Ensemble Polaris, Uncharted Waters
Recent Discoveries From the Realm of the Experimental and Avant-Garde
Volume 20 Issue 11 2012-03-16
Album: Ensemble Polaris, Uncharted Waters
Artists: Marco Cera, guitar; Kirk Elliott, violin, folk harp, mandolin, accordion, bagpipe; Margaret Gay, cello; Ben Grossman, hurdy gurdy; Katherine Hill, voice, nyckelharpa (keyed fiddle); Alison Melville, baroque flute, recorders, seljefløyte (willow flute); Colin Savage, clarinet, bass clarinet, recorders; Debashis Sinha, percussion.
Audacious Virtuosos at the Vanguard of Musical Eclecticism
“Here in the north each night is a whole winter long. Yet the place is fair enough, doubt it not! Thou shalt see sights here such as thou hast not seen in the halls of the English king. We shall be together as sisters whilst thou bidest with me; we shall go down to the sea when the storm begins once more; thou shalt see the billows rushing upon the land like wild, white-maned horses—and then the whales far out in the offing! They dash one against another like steel-clad knights! Ha, what joy to be a witching-wife and ride on the whale's back—to speed before the skiff, and wake the storm, and lure men to the deeps with lovely songs of sorcery!”
Henrik Ibsen, The Vikings of Helgeland
Ensemble Polaris claims to have been created for the purpose of exploring the “idea of North,” something on the minds of many thinking Canadians. In fact, “Idea of North” was the title of a CBC Ideas program series by Glenn Gould, first broadcast back in 1967; the series was not so much an effort to define what constituted “Northern” culture as an attempt to communicate a way of seeing common to the experience of artists in Northern countries.
Ensemble Polaris was formed in Toronto in 1997 by professional, classically trained musicians from a number of different nationalities (many thanks to the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir for being the spawning ground and meeting place for at least half of these superlative artists). You’d expect this kind of ethnic mix from one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, nearly half of whose residents were born in other countries. Canadian culture is much the richer for it.
Ensemble Polaris is a rare gem, presenting the listener with a truly seamless musical eclecticism. They almost appear to have launched a new genre, pure and all-of-a-piece.
Uncharted Waters is their fourth album, and the repertoire comes from all over the northern cap of the planet. How does a pack of geniuses create such a set of consistently beautiful songs? By sharing a vision, transcending the gruelling academic disciplines that have elevated them to the status of maestros, and dismissing their individual egos in order to take part in something truly marvellous.
It’s the kind of music you’d expect to hear in Valhalla, complete with every musical genre that the Vikings may have encountered on their journeys. There are also touches from the Parisian, East European, and Northern Arabic music of the last two centuries.
I tried to pick out a few favourite tracks but couldn’t. They’re all just too wonderful. The excellence of arrangement and performance is enhanced by an avant-garde adventurousness and an aesthetic that’s both classical and folk, as primal as it is postmodern. The diversity of this music harks back to the patchwork culture of the European port cities that admitted all manner of sights, smells, and sounds from the cities of the world.
Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.