Isaiah Ceccarelli, Bow: Unifying Aesthetics in Canadian Art

June 28, 2017

By Nolan Sprangers

"In November the lights shine after seven o'clock on the stained-glass windows. The windows show the crucifixion or one of the saints praying. The hills where those saints lived and dropped their blood looked soft, distant and blue; the roads wind like purple ribbons toward the Mount of Olives. It is all so different from real nature with its roaring waters over valleys of harsh timbre where I tore an inch and a half of skin from my calves. Or Miramichi bogs of cedar and tamarack and the pungent smell of wet moosehide as the wounded moose still bellows in dark wood. I often wanted to enter the world of the stained glass–to find myself walking along the purple road with the Mount of Olives behind me."

Upon first hearing Isaiah Ceccarelli's album Bow, I was immediately confronted with Margaret Atwood's idea of bare survival, which she addresses in Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Atwood argues that within Canadian literature there is a common theme in which "the survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival; he has little after his ordeal that he did not have before" (33). Atwood has identified, in literature, a theme which is indicative of a much broader aesthetic present in Canadian art: inspired by the beauty, power, and danger of the Canadian landscape, a significant volume of Canadian art shares a similar stark style akin to Atwood's literary theme of bare survival.

Ceccarelli’s music evokes images of vast landscapes; it is glacial, harsh, and beautiful. His pervasive use of dissonance, and inventive scoring have helped develop a musical style that captures what Emily Carr did in paintings, and David Adams Richards does with words. This style is largely developed through Ceccarelli’s harmonic language, and is most obviously present in Sainte-Ursule #11, Sainte-Ursule #2, Oslo Harmonies Parts 1 and 2, and Dunstable. For all intents and purposes, these pieces are tone poems—although they feature drastically reduced instrumentation compared to their romantic predecessors—that depict a geographical place.

For me, the idea of bare survival was most obvious at the beginnings and ends of these tone poems because they are always remarkably similar. As Atwood points out, “the survivor […] has little after his ordeal that he did not have before” (33). Ceccarelli's simple way of opening and closing pieces with a few sustained or slowly repeated notes gives the impression that one has travelled through a space without losing or gaining anything of importance; the listener is left with almost exactly the same notes as the piece begins with. Furthermore, Ceccarelli's tone poems are quite impressionistic: the lack of melodic and perceivable rhythmic structure provide the listener with an abstract image of the landscape rather than using specific programmatic motives.

In Sainte-Ursule #11 and Sainte-Ursule #2, the dissonant organetto and pointalistic percussion are bone-chilling and aquatic. I found these pieces to be most closely aligned with Atwood's theme—unsurprisingly, they are the only pieces depicting a Canadian location—because they are most effective at evoking a powerful and harsh landscape through musical means.

Oslo Harmonies Parts 1 and 2 are similar stylistically to the Sainte-Ursule pieces: they develop slowly and emphasize gradual changes in harmony rather than motivic development. The two parts of this piece contrast each other completely: Part 1 has a thick texture with complex harmonies, while Part 2 is remarkably thin in texture and timbre, which is emphasized by cymbal scrapes and other metallic noises in the percussion.

Dunstable uses many of the same harmonic techniques as the first two pieces; however, it differs in that it has more obvious metrical organization. I think this piece showcases Ceccarelli's unique ability to utilize consonance and dissonance in equally beautiful ways.

Falsobordone and Bow are quite different stylistically compared to the tone poems because they are generally less abstract. The harmonic language is consistent with the rest of the album, however, these pieces differ in melodic and rhythmic content. The title Falsobordone provides some insight to Ceccarelli's harmonic language. Developed in the late fifteenth century, falsobordone was a technique used to harmonize Gregorian chants using root position triads. Ceccarelli makes use of this technique throughout the album, with seconds, fourths, and sevenths further complicating the harmony. In Falsobordone, we also hear the repetition and development of melodic ideas being passed between instruments, which are unique to this track.

Finally, I think Bow is the pièce de resistance of this album—as I'm sure it is for many listeners. It includes the complex harmonies explored in the tone poems, as well as including more familiar harmonies like the resolutions of fourths and flattened thirteenths, and clear meter. The joyful outbursts in the violins at the end of the piece provides a welcome change from the stark aesthetic that is present in the rest of the album.

Ceccarelli's compositional style envokes images of an unromanticized and powerful Canadian landscape, placing it in dialogue with visual and literary works that had already begun to develop this style in Canadian art.

Bow is available through the record label, Another Timbre, and CMC distribution services, alongside a growing series of recordings profiling Canadian composers.

Works Cited

Adams Richards, David. Mercy Among the Children. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2001. p 11.

Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1972.

Carr, Emily. Grey. 1930, oil on canvas, Private Collection.

Harris, Lawren. Lake Maligne. 1925, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Harris, Lawren. Lake and Mountains. 1928, oil on canvas, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.