It's relatively easy to visualize Canada. Whether it's the undulant landscapes of the Group of Seven, those old montages of forests and wheat fields capping a programming day on CBC or even the recent ads depicting Newfoundland as a technicolour fever dream, our culture provides plenty of visual references to help us imagine the land.
But what does Canada sound like? What is its musical essence? That's a tougher question. Our pop music canon offers several contenders – Gordon Lightfoot's Sundown for that golden prairie sound, perhaps, or Stan Rogers for a Maritime fishing village vibe.
For me, however, Canada sounds like one very particular moment of music. It comes at the beginning of track seven on the Rheostatics' 1995 album, Music Inspired by the Group of Seven – unnamed in the liner notes, but well known to fans as a reworking of the band's song, Northern Wish. It begins with a bass and cello line so deep that it makes a canyon of your chest. From this rises the ethereal, loon-like voice of Martin Tielli: "Wake up, raise the curtains on your deep provincial eyes … " An acoustic guitar, strummed gently but with the momentum of waves, brings us through the first verse, to where some seafaring explorer of the past points to the horizon and proclaims, "Land ho."
It's just more than a minute long, but for me, this passage evokes all of the magic and awe of looking on a bit of Canadian landscape you just can't quite believe. It is, inevitably, the tune that pops into my head when I'm on a lake in Northern Ontario, where the Group of Seven worked, staring at a crooked pine that Frederick Varley might as well have painted on the sky.
It's been 20 years since the Rheostatics first performed Music Inspired by the Group of Seven at the National Gallery of Canada, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the painters' debut exhibition. This weekend, the band is reuniting to revisit the piece for three nights at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It marks the first time the core quartet of Dave Bidini, Don Kerr, Martin Tielli and Tim Vesely have performed a full show together since Kerr left the band in 2001. (They continued until 2007 with long-time producer Michael Phillip Wojewoda on drums.)
In Canadian music circles, the Rheostatics are beloved for their alternately goofy, smart and majestic sound, deployed on tracks such as Record Body Count and Claire, and for their proudly Canadian aesthetic. They sang folk songs about Wendel Clark and rock songs about Mike Harris, and covered tunes by Lightfoot and Jane Siberry. Two of their releases, Melville (1991) and Whale Music (1992) frequently pop in up discussions about the best Canadian albums of all time.
But Bidini, the band's guitarist, says that out of all their work, Music Inspired by the Group of Seven, which was released as a recording in 1996, is the piece that seems to have lodged itself most deeply into the collective muskeg.
"People really seem quite attached to this work," he says of the 45-minute song suite inspired by the art and ideology of the iconic painters. "I think partly because it is drawn from our experiences in the land, and on the land, and I think that's something all Canadians can relate to." He says he once met a woman in Haida Gwaii who, for a time, communed with friends three or four times a year at a cabin by the ocean, to play the record on a loop all weekend.
Outside of Northern Wish, the work is mostly instrumental, although it incorporates recordings of figures such as Mackenzie King, John Diefenbaker and the landscape artist Winchell Price, who kicks things off with some thoughts on the link between music and painting. There are field recordings of water sounds, and pianos that tinkle like trickling streams. Birds chirp and twitter. A cymbal clangs like a locomotive's bell. A storm rolls in.
"In a way it's our most spiritual work," Bidini says. "Because it's not a traditional pop record by any stretch."
That also made it easier to get the band together to play it. Previous attempts to reunite and play songs from the Rheostatics' catalogue led to what Bidini calls an "emotionally fraught exercise." The material was just too personal.
With Music Inspired by the Group of Seven, he says, there are fewer hurdles – in part because of its relative abstraction, but also because of the collaborative nature of the project. The Barenaked Ladies' Kevin Hearn, who co-wrote the music and played the original National Gallery shows, will join the band at the AGO, along with violinist Hugh Marsh. As well, filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, the team behind films such as Act of God and Watermark, will enhance the performance with projected visuals.
Ultimately, though, what has drawn fans to snap up all the available tickets is the music – the sonic tapestry of Canada that this particular piece captures so well. Tellingly, Bidini admits that, when writing the music, rather than staring at Lawren Harris canvasses, the band "more or less used the Northern Ontario of our imaginations to inspire our work."
At a rehearsal on an upper floor of the AGO early in the week, with squawking guitar and bass echoing off the white walls, Kerr meanders around the question of how the band set out to capture the sound of an imagined landscape. He calls Music Inspired by the Group of Seven a "mood enhancement record" for Canada. He talks about the phone conversation with Price, an old family friend of his, which ended up as the piece's narrative backbone. He points to Tielli's knowledge of painting and trove of stories about the Group. He somewhat sheepishly admits to beat-boxing on one of the jauntier tracks.
In the end, though, Kerr just ends up referring to other Rheostatics songs.
"You can dig through any of the band's older records, and there's always that landscape-ish, epic thing going on," he says. "Songs like Saskatchewan [from Melville], where you just feel like you're there, in these places, when you hear them. So for the band to focus on that side of the music was really natural. It was just a matter of leaving out the country-and-western hockey songs."