Jonathan Kawchuk :: North (Eilean Rec.)

North is true, a subtle combination of acoustic and electronic instruments, skeletal and essential—no more than what you need to make it through. A brief collection of pieces performed by an ensemble of over a dozen that seems to have disassembled itself so as to be as hushful as possible.

Jonathan Kawchuk :: North (Eilean Rec.)

In 1967, Glenn Gould put together a radio show titled The Idea of North, “a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and in the end, avoid.” (“Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back, from the awful experience – the North,” as the first thematic overview of Canadian literature put it.) Jonathan Kawchuk, an Edmonton native who has spent time in Iceland in the company of Valgeir Sigurðsson, was a studio assistant for Ben Frost, Nico Muhly, and an assistant sound technician for the Phillip Glass Ensemble, debuts with sounds to survive by, as those first frozen weeks of winter turn into months. His North is true, a subtle combination of acoustic and electronic instruments, skeletal and essential—no more than what you need to make it through. A brief collection of pieces performed by an ensemble of over a dozen (including voices and “sometimes actual heartbeats”) that seems to have disassembled itself so as to be as hushful as possible. Each is perfectly rendered and dovetails into a seamless whole.

The air is strange and still, as the air is way below zero. North was recorded in Canada, Norway, Iceland, the UK, Israel, and Portugal (so I suppose the ensemble is actually only virtual) and field recordings, which I assume provide so much of the uncanny texture, were made in all but one of those countries. And then, according to Kawchuk, the tracks were all “played back and re­recorded in the forests of Jostedal National Park.”

Yet the superb acoustics sound very “studio” to me. Kawchuk cautiously stirs the hibernatorial. He neither attempts to replicate nature (even though some of “Aware” or “Fast Twitch” might call to mind a waterfall or the wind blowing through a rib-cage of icicles hanging from the eaves) nor enhance it, but rather blend into it, the vastness as minimal melody, the minimal melody carved with the elegant simplicity of grand geography. His piano (and “extended piano”) are quietly central to North. Nearby strings may shiver, harp puts a warm, reassuring hand on thickly sweatered shoulder, marimba patters quietly, a snowshoe hare of discretion, but the piano, sometimes chewing up snow gristle, is pervasive.

“That So” is a duet with violist Nadia Sirota, an agreeable conversation that ends with a burst of woody breakbeats. Brilliant. “Bodied” seems less a composition than a recording of the wire and bulk of the piano slowly freezing. An exhaled breath churns up a snow devil. Finally, North puts on a transformation mask and we suddenly find ourselves in “Lagos” of all places, granular, warm air, soft song—is this the joik credited to Gøril Nilsen? it is not really recognizable as such—patches and shreds floating lazily, bending, aimless where previously everything was much more pinpoint. It is a welcome closer.

Released on 12 December, North slides right under the wire “best of” candidacy into first place. It sounds good against the almost silence. Like the excellent musical company he keeps, we should be prepared to hear and enjoy much more from Jonathan Kawchuk.

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