Sonic Messenger of the North

With Yellowknife as her soundscape, there’s little that doesn’t catch the ear of composer, performer and field recordist Carmen Braden. A harvester of sounds – candling ice, mosquitos, snowmobiles –  she gathers, interprets and transforms them into music. Tanya Tagaq, the Penderecki Quartet and the Gryphon Trio are among her collaborators, and her compositions have been performed by renowned concert violinist James Ehnes. Braden’s new debut studio album, Ravens, a mashup of original chamber works, intricate grooves and jazz-based improvisations, features a host of northern artists and pushes the 31-year-old pianist into the vocal spotlight. EDGE YK caught up with her just before the release in December.

EDGE YK: Tell us about Ravens.

CB: It’s so exciting. The album has changed a lot, it’s become a lot more about me and my voice, both my compositional voice and my singing voice. I’ve sung in choirs since I was six – Bill Gilday’s choir. I recorded it partially on the NACC stage, and then I went to my producer’s studio in Nova Scotia, one of my old professors, Mark Adam. He had a major influence on the direction this project took.

I brought him and my recording engineer to Yellowknife, we dropped the front red curtain down at NACC and made this intimate little space with lamps everywhere and we did the three instrumental pieces – the classical chamber pieces –  with all local musicians, except I brought a violist up from Calgary.

It’s on Centrediscs classical music label, from the Canadian Music Centre, of which I am one of two northern affiliate composers. My CD is a bit adventurous for them, considering the sound we created, even on the chamber works, is more akin to a really intimate studio sound as opposed to a concert hall.

EDGE YK: When did you first know you wanted to be a musician?

CB: I’ve had music in my life since I was five, when I started piano. And I’ve had music as part of my formal and informal parts of my life since then, so even if I decided all of sudden to become a plumber I wouldn’t be able to not be a musician at some level. I think it was probably part way through my undergrad when I learned about the field of acoustic ecology, which has been a big part of my philosophy of listening, and then my compositional style as well. Through learning about this field my ears kind of opened up to the possibilities of the world around me as musical source, or as music going on. So having that become a part of my creative life made me so excited. The music I’ve done has kind of stemmed from that, using the sounds around me. I feel like I could do this forever. There’s so many cool sounds that you could engage with.


My thesis piece was about the sounds of ice. I looked at scientific parts of ice and brought that into my music.

EDGE YK: You’ve been studying music a long time and now have your Masters in Composition. Are you done with school?

CB: Please God, I hope I don’t get the PhD bug. I feel like I’m done. I’m having so much fun right now just doing stuff. Sure it would make me a better composer but I don’t know if I want to spend another four years in academia. I don’t want to make it my career.

EDGE YK: So how do you make a musical career living in Yellowknife recording ice sounds?

CB: Under Black Ice Sound, my company I started in 2012, I do a variety of things in the North. You have to as a musician to make a living. Commissions, performing, which I’ve started to do more, and I have a manager right now who will be working with me for my live bookings. I’ve moved through NACC towards doing music outreach in the communities.

I do think living here will be an asset. If I was trying to do all these crazy things as a Toronto musician… First, it wouldn’t be who I am, I can’t picture myself doing it. I love it here. This is where my family is, my muse. But also the interest in music in the North. Canada 150 has contacted me through a number of groups for various things that they want music for. They want a northern perspective and I’ve been recommended. It speaks to the versatility I’ll need to maintain while at the same time my standard has to be at the top international level, as close to it as I can keep it, otherwise I won’t keep getting work.

EDGE YK: What bands are you involved with right now?

CB: The Committed, and I’m in a group called the New North Collective, a pan-territorial group of musicians, mainly folk music. We get together and write our own music in collaborative moments. We have some gigs in Alberta, B.C. and the Yukon next year. Then I’ve just been playing by myself, I’ve had a couple of solo gigs this fall, one was in Victoria for a showcase at the Jazz Festivals Canada conference. I went with [uncle and bassist] Pat [Braden] and hired a session player from Vancouver, I performed all my own stuff.

EDGE YK: What aspect of your creative musical work do you most enjoy?

CB: It’s writing music. I write what I’m hired to write, and then if I’m writing something for myself it’s typically something that will have words, carefully crafted words or I’ve written jazz pieces. Somebody called me earlier this fall from the Toronto Symphony, the composer in residence. They’ve commissioned a piece from me, and it’s on the same program as Adizokan, a multi-disciplinary piece exploring Indigenous connections to ancestral origins. My piece [yet untitled] will also explore identity. For me this is quite striking personally because for the last few years members of my family have been looking at our genealogical history and looking at the aboriginal ancestry we have. This will be my question, identity and ancestry.

EDGE YK: So what’s your process for writing pieces for the symphony?

CB: My TSO piece is due early summer, so I’ll start that one in the spring. I’m starting to lie awake at night thinking about this. I balance different things in my head before I start a piece. I think about who the players are, who the ensemble is, their history, and then I think about the context, why are they commissioning me, where is thing going to be heard and by who? And with that as the backdrop in my mind I really just kind of let what is happening in my life currently come into that piece. And whether it’s something I experience in my surroundings day-to-day inside, outside, or something that’s happening internally or with people I know and love. Sometimes I’ll extract that into a different concept. And then I sit with an idea for a while and basically turn it on its head. Look at the cracks and the spaces where I can fit in. I come up with a question and then I find a solution through the music.

EDGE YK:  Where do you write?

CB: In my living room. I have an old upright piano that was my husband’s grandfather’s. Got the little pellet stove in the corner, the dog shedding everywhere, and I have music I write by hand. At some point I can move away. I’m travelling next week to the communities so it’s not like I’ll have a piano at my side but the composition starts living in my head. Once you actually get someone to play parts of it then you hear where you need to adjust or change or get rid of stuff.

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