leave a note: place and memory in the music of rozalind macphail

Near the beginning of April, I had the chance to interview singer-songwriter Rozalind MacPhail about her most recent audio-visual project, From the River to the Ocean, which has its St. John’s premiere on May 12 at Suncor Hall, MUN School of Music.

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Rozalind MacPhail and flute. Photo: Paddy Barry. October 2016.

When I arrive at her studio in downtown St. John’s, I am immediately taken aback by the breathtaking view of the harbour through her giant living room window. We share personal details, have some good laughs and drink chamomile tea. Over the course of our hour-long conversation, Rozalind brings me through her musical past and into her present. In this post, I would like to share with you three important themes that emerge from her narration: autobiography, memory, and place.

It is 3:30 PM. Her living room is filled with plants, art, instruments, and lovely furniture. It is the perfect environment for talking about a musical life history.

I’m from Toronto Island which is a small island nestled in the harbour of Toronto, and it’s 7 km long, there’s about 900 people that live there, and the only way you can get there is by ferry, or if you’re lucky enough, plane. It’s a really neat place to grow up because there’s no stores, no cars. A very small community of people, and when I was growing up there a very artistic community. My parents were both hippies and I was definitely a wild flower child, and would basically stand on the table and would perform for anybody who would listen to me sing. That’s where I grew up, and I lived there right up until my first year of university. I went to U of T for classical flute, and I also went to the Etobicoke School of the Arts for high school, and that was a really great place to develop into finding my own voice. 

At 13, she had developed very bad asthma. She started playing the flute after her grandmother had read an article about how wind instruments help asthmatics control their breathing. At first, she was grossed out by the instrument, turned off by the thought of moisture and spit inside. But as soon as she started playing, she fell in love with it. Now in her 40s, Rozalind’s musical journey has been one of constant evolution and change, from musical theatre, classical flute, and choir, to studying flute at the graduate level.

I was in a Master’s program for classical flute, and I was having these experiences of playing in the orchestra and feeling closed off, and feeling like my own voice wasn’t being heard, and I just didn’t feel right about that. Circumstance had it that I just decided to leave that program, and I never finished my Master’s degree. Someday maybe I will, but I felt like that time was just not the right time. I needed to get on the stage, tap into my voice, and feel good about who I was. So what I did is I left that program, and the whole time I had gone through those transitions in my life, I always taught. I love teaching, it’s been one of my major passions in life. I taught privately after I left the music program, and at the same time would go and improvise on flute with different singer-songwriters around town at the open mic nights, and discovered that I had a real passion for improvisation and a real passion for taking the written page away from the equation and just using my own voice, my own sensibilities to express whatever was inspiring me in that present moment.

Like Peter Knight, Rozalind’s musical history reveals “a narrative about spontaneity and freespiritedness and improvisation” (2009: 78). As a method, improvisation is the thinking-out-loud of the self who speaks through sound. Improvising is a building of layers. For a few years, Rozalind had been doing improv work with various musicians and bands like Yo La Tengo, Lou Barlow and the Great Lake Swimmers, but she didn’t feel fulfilled, she knew that her music practice was lacking something important.

Here I have all of this classical training, I’ve practiced for years and years and years. And funny enough, one of my friends from Toronto in one of my favourite bands just gave me his classical guitar and sent me home to Ottawa with it. I just started practicing in the middle of the night, and tried to see what it was like to write my own songs, because as a flutist who had always played the melodic line or playing in the upper range and all of these tendencies of the classical flute world, I had never really thought in a harmonic way. I had never thought about how to write a song. Like, what does that mean? How do I write lyrics? And so many friends in bands over the years said to me, ‘Rozalind, you’ve gotta start your own band, you’ve gotta start doing your own stuff.’ And I was always very resistant to that. And it’s funny, I’m turning 43 this year and I’m amazed at how there are times in our lives where we’re just so resistant to things. I’m learning as I get older that the more resistant we are, we tend to attract more of that into our lives. But not only that, they’re usually the moments that can teach us the most. And that’s one of those moments – I was so resistant to writing my own songs, I had convinced myself over the years that as a flutist I wasn’t capable of doing that. Meanwhile, I had all the foundation I needed. I had done musical theatre, I had done vocal training. But in my own heart, I didn’t feel capable of doing it. But here I was with an instrument, the guitar, where I was determined not to take lessons for it. To completely teach myself the instrument, and to start with a complete beginner’s mind. And that’s what I did, I taught myself, I wrote my lyrics on my own and I just did a completely different approach.

As David Carless and Kitrina Douglas suggest, “the songwriting process entails some kind of movement away from conscious, controlled thought processes towards a more open sense of discovering alternative stories” (2009: 31). For Rozalind, starting with a beginner’s mind was an attempt at moving toward a music practice that is aleatory and without restraint. One that is about change, one that comes through bursts in time, one that warbles from the heart, from memories, from experiences.

I’ve documented every aspect of my journey, and it’s unbelievable how much it has changed over the years, and it’s all through where I’ve been, because I’ve moved a lot and I’ve been inspired by different people and different places. I’ve changed mediums, so that’s the other thing, going from classical flute to guitar and to a simple looping pedal and developing my voice, and then changing software from a PC to an Apple computer, and the transition about learning MIDI, and then learning Ableton Live, and then recording, and producing, and film-making, and it just keeps going! When we’re artists, that’s the thing, our life will just constantly change over the years. It’s never going to be the same. And people always ask me, ‘why do you think you look so young?’ When I compare myself to all my friends who are the same age, especially the ones who are in full-time families, we just don’t look the same age. People ask me that all time, ‘how do you look so young?’ And I think it’s through being an artist, being able to mold into whatever we need to, or adapt, we’re really amazing adapters. I think that keeps us young, at heart, and it keeps our bodies young. And traveling keeps us young, keeps us fresh. I love it, I’m excited to see what’s gonna happen 20 years from now because I really have no idea how it’s gonna look like as an artist and what type of music I’ll be creating, or if I will be creating music. Maybe I won’t even be playing the flute anymore!

All these thoughts about dynamic change in music made me want to learn more about her process of working through this project, From the River to the Ocean. Rozalind told me that all of her audio-visual projects are very place-based and rooted in a desire to capture her memories. For her, audio-visual projects give life to memories of people, places, and periods of time. Sara Cohen writes, “music also creates its own time, space, and motion, taking people out of ‘ordinary time” (1995: 444). By performing her memories on stage, Rozalind also takes anyone listening out of ordinary time and into her past.

This is my third audio-visual project that I’ve worked on. And my thing for the past two projects before that was to focus on the places I was inspired by, and to work with the musicians I’ve connected with along the way. My first project was ‘Painted Houses’ which was a silent film project with live music that I did in St. John’s, and it was inspired by the winter. And then I took it further, I decided to do a DVD project where I focused on the films being all inspired by different parts of Canada, and invited a wider range of musicians to contribute, so it was filmmakers and musicians from all across Canada, and some outside of Canada as well. That one was really just my love song for Canada. There’s so many beautiful places that I’ve toured through, that I’ve fallen in love with and I wanted to have a personal keepsake of those memories in my life. That project took me about seven years to create. That one really burnt me out and it cost a huge fortune to finish, so I decided if I was gonna do another audio-visual project, it would have to be a very different approach.

Funny enough, this resistance to change sometimes, I kept getting this message in different areas of my life about this wonderful artistic residency through the Cucalorus Film Festival. And it just kept coming to me, in different circles I’d be hearing about this artist residency, and the Cucalorus Film Festival is in Wilmington, North Carolina, so it’s kind of bizarre to be hearing about this festival that I had never been to. One of my biggest mentors in the film world, Ingrid Veninger, had posted about it a few times on Facebook, and I had even written to the director of the festival to ask him about the residency, and everyone just kept saying ‘apply, apply, apply!’ For some reason, I just kept procrastinating or not getting it together to apply. I was at the Banff Centre and while I was there I wrote again, and I said ‘I know I’m passed the deadline, would you still consider me for an application?’ They wrote back and said yes. It just seemed like the stars were aligned to go and travel to North Carolina. And I had some really good memories from my childhood there because my grandparents used to take me there every couple years for a couple of weeks and stay on the beach, and it was just such a neat experience. So I had fond memories of North Carolina and I was ready for a change. And I got in! All of a sudden I had to pack up all my stuff and sublet my apartment and just take a great risk, jump off the bridge and see where it took me. And I went to North Carolina for three months, and I think I started writing the first song in this project the first day I got there. I just was immediately inspired by that town and by the festival experience. It’s a really special place. It reminds me a lot of St. John’s in the sense that it has a lot of history and you can feel ghosts everywhere. It’s almost like they’re wanting visitors to tell their stories.

This project offers visual and sonic glimpses into a collection of stories from Wilmington, stories that Rozalind came face to face with, feeling the desire to write them using sound. Carless and Douglas question: “How might the process of writing a song provide access to the kinds of understanding or knowledge that can act as a template for a ‘new’ story that better fits personal experience” (2009: 31)? Further, how does telling a story about Wilmington through song or video also tell an autobiographical story about her life there?

At the time that I was there, I had a super 8 camera, and I decided that I was going to try dabbling in filmmaking. And the director happened to have three rolls of film that I could use, and the university in town happened to have a professor that knew how to do hand-processing so he taught me how to process my film. So there was just this constant creative collaboration that was going on. It took a long time though, it’s like the seeds were planted during my residency, and some of the songs had started to take shape. But the real magic happened after I had finished my first two films in the project and had experienced the festival for the first time, which was at the end of my residency. Then I went home to St. John’s with all of this wealth of experience and knowledge and inspiration and I did what I do best, I brought people together to create a project. All of the footage that’s part of this project is created by different people who either live in Wilmington, were visiting Wilmington, and were inspired by Wilmington. So the projects have a lot of autobiographical content, but they also have a lot of other things.

At the time, the tax incentives for the film community were cut, and it was devastating for the film industry in Wilmington. And everywhere I was walking throughout the town I would see these stickers that would say ‘film = jobs’ and I wondered about what these stickers were for, and the more I heard about what was going on, I was like, ‘ wow, we really need to do a short film about this horrible situation that’s going on.’ Then there was a park that I absolutely loved, Greenfield Park, that I spent a lot of time in with gorgeous white cranes and Spanish moss everywhere. Just such a neat spot that had to be in one of the films. There was also a beach I went to all the time called Wrightsville Beach, and there happened to be this neat mailbox that sat on the beach and I loved it because people would leave little notes and journals and write messages to each other. One of the films that I created is called ‘Leave a Note’ and it’s a little story about my last day in Wilmington before I had to fly back to St. John’s, and trying to make a decision between two very heart-wrenching things.

As Cohen suggests, “music is not only bound up with the production of place through collective interpretation, it is also interpreted in idiosyncratic ways by individual listeners, with songs, sounds and musical phrases evoking personal memories and feelings associated with particular places” (1995: 445). Rozalind’s words illustrate how the Wilmington that is visible and audible in this project is one created by the experiences and memories of many individuals at the Cucalorus Film Festival, each affected by their time spent living, producing, and becoming in place.

It really is a magical spot, and the river and the ocean around Wilmington connect the whole thing. I think we can all relate to that, wherever we live. ‘From the River to the Ocean’ just seemed like the perfect name for this project because it’s what brought us all together. There’s a real sense of nostalgia in the project too because it was a special time and place for all of us in our lives and Wilmington brought us all together, so it’s interesting because I wondered how this project would fit together because all the films are so unique, but there’s a connection of a special place and special time in all our lives where we can’t repeat that. Already, looking at some of the films, times have changed.

Above all, Rozalind’s music practice helps elucidate the notion of “music and place not as fixed and bounded texts or entities but as social practice involving relations between people, sounds, images, artifacts and the material environment” (Cohen 1995: 438). Certainly, as time and change are pertinent components of her music practice, I wanted to know how her everyday life is affected by her experiences and memories, and if performing the songs from this project produces affects in her.

It definitely brings me right back there. Especially certain pieces, some more than others. ‘Wilmington Tide’ really gets me every time I play it because it brings me back to those hot summer nights. Funny enough, I wrote it because I was homesick for Newfoundland. Now when I play it I’m homesick for North Carolina. It has a double meaning for me. All of the songs in the project typically bring me right back to that moment in time, and that’s part of the reason why I love performing them.

You can read more about Rozalind and this project, and listen to her work, by visiting these links:

http://www.rozalindmacphail.com
https://www.facebook.com/events/433218607024470
https://rozalindmacphail.bandcamp.com

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References

Carless, David., and Kitrina Douglas. 2009. “Songwriting and the Creation of Knowledge,” In Music Autoethnographies: Making Autoethnography Sing/ Making Music Personal, eds. Brydie-Leigh Bartleet and Carolyn Ellis, 23-38. Bowen Hills, Queensland: Australian Academic Press.

Cohen, Sara. 1995. “Sounding out the City: Music and the Sensuous Production of Place,” In Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 20 (4): 434-446. DOI: 10.2307/622974.

Knight, Peter. 2009. “Creativty and Improvisation: A Journey into Music,” In Music Autoethnographies: Making Autoethnography Sing/ Making Music Personal, eds. Brydie-Leigh Bartleet and Carolyn Ellis, 73-84. Bowen Hills, Queensland: Australian Academic Press.

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