Thursday, August 11, 2016

Three New Reviews: Minevich and Waterman, Tracie, Sharfe

“Art of Immersive Soundscapes”
Edited by Pauline Minevich and Ellen Waterman
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$39.95  ISBN 9-780889-772588

Music, laughter, the rustling wind: sound enriches our lives. Of course it can also work the other way, as anyone with belligerent neighbours can attest. Sound is an interesting field of study for scientists and artists. I'd never heard of "immersive soundscapes," and was curious to learn what they are, why they matter, and who's creating them.

Enter editors Pauline Minevich (associate professor in the Department of Music, University of Regina) and Ellen Waterman (dean of the School of Music and  professor of musicologies at Memorial University of Newfoundland), who collected the disparate papers presented at the 2007 international conference "Intersections: Music and Sound, Music and Identity," held in Regina, and published them and a DVD of the presenters' audio and video explorations with sound in the book Art of Immersive Soundscapes. Combining science and art, rural and urban, nature and technology, macro and micro, the featured composers in this book show us a fresh and interesting way to experience and understand our social and physical worlds.

The interdisciplinary "soundscape movement" began in the 1960s at BC's Simon Fraser University, when composer R. Murray Schafer (and grad students) wanted to spotlight the "critical lack of attention to our sound environment, and its effects on our well-being." They sought to increase public awareness of sound environments, including noise pollution, and how those environments impacted on people. Schafer differentiated "hi-fi" environments (harmonious sounds, ie: streams, with low ambient noise) and "lo-fi" environments ("the confusing 'noise' of modern life"). The composer felt that, like music, soundscapes had the ability to "enrich the inner lives of the creator and listener," and he and his students collected sound from Canadian cities and European villages. From this they created "aural images".

The "immersive" aspect is the "social life of sounds," ie: "the myriad reflections, refractions, and reverberations that depend on the configuration of a particular performing space."

Practical examples include John Wynne's work with sound at a hospital in London, England. Using recordings and photography, Wynne provides the experience of "lying in the next bed trying to interpret" what's going on with a neighbouring patient. The project stimulates imagination.

Contributor Andrea Polli discusses the history of music from natural processes, ie: Aeolian harps and wind chimes, Balinese bamboo organs, and the light whistles attaches to the tails of young pigeons in China that produce "an open air concert".

Gabriele Proy's Austrian project, Waldviertel: A Soundscape Composition, was one of the most accessible, and his recording among my favourite. He designed his soundscape to represent a "portrait of a day," using only nature sounds, church bells, and a fire siren (played Saturdays at noon) … things that represented his fond childhood memories of this forested rural region. He combined these "sound memories" and layered them with meanings.
Like reading poetry, engaged "listening" gives us pause, and opens us to deeper realms of perception. Sound like a great idea? If you agree, you'll gain much from this illuminating text (which includes photos and charts) and the accompanying DVD.   

“Shaping a World Already Made: Landscape and Poetry of the Canadian Prairies"
By Carl J. Tracie
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$27.95  ISBN 9-780889-773936

The respectful and sweeping premise for this new book – the brainchild of author/cultural geographer Carl J. Tracie – is to "make meaningful observations about the interconnected themes of poetry, landscape, perception, paradox, and mystery on the [Canadian] prairies." In his examination of the poetry of place, Tracie seeks to view the prairie landscape "through the lens of poetry," and asks how the physical elements impact on poets and their work, and how their representation of the landscape influences readers' ("residents and outsiders") vision of this land.

A self-professed fan of poetry, rather than a poet himself, Tracie analyzed the work of nine "prairie" poets (they might not currently live on the prairies, but their work demonstrates "a long attachment" to it), including Di Brandt, Lorna Crozier, John Newlove, Tim Lilburn, and Eli Mandel, and found commonalities and differences in their subjects, sentiments, and styles. He also refers to the work of a number of Indigenous poets, including Louise Halfe and Marilyn Dumont.

Why would a cultural geographer use poetry to better explain a place? As John Warkentin states in the introduction, it's not uncommon for geographers to turn to the arts, as they offer "a more profound sense of region and the life of the people who live in it." Perception, imagination, memory, and myth all contribute to a sense of place and how one interacts with it. Tracie says poetry's concision and imagistic nature "gives us a sense of region defined by resonances."

The author starts with the obvious: the poets' treatments of land and sky - what he calls the "enduring elements." As a reader and a writer, I was interested in how the various poets portrayed similar features. Dennis Cooley writes of "an enormous sky far as you can see" and telephone posts that "[stipple] the prairie," whereas Lorna Crozier - whose work Tracie often found to include spiritual elements - writes "God had to stretch and stretch the sky to hold it." Patrick Friesen's sky is "a blue silk umbrella/arching over the city."

The text includes work that both venerates and laments elements of the prairie (ie: winter) and prairie life. Eli Mandel writes evocatively - if not fondly - of snow in his poem "Blizzard": "sluff of a dead god/in whose hair/like fleas/we are white entangled knots."

I appreciated the examples of philosophic poetry by Tim Lilburn, which Tracie says "suggest a mythical union of flesh and spirit," and demonstrate the "intimate connections that are possible between the landscape and its creatures," and Tracie's explication re: the differences between how Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals write about landscape – the former provide much less detail, as their culture matter-of-factly "embraces the land." The author also examines the prairie in terms of rural/urban, and it's no surprise that rural's the preferred terrain. John Newlove's strong declaration that cities are "concentration camps of the soul" underscores this sentiment better than any.

This book would be a great senior high or university resource. I'd call it "accessibly academic," and I enjoyed it.    

“My Good Friend, Grandpa”
Story by Elaine Sharfe, Illustrations by Karen Sim
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$9.95  ISBN 9-781927-756713

You don't have to be a grandparent to appreciate Saskatoon writer Elaine Sharfe's illustrated children's book, My Good Friend, Grandpa. Indeed, anyone with a heart will adore this beautifully-rendered tale about a boy's strong connection with his beloved grandfather, and, as in all the best writing, the author skillfully evokes emotion without regressing into sentimentality.

Want to write your own children's book? Reading and studying great books is the best way to learn, and I'd definitely recommend Sharfe's well-written story to anyone who has an emotional children's story to tell. The tenor is spot-on here. Sharfe starts and ends on just the right notes, immediately establishing the characters' close relationship by simply stating it: "Noah and Grandpa Ed had been good friends for as long as Noah could remember. Grandpa Ed said they had been friends forever."

Nanaimo illustrator Karen Sims ably demonstrates this tight bond via full-colour images that show the young, big-eyed boy and his loving grandfather involved in activities that range from watering plants at the family cottage to enjoying treats in the bleachers at a football game (and I don't think the green and white flag Noah's waving is a coincidence). In an e-mail, Sims explained that she used digital paintings to give the illustrations the "memory/dream-like look" the author desired. "Not too cartoonish."  

Noah and Grandpa Ed are each other's biggest fans. The images reveal a smiling, animated child until page 15, when the story turns: "Noah was nine when Grandpa Ed got sick." Again, no embellishment's necessary: stating the facts does the job perfectly; the reader's heart drops. (You'll have to read the book yourself to learn what follows). 

Sharfe admits in the bio notes that her inspiration stems from "childhood memories of her four children and the antics of her 14 grandchildren." It should not matter that the story is based on "real" people, but this fact does heighten the emotional impact for me personally. As someone who lived in Saskatoon and for a few years worked as a radio advertising copywriter there, I'm familiar with the Sharfe family's car dealership, Sherwood Chevrolet, and the author addresses this auto dynasty in her story. "Grandpa Ed sold cars," she writes, and the first illustration in the book shows the grandfather and grandson in a showroom car, where they are "[pretending] to drive away."

What I liked best is how Sharfe (and Sim) so effectively conveyed love. Imagine an esteemed businessman taking a day off work so he could walk his grandson to kindergarten, then calling him every day to ask how school went for his "good friend". Imagine a creative child who, when his grandfather's too ill to go fishing, suggests they "pretend" fish off the end of the sickbed.

Real, moving, consistent, gorgeous. This intergenerational story is one to be cherished and shared. Thank you, Elaine Sharfe and Karen Sim, for making me feel so much on a rainy afternoon in August. Where it matters most (the heart), your book's an overwhelming success.