Chamberfest: Sounding Thunder composer Tim Corlis navigates the cultures of music

Tim Corlis has written the music for Sounding Thunder.

For Vancouver composer Tim Corlis, preparing the music for the Festival of the Sound production of Sounding Thunder: The Song of Francis Pegahmagabow has been probably the most complex project he has ever worked on. At two years, it certainly has been the longest.

Much of the time was spent researching the life of the World War One Canadian hero and navigating the culture of the Ojibwe people. (Read more about the project here.)

“This is a bi-cultural project that attempts to bring the two together. That has many challenges. The two traditions have different approaches to music and there are lots of different assumptions on both sides,” he said.

Even within the cultures there are different ideas, “so finding some common ground was a challenge. We did a lot of work to reach out to different people to involve them both from Francis Pegahmagabow’s home First Nation and from other Indigenous communities.”

One key person was Jodi Baker Contin, who is a member of the Wasauksing First Nation and lives on Parry Island in Georgian Bay, near Parry Sound, Ontario. She will sing in the Chamberfest concert at Ecole Secondaire De La Salle on Tuesday night. But she also played a key role as an advisor for the appropriateness of songs that the show uses, Corlis said.

With issues surrounding cultural appropriation often in the news, “it can be very easy to fall into that trap. Ojibwe culture has a lot of protocols around what is appropriate to perform when. And there is a spiritual connection to a lot of it. It also has to do with the ownership of music and how perceived,” he said.

The songs the people sing aren’t often written down and permission is needed if someone other that the songwriter wants to sing it, Corlis said.

There is a version of the Travelling Song which closes the piece. Many First Nations have a version that is often sung after someone leaves on a journey or even after death. Jodi recommended using that song to Corlis because no one person could claim ownership, he said.

Corlis believes it is important to seek advice when composing for a project such as this, and to acknowledge one’s ignorance.

“None of us had any idea what we were getting into. Many times I had to get on a plane or drive long distances to meet people and bring them into the project. In some ways, my role, in addition to writing the music, has been a diplomatic one.

“Part of purpose of the project is truth and reconciliation. There is always reluctance on both sides to engage with the other side. It’s easy to sit in your own house and invite people over but if you really want to connect with people you have to go to their house.”

One of the first people he connected with was Brian McInnes, the great grandson of Pegahmagabow and the author of a biography of the Indigenous leader called Sounding Thunder. He reached out to him though his mother who chairs the band council. His advice has been invaluable, Corlis said.

“When I made the trip to meet him I brought tobacco as a gift. It’s a way of saying let’s be friends and he appreciated that.”

McInnes is a professor of education in Duluth, Minnesota. But he is also very involved in Ojibwe ceremonies and culture. And he is to narrate Francis’ story in the concert.

Corlis said that there are certain sounds and instruments that are very significant in the culture. (There are 11 musicians, two singers and two actors taking part in the piece.)

“One is the drum. It is everywhere. It’s not as present in western culture and not at all in chamber music.”

So throughout work, he said he was quite deliberate in referencing material from both cultures.

“There are points where one or the other are absent.”

It opens with a song to the Four Directions.

“I stepped aside and asked Jodi to write a song for the opening. I felt it needed to be a sacred moment and I needed to leave room for that.”

Before Francis goes to war, he meets a shaman who gives him a medicine bag to protect him. Corlis uses the clarinet (played by James Campbell, the artistic director of the Festival of the Sound), to represent the  shaman.

When Francis, who is represented by the trumpet, signs up the two cultures clash through the clarinet and through the bassoon.

An officer tells Francis to march and western music takes over.

The whole second act is about the war in Europe. This part of the work is very deliberately European, Corlis said. And the music reinforces that.

The third act sees Pegahmagabow return to Canada to face racism and colonialism. It opens with a lament featuring Jennifer Kreisberg, who is of the Tuscarora nation.

As one can detect the piece is full of musical tableaux. This, Corlis says, is something that Igor Stravinsky did in his piece The Soldier’s Tale (and in his music for ballet).

“For Stravinsky, each movement was a little photograph.”

The Soldier’s Tale was an inspiration for Sounding Thunder and the suite from it will be played in the concert.

Corlis said he took a page from Stravinsky and “chunked” his music into 20 bar segments.

It works with the dramatic elements involving the actors and the singers.

Another theme that runs through the entire piece is the Canadian national anthem. It duels with Francis’s theme throughout. The two melodies are harmonized representing the two cultures living together but also at odds, co-existing but in different places culturally, he said.

“I feel very optimistic about the work,” Corlis said. “My deepest aspiration would be that it does bring people together and that ultimately it feels like something that deeply honours this person who was a very significant Canadian.”

Sounding Thunder: The Song of Francis Pegahmagabow
Where: Ecole Secondaire De La Salle, 500 Old St. Patrick St.
When: July 31 at 7 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.