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A Moving Sound Amidst the Hedgerow: Choeur Maha at the Reford Gardens

By Philip Szporer
  • Choeur Maha / Photo courtesy of Krissi Cambell
  • Reford Gardens

Halfway up the Gaspé Peninsula, surrounded by the breeze and the beauty of where the Métis and the St. Lawrence Rivers meet, thrives a spectacular historical garden containing a collection of rare and exotic plants grown by the late Elsie Reford in Grand-Métis, Québec. Every summer, for almost a century, visitors flock to Les Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens to admire the beauty of her gardens and their botanical treasures. At the beginning, Reford was a bit of a Sunday gardener, starting first with a vegetable garden and then some flowerbeds. Between 1926 and 1958, she began introducing plants imported from around the world and, as a result, was often described as “a horticultural adventurer.” She ultimately transformed the grounds of the family fishing lodge, inherited from her uncle, Sir George Stephen, into a horticultural Eden. Over thirty years of careful cultivation, Reford expanded these gardens to encompass over twenty acres of land.

Today her great-grandson Alexander Reford oversees the Reford Gardens. Under his stewardship, a complete restoration of the gardens and the historic buildings on the property was undertaken. The gardens have also become a leader in nature conservation, creating an ecological park on the banks of the Métis. Each year since 2001, the Gardens have hosted the International Garden Festival.

Reford is always on the lookout for new ideas to incorporate into this premier garden event, bringing together hundreds of landscape designers, architects and artists from around the world. Enter intrepid and energetic sound artist, composer, and choral conductor Kathy Kennedy, a Gaspesian who divides her time between Montréal and Pointe Navarre, a town near to her birthplace. When she met Reford to propose a project involving her Montréal-based all-women’s choral group, Choeur Maha, she found him to be open-minded and amenable. He connected with the possibility of creating an in situ sound choreography in the intricate network of bountiful flower gardens and walking paths. Thus Incantata floralis, an original choral work by Kennedy for twenty-four female choristers, a concert in the open air, came into being.

This sonic choreography will move through six to eight of the historic gardens. An ode to flowers, Kennedy is composing choral pieces derived from the names of flowers in the gardens, all to be sung in Latin, French and English. Among the botanical rarities Kennedy’s group will be singing about: the Meconopsis betonicifolia, a luminous blue Himalayan poppy that grows in greater abundance in this unique microclimate than anywhere else in North America. Other exotic plant species in the garden include the Primula sieboldii from Japan, and the Saxifraga cotyledon from the Pyrennees, and Veronica armena from Armenia.

The event suggests a site-specific Magnificat fugue. “I have a synesthetic sense. I see the structural elements of sound as physical space,” says Kennedy. In this case, what she envisions is something like an eighteenth-century court dance, evoking the symmetrical sense of the garden, and using those structures compositionally. An amplified, though subtle, audio soundtrack will accompany the singers through low-watt radio, mixing prerecorded harpsichord accompaniment and electric guitar. Audiences, led on a walk through the gardens, will encounter Kennedy’s dynamic singers as tableaux vivants. The emphasis is upon creating uniquely intimate spaces in this layered acoustic and visual environment.

The notion of combining the diverse fields of choreography, dance and sound is not new.  Sounds can have their own connotations – breezy, light, windy – and the ways in which they connect with the position of the body (standing or lying on the ground), as well as the perspective of the stance (looking up, watching the flowers sway) can produce immediate visual contrasts and perceptual shifts in the spectator/audience member, and in this case, in their passage and exploration of the various gardens.

Rudolf von Laban worked with ideas of the dynamic qualities of the sonorities in space and spatialized sound design. Added to these, Laban was interested in the presence and physical interactions of the performers, his movement choirs, in the emotional, physical and communal power of moving as one unit. Much has been said on the political engineering of these groups, and their links to the Nazi regime of the 1930s, but in essence, it appears Laban meant for these community dances to be a mode of celebrating shared emotional experience, and often had his choirs executing these dances in open fields. In Choreutics, he wrote, “Movements can be executed with differing degrees of inner participation and with greater or lesser intensity. They may be accelerated by an exaggerated desire to reach a goal or retarded by a cautious doubting attitude. The mover may be entirely concentrated on a movement and use the whole body in an act of powerful resistance, or casually employ only part of the body with delicate touch.”

These ideas of kinesthetic engagement align with what Kennedy is tapping into. She suggests that the spectator will connect in this “transformative blend of experience,” stirred by the strength and beauty of the performers’ voices and presence as they wend their way through the gardens. Kennedy says the composition of her group, nearing its twenty-fifth anniversary and formed just after the École Polytechnique massacre in Montréal, brings together artists from a cross-section of disciplines, and is made up of “a big bunch of closet dancers.”

Dancer Rachel Harris, a Choeur Maha member, coached the choir members in movement practice. “What an amazing group of women. Such a beautiful mix of ages and backgrounds and professions and reasons for being there, singing together,” says Harris. This “very validating, affirming, warm family,” as Kennedy refers to them, responded to Harris’s coaching in finding “organic” gestures that would represent the sounds and rhythms of the music.

Harris describes Kennedy’s compositions as “already very spatial – the sound travels through the different voices. In some of the pieces she has the twenty-four members of the choir surrounding the audience so that the sound is literally dancing around us.” She found it “easy” to put movement to this music. “It was as if the movements were hidden already in the vocal lines. What I tried to do was to put the movements of the sound into the bodies,” she recalls. “When I see the movements rippling through the choir I imagine wind passing through a bed of flowers!”

Kennedy’s love of the body and space unite in potent unison in the gardens. She wants to show the power of song, and the promise that tonal resonance and harmony can spark an energetic or emotional shift in both the performer and viewer amidst all this natural beauty.

 

Incantata floralis
Sunday, August 9, 2015 – 3pm
Les Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens, 200, route 132, Grand-Métis (Québec) G0J 1Z0
refordgardens.com

Choeur Maha will also be performing at the Montréal Jazz Festival, June 30, as the opening act to the Barr Brothers. 

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