THE CREMATION OF SAM MCGEE
"A superbly atmospheric travelogue in music, words, and images!"
Robert Service's The Cremation of Sam McGee is a poem that charms, chills and amuses on the page. It's a complete work in itself. So how to convey its snowy atmosphere and epic sledge runs in music was quite a challenge when cellist Christine Hanson decided to adopt "Sam" for her Celtic Connections "New Voices" commission in 2005.
It was a challenge she rose to brilliantly. Using a small folk orchestra with the added casting masterstroke of having Michael Marra narrate, she created a piece that succeeded in transporting the audience every mile of the way.
Hanson, who is often found in the supporting cast - she's played with Martin Carthy, Rab Noakes, Karen Matheson, Justin Currie and Eddi Reader among others - steps out front to lead Sam on another trip from the frozen Yukon frontier to the fire.
It's a superbly atmospheric travelogue in music, words and pictures, as the Arctic icescapes of fellow Canadian Artist Ted Harrison lend a striking backdrop. No need to wrap up warmly, though, as things ultimately heat up for the hero and Marra's telling of the tale leaves a definite glow.
NORMAN CHALMERS, Edinburgh Scotsman
"The Cremation of Sam McGee", Robert Service - The Live Show
Celtic Connections: New Voices: Christine Hanson
Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
Star rating: * * * * *
Celtic Connections 2005's final afternoon concerts conspired to show both an intriguing way forward for the sticky subject of extended compositions in traditional music.
Cellist Christine Hanson's New Voices piece took its inspiration from Robert Service's The Cremation of Sam McGee and succeeded brilliantly, not only in bringing the poem to life but also in taking the listener all the way across the frozen landscape.
With Michael Marra reciting Service's words with typical declamatory relish, the music took up the narrative, now dancing along behind the huskies pulling McGee's carcass, now evoking elements through inquiring cello and trombone lines.
There were moments of macabre musical humour to match the text and back-projected illustrations and although the dance tunes played by Hanson and fiddlers Bruce McGregor and Aidan O'Rourke were Scottish in essence, their treatment - with the rhythm section sometimes using a loose and subtle, jazzy swing - placed it in the poem's American locations.
Most impressively of all, though, was how Hanson achieved a real band sound with the octet. This, and the attractive quality of composition, made the piece as a whole the sort of thing even a worn-out reviewer could have sat through happily all over again.
ROB ADAMS, The Glasgow Herald, Scotland
Sam McGee - The Live Show
A chilling, enthralling and entertaining work!
Christine Hanson's Sam McGee multi- media presentation celebrates both the Scottish birthplace of Yukon poet Robert W. Service and his greatest creation, the irascible, ill-fated and fascinating Sam McGee.
Exploring the Scottish tradition, the members of the Sam McGee ensemble - featuring some of Scotland's finest traditional musicians drawn from top bands including Blazin' Fiddles, Shooglenifty and Session A9 - begin by showcasing their individual and collective talents before the first half closes with the unique, gravel-voiced Michael Marra fronting the full, eight-strong band.
Hanson's musical adaptation of Service's The Cremation of Sam McGee switches locations to the frozen Yukon frontier where the cellist's original compositions take the audience across the snow in tandem with this quirky, tragicomic tale.
Narrated with conspicuous relish by Michael Marra and with the celebrated Canadian artist Ted Harrison's beautiful Arctic icescapes projected as a backdrop, The Cremation of Sam McGee is a chilling, enthralling and entertaining work whose music opens a window on deeper themes of friendship, promises made and eventual rebirth.
Sue Wilson, The Edinburgh Scotsman
'Cellist Wins Praise for Adaptation of Service poem!'
By The Edmonton Journal, June 20, 2006
Poet Robert Service, who was born in England to Scottish parents, took great inspiration from his years in Canada's Far North to pen classic works like The Cremation of Sam McGee. It's a poetic irony, then, that Alberta cellist Christine Hanson wound up creating her musical adaptation of the famous Service poem in Scotland.
As coincidence would have it, Hanson found out she has been living a short walk from Service's original home in Glasgow since she first left Edmonton about three years ago to pursue musical opportunities in the British Isles. Back then, she had no idea that she would become the first non-Scot to win a commission from the New Voices project of Glasgow's huge annual Celtic Connections Festival, which sparked the idea of adapting the epic poem.
"Basically they say, 'here's your budget, you can have whoever you want, go away for a year and write,' " explains the cellist, who's currently back in Edmonton visiting family and friends. "It was pretty scary because this is the first piece I've ever written, but these situations put you in the hot seat- ultimately an exciting place to be!"
Live performances of the musical suite at the Glasgow fest this past winter drew considerable acclaim from the Scottish press. At the same time Hanson released her new CD, The Cremation of Sam McGee. It features the gritty voice of veteran singer-songwriter Michael Marra narrating sections of the poem with her hand-picked group of top Scot players drawing out the sort of musical pictures you might expect to accompany a poem so caught up in strong images (the 70-minute album also includes a second all-instrumental version of the music).
She was particularly thrilled to get versatile players like trombonist Rick Taylor (formerly Elton John's musical director in the mid-'80s), fiddlers Bruce MacGregor and Aidan O'Rourke, and string wizard Kevin Murray to lend their talents to a 8-piece ensemble. The result straddles folk, country, jazz and classical genres in a rich, refreshing soundtrack to Canadian pioneer life as it was first caught with Service's dramatic relish.
If Hanson's Sam McGee project felt like a challenge, it's just one of many successful musical experiences she's had in Britain over the past several years. She's toured the U.K. and Europe with singer-songwriter Eddi Reader, recorded with English folk icon Martin Carthy, done session work for the BBC and played numerous gigs, from clubs to concert halls and international festivals, as well as travelling to some of the most remote parts of Scotland and beyond.
"Historically there was a place for the cello in Scottish traditional music, so that's helped, but the cello also seems to have a timbre that people gravitate towards when they're featuring an instrument with a distinctive and emotive character."
Edmonton-born Hanson is actually of Irish extraction and grew up hearing a mix of jazz, classical, folk and popular music at home. After graduating from classical training at the University of Alberta, she taught herself guitar to enrol in the music program at Grant MacEwan University. She credits her years there learning to improvise over chord changes and bass lines with guitar instructor Bobby Cairns as one of the most important parts of her musical studies. That versatility has led to experienced classical players taking lessons from her in Scotland.
Cello tends to be associated with the classical realm, but Hanson admits she was "a bit rebellious" in wanting to use it in other styles of music. She recorded her first genre-crossing CD six years ago, and before she left Edmonton she had become a regular in folk gigs and taken part in a tango trio that actually toured the Canadian Arctic – an experience she credits for helping to inspire her interest in the Service poem. Despite the slight touch of a Scottish accent that has crept into her voice from living in Glasgow, she's still very attached to her roots.
"I really wanted to write something that reflected where I come from, something that could bring together all these influences – from classical, jazz, to country, and everything – into kind of a melting pot. This commission gave me the freedom to do that. It's just who I am."
Roger Levesque, The Edmonton Journal