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Radio ›› The Muted Note
The Muted Note
Preparation (2011), 6m03s [excerpt]
Track 2 from The Muted Note
CD: &records (2013) ET 20
1 September 2014
By Jonathan Bunce in Musicworks #120 (Canada), September 1, 2014

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“The suite of eleven songs composed for the voice-and-trombone duo […] shows careful restraint and reverence for the source material…”

The Muted Note is a marriage of music, dance, and poetry — specifically, the poetry of the late Canadian writer P. K. Page. Her work was the unexpected catalyst for the first creative collaboration between Scott Thomson and Susanna Hood, both of whom were long-time linchpins of Toronto’s artistic scene before moving to Montreal in 2010. Trombonist Thomson, part of the bedrock of Toronto’s improvised music scene during his time in the city, was a member of numerous ensembles there — the AIMToronto Orchestra (which he remains codirector of), The Lollipop People, Woodshed Orchestra, and his own quintet The Rent; and was additionally a cofounder of AIMToronto (Association of Improvising Musicians Toronto), and founder of the music venue Somewhere There. Dance artist and vocalist Hood was the founder and artistic director of the interdisciplinary project Hum and a veteran of companies such as Toronto Dance Theatre. Despite their overlapping careers and long-time friendship, Hood and Thomson only started working together after their personal lives began to intertwine.

Their first collaboration was in the context of The Rent, a repertory ensemble formed with saxophonist Kyle Brenders to explore the music of American soprano-sax legend Steve Lacy. Instrumental interpretations of Lacy works featured settings of poetry by numerous poets from around the world, which in turn led Thomson to ask himself, What if…?

“It dawned on me that Susanna would be a fascinating interpreter of that repertoire, and I got really inspired by that project. While I’d written music in other veins, I’d never really written a song in conventional form,” he explains. “When we moved to Montreal, I thought it would be great to write some songs specifically for Susanna’s voice. So the genesis of The Muted Note is creating material for us to play together, and it has unfolded as several streams of playing the same book of songs in different contexts, in different formations, in different scopes.”

It was the couple’s wedding in 2010 that led them to Page. They received a gift certificate for a Toronto bookshop, and Thomson picked up The Essential P. K. Page (The Porcupine’s Quill). He’d read Page’s work when he was an English-literature undergrad, but hadn’t connected with it back then. This time was different, he says: “Opening up the book, it was just so clear that there was so much music in there.

“And there’s a quality in her writing that’s really important in the context of this work — the poetry’s not primarily about her, it’s not about her self-expression, it’s not about her emotional state, it’s not even biographical, except in a residual way. She’s focused on the details and nuances of the world around her.”

“And,” Hood adds, “coming from a point of view of a state of wonder, which is quite inspiring.”

“Yes, humility and wonder,” Thomson agrees. “And it was so touching to make this work that reflected such a love for the world around her and its tiny, massive details.”

Thomson asserts that the poetry remains the “absolute core” of the work it has inspired. “The music and songs serve the poetry. They don’t conceal or limit it in any way, they animate it in different ways. So in that sense, the dance extends and also relates directly to the poetry. The over-arching goal — whether it’s just the two of us playing as a duo, or with an entire stage production — is to create a work that’s not a music show, not a dance show. It’s poetry plus music plus dance, and the three media are serving each other and serving the foundation, which is the poetic texts.”

The suite of eleven songs composed for the voice-and-trombone duo, which can be heard on the 2013 recording The Muted Note (& Records), shows careful restraint and reverence for the source material, even as Hood sings dramatic Page lines such as “Go out of your mind / Prepare to go mad.”

Hood and Thomson were encouraged to record the songs in the duo format by their friend and collaborator, drummer—composer Michel F. Coté, who is also a cofounder of & Records. At the time of recording, they were well on their way to becoming deeply entrenched in Montreal’s active free-improvising scene, which was then centred around L’Envers, the loft performance space run by trumpeter Ellwood Epps. In 2013 Thomson assembled a new quintet, The Disguises— comprising alto saxophonist Yves Charuest, bassist Nicola Caloia, drummer Pierre Tanguay, Thomson, and Hood— to play his songs.

It wasn’t long before they began to imagine The Muted Note as a larger work. Movement soon became the next natural extension.

“I have a three-to-four-year creative cycle, and right when we moved to Montreal, I’d come to the end of one and sort of spent some time readjusting to the new surroundings and changes in my life, personally and artistically,” Hood recalls. “I was fascinated to see where approaching song from a choreographic point of view would take me.

“I’d already spent a good ten or twelve years finding intersections between sound, movement, and dance in very interesting hybrid ways, but when I started working with Scott’s group in Toronto, all of a sudden this whole inspiring and humbling new approach became available to me. Right from the start, my approach to the Lacy music was, obviously, singing the lyric, but then figuring out how to improvise on song structure — which was something I hadn’t done so much—and to do that both vocally and physically. Dance and physical expression are my first language — that’s always been my way into singing. So when this new suite came along, right away I was working with that material both physically, through the movement of flesh and bones, and also through vocal connection.”

As the duo expanded the sonic palette of The Muted Note with The Disguises, Hood also began to expand the range of movement by engaging other dancers, in part to ease the physical demands made on her by dancing while singing. For the large stage-work, which premiered in September 2014, the quintet is joined by dancers Alanna Kraaijeveld, Ellen Furey, and Bernard Martin.

Yet this evolution of sound and motion all leads back to The Muted Note’s foundation in the poetic work of Patricia Kathleen Page, one of the key Canadian modernist poets of the twentieth century. Page, who died in 2010 at the age of 93, was born in England and moved to Canada at the age of three, living in Red Deer, Calgary, Winnipeg, and Victoria. After marrying the then National Film Board of Canada commissioner W. Arthur Irwin, a former Maclean’s editor and soon-to-be diplomat, she lived in Australia, Brazil, Mexico, and Guatemala. As P. K. Page, she published over thirty books; as visual artist P. K. Irwin, she created works that are now in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario. Page’s first major prize was a 1954 Governor General’s Award for “The Metal and the Flower,” one of the poems that Thomson has adapted for The Muted Note. The title of the song suite comes from her poem “The Understatement”: “and so I use the under-emphasis, / the muted note, the less than purely rounded.”

“I thought it was a nice encapsulation of exactly what we’re describing,” explains Thomson. “The unmuted note would seem to be the expressive note, the one that sings itself. The muted note is one that looks outward and tries to express itself through things.”

Is The Muted Note, then, an expression of the openness of spirit that, for some, accompanies middle age? “Well, we got married,” smiles Thomson, “and that’s a transition in life. As a couple, that experience focused our attention on all that’s happened in the world, all that could unfold.”

Adds Hood: “In terms of looking upward and listening and responding to what’s outside one’s self, I think what’s needed is something in your make-up as a human being, regardless of your age, and maybe that’s what’s crystallized for us now.”

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1 May 2014
By Giuseppe Dalla Bona in Musica Jazz #762 (Italy), May 1, 2014

Press Clipping

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1 March 2014
By Stuart Broomer in Musicworks #118 (Canada), March 1, 2014

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The Muted Note is a striking accomplishment”

The songs on The Muted Note are an outgrowth of work made by trombonist Scott Thomson and singer-dancer Susanna Hood as part of The Rent, a Toronto quintet that was initially dedicated to performing the music of the late saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy — including his extensive setting of texts ranging from Lao Tzu to Gregory Corso. That experience led Thomson to compose this suite of song settings of poems by P. K. Page, a project that started in 2010, following Page’s death at age ninety-three. The suite was written in Montreal under the supervision of Jean Derome, with whom Thomson was studying at the time. Thomson has arranged the suite in quintet form for The Rent and in this intimate duet form for voice and trombone heard on The Muted Note. A version with choreography by Hood will debut in Toronto in September 2014.

The title of the suite comes from The Understatement, the penultimate poem in Page’s Cosmologies:

I speak not in hyperbole,
I speak in true words muted to their undertone,
choosing a pebble where you would choose a stone,
projecting pebbles to immensity.

For where love is no word can be compounded
extravagant enough to frame the kiss
and so I use the under-emphasis,
the muted note, the less than purely rounded.

Thomson’s work follows from Page’s sense of the undertone. What emerges is a kind of dance between voice and trombone, between word and sound — a subtle counterpoint between conjoined melodies and ideas of voice, always in close connection to the gestural power of Page’s phrases. If there is a tone of reserve, a kind of deliberate precision in the setting of Page’s phrases, it may exist to establish a kind of reverence for the poems, a desire to present as well as represent. But as the suite evolves, the music and words sail further, both together and apart. This Heavy Craft extends to a stirring Hood improvisation with multiphonic throat singing, a vocal technique that’s reflected later in Thomson’s sustained multiphonics on The Mole. Blue takes the title literally, exploring the range of jazz vocalizing from liberated exuberance to clearly ironic cliché.

The Muted Note is a striking accomplishment — an almost naked work, in which unaccompanied trombone and voice are frequent (it ends, for example, with a recapitulation of the opening As Ten, As Twenty, now for voice alone). One does not hear these episodes as the work of individuals but as part of a complex ensemble of poet, composer, and interpreters. The Muted Note ultimately resonates like Page’s galvanized language itself.

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6 January 2014
By Dolf Mulder in Vital #914 (Netherlands), January 6, 2014

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“… resulting in an intimate and charming evocation of Pages’s poetry.”

A new CD on the small Canadian Etrecords label of Michel F Côté. An album of songs based on the poems by Canadian poet P.K. Page, who died in 2010. Susanna Hood started her career as a dancer, and developed into an improviser both in dance and music. Thomson is a trombonist and composer working mainly in Montréal and Toronto. He studied with Roswell Rudd, Jean Derome, Eddie Prevost, a.o. He leads the quintet The Rent, interpreting works by Steve Lacy. In 2010 they released their debut for Ambiances Magnetiques. Between 2010 and 2012 Thomson composed a suite of 12 songs, inspired on poems by P.K.Page. He composed a version for his quintet The Rent, and one for Hood and himself as a duo of just voice and trombone. Thomson is working on a stage version of the suite for dancers and performers as well, because a lot of the poetry of Page is “danceable” Thomson states in an interview. Back to The Muted Note that contains 11 songs, sung by Hood with a jazzy feel, interrupted with fine solo sections by Thomson resulting in an intimate and charming evocation of Pages’s poetry.

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6 January 2014
By Rigobert Dittmann in Bad Alchemy #80 (Germany), January 6, 2014

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Wie hier beginnen? Zuerst einfach mal mit dem offensichtlichsten Reiz, der natürlichen Sopranstimme von Susanna Hood. Hood ist in Toronto die gefeierte Leiterin von Hum, einer interdisziplinären Truppe, die Körper und Klänge in Bewegung inszeniert. Als die ’Irene Aebi’ von The Rent ist mir ihre jazzige, schlanke, gelegentlich mit Scatting und Melismen verzierte Kunstliedsangeskunst durch die Musique de Steve Lacy (Ambiances Magnétiques, 2010) nicht völlig neu. Im helldunklen Verbund mit dem Posaunisten Scott Thomson, ihrem Partner sowohl bei Hum als auch bei The Rent, singt sie hier dessen Vertonungen von Gedichten von P.K. Page (1916-2010). Patricia Kathleen Page, eine der großen poetischen Stimmen Kanadas, die sich Anfang der 1970er auch schon gegen den Klimawandel erhob und nicht zuletzt gegen die Phrase vom Kampf der Kulturen. Gavin Bryars hat zwei ihrer Gedichte vertont (Three Canadian Songs) und 1999 mit ihr selbst ihren ökologisch warnenden Text ’Unless the Eye Catch Fire…’ aufgeführt. Page stellt dem ’permanent tourist’, der nur kommt, gierig schaut und wieder geht, ohne Verantwortung zu übernehmen, den Gärtner gegenüber, der sich kümmert. Aber nicht isolationistisch, auch nicht nur zweisam, sondern der Multitude verbunden und der Erde, auch wenn im Garten Rosen neben Stacheldraht wachsen (’The Metal and the Flower’). Hood betont das, wenn sie die schon eingangs gesungenen unsolipsistischen Zeilen As ten, as twenty, now, we break from single thought zuletzt noch einmal a capella anstimmt. Jeder ist eine Vielheit und Teil der Vielheit. Die Posaune folgt der Stimme als Double, als Echo, löst sich aber auch als Alter Ego, ebenso vollmundig, ebenso selbstbeherrscht. Pages weitere Helden sind der innere Ikarus in ’This Heavy Craft’. Oder auch der Maulwurf: The mole is a specialist and truly / opens his own doors; digs as he needs them / his tubular alleyways; and all his hills / are mountains left behind him (’The Mole). Der Sternenhimmel ist korrekturgelesen und fehlerlos (’Stargazer’), auf der Erde sieht es anders aus. Mit der Option, to go mad… to be huge… the least molecule of an unlimited form… to burn and be burned. It is where you are not / that the fissure occurs / and the light crashes in (’Preparation’).

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1 January 2014
By Stefano Isidoro Bianchi in Blow Up #188 (Italy), January 1, 2014

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Solo voce (Hood) e trombone (Thomson) per mettere in suono le poesie della scrittrice, poetessa e artista visuale inglese ma naturalizzata canadese Patricia Kathleen Page (1916-2010). Vocalizzi arty, virtuosismi, rapidi solo strumentali, interazioni un po’ telefonate. Conoscere la poetessa e l’inglese dovrebbe aiutare, altrimenti è dura.

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