Music for Music: Everywhen
Art collaboration by Jonathan Kawchuk, Tracy Maurice, and Brad Necyk
Trailblazer: Jonathan Kawchuk
By Dan Ursini ©2022
Music about a place (“A Summer Place,” “Woodstock,” “Tobacco Road,” etc.) is one thing. But I have been listening to music by a place, and that is something else. Canadian musical thinker Jonathan Kawchuk’s new release, Everywhen, reflects his dual commitment to music and music ecology. Kawchuk is a composer and vocalist; he is also a wildlife recordist. As the liner notes say, “Everywhen is the product of collaborating with the atmosphere and sounds of the Rocky Mountains in Kananaskis, Alberta.”
When a bold assertion like this is presented as literally true, it is fair to ask how he literally did it. Kawchuk was alert to wilderness locations likely free of noise pollution for a stretch of time long enough to warrant negotiating the logistics of remote recording. He explains, “I hauled 7 speakers and 11 microphones out into the middle of the forest in the Canadian Rockies, and, with the blessings of many acoustic ecologists, I played back a collage of voices into the trees. Once that sound echoed and picked up the natural reverb of the place, I re-recorded it in surround sound (Dolby Atmos). That formed the basis of the record.”
Creating this music consumed eight years of Kawchuk’s life. He wryly comments, “There is a pretty good reason why no one has tried to make a classically recorded album with sensitive indoor gear outside.” The process required hundreds of hours in the studio and the wilderness. He reflects, “This Goliath took every artistic, technical, personal, and physical skill I have in me. I knew it would require a ton of work, tech we had to make ourselves, and answers that would take a huge amount of effort to get—like having to get myself to Munich to solve a tech problem; or putting rain covers on so many microphones, and wrapping muddy cable desperately, in a sudden downpour; or my computer dying because nothing is supposed to handle so many audio tracks; or the very territorial squirrel whose turf I was recording on.
“We learned everything the hard way and we had to invent solutions. But I absolutely loved that.”
The Everywhen Project began with a set of wordless voice collages that Kawchuk made with a highly inclusive range of singers. “There are metal vocalists; jazz vocalists; country, folk, rock, and pop vocalists; performance artists . . . Anyone who was comfortable being guided through improvisation with the recording light on.” He ensured that everybody in this varied group performed in the same condition: a state he calls “positive exhaustion.” Put simply, before recording a vocal, they did all the burpees (a strenuous conditioning exercise) they could. Kawchuk recalls, “The effects were immediate. I think there is a level of truth in the visceral, full-body experience of exhaustion. It’s truly existential. Your experience is much more rooted in the tangible world and your surroundings.”
All this was done in pursuit of conveying the perplexing sonic realities of the Canadian Rockies. Kawchuk remarks, “I’m not sure there is a true state that the Rockies exist in, but there is a way to interact with them that feels true to me. The Rockies, for me, are this amazing mix of danger and tranquility and risk and hunger and elation, and it all happens at once, and it somehow fits together into this sublime white light of emotion.”
Kawchuk conveys his layered reaction through a hybrid collage-based compositional style that incorporates heavy soundscape elements into songs with highly unusual structures. He says that “most of these ideas were written in a short burst of inspiration and then archived.” A pause. “I had these mountains of ideas that have accumulated over years and years and I had to work hard with my friend Connory Ballantyne to sculpt them down into the shape of a record.” The most important element in this sonic sculpture was the focus on wilderness sonic reality: “Sometimes that meant cutting songs I liked compositionally but that didn’t serve the feeling of that place for me.”
I have been listening to this album for weeks, and I am still finding fresh points of entry to each of the fourteen tracks. Abundant in freshness and depth, Everywhen is based on asymmetrical musical structures and deep contrasts of every sort. Beguiling vocal harmonies follow unnerving metal elements; swarms of vocal clusters disperse into long passages of low-volume forest quiet.
Everywhen offers many standout moments, some of which are provided by Toronto jazz vocalist Jocelyn Barth, who has a rare gift for improvising subtle, gliding melodies. On the first track, “Syrinx,” she sings with a weary intimacy that sets the emotional tone of the whole album.
Throughout, Everywhen’s music blends the ethereal and the unnerving—often in the same song. On “Look at this Distractor,” gentle vocal passages are broken at key points by what might be termed ambient nuisance textures:
“Solar Plexus” showcases Kawchuk’s considerable emotional and sonic range, as it slowly builds to a climax of intense percussive abrasiveness.
The metal undercurrents of Kawchuk’s music surface in the jolting and manic title track:
A personal favorite is “Semper, Always,” It is a lush, airy expression of spirituality with a brilliant serpentine solo by Jocelyn Barth:
Everywhen is an inventive, technically dazzling effort. But what I find most compelling is a fundamental honesty about it. The voice of the composer’s soul truly registers. That is rare. I highly recommend.
Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine; he wrote performance art pieces presented at Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication. In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, has had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Kawchuck photo credit: aAron Munson