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Suzie LeBlanc sits in the living room of the childhood home of the late poet Elizabeth Bishop in Great Village, NS, on July 25 (Sándor Fizli For The Globe and Mail)
Suzie LeBlanc sits in the living room of the childhood home of the late poet Elizabeth Bishop in Great Village, NS, on July 25 (Sándor Fizli For The Globe and Mail)

MUSIC

Singer uses crowd-funding to bankroll CD based on Elizabeth Bishop’s poems Add to ...

Before the arrival of crowd-funding, art and money didn’t rub shoulders quite so eagerly.

But as governments pare budgets, arm’s-length coolness between performers and their paymasters is turning into instant intimacy. For the versatile Suzie LeBlanc, financial necessity’s invention has proved to be a strangely welcome change.

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“After a 28-year career, I’m learning how to do new things,” says the 51-year-old soprano who has sung 17th-century arias and Acadian folk songs with equal affinity. “Artists now have pretty well everything at their fingertips to create their own projects.”

All that remains is your contribution. The Canadian singer is seeking $60,000 to record newly commissioned settings of poems by Elizabeth Bishop, whose highly impressionable childhood was spent in Nova Scotia.

 

The details are spelled out at the website LeBlanc turned to when record companies wouldn’t take a risk on the creation of contemporary Canadian music.

For $25, LeBlanc will send you a thank-you card. Donate $500 and she’ll chat by Skype – ask about the walk she took across Newfoundland in Bishop’s footsteps.

At the $1,500 level, you receive a week’s visit to Bishop’s childhood home – listen to the rain tapping the skylight in Bishop’s bedroom, or overhear kitchen conversations through the floor-vent, just like the poet once did.

For $5,000, you can attend a rehearsal for the CD recording in August and have dinner with the singer who was so keen to turn Bishop’s poems into song that she sold her house in Montreal, moved to the Nova Scotia shore and became a poet herself.

For $10,000, LeBlanc and the Blue Engine String Quartet will pop by your house and play a private concert – sing along, if you like, but watch out for those deviously beautiful high notes that separate Suzie LeBlanc from the crowd.

She may stand apart in her art, but LeBlanc needs the crowd, and not just for its philanthropic gifts.

“I really want to know who’s listening, why they show up at a concert, what this music does to them. If I didn’t see the benefits music brings to people, I’d quit.”

Chasing down money for the Bishop recording, which features Canadian composers Christos Hatzis, John Plant, Alasdair MacLean and Emily Doolittle, has brought her even closer to her audience, and made her feel grateful for the poet’s broad appeal.

“To be honest, she changed a lot of things in my life: I started writing, moved to Nova Scotia, and now she’s teaching me how to crowd-fund.”

The passport-control guardians of literature consider Bishop to be American, but LeBlanc’s project, created in conjunction with the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia, treats the lyric poet as one of us. And with reason: She was raised by her grandparents in the hamlet of Great Village, N.S., and found lifelong inspiration in her childhood memories.

“The whole purpose of the recording project is to reclaim her as a Canadian poet,” says LeBlanc, “and give her back the identity that was extremely important to her.”

Turning an American into a Canadian may be less challenging than fitting music to the poems on the printed page. LeBlanc admits to asking herself “whether what I was doing was necessary or fake.”

She knew that Bishop wanted Billie Holiday to record her Songs for a Colored Singer, so the poems weren’t sacrosanct – Bishop herself set out to be a composer before switching to verse. And that led LeBlanc to an early experiment with the Nova Scotian poem At the Fishhouses, interspersing baroque melodies in a way that could help an audience take in the poet’s compressed language.

“We stretched a poem that took three minutes to read into 25 minutes,” she says “The idea was to add space around the poem so the words became more full of meaning.”

Keeping the emphasis on the words has been one of the soprano’s greatest challenges as she prepares the CD, which is based on concerts held at the 2011 Elizabeth Bishop Centenary in Nova Scotia. Vocal music in the classical tradition prizes the beauty and range of the trained voice to the point where a text often gets submerged.

LeBlanc has opted for verbal intimacy in the recording, the up-closeness of the jazz club rather than the distancing of the concert hall. And even in her singing, which is prized for its melodious purity, she wants to give Bishop’s poems their priority.

“I’m removing technique, if I might put it that way,” she says. “If a soprano’s singing a high A, then yes, we have a challenge in terms of intimacy. But I’m hoping that people will get the same experience from the music that they get from reading – that they’re just six inches away from the poem.”

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