Mychael Danna
& Tim Clement,
North of Niagara:
Impressions Along the Bruce Trail

(Hearts of Space, 1995)

The back of this CD notes that "the Bruce Trail is Canada's oldest and longest footpath." It is also the rationale for a collaboration between Mychael Danna, who has a number of film scores to his credit as well as recordings of his own larger compositions, and fellow Canadian Tim Clement, a musician of protean abilities and catholic tastes.

The trail itself stretches for 100 km along the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in the heart of Ontario. It encompasses a wide diversity of environments, from the forests of southern Ontario at its beginning at Niagara Falls and the southeastern eastern reaches of Lake Ontario to the rocky promontories at its end point at Tobermory on the shores of Georgian Bay.

While fitting loosely under the rubric of new age music, North of Niagara is a more incisive, thoughtful work than most you will find in this area. Danna and Clement have christened their combined style "romantic minimalism," which does seem borne out by the music itself: there is a spareness to these compositions that, while making ample use of the resources the two have at their command (and these are two most resourceful musicians), also offers a concentrated series of small compositions that evoke mood in a way that is almost concrete. The 12 segments offered here give an impressive distillation of the sights, sounds and the very feel of a wilderness hike.

It is sometimes hard to discern in a collaboration just how the partners have contributed. While for the most part North of Niagara is seamless, there are telling individualities. "Ravensview" is an almost formless, "space music" track that echoes parts of Danna's Skies, while the following track, "Remember Summer," seems to be pure Clement in its sinuous use of accordion (which could very well be synthesized -- the notes are mute on this issue) in dialogue with an equally sinuous steel guitar (ably contributed by Kim Deschamps, Clement's collaborator in Wolf Song Night), all over a strong bass line by Paul Intson; Clement seems to have a strong predilection for a back-country-cum-honkytonk feel in his music.

Eric Hall contributes the bassoon in "Old Mail Road," a starkly evocative piece that relies on a spare piano line to provide a moody sense of age and loneliness. One of the high points of the album is "Mount Nemo," which for this collection is almost lush, but still partakes of the overriding simplicity and leanness apparent throughout. With its measured chord progressions and subtle accents, this is music that has the feeling of a hymn -- as it builds, the overriding image is that of being in a cathedral -- or in an old pine woods where pillars of sunlight break through the trees: it has the kind of passionate sensuality, the majestic intensity that one can find, for example, in Vaughan William's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

This is intensely visual music. I suspect that if one has ever walked on the Bruce Trail, this album would bring it all back. (I have never been farther into Canada than the farmlands of southern Ontario, yet this recording brings back vivid memories of the back reaches of the Appalachians.) Although largely introspective, almost ruminative in mood, this music is engaging, sophisticated and tightly constructed. Not every track is of the caliber of "Mount Nemo" or "Remember Summer" -- Danna tends to let his "space music" tendencies take over -- but the overall quality is exceptional. Each piece is sharply individual, while the underlying commonalities unify what could be called a program symphony in 12 movements.

The enclosed fold-out, while marvelously uninformative on Danna or Clement, does offer a visually stunning map and information on the Bruce Trail, including contact information for the Bruce Trail Association, the volunteer organization that maintains the trail. I'm not really sure how I feel about art in the service of a cause, but it seems to be part of the territory -- sometimes, you even get good art. If you're going to dip into new age music at all, this is one you should seriously consider.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 12 June 2004

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