The Correction Line Ensemble At the Great Hall in Toronto on Tuesday
On the Prairies, in the country, everybody knows that a correction line is a jog imposed by the curvature of the Earth into the neat array of rectangles laid down by the Dominion Land Survey. The Correction Line Ensemble is actually a cluster of family circles: two married couples (including singer-songwriters John K. Samson and Christine Fellows), two sisters and a composer-pianist from Brooklyn. The line they're drawing in their first-ever series of concerts is like the one thrown across a chasm when you want to put a bridge over it. Popular music stands on one side, classical and contemporary composition on the other. Here's how their show worked out, in four quarter-sections:
The Poet Samson's wonderfully precise lyrics catch at ordinary things that seem to slip into everyone else's peripheral vision. He writes very much from his own body and place in the world, or that of someone like him. In Heart of the Continent, for instance, he seemed to gather up a whole life's perception of his home city of Winnipeg, seen as a place of demolitions and omissions spread out under a stormy sky. But in his solo songs, as often with his band The Weakerthans, I never felt that he developed the music as fully and distinctively as the text. I liked him best when he just recited his verse, as he did while raising a toast to the late great hockey goalie Gump Worsley.
The Elephant I'm referring to Fellows's final song of the evening, in which "a monstrous elephant" strides calmly through a piece whose simplicity and sophistication showed in every detail, lyrical and musical. Fellows sings occasionally in French, but even in English she seems to follow French rules of prosody and song-setting. Her elephant sounded like something Erik Satie would be happy to find trundling through his music. The piece just got bigger and bigger, without losing its fine transparency and personal immediacy.
The Ensemble Sisters Cristina and Leanne Zacharias (on violin and cello respectively) added some very clear, silky string playing to the songs at hand, and brought the same attentive care to occasional short duos by Bartok. Ed Reifel (Cristina's husband) did magical things with his battery of percussion, moving to centre stage with a sudden solo in the middle of Fellows's What Makes the Cherry Red, taking over entirely for the twangy, reflective kalimba movement from Per Norgard's I Ching. Composer-pianist Robert Honstein led performances of two of his glittering, percussive short pieces, whose airy tone and very legible structure ( Is It Auburn? was plain A-B-A) made them fit very well on this program. Ditto a new song by Winnipeg composer Pat Carrabré, though this number put too much pressure on Fellows's homespun singing technique.
The Chorale The players intermittently performed several of Bach's many settings of the chorale that recurs throughout the St. Matthew Passion, which for my money is the single greatest work of Western art music. In the Passion, the chorale (which has several names; I always think of it as O Haupt Voll Blut und Wunden) gradually grows in stature until it's almost painfully rich in meaning. I didn't know why the ensemble was so intent on alluding to the Passion, till Samson announced that he had written new words, about the shoot-'em-up video game Call Of Duty. As they began to sing this reckless parody as an unaccompanied madrigal, I want to cry out, "Drive your spear into the body of Jesus if you must, John, but don't do this!" but before I could open my mouth, a giant of Canadian lyric-writing had become as small as an ant.
The Correction Line Ensemble plays the Aeolian Hall in London, Ont., on Thursday, the Blacksheep Inn in Wakefield, Que., on Friday, Montreal's Cabaret du Mile End on Saturday, the Manitou Opera House in Manitou, Man., on Nov. 23, Winnipeg's First Lutheran Church on Nov. 24 and the Lorne Watson Recital Hall in Brandon, Man., on Nov. 26.