NACO in the Arctic: Making music with Leela Gilday and Sylvia Cloutier

Sylvia Cloutier and Leela Gilday.

A new piece of work was premiered in Iqaluit Tuesday night that featured a Dene singer-songwriter and an Inuit throat singer performing with seven musicians from the National Arts Centre Orchestra.

The concert inside St. Jude’s Cathedral in the capital of Nunavut was part of a visit to Canada’s northern territories by NACO as part of its Canada 150 journey from coast to coast to coast.

The music was written and played by Leela Gilday from Yellowknife and Sylvia Cloutier from Iqaluit, was a commission by the NAC.

Gilday said, in a phone interview, before the show she “was honoured to get the commission. I saw it as a wonderful opportunity.”

The Dene musician says she likes to work with music of all genres. She’s studied opera and has sung with “symphonic ensembles before, but not for many years. Another bonus was that I’m getting to work with Sylvia Cloutier who is a dear friend of mine.

“I have worked with her before on pieces and I thought this was awesome time to get together.”

The idea of a commission was raised almost a year ago in February 2017. It was solidified last August.

Cloutier and Gilday then got together in Yellowknife where they spent a few days finishing a piece of music in four parts that explores different aspects of motherhood, she says, and “how we are as humans, mothers and children. It also explores our relationship with the land. For Indigenous people, the land is a huge part of our existence. In many ways it is like a mother.” Each “movement” could easily stand as a separate song, she says, but it was conceived as one piece. The piece is called Ama Anaana. The movements are: We Fall, Letting Go, Paniga and The River.

The music was then arranged by Toronto-based Christopher Mayo to include the seven NACO musicians — two violins, a viola and a cello, along with a trombonist, a flautist and a clarinet player.

She says the music is a fusion of cultures including the work of the arranger.

“I use some traditional Dene elements in my music as well and in my singing. What we were looking for was for someone to realize the true heart of the pieces in the arrangements and to not force a classical sound on top of the pieces.”

“He (Mayo) really did that. I was really impressed with how he listened to the intention of the music and ran with that. His music really complements the timbre and delivery in a beautiful way.” Gilday says Mayo has previously worked with throat singer Tanya Tagaq and Christine Duncan on one of their pieces together.

Creating the music “was a really organic process for us,” Gilday said. “Originally there was the challenge of distance. We were going to try to write the pieces by Skype but that really wasn’t going to work. It was a great thing that we got to spend physical time together.”

Much of the music was written in a tent assembled with pine bows. “It was great to get out on the land but also be in proximity to my home.”

The concert in Iqaluit was the first for Cloutier in a few years, Gilday said, so it was “good to premiere the piece in her hometown.”

She says she appreciated that her and Cloutier’s voice was valued in the process and that the commission did not just offer lip service to diversity.

“I’m a Dene woman from the Northwest Territories who is a contemporary singer-songwriter influenced by Dene traditions. My voice is unique in this world and for them to value that and say this is a voice that needs to be presented on a broader level and complemented with an ensemble of players, I think it speaks to a broader way of thinking about music and not that narrow colonial way of thinking about music.”

It’s also interesting that a Dene artist and an Inuit artist are co-operating too.

“Our friendship goes back many years. I love collaborating with her because there are so many commonalities. But traditionally our peoples were enemies. so it’s really cool that we love each other so much.”

One of the reasons for the concert in Iqaluit was to raise funds for a new performing arts centre in the territory.

“I think it’s beneficial to have an arts centre in a community fosters growth and development especially of young artists. In Yellowknife, our arts centre has been key in my development. It’s where I started really performing.”

Alexander Shelley understands where Leela Gilday is coming from.

The British-born music director is on his first visit to Nunavut and he’s sampling local cuisine. He’s also participating with the educational outreach events that are part of every NACO tour.

“It’s my first time here in Iqaluit and Nunavut. I love this kind of place. I’ve never been somewhere where this are no trees.

“We had a wonderful first day. We had some local cuisine; caribou stew, seal stew and Arctic char. After that on the way back to hotel we saw up in the sky the Northern Lights. Within 12 hours of our arrival we got incredible idea of what it is like to live here.

Shelley believes that the NAC should be building “these artistic bridges to communities and the artists in those communities. Commissioning being one of the concrete examples of that.”

But he added, “whatever music emerges cannot be proscribed by NAC. Instead it is a blank sheet” that will be filled in by the artists.

“There is a wealth of different musical languages across the country and I am very proud that NAC doesn’t say, this all has to be traditional western classical music.

“Even though we are trained as western classical musicians our love is of music full stop. … To be a good classical musician you have to be able to shift around 500 years of music. Bach and Handel are different from Kurt Weill. So the best classical musicians are very aware of everything.

The NACO tour will stay in Iqaluit for a few more days before moving to Yellowknife where Gilday and Cloutier will perform their piece for a second time on Dec. 9. After that it’s home to Ottawa.

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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.