TD Ottawa Jazz Festival: Remembering the music of Eldon Rathburn

Adrian Matte and Allyson Rogers.

Deep in the archives of the National Film Board of Canada lies some of the best music ever composed in this country.

Allyson Rogers knows this because she’s been in there hunting down the work of a man named Eldon Rathburn who is likely the most prolific Canadian composer you’ve never heard of. His work can be heard on dozens of films, short and long, produced by the NFB over three decades starting in 1944.

Rogers has been working on Eldon for some time on a book called They Shot, He Scored: The Life and Music of Eldon Rathburn by Carleton University music professor James Wright. It was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in March. She also worked with Adrian Matte to produce a CD of music by Rathburn that is called The Romance of Improvisation in Canada: The Genius of Eldon Rathburn. Music from the CD will be performed at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival on June 23.

“I started working on the book with James in 2013.” Before then she hadn’t heard about Rathburn.

So she started digging through the NFB archives for every score they had by Eldon. She had decided to make the film music her part of the project. It was a fitting subject for a musicologist and jazz percussionist.

“I started watching tons of NFB films including obscure ones that weren’t available online such as one animation called — wait for it — Fish Spoilage Control.

She had seen the title in her research and wanted to see the film, which is now on the NFB site.

“I eventually watched it with filmmaker Don McWilliams in his office. I was floored by it.

“It’s exactly what you would think it would be. The federal Fisheries department is  presenting an animation to fishermen explaining how to properly handle fish.” The film contains advice such as ‘Put it on ice’ and ‘Don’t leave it out in warm weather’.

“It’s my foolproof now. If I give a presentation on something I show a part of Fish Spoilage Control and it’s all people remember and the talk is a success.”

Fish Spoilage Control was made by the NFB in 1952.

Rathburn’s score, she said, is “kind of Bach-inspired.” There is other stuff too including some Latin influenced music and a balled. There’s a lot packed into a 10-minute short.

The music from Fish Spoilage and a second film called The Romance of Transportation In Canada forms the bulk of the CD.

“Eldon didn’t write much jazz but those two scores in particular are stellar. Most of the jazz he wrote was done in the 1950s. He was obviously listening to jazz being made at the time. He was a voracious listener.”

The music for Fish Spoilage was done for a septet and the Romance of Transportation was done for a nonet.

“The nonet,” Rogers said, “hearkens back to Birth of the Cool and Miles Davis.”

Another aspect of the original recordings were the musicians who played on them. “Are they ever good.”

Eldon Rathburn was a prolific composer of music for films in Canada. This photo was taken when Rathburn was 92, in his Saint Laurent Boulevard condominium in 2008. Photo: Lois Siegel.

Members of The Happy Gang were on these original recordings. The trumpeter was Ellis McLintock. “These were the top Toronto guys basically.”

When Eldon Rathburn joined, the NFB had a full music department. The board itself had international connections and they were able to record with some of the best national and international musicians in major centres such as Toronto, New York and London.

There were four staff composers including Louis Applebaum, who was the head of the department, Rogers said. Applebaum hired Eldon and Maurice Blackburn. Also on staff were Eugene Kash who was Maureen Forrester‘s husband and Robert Fleming. Those four were at the NFB from the 1940s to the 1970s.

“Eldon was the most versatile. He wrote bluegrass and country, classical and jazz he was all over the place. Blackburn was more avant-garde. He worked with Norman McLaren and did a lot of electronic stuff.”

Rathburn came by his country roots honestly having worked with Don Messer as a  pianist for awhile and another Maritimer named Bruce Holder.

As a very young man Eldon wanted to be a pianist for silent movies. So there was also an early attraction to film. Later in life he felt, Rogers said, that some of the most modern and interesting music written in the 1950s and ’60s was for film.

It’s amazing how many side stories there are in this investigation of Rathburn’s music.

The band: Petr Cancura (saxophones) Kevin Turcotte (trumpet), Adrian Vedady (bass), Marianne Trudel (piano) and Jim Doxas (drums).

In the archives, Rogers found a letter from Stanley Kubrick‘s assistant asking for a fine-grained copy of the NFB film Universe because the director was interested in special effects. Rathburn wrote the music on Universe.

“Kubrick watched the film over and over again. He even tried to hire the whole special effects team.” But no one budged.

“He wasn’t a big name then so no one was dropping their jobs to work with him. And they were also wrapped up in making In The Labyrinth for Expo 67.

One NFB artist from Universe did end up working on 2001. The actor Douglas Rain would be the voice of the evil computer HAL 9000.

Interestingly, Eldon’s music for Universe sounds like Richard Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra which was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Rathburn was also working with micropolyphony in Universe before the composer Gyorgy Ligeti whose work also appeared in 2001.

To make the CD, Matte and Rogers decided, after doing a pre-recording to raise funds, to arrange the music and hire some talented musicians and record the CD in the NFB studio in Montreal before it closed.

“The NFB got really excited about the project. They allowed us to come and use their studio. That’s cool for many reasons but one is … that’s where Eldon worked.”

This was to be one of the last projects in the historic studio. The NFB is moving downtown to a new building near Place des Arts.

Matte and Rogers asked Petr Cancura to put together a band that includes Kevin Turcotte (trumpet), Cancura (saxophones), Marianne Trudel (piano),
Adrian Vedady (bass) and Jim Doxas (drums).

The gang gathered in February 2018 in Montreal for five days — to study, record and edit a CD.

They picked and arranged cues from The Romance of Transportation (1952) and Fish Spoilage Control (1953).

“I found a Candid Eye film called Police that Eldon had done the music for. The opening theme was awesome, so we threw that on too.

“What was really cool was how into it the musicians were. They loved the material. It is good. Eldon is a very deep composer. It’s interesting music and well-written.

“It was also something new and had an amazing backstory.”

The album came out last November on Justin Time Records and Allyson and Adrian are already planning Volume Two.

They are also working on a concert/book launch in Montreal at the new NFB building.

For the second CD, there is more left over from Fish Spoilage and Romance. And they have their eyes on music from a Norman McLaren animation called Short and Suite.

All this effort is an important recognition of a talented Canadian composer.

“Eldon received the Order of Canada. There was an Eldon Rathburn Day in Ottawa April 21. He is not a household name but he has had some official recognition.”

To top that off, his career as a composer was basically launched by no less than Arnold Schoenburg.

“It’s another classic Canadian story. Eldon was in his early 20s. In 1944 he had composed a piece called Sinfonietta for Orchestra. He submitted it to a competition in Toronto where Ernest MacMillan adjudicated.

“The piece was sent back and it didn’t look like it had been reviewed, so Eldon sent it to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Young Composers Competition and Schoenburg was on the jury, along with Arthur Lange and Alexandre Tansman.

“The piece won first place. Eldon was invited to Los Angeles where he met Schoenberg, who would later rote a letter on Eldon’s behalf for entry to the University of California, Davis.”

Eldon never went to the States.

When he came home after his L.A. triumph, Applebaum invited him to join the NFB. He stayed in Canada because his mother was sick and blind and he had a sister to care for.

The rest is truly historic.

The Romance of Improvisation
TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
Where: NAC Fourth Stage
When: June 23 at 8 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.