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Fanfare for a sustainable future – the arts weigh in

Singer Camille Hesketh and Ethos decided to create a “fanfare for sustainability” by commissioning a new work of music that they would perform at the VanDusen Visitor Centre. She explained that buildings like this are still rare and new, but like the pipeline debates, as more and more people become aware of this green technology they enter the discourse on the side of viable and sustainable alternatives.

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I optimistically hoped that perhaps Ethos was inventing a different kind of improvised music—something with classical roots that expressed itself using a different tonal language (as experimental or avant-garde musicians might play)—but I finally had to conclude that while some of the individual players have the chops to hold their own in a true contemporary improv setting, Ethos as an ensemble plays it safe—at least on this concert. Who knows, perhaps this was their attempt to reverberate with the beauty of nature that caused their restraint. In any case, even that reminded me of the Sam Llewelyn quote: “In gardens, beauty is a by-product. The main business is sex and death”. To their credit, improvisations on Touch Wood Sculptures intrigued me enough to return to VanDusen a few days later to explore the collection displayed around the gardens (continuing until 30 September)—it’s magnificent.

Touchwood Collection

Photo courtesy: VanDusen Gardens

The final work, Graham Flett’s The Duke of Green was billed as the highlight of the evening, the focus of the Canada Council grant, the reason the composer hopped on a plane in The Hague to make the trek to Vancouver, and the ensemble’s raison d’être for performing at VanDusen Gardens. With four movements, each named for a hexadecimal shade of green, Duke of Green tells the story of sustainability without, er, actually telling it. Just as Flett recycles an old Duke Ellington standard (any other connection between Ellington and sustainable architecture was utterly lost on me), Flett never quotes it directly enough to capture what the tune is (although he confided with me afterward, it's “Don’t get around much any more”). 

The four movements themselves represent four stages in the creation process of the original material, but jumbled up so that you couldn’t tell which was first, second, and so on. While the ensemble performed and Camille sang text written in an imaginary form of solfége of the composer’s invention (one flummoxed audience member exclaimed after the third movement, “Oh, that’s not English she’s singing?), Flett performed pre-processed sound clips on his laptop. But rather than an exploration into all things green or even recycled, it kind of sounded more like one of those archeological forays into an ancient septic field in search of discarded treasures. 

VanDusen Visitor Centre - atrium

Photo courtesy: VanDusen Gardens

Perhaps, it was just too obtuse to be meaningful, but what I found really disappointing was that I couldn’t hear the building. And on a similar note, why wasn’t this piece performed in the atrium where the breathtaking architecture soars up to the heavens, instead of in a meeting room? Unlike Vancouver New Music’s performance last spring in the atrium at UBC’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) where the connection was palpable, here you had to search for it. Really hard. 

Graham Flett performs with Ethos Collective

Photo courtesy: Ethos Collective

To Flett’s credit, he has a genuine interest in the subject matter—architecture and sustainability—proven by his brilliant essay, “Deconstructing St. James Town”, which is a delicious roast of the short sighted (and avaricious) mid-century “development” of a Toronto neighbourhood. Maybe I had expectations that the very timbers of the VanDusen Visitor Centre would ring in unison with the music, but when I looked up and it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, I concluded that The Duke of Green could have been performed anywhere. 

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