Improvising the music of glaciers

Director of Orchestras Dr. Jonathan Girard and artist Deborah Carruthers discuss slippages, an exciting new collaboration that tackles climate change from an unusual angle

Jonathan Girard and Deborah Carruthers.

Jonathan Girard and Deborah Carruthers.

How do you create the music of a glacier?

Artist Deborah Carruthers was grappling with this question when she met Dr. Jonathan Girard, the School of Music’s Director of Orchestras, at a talk last year at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies. Carruthers was just emerging from months of intensive research into glaciers, on everything from their topography and ecology to their significance in different cultures and the threat they face from climate change.

In her talk she outlined an idea for a ‘graphic’ score — a sequence of images inspired by these enigmatic and threatened landscapes — that musicians could then interpret and perform.

The project seemed a little crazy, even to her. “I am not a musician, so the score was going to have no actual musical notation,” Carruthers says. “But when I explained all of this to Jonathan, he said—”

“I said, Tell me more!” Girard interjects, laughing. A crazy idea, maybe, but he was struck by Carruthers’s sense of urgency. “So we started talking, and we quickly realized that together we could do something that no one had done before: create an orchestral work about climate change that would be totally improvised from abstract visual art.”

WATCH: The slippages trailer video. Watch the full concert online

At the time, Carruthers was the Wall Institute’s inaugural artist-in-residence; together she and Girard decided that the Institute was an ideal place to incubate the collaboration. Girard quickly applied for, and received, a Wall Scholar Research Award, which “provides support for UBC faculty to spend one year in residence at the Peter Wall Institute, in a collaborative, interdisciplinary environment.”

Working with a palette of yellows, blues and greys similar to the hues she observed during her fieldwork in the Columbia Icefields, Carruthers painted the scores on special paper perforated at random with small holes. The idea was that, when stacked, they would mimic the layers of a glacier.

“Glaciers form slowly over thousands of years, layer by layer, from bottom to top. There are all these miniature ecologies that make each one unique, holes within the ice and on the surface. So as a glacier changes and holes form between the layers, the past is always revealing itself,” she says.

This notion of the past influencing the present would become one of the guiding principles behind the work.

But how do you go about translating abstract images into music? With their subtle colours and mixture of slashing lines and dribbly curls — not to mention the holes in the paper — the scores presented an unusual challenge.

Girard and Carruthers struck upon an ingenious solution. First, they created a sort of geography of the orchestra by mapping the seating arrangement onto the images themselves: “We created a transparent overlay of the seating chart and went page by page, figuring out which instruments would take responsibility for which parts of the images,” Girard explains.

But how do you go about translating abstract images into music?

“The fascinating thing was how, through this lens, the images suddenly made musical sense. The musicians looked at the depth and the saturation of the colours and began translating those into musical intensity, texture, and so on. They used the different types of brushstrokes as interpretive cues, too.”

Second, Girard and Carruthers mapped out the relationship between the pages, or layers, of the score — approximating what Carruthers calls the “language of glaciers.”

“We think of history as being chronological,” she says. “With glaciers the present is on the surface so you’re working from the present to the past. So what you’re revealing through the graphic scores is in a sense, their language: the way they ebb and flow and how, as they melt, thanks to climate change, these ancient histories are unlocked.”

In practical terms, this means that “as you go deeper into the score, you see the holes, where parts of the score two pages down become part of the page you’re on right now. So parts of the score begin to be played several pages before they are fully realized,” Girard says.

The UBC Symphony Orchestra debuted the piece, titled slippages, at the Chan Centre on October 5th, 2018. The months and weeks of planning and ‘structured’ improvisation produced a luminous, yearning experimental work that celebrates the beauty of the natural world while mourning its disappearance.

Following the premiere, Girard and Carruthers want to bring slippages to as many different audiences as possible.

“We think this project is really timely. The fact that slippages combines so many different disciplines, from science to visual art to music — speaks, we hope, to the urgent need to bring the best that humanity has to offer to bear on the problem of climate change. We’re not going to solve anything unless we work together,” Girard says.

Look out for information about upcoming performances on the School of Music website.

Banner graphic: Deborah Carruthers