NACO’s Canada 150 tour: Duane Andrews’s music is built on the Rock

Duane Andrews thrives in the embrace of Newfoundland's musical culture. Photo: David Howells

ARTSFILE has been taken on board the NACO tour of Atlantic Canada from April 26 to May 7. First stop along the way: St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Duane Andrews picked up a guitar when he was 10. His mother was learning to play at the same time so why not.

In the home at Carbonear, on west side of Conception Bay, he learned all about the traditional music of Newfoundland. It seeped into his musical soul.

Andrews has become something of a local legend in the music community of the province and so when the National Arts Centre Orchestra started planning their spring tour of the Atlantic provinces, he was one of those go to people.

The result is a kitchen part of sorts at St. John’s’ Rocket Room, a performance on top of a bakery located in the historic part of the Newfoundland capital.

The evening will feature a string quartet from NACO made up of Yosuke Kawasaki (violin), Carissa Klopoushak (violin), David Marks (viola) and Rachel Mercer (cello) and Andrews on guitar playing the music from his last album, called Conception Bay.

Plus one more thing. Andrews has written an instrumental piece that will feature himself, NACO clarinetist and St. John’s native Sean Rice and James Ehnes, the violin virtuoso who is joining NACO on tour.

In an interview with ARTSFILE done in advance of the show on April 26, Andrews talked about working with the NAC, the concert, the music of his home province and his own musical philosophy. Earlier in the day, his composition will also be performed in an educational outreach event which will also involve the Newfoundland Youth Orchestra at Rice’s alma mater of Holy Heart High School. This is part of the Rotary Music Festival which draws hundreds of young people to the Newfoundland capital.

Andrews’ piece is built on a foundation of traditional music.

“I immediately turned to Newfoundland traditional music … but I was also thinking about something that would resonate with James Ehnes. … I did notice that he has a leaning towards (Bela) Bartok. I saw that as a cool fit for a direction to the piece.

“I was trying to make it fit a classical approach so I settled on a theme and variations approach using the reel as a theme.”

That morphs into a jig variation in a minor key. With jigs and reels, Andrews says, there is a connection to Renaissance music and Baroque dance music.

“Then the second variation will take a Bartok twist. Finally it goes into more abstract textures that I have been exploring in new works that I am writing.”

Andrews has a sophisticated take on the place of Newfoundland traditional music. He’s taken his own musical studies at St. Francis Xavier in Nova Scotia and other studies in France and built upon his love of home-grown sounds. He is known for his love of the music of Django Reinhardt, the king of gypsy jazz. But Andrews’ ranges much further afield.

“I can say I can listen to Bach and I can listen to Emile Benoit and when I hear both those styles of music, the melodic contours that happen and the momentum that can build up … both of them are equally exciting for me.

“The music I play is music that I love. It happens to come from elements that aren’t usually mixed together. When I reflect on why this is happening it’s because I just love the music. If you do have traditional music deep within you and you have Bartok and Bach in there as well, your inner ear is going to have some sort of influence on you.

When he started picking at a guitar it was all about “jigs and reels and that type of thing. Country music as well was very popular. There was a group called Simani. They never left the island but they sold tons of records. Newfoundland had a scene that was self-sustaining, somewhat like what was happening in Quebec.

Simon was a duet of Bud Davidge and Sim Savory. “Bud came up with the name. When he was asked the name he said ‘It’s Sim and I.”

Andrews thinks deeply about the idea of his island’s culture that is self-contained and built very much on storytelling and music and community support.

“The other thing that always strikes me are the Newfoundland audiences. I guess it’s just the way the people use music here. They relate to music here. They have an appreciation of quality.”

Nor is traditional music closed to outside influences, he says.

“If you look at someone like Rufus Guinchard who has been canonized as the reference for Newfoundland traditional music. He happened on the fiddle because that was what was around, but if you look at the tunes that he played they were very modern and unique. He just absorbed music that he heard that moved him. If someone suggested an idea to him, he’d be open to it.”

The Newfoundland audience is open as well he says.

“If I take the Conception Bay repertoire around the Bay, the reception is very warm.”

And St. John’s hosts a lot of intriguing festivals including the biannual Sound Symposium which is an experimental new music festival.

Andrews could have moved elsewhere to play music but he has stayed because of the support and the diversity of sound around him.

“It feeds the soul. I have never felt the need to move. It is a sense of place for me. It’s my home. My family has been here for hundreds of years.” And he does get to meet lots of artists coming through town.

Andrews, it turns out, is a fan boy of James Ehnes, the violin virtuoso.

“James Ehnes is a hero of mine. I can’t tell you the inspiration I have gotten from him just witnessing from a distance the things that he has done. There have been a couple of times I have been in the car and there has been a piece of music on the radio. I just get taken by it, pull the car over and go to the station’s website to find out what I had just heard and twice it’s been Ehnes who stopped me in my tracks.

“I can’t describe the sensation of hearing great music. It’s not related to genre.”

Andrews is not about putting music in silos.

In fact he has played with a chamber quartet before on tour, including a gig in Ottawa where he played with Carissa Klopoushak, David Marks and Rachel Mercer.

NAC Presents Duane Andrews and Members of the NAC Orchestra
Where: The Rocket Room, St. John’s, Nfld.

Main art: Duane Andrews thrives in the embrace of Newfoundland’s musical culture. Photo: David Howells

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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.