Two Carleton projects take the measure of the music of Eldon Rathburn

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."

On Friday afternoon Carleton University is marking the completion of two major projects featuring the life and work of Eldon Rathburn, a composer best known for his work with the National Film Board.

Rathburn (1916-2008) wrote more than 250 film scores, most of them during his 30-year career as a staff composer for the NFB. He is quite possibly this country’s most prolific composer of film music. In his career, Rathburn experimented with a wide range of styles and instrumental configurations with influences ranging from classical, bluegrass, country, blues, electronic, avant-garde, church and dance music genres, to popular music and jazz. He also was the composer for many of the early IMAX films.

The university is marking the completion of a CD of music based on his work. It’s called The Romance of Improvisation in Canada: The Genius of Eldon Rathburn. The album was produced and arranged by Carleton master’s student Adrian Matte and alumna Allyson Rogers. It has recently been released by Justin Time Records of Montreal.

The other project is a book by Carleton Prof. James Wright. It’s called They Shot, He Scored: The Life and Music of Eldon Rathburn. It will be published by the McGill-Queen’s University Press in March 2019. In advance of the event, Wright answered some questions about Rathburn.

Q. I know you as a composer of works such as Letters to the Immortal Beloved, so how did you come to write a book about Eldon Rathburn?

A.  During the last years of Eldon’s life, I had the good fortune to establish a close personal rapport with him. Our collaboration on an international symposium devoted to the  chamber music of Arnold Schoenberg gave rise to our first meeting in 2005. As I came to know Eldon better, and earned his trust, I told him of my plan to write a book on his extraordinary life and work. From that time on he seemed to look forward to our meetings and interviews. Eldon was a lively conversationalist, and his memory was unfailingly razor sharp.

Eldon once said that if he had written his own autobiography, it might have been titled Name Dropping. Over time I came to understand that Eldon was keen to share reminiscences about how his work had brought him into close contact with three of the most important creative figures of his time: the visionary filmmaker Norman McLaren, the silent film legend Buster Keaton, and Arnold Schoenberg, the iconic 20th-century Austrian-American composer and music theorist.

Eldon had a personal goal of meeting some of the other leading figures in 20th-century music and he would devote a considerable portion of his summer vacation time to the pursuit of this singular goal. After these “field trips,” he would recount how he had met and discussed musical matters with one or more of the contemporary icons he had sought out.

Throughout the book, anecdotes abound about Rathburn’s meetings and correspondence with Schoenberg, McLaren, Keaton, Ernst Krenek, Percy Grainger, Edgard Varèse, Charles Ives, Virgil Thompson, Kaikhosru Sorabji, Aaron Copland, Havergal Brian, Jack Shaindlin, Gavin Bryars, José Ray de la Torre, David Raksin and Carice Irene Elgar Blake, Sir Edward and Lady Elgar’s only child. Toward the end of his life, Rathburn spoke of how these close encounters with some of the inhabitants of his personal pantheon were among his most cherished memories.

Q. How long did the book take?

A. The book took five years to complete.

Q. Can you put him in some sort of context for me as a composer?

A. Eldon was a musical polyglot, and he frequently experimented with the simultaneous layering of two or more styles, perhaps a tip of the hat to the American composer, Charles Ives, whom he idolized.

In addition to his skill in scoring for traditional classical and jazz instruments, Eldon’s use of folk instruments such as the banjo (see for example his score for the Gerald Potterton film The Railrodder, featuring Buster Keaton in the starring role), the “Jew’s harp” and honky-tonk piano (see for example his score for Colin Low’s Oscar-winning NFB documentary City of Gold, narrated by Pierre Berton), and the calliope (in concert works such as The Rise and Fall of the Steam Railroad1982, and Three Calliope Pieces1994), set him apart from his contemporaries. Eldon saw and experienced his country through a uniquely positioned nostalgic lens, and his passion for the railway, historical and folk instruments, Canadian stories, cultures, and places was unequaled by any other composer among his contemporaries.

He wrote in classical, jazz, folk, pop, Celtic, country, and even “world music” styles according to the dictates and demands of the film project or concert work on his desktop. In his stubborn refusal to endorse the distinction that so many composers and listeners of his generation made between “high brow” and “low brow” music, and in the ways in which he freely borrowed from both, he was a postmodern composer.

James Wright.

He led a remarkable life spanning nearly a century of rapid evolution in media, technology, transportation, and sociological and political upheaval, and he made an important contribution to the awakening of Canadians to the realities, issues, and potential of the nation.

In an 1965 article titled “Thoughts on My Craft” he observed that: “Film music differs from traditional concert music in that it is often constructed of short, telescoped phrases, climaxes reached with little preparation, violent colour and textural changes and the lack of long transitional passages. Oddly enough, much present-day modern concert music has many of the above characteristics.” These are all features of Eldon’s concert music, as well as his film music.

Eldon was a dedicated and skillful artist who earnestly sought to represent and interpret Canadian film images and themes through sound. In his film work, Eldon engaged his lifelong fascination with and passion for the immense power of music to enhance and complement moving images on the screen.

Q. It’s a long way from New Brunswick. How did he get to the big time?

A. By train, poetically enough, given that  “if there’s one single thing that turns on Eldon Rathburn more than others,” Montreal Gazette music critic Eric McLean wrote in December 1982, “it is trains.” Philip L. Scowcroft went a step further. Scowcroft proclaimed Rathburn “the most prolific of all train composers.”

“Many composers have visited railways more than once,” he wrote. “But Rathburn surely outscores them all comfortably.”

Q. Rathburn’s connection to IMAX film is interesting to consider, given that IMAX was a Canadian idea.

A. I agree with your view that (IMAX) is a truly fascinating aspect of the story. To make matters even more interesting and personal for me, the creators of IMAX all went to high school at the Galt Collegiate Institute in my hometown of Galt (now Cambridge) Ontario.

Q. What did Rathburn do with IMAX?

A. After so brilliantly scoring the legendary multi-screen large-screen-format film Labyrinth, created by Roman Kroitor, Colin Low and Hugh O’Connor for Chamber 3 of the Labyrinth pavillion at Expo 67 (by far the highest-budget film in the NFB’s history), Eldon became the go-to composer for many of the early (and most award-winning) IMAX films including Tiger Child (1970, which was the first IMAX film), Circus World (1974), Skyward (1985), Transitions (1986), Beavers (1988), The First Emperor of China (1989), The Last Buffalo (1990), Momentum (1992), Flight of the Aquanaut (1993) and Titanica (1995).

Q. Was composing for IMAX a different kind of experience?

A. Eldon provides a few answers to this question himself in his personal notebooks (at Library and Archives Canada) and in an interview with Louis Hone (in 1993).

He said: “In most IMAX films, there is no narrative, voice-over or other commentary. The music alone must sustain the images and scenes, provide mood, musical commentary, emotion, meaning, and provide connective tissue and continuity. …

“IMAX films usually need a certain fullness of sound to use the massive screen and quadraphonic speaker system to best advantage. …

“It is a dangerous game to give a composer a film with no commentary at all … In this case, the composer calls the shots, which may or may not be what the producer had in mind.”

Q. Can you tell me a bit about the CD.

A. The core musical materials for this project are drawn from three timeless NFB short films: an Oscar-nominated animated romp through transportation history titled The Romance of Transportation in Canada (Colin Low, Wolf Koenig, Robert Verrall, 1952), Fish Spoilage Control (Wolf Koenig, Gerald Potterton, 1956), a deliciously zany animated film commissioned by Fisheries Canada, and Police (Terence Macartney-Filgate, 1958), a behind-the-scenes look at the daily challenges faced by the Toronto police force. Working with themes from Rathburn’s scores for these films, Adrian Matte and Allyson Rogers created a series of arrangements designed as a springboard for the improvisatory skills and imagination of the five leading Canadian jazz artists who endorsed the project and accepted the challenge.

The Romance of Improvisation in Canada was recorded in February 2018 at the NFB’s historic Chester Beachell studio in Montreal, the very studio where Rathburn worked and collaborated so frequently during his career. This versatile all-star ensemble takes the listener on a voyage through bebop to free jazz, tango and mambo, and brings the recording to a touching conclusion with a sentimental ballade. There is something here for all tastes and interests.

The CD features Petr Cancura (saxophones), Kevin Turcotte (trumpet, flugelhorn), Marianne Trudel (piano), Adrian Vedady (double bass) and Jim Doxas (drums). There are 12 songs.

Q. Do we as a society pay enough attention to people such as Eldon Rathburn?

The answer is no, very unfortunately. Then again, artists such as Eldon Rathburn are sometimes quite self-effacing. Certainly Eldon did not seek the limelight. To some extent, this comes with the territory of being a film composer, since when the film composer is doing her/his job well, they are complimenting the film’s narrative and images, and rarely (if ever) “upstaging” them. In the end, Eldon simply loved his craft and he loved collaborating with filmmakers and his fellow musicians. He asked for little in return and he felt that the luxury of living a life as a creative artist was the most extraordinary gift one could ever hope for.

My mother died on Nov. 10. The comments I have made above about Eldon figure into my dedication of the book to her memory:

“Music has enriched my life immeasurably, as it did for Eldon Rathburn, in whom I discerned a similarly deep and abiding gratitude for his profession. I am proud to dedicate this book to my mother, with whose loving care, guidance and encouragement I was able to realize my dream of becoming a musician.”

If you wish to attend the free wine and cheese event marking these two projects:
When: Nov. 23; 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Where: Carleton University Art Gallery, Carleton University

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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.