Saturday, 2 January 2010

A Harp on the Athabasca

I'm digging into the archives for this one. (My personal archives, that is.) I haven't written anything publishable as of late, so I'll put this up. If/when I ever get around the publishing it in print, I'll likely have to take it down. Until then, here she be. (This is from a CWRI class portfolio. I might discuss it more elsewhere.)

A Harp on the Athabasca

Rob felt slightly idiotic, fussing over his camcorder and tripod as he watched Miranda bound down the ice, one hand steadying the instrument strapped over her back, no hesitation at all. Her harp easily cost more than his camera, but there he was, shifting his boots on the grit and trying to balance himself against his backpack. Miranda looked across the river when she got to the bottom, letting him stagger down the ice in privacy. When she could hear the pebbles scatter and grate under his feet, she turned to him and winked.
The Athabasca broke just weeks before, later in the year than it had for a long time, and sheets of ice were still piled on the banks, broken and jumbled up the slope and even into the gravel parking lot where the river bent by the water treatment ponds. Down where the fishermen sat with their coolers and folding chairs was narrower, backed up against the ice, but on days when the sunlight came down hot and direct, the coolness spread out from those wintry remains, keeping the heat at bay. A couple of young guys fished near the path down the ice and there was a family fishing nearer the bend just then, where the ice piled higher and its open face was cleaner.
They walked down to the family and looked for the elder in charge. A man with a deep tan and a smoker’s face seemed to be their best bet, so Miranda addressed him. The rough-haired woman, perched on the cooler to his left, squinted at her.
“I don’t suppose we could ask you to move?” she requested, straightening her back and squaring her shoulders as she spoke.
The cooler-woman squinted more.
“My friend and I are going to shoot a scene for our music video, and we’d like to do it here.” She pointed at the shore behind him. “We can’t exactly have folks in the background. It would be just for ten minutes. You could even watch us.”
The man worked it over with his lips and tongue and decided in the end he could move after all. They got up and dragged their chairs a little further along the beach, waving at their two fat boys to haul over as well.
“You don’t mind the booze, do ya?” he asked, gesturing to the bottles stuck in the softening ice.
Miranda looked at Rob.
“Nah,” he said.
With the family moved out of the way, the pair scanned the ground. They tossed a few beer bottles and cigarette packages out of view, and Rob pulled the little stool off the straps on his backpack. Miranda sat on it near the water’s edge. Rob set up the tripod.
“Hey,” he said, “the wind’s coming off the river. Did you say you wanted your hair blowing across your face?”
“Not too much,” she said, “but don’t you think that’d look kinda cool?”
“Sure, but if you want that you’ll have to face the ice.”
She turned, and the wind eddying off the ice tossed her loose hair around her face. Miranda hung most of it over her right shoulder so the camera still had an open view. The wind was modest and would not interfere too much with the sound. After they each made adjustments to their instruments, he nodded to her and she began to play.

Rob had met Miranda at interPLAY summer street festival the year before. He had been filming the buskers for a series he’d been working on about interactive performance and had asked the pretty girl playing a Celtic harp whether she minded if he filmed her. She said she wished people would do it more often, laughing, and they got to talking and she said her band needed somebody to film their music videos. He told her he wasn’t a real cameraman and she told him they weren’t a real band, and the next weekend he was meeting Jimmy, Natasha, Keith, and Chuck for the first time.

When she finished playing, she paused, stood up, and carried her harp in one hand past the camera. Then she stood and smiled at him.
“Was that good?”
“When do you not play well?”
“No, the last bit. Walking off camera like that. You could use it for the video maybe.”
“We’ll see. You know this is Jimmy’s thing right now.”
“Sure,” she said, “but you’re the movie guy. He’d listen to whatever you said. We trust you, you know.”
“Except Chuck.”
“Chuck’s a knob and he argues with everybody, but he thinks a lot of you. You’re getting us on camera and you’re doing it well. He appreciates that.”
Rob smiled. “He still thinks he should have had that harem in his video.”
Miranda waved it off. “Where’s he going to get a half dozen sexy Cree babes willing to undulate against him for free?”
They crunched back along the bank, nodding to the fishers as they passed. The two college guys down the beach had come over to watch as well. Miranda and Rob felt their audience staring until they’d climbed up the embankment to the parking lot.
“You won’t have too much difficulty getting these videos sold, if those guys are any indication.”
“No, no,” she laughed. “I am not taking my clothes off for the camera. Nice try, dude.”
“Hey,” he laughed back. “You’re the one with the dirty mind here. I’m just saying, it looks like people are interested.”
“Yeah, right. Looks like we’ve both been spending too much time with Chuck.”
The next scene was set to be in the hills above them. They started climbing up the path along the bank. Here it was Miranda who felt out for the ground every so often, squatting strangely to keep her centre of gravity low. Rob, however, had spent half of last summer in the bush back here. The edge of the woods was a minute’s walk from his apartment and there was lots of experimenting you could do with a camera in these trees. The hills didn’t bother him at all.

The band’s name was The Ravens of Avalon, and they played folk metal.
“Eclectic metal,” Natasha corrected when Jimmy introduced them.
“With DenĂ© influence,” added Chuck from the drums.
“And a little country,” said Jimmy, jabbing his thumb at Keith, who had been hammering out some honky-tonk on the keyboard when Rob and Miranda got to the garage.
He had never heard of such a cobbled-together group in his life. According to Jimmy—lead vocals and guitar—they each came from entirely different musical backgrounds, but their similar ages and mutual love for Tolkien conspired with random happenstance—Natasha’s phrase—to bring them together. Each member contributed his or her own songs, and everyone tried to accommodate their individual style to the group project.
“So if we ever get a video out,” Jimmy explained, “it’ll technically be folk metal, but there’ll be tracks that weave the fantasy themes through country-western, death metal, unblack metal, and folk lenses.”
But the first song they played for Rob was a cover of “I Love Rock and Roll,” Jimmy forgoing the vocals so Natasha could sneer into the microphone. Keith replaced her bass and he even looked like a countrified Gary Ryan. Rob made them play it over and over again, getting into capturing each member’s quirks and posturing, until Natasha stopped beating out the lyrics and started lisping them in a Britney Spears imitation. Chuck started wolf-whistling and Miranda giggled until she got angry, and they were done for the night.

They clambered over the last tree roots and got to the clearing they’d picked out a week ago. The dogwood hadn’t grown all the way in yet, but the moss in the hollow was thick enough and green. Some of the saplings in the back had started sprouting leaves and a great log was behind her, shaggy with dead moss and composting at one end. It was quintessential northern Alberta, but maybe it would remind viewers enough of Ireland that they wouldn’t question it. And the decay didn’t bother him too much. All the folk metal videos he found on YouTube were filmed in spring or autumn anyway.
They set the stool out again, and she dug the dress out of his backpack. He turned his back to her, watching up and down the path to give her warning if anyone came by when she was changing.
“You can look again,” she said. He noticed she was red and out of breath. Maybe this accounted for the impatience in her voice. She wasn’t as used to these hills as he was.
They wanted her to look more Celtic in this scene, so she braided her long hair and let it hang over one shoulder. The dress, borrowed from the costuming department at Keyano College, was narrow in the torso and waist. He wished that they could have brought her other harp here. It was an inherited concerto and far too unwieldy to carry into the hills, so they brought her Celtic out and used it for the rest of the video. She preferred the smaller one anyway.
He steadied the tripod once in the middle of the path, but had just started checking light levels when a dog and cyclist started down the hill. Pulling the camera out of the way, he watched the guy on the bike thunder down the slope, giving a thumbs-up as he went. His grinning Lab trotted behind him.
“He’ll kill himself,” Miranda said once he was out of earshot. “He’s a fool.”
The second time Rob set the camcorder up just off the path. It didn’t have the higher angle he wanted, but it would have to do. He made the appropriate adjustments and waved to her to play. She got through the first few chords of Jimmy’s new song, “The Wyrding Well,” but then she stopped and looked up at him.
“Has Jimmy been an ass lately, or is it just me?” she demanded. He fumbled for the “Stop” button.

The weekend after they played “I Love Rock and Roll,” Rob showed the band what he had done with the footage. They loved it. At least, they said they did. Jimmy invited him into their group and Chuck spent the next half hour explaining what Rob had done wrong with the video. It was only later that Miranda explained this meant he was a fan. After editing the film, they got down to business. Over a pitcher at the pub, Jimmy told him the plan.
“We want a music video. A themed set, right? We’ve each got two or so songs we’ve written, and the first and the last will each be a conglomeration, something lyrical that provides opportunities for us to riff off each other, with solos and duets. We haven’t gotten all the pieces perfected yet—”
“—or started,” Natasha added.
“—but we’ve got two or three down. Now, we want to put these together into something interesting and we need someone to link these visually into something seamless, you know?”
Chuck interrupted. “None of these battle re-enactments folk metal bands usually do.”
“No,” Jimmy continued. “Something that places us in the history of music. Something that highlights our inspirations, that locates us in the broader spectrum of lyrical achievement.”
Miranda and Natasha chorused, “The broader spectrum of lyrical achievement?” Natasha was delighted while Miranda sounded unimpressed.
That night Rob tried to keep track of all the songs he was supposed to listen to, the members recounting their favourite bands and their inspirations. Each listed at least five bands, ranging from the local Rezz Dawgs to the exotic Orphaned Lands. Rob said he hadn’t heard of any of them.
“Just YouTube it,” whispered Miranda, squeezing his knee.

“What makes you say that?” Rob asked Miranda. Now that he was paying attention, he realized he should have seen that the flushed face meant she was angry.
“You haven’t noticed?”
He shrugged. “He seems the same as ever.”
“Exactly,” she said. “Same as ever, only more so. I’m sick of it.”
“I’m lost.”
Miranda flipped her braid to the other shoulder. She was surreal, blushing red above the white old-fashioned dress. “You remember what he said yesterday?”
“Oh. Yeah.”
“My song doesn’t push the genre far enough? It doesn’t make people re-examine what music means?”
“You seemed to take it well at the time,” he said, wishing he hadn’t as the words left his mouth. She didn’t seem to notice his implication that she wasn’t taking it well now.
“Yeah, well I hadn’t had time to think about it. You know what? I don’t want to re-examine what music means. I don’t want to redefine the genre. I mean, hell, we play folk metal. Eclectic metal. Whatever. How much more can we change the genre? Who cares? It’s folk metal! No one listens to folk metal!”
Rob shook his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t know if I can help you. I know nothing about music.”
“You know enough now. You’ve been with us for nearly a year. But look, that’s not the point. The point is, who’s Jim to say that it doesn’t push boundaries? What I’ve written is far mellower than whatever they wrote. Is that not pushing a boundary? Mellow metal?”
He shrugged again. He had no idea and was tired of pretending like he followed the music-talk. It didn’t matter, because she didn’t stop for him to respond, watching her own gesturing hands instead.
“Here I am,” she continued, “playing a crazy harmony for his, his epic monstrosity. This is never how I played the harp when I was girl. I—”
She stopped, and breathed again.
She looked at him. “What do you think?”
“I think maybe you’re right, maybe the band does care too much about defying conventions, but why are you blaming just Jimmy? Natasha’s far worse for trying to be ‘authentic’ and ‘original,’ and Chuck is constantly throwing things off by trying to incorporate rap and, I don’t know, Native elements.”
She glared. “What are you saying? I mean, you’re right about Natasha—how can you be authentic if you’re too busy trying to be original? But Chuck’s just like that and no one expects otherwise. Jimmy—he’s smarter than that. It’s just like, like he lets being all intellectual take over. That’s fine and all, but sometimes I just want to play music.”
They were silent a while.

The first few weeks he was with them, he learned something about their past. Not how they got together—he never heard the whole of that story. He knew, though, that Keith was a late addition and that for a while they had considered kicking Chuck out of the group, but then Leroy showed up. Leroy was a solid bassist and this had balanced out his more annoying personality quirks, according to Jimmy, but when he pulled out the spoons, that was the last straw.
“What’s wrong with the spoons?” Rob had asked. “You guys have a harp already. It’s not like you care about traditional instruments.”
“Are you serious? Spoons?” Jimmy demanded.
“Besides,” said Keith, “the harp sounds nice.”
“And he was serious about those spoons,” Jimmy kept on. “He wasn’t going to part with them.”
Later, when the two of them were going over some footage together, Miranda told him that the personality trait Jimmy had most objected to was Leroy’s insistence on getting into Natasha’s pants. “It wasn’t just that he was open and persistent about it, either, but that Natasha didn’t seem to mind all that much. She wouldn’t go for a guy like Leroy, or at least she’d hold off for a little while, but she’d giggle and laugh. Jimmy’s protective, and he’s always had a thing for Natasha.”
She must have seen the look on his face, because she added, “Oh, no. Everyone thinks that at first. We’re not together. We just go way back.” She paused, and said, “You know, Jim ought to have been born in ancient times. He’d have had a dozen wives and would have loved every one of them.”
After Leroy was gone, they didn’t mind Chuck so much.

The same Lab as before came up the path, and the biker followed a few minutes later.
“Having fun?” Rob asked.
“Sure thing,” he said. “Nothing like a sunny day for screwin’ around in the hills, eh?”
The biker pushed his bike back up along the cliff side. When he was out of sight, Miranda said, “How long are you sticking around?”
“Sticking around where?”
“With us,” she said. “With The Ravens. How long will you film for us?”
“However long I’m in Fort McMurray,” he answered.
She nodded.
“Why? How long are you staying?”
She fingered the moss. “I don’t know. This isn’t where I thought I’d end up, you know? I saw myself somewhere else. I’m a secretarial assistant and make more than I would if I was working on a career right now. I could be getting my B.Ed. in Calgary instead of putting in nine-to-five, gobbling overtime, and then spending all my leisure time screwing around trying to get big with some garage band.”
“You’ve got time, right?”
“My mother was just about pregnant with me at this age. She already knew my dad. I see myself with kids, Rob. Maybe in Calgary, but I sometimes thought I’d head out to the Maritimes. Play my harp on the bluffs in Newfoundland.” She laughed twice, and then frowned again. “Sure, I’ve got time, but how do I want to spend it?”
She looked at him, and he wished he could read what that look meant.
“Do you know how long you’ll be in Fort McMurray?” she asked again.
“No,” he said. “Until my loans are paid off, I guess. Until I know what I want to do with my life. Find a studio or something, or find someone to buy my documentary. Then, who knows? Who ever knows, here?”
“Yeah,” she said, looking over his shoulders to the hills across the river. Then she nodded to the camera, and he started taping again. This time she played, slow and creaky at first and then picking away faster, pulling at the strings. It sounded fiercer than before, during the sound recording—fierce and tragic. Her face was rigid, furious. Her voice tightened as she sang the open, meaningless vowels Jimmy had written for her. Her singing was no less clear than it had ever been. It would work with Jimmy’s song, where her harp and voice were supposed to be fate’s background mechanics, the fate that would destroy Jimmy and Natasha’s lovers. It was maybe the best he’d heard her play.
Soon she was done. She took her clothes from his bag again and didn’t wait for him to turn around before starting to pull the dress off. Blushing at her underwear, he covered his eyes.
“Let’s go,” she said when she was done.

1 comment:

Jon Wong said...

I am highly impressed!

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