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It was Canadian pianist Glenn Gould who first hit on "the idea of North." In his radio documentaries he explored the innate qualities that may be found in music that comes from northern climates like Canada. Alison Melville of the Toronto-based Ensemble Polaris says they decided to borrow that concept when the group was created in 1997, "but the other idea," she explains, "is just simply this interest in music from circumpolar countries That's where we started off and I guess that's why we describe it that way because we perform traditional tunes from Scandinavia, Finland, the Baltic countries, also Scotland and Canada are included and at a recent concert we started including some Russian tunes as well. So we have a way of taking these tunes and then kind of making them Canadian and we make arrangements of these tunes as well as creating original music."
Alison Melville is a recorder and historical flute player. She's performed with other Canadian groups such as Tafelmusik and the Toronto Consort. She also taught at the Oberlin Conservatory before leaving to pursue musical projects like Uncharted Waters, from Ensemble Polaris. It was while she teaching in Ohio that Alison got the idea to compose the piece titled Halloween Peabody. "I was in Oberlin one day and I had gone for a walk in one of the cemeteries there. There's a fair bit of history of the town to be seen in that cemetery and Halloween Peabody was the name that I saw on one gravestone and I thought what a great name. She was born at the beginning of the 20th century, and she also appeared not to have taken her husband's married name which struck me as very intriguing for a woman in the early 20th century."
Halloween Peabody is paired with an opening tune titled Ena Twigg, named for a 20th century medium who communicated with the dead. "She was apparently quite famous in England," Alison recalls, "And so I kind of thought, if one tune is about a person who has passed on, maybe the other tune could be named for a person who communicates with the those who have passed on or tries to maintain the link between the living and the dead."
The eclectic sound of Ensemble Polaris is due in part to the unusual instrumentation. One exotic instrument that immediately grabs the ear is the nyckleharpa, a Swedish keyed fiddle. It can be heard on The Turnip Tune, a traditional Swedish melody. "It looks quite pre-historic in a certain sense," Meville explains, "It really is truly the sound of the instrument that attracts people, which is cool because what music is about is sound so no matter how funky the instruments look this incredible sound that they produce is really what intrigues people."
Guitarist Marco Cera and his brother Andrei composed a very vivid character piece in tribute to their great uncle, Ninin, who loved to play the violin. "And his day job was as a barber," Alison Melville clarifies, "but he loved to play the violin so much that he took lessons once a week from a teacher who lived 60 kilometers away. Every Saturday he went to have his violin lesson 60 kilometers each way on his bike. And he was not a young man when he started this. It's a fantastic tribute to this great uncle, and I hope Ninin got to hear this tune."
This new recording titled Uncharted Waters features music that crosses boundaries, both musically, and demographically. In fact Alison Melville says she was tickled when a friend wanted to purchase an additional copy recently after loaning her copy to her son. "I loaned it to my son who is 14," she told Melville, "and he really liked it. And then he loaned it to a friend of his and I have never seen it since."