Flouting convention: new release explores flutes, films and the unknown

St. John’s flutist’s newest release a unique DVD collaboration with filmmakers

It’s one thing to take a film and then make music to accompany it. But what about taking music, and using it to inspire film?

That’s one of the challenges Rozalind MacPhail set for herself and her impressive team of collaborators, and the end result – a DVD release titled Head First – is a project as unique in conception as it is impressive in execution.

MacPhail – an accomplished flutist who’s also fluent in a range of other instruments and artistic forms – composed several pieces of music and then recruited filmmakers to produce silent films based on her compositions. Twenty-four filmmakers and musicians from across Canada and even overseas contributed to the project. They comprise an impressive list, including the likes of Roger Maunder, Joel Heath, Veronica Charnley, Mark Neary, Curtis Andrews, Matthew Hornell and more.

But Head First is much more than simply a series of films set to music. In many ways, it’s an exploration not only of how different artistic mediums intersect, but it’s also a visionary expression of the diversity and beauty of a country that has no shortage of stories to share.

Inspired by experience

Its creator has no lack of experiences to draw upon. She began her musical journey in mainland Canada, where she studied classical flute in Ottawa and proceeded to live, work and perform in a wide range of settings, from Victoria BC to Florida (where she was an artistic resident at the Atlantic Center for the Arts).

Her experiences on the mainland offered plenty of rich learning and collaborative opportunities. She’s performed with the likes of Yo La Tengo, Japan Batteries, Dave Bidini, The Mountains and the Trees, Great Lake Swimmers, Elliott Brood, Lou Barlow, and dozens of other artists. One of her favourite stage memories is performing with the Constantines in Toronto.

“It was like this dream show, with all of my favourite bands – Broken Social Scene, Death From Above, Arcade Fire, all these bands. It was the biggest stage I played, with thousands of people there, and me honking on my flute.”

Although she’s quite at home performing before thousands in the heart of Toronto, it’s often the wilder peripheries of the country that seem to repeatedly call to her. Before moving to Newfoundland she spent time doing artistic residencies at the Banff Centre and the Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture in the Yukon. And then a few years ago, a six-month Greyhound bus tour of the country (something she swears she will never do again – at least not by bus) brought her to Newfoundland. At least, it almost brought her here.

“I got to Sydney and discovered I could go no further,” she recalls, laughing. “So I hitchhiked with a trucker to get to Newfoundland. That was my first time falling in love with St. John’s. And every time I came back, I stayed a bit longer.”

It was four years ago that she made the permanent move to Newfoundland. At the time she was torn over whether to settle in Dawson City, Yukon or St. John’s, Newfoundland. Surprisingly, she finds a lot of commonalities between the two spots.

“There’s so many things that are similar. The people – the people are just very open-minded, very open-minded and very gentle and very respectful. But I also find that the arts communities in both places are completely thriving and vibrant. There’s a lot of creativity happening in both spots. And it’s just the most beautiful place. Newfoundland is one of the most beautiful places, and all of the Yukon is so beautiful. It’s a magical place.”

The power of these magical places are part of what inspired her latest project. The films on the Head First DVD “range from the Belcher Islands in Nunavut to the Dempster Highway in Yukon Territory to Fogo Island in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Flute and film

The idea of melding flute and film was inspired, MacPhail explains, by her previous work on the Painted Houses project. In Painted Houses, she invited filmmakers to produce short films about St. John’s, for which she then composed music. In that project, the music she composed was largely inspired by the films. In Head First, she wanted to see what would happen if she did it the other way around – provide filmmakers with the music, and then see what films they’d be inspired to produce.

“It was neat, although it was also very challenging,” she recalls. “I knew the music so well, but the filmmakers didn’t know my vision because I was just giving them rough mixes. We did a lot of back-and-forth editing which was the first time I’d really done that. It was really trippy…It’s a really different process from anything I’ve done before.”

A self-admitted perfectionist, MacPhail acknowledges that the challenges involved in such a project were considerable. One of the most significant was finding herself in charge of managing such a large and complex project all by herself. Project management, she explains, is one of the key skills required of independent artists in this era.

“That was the biggest challenge, because I had to manage everything. It’s like running your own business. Nobody is going to care for your own project as much as you, because it’s your own business. So having to make the right choices all the time, making sure I was always on top of being organized with all the scheduling and always having to problem-solve at every corner. And there were so many corners. It was the most intense project I’ve ever worked on by far. I can’t tell you the number of sleepless nights I’ve had, constantly working toward it and constantly deciding that you’re not going to give up. Because you see the vision, and you want to achieve it.”

Crowning achievement

Earlier this month MacPhail achieved a long-held dream, staging the initial launch of the Head First DVD at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Presenting her own work on that stage is something she has looked forward to, and the experience did not disappoint.

“That facility is an artist’s dreamworld. You have the technical support, you have the equipment … At the same time, it was the hardest work I’ve ever done. Every moment was focused on making Head First happen. So it was a really beautiful moment. I shed quite a few tears on that stage and everyone felt what an achievement this was for me. And they gave me a standing ovation, which is every artist’s dream.”

Now MacPhail is looking forward to launching Head First in St. John’s, with a special film screening and live performance on November 30 that’s being co-presented by the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival. And while she’s already planning to hit the road for extensive touring with her new release, she has no doubts about keeping St. John’s as her base of operations.

“I truly believe this is one of the best music scenes in all of Canada. That is what attracted me first, then what attracted me second was the people, and then the place itself. The place is magical…I hate the winters, but I love every other aspect of Newfoundland. I see myself growing old here.”

The Head First 5.1 DVD Launch will take place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 30 at the LSPU Hall in St. John’s and will feature a live musical performance, film screening and question-and-answer session with the artist. The event is co-presented by the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. For more information check out the Facebook event site, or click here to purchase tickets.

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