Wednesday, July 1, 2009

La Patrie

It's Canada Day today, an event I notice less and less as the years go by, unless I happen to be there at the time, or until one of my conscientious Finnish friends texts me with wishes for the holiday. I don't do much to celebrate it here – although we did dress Oliver in red and white today as a tribute, even though we haven't begun the long, onerous process of acquiring Canadian citizenship for him yet.

I bring this up as a segue to a topic that's been much on my mind in the last few weeks. More and more people have been asking me lately if I miss Canada, and whether I plan to go back there someday. I suppose it's because people see me putting down roots in Finland, developing something of a career, having a family. The latter question, about my possible return to my homeland, isn't something I can answer at this point. It's not in the cards at the moment, but it's not possible to rule it out, either. But I always answer the former with a smile and a "Not really." And it's true for the most part. I get to see my immediate relatives once every couple of years at the most, and we correspond via e-mail and Skype regularly, so the contact is there. I left Canada so long ago, almost fifteen years now, that I have very few friends there, and no professional contacts to speak of. Everything that's most important to me – my work, my wife and son, my closest friends – is here. The weather in Finland is more or less the same as where I grew up in Québec's Eastern Townships, and though I miss certain things, like real Asian cuisine at affordable prices and beer that doesn't taste like gym socks, on the whole I don't miss Canada all that much.

The thing I don't usually tell people about is the rare occasion when I do find myself missing it, in a way that cuts much deeper than simple nostalgia for bygone things. The most desperate occasion relates to the final stages of composing my four-seasons choral cycle Shiki for HOL in 2006-07. It was in late February of a dark winter, toward the end of an extraordinarily busy season of writing, teaching, and festival management. I was already worn out, and was trying to finish the four tape preludes to each setting of a seasonal haiku by Santōka Taneda. The preludes are very simple, almost documentary-sounding concoctions using only three elements each: the sound of water, a field recording of birdsong, and a lightly processed acoustic sound from a variety of metal instruments like a waterphone, a prayer bowl and a Christmas angel bell thing owned by my wife's uncle.

For the birdsong, I used a species local to southern Finland at the start of each season: blackbird for spring, thrush nightingale for summer, hooded crow for fall, and Bohemian waxwing for winter. I wanted them to sound as local as possible, with one exception. I found an old LP fragment of the wail of a common loon, and decided to adapt it to fit in the background of the fall prelude. It was intended as a kind of private joke, a tiny, wistful reference to my fervent belief that one's national identity can't ever be fully suppressed, no matter how one may thrive in a new pot.

The loon's wail is a haunting thing, speaking of still, misty lakes and vast spaces, a sound most Canadians are familiar with from birth or soon after. It's not that they're everywhere, it's just that the wail has become something of an anthropomorphized sonic currency (as opposed to the literal one), a patrotic emblem of the sound of Canada, heard everywhere in NFB films and mini-documentary ads about Canadian heritage. When I was a kid in the 70s, there was a fashion on CBC radio for long, static nature soundscapes – I think my fascination with nature imagery and structural stasis can be traced back to these – many of them inevitably containing a loon wail, that ever-so-evocative aural calling card of the True North. So I messed around with the sound file, adjusting the EQ, copying and reshaping the sound; there were only a couple of wails, with the ultimate effect of the constant pitch shifting and elongation to create diversity of material making it appear as if the call were being warped, becoming more distant and alien to the sonic landscape.

What I wasn't prepared for was the effect my semi-casual compositional decision would have on me psychologically. When I uploaded the sound into ProTools the first time, it hit me like a sword through the ribs, making me more homesick than I'd been in years. That forlorn-sounding wail engendered a bone-deep feeling of loss that had nothing to do with childhood or a long forgotten meal or seeing old photos of family. Or rather, it had everything to do with it, and nothing at the same time. The loon's call, despite being just a bird call, and in reality no more expressive in human terms than a tree or a blade of grass, a thing that just was, sounded like everything that was most Canadian to me, and in an instant I felt more alone, further from home and more alien in my adopted land than I ever had before. I keep trying to come up with a less melodramatic turn of phrase, but the truth is that my soul ached for my country in a way I have difficulty overcoming even as I write about it two years later. I sat there, alone in that darkened studio, tired, stressed, embarrassed at my tears and relieved that nobody was there to see them. They were brief, in any case.

I write this just to make a small point about how sonic memory strikes at the most unexpected times, and carries with it a sometimes overwhelming weight of associations. It also forms the core of what I'm writing about in reference to Mahler, the ways in which landscape and social memory are manipulated into anthropomorphized beings, and the effort it requires to see past that to the truth of the human-nature relationship. A bird's call, through the careful manipulation of memory, upbringing and national sentiment, can cut through distance and years in a second, reconnecting one to a lost past, a wealth of feelings long suppressed, and undermine one's very notion of self and place. I've since come to love living in Finland more and more, and rarely if ever have those pangs of homesickness, since my home is here in an increasingly real sense. But one's ultimate sense of home can never quite be done away with, and reasserts itself at the strangest times, as I discovered.

So do I miss Canada? No, not really. Except when I do. Happy Canada Day.

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