Musicians finding inspiration from the visual arts is not new. Don McLean’s Vincent (Starry, Starry Night) comes to mind. Hokusai’s The Great Wave is said to be the inspiration for Claude Debussy’s La Mer.
But it is rare for a Canadian painter to function as someone’s muse. It’s also rare for the visual art to project as complex as The Algonquin Ensemble.
The Algonquin Ensemble is North Frontenac’s own Terry Tufts (guitars) and Kathryn Briggs (piano) along with friends John Geggie (double bass), Lisa Moody (viola), Laura Nerenberg (violin) and Margaret Maria (cello).
The visual artist in this case is Tom Thomson.
Thomson, the quintessential Canadian artist, while never officially a member of the Group of Seven, was instrumental in their association and arguably responsible for the emergence of Canadian landscape painting as a recognizable genre on its own. He died a mysterious death in his beloved Algonquin Park 101 years ago.
For Tufts, who spent much of his high school years in the back of the room sketching guitars, Thomson was indeed a catalyst, but the whole project was actually kick-started by luthier/guitar maker Linda Manzer (who has made guitars for Bruce Cockburn and Carlos Santana). She also made Tufts’ one-of-a-kind instrument, a 50-string part-guitar-part-cittern-three-part-harp that otherwise defies description, known as Manzer’s Palette.
“We were looking at Thomson’s work (around the 100th anniversary of his death) with Linda,” said Briggs. “She’s a Thomson freak too and she said ‘I know you could do something with this.’”
That chance statement led to some informal exploration.
“Kathryn has her piano in our main room,” said Tufts. “I have instruments on every wall.
“We’d often get up at night and jam.”
“Terry became obsessed,” Briggs said. “I was ready to kill him when he was up at 2 a.m. playing the piano.
“Then I smelt pipe tobacco.”
Neither of them smokes a pipe.
“That was an auspicious start,” she said. “All sorts of synchronous things started happening.
“I’d often put a book of Thomson paintings on my piano.
“That was my music.”
“And there were a lot of gallery visits,” said Tufts.
From there Manzer got in touch with bass player Geggie, whom Tufts and Briggs have worked with before.
“Almost as soon as Linda met with him, John was enthusiastic,” Briggs said. “And he was well-connected.
“He knew string players who would be amenable to playing folk.”
The next thing you know, the had a multi-media, three-screen presentation, which they performed at the McMichael Gallery commemorating the 100th anniversary of Thomson’s death, and a CD, Sonic Palette (available through BandCamp).
“This has struck a chord with people our age (60+),” said Tufts.
“We’ve done five shows with this and standing ovations every show,” said Briggs. “And every show someone comes up to us in tears.
“Part of it is probably our connection with wild spaces.”
“Also, there’s the story (of Thomson’s death) but we don’t like to focus too much on that,” said Tufts. “Still, we are hard pressed to come up with Canadian stories.
“The 150th celebrations were not as ‘yippee’ as 1967.
“When you think about the things humanity’s doing to the planet and what was done to our indigenous population . . .”
But this too is part of it all.
It’s really an exploration of things Canadian, or at the very least, this part of Canada.
It started more than 100 years ago, when Thomson started changing the way we looked at this land of ours, through a visual interpretation that resulted in The West Wind, The Jack Pine and Northern River.
In a way, it’s almost surprising nobody made the connection to translate the feelings Thomson’s painting into music before.
“There are so many things going on in the paintings,” Tufts said. “There are descants running all through them.
“Where we live, all those colours Thomson painted, they’re all right there in the snow.”
They are indeed.
And now, we have those colours in the synesthesia of music.