John Paton

SoundEscape @ China Cloud

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An ethereal yet powerful atmosphere permeates three live music and dance collaborative performances

Words by John Paton

For whatever reason, the China Cloud always turns out to be one of my favourite Vancouver music venues. Maybe it’s the discreet entrance-by-stairway, or the vibe of the room itself, which resembles a good friend’s oversized living room. It certainly doesn’t hurt that when I arrived they happened to be playing my favourite kind of jazz: Charles Mingus, equal parts earthy soul and controlled chaos. It was a great choice; all the acts would tread this fine line in their performances.

The evening was part of an ongoing series curated by harpist Elisa Thorn which she has dubbed “SoundEscape.” Designed to feature her various musical and extramusical collaborations, including spoken word artists and dancers, musicians and composers, the series appears every few months or so at the China Cloud to present work that is both challenging and accessible.


The opening performance featured a group I was already somewhat familiar with as “Gentle Party”. However, violinist Meredith Bates, who usually rounds out this trio, was nowhere to be found. Instead Elisa Thorn and Cellist Shanto Bhattacharya were collaborating with dancers Jennifer Aoki, Marilu Retana and choreographer Myola Pautler in a piece titled “Distorted/50/10/05.”

As the crowd settled into their chairs, Shanto began the piece at an absolute whisper, running his cello bow delicately over its strings. With Elisa joining in on the harp, the two created an ethereal yet powerful atmosphere that continued throughout the evening. The choreography seemed intended to represent emotions, inner struggles that would otherwise have remained determinedly internal (I later learned the piece dealt with eating disorders). At a certain point, the dancers appealed to the choreographer herself, who provided them two ornamental dresses in stark contrast to their former outfits. Perhaps this represented an outreach and appeal for help. In any case, the performance required no explanation. It was its own justification.


Next up was “Begin/End Me,” featuring vocalist Britt MacLeod and harpist Elisa Thorn. Of all the performers, Britt toed the line most between spoken word, music and dance. She would often use simple movements (a hand through her hair, a finger pointed to the sky) to heighten the delivery of a vocal. A song called “Begin at the End” was absolutely haunting, teetering between the major and minor each bar, building to a climax until everything came to a halt. Suddenly, percussive slaps of stage and harp by the performers rattled the eardrums. Ms. Thorn then sampled and looped this effect, adding rich harmonies from her harp, and deploying phasing and distortion effects to create brilliant soundscapes, impressive for only two performers.

Video courtesy Sarah Macnamara


The final act of the evening debuted a new ensemble by composer/pianist Roisin Adams. “Hildegard’s Ghost” featured, in addition to harpist Elisa Thorn, drummer Ben Brown (fresh off winning a Juno award with Vancouver creative music ensemble The Pugs and Crows), and words by Meaghan McAneeley.

Musically, Adams favoured jazzy harmonies and classical flourishes offset by more subversive textures and abstract scrapings. Often, I felt like there was an invisible film unfolding before my eyes; the second piece was strongly reminiscent of the French composer Erik Satie.

The third piece, a solo piano feature, was dedicated to a musical collaborator from Tim Sars’ East Van Carnival Band who had recently passed away. In a poignant introduction, Adams declared that she hoped the piece would offer a glimpse of “what it was like to be friends with Andrew.” Speaking with Roisin on the telephone the day after the concert, she told me the piece was inspired by her work with autistic children (the title, “Pick It Up” being a favoured response to toy-throwing temper tantrums), which she later dedicated to her friend.

The evening concluded with a composition titled “Some Things are Timeless” and a mesmerizingly spare duo between percussion and harp. Brown would thoughtfully scrape one of his cymbals, paying particular attention to the production of its higher overtones, while Thorn thoughtfully plucked out rich low tones on the harp, always listening and waiting for the next sound of the dialogue. The feeling was one of open spaces, or perhaps people who have turned away from the world to direct their gaze inward. These ideas are welcome in music, but it’s my hope they won’t get in the way of more nights of great music like this one.

For more information:

China Cloud

Elisa Thorn

Shanto Bhattacharya

Jennifer Aoki

Roisin Adams

Ben Brown

The Pugs and Crows

Tim Sars

Carnival Band