Esmerine: organic sound and vision

Esmerine live, by Susan Moss
By Frances Morgan

The music of Canadian band Esmerine, with its swooping strings and rippling tuned percussion, has a certain cinematic feel. Evocative and emotional, but also spacious enough to allow the listener’s imagination to take flight, the instrumentals created by the core of cellist Beckie Foon (of A Silver Mt Zion) and percussionist Bruce Cawdron (of Godspeed You! Black Emperor) with newer members harpist Sarah Pagé and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Barr seem a natural fit for the visions of experimental filmmakers and animators; and when the band announced a series of European concerts last month, they did so via a specially made video by Kurtis Hough.

Esmerine: UK Tour Promo 2011 from Constellation Records on Vimeo.

While many bands commission film and video to help promote their work, Esmerine’s relationship with artists such as Kurtis Hough is unquestionably a collaborative one – in the case of Hough, it’s also a long-time partnership that’s grown over almost a decade, says Beckie Foon, as she describes how Hough created a video for a track on their first album, If Only a Sweet Surrender to the Nights to Come be True, released in 2003.

“It was a no-brainer, in terms of asking him to do something for the ‘Walking Through Mist’ piece, because that piece is ethereal and nature-based and his aesthetic felt very right for it,” she says. She agrees, too, that Hough’s video, which uses images from nature to hypnotic effect, fits organically with Esmerine’s acoustic instrumentation.

However, for Esmerine’s latest album, La Lechuza, which came out earlier this year, the band wanted to work with a number of different visual collaborators, perhaps reflecting their expanded lineup, and also the deeply personal resonance of the album, the first of theirs to heavily feature vocals. La Lechuza is dedicated to singer Lhasa de Sela, who sings closing song ‘Fish On Land’; a close friend of the band and a catalyst for some of their collaborations, she died in January 2010. The visual motif of an owl that appears on the album’s artwork and in Hough and Brad Todd’s videos is one that was particularly significant to her.

Esmerine "Snow Day For Lhasa" from Constellation Records on Vimeo.

The album launched in Montreal in June 2011 with a live concert that used visuals by Brad Todd and Clea Minnaker, two artists with very different approaches. While Minnaker uses physical objects and a light table, Todd uses software to manipulate images live, slowly crossfading throughout the performances: “he was taking these beautiful images of owls and has a programme where he can create different patches so that the images can be filtered live for the duration that he wants. He can control how the image evolves over a period of time with the music, ” explains Beckie.

Clea Minnaker will be touring with the band during September and October. Beckie says of their collaboration, “Esmerine actually composed music for her recent theatre production, so our collaboration has evolved naturally from there. It made sense to bring her in for La Lechuza, because some of the music that we’d been working on for her creation developed into songs that are on the album.  She also brings a lot of nature elements into her work: she’ll use pine cones or sand or dirt, and work live with the light table and improvise with the music. So we’ll get together with her and actually do improv with the visuals and the music. Her visuals will inspire us to come up with new melodies, and vice versa.”

Due to Foon’s commitment to A Silver Mt Zion and Cawdron’s to Godspeed, Esmerine hasn’t until now been a touring band. “Because it’s the first time we’re able to take it on the road, we really want to make it a special thing,” says Beckie, “and this record is also very close to our hearts because of the way it all came about, so that’s why we’ve decided to bring visuals on the road.” She’s aware of some of the pitfalls of distracting an audience with visuals, but says, “It fits well because the instruments are so beautiful – the harp, the marimba, the cello, all the crazy melodic percussion onstage. That, with all the shadows and images, can look lovely with the visuals.”

Esmerine live, by Susan Moss

Both Godspeed and Mt Zion are part of Constellation Records, the Montreal label that was set up in 1997 and has been a vital part of that city’s creative community ever since. It’s notable – and unusual – in allowing artists a great deal of freedom, while supporting them closely; and there’s a sensitivity to and endorsement of other art forms that can be clearly seen in the detailed, crafted packaging of Constellation’s releases and the section of the site given over to videos. Last year, Constellation released Wurld, a DVD by the band Elfin Saddle, who created as well as soundtracked their own 23-minute animated film. Meanwhile, Godspeed’s live shows were frequently accompanied by looped film projections. Given this awareness of visual identity and integrity, it’s understandable that members of Constellation bands, while their music has been used in various documentary and fictional feature films, are careful in their choices.

“I and everyone in Esmerine are strong advocates of independent filmmakers and love independent film, so we love to share our music with filmmakers that are interested in using it,” Beckie says. “It’s always a bit tricky because with film, usually when people ask to have the music, or even when you’re working on a film score, a lot of the time you don’t know what the full aesthetic is going to be because it’s usually not completed. But for me personally, I want to support it – especially these days when it’s harder to be able to make a living and to continue doing what you love in ways that you believe in.”

She is particularly interested in political documentary, and recently worked with director Shannon Walsh on H2Oil, a documentary about the oil sands in Alberta, Western Canada, and the dangerous exploitation of this resource. “The imagery is very desolate and especially the aerial shots of the tar sands – the photography was strikingly beautiful but when you know what it actually is, it’s totally depressing.  Shannon would just give me these images and from there I could compose music, and so we worked on the film very collaboratively from the beginning to the editing.”

When asked about her favourite meetings of film and music, Beckie laughs that she went to see The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) primarily for the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. “I love their scores for The Road and Jesse James. I’m a big fan of Kronos Quartet, and all the Darren Aronofsky films; to be honest I would love to work on a Darren Aronofsky film! I was very impressed by Jonny Greenwood’s score to There Will Be Blood – as a string player I thought he did a great job.”

After another of her bands, Set Fire To Flames, soundtracked Oscar-nominated animated film Madame Tutli-Putli, Beckie is also keen to work with animation again: “It’s like working with Clea, which is kind of playing with shadow puppetry”, she says. “It’s another way of getting out of reality into this unknown, surreal world, which can feel magical. It’s very artistic and playful.”

Esmerine perform in Glasgow on 19 September, Leeds on 20 September and London on 21 September. For details see www.esmerine.com/shows

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