Editing Modernism in Canada


July 11, 2014

Interdisciplinary Project Brings P.K. Page Poems to the Stage

Scott Thomson, a composer and trombonist in Montreal, has written a suite of songs based on poems by P.K. Page that will be performed in collaboration with singer and dance artist Susanna Hood.

The group of compositions is titled The Muted Note: Songs Based on Poems by P.K. Page and was written by Scott in 2011-12. The suite of eleven songs has already been performed by Susanna and Scott in a variety of contexts, as well as released on CD in October 2013. Scott and Susanna will be promoting this CD on their upcoming tour, which has a full schedule of duo performances slotted for this autumn. The coast-to-coast tour includes more than 30 performances in nine provinces starting in September and running into November.

In addition to performances of The Muted Note, Scott and Susanna are leading discussions and workshops and looking to collaborate with interested academics. These supplementary tour activities include practice-based workshops on improvisation and setting poetry to music, as well as discussions, artist-talks, and seminars on the interdisciplinary nature of the work and its literary context.

Scott has already spoken to EMiC members Zailig Pollock, Margaret Steffler, and Sandra Djwa, as well as Ajay Heble of the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice project (who works in partnership with EMiC co-applicant Alan Filewod) about collaborating for discussions and onstage conversations. Scott and Susanna are open to other EMiC members and academics who would be interested in participating in tour activities.


Dancers Ellen Furey and Alanna Kraaijeveld (photo credit: Alejandro De Leon)

Susanna, known for her excellent vocal and dance improvisations, has created choreography for the suite in order to produce an expanded stage work of The Muted Note that she performs with three other dancers, accompanied with live music by Montreal-based quintet The Disguises. The resulting show combines composed and improvised material in both music and dance, all the time keeping Page’s poetry as the central focus. The first full stage work run of performances (with all four dancers and five musicians) will be at the Citadel Theatre in Toronto, September 5-7. The next run of shows will be in Montreal at Studio Hydro-Québec, Monument National, October 2-5 as a co-presentation by Tangente and L’Off Festival de Jazz.

In corresponding with Scott via email, I learned that his creative process is influenced by American composer Steve Lacy, who set poetry to music in compositions that allowed for extension and variation through improvisation.

“Like the music, the dances are composed so that they can be extended through improvisation and, in this way, The Muted Note depends on the creative input of the entire ensemble in performance,” says Scott.


Photo credit: Alejandro De Leon

Scott also shares his reasoning for choosing Page’s poems as the focus of his performance project:

“In my search for suitable texts to do such work, I revisited P.K. Page, whom I’d read and enjoyed as an undergraduate. Returning to her verse after many years, I was struck by the beautifully wrought craft it reflects; by her light touch working (playing) with metre, rhyme, and form; and by the singing quality of her ‘galvanized language,’ as my friend, music critic Stuart Broomer, puts it. Moreover, I was taken by the fact that little in Page’s verse is confessional, autobiographical, or sentimental. It is fundamentally about the world around her, and depends on deep and different kinds of attention to its details and nuances. Her self-expression resonates primarily as the residue of her loving elucidation of things, people, and states of being that surround her –– a beautifully selfless and generous offering.”

While Scott admits that he had to choose Page’s shorter poems for practical reasons, he also selected pieces that struck him as already having a song-like feel. He speaks further on his selection process and pairing music with Page’s words:

“While I did not seek to illustrate thematic or semantic aspects of the texts in too overt a way, a listener may trace the route of a subterranean rodent through the ascending and descending melody line of ‘The Mole,’ which accelerates with the tempo change that the poem’s syntax and lineation suggest. And I could not resist turning “Blue” into a blues, albeit an ironic one about the unequivocally ‘first-world’ problem of Page’s inability to represent the colour of flowers in language. Surely, ‘Blue’ is the first song in history of the blues to contain the word ‘delphinium!’”

Wishing to keep the texts at the centre of his suite, Scott crafted music that enhanced the text’s musical qualities both functionally and poetically.

“Just as Page’s poetry is not primarily about the poet herself, I sought to write music that is not so much a vehicle for my own self-expression, and which could be foremost about the verse it sets,” he says. “My main goal is to animate and activate the texts in ways that underscore the timeless connections between poetry, song, and dance.”

“The Muted Note is a Poetry + Music + Dance show,” explains Scott, “and, from what we know about P.K. Page’s discipline-defying, wide-ranging imagination, she would surely have appreciated the spirit of our creative inquiry.”

More information, including the full tour schedule, can be found at www.scottthomson.ca. You can also find Susanna and Scott’s recording of The Muted Note suite for sale here and view a short documentary about the performance here.


Susanna Hood and Scott Thomson (photo credit: Joane Hétu)




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