Owner of an Open Heart

SusannaMMP

 

One winter night some years ago, I was driving home with friends after a performance of a Shostakovich string quartet at the Vancouver Playhouse. It was powerful and draining in the way live chamber music, at its best, can be. The ride home was quiet, save for The Signal (with Laurie Brown) on CBC turned low. We were driving west, along Hastings Street. Always with an ear out, I could hear faint strains of a harpsichord accompanied by a clear and vaguely mournful female voice. Absolutely captivating. I turned it up and drew attention to it. We listened for awhile. I recall saying something like: “What a fantastic piece of music … but what is with these ridiculous lyrics?” Normally, after being treated to some fiercely performed Shostakovich, anything remotely popular sounds pretty meek by comparison. But not this. It was elegant and powerful. And right out of left field.

 

 

That was my introduction to Susanna and the Magical Orchestra’s cover of AC/DC’s It’s a Long Way to the Top (if you wanna Rock n’ Roll). It was one of the highlights of her 2006 album Melody Mountain on Norway’s Rune Grammofon label. I promptly went out and bought everything else she’d done. Susanna Wallumrød is a fine songwriter in her own right but her covers are especially notable for their range and ice clear conviction. A random example? Her version of Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak:

 

 

When I saw a live, unvarnished video clip of Susanna and Will Oldham doing Without You (popularized in the 1970s by both Harry Nilsson and Heart) there was some detectable laughter from the audience at first. It seemed odd, as though the audience might initially have thought the song too maudlin. But again, it seems just right in their hands.

 

 

Many other cover choices she’s made (songs by Tom Petty, Abba etc.) seem incongruous at first. But after warming to, say, her version of Black Sabbath’s Changes I realized she had somehow elevated many songs (and artists) for me. Musical snobbery was common when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s. You may have liked some cheesy rock/pop growing up but you never appreciated those songs on the same level as those by whatever “serious” songwriters or groups you appreciated that were accepted in critical circles. But growing up means being open to the hearts of others and challenging prejudices. Great songs are great songs regardless of genre. And of course, Susanna has done a fantastic version of Dolly Parton’s Jolene!

Born in 1979, Susanna has a positive and all-embracing view. “Maybe my age allows me to look at the history of popular music in a different way. I try to free myself from what the groups/bands and original versions of the songs represent, otherwise it would be hard to make a new version.”

One consistent element in both her original songs and her choice of covers is the feeling of impossible beauty and impossible loves that are fraught, subverted and menaced. But then, really, what great songs don’t involve those things? For example, her version of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart stands next the the original on equal terms. And that is an achievement!

Susanna has also tackled several Leonard Cohen classics including the ubiquitous Hallelujah and, more recently, Who by Fire? As I learned in 1996 while working there, Leonard Cohen still enjoys a great deal of popularity in Norway so I was curious about some sympatico connection between our two nations besides a familiarity with winter cold. “I didn’t actually know that he is from Canada when I started listening to him, but it feels like there is some kind of kinship between the countries, yes. Sometimes I think it’s hard to pinpoint how much origin has to do with someone’s creativity – but you are certainly lucky to have Joni, Neil Young and Cohen. And Feist too, of the younger generation. And Arcade Fire. AND Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Many more I am sure.”

During her June, 2014 Jazz Festival set at the Iron Works here in Vancouver, she said Love Will Tear Us Apart and Who By Fire? are her two favourite songs. “They are not my only favourites. They are two of many. That said, these two are very special to me. The lyrics feel like they have existed forever. From the first time I heard the songs and read the lyrics, they made a huge impression on me. Like it’s supposed to be.”

On what draws her to a particular song to cover she is clear in the need for a kind of ownership. “Oh, that can be so many different things. But probably a wish or curiosity about if I can transform the song to be mine somehow. That can happen right away when I hear a song, or maybe many years later.”

Surely there must be an ideal or hoped-for collaborator? “I’m not sure who that is right now. It has a tendency to just happen. Will Oldham, Emmett Kelly, Jenny Hval, Stian Westerhus, John Paul Jones, Jessica Sligter and Ensemble neoN are some of the people I have worked with over the years. And as I have done nine out of ten of my albums and a lot of touring with (husband, renowned producer and occasional member of Supersilent) Helge Sten (aka Deathprod), I must like it! :-) I hope I will be able to continue making and playing my music. It feels like a very uncertain way of living sometimes, but it’s still the best thing I can do here on earth I think.”

And while we are still on earth, do explore Susanna’s work here:

http://www.susannamagical.com/

 

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Modern Hearts

Modern Hearts

Coming soon on the Redshift label is a new release of music composed for electric guitar by one of Vancouver’s finest interpreters of contemporary guitar music. For me, the highlights of this new recording include Septet, by James Tenney, and Nebula by Jordan Nobles.

During an average year Adrian not only performs superlative versions of minimalist classics by the likes of Steve Reich et al, but he tackles more extreme…and more delicate pieces with equal flair. He plays some wicked flamenco as well! Keep an eye out for Adrian in an upcoming video production for Vancouver Review Media.

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Northern Light

JohnMontalbano6x9JohnMontalbano3

Having cut my teeth in a market where the generalists are the survivors, I’ve enjoyed doing a wide variety of photographic work. Vancouver doesn’t forgive a high level of specialization when you’re a photographer. You’ve got to genuinely love a lot of different kinds of work, and be equally comfortable in every role. And besides, it suits my nature. So it was a treat to return to corporate editorial photography recently with a portrait of RBC Global Assets CEO John Montalbano for the Sauder alum magazine Viewpoints which, a long time ago, I worked on with Marian Bantjes. Now it’s in the very capable hands of Jennifer Wah and Brandon Brind. It’s great to continue the association.

The first is the image that ran. The second is an outtake from the session. Sometimes a pause in the proceedings yields a nice moody portrait. It was done during our recent fog spell where the light was brutally low. We were in a north-facing office tower near the convention centre which didn’t help. But John is a photographer as well and was patient, interested and open to the improvisation required when your time is whittled down to 10 shooting minutes and the light has gone.

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New Fall Sounds

Allusions Sonores

Allusions Sonores

New from Jean-François Denis’ Montreal-based empreintes DIGITALes label is this gem from UK-based, Alberta expat composer David Berezan. Allusions Sonores explores the soundworlds of Alberta’s Badlands, utilizes field recordings from Bali, and delves into audible life of Sea Buoys among other things. The cover image is from my series of “Petro Blossoms”, images of gasoline leaks on wet road surfaces. http://www.electrocd.com/en/cat/imed_13122/

Fourth Landscape

Fourth Landscape

And from Russ Summers’ Texas-based NuScope label is Fourth Landscape featuring Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser, pianist Benoît Delbecq and percussionist Gerry Hemmingway. The image is one of a series of wakes I have photographed from area bridges.

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Jonathon Young under the tent as Feste and Hamlet

Jonathon Young

Jonathon Young

I’ve always been a fan of small, independent theatre companies and for the last 20 years or so have pretty much missed most of the city’s bigger productions. I generally prefer things like Itsazoo’s staging of Edward Albee’s Zoo Story on a Ceperley Park bench or dark, powerful works like Pi’s recent crowd-slayer Terminus. But I just had the opportunity to catch Bard on the Beach’s delightful staging of Twelfth Night and who should be playing the role of Feste but the Electric Company’s Jonathon Young who, like Joel Grey in Cabaret always enthralls with an intense, darkly comic and very physical presence. Mind you, he’s also currently playing Hamlet in a spare, modern adaptation directed by life partner/collaborator Kim Collier.

This portrait was taken just before he left for Toronto a year or so ago. He needed a headshot and I headed over to their east side home with no particular approach in mind. This one didn’t make the cut but it is a favourite from that session. Simple, direct, and slightly unnerving. Taken on the back porch on a warm afternoon. Photographing both Jonathan and Kim Collier over the years has always been a treat. I wholly recommend that you check out any production these two are involved in; site-specific, technology-mediated or part of a big, popular adaptation of a classic.

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Some Brighter Stars

SomeBrighterStarsSQI was recently asked to provide imagery for a Projekt Records double CD re-issue of Berkeley-based ambient composer Forrest Fang’s early works, Migration and Wolf at the Ruins. I’ve done several CD covers for Forrest and Project in recent years but the deadline for this one came up fast in early May. I found a handful of thematically fitting images and during the initial search, I came across this one, which I was inspired to push further in processing, applying a heavy blur with the intent of blending it with another image. Then I recognized that it was strong enough by itself. It has the vague feel of a starry sky mapped out on a grid. So it was left. We went with another, much warmer and more organic image.

After everything was sent to the pressing plant I got an e-mail from Forrest asking if I had anything else, this time for a re-issue of his second LP, Some Brighter Stars. Yes, actually, now that you mention it! I’ll say nothing about the actual subject of the photo other than to mention that it involved a classic Modernist building from the 1950s. Sometimes the stars align themselves.

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Dead Lake Scroll

Mysterious Scroll Fragment Discovered

Mysterious Scroll Fragment Discovered

If you’re like me, you’re the kind of person who turns to the Discovery, History and National Geographic channels to see some, well, discovery, history and something befitting the nature of a National Geographic we perhaps mistakenly recall as once being something better than its TV incarnation. But silly us. These channels are now home to programs like “Hillbilly Handfishin'”, “Sons of Guns”, “Amish Mafia” and other assorted reality-ish programs designed for people wearing glossy track pants, sipping on a Bud on the porch of their trailer home.

So why not just invent your own great “Discovery” program? Dispense with reality altogether. Most people do, if only to keep their sanity. I thought of this while recently driving through the Grand Coulee area of Washington State where an ancient ice dam break caused massive torrents of water to carve the landscape in several fell swoops. The archeologist who theorized this scenario in the early part of the 20th century (but who was poo-pooed by his peers until the landsat images from the 70s proved him right) may well have been a guest on one of the aforementioned channels had they not morphed into…whatever it is they are now.

So herewith, an image that set the archeological world abuzz within the last few weeks: proof of a newly discovered scroll fragment found along the banks of…Banks Lake, a highly-managed, largely sterile body of water whose secrets are only now coming to light. Early indications are that this fascinating discovery will shed some light on area inhabitants’ diets, entertainment preferences….and where you can get your 4×4’s wheel rims polished.

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After Desire

Final_AfterDesire

This be the final version featuring “Plink” by Mina Totino.

AfterDesire2

This was created using a self-portrait in the flaking, glossy tiles on the side of a mid-20th century building on Broadway in Vancouver, one of less than a handful remaining.

Book cover time again. Here is another project for New Star Books, a book of poems by George Stanley whose last epic, Vancouver: A Poem was widely lauded in literary circles. If you know it, you’ll recall its cover featured a detail of a Roy Arden photograph that depicts a lone figure walking along Cordova Street outside the Woodward’s building before its demise.

The new book is also concerned with Vancouver…to an extent. Initially I honed in on one of the central poems rich in references to Broadway, a long, commercial artery in Vancouver that traverses east/west and has rarely shown any promise of cohesion or the ability to host much in the way of a neighbourhood feel along its many stops. But both George and I live in the same area where the street is the main thoroughfare and I recognize many of the places in his poems. The image in the first draft came from a spontaneous trip down to the medical district approaching the intersection with Cambie where the most radical transformation of Broadway is taking place. I like that it evokes a fading past while using a human form in a pose which (to me, at least) poses some questions about aging and refection.

But then. Rolf at New Star steered me to what he felt was the core sentiment of the collection reflected in the statement: “Don’t gaze into the abyss. Gaze out.” And so an altogether brighter, but no less mysterious, feel was sought. That’s where Mina Totino’s painting “Plink” comes in. And so it was. After Desire. Plink!

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Chance Encounters

Ben Ashton at The Irish Heather, Gastown, 2013

Fiona Garden outside the Irish Heather, Gastown, February 2013

Fiona Garden outside The Irish Heather, Gastown, February 2013

Sometimes life is pleasant and simple. One day a Facebook friend you’ve never met before comes into town, you meet up for a drink and the next thing you know, the iPhones come out and you’ve got a couple of nice portraits of a nice couple. In this instance; Vancouver-raised and now London-based photographer Fiona Garden and her fully English (in all the best ways!) artist husband Ben Ashton.

http://www.fionagarden.com

http://benashton.wordpress.com/tag/ben-ashton/

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Easy Way. Hard Way.

Easy Way. Hard Way.

Cover of EVENT, Spring, 2013

Ah, Hawai’i. So much to answer for. Something struck me as just right about this when I came across it on a trek up to the top of Diamond Head on the island of Oahu, Hawai’i. The hard, simple reality is that this improvised, unofficial sign served to give hikers an option of turning left for a gradual, view hike in the open air or turning right to face a vertical set of concrete stairs that led to a lengthy cramped tunnel. In either case you ended up at the same place; a crowded former military observation post overlooking that most beige of tropical cities; Honolulu.

After seeing a performance of the Electric Company’s “Initiation Trilogy” in December, I was completely smitten by the third piece, an adaptation of the work of Elizabeth Bachinsky. After getting in touch to compare notes on the possibility of somehow collaborating in future, she asked about images for use on the cover of EVENT. This made the grade for us both, very quickly. We hope it’s both funny and cryptic at the same time.

The issue will be on newsstands soon. So get out and support BC writing!

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