“I'M JUST GOING TO TOUCH IT ON THE TOP," SAYS CARMEN BRADEN, LOOKING AT A BLACKENED PORCUPINE-LIKE LUMP OF ICE. "WHAT I THINK WILL HAPPEN: IT'S JUST GOING TO FALL APART. READY?"
It’s May 2014, and she’s talking to a camera. Her now-husband, Eli Purchase, is filming her on the banks of the Mackenzie River in Norman Wells, Northwest Territories, where she’s surrounded by mounds of long, thin candle ice that typically forms in the spring. Some are blackened by dirt from when the river, slowly breaking out of its winter freeze, pushed the ice up its banks.
Braden’s customary red tuque is pulled low, the sleeves of her bottle-green hoodie rolled up, and she’s gripping her sound recorder, ready to catch whatever music candle ice makes when it falls apart. The pleasant tinkle of a wind chime? Breaking glass?
She taps the ice mound with the toe of her boot. “Oh, no.”
It doesn’t fall apart. Her boot does little more than scratch the surface of the candle ice, breaking off a few chunks. It sounds like a hand rummaging through a pile of Lego pieces.
“That didn’t happen like I wanted.”
Braden, a composer and songwriter based in Yellowknife, N.W.T., is building a career around the sounds of her Northern home, bringing a fresh perspective to what it means to live in the Subarctic.
The discovery she made by the Mackenzie River that day was part of her research for Candle Ice, a piano trio that premiered at the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival in 2014. It begins and ends with a different recording of candle ice, one that sounds more like the delicate wind chimes Braden had expected. Slowly, the piano notes come in, echoing the tinkling ice, tentatively at first, then gaining intensity as the river awakens, forcing shards of ice up its banks, announcing the arrival of spring.
Ice has become a bit of an obsession for Braden. A decade ago, in her undergraduate years, she began studying the acoustics of her home region, recording sounds that often get drowned out by the noise of airplanes overhead or snowmobiles zipping across the frozen landscape. She became intimate with the first crystals taking hold in the fall, the groaning lake ice in deep winter, the violence of spring breakup. For her master’s thesis at the University of Calgary, Braden translated the various states of ice into The Ice Seasons, a composition in six movements that will premiere in March 2017 at Mount Royal University in Calgary. (Just as important to Braden is its Northern premiere in Yellowknife later that month.)
With school behind her, Braden is building on that momentum. November 2016, the same month she turns thirty-two, marks the soft release of her first album. Recorded on the stage of Yellowknife’s Northern Arts and Cultural Centre (NACC), where she’s performed countless times, it combines her folk songs—all heartfelt tributes to her home—with chamber music she’s composed based on her field recordings.
The two might seem incongruous at first, but there’s a method to it, she explains: “They’re going to be fitted together quite carefully into this one unified piece that’s going to be . . . my tribute to the North and how it’s created me. And now I’m creating things and giving back.”
Composer Allan Gordon Bell, Braden’s supervisor at the University of Calgary, calls it her maturing period. “The next thing is for her to really discover and uncover what her own voice is.”
It’s fitting, then, that Braden is listening to a part of the world that’s often eclipsed by larger, louder places.
“Being on the periphery is something that I encountered quite
strongly when I was doing my master’s,” she says. “There’s the historical concept that Canada is on the periphery of, say, Europe or the U.S., and of the music that matters.” She scrunches her nose theatrically. “The North is on the periphery, because we’re not within the 100 miles of the U.S. border where the majority of Canadians live. The Subarctic is on the periphery because it’s not [the Arctic]. This idea of periphery is something that gets my hackles raised a little bit, and that I like tackling. The core idea behind it is: I am at the centre. I am the centre.”
Forget the musical capitals of the world, she says. She doesn’t need to go there. She wants to bring the world to the North.
BRADEN GREW UP NESTLED IN A COMMUNITY-MINDED AND ARTISTIC FAMILY, listening to the likes of Paul Simon, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, and Tom Waits. Her father Bill, a former Northwest Territories politician, is one of the region’s most prolific photographers. He and his camera often accompany Carmen during her field recordings. Carmen’s sister Rae is a printmaker and museum curator, and their uncle Pat, Bill’s brother, is a musical storyteller whose works pay homage to the characters of Yellowknife’s Old Town.
Carmen’s grandparents moved to the frontier town from Saskatchewan in the 1960s and became a cornerstone of local society. Some say Carmen takes after Esther, her grandmother, who passed away in early 2016, and was a well-loved local volunteer, often playing the piano and singing for hospital patients and seniors.
Now, Carmen is a mainstay of Yellowknife’s vibrant, grassroots arts scene. She’s at every show, wielding a baton or playing the keyboard, a steady, reassuring presence. Through her soulful lyrics, she’s helping maintain the memories of her largely transient hometown. Through her chamber music, she is growing into the role of acoustic ambassador of the Canadian Subarctic.
Countless artists from other parts of the world have been inspired by the vague idea of the North—particularly the Arctic—and composed pieces that reflect the urgency of climate change or mourn the loss of polar ice and, with it, a fragile ecosystem. But that’s not Braden’s style. She’s only been near the Arctic Ocean once. From her perspective, the sounds of ice breaking up and melting carry a different meaning, one that has little to do with climate change (although, she stresses, she is certainly not a climate-change denier).
“Personally, it’s a really joyful time of year,” she says, referring to the shared experience of Yellowknifers emerging from a long, difficult winter, knowing summer is on its way. “This is for me something normal, something beautiful that I love and want to celebrate.” It’s the feeling she conveys in Candle Ice and in The Ice Seasons.
She’s also played with the sounds of the wildfires that have plagued the Northwest Territories over the past three years. The summer of 2014 was a particularly fiery season: Yellowknife’s air quality dropped to record lows, and the normally bright sky became an ominous, hazy orange. For N.W.T. residents, it was a frustrating and dangerous time. The CBC weather forecast reported “local smoke” so often, the phrase quickly became parodied around town.
To the delight of locals, Braden created an electroacoustic mix of one typical weather report, repeating the words “local smoke” and the names of N.W.T. communities—Wekweètì, Whatì, Gamètì, Behchokǫ̀—over and over in a catchy, witty, playful tune.
She took it further by inviting several local musicians to do the same. The result was five different tunes, all centered around the words “local smoke,” all made with local voices. In September that year, the pieces were performed live on CBC North.
“I like the trust she put in our hands,” says Grey Gritt, one of the participants. The folk-blues musician, another cornerstone of Yellowknife’s music scene, sang of a fiery female that “gets inside your head; she’ll let it burn for weeks on end.” In a video recording of the song, now available on YouTube, there’s a faint but unmistakable inside-joke smile on Gritt’s face.
“What’s great about Carmen is that I’ve come to trust her and know that she’s a safe person to be creative around,” says Gritt. “We can just be our humorous weird selves and that’s okay . . . She’s totally goofy, and I love it.”
Braden is taking her collaborative spirit beyond her hometown. She recently joined the New North Collective, a group of artists that currently includes Yukon folk singer Diyet, Inuk artist Sylvia Cloutier, and Braden’s uncle Pat. Directed by Yukon-based Magnum Opus Management, the group combines folk music, rock, Inuit throatsinging, storytelling, and electroacoustics in a pan-Northern sound. They’ll be touring Alberta in January 2017, with additional performances in Whitehorse, Yukon in February, Cranbrook, B.C. in April, and at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in the summer.
Through Magnum Opus Management, Braden is also developing her own brand and plotting a long-term plan. She hopes someday to launch a musical retreat in the Northwest Territories, something along the lines of the programs offered at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
But even now, she’s drawing eyes and ears to the North: For years, Braden has worked with visiting performers at NACC, including the Elmer Iseler Singers, the Penderecki String Quartet, and the Gryphon Trio, touring with them around Northwest Territories communities, opening their minds to her world.
Some of the musicians she’s collaborated with have only spent enough time up North to form a passing acquaintance—but recently some of them have started to return. For Braden, that’s a promising opportunity to help them get past the stereotypical imagery of the North.
“Let them actually get intimate with it,” she says. “Then the surface is cracked. The haze that floats over aurora and ice and cold and bears and mosquitoes and loneliness”—all tired, overused symbols of the North—“you clear that mist away, and you actually get down to the bedrock and the lichen and the people and the politics . . . that for me is the most exciting thing.
“That’s the kind of relationship I want to keep building.”
Top photo of Carmen Braden by: Bill Braden. Middle photo of Braden and violinist James Ehnes by: Bill Braden. Bottom photo by: Hannah Eden.
AUDIO: "Waltz of Wing and Claw" (The Raven Conspiracy, second movement) (2016). Composer by Carmen Braden. Performed by Andrea Bettger (violin), Kathryn Oraas (violin), Osmond Chiu (viola), and Anne-Marie Guedon (cello). From the album Ravens (Centrediscs), released January 2017.