Chamberfest: A musical Mosaïque Made in Canada

Ensemble Made in Canada. From left Elissa Lee (violin), Angela Park (piano), Sharon Wei (viola), Rachel Mercer (cello). Photo: Bo Huang

How do you define musical ambition? Well, if you are the piano quartet Made In Canada it is with the musical project Mosaïque.

And for the past two years, it has been their intense focus.

“Our group began in 2006, so we had passed our 10th anniversary and we wanted to embark on something bigger,” said cellist Rachel Mercer in an interview. “After working as a self-managed group for so many years over time, we have learned how to do many things and we are learning how to do more all the time.

“We had acquired some tools to do something bigger.” So they did something bigger.

They were inspired to put together something unique, something Canadian.

“As four women who have travelled all over and lived in other places we feel this identity as Canadians.”

But how to celebrate country and celebrate the group’s 10th anniversary? They toyed with the idea of travelling by train across Canada and performing. But VIA Rail doesn’t go everywhere.

Then they thought of commissioning a piece that would be meaningful for the entire nation and that led to Mosaïque, which is 14 short pieces (up to four minutes long) commissioned from 14 Canadian composers each writing about a province or territory.

“We ended up with 14  pieces because Barbara Croall had an idea to do something on the St. Lawrence so we added that to the project,” Mercer said.

New music is important to all four women in Made in Canada.

“For us, there is still a lot of piano quartet repertoire we have not played but it is not as big as string quartet repertoire. We were already playing existing Canadian music and we have already had a few commissions and people writing for us. Mosaïque grew out of that.”

Then they started to choose who would write for them and the list eventually included contemporary classical composers such as Ana Sokolovic and Nicole Lizée and also people such as singer-songwriters Julie Doiron and Sarah Slean and jazz composer David Braid.

The first performance was July 26 at the Festival of the Sound. The second is at Chamberfest on Saturday.

But wait there’s more to the project.

At the concert Saturday, the audience will be able to draw on a piece of paper their impressions of the music.

“They can give them to us and they will be uploaded to our Mosaïque website where other people will be able to see them. The music will be there too,” Mercer said making a mosaic of Mosaïque.

“The whole idea is seeing (and hearing) the country through different eyes. First the composers write about different regions. Then we interpret the pieces and finally the audience can show how they perceive it all.”

“Elissa (Lee), our violinist, believes that if people are doodling while listening they might be more affected by the music.”

The idea is that an engaged listener will focus more intently.

“A lot of the pieces in the project are about water but we are not expecting a bunch of pictures of lakes and rivers. It’s amazing how people’s minds work.

“It’s not obligatory and you can draw something and not give it up.”

Beyond these initial performances there will be three more this summer, Mercer said, with a tour starting in the fall that will go where VIA does and does not go. She says there will be a CD down the line as well.

“This is first time we have done something on this scale. We have a publicist working for us, a web designer and a videographer. We’ve never had this much help and we have never worked this hard. It’s amazing how it has developed.”

The four women in Made in Canada live in Ontario: Angela Park (piano) is in Toronto, Elissa Lee splits time between Toronto and Berlin, Germany and violist Sharon Wei lives in London, Ontario. Mercer lives in Ottawa where she is also the principal cello of the NAC Orchestra.

Despite the demands on time, Mosaïque “is like our mission.”

You might think three or four minutes of music isn’t all that intense. But there is a lot packed into these short packages, Mercer said.

“You always think a three minute piece is just three minutes of work. Not at all. Each one is full of their own meaning and with completely different styles.”

The ensemble did not prescribe what the composers would write beyond assigning each a province or territory. The composers are not necessarily from the places they are writing about.

Even though water features prominently, each musical treatment is different, she said.

It’s unfair, but does Mercer have a favourite piece?

“They are all amazing but I am a big supporter of Kevin Lau’s piece on the Yukon. I am the donor for that. I really wanted to buy one. We have had lots of public support and we have also had incredible private donations and that continues, but I really wanted to put some money on one of these pieces and Kevin is someone with whom I have had a relationship with for many years. I have played many of his pieces and he has written me a cello concerto. I think he is incredible.”

New music written for you is a rare joy that Mercer describes this way:

“Receiving a new piece is like opening a book and being ready to absorb a new story or being excited to discover a new author.”

Looks like a little ambition can take you a long way.

Mosaïque featuring Ensemble Made in Canada
Where: National Gallery of Canada
When: Aug. 4 at 1 p.m.
Tickets and information:

The following is a list of the composers involved in Mosaïque, the province or territory they have written music about as well as a short statement on each piece.

David Braid (Northwest Territories) Great Bear River Blues

Situated in the Sahtu Region of the Northwest Territories is the Great Bear River, a 113-kilometre channel connecting to the Mackenzie River at the hamlet of Tulita, the birthplace of Yatsule (1879) a prolific musician of Dene Folk Music. This composition’s motifs of harmony, melody, rhythm, and form come from geographical data pertaining to the river’s striking meandering pattern. The music is stylized by “blue notes,” glissandi, syncopation and driving rhythm — prominent qualities of contemporary Dene Folk Music.

Barbara Croall (St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes) Nbiidaasamishkaamin/We Come Paddling Here

For Anishinaabeg people, water is not just a substance. It is a spirit being deserving honour and respect, and different bodies and channels of water have distinctly different personalities and ways of expression. The Saint Lawrence Seaway and River has been an essential part of Indigenous peoples’ lives. The music describes the alternatively powerful and placid Gichigammi-Ziibii (Big Sea River), with canoers shooting arrows across the water toward embankments as they fished or hunted, and the voices of niibi-manidoog or the spirits of those who have traveled these waters long ago.

Julie Doiron arr. Andrew Creeggan (New Brunswick) Blessed

I have the sun/and the sky and the grass ‘neath my feet/and the sidewalk that leads down the street
I have the wind/and the air that is all around me/and the breath I’m so lucky to breathe
I am blessed/not once can I let myself forget
I have the night/and the bed where I lay myself down/and the dreams that will follow me now
I am blessed/not once can I let myself forget

Andrew Downing (Manitoba) Red River Fantasy

Red River Fantasy is based on a Métis fiddle tune called The Red River Jig after the dance it accompanies. It is most likely adapted from little bits of Scottish and French-Canadian fiddle tunes. Métis fiddle tunes are famously ‘crooked’, meaning phrase lengths are not consistent, bar lengths are not consistent, and there is a particular kind of flow to the tune that feels like it starts and stops in surprising places. This piece reflects the respect and reverence I feel for the recordings of the great fiddlers I’ve heard play The Red River Jig, such as Andy De Jarlis, John Arcand, and Grandy Fagnan.

Vivian Fung (Alberta) Shifting Landscapes

Shifting Landscapes is a reflection of Alberta’s wide prairie fields, open skies and ever-changing landscape, shaped by evolving skylines and influx of people, as well as melting glaciers and growing wildfires. It is a land of opportunity and growth, and my birthplace and childhood home.

Nicolas Gilbert (Québec) Ilôts

Ilôts is designed as a voyage from the city of Montreal to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, passing alternatively through a few cities and across increasingly long stretches of countryside. What binds the work together is the Saint Lawrence River itself, represented literally by waves of sound. In the course of the piece, the very discursive, very human music of the cities will be eaten up by the landscape, which will become — and this is the paradox — something intimate and interior.

Kevin Lau (Yukon) Race to the Midnight Sun

Race to the Midnight Sun was inspired by detailed observations of the Yukon River by a family friend who resides in Whitehorse. The music is characterized by churning, restless rhythms, kaleidoscopic shifts in texture and harmonic colour, and an almost-lyrical melody which emerges and submerges, dipping in and out of perception — all techniques meant to capture some aspect of the river’s ferocious beauty. The title is a direct reference to a canoe race which takes place on the Yukon River every year, and which served as an apt image for the music’s propulsive journey.

Nicole Lizée (Saskatchewan) The Bessborough Hotel

For as long as I can remember there have been ghost stories linked to a number of locations in Saskatchewan. Saskatoon’s iconic Bessborough Hotel might be the most infamous for its paranormal activity. There are three areas in the hotel reportedly haunted: the ballroom, the stairwell and the third floor — each with their own benevolent spectre. These phantoms make appearances in sonic form throughout the piece.

Richard Mascall (Ontario) Petroglyphs

The Peterborough Petroglyphs are a highly identifiable symbol of Ontario as the most significant set of petroglyphs (rock carvings) in Canada. They are presumed to have been the work of ancient ancestors of First Nations people in the area, but are impossible to accurately date and remain mysterious. Scholars have demonstrated that the inscriptions belie a great knowledge of astronomy; a kind of ‘star map.’ I prefer to think of them as a “alien communication” from the distant past; waiting to be decoded and interpreted, with a powerful message for our world today.

Samy Moussa (Nunavut) Orpheus in Nunavut

Orpheus’s death … frozen

William Rowson (Nova Scotia) Short Variations on Waves

When writing my piece I looked at a lot of maritime paintings of schooners and villages done in the 1930s and ’40s. I listened to a lot of Scottish-Cape Breton fiddle and folk music. Only fragments of that made into my piece. I think I got the best music when I was imagining the idea of early immigrants from Scotland and France coming to New Scotland or Acadia. My piece plays with memory: Dreams of an ideal community, a promised land, not really possible anywhere but in a dream.

Darren Sigesmund (Prince Edward Island) Kensington Ceilidh

This impression of Prince Edward Island is rooted in the connection to land and sea. The haunting beauty of the island, rich red earth, pastoral landscapes, and extremes in nature inspire this work. A groove-based theme dances through a lazy waltz, some fiddle chopping, and a blistering jig reminiscent of east coast ceilidh social gatherings.

Sarah Slean (Newfoundland) Jonny Pippy of Pouch Cove, on a Bicycle at Dawn

Jonny Pippy is a legendary fixture in the ‘cove’ — a truly unique Newfoundland character.  He’s an old man (nobody really knows how old) and lives alone in a bare bones house. His skin is weathered and worn like a fisherman’s and he’s missing nearly all of his teeth, but he is still lean, spritely and energetic. At dawn he rides his bike to a clearing that overlooks the bay and gets lost in his own thoughts looking at the sea. After chatting with neighbours or tourists and darting around doing whatever it is he does in town, he rides himself back up the hill into the sunset.

Ana Sokolovic (British Columbia) Splendor Sine Occasu

Each of the movements is inspired by a particular aspect of the nature in British Columbia: the landscape, the river, and the mountain range. The first part is a still observation of the beautiful landscape, the second part is faster, and depicts a river with its currents, and the third part depicts the abundance of mountain peaks.

Ensemble Made in Canada presents Mosaïques
Where: National Gallery of Canada
When: Aug. 4 at 1 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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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.