Chamberfest: Michael Redhill’s words are singing in Scar Tissue

Michael Redhill. Photo: Amanda Withers.

The Chamberfest concert on Feb. 1 will feature a performance of Scar Tissue a piece of music that marries the talents of the composer Jeffrey Ryan, the Gryphon Trio, the writer Michael Redhill, who won the 2017 Giller Prize for his novel Bellevue Square, and the vocal ensemble Nordic Voices. ARTSFILE is talking to each about their role in the creation of the new work. Redhill has in fact written lyrics for music before. He talks about that and much more in this interview.

Q. You are friends with Roman Borys of the Gryphon Trio. When did he approach you about Scar Tissue?

A. In fact, Roman and I have known each other for 35 years. We met at the Banff Centre in 1984, and we also both went to Indiana University in 1985. Scar Tissue is our second collaboration. The first was with the Gryphons and Omar Daniel. It was a short story I wrote called The Growth of Music and the Invention of Storytelling, which was performed to music. It premiered in 2002. Program note: “The story of an inveterate liar who is betrayed by a growth under his arm that sings whenever he utters a falsehood.” Roman approached me with the idea for Scar Tissue in 2017. 

I know nothing really about music, but I’ve loved watching my texts bloom into full performances. The Gryphons are an easy (and fun) group of people to work with. The only time I’ve felt intimidated was when I was in the same room as Annalee Patipatanakoon and her Stradivarius. 

Q. I have been told the idea flowed out of Roman’s conversations with a scientist who literally studies scar tissue. But is that what your words are talking about?

A. Roman met Glenn Prestwich, a leading researcher and entrepreneur in the field of medical and biological engineering, when he was on tour a couple of years ago and the two of them hit it off. Glenn is involved in an organization that helps fund works of music that intersect somehow with the sciences. That’s how Scar Tissue got off the ground. Prestwich and his collaborators have put forth the idea that almost all ecologies (natural, human, economic, artistic) exist in a constant cycle of decay and renewal, but the key idea is that decay leaves behind material essential to renewal, and that there is both a real and metaphorical throughline in systems. The poem starts with this as an image and both embodies and expresses these ideas. It is not a commentary on Prestwich or the theories he and his team have developed, but rather an attempt to give artistic shape to a very rich set of ideas.

Here is the text from the afterword in the collection of poetry that Scar Tissue appears in: ‘I gave this nine-part poem a quasi-mathematical structure that I subverted in a manner that echoed the ideas of Dr. Prestwich and his collaborators. The number of lines in each poem and the syllables per line govern this aspect of the poem. The first poem is nine lines in length, with nine syllables per line. The second is eight lines in length, with eight syllables per line, and so on until the middle poem is reached (Wound), which is a five-line poem composed of five-syllable lines. Then the process reverses itself, and the poem concludes with nine lines of nine syllables each. Over the course of the poem, some of the rules are broken, and the structure of the individual sections loosen before tightening again.

Q. Tell me about the process in putting the words with the music.

A. We decided I would write a draft first and then show it to Roman and Jeffrey for comments. They both loved the poem, and after a bit more tinkering, I handed it over to Jeffrey and he wrote the music and arranged the poem for Nordic Voices. I have not heard the music or seen a performance yet, so the premiere will be my first experience seeing the whole piece.

Q. Did you know Jeffrey Ryan beforehand? Did you listen to his music before writing?

A. No and no! Jeffrey and I met over this work. 

Q. Are you a music fan?

A. I have obsessions in every area of music from Duke Ellington to Joshua Redman, Joni Mitchell to Arctic Monkeys, Kendrick Lamarr to Cardi B, Elvis Costello to Arcade Fire, Boards of Canada to Four Tet. However, I have no talent whatsoever in music, and cannot so much as play a tambourine or sing along to Happy Birthday.

Q. Tell me about Twitch Force which is being published this spring?

A. Twitch Force is a collection of poetry that I’ve been working on since my last collection, Light-crossing, with House of Anansi in 2001. My intent and belief was that I wasn’t going to publish any more poetry after Light-crossing, and the poems in this book were written for the most part to entertain myself and go places I might be worried to go if I knew someone was eventually going to read the poems. As a result, very few of the poems have appeared in journals prior to publication. The title is a catch-all image for the poems, in which shift tones very quickly, unusual associations are made between the poems, and within individual poems, the reader is asked to make cognitive jumps that are strange or uncomfortable. One image I stay with is the ‘hypnogogic jerk,’ the sudden spasm of an arm or leg just as you are falling asleep. Scar Tissue is in the collection.

Q. 2017 was a good year for you. Have you spent your Giller winnings? 

A. I had three years of absolute penury before the Scotiabank Giller and went deeply in debt. In 2017-18, I paid off all my debt, bought a used car, and put some money away in my RRSP. And yes, I am broke again.

Q. Your open admission of how hard it is to be an artist in Canada was followed up this year with more people talking about the fact that writers are not well compensated. The issue isn’t going away. Is there a solution? 

A. I’m more than a bit stumped on this. We are living in a time when writers and other artists (musicians especially) are not only experiencing declines in income, but our rights in our work have been under attack for a decade by institutions that should be protecting them, such as universities. The Scotiabank Giller Prize gave me a period of normality that a person with a “job job” doesn’t have to worry about. I still have no benefits, no pension and no safety net, and I’m among the most fortunate artists in the country. What is the solution? Lower taxes for professional artists or get rid of them altogether. Increase grants. Solve the copyright issues so artists are not having their work pirated by, in many cases, the institutions that trained them in the first place. But I don’t have a lot of hope. 

Chamberfest presents the Gryphon Trio and Nordic Voices
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: Feb. 1 at 7:30 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.