Creating ‘sound magic’ at the Forest
By Sue Tiffin
Published June 6, 2017
A pause – a temporary break – can be profound.
Stuart Laughton speaks passionately of the pause afforded to him at the peaceful and secluded Bone Lake, at Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve. Laughton, a celebrated Canadian musician and founder and artistic director of The Forest Festival, initially visited the area 25 years ago with R. Murray Schafer, internationally renowned as a composer, environmentalist and educator.
Schafer had great interest in creating music that would enter the soundscape of the natural world. Every few years, he would bring volunteers, including Laughton, to the Forest for so-called wilderness camping. The group would separate and paddle in different directions to four lakes, where each would compose and rehearse one quarter of a drama while living in pristine wilderness.
“It was all related to trying to reach an existential change where we became one with the wilderness in a way that hasn’t been true of mankind in a very long time,” said Laughton. “It sounds almost silly, like we were running around the woods naked, but that’s not what it’s about.”
After a week, the groups would gather again, determine how their parts fit, and perform the full music drama for each other at an amphitheatre created for them at Bone Lake.
“We were outdoors in the rain, if it rained, in the wind and sun, with every performance different depending on the elements, with the audience participating in a much more vibrant way than is possible in completely manmade surroundings,” said Laughton.
The experience was unforgettable for him.
“I’m very lucky in that I’ve played in the most famous concert halls in the world,” he said. “My favourite place to play is at an Ontario lake before sunrise or after sunset. The mist is rising from the water, and when you play in those circumstances, the sound of the trumpet sometimes gets soaked up or magnified or refracted. It goes across the lake, ricochets back, turns the corner and comes back behind you. Maybe it sounds like it’s coming from heaven – you don’t know where the sound is coming from. It’s incredible.”
Laughton would play pieces at the lake written for him by Schafer that deliberately included long silences – pauses in which nearby animals responded.
“You hear all four of those notes you just played lingering in the air, the first ones start to disappear, and then in that interval, maybe a great blue heron took off, and you hear the heaviness of its wings as it labours past you, and a red squirrel answers, and then you play the next phrase,” said Laughton. “I said to Murray, after a few of these experiences, I said, ‘this music is unlike anything I’ve ever played.’ He said, ‘I’m not trying to create music. I’m trying to create sound magic.’ Once he said that, then I understood. It’s a completely different thing. You cannot replicate that experience by taking it into a concert hall.”
The amphitheatre built by Schafer and his group was only being used in the mornings. Laughton, together with Peter Schleifenbaum, owner and chief forester of the Haliburton Forest, thought the space could be used for a concert series.
“Peter basically said, ‘I think this is a really good idea as long as you run it,’” said Laughton. “We had no budget, no idea how to do anything, but I called up my musician friends, people who would maybe be interested in working for almost nothing. We put on a couple of concerts back in 2007, and that’s how the Forest Festival began.”
A pause made for a remarkable memory at the beginning of the festival, too. Laughton was one of five brass players performing as part of the Forest Festival Brass in the inaugural 2007 concert when it happened.
“We were playing our first number, and it ended with this big chord – and then the chord stopped, and the audience was about to start to clap, and then they stopped because the chord was still going around the lake in an incredible resonance, this echo going all around the lake,” he said. “So people held their hands and they were in awe, and then at that moment, a beaver with his tail on the water went ‘whapp’ and started the applause. That’s literally how the very first Forest Festival show started, with a beaver leading the applause.”
Other moments – a curtain of Northern Lights at the end of the first performances, and the first sold out show – are meaningful to Laughton, but he also takes great pride in the calibre and variety of artists who have attended the festival. Since 2007, guests have included Russell deCarle, TorQ Percussion Quartet, the Suzie Vinnick Trio, Jim Cuddy Trio, The Good Lovelies, Bruce Cockburn, the Canadian Brass, Natalie MacMaster with Donnell Leahy and Sarah Harmer. Laughton credits the Forest Festival advisory board and also audience suggestions for ensuring the roster remains vibrant.
“We want a variety,” he said. “We don’t want it to be a folk festival or a jazz festival or a songwriter festival or any of those things.”
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the five-day Forest Festival, a milestone that was intended to happen last year, but for another pause.
The 2016 concert was cancelled after some buildings on the Haliburton Forest property, including the Logging Museum used as one of the Forest Festival venues, were found by the municipality of Dysart et al to not meet building code requirements. Organizers said the community responded quickly to the news.
“From my perspective, it was very gratifying to see how much people wanted the festival back,” said Laughton. “Part of me was relieved because it’s a lot of work doing it, and the idea of going up to Haliburton for one summer out of 10 and not stressing out every day over concerts and things was appealing. I’m a glass half full kind of guy, so I automatically revert to these rationalizations - ‘oh, at least my family will get to see me this year.’ But I wouldn’t give up this year’s festival for anything.”
This year’s concert features performances by Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Alison Young Quartet, Jimmy Rankin, Angel Forrest, The O’Pears and Jim Cuddy. Laughton will be performing in the concert himself with his band, Radio Dial.
“I feel, even here from Burlington, almost a renewed energy, from the community, from the volunteers, from everyone involved in the festival,” he said. “I’m very optimistic.”
The 2017 Forest Festival takes place from Aug. 16 to 20. For more information visit theforestfestival.com.