern Arts of Canada

By Grace, Sherrill; Haag, Stefan | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 1998 | Go to article overview
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From Landscape to Soundscape: The Northern Arts of Canada


Grace, Sherrill, Haag, Stefan, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This interdisciplinary study of classical music by contemporary Canadian composers situates their music in the context of northern imagery and nationalist rhetoric by exploring links between music and painting, poetry, and installation art. Specific attention is given to composer R. Murray Schafer's manifesto on Canada's northern identity, Music in the Cold.

To claim that music is representational is to open a andora s box of theoretical challenges. Literature, drama, film, painting, and, perhaps, opera, because of the libretto, are accepted as representational forms, but in the world of music, only popular music appears amenable to social and cultural analysis, and that is because it often has lyrics that describe feelings, tell stories, or address social and political issues. To argue that classical non-programmatic, or absolute music (music free of explicit verbal or visual referent) represents anything beyond itself, let alone that it might be implicated in questions of identity or contribute to the theorizing of nation, remains suspect. Among contemporary musicologists, therefore, Susan McClary is rare in her insistence upon the representational aspects of all music; focusing on matters of gender and race, she demonstrates the way that ideological content can be traced in the signification of a chord, sonority, structure, or theme of a score; deconstructing claims about the universal quality of the "Master Narrative of `Absolute Music'," she emphasizes that all music is a form of social discourse and as such "always dependent on the conferring of social meaning" (55, 21). Certainly the formalist resistance to music's representational nature becomes problematic when it comes to debates about whether classical music is German, say, or French. Is it, for example, the national identity of the man Richard Wagner that leads one to think of his Ring as Germanic, does it have to do with the libretto, or is there something inherent and detectable in the score alone? Can Wotan sing in Italian? Is Debussy's La Met French, and if so, why?

Placed in a Canadian context, such considerations encourage us to wonder about the role that non-programmatic music might play in defining this nation's identity--an identity which is felt to be inseparable from the country's northern latitude, its vast Arctic and sub-Arctic geography, and its history of exploration and fur-trading for at least the last two hundred years (see Coates & Morrison; Hamelin; Morton; Innis). Although much has been written about the way that all of the other arts in Canada--literary forms, painting, sculpture, drama, and more recently film--have attempted to represent and construct Canada-as-North (see Moss; Warwick; Grace, Representing North), with the early notable exception of composer/scholar R. Murray Schafer, little critical attention has been given to the way that music, especially classical music, has contributed to the representation of Canada as a northern nation. That things are beginning to change, however, can be seen from the recent publication of a study by Canadian musicologists Beverley Diamond and Robert Witner entitled Canadian Music Issues of Hegemon? and Identity; challenging those who would silence such cultural coding, and focusing on questions of ethnicity and gender, they argue that "music has a role to play in the new discourse about the meaning of place/space" (16), and they invite other musicologists and cultural critics to explore music as a way of representing and theorizing the Canadian nation.

Accepting that invitation, and beginning with the premise that classical music can and does contribute to what Benedict Anderson calls the "imagined community" of Nation, we propose in the following essay to trace the way that Canadian classical music, including non-programmatic compositions, represents Canada and contributes to the sense of Canada-as-North. In the first part of our discussion, we will examine selected orchestral pieces by contemporary composers who were inspired by Canadian painting, or set specific stories and poems to music, or used the speaking voice to create sound documentary.

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