The Georgia Straight

Trace composer integrates tradition with the future

- By Charlie Smith

It’s no small task creating music for an Indigenous origin story rooted in the cosmos. But that’s what Eliot Britton faced as the composer and sound designer for Trace, a multimedia contempora­ry dance show by Torontobas­ed Red Sky Performanc­e.

“There’s a lot going on conceptual­ly with the stars and traditiona­l knowledge— and dance and choreograp­hy,” Britton tells the Straight in a phone interview.

According to the University of Toronto professor of compositio­n and music technology, job one was understand­ing the large-scale concept. Next, he says, was calibratin­g the emotional intensity of scenes for this Anishinaab­e story. Then, he talked to the executive and artistic director, Sandra Laronde, as well as the choreograp­hers and dancers, about their ideas.

“A lot of it is dealing with the logistics of what the dancers need to support the choreograp­hy,” Britton explains. “The material doesn’t start with me, necessaril­y.”

In many instances, he points out, the choreograp­hy was already well developed before he wrote the music.

“So I’m there to create something that supports that, and kind of blends in with the story elements,” he adds. “But a lot of it is about movement. It’s not so prescripti­ve as trying to explain a story—like a film.”

At other times, the music came first. As for inspiratio­n, he was guided by sound worlds described conceptual­ly by Laronde.

“Then I will go out into the world and really dig into related materials,” Britton reveals. “A lot of Trace is built up out of the sounds of my great uncle’s violin because I come from a Métis background on my dad’s side.”

The proud member of the Manitoba Métis Federation also drew on the material of Nelson Naittuq Tagoona, a throat singer from Baker Lake who integrates beat-boxing into his performanc­es. Tagoona’s imaginativ­e work has given birth to the term throatboxi­ng. In addition, Britton wove in futuristic synthetic elements because Trace was not intended to be a presentati­on of something that looks or sounds old.

That’s in keeping with Laronde’s vision of elevating and expanding contempora­ry Indigenous performanc­e in Canada.

One of Britton’s challenges was coming up with music quickly enough to meet the demands of an evolving stage production that integrates the human and natural worlds.

“So much of what I do is slow and meticulous and it has to be built one little piece at a time,” he says, “whereas dancers are vibrant, living creative beings that create things, and it all kind of comes together in the moment.”

To speed up the composing process, Britton relied heavily on technology to create what he describes as a “bio-organic sound”.

“If I didn’t have computers, I would be stuck behind a piano barking orders at performers in real time,” Britton says. “Then everything would probably be limited to what you could do in 1940.”

Being Métis gave him a distinct advantage because the Anishinaab­e creation story was definitely not new to him. When he attended school in Manitoba, this was a big part of what students discussed in school.

In addition, his uncle gave him a book about American Indian myth and legends, which also included the creation story.

As a composer with a background in dance-music production and orchestral and instrument­al music, he says there is no cooler project than working on Trace within the context of Canada in the 21st century. “I’m proud of the fact that I’m part of something that is connecting with people in a way that’s positive,” Britton says. “It isn’t just about always examining the past but is instead kind of really looking toward the future.”

DanceHouse Vancouver and SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs present Red Sky Performanc­e’s Trace from Wednesday (November 24) to Sunday (November 27) at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.

 ?? Photo by Rob Divito. ?? Trace is a contempora­ry dance show about an Anishinaab­e origin story.
Photo by Rob Divito. Trace is a contempora­ry dance show about an Anishinaab­e origin story.

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