Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris once referred to art as “a realm of life between our mundane world and the world of the spirit.”
The National Parks Project (NPP), undertaken to celebrate Parks Canada’s centennial in 2011, is an idea that shares Harris’ sentiment, and more generally the kind of experience and response to Canada’s landscape the Group of Seven embodied.
Last year, musicians and filmmakers were commissioned to venture into Canadian National Parks across all provinces and territories with the intent to respond to the various landscapes through music and film.
Three musicians — Jamie Fleming, Melissa Auf der Maur, Sam Shalabi — and film director Sturla Gunnarsson arrived in Gros Morne late last summer to spend five days hiking, camping and attempting to capture the essence of the area’s landscape.
Only Shalabi, an Egyptian-born, Prince Edward Island-raised artist and integral member of Montreal’s improv music scene, and Auf der Maur, a rock musician and former member of the Smashing Pumpkins and Hole, had crossed paths before.
Gunnarsson, the Academy Award-nominated Icelandic-Canadian filmmaker who directed local film and television productions “Rare Birds” and “Above and Beyond,” says he was drawn to the opportunity in part because of its proximity to where his ancestors once landed at L’Anse aux Meadows.
“It’s a place that has this sort of ancient Norse Viking history, so that really appealed to me. I find it really evocative,” he explains on the phone from Toronto, where he’s in production of an episode of popular television show “Degrassi.”
Over the course of the five days at Gros Morne, Gunnarsson’s goals and responses to the landscape came together with the musicians,’ whose objective was to create music together during the sojourn.
The results are an 11-minute short film that, along with those from the other 12 parks, will be available to stream online at the project’s website and the instrumental “Mountaintop,” which was included on the project’s soundtrack.
Determined to pursue his vision of each musician responding to the landscape independently, Gunnarsson had the musicians up at 3:15 a.m. each morning, he says.
“It’s a place that has this sort of ancient Norse Viking history, so that really appealed to me. I find it really evocative.” - Sturla Gunnarsson
“I just thought I’d take each of the players and experience a dawn with them. I wanted to just experience it like waking from a dream, just to simply be there, not to try and impose any idea in the moment.”
Fleming, a Toronto-based musician steeped in the blues tradition and member of popular new-age blues trio Catl, embarked on the venture with his electric guitar in tow and Auf der Maur with her electric bass.
Shalabi and his oud, an acoustic Middle Eastern stringed instrument, uniquely rounded out the triad.
“I thought (the oud) would be a good choice to just respond to what it was like there. It’s an instrument that’s usually associated with Middle Eastern or Arabic music and imagery, so I thought to bring it to Newfoundland would be interesting,” he says, explaining the three had no trouble coming together musically.
“You respond to what you’re experiencing there,” he says. “The landscape was a very trippy and interesting part of that, but then if you’re responding to what is happening in the moment then there was also the irritation of getting up at 3 a.m.,” he laughs.
“There was also the fact that it was really cold. The only kind of limiting element there, for me, was the temperature. I’ve never played the instrument like that ... but it definitely came out better than I thought it was going to.”
The film features each of the three playing their instrument in a different location at dawn as the sun rises, a scene with them improvising together on a rocky beach, and an epic closing shot of Auf der Maur in a dark robe playing her bass on a mountaintop as the sun sets behind a far peak and the film concludes.
“It’s kind of a primal soundscape thing that they created,” says Gunnarsson. “To me it felt like it was a sound that came up out of the Earth.”
For more information and to view the Gros Morne and other short films visit the National Parks Project web site: www.nationalparksproject.com.