HAIL: Canadian Art Song by Doreen Taylor-Claxton and Valerie Dueck

When I listen to CDs these days, it’s usually in the car. But when I flipped in this particular CD (also available online for MP3 or iPod users) it took maybe 10 seconds for me to realize: This is not my usual car music.

It’s subtitled “Canadian art song.” Really, what did I expect?

Art song by definition is lyric poetry set to music, intended for recital usually by a singer and pianist. Hail is one of several projects matching Canadian writers and composers, under the umbrella “In Need of Song.” Luckily, I decided to flip it out of the car player, take it inside and have a second listen, where I could read along with the liner notes.

In Hail, soprano Doreen Taylor-Claxton teams up with pianist Valerie Dueck.  Both are award winners with great skill and a long list of accomplishments. Taylor-Claxton has one of those enviable “spot-on” voices. She’s been winning awards since “an early age” (4) and now has her Master’s in Chamber Music from the University of Ottawa.

Taylor-Claxton performs in the Ottawa and Maritime regions, and of course with the CBC. You don’t need to know her awards and credentials to appreciate the quality of her voice, but it doesn’t hurt. Dueck, another award-winning musician who performs with the Ottawa Chamber Music Society and CBC, among other places, took postgraduate studies at the University of Vienna.

The poets and composers who teamed up to make Hail are no less impressive, and the liner notes are full of their awards and accomplishments. John G. Armstrong, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa, teamed up with Seymour Mayne, who is called “the most prominent word sonneteer working in English” (7).

A word sonnet, according to the notes, is a column of words in which one word replaces the 14 lines of a traditional sonnet. Spare, hard-hitting, as in the title column:


James Wright, who is a composer, performer, choral director, teacher and musicologist, set the music for Steven Michael Berzensky’s “Quilled Sonnet.” A former Grain editor and award-winning Saskatchewan poet, Berzensky opens his poem with “A pure spontaneous thread of joy” and wings upward before alighting in the “least tangled thickets” (15).

Composer Colin Mack of Ottawa set the music for Toronto performance poet Sharon Singer. Each of her three poems — “Mist,” “Becalmed,” and “Destiny” — involves a separate voyage through “sparkling mystery” (18) to a new understanding.

Composer-pianist Frédéric Lacroix teamed up with Nova Scotia poet Effie MacIsaac Taylor, to set music for four poems that reflect the seasons from spring to winter. As the notes suggest, all four are “rich with descriptions of rural Nova Scotia” (19).

Finally, Hail ends with five Newfoundland folk songs adapted and arranged by Donald F. Cook: “Lukey’s Boat,” “The Banks of Newfoundland,” “The Maid on the Shore,” “The Green Bushes,” and “Jack was Every Inch a Sailor.” Clarinetist Pascale Lafrance adds another level of musical interest, and Cook throws a few surprises into the mix – such as a pinch of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” into “Lukey’s Boat.”

The music seems a bit somber at times to reflect the joy or the sensuous quality of the poetry. The recording is almost tinny — it was apparently recorded at St. Thomas the Apostle United Church — but the accomplishment here is well worth a second look. “Well-crafted music,” according to the liner notes (3). Variations on a theme, repetition, and some very sophisticated ins and outs that push boundaries into the realm of art. And some very interesting poetry presented in a new and unique way.

On the whole, the CD helps bring together two Canadian art forms that are too seldom celebrated alone, and hopefully will bring both to new audiences.