News from Canada: Out of the Silence
By Lael Whitehead, The Dancehall Players
What do musicians do when they cannot play together? Or dancers, when they cannot dance together in person? Where does all that pent-up longing to collaborate—that need to share with one another the joy, beauty, and love of being alive—go?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for us all, bringing to an abrupt halt many of the activities that nourish our spirits. The lockdown has also brought unexpected gifts. I have felt grateful for the chance to push an inner “reset” button. I have taken stock of my life, and realized that some areas were cluttered, chaotic, and overly busy. What will remain after this hiatus remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome, this quiet period has given me a chance to contemplate what really matters.
After two weeks of lockdown last spring, however, I was really missing music. My usual Thursday evening gig playing for the Victoria ECD club stopped on March 12. Other ensembles I participate in had canceled all rehearsals and shows. What to do? How to keep music alive under such conditions?
Stuck at home on Mayne Island, I began writing tunes. I emailed the other members of The Dancehall Players, my musical pals: “I couldn’t sleep this early morning so got up and wrote this tune and dance (“From A Distance”). I hope you like it! I am trying to capture the kind of mournful tenderness I feel towards the world right now. Such a lot for everyone to be going through... I’m thinking it would be fun to do a “tune challenge” once a week. What do you think? Want to join me?”
They said yes! Although none of us quite managed to keep up the weekly output, we were surprisingly prolific. Before long, we had sent back and forth quite a number of tunes, with a lovely variety of moods, styles, and dance tempos. Keith Malcolm, a talented tune writer who no longer performs with The Dancehall Players due to health reasons, joined in as well.
This collective flurry of creativity was amazing! We discovered that when what we loved was threatened, we cherished it the more. My tune, “A Dream of Dancing,” came to me in the middle of the night in late spring after I had earlier fallen asleep wondering if we would ever dance in person again. The ability to move in step with others to beautiful music, touching hands and meeting smiles, seemed suddenly a rare and precious gift. Some tunes composed by our group during this period (“Flattening the Curve,” “It’s Positive To Be Negative”) express a determination to prevail and look to the future (“Toward A New World,” “Clearing Skies Ahead”). And still others (“Stay at Home Blues,” “Here’s to Doctor Bonnie” [British Columbia’s provincial health officer], “Dunsmuir Road Hornpipe”) celebrate a playful approach to hard times.
When the tunes had flown back and forth over email for a couple of months, Ann Schau, our pianist and the producer of our five earlier CDs, suggested we record these tunes in an album called Out Of The Silence, since these wonderful tunes were emerging from the “silence” of lockdown and social isolation.
The rest of us were keen. But how to make a recording while social distancing? The summer before, we had recorded our fifth album, Unexpected Dances, at Fiddlehead Studio (run by my nephew, Adam Iredale-Gray) on Mayne Island. We had all enjoyed the peaceful rural setting for the recording process, how we had to walk first through a bit of forest and then across a former sheep pasture to get to the studio, and how we had been able to take our breaks sitting in the sun looking across the fields towards the sea.
We wanted to record again at Fiddlehead and decided to take a divide and conquer approach. We couldn’t possibly fit all six members of the band in the studio at the same time while maintaining six feet of distance. So instead, this past August, we recorded in a core group of three: Ann Schau (piano), Susan Larkin (violin, recorders), and me (recorder, percussion, melodica, guitar). Caleigh Aalders (cello) and Barrie Webster (cello, banjo) joined us for an afternoon each, and Gregory Brown (flute, guitar, mandolin) came later on his own to overdub. We were all wearing masks when we weren’t playing. Aaron Ellingsen (mandolin) recorded his parts from home on Cortez Island. Adam mixed all the strands together and added some beautiful violin tracks of his own at our request.
One of my favorite memories of this unusual process was when Gregory came to the island for an afternoon to add his flute and guitar tracks to what had been recorded earlier. I sat outside in the sun with headphones (equipped with a very long wire!) providing an extra set of ears as Gregory recorded his takes in Adam’s laundry room, his tea cup poised on top of the washing machine and his mandolin case open upon the dryer. Adam communicated with us both from the safety and isolation of his sound booth on the other side of the house. The three of us were never in the same room or breathed the same air, but we shared many laughs as together we decided which versions to keep and which to redo.
Creating this album has been a source of joy during a dark period. The adaptations that were required created different process than the norm and took away some of our ability to respond in the moment. Nevertheless we are proud of the results. The tunes convey a tender longing for what is absent, a bold determination to endure and look to the future, and lively humour in the face of adversity. We are hoping that choreographers in the ECD community might be inspired to write dances for these tunes. We are already planning Out of the Silence, Part 2—the lockdown continues, so the tunes just keep on coming! May 2021 keep the music and the dance alive for us all!
The Dancehall Players is a six-member ensemble of musicians and composers specializing in English country dance music. They regularly play for dances in Victoria, Vancouver, and the Gulf Islands. Find their recordings on Bandcamp.