Cathedral Grove (and the Gray Jay) for solo violin and live electronics (2018) - 15 minutes
Premiered at the Canadian Music Centre on April 3rd, 2018
There are two video options to choose from for the piece (below). The program note is also below.
Studio Recording -- audio and video by Aaron Tsang recorded in his condo studio. This recording has a great sound quality, and an intimate nature since the camera never moves from this close up on my face.
Live Recording -- from my Doctoral Composition Recital on Sunday February 17th, 2019 in Walter Hall at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Video by Calvin Campos and Kay Evans-Stocks, audio by Peter Olsen. This recording is quite different from the first in terms of performance, timing, and energy -- it has the energy of a live concert.
On one level Cathedral Grove (and the Gray Jay) is a sonic depiction and emotional encapsulation of the serene, yet dramatic, ancient forests of redwoods, Douglas firs, and cedars in California and BC. In fact, ’Cathedral Grove’ is the name of at least two specific stands of these trees that I know of. The one I know best is in Muir Woods, which is a redwood forest just north of San Francisco. The other is a grove of Douglas firs and cedars near Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.
When I’m in Cathedral Grove, or some similar place, I sink into a sense of enclosure, space, and quiet. I notice wind and sunlight filtering through leaves. I hear rivers and birds and forest ambience — things happening nearby and far away. The trees are ancient and very big. It is moving and exhilarating for me just to be near them as they tower 250 feet above me, knowing they are almost a thousand years old. I get a sense of a larger timescale, as well as valuable life perspective. One of my goals with this piece was to capture some of this rich texture of sounds and sights, and my internal reactions to them.
The image of the Gray Jay is also important, but secondary. I chose to feature them so prominently simply because I had an amazing experience with some Gray Jays on a hike when a group of them gathered near my hiking group. They were flying all around us and eventually came and ate peanuts right out of our hands — it was during this frenzy of Gray Jays that I was able to take some recordings of their squawks, whistles, and even flapping wings (!), all of which ended up in the piece.
There are samples of other animals as well. A chickadee is featured prominently. Frog and squirrel chirps are in the piece too, though buried in the texture. I also make use of the sounds of wind blowing through trees, thunder, and rain.
My interest in live electronics for this piece came out of a desire to create the texture, space, atmosphere, and feeling of the forest as I have described it. They also serve to enhance and expand the gestures of the solo violin. I simply couldn’t have made this piece in the same way without the electronics.
Something I was interested in from a compositional standpoint was finding points of interaction between the violin, the pre-recorded audio, the live-effects processing, and the live-looping. I wanted these different elements to integrate in a way that a listener would not necessarily be able to tell which element was producing sound at a given time. This led me to explore an unexpected element — producing sounds with my mouth. One day I just started whistling and chirping like Gray Jays, and then I made wind sounds too. Since my mouth is so close to the condenser microphone mounted on the violin, these sounds can all be picked up and processed by the effects patches. This proved to be another interesting sound source and something I did not expect to do at the outset of composing this piece.
Lastly, Cathedral Grove (and the Gray Jay) is a personal reflection on some big life events that occurred during the eleven months that I spent composing it. During this time, a relationship of four years ended, my younger sister got engaged, and my grandmother fell ill, and eventually passed away a month before the premiere. Though I did not set out to write a piece about these events, I believe that by reflecting on them during the compositional process some of the feelings I had along the way managed to sneak in. At any rate, I’ll always connect Cathedral Grove (and the Gray Jay) with this time in my life, and all the things that have happened.
I dedicate this piece to Jane Smick, my Gram.