Algonquin Ensemble presents a musical palette 100 years after Tom Thomson’s mysterious death

The Algonquin Ensemble

Tom Thomson is one of those figures in Canadian history who commands our attention even a century after his demise. As an outdoorsman, his ability was legendary but as a painter, his eye captured something true about our place, especially the rocks, trees and lakes of Algonquin Park. His death in mysterious circumstances makes his story even more poignant for writers, other artists and now the eclectic gathering of musicians known as the Algonquin Ensemble. ARTSFILE spoke with well-known singer-songwriters Terry Tufts and Kathryn Briggs about their show Sonic Palette in advance of a memorable performance at Thomson’s very own church in Leith, Ontario on Oct. 21.

Tom Thomson

Q. What is the Sonic Palette project?

Terry: Sonic Palette: Tom Thomson’s Voice Through Music 100 Years Later is a musical tribute, a collection of original musical pieces inspired by Thomson’s art and life.

Q. Who is the Algonquin Ensemble? Members of the band. When formed. Why formed that sort of thing. Is everyone from Ottawa. I recognize some names.

Terry: The Algonquin Ensemble is a sextet, largely from Ottawa, which is made up of Kathryn Briggs (piano), John Geggie (upright bass), Lisa Moody (viola), Laura Nerenberg (violin), Margaret Tobolowska (cello) and Terry Tufts  (various fretted instruments and voice.) The ensemble was formed in 2016 to perform music inspired by the art and story of Tom Thomson.  The string quartet is from Ottawa.  Kathryn and I live out in the bush, north of Sharbot Lake.

Q. This is leading up to a neat concert in a historic place? Tell me about the show on Oct. 21. Where it is and what it means to you all.

Kathryn: We’re playing in Tom Thomson’s childhood church in Leith, Ontario (10 minutes out of Owen Sound). Thomson sang in the choir, apparently doodled in the hymnals and is buried there in the family plot. The farm he was raised on is just down the road. Playing in a space where we actually know Thomson was … where his roots were is incredibly moving for us, a pivotal point after premiering Sonic Palette at the McMichael (Gallery this past summer) where so much of his art resides.

Q. Why Tom Thomson? Is it because of the anniversary of his death?

Kathryn: Certainly the timing was important with the 100 year anniversary but it’s been virtually a life-long relationship for Terry … Thomson’s art.  It started in high school when his art teacher introduced him to Tom and he was just blown away. Lots of Canadian pride was happening in the late 1960s after the centennial and Thomson and the Group of Seven’s art was the foundation for a Canadian identity. 

In the late ’90s, after a life-changing bungee jump in Wakefield, Terry went and sat in front of The Jack Pine at the National Gallery for a couple of hours. He then began the process of writing music for Tom (and the Group of Seven). He also decided that day, since the bungee jump didn’t kill him, he could conceivably go ask for a mortgage and not die (it’s a musician thing). He got the mortgage and about a year later we got married.

Q. How much research into Thomson and his work have you all done? What did you find? Was there a theme that emerged from your investigation that is guiding you through the project. If so what is it?

Kathryn: The principal trio — the writers and arrangers are Terry, John Geggie and myself. We approached John about this in early 2016 and he was very keen. John spent some time poring over sketches and canvases. Terry and I went to numerous galleries (AGO, McMichael, The TOM in Owen Sound, the National Gallery) to see the works up close and personal. There was a lot of reading and writing all through the winter of 2016. Joan Murray‘s research was invaluable, as is David Silcox‘s. There was no guiding theme to speak of, though there is lots of evidence that Thomson didn’t think much of his ability. That he died before he was recognized is one of the saddest things to overcome.

Q. His art is very evocative of the Canadian Shield and of Algonquin Park. The music you are performing is drawing inspiration from selected paintings. How did you arrive at the paintings chosen?

Terry: It was unavoidable to include the icons (The West Wind, The Pointers, for example). We largely settled on themes and seasons. Thomson painted so many versions of the same vistas he worked and finished.

Q. Have you and your colleagues tried to marry visual art and sonic art before? Was it a difficult process?

Terry: This was our first foray into works of this type.

Q. Is everybody stretching here in terms of musical performance and arrangements

Terry: Not at all.  If anything, with John, Lisa, Laura, and Margaret so much a part of the classical world, it was an advantage to have them steeped in the appropriate terms and vocabulary in order to express what to emote for certain passages. We’d perform a collection of musical phrases that might sound stilted in their execution upon first attempts. I’d use my limited way of expressing a desire to approach the execution in a way John would understand and then express to the others. It was a breeze and I learned so much.

Q. Kathryn, I know Terry’s work but I don’t know your background?

Kathryn: I’m classically trained but was lucky enough to study under several teachers from diverse backgrounds. After I met Terry, I ventured away from the page and into improvisation. I have recorded a CD produced by Ian Tamblyn that was a mixture of classical/jazz/folk influenced original instrumentals.

Q. You are preparing a CD. Is that released or being released soon?

Kathryn: Yes, the release of volume one will be before the end of the year.  We’ll be announcing the official release date at our show in Leith.

Q. This is a Canada 150 project, but does it have a life beyond the anniversary year? Do you hope it does?

Terry: We’ve found so much interest in the project from so many different arenas. This is the year for things Thomson due to the anniversary of his demise , for certain, but we feel this project has legs beyond this year, in schools and on tour wherever the paintings might be exhibited.  There is a very loyal appreciation of Tom Thomson all across the country and beyond.

Q. One of your performances was at the McMichael Gallery. That must have been a powerful experience.

Terry: Because the whole weekend was dedicated to Thomson, it was all about him. Some of the Group’s art was evident but by and large, the gallery was taken up with Thomson’s work. Yes, it did give you the sense that he was in the room with you, so much art!  He had so little appreciation in his time. I felt literally obligated to make sure the performance got done in hopes of soothing a tortured soul.

Kathryn: It was monumental.  I was in tears by the end, as were many audience members.

Q. Do you think you might tackle another Canadian artist through music? If you do who would you want to explore?

Kathryn: We’ve discussed the possibility, yes. After establishing such a relationship with Thomson’s work, I’d be interested in exploring other members of the Group of Seven. Lawren Harris‘s work has always moved me … his views on spirituality, his breathtaking portrayal/use of light and the incredible evolution of his art. 

Q. Do you think Thomson was murdered?

Kathryn: We pray we never find out. An integral part of the fabric of his story is the mystery surrounding his life and death. We don’t know much about the man, but lucky us to be left with such a legacy of beauty in his art.

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.