Cellist creates a compelling soundtrack inspired by Robert Service’s poetry
A cello may not be the first thing that leaps to mind when you think of, but with spookily melodious lines such as “There are strange things done in the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold” echoing in her head, music is exactly what cellist Christine Hanson thought of in the mid-2000s.
That’s when Hanson, who’s from Edmonton but spends considerable time in Glasgow, Scotland, composed and recorded The Creation of Sam McGee, her compelling musical take on the poem. The album, which is set out in acts suitable to the theatricality of both the poem and her own composition, features Hanson’s cello, other musicians playing everything from fiddle to trombone, and the burry voice of the late Scottish poet Michael Marra reciting Service’s haunting lines about a fictional cremation in the frozen Yukon.
As you’ll recall, the poem’s narrator, “Cap,” has promised his fellow prospector Sam McGee that he’d cremate him should McGee die in the North. Death arrives, and Cap, after hauling his pal’s frozen body for days across “that land of death,” fulfils his promise when he discovers a derelict boat on the shores of “Lake Lebarge” and uses it as a makeshift crematorium. But when Cap peaks inside, there sits McGee, come back to a kind of life.
Like McGee, the yarn never quite leaves you once you’ve read it.
Hanson’s creation is seeing its own revival these days as she tours the piece, including dates in Canada later this year.
Hanson first read the poem in elementary school. To her Grade 5 self, “It was just an interesting, slightly unusual poem,” she says, but not one she thought much about thereafter. Then, in the early 2000s, having started performing in Scotland (she was drawn there after learning the cello once had a key role in Scottish traditional music), she landed a commission with the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow to create a piece.
She knew she wanted to link her Canadian experience to Scotland in some way but, “For three months, I was really sweating it because I didn’t have a clue as to what I was going to do,” she says. “Then I was in Glasgow Central station, and the idea of Sam McGee came to me just like that.”
In an interesting aside, she notes that the peripatetic Service, who was born in England but spent a good chunk of his life in Canada and elsewhere, at one point lived just five minutes from her own residence in Glasgow.
Another connection: in her show, Hanson projects paintings by the late Canadian painter Ted Harrison based on the poem. Harrison, it turns out, was a favourite of her parents, and she grew up with Harrison’s artwork in her home.
Working from a poem was a new but fruitful experience for Hanson. “I find it frees me up if I’m working within a framework. It was an interesting process—I needed a full year to write the music and connect with what I was doing. I’d get an idea in the middle of the night or in the bath. It was ever-present in my brain.”
When she was ready, she gathered her team, including musicians such as Kevin Murray (guitar/mandolin) and Brian McAlpine (piano/accordion), and headed to an isolated recording studio in the West Highlands. The final version was laid down at 3 a.m., when Hanson and company decided they’d give it one last shot. “What you’re hearing is very spontaneous.”
It’s also very good.
For instance, her composition—which both sets up and reflects on Marra’s reading of the poem—captures the bleakness and beauty of the far northern landscape, the labour of hauling that dead corpse, and the turmoil that consumes Cap as he searches for some way to build a pyre in a treeless landscape.
Although she didn’t recognize them back in Grade 5, Hanson the adult realized how those themes, along with others like loneliness and dread, inform the original poem.
“There’s the deep anxiety and burden of a promise when you’ve given someone your word. It’s a big deal if you promise someone something when they die, particularly for Cap with the burden of this promise as well as Sam dead on the dog sled. He’s freaking out up there alone in the vastness of the North.”
There’s also humour in both the poem and Hanson’s music, and the interplay between humour, anxiety, and darkness ratchet up the intensity of each.
With all that richness built into Service’s original work, it’s little wonder that, like Sam, the poem has attained its own immortality. It’s become a campfire standard, there’s an ominous recitation by Johnny Cash, it has a berth in the 1983 Oxford Book of Narrative Verse, and so on.
Hanson, who trained as a classical cellist but whose catholic interests have included studies in jazz, brings smart musical insights to Service’s poem. For example, the section leading up to Cap’s discovery of the derelict steamer, a section that finds him uncertain about what to do, is a bluesy piece with a prominent, mourning horn. “It’s supposed to convey the vastness and being alone in the Arctic, the expansiveness of going into himself,” she says.
That section is followed by a cello vamp that leads into a strathspey as Cap realizes he can fulfil his promise. “It’s urgent,” says Hanson. “It’s about decision, tension, moving ahead.”
The poem is about rebirth and reinvention, says Hanson. “One piece at the end of what I wrote (Reincarnation Midnight Sun) is meant to be joyful and reassuring, about how people can reclaim themselves and become anew after going through something very stressful.”
Touring her composition in Scotland, Hanson has realized how well-known Service’s poem is there. “People say, ‘You know, my father used to read this’ or ‘My grandfather used to read this in front of the fire’.”
She has yet to bring the work to northern Canada but Hanson is looking forward to her fall tour here (keep an eye on cremationofsammcgee.com for the schedule).
“One of my goals is to play this music up in the Yukon Territory. I’ll go coast to coast if people want it.”