Mixed media: Seventeen Voyces concert draws inspiration from paintings

Kevin Reeves and Seventeen Voyces. Photo: Shad Young

Count on Kevin Reeves and his Seventeen Voyces ensemble to come up with something ambitious. Their latest adventure is a marriage of new music  and art works that can be found in the National Gallery of Canada, played by some of the city’s rising young musical stars. The result is a concert called Pigments of Imagination that will be performed on March 22 at Southminster United Church. The program will include Yolanda Bruno, violin; Adam Nelson, violin; Lisa Moody, viola; Carmen Bruno, cello; Zac Pulak, percussion; Andrew Ager, piano and Clare Bassett, dancer, along with Seventeen Voyces. Before the big night Reeves answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Can you explain the premise for Pigments. Where did the idea come from?

A. I was having a couple of drinks at the Barley Mow with Zac Pulak, a local percussionist and rising star, and he suggested something involving painting and music, since he had already commissioned a work based on that premise for his new trio, which consists of Yolanda Bruno, violin and  Carmen Bruno, cello, along with Zac’s kitchen cupboard of instruments. I’ve always enjoyed combining different art forms. Seventeen Voyces has cross-pollinated music with silent film for many years now, and has also hired actors to portray characters such as Henry Purcell, Hector Berlioz, or Charles Dickens, to name a few — so the idea appealed to me from the outset.

The idea for the concert also stems from figuring out how to propose music to Ottawa audiences in fresh and entertaining ways;  I’m all for trying new things, as long as the quality is good and people have a thirst for it — I mean, how many times can one listen to another live performance of Mozart’s Requiem (as good as Süssmayr’s writing may be)?

Q. What is Pigments of Imagination?

A. Just a play on words;  I wanted a catchy title that gave an impression of painting.  I like Impressionism.

Q. Whose music is being played?

A. There are two world premieres — Painted from Memory by Toronto composer Mark Duggan is inspired by the paintings of Tom Thomson, and Autumn’s Orchestra by Yours Truly, based on the poetry of  E. Pauline Johnson. There are also two Ottawa premieres: Four Shakespeare Songs by Andrew Ager and The Swan Parapraxis, a duo for violin and cello written for Yolanda and Carmen Bruno by Kelly-Marie Murphy.  Other repertoire will include the Lawren S. Harris Suite for piano quintet by Stephen Chatman; Ice Sculptures by Elizabeth Knudson,  and Matra Pictures by Zoltan Kodaly, so it’s quite an eclectic crew.

Q. How did you match composers and paintings? 

A. Once I confirmed the Thomson-inspired Painted from Memory and the Lawren Harris piano quintet, I thought I’d keep the imagery restricted to painting and to a certain time period — namely, the early 20th century. I’ve always wanted to set Pauline Johnson’s words to music. Since Johnson moved from Ontario to British Columbia early in life, I thought I’d match her text with projections of Emily Carr paintings, who was close to Johnson in time and geography.

Q. This seems a fit with your own interest in drawing? Am I right?

A. Yes, I’m a huge fan of people who really know how to draw. I once worked as a cartoonist/caricaturist for the Toronto Star and very nearly became the youngest syndicated cartoonist in their history. (My first book was Artoons — the Hystery of Art with a flattering preface written by Jim Unger, creator of the popular ‘Herman’ strip). Some of my favourite artists are cartoonists, caricaturists, illustrators, and animators such as Walt Kelly, Wally Wood, Mort Drucker, Honoré Daumier, Albert Uderzo, Thierry Coquelet, Glen Keane, Heinrich Kley and Arthur Rackham. They are among the best artists one could ever witness — and their work is mostly pen and ink. My own collection of original art includes many of those listed above, and 100 more, including self-caricatures by Alfred Hitchcock and Enrico Caruso. I have a solid background in art history, and I like to think I’m well-versed in abstract, expressionist, conceptual and all the ‘isms’ of the 20th century. But as I get older, with less time to spare, I gravitate away from those experiments returning to landscapes, still life and portraiture.

Q. Do you have a favourite artist?

A. Oddly enough, one of my absolute favourites — much to the dismay of a former prof — is Tom Thomson, who conjured up the spirit of the North better than anyone. He died three years before the Group of Seven was formed, but was certainly their spiritual leader. Every Canadian knows his iconic large canvases West Wind and Jack Pine but I prefer the rough little paintings he made on wood while camping in Algonquin Park. Many of them are on permanent display in our National Gallery.

When I was much younger, I desperately wanted to make a documentary on his life and death — even receiving encouragement from Jack McClelland and Pierre Berton. I also received a really beautiful letter from A.J. Casson — the last of the Group of Seven. I’d asked him to be the film’s narrator. He declined by order of his doctor and died shortly thereafter. One of the biggest thrills while researching the film was discussing my script with Ottelyn Addison, who had actually known Tom Thomson as a child. Her father was Thomson’s best friend, Mark Robinson, the forest ranger who identified the painter’s body in Canoe Lake. She also became one of Thomson’s most important biographers; she intimated to me she knew what really happened that fateful day in 1917.

Q. Do you see different colours when you hear music?

A. I see various shades of blue and purple when choristers start running out of air … so I guess the answer is yes.

Q. What’s your favourite colour?

A. It’s a toss-up between gold, silver and copper, because I come from a mining background, and turquoise, because that’s also my birthstone.

Q. How long has it taken you to put this together?

A. I’m not sure, because the process has been sporadic while I circumnavigate other projects. It hasn’t been easy though;  I quickly discovered there is very little choral music that has anything to do with painting as inspiration, so there’s a chance here for aspiring composers to rectify the situation. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Ottawa Community Foundation, because Pigments of Imagination wouldn’t have happened without them.

Seventeen Voyces presents Pigments of Imagination
Where: Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Ave.
When: March 22 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and more information: seventeenvoyces.ca

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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.