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The concept behind Jonathan Kawchuk's new album was recording music in the Rocky Mountains, with the atmosphere of the venue incorporated into the final product.aAron Munson

For his new album Everywhen, musician Jonathan Kawchuk didn’t just record in the Rocky Mountains. He recorded with the Rockies. This may seem like a minor distinction, but it’s crucial to the laborious, eight-years-long project.

The idea was high-concept, even if it sounds fairly simple: record music in the mountains, the way you might in a cathedral or a concert hall, with the atmosphere of the venue incorporated into the final product.

The execution, though, was anything but straightforward.

“You know, I never started out thinking let’s do the most complicated technology and suffer in the bush,” says Kawchuk, 29, who is described as an experimental composer, a wildlife recordist and a musical ecologist. “So many things about this album were us doing things for the first time. Which, after the romance of that is stripped away … was a monumental technical challenge.”

“Everywwhen” Official Video by Studio Everywhen (Brad Necyk x Jonathan Kawchuk

With an objective to capture what he hears and experiences in the mountains, Kawchuk recorded vocals in Toronto and Montreal, using talent that included jazz and metal artists. He later played those vocals in surround-sound in the Rockies in Kananaskis, painstakingly recording the playback in 3D Dolby Atmos. From that, he “collaged” the elements to create the tracks on Everywhen, which is slated for release on Friday.

As a teenager in Edmonton, Kawchuk would take a little recorder into nature and make field recordings. In high school, he was going to play bass in a band, but the guitar he needed was sold out, so he bought a synthesizer instead. It came with recording software. An obsession was born.

Developing a career in music, he realized he could incorporate his love of nature into that pursuit.

Kawchuk, who was born in Calgary, made his first album, North, by playing back music he had recorded in various places around the world in a national park in Norway. For his follow-up, he wanted to do something closer to home, the Rockies.

During a music residency at the Banff Centre in 2018, he found a spot in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park that fit the bill. It hasn’t been logged, was not too far from the Banff Centre and, crucially, it gave him the right sound.

For the vocals, he wanted to push the artists to the point of exhaustion, to echo the feeling of a hike in the Rockies – and to take away any artifice of a performance. In studio, he had them do burpees and other exercises so that they were physically drained when they started singing.

In the Rockies, he set up a big circle “like a witches’ coven” of seven speakers, with 11 microphones – seven aimed at the speakers and four aimed up to capture the sound in the forest canopy.

Kawchuk, who was born in Calgary, made his first album, North, by playing back music he had recorded in various places around the world in a national park in Norway.aAron Munson

This involved hours of labour each day: driving his little Acura loaded down with hundreds of pounds of equipment from the Banff Centre to the site, hauling it all in with multiple trips, setting it up, recording for as long as he had battery power and then striking everything. Mostly he did this work on his own; sometimes he got some help from a cousin.

Time was limited. He couldn’t be on-site during dawn or dusk, when predators are most active. Weather conditions were also crucial. One day he spent three hours setting up, recorded for about two minutes and then a windstorm kicked up, followed by unexpected rain. He had to tear it all down. You can hear the windstorm at the end of the final track, Everywwhen (the video for Everywwhen is being released on Thursday).

The recording complete, the mixing became another complex technical puzzle. Solutions for some things he wanted to do had not yet been invented, he says.

“So much of this battle was in front of a computer,” he says. “You have one problem and it becomes a three-week issue. … Whereas had it been Google-able, it would have taken an hour.”

He chased down answers in all sorts of ways including, in one case, hopping on a flight to Munich – he was already in Berlin – to get some in-person guidance from the Blu-ray guru who was working on the project.

That battle became even more complicated when the pandemic hit. In-person studio time with collaborators was not possible, and large files couldn’t be sent back and forth easily.

Sometimes he would encounter a problem, put it aside and work on something else. In the interval, something would be invented that would fix the problem. “And I’d be like oh my God, we can do it now.” The greatest stroke of luck he says is that Apple Music now offers Dolby Atmos. (A Blu-ray version, the original plan, is also available.)

The album title comes from what Kawchuk calls “this sort of weird atemporality that happens when you’re in the Rockies,” he explains. “You’re surrounded by the result of millions of years of evolution and ecology. There’s a weird, anachronistic thing that happens when you’re there. And that feeling of being part of geological time for a little bit, rather than human time, is part of what I was chasing with the record.”

Kawchuk, a volunteer paleontologist, has since worked on a project that aims to recreate the soundscapes of the prehistoric world – a concept he may continue to explore. He has become the Canadian representative of Quiet Parks International, which intends to announce Canada’s first certified quiet park. (Like a dark sky reserve, but for noise.)

It’s a joyful record, he stresses, even if it’s impossible not to consider the effect of the climate emergency on this place.

He hopes that this record that was so challenging to make, will be in some ways challenging to consume. He imagines a listener finishing the tracks, taking their headphones off, wiping their brow and thinking, that was really enjoyable, but I can’t listen again, not right away. “I want it to be a little bit overpowering,” Kawchuk says, “in a pleasant, pleasing way.”

Kawchuk, a volunteer paleontologist, has since worked on a project that aims to recreate the soundscapes of the prehistoric world.aAron Munson

A listening event will be held June 13 at the Yonge-Dundas Cineplex Theatre where the audience can experience the album in full Dolby Atmos. https://sidedooraccess.com/shows/fSVYVTWMx9K1bwOi2WAv