Thunderbird! By Kevin Mallon

Marion Newman first came into my life in 2003 when she sang in Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit in a recording for Naxos. I had the idea of interspersing versions of the original noëls into the mass, and it seemed only appropriate that we use a Canadian version of Une Jeune Pucelle- the Huron Carol. Marion sang it in the original language.

Marion sings the Huron Carol as part of the Aradia recording of Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit- at 4:53Since that time we have collaborated many times and have talked often about First Nations issues and the idea of collaborating with Aradia. Central to this was the need to design a project that was sensitive to the inclusion and presentation of First Nation performers. I felt that all too often this music and the people involved were paraded out for special effect- or worse, as something trendy. We hit on the idea of presenting the different members of Marion’s family who were First Nation performers and artists and to use the theme of Thunderbird based on the masks carved by Master Carver Victor Newman, Marion’s father. 

The theme continues, with the Thunderbird danced by Marion’s cousin Jason Taylor, who will be accompanied by his father George Taylor, singing traditional songs with hand drum.

 Recently I asked Marion what it meant to be involved in projects that mixed First Nations and Classical Music: “I’ve been involved in various projects that combined my two worlds of First Nations culture and classical music. The Magic Flute with Vancouver Opera was the biggest thus far. It was very successful and really made me want there to be more of that kind of good collaboration in my career. The kind of collaboration that helps people to understand that First Nations culture is still very much alive and that we are evolving and yet keeping our traditions close to our hearts. As part of the stage of healing from past wrongs, we need to share, discuss, make new art, create music that makes us happy and that opens the table for healthy discussion and understanding.
 My uncle, George Taylor, has been touring around the world, singing our traditional songs and sharing our dances with people in an open and respectful way for a long time. I have always been encouraged by my family to be a spokesperson for our culture. Someone who can show that we are not all stereotypical, in the movie and bad news way, but that we are open to questions and that we want people to understand that very many of us are healthy and happy, living productive lives”.
The Thunderbird theme inspired me (Kevin) to find music which similarly depicted the moulding of the natural world through supernatural forces. Into the bargain I am reminded that according to Robert Graves, “Aradia was the daughter of Apollo’s twin sisters, who was sent by the gods to teach humankind to order the music of the natural world into song”.
The Thunderbird is a legendary creature in the First Nation’s history and culture. Considered a supernatural bird of power and strength, it is richly depicted in art, songs and oral histories. The Thunderbird’s name comes from the common belief that the beating of its enormous wings causes thunder and stirs the wind. It is described as a large bird, capable of creating storms and thundering while it flies. Clouds are pulled together by its wingbeats, the sound of thunder is made by its wings clapping, sheet lightning come from the light flashing from its eyes when it blinks, and individual lightning bolts made by the glowing snakes that it carries around with it.The plural Thunderbirds (as the Kwakwaka’wakw tribes believed) could shape shift into human form by tilting back their beaks like a mask, and by removing their feathers as if it were a feather- covered blanket. There are stories of Thunderbirds in human form marrying into human families; some families may trace their lineage to such an event. Families of Thunderbirds who kept to themselves but wore human form were said to have lived along the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The story goes that other tribes soon forgot the nature of one of these Thunderbird families, and when one tribe tried to take them as slaves the Thunderbirds put on their feather blankets and transformed to take vengeance upon their foolish captors.

Aradia Ensemble performs with Aboriginal musicians  As part of the Aradia Thunderbird project Aradia presents works from the Baroque cannon which also have supernatural themes including Matthew Locke’s music for Shakespeare’s Tempest (as presented by in 1674 by Thomas Shadwell re-named as The Tempest or, The Enchanted Island). Also included will be two sings from Henry Purcell’s Tempest music.
In addition to the relationship between supernatural influences on the music, this concert attempts to find an even more basic connection between First Nations and Baroque music.Again as Marion said: “The biggest thread that ties together Baroque and Aboriginal culture would be the beat that music provides. It starts with the heartbeat, it moves to the drum, the instruments strike up, people’s feet begin to twitch and dance is born. It may seem like a crazy thing to be combining such forces, but in my heart and mind it makes perfect sense that we are doing this concert.”The climax of the concert is the performance of a new composition called “Thunderbird” by Dustin Peters, who wrote of the work:The Thunderbird legend is of particular importance to the Kwa’kwa’ka’wak’w Nation of the Pacific Northwest. Thunderbird’s beating wings bring wind and thunder, and lightning flashes from his eyes; when Whale consumes more than his fair share of fish in the ocean, a great battle between the two sees Thunderbird lift Whale from the sea, dashing him onto the land, thereby causing earthquakes! Commissioning “Thunderbird,” Kwagiulth and mezzo-soprano Marion Newman wished to perform a work that was particular to her distinct Aboriginal heritage, but set it in the European medium in which she is trained. Cultivating text from the Kwakwala language, Ms. Newman and I worked closely to develop a piece that satisfied both objectives. Instead of writing a work in a baroque style, I considered the particular timbres and sonorities of the ensemble to create a unique soundscape; that is, modern music to be performed on period instruments. Continuo instruments (harpsichord, organ, double-bass and cello), usually relegated to “grounding” roles, are given distinct voices that contribute to the characterizations and moods depicted in the work.