Vetta Chamber Music blends story and sound in Seasons of the Sea

by Janet Smith April 20 2016

To mark Vetta Chamber Music’s 30th anniversary, First Nations storyteller Rosemary Georgeson lends her voice to a new composition by Jeffrey Ryan.

The creation of Seasons of the Sea began by White Rock’s Crescent Beach, amid a stone circle that depicts the 13 months of the Saanich First Nation calendar. On each of 13 rocks is inscribed what happens at that time of year: the time when the salmon head out to the ocean, or the time of storytelling when the sea is too dangerous to fish.

In that place, while they took in the salty air and the grey November colours of the water and sky, composer Jeffrey Ryan, Sahtu Dene/Coast Salish storyteller Rosemary Georgeson, and Vetta Chamber Music violinist Joan Blackman reflected on their own experiences of living near the ocean and the way they each followed the changing seasons.

From there, they embarked on a unique new work that interweaves storytelling, music, and profound ideas about this place and the forces that threaten our climate. Commissioned to mark Vetta’s 30th anniversary, Seasons of the Sea is a West Coast response to Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. It will join the early-18th-century masterpiece on an upcoming program, bridging cultures and centuries.

 Ryan tells the Straight over the phone that he was amazed at the synergy between him and Georgeson, despite their far-flung backgrounds. Ryan hails from southern Ontario and is a relative newcomer to the coast, having spent the last 13 years in Vancouver (where he’s made his mark as an award-winning composer for everyone from the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra to Kokoro Dance). Georgeson has deep roots on Galiano Island, where she grew up in a First Nations fishing family.

“Rosemary would talk about what the weather was like at a certain time of year and the colour of the sea at a certain time of year. And I would think of English Bay: in the fall you get those windy days where the sea is very rough. At the foot of Davie Street you can actually see the fog roll up the street,” the composer of everything from symphonies to operas explains over the phone from his Vancouver home. “What she said makes me look at that in a bigger, deeper way. So we’re each having our take on the sea and what that’s like in the cycle of the year.”

For her part, Georgeson says being Coast Salish and growing up on the water has made watching the seasons and the weather a way of life. “The first thing I do in the morning is open my blinds and look at the clouds and try to read them in the way my father taught me,” Georgeson, who served as aboriginal storyteller in residence at the Vancouver Public Library in 2014, tells the Straight in a separate phone interview.

While considering the weather was second nature to her, listening to Vivaldi to prepare was new territory, she reveals with a laugh: “That I could relate to the seasons when I was listening to Vivaldi’s music—for me that’s strange, because I’m an old rock ’n’ roller. This is a very new world for me, but it’s been very, very interesting and fun to hear our connections. It was kind of interesting, because Vivaldi’s seasons and what I think of as seasons—there were some similarities: the calmness, the intensity, the feel of the warm sunlight and the wind on your face.”

The pair worked separately, Ryan on his violin concerto, Georgeson on her stories. Then, in mid-March, they joined with Blackman and spent three days of intensive work, figuring out how the words and music would intertwine. Rather than separating the piece simplistically into speaking and musical response, Georgeson and Ryan went for an aural tapestry.

“There were honestly moments where we’d try something and then it would lock into place and we would just look at each other. It was a total goose-bumps moment and we’d say, ‘This is going to be so powerful for the audience,’ ” Ryan reveals with excitement. “It’s more than just my music and more than Rosemary’s stories—it’s more than just those parts. It’s been great to collaborate with someone in a completely different medium than I do.”

The creative team felt that the natural season to start with would be what we call winter, a time when, as Georgeson remembers, her father was home from sea and told traditional stories to his family. The piece moves into spring, when the fishers get their boats ready. It carries through to the other seasons, but it also moves into a look at today—now that the weather and the sea are facing a more unpredictable future.

“We can’t talk about just seasons without looking at things that are happening now,” Georgeson emphasizes. “We’re talking about a time when I remember the seasons being different. Forty or 50 years later, climate change has had an impact on our way of life as First Nations people.

“I’m feeling the loss—the change of the fish and the weather. Look outside: this isn’t normal. We should be getting rain every day right now. If we’re going to collaborate right now and our two cultures are coming together, we need to acknowledge that this is happening and make sure both cultures are aware.”

So Seasons of the Sea will flow between ancient and contemporary concerns. But are there any recognizable nods to Vivaldi? For one thing, Ryan will be writing a part for a harpsichord—for the first time—in this piece.

He also reveals: “There are little gestures from the Vivaldi buried in my piece.…You may hear a fleeting moment where you say, ‘Oh! That sounds like Vivaldi through a contemporary lens.’ I suppose it’s a little game thing for me.

“But that’s just a small part of it for me,” Ryan adds with emphasis. “What I want is for people to listen to this continuous journey of the traditional Salish year. I want people to just go along on that journey.”