There is poetic license, but there is also wanting to get something exactly right. Suzanne Steele was writing a poem, an elegy for a young soldier who had died in Afghanistan, and she was stuck on the first line, unable to describe the colour of the dust there. She called the Department of National Defence, explained what she was after and ultimately got an answer ("dun" was the word she used). A few months later, she received a call from DND, inviting her to apply for the Canadian Forces Artists Program – the current incarnation of a program that decades earlier sent the likes of A.Y. Jackson, David Milne, Alex Colville and Jack Shadbolt to Europe to document the First and Second World Wars.
Steele got the gig, becoming the CFAP's first poet. But rather than spend a few days or few weeks with the military, as is standard, she spent 18 months, off and on, mostly with the Edmonton-based 1st Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, including a visit to the Afghan front in November, 2009.
A few months in, she knew what she wanted to write. Her Catholic upbringing, undergraduate studies in voice, and the horrendous experience of war all pointed to a requiem that could serve as a testimonial to the war in Afghanistan, and Canada's role. Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation has its world premiere on Saturday in Calgary, the largest commission in the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra's history.
"I was sitting in fields with young veterans who were 27 going on 80 with their life experience, and I saw a lot of suffering and a lot of sacrifice … and I wanted to somehow recognize this," Steele said this week from the Banff Centre, where she was putting the final touches on a chapbook that includes the text of the work. "It's very difficult to describe what war is like. Much of it is nothing happening. There is a lot of sitting around preparing, resting, doing duties. War is not the first five minutes of Saving Private Ryan. War is much longer endurance and often just waiting, waiting, waiting for maybe something to happen. And hopefully nothing happens."
But of course, things happened. Twelve members of the battle group she was with died during their time in Afghanistan, including five members of the company with which she was embedded.
"It was very, very tough psychologically and physically and emotionally, because I was in the company of young people and I knew [some] of them wouldn't come home; and indeed 12 didn't," says Steele, who felt a need to go beyond the headlines and represent what was happening back home to "a country at war that wasn't really talking about it."
Back in Calgary, she was interviewed by a local newspaper about her experiences in Afghanistan. Michael Green, who founded that city's High Performance Rodeo and co-founded the theatre company One Yellow Rabbit, read the article and reached out. Eventually Steele, who lives in Metchosin, B.C. (although she is now studying in Exeter, England), travelled to Calgary.
"One of the things she said was I would love to write a libretto for a symphonic requiem for the end of Canada's military mission to Afghanistan," says Green, noting this is one of the biggest projects of the Calgary 2012 cultural initiative. "And I said: Oh you've got to meet my friends, who are the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra."
A few hours later, they were at the local Legion branch with Heather Slater, the CPO's director of artistic operations. Over coffee and tomato juice, they listened to Steele talk about her vision. "I remember sitting at the Legion with her and hearing her stories and I could just hear it in music," says Slater, who had recently arrived from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
With Steele's input, Vancouver-based composer Jeffrey Ryan was selected for the project. "The emotional depth of what's in [the libretto] was a good artistic challenge to try and convey in the music," says Ryan. "There are a lot of moments when the text, I think, really does take your breath away, so hopefully I've set it to music in a way that also takes people's breath away."
Described by Ryan as a "very contemporary" and kind of "post-sacred work," the hour-long piece is in English with some Latin, French and Pashtun. Wanting to adhere to the musical tradition but also to reflect what she calls the post-religious generation, Steele uses "Christ" as both an invocation and a curse. She also uses the f-word – a reflection of the soldiers' vernacular that had to be run past orchestra officials. "The president of the CPO said this work needs to reflect these people," says Steele. "I think the CPO has been very brave with this; they've given us carte blanche."
With an adult and children's chorus, four soloists (including soprano Zorana Sadiq, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Hass, tenor Benjamin Butterfield and baritone Tyler Duncan) and the orchestra itself, the work will bring some 270 people on stage for a Remembrance Day eve program that will also include Andrew Lloyd Webber's Pie Jesu from Requiem and Stephen Chatman's In Flanders Fields. (The new work will be recorded for future broadcast on CBC Radio 2).
"We really all believed in it; we knew it was worth the investment," says Slater, who declined to say what the commission cost. "It's indescribably important, what we're doing. When I read Suzanne's words and now when I hear what Jeffrey Ryan's done with the music, I'm a little bit speechless about it."