As I compose I find myself following in her footsteps, telling family stories through my music, and turning my blurry memories and her artwork into aural soundscapes.
—Karen Sunabacka, composer
Karen Sunabacka is a Winnipeg composer and assistant professor of music
theory and composition at Providence University College. Her new work, Born by the River, will receive its world premiere by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra on Tuesday, February 19.
SCENE asked Sunabacka to fill us in on the inspiration for the work.
would fill the farmhouse when we all played together. I concentrated on
my fingers as the fiddle tune wove through smoky haze, dancing
relatives and mingled in jovial conversations.
Judging now, I would say
the violin I played was slightly large for my hands, but I didn't care. I
was fiddling, making music with my grandparents. My grandfather right
beside me, his fingers dance on the fingerboard while his bow draws the
music from his fiddle. The reel shifts to a new section and suddenly I
begin to panic. I'm falling out of rhythm - I'm losing my place. The
piano harmonies pulse from my grandmother's hands, steady as a
heartbeat. I focused on her rhythms allowing her surety to guide my
fingers. I smile and settle back into the music, all the while listening
to my grandmother's laughing and singing.
"Unknown Woman" by Lenore Clouston (Karen Sunabacka)
This memory inspired my latest piece, Born By The River
. The memory revolves around my Métis grandmother Lenore Clouston (nee Birston) who was born by the Red River near Selkirk, Manitoba.
Though she died a number of years ago, I still find inspiration from her artwork. Many of her drawings depict familiar, yet unknown, faces emerging from the dark like long lost memories slowly coming into focus.
This reveals a longing she had to make real the nameless and excluded gaps in our family tree. As I compose I find myself following in her footsteps, telling family stories through my music, and turning my blurry memories and her artwork into aural soundscapes. This acts as a reminder that her life is still dancing with mine.
Bringing together my Métis heritage, my grandmother Lenore, and my ties to the Red River Valley, Born By The River
is based on three musical ideas. First is a fiddling reel titled "The Old French." Second is a three-note motive I developed based on my grandmother's first name "Lenore." Lastly, there is a flowing rhythm that mimics the ebb and flow of the Red River. Just like my grandfather's fiddling was held together with mine by my grandmother's energetic chording, so is the fiddling tune in Born By the River
held together by the three-note "Lenore motive."
Layered over all of this is a consistent rhythm that flows like the Red River, sometimes fast and unpredictable, and sometimes slow and contemplative. The rhythms in the piece weave in and around the Lenore motive similar to the way the Red River flows past my Aboriginal, Scottish, Métis and Swedish ancestors (including my grandmother Lenore) just like it continues to meander through our contemporary lives in Manitoba today.The Manitoba Chamber Orchestra premieres "Born by the River" at Westminster United Church on Feb. 19. Other music on the program is by Haydn, Mozart and Gary Kulesha. Pianist Janina Fialkowska is the soloist.