Written by Miriam Johnston

Studio Bell: Home of the National Music Centre
Chapter 2: Artists in Residence

Studio Bell: Home of the National Music Centre by Miriam Johnston

The Performer Jeremy Dutcher

Artist in residency Jeremy Dutcher brought his unique style and Aboriginal heritage to Studio Bell, performing for the public on Nov. 18.

Dutcher is a classically trained opera singer from the Maliseet community of New Brunswick, and composes his music around recordings of his community’s traditional songs.

The recordings were recorded in 1907 by anthropologist William H. Meshler, who lived amongst the Maliseet people for seven years.

“I really wanted to explore traditional music that our ancestors made and so some people pointed me in the direction of these archives,” explains Dutcher.

Dutcher went to Ottawa to listen to the recordings and transcribed 30 melodies in the process.

“I studied as a classical singer in university so I was able to take that background, skillset and knowledge and apply that to this collection and let it live again,” expresses Dutcher.

“It helped me connect with my culture as well.”

Language preservation was also important to Dutcher when arranging the songs in his language of Wolastoqey. There are less than 500 people left who speak the language.

The first song that Dutcher played for the public was a “death chant”.

The first thing the audience heard was the original recording, which was soon joined by Dutcher’s piano playing.

He sung the same melody with his classically trained voice and lyrical piano accompaniment, filling the room with sound.

Although it was a death chant, the music was uplifting and very different from the a capella recording.

“What inspired me to go back into these archives and to work with them and compose music around them was the fact was these songs weren’t really being sung in our community,” explains Dutcher.

“People were really disconnected from the kinds of traditional music that we made.”

As an artist in residence for the National Music Centre (NMC), Dutcher recorded four demos to be used in an album that he wishes to create.

NMC offers 300+ instruments for the artists in residence to use during their week-long stay, and Dutcher found himself learning new instruments to put on his tracks.

“It’s been really intense to have to go from instrument to instrument to instrument, track by track by track and sort of build a song from the bottom foundation,” laughs Dutcher.

“Most music museums you can go and see it, but to actually be able to go and sit there and play with it, that’s a whole other thing.”

As excited as Dutcher is with bringing back the songs from his community, he prefers performing his compositions.

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“It’s awesome to be able to have the ability to connect with people, even people that don’t speak the language that I’m singing in or don’t really understand the whole context of what I’m doing,” says Dutcher.

“As a musician I’m just a storyteller and so I’m able to tell this awesome story and use these awesome old songs and bring them into something new.”

Dutcher says he’s a product of his environment when it comes to his musical style.

“I feel like musicians are like a collection of all the things they’ve heard in their lives up until then,” says Dutcher.

“I grew up with chant music and I studied classical music and I was a lover of jazz music and rock music so for me I just sort of replicate everything that I’ve heard.”

He also drew inspiration from his three musical brothers, and growing up, he wanted to be just like them.

Despite drawing inspiration from many people in his life, Dutcher still has his own unique style.

“It’s just who I am you know!” he laughs.

The Composers Joshua Van Tassel and James Bunton

Stock sounds are not the limit for Joshua Van Tassel and James Bunton, who are sound creators of impossible instruments.

The artists in residence at the National Music Centre fully exploited the 300+ instruments that the centre has to offer, in order to create unique and beautiful sounds that have never been heard before.

“A lot of people have access to a lot of the same sounds via laptops or synthesizers with pre-set sounds so this is an opportunity to build a library that only we have,” explains Van Tassel.

“This week we’re primarily collecting what are called ‘impossible instruments’, by combining three or more instruments from the collection, blending them together, running them through each other, making a new sound, and then saving that to our digital audio workstation to play back later and use to compose with,” says Bunton.

Not only did the pair of artists exploit the centre’s collection, but they also used the building to record in interesting and bizarre ways.

“The bathroom, for some reason the hot water doesn’t do it but the cold water, has this strange thing coming from the pipes, it’s this weird gurgling sound so we took that and ran it through this keyboard,” laughs Van Tassel.

“The lower you go the gurgling becomes these sort of this drawn out oceanic bubbling but still with tone.

“It becomes a very playable instrument.”

Along with the faucets, the pair also recorded in the elevator, and the stairwell.

Bunton explains that the musical style that they wish to compose in is neo-classical and that it portrays a sense of space.

“There’s a lot of experimentation in it but its also quite slow and simple in a lot of ways, it also has really unique, beautiful sounds, or more than anything a sense of space,” he muses.

“Which is pretty vague,” laughs Bunton.

The pair plan on eventually creating an album with some of the sounds they record during their week as artists in residency, but they say they are still in the “collection phase”.

While they have been using the building in their impossible instrument “chains”, they have also used a plethora of old and new instruments, even combining them together in a way that was not historically possible.

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One of the sounds consisted of an old pump organ from the 30’s, an instrument from the 70’s and another instrument from the 2000’s.

“That’s where a bit of the impossible comes from, is combining very old instruments with each of these instruments and effectors so there’s probably at least 30 years between each thing,” says Van Tassel.

One of the most interesting sounds that the pair created during the week was created with Van Tassel’s favourite instrument from the collection, The Explorer.

The Explorer is an old keyboard instrument that has metal tines that create it’s intended sound, however the tines themselves make normally inaudible clicks that Van Tassel amplified to create a new sound.

Combined with another keyboard instrument and played through a guitar amp, they recorded a previously different instrument as an entirely new one.

“It just ends up being this strange sounding wooden xylophone exotic thing, it sounds much bigger than a little 2 mm piece of metal,” exclaims Van Tassel.

“They’re interesting because you’d never, when you plug just that keyboard in, it doesn’t sound like that, that sound is very deep within it.

“We’re trying to push ourselves to find inner sounds too.”

The artists recorded about five or six new sounds each day they spent at Studio Bell, and one of their most recent sounds was recorded in the stairwell.

“The one last night was plucking that piano’s strings with my finger and then playing an old analog keyboard called a prophet the same note together, and then running those into a mixer, then into a guitar amplifier that was in a stairwell,” says Van Tassel.

“Then James went up a couple stories up with a zoom recorder to record the sound coming out of the amplifier.”

They call the process of recording new sounds from scratch “chains”.

“It ends up being this very beautiful, chime-y, roomy keyboard sound,” says Van Tassel.

Once the final sound has been created, it can be played and spread out on a digital controller to create new compositions with.

Bunton says that a world where everyone makes their own sounds is an ideal one.

“To be able to share those with other people who don’t have the same tools in terms of sonics to create [new sounds], sharing those worlds is a great part of the composition,” he explains.

“The ability to create new sounds and new worlds and new ideas is really an amazing thing.”