Goatskin, metal and wood: Katelyn Clark’s organetto at Now Hear This Festival

Katelyn Clark // Lightbox Studio
Now Hear This Festival of New Music
Mar 21 – 24
Song of Sibyls with organetto player Katelyn Clark at 2pm Sat., Mar. 23

By Joe Hartfeil

True to its name, New Music Edmonton’s 8th annual Now Hear This Festival of New Music will present a program of new, experimental and adventurous sounds.. In the case of Montreal musician Katelyn Clark’s “Song of Sibyls” performance, the new music in question will be given voice by an instrument whose heyday came in the 14th Century.

Clark has employed the medieval organetto (or portative organ) in her early music practice, as well as in service of new and improvisatory pieces. She had the instrument built in 2011 from “materials that would’ve been used during Gothic organ construction, based on evidence from iconography.”

Employing such components as a small row of metal pipes, wooden keys and hand-pumped goatskin bellows, Clark’s organetto is as close as it gets to the real thing, since no fully-preserved examples of period organetti remain in existence. The meticulousness that must have gone into building an instrument from centuries-old blueprints is matched by Clark’s academic approach to the music: informed by many years studying historic keyboard instruments.

While this musician’s various projects often see her working with like-minded instrumentalists, “Song of Sibyls” involves a partner whose geographical position and artistic medium would seem to make for a less than obvious collaboration. Through remote communication, Clark and Australian video artist Marlaina Read have maintained a “continuous dialogue,” which involves updates regularly being made to the visual and musical elements as each participant modifies the work from one performance to the next.

“Every iteration of the film that I’ve performed with has been different,” Clark says, adding that she finds the working method “inspiring in terms of musical creation.”

Given the virtual symbiosis the two artists manage to create across two hemispheres, it seems particularly appropriate that Clark and Read began their association in Iceland—a country with a strong tradition of Nordic prophetesses. Clark describes “sibyl” as a term of antiquity referring to a “female oracle or holy figure who would speak the future.”

Clark describes her technique as “looking at historical sources and reconstructing things from the past,” but she also creates new sound mediums by incorporating electronics into performances of “Song of Sibyls.”

Clark augments the organetto and its naturally limited two octave range by playing samples of herself at its keyboard, then modifying the pitch, timbre and other elements of the original sounds. New Music Edmonton’s artistic director, Ian Crutchley, observes that “there are no outdated instruments, nor any whose potential in progressive music is exhausted,” and Katelyn Clark’s endlessly inventive coaxing of new sounds from old instruments—to borrow a phrase from Moondog—offer ample support for that assertion.

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