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Katelin Coleman poses for a photograph following an orchestra rehearsal on Sept. 24, 2019.

Maggie Naylor/The Globe and Mail

It was a deep sense of personal isolation that led Canadian bassoonist and sexual-assault survivor Katelin Coleman to create her classical music ensemble. Now, with much of the world in lockdown, Coleman is turning a different kind of isolation into an opportunity for collaboration. It’s a silver-lining project: a way to make a work of art she didn’t think would be acceptable in the before times, but that the pandemic has made possible.

Coleman, 30, put a call-out on Facebook last year, with a very specific ask: Who would like to join the Artemis Musicians’ Society, to be made up of artists, like her, who had been victims of sexual assault? And who would be comfortable making that fact about their history public by being in the ensemble?

Coleman, who lives in Vancouver, didn’t have any budget to bring everyone together physically. Or to pay them. She wondered whether there was a way to do something online: a more affordable, collaborative, remote video so that everyone could participate.

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“I thought I should get a grant or something like that. And then [realized] it’s going to be a nightmare to co-ordinate and I should just focus on what I have here on the ground,” Coleman says.

The Artemis Musicians’ Society, with four Vancouver-based members, held two small shows in 2019, and was planning to stage its first major concert this May. DysComfort: Confronting the Comfort Stations was inspired by the “comfort women,” mostly Korean victims, who were forced to work as sex slaves in brothels run by the Japanese army during the Second World War.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The concert, like almost everything else, had to be cancelled because of COVID-19. But as Coleman witnessed musicians from other orchestras collaborating online while in isolation, it gave her confidence to revisit the idea of bringing the group together virtually and creating a video.

“The current circumstances kind of legitimized it in a way. It made me feel less ashamed of not being able to pay musicians, for example, or not being able to get everybody together, you know, like a ‘real’ ensemble,” Coleman said during an interview on May 22 – the date DysComfort was supposed to take place at Pyatt Hall at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra School of Music.

This spring, Coleman got back to those who had responded to her initial 2019 pitch and put together an international group of musicians from across Canada – including violinist Lara St. John – the United States, Britain, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. The group features vocalists and musicians playing instruments including bassoon, violin, viola, oboe, French horn, flute and double bass. A sound engineer in Amsterdam will mix the piece.

Canadian composer Jordan Nobles, who has collaborated with Artemis before, is writing the piece. Coleman told him it did not have to be dark or deal with sexual violence specifically. “But rather something is growing or developing or the music is undergoing a journey,” she says.

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Nobles’s piece begins with a solitary player. Then another joins in, and another; they are coming together from isolation. “Eventually it just sort of builds into a choral sound where all these voices are together, sharing the same sort of feelings,” Nobles says from Vancouver, where he was working on finishing the piece earlier this week.

Nobles plans to get input from each of the individual players before they record.

He wants to ask: “What’s a personal moment I can put in this piece for you?”

“We can adjust it for each person’s experience,” he says.

The video, which will be about five minutes long, will likely be released mid-June.

Coleman is also planning to create a series of remote collaboration videos in place of the DysComfort concert. She will use audio material she gathered from survivors of the atrocity when she travelled to South Korea last November. The timeline for that project is still to be determined.

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In addition to being able to create works of art during this difficult time, the point is to draw attention to the issue of sexual violence in the classical music scene, Coleman says. What was an isolating experience for has turned into an opportunity to bring people together. This spring, amid a global pandemic, a group of sexual assault survivors, male and female, will make music in their basements and living rooms around the world, creating a work that anyone anywhere can watch.

“It’s been a beautiful and touching thing for me to see,” Coleman says. “These people didn’t answer the call in the heat of the moment. This really matters in an enduring way to a lot of people. We’re more together than it feels, even though we’re so far apart.”

Find out what’s new on Canadian stages from Globe theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck in the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.

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