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WCMA winner Carmen Braden combines classical music with the sounds of the north

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Yellowknife artist Carmen Braden won the Western Canadian Music Award for Classical Composer of the Year last Thursday.  Sylvia Siemens spoke to her a few weeks ago for a story for Roots Music Canada.  We’re thrilled to be able to share this introduction to her work – and one of her songs. 

I first met Carmen Braden in 1999 when my husband moved our family to Yellowknife, NWT. Carmen was in high school at the time, a few years ahead of my oldest son, Dennis Siemens, the bassist extraordinaire mentioned in previous writings. Our families were both involved with AFS (American Field Service) and music. Through the shared experiences of hosting foreign high school students and musical endeavors, and because our families are very non-ageist, Carmen and I became friends and have kept in contact through the years.

I have watched with respect, awe, love and appreciation as Carmen has developed as a musician and grown as a person. Her love of the north has always been strong – definitely stronger than mine as I only lasted 11 years in Yellowknife and am now ensconced in the mild climate of the Shuswap. That said, listening to Carmen’s music reminds me of the beauty of the north and all the things I enjoyed about living in Yellowknife.

I was living in northeastern Ontario when Carmen created her music company, Black Ice Sounds, and enjoyed following the process of her gathering field recordings. Carmen would share that process on social media – taking her microphone and recording equipment into the wilderness around Yellowknife to record the sounds of snow, water, ice and wind – as well as recording in other locations. Listening to gathered sounds from the north almost made me want to move back to Yellowknife to experience that beauty once again with all the senses not just sound. Carmen released a self-produced album of those sounds titled Electroacoustic Emergence – you can find tracks of that album on her website www.carmenbraden.com. The love of sounds continues to be at the heart of Carmen’s musical endeavors.

In 2017, Carmen released her first studio album, Ravens. The love of sound and the love of the north are major themes in this album. The majority of the tracks on Ravens are word pictures of life in Canada’s sub-arctic. While I enjoyed all the tracks on Ravens there were two that grabbed my attention: “Candle Ice” and “The Raven Conspiracy: II. Waltz of Wing and Claw.” Contemporary classical music is hard to come by. Good contemporary classical music is even more rare, so you can imagine my excitement when I learned that Carmen was launching a new album, Songs of the Invisible Summer Stars, which is entirely contemporary classical music.

While working on her previous releases, Carmen had been writing songs in the contemporary classical genre for choirs, orchestras, and small ensembles, and it is from this vast collection of work that Carmen chose the songs for her new album. Songs of the Invisible Summer Stars is a celebration of sound and the sounds that are heard in Canada’s Arctic. In the songs on this album, Carmen brings you the sounds of “the quirky and beautiful behaviour of ravens” and “the gentleness and flexibility of the willow tree,” as well as the springtime sound of candling ice. If you have never lived in the north nor heard the sound of ice candling, you will be able to recognize that sound after listening to the song “Candle Ice” on the album. The sound of candling ice is one of the field recordings Carmen gathered. Candling ice is a sound that evokes images of Great Slave Lake and a sound I no longer hear in the Shuswap. Listening to Songs of the Invisible Summer Stars transports me back to the wildness, beauty, and vastness that is Canada’s subarctic. I am hoping the songs on this album go far and that the next time I am able to attend a symphony, I will hear some of these songs. By the time you read this, Songs of the Invisible Summer Stars will have been launched. Be sure to get your copy.

After gushing excessively about my admiration and love of the new album I got around to asking Carmen about what was next. Carmen informed me that recording the album was only half the work. Now comes the work of getting the album out there, getting symphonies and ensembles interested enough to look into the music and consider performing the songs – work of a whole other level. Carmen is also continuing to create and explore sound. She is working on several commissions, one for trombone and percussion and several for choirs. Based on this there will be deadlines in Carmen’s immediate future.

On the topic of choirs, Carmen has a whole repertoire of choral music in the library at the Canadian Music Centre (www.musiccentre.ca). Her choral pieces are available for purchase or loan. If you are part of a choir, check out the choral collection, and you will find something exciting to perform for your audience. But I digress.

I asked Carmen about her dream collaboration and her first answer was Leonard Cohen. Carmen considered Leonard Cohen’s last album to be absolutely gorgeous. She also uses text, lyrics and poetry as a source for her creative projects. But since a collaboration with Leonard Cohen will have to wait for another lifetime, her second and more accessible choice of a collaborator would be Jeremy Dutcher. I concur that a collaboration between Jeremy Dutcher and Carmen Braden would be amazing and would result in music to rival Leonard Cohen’s absolutely gorgeous last album. On that note, I will close this interview with a shout out to Jeremy Dutcher to make it happen.

“Candle Ice”

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