Tar Sands Song Book in the Edmonton Journal

Earlier this summer, as I was preparing to leave for Alberta, the Edmonton Journal's Roger Levesque interviewed me about my project. You can read the article on the Journal's website.  I was apprehensive about being interviewed for a project that hand't yet begun, but it was a good note upon which to start my journey, and a vote of confidence in my idea that a personal conversation about oil and our relationship to it is a conversation worth having.

The comments on his piece hit a nerve with a handful of readers. Some responded critically to my use of the term "tar sands". (Tar sand....where the hell does she live??? No "TAR" sands on this planet!!!" wrote one). This shows me again, why it's critically important that we restore personal histories of place to a charged conversation. (For more on the "tar sands" versus "oil sands" distinction, read this post.) Others expressed a sense of relief (". . .it sounds like a thoughtful considered and fair expression is in the works. Thanks!"). Thanks back to you, commenter. I'm convinced that a different kind of conversation is worth the trouble. 

Read the whole article on the Journal website here. A longer version from the print edition is posted below. 


Seeking Stories: Musican comes home to research documentary on life in the oil patch

By Roger Levesque, Edmonton Journal, 2 August 2016

Sometimes you have to go somewhere far away to understand where you came from.

Just ask Tanya Kalmanovitch. In recent years the musician, ethnomusicologist, author and teacher, who was born in Fort McMurray, found herself in places like Afghanistan, India or at home in New York, often recalling her Alberta upbringing, thinking about how her life has been tied to issues like oil and climate change.

All this will take greater focus as Kalmanovitch returns to northern Alberta this summer on a creative mission, to seek out stories and views tied to living in the oilpatch, to society’s reliance on oil, and its role in our everyday lives. It’s all for a multimedia work of documentary music-theatre, a collaborative project to première in New York next year. Her working title: Tar Sands Song Book.

This comes as an unusual addition to an impressive career. Kalmanovitch won a scholarship to New York’s Juilliard school at 17, later finishing her doctorate in psychology and ethnomusicology in Edmonton at the University of Alberta.

Since her return to New York in 2004, the virtuoso viola player has become an avid member of the jazz and experimental music scene, releasing three solo/group CDs. She’s also an associate professor at Mannes School of Music at The New School in New York.

Q: Your new project is tied to your upbringing in Fort McMurray and Edmonton. Do you still feel a close attachment to your roots here in Alberta?
A: It’s one of those things that’s so naturalized into your experience that you don’t notice until you leave. It’s only now, 12 years since I last left that I realize how indelibly Alberta is part of my personality and psyche.

Q: How did the project start?
A:
The initial concept was simply to generate 15 to 25 new compositions using graphic scores rather than conventional western notation. I work in an artistic zone that’s between composition and improvisation, where 20th century classical and African-American music meet, and I love graphic notation because it opens up so many interpretive possibilities for the performer.

Then a colleague, Cecilia Rubino, a playwright-director in documentary theatre, offered to work with me and bring in a theatrical component. So people’s stories will be the basis of dramatic monologues, together with the music I composed.

Q: On your website for Tar Sands Song Book you explain “I have a complicated relationship to oil.” Both your father and stepfather were linked to the oil industry (her late stepfather, Earnest Kalmanovitch was chief project engineer at Suncor when it was still known as Great Canadian Oil Sands). What else inspired you?
A:
For years, I had this sense that where I was from was really the middle of nowhere. Growing up in Alberta in the 1970s and ’80s, it felt as if there was just land everywhere and that you could do what you wanted with it. More recently, for a couple of years, I didn’t really clue in to the fact that the Keystone XL Pipeline was a story about Alberta. As that dawned on me, I began to see how polarized people were, how they were starting to project such strong opinions onto a place they didn’t know.

When my family moved to Fort McMurray, the oil industry was offering strong incentives to be there, stable incomes, nice houses, good mortgage rates. When I think back, that social progress and class progress is so intimately linked to oil, and more generally, modern conveniences like iPhones and digital connectivity. The way we live today is absolutely linked to oil, and one reason we find it so difficult to imagine a life after oil is because we imagine a return to some post-apocalypse nightmare where we have to chop our own wood.

Another signal for me was the experience of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, hitting my neighbourhood in Red Hook. It was a brutal, devastating experience for my community, but half a mile away everything was business as usual. Imagine living in a zone that was absolutely abnormal for six months without water or power and huge property damage, where people in the next neighbourhood over were still going out for sushi. It was a very interesting experience that cemented a sense of vulnerability in me. I hope victims of the Fort McMurray wildfires won’t experience the same thing.

Q: You must know that these issues are sensitive for a lot of Albertans, and that just your choice to title the project Tar Sands Song Book will be controversial for some.
A:
When I first came up with the idea for this project, I didn’t realize that the term ‘tar sands’ was so politically loaded. To me, that was the name that everybody called it when I was a kid. Through the ’90s, ‘tar sands’ and ‘oilsands’ were used pretty interchangeably. But the switch to ‘oilsands’ actually made sense because it was more geologically accurate, more natural, and more neutral.
I made the decision to keep the name Tar Sands Song Book because a lot of people weren’t aware of the true history, and I’m trying to un-nerve some of the polarization in the debate.

Q: So you don’t want to come out of this labelled as a political activist?
A:
I am absolutely not interested in assuming one position or another with respect to oil or oil development, and whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I’m more interested in looking at our relationship to it, how it impacts society and our own individual lives. Taking sides precludes empathy and understanding and our ability to move forward together. Part of what I’m trying to do here in this connection between oral history and music is to find my own connection.


Q: Neil Young drew a lot of flack for voicing what many saw as an uneducated view of Fort McMurray. Given your personal experience, can you present a more balanced view?
A:
I don’t think I can help but present a more balanced point of view. If I have a bias, it’s rooted in history and my sense of a place 40 years ago. If you look at the population of Fort McMurray, it was about 1,000 in 1960 to 6,000 in 1970, to about 80,000 now. That means there have been a few different Fort McMurrays during my lifetime and I can only speak for the town of my early memory.

Q: It seems like you are trying to connect what you do as an artist and a scholar, to meld different disciplines and aspects of your experience.
A:
Absolutely. There’s been an old split between what I do as a musician and an academic, and my research has often involved places that are geographically or culturally distant to me. It began as a kid, looking at the map on the wall, feeling how isolated you were in relation to the rest of the world.

When I lived in India I learned a lot about my experience of growing up in Western Canada and my relationship to colonialism and my ethnicity. Then, I was quite involved in a project in Kabul, Afghanistan, over three trips there between 2011 and 2014, to help a music school that was attempting to rebuild and restore the culture of professional musicianship after it had been destroyed by the Taliban in the civil war. This was very far away from home, and I live in a city far away from home, so there was an aspect of wanting to turn my experience back to where I am from.