The best way I can find to describe it is to say it’s directly descended from the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. Like Koyaanisqatsi, the film is a montage of striking images: the screen is filled with art, landscapes, war-scenes, animals and scientific diagrams, among other things. Some of the footage looks “archival”: grainy stuff from various decades of the 20th century.
For its premiere presentation, Song of Extinction wasn’t just screened, its score was given a live performance – by members of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, the Viva Youth Singers, and a small band of strings, percussion and keyboards called the Music in the Barns Ensemble. John Hess conducted.
Just as the film up on the big screen recalled the imagery Koyaanisqatsi, so too did Bolton’s music recall Glass. Not only was her style often similar to Glass’s tonal, chordal minimalism, it shared Glass’s sensibility of intense and ominous grandeur. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Bolton’s Song of Extinction music sounded exactly like it could have been written by Glass, but I would say that his influence on her work was strong.
So is there a problem here? Is it okay for an artist to overtly display the influence of another artist? Or does that somehow diminish the influenced artist? Why must art be “original”? Is it not enough for it to be good?
In my experience, explicit influence leads to disappointment when the influenced art can’t withstand comparison with the art influencing it – when a work of art isn’t as good as the art it reminds me of.
Happily, that isn’t a problem here, because everything about Song of Extinction is very well done. The poetry is elegantly crafted and thought-provoking. And the film is vivid, visually engaging and well produced. (I don’t know how much money was spent to create it. But I do know that – unlike many Canadian films – it didn’t look cheaply made.)
As well, the music is dramatically effective, in many ways. In some movements, such as “Where Are We To?”, sung by the Viva choir, Bolton’s score was disarmingly lyrical. And in some movements, such as “The Angel of Extinction,” it was rhythmically upbeat, energized with the busy figurations of American minimalism. At other times, as in the movement “Progress,” the stamp of Arvo Pärt could be heard in its quasi-religious modalism.
If this is derivative art, it is the equal of its derivations. That made it work for me.
Yet another factor that made Song of Extinction a memorable experience was the venue. In choosing the Hearn Generating Station as the site of its 10th anniversary year, Luminato made a bold move. The Hearn – a massive, abandoned ruin of a structure – amplified Song of Extinction’s statement about hubris and folly.
At present, it’s unclear whether the festival will be held at the Hearn in future years. Despite the successes of this year’s Luminato, I hope it isn’t. If the Hearn became the permanent headquarters for Luminato, it would quickly become the tail wagging the dog: all prospective projects would be filtered through the question “But will it work in the Hearn?” Some things would work very well there (it would be an amazing place to stage Beethoven’s Fidelio), but other kinds of art – smaller, more intimate things – wouldn’t. A multifaceted arts event like Luminato is best served by having many venues at its disposal. And Toronto has no lack of theatres, concert halls and art galleries.
As well, the place is discouragingly hard to get to. Moving Luminato permanently to the Hearn would send a strong “let-them-eat-cake” message to Torontonians who use public transit.
© Colin Eatock 2016