Canadian flute player and filmmaker performs live soundtrack music
Flutist and filmmaker Rozalind MacPhail has led a nomadic life. She’s lived, among other places, on both the Eastern and Western edges of Canada in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Victoria, British Columbia. Over the years, she’s fallen in love with a handful of other places she’s lived and traveled to. As a film scorer, she’s been able to translate that deep feeling for a place into music, playing flute-based scores that are both melodic and rhythmic, using looping technology to set up drones, patterns and harmonies.
MacPhail has also deepened her connection with North Carolina in recent years, having come to the beaches in the Carolinas when she was a kid, she returned to Wilmington a few years ago to take part in an artists’ residency affiliated with the Cucalorus Film Festival there.
MacPhail will be passing through several cities in North Carolina this month, performing live soundtrack music for a number of short films as a part of her “From the River to the Ocean” project, which got local and visiting filmmakers at Cucalorus to contribute short films inspired by their own connections to Wilmington. She’ll be at Monstercade in Winston-Salem on June 21, and at The Code Gallery in Greensboro on June 23.
The films range from the experimental to the straight-forward. North Carolina-based filmmakers Matt Malloy (an emcee at the festival), Mariah Dunn Kramer (a film studies professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington), Josh Caine (a video artist and music producer) and Matt Gossett (a video artist) all brought different perspectives to the project. So, too, did international contributors Mandi Edwards (from England), Shona Thomson (from Scotland) and MacPhail herself.
Thomson used archival footage shot in Wilmington in the 1940s, film originally intended to promote the city. Gossett shot his own VHS footage around Wilmington and then manipulated the material using analog effects, creating a glitchy, rhythmic abstraction. Dunn Kramer made a documentary about the local effort to prolong state-issued tax incentives for the film industry as a means of spurring the economy there. The films are markedly different, but beyond the thematic link to Wilmington, there’s the unifying feature of MacPhail’s music in each of them.
“The films are being projected while I perform the music live,” said MacPhail of the show she’s bringing to the area. “I’m live film scoring.”
To do that, she uses flute, a bed of electronics, field recordings, voice, pre-recorded guitar and an omnichord, which is a sort of electric autoharp. The looping technology dramatically alters the role that the flute can play, and MacPhail makes the most of that freedom by pushing the instrument into different places.
“That layering of sound is so mesmerizing,” MacPhail said. “But texture, color and groove is everything.”
The bursts of breath required to play the flute can sound both like singing and like percussive blasts, and when those airy and sometimes shrill accents get turned into repetitive patterns through looping, the result can even take on the quality of beatboxing.
“I love creating funky, ugly sounds that have to do with grooves on the flute,” MacPhail said.
But, for every challenging bit of texture and every piece of body-moving rhythm, MacPhail also does other work to create deep, soothing flute music. As it happens, some of this meditative music is equally rooted in a sense of place and time, like her soundtrack work. In 2017, MacPhail released a record called Sunset Sunrise, which was created after she woke up before dawn every morning in February and improvised on her flute as the sun rose in St. John’s. Earlier this year, MacPhail released a record of music made to accompany yoga instruction. Both of those more atmospheric projects relate to MacPhail’s desire to make music that might, in some small way, serve to heal people.
“I was really really upset about what I was seeing in the world,” said MacPhail, mentioning the 2016 election in the U.S. as one source of concern and one which seemed to stir up a lot of fear in people. “I thought to myself, ‘There’s got to be something I can do to help make the world a better place.’ I decided that I was going to create some meditation music that people could use to help cope with some stress.”
MacPhail, 43, studied classical flute and spent most of the first part of her career focused in that realm, but in her 30s she decided she wanted to write her own songs. That decision has taken her out of concert halls and allowed her to bring her music to unorthodox venues like screening rooms, rock clubs and galleries. While a resonant and venerable theater space has its charms for a performer, MacPhail finds any live-music experience to be rewarding.
“I just love inspiring people. To me, any venue is a place where that can happen,” she said. “Concert halls are great, but there’s some magic that sometimes happens in the bars as well. It’s just neat to take people on a journey.”
MacPhail is making art that draws attention to how we document our own experience. Her performances highlight the meaning behind recording and archiving. Sharing the work with an audience seems like a logical culmination.
“It’s very contemplative,” MacPhail said, “and they reflect a lot on their own lives and how they’re capturing their own memories.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Rozalind MacPhail perform “From the River to the Ocean” at Monstercade, 204 W. Acadia Ave., Winston-Salem, on Thursday, June 21 at 9 p.m., and at The Code Gallery, 1202 Grove St., Greensboro, on Saturday, June 23 at 8 p.m.