Fledgling composers flock to Yellowknife for last Listen Up!

Fledgling composers flock to Yellowknife for last Listen Up!
Young musicians in Fort Smith ham it up with their teachers and composers during the first stage of Listen Up! Photo: PJ Marcellino.

The NWT’s future musicians and composers are swarming the territory’s capital this week for the finale of the Listen Up! music project, where youth will perform a unique choral piece composed of their own poetry and melodies collected over the past year.

Around 70 youth will take to the stage of the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre in Yellowknife on Saturday to deliver a one-time performance painstakingly crafted from poems and music the students themselves created during workshops at their schools last winter, with musical accompaniment by Toronto’s famed Gryphon Trio.

The 25-minute piece, arranged over three months by Vancouver-based composer Jeffrey Ryan, is made up of six movements conveying words and melodies students conjured up to describe the four elements.

The music was sent out to all the teachers in March for the kids to begin practicing, but this week marks the first time the students from Inuvik, Norman Wells, Fort Simpson, Fort Smith, Hay River and Yellowknife will all be in the same place at the same time. Ryan said the focus for the next few days will be on bonding and rehearsing as a unified choir with the conductors and musicians.

“I think all the kids have risen to the challenge and there’s excitement building,” Ryan said. “It’s so exciting because it involved so many communities and so many students. I’m looking forward to seeing so many wonderful students all in the same place.”

The piece incorporates poetry and melodies from each of the six communities, though only 26 of the 97 compositions, collected over the weeks that Ryan and Yellowknife-based composer Carmen Barden toured through the NWT last fall, could be used due to time restraints.

That said, even the work that couldn’t literally be translated into the choral piece has had an inspiring effect on the total product, Ryan said, and poems and artwork associated with the project will be presented and displayed throughout as part of the multimedia performance.

“I had to leave a lot of great material on the table, a lot of wonderful poetry,” Ryan said. “But it was an inspiration to have that contact with all the participants and remember what each community was like, and I wanted to honour their intention as emerging composers.”

The piece begins and closes with movements encompassing all four elements, while the central four movements take the audience through poetic explorations of earth, water, wind and fire. Some of it will involve singing, some clapping, some walking in rhythm with poetry, a bit of chanting and other spoken word aspects.

Though many of the youth will have never sung in a choir before, Ryan said the composition is designed to ensure each voice is held up by the others.

“I wanted it to be a fun but achievable challenge, with a reward at the end,” Ryan said. “It’s mostly all in unison, so there will be support for each other in the choir…It’s all about bringing the communities together to support one another.”

Documentary to capture final opus

The NWT finale will be a once in a lifetime performance of the Listen Up! project, which typically works with a single school in a single community at a time, but one set of filmmakers is hoping to capture all the magic behind the scenes and from the audience’s perspective as the project culminates on stage this Saturday.

PJ Marcellino and Hermon Farahi will be in the NWT this week to finish filming for their documentary, Way Up North, which has documented the Listen Up! project in the territory since workshops started in the schools last year.

The film profiles many of the students, educators and musicians involved in the project throughout the months of work, hoping to catch the sparks of inspiration as youth are moved to see themselves as forces of creativity and talent.

The film crew will be heading to Yellowknife with the class from Inuvik for the final performance, and then heading back up to Inuvik to document the kids’ reflections on the experience.

The cameras will also turn to several Northern indigenous musicians, like Leela Gilday and Susan Aglukark, to draw comparisons to their own paths to success.

“We want to create a parallel with what their process was and the students, what their process could possibly be,” Marcellino said. “The dramatic narrative is what we could expect from these kids, the moment when things click. I’m extremely excited to have those things intersect on screen.”

Marcellino plans to have a community screening in Yellowknife during the Yellowknife International Film Festival in October.

The finale of Listen Up! will take place on May 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre (NACC) in Yellowknife. Tickets are available online at naccnt.ca or at the NACC box office.

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