Bright Thoughts: Les Grands Espaces

Together, we each bring who we are.”

Bright Thoughts is a project of the Alliance of Canadian Dance Networks, seeking to share the moments of creativity, inspiration, and mutual support that we are seeing from presenters and arts organizations across the country. This interview was originally shared in the ACDN newsletter on Wednesday, July 8. 

As part of their Homage series, the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec has been celebrating composer Katia Makdissi-Warren over the past season. To continue the series digitally, they created a video performance of Les Grands Espaces featuring a virtual choir, and a dance interpretation by Barbara Diabo. Below, composer Katia Makdissi-Warren and SMCQ Director of Communications and Education Claire Cavanaugh reflect on the experience.

Can you tell me a little bit about Les Grands Espaces, the composition?

KMW: I’ve been fascinated by Inuit throat singing since I was a teenager and I have had the great privilege of working with Inuit throat singers for ten years, primarily Nina Segalowitz and Lydia Etok. Throat singing is a rich and textured art form and I wish it were better known. When the SMCQ commissioned me to write a choir piece for children, I thought this would be a unique opportunity to create a work through which the children would learn about this singing and perform alongside Inuit throat singers.

Les grands espaces is an homage to the beauty of Inuit culture that reflects its musical spirit. I am in constant dialogue with the throat singers to ensure my ideas are respecting their traditions. I wanted to imitate nature, as Inuit throat singing does, so I created sonic motifs that imitate nature for the children to learn. I shared my inspirations with them. With the motifs, the singers could talk to the children about throat singing, the context it emerged from, different songs, the sacred… We were clear about which songs are off-limits to non-Inuit. The process was a fraternal collaboration, a friendly cultural bridge, with a lot of sensitivity around issues of cultural appropriation. Together, we each bring who we are, we share, and we renew our humanity.

It’s through this lens that Claire had the beautiful idea of inviting Barbara Diabo. We discovered new facets of Les grands espaces through her heritage and sensitivity.

What was your process for putting this together, with the kids and education partners?

CC: The SMCQ commissioned Les grands espaces from Katia Makdissi-Warren through the Hommage series 2019–2020. As part of fulfilling our mission to make contemporary composers better known and disseminate their works, the SMCQ choses a composer to celebrate for an entire season. We invite the musical community—orchestras, quartets, soloists—to integrate one of the composer’s works to their programming. Theatre and dance companies joined the initiative this year, as well as a collective of visual artists who produced an exhibition of works entirely inspired by Makdissi-Warren’s music. Over 80 events were programmed throughout the country (reaching an audience of about 20,000 people) and the artist received over twenty commissions. It’s a record!

Children were also invited to participate in this Hommage series by learning about the composer at school. In fact, we produced an elaborate and free teaching guide for music teachers so that they could introduce the artist to their students through many playful activities. The guide includes a cartoon about her life, short videos, listening games, creative activities and scores made to measure. It’s within this context that we asked the artist to create Les grands espaces for a children’s choir. As we are writing our reports, we are very happy that over 200 music teachers shared Makdissi-Warren’s work with over 35,000 children across Canada this past year.

What prompted the creation of the video with the virtual choir?

CC: The Budding Composers event was to be the culmination of the Hommage series for youth. Several children’s choirs were to gather at the Complexe Desjardins to perform a spatialized version of Les grands espaces with the Inuit throat singers and Makdissi-Warren. With the children set up on different stages and balconies all around this huge interior space, the singing was to immerse passers-by into a magnificent ode to nature and Inuit culture. Some of the children were also going to present their own musical creations inspired by the artist’s process.

When the pandemic hit, we were quite far along in the process with our partners and collaborators. The children had worked very hard. We couldn’t end the year without following through by cancelling the concert. It’s why we decided to create a virtual videoconference. It was easy to say and not easy to do, but with the energy of our collaborators and the skills of the SMCQ team, we transformed the concert. As there is not interface that allows for perfect simultaneity (there are always delays in the transmission of sound), and nothing could allow us to sing live together. We thus opted for a recorded, virtual choir. 

How did the artistic process go, creating a performance together over Zoom?

KMW: What I really appreciated was that the SMCQ organized Zoom meetings with the children so that the two singers and I could offer workshops on composition and Inuit throat singing. They also produced a video on throat singing with Nina Segalowitz that children could watch before the workshops to prepare.

The SMCQ also established some formatting parameters to foster uniformity in the video and audio recordings. Claire Cavanagh and I recorded ten motifs and melodies from Les grands espaces that the young singers could record from their homes.

Each child could choose one to ten motifs to record depending on their level. And we received over 300 videos!

From these, I made musical edit that I sent to videographer Camille Poirier. She then created a video edit. Philippe Bouvrette mixed the sound for the final video. This is all condensed in a couple of sentences, but the whole thing was an incredible process with the SMCQ team, music teachers, choir masters, parents and children who sang from their hearts. And this is how the video Les grands espaces came to be!

What other ways, if any, is the SMCQ engaging with your community right now during the pandemic? How are you feeling about the role of music in our lives right now?

CC: The pandemic is constantly evolving and the government is adapting directives as things unfold. This great uncertainty coupled with radical isolation is certainly destabilizing and even anxiety-generating for everyone, including artists and arts organizations. However, our virtual event was met very enthusiastically by our partners and the children, who sang with so much heart in their musical videos. They told us that the project was like a breath of fresh air during this difficult time and many expressed how touched they were that they could gather, albeit virtually, to make music together. Practising music (and dance!) helps us to collectively live better, especially during the pandemic. We don’t know what the coming months have in store for us, but we remain convinced that we will find ways of continuing to fulfill our mission and to make today’s composers and music better known! Music will live!