Allan Gordon Bell, Spirit Trail

ALLAN GORDON BELL: Born in Calgary, May 24, 1953; now living in Calgary

In Spirit Trail, the composer has attempted to capture the very “sound” of the Canadian prairies. To this end he has incorporated a number of unusual effects including whistling, aleatoric passages (musicians play at will), scraping of the bow across the strings, and prominent growls from the contrabassoon.

Spirit Trail was a 25th-anniversary commission by the National Arts Centre Orchestra, which gave the first performance on April 13, 1994 with Mario Bernardi conducting.

The composer’s note in the score reads: “In a book entitled Songlines, the British writer Bruce Chatwin described the manner in which the Aborigines of Australia created ‘maps’ of the continent in song. Although I know of no such practice in North America, I began to wonder what ‘voices’ we might hear if we listened imaginatively to the landscape. And, if we heard the ‘songs,’ would we know where we were.

Spirit Trail is an imaginary musical journey through the prairies. Beginning with an evocation of snowdrifts and grasswaves, it moves through states of turmoil to quiescence.”

Prior to the premiere performance in Ottawa, Bell made the following remarks from the stage - “a road map, or maybe I should say trail guide,” to the piece, as he put it:

“The piece begins rather ferociously, but then it immediately settles into a serene sound. I think you’ll recognize it because the people of Ottawa understand what the sound of wind passing over snow is like. That we share [with the prairies] at least. Beneath that is the sound of the contrabassoon, which you’ll hear a lot of this evening. It starts very low and resembles a sound emerging from the bowels of the earth or the bowels of some great beast.

“After that is a section that presents the main thematic material of the piece. You’ll hear the upper strings in an undulating quality beneath which there is a very vigorous cello line. Horn and trumpet create a serene horizon. … [Then] things get very, very ferocious and vigorous, and wind up in a climactic section where you may think that in fact the orchestra falling apart. They are, but it’s exactly what I want. They are all playing individually. This lasts for a short while and then we move to another climax where the timpani are beating rather loudly and then another climax where it [again] seems that the orchestra is falling apart. … The piece changes and becomes very serene and stays that way to the end.”
Robert Markow

© 2010, Robert Markow

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans