My first cemetery show: the Little Chamber Music Series That Could – ‘3339’

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The Little Chamber Music Series That Could performing Mark Haney’s 3339 at Celebration Hall, June 28, 2016

Often, the best performances are ones that aren’t what I expect. Last Tuesday, the Little Chamber Music Series That Could remembered Terry Fox on the 35th anniversary of his passing with two free performances of Mark Haney’s 3339, the title of which refers to the number of miles Fox ran. I don’t know much about chamber music, but I’m into resonance, pulsation, organically unfurling looping motifs, and field recordings, so the event’s description caught my eye:

Commissioned by Redshift Music in 2012, Mark Haney’s 3339 incorporates resonant melodies, pulsing ostinati, numerically-derived structures and materials, looping figures and motifs, enveloping soundscapes, field recordings and a storyteller to re-tell the most mythic of all Canadian tales: The story of Terry Fox and his Marathon of Hope.

Dank punk houses, skate parks, skate shops, denim retail stores, art galleries – I’ve seen a fair amount of shows in unconventional settings, but up until 3339, I’d never seen a show in a graveyard. Not even on Halloween. How deliciously morbid!

Although 3339 took place at Mountain View Cemetery, unfortunately, the performance occurred not en plein air but instead within the confines of Celebration Hall. (At least the doors were open, allowing in ample daylight.)

For 33 minutes, 39 seconds, the chamber group – which was composed of double bass, flute/alto flute, viola, and marimba – recited a soundtrack to a live narration of Terry Fox’s life story and the progression of the Marathon of Hope. Unlike conventional tellings of Fox’s story, 3339 emphasized not his failure to cross the country but the sheer miracle of his accomplishment, partially quantified in numbers including the dollar amounts of funds he raised according to region.

The performance was acutely synchronized: a live, digital-looking clock that was projected above the players morphed fluidly into text that presented facts about the marathon including the abovementioned numbers. Simultaneously, the narrator presented the same facts verbally. The music diffused placidly but then swelled during dramatic parts of the story such as any time donations stalled or worse, Fox was admitted to the hospital. The flutist (presumably by plugging every hole in his instrument with his fingers) produced breathy, palpable sounds evoking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans whenever either was mentioned.

Because the music followed a conventional story arc, 3339 was not as experimental as I’d anticipated. The cohesive narrative structure contained none of the clipped, disjointed, abstractly connected, sometimes repeated phrases that I perhaps naïvely always associate with experimental music; the vocal element served as the piece’s backbone rather than the piece’s accents. Furthermore, 3339 was bookended by field recordings: one taken where Fox dipped his foot into the Atlantic Ocean and the other (if I remember correctly) where Fox ran his final step (both approximations, of course, per Haney’s best efforts). However, I couldn’t detect those portions. In fact, I forgot about them until after the performance.

Aside from those minor issues, the entire experience was novel to me, and often, that’s all I need to feel I’ve spent my time and dime in worthwhile ways.