Soundcheck Review

Chris Blackford, The Wire, no. 190, December 1, 1999

Louis Riel (1844-1885) is one of the most controversial figures in Canadian history, regarded by some as a hero, by others, a traitor. In January 1869 the Hudson Bay Company sold most of its land in the north-west to the Canadian government without regard for the territorial rights of the resident, French-speaking, half-breed Métis, who appealed to the well-educated Métis, Louis Riel, to lead them in their struggle. As secretary of the Métis movement, Riel organised blockades against government surveyors and was instrumental in the formation of a provisional government for the Métis of which he became president. The problem soon escalated into armed conflict. Normand Guilbeault’s Riel/Musical Plea dramatises these Métis uprisings in Manitoba (1869-70) and Saskatchewan (1885), culminating in the trial and execution of Riel in 1885. Guilbeault’s position is pro-Riel and he offers this nearly two-hour work as a “fair tribute to this national hero, unjustly accused of high treason.”

A patchwork of styles, including rousing native chants, French-Canadian songs, military marching themes, jazz and free improvisation, Riel appears, on first hearing, an uneven experience, though greater familiarity with Guilbeault’s polystylistic method reveals a work of considerable emotional power, rooted in the musical landscape of Riel’s time. Narrators (in English and French) speak for the principal participants in the action; the accompanying booklet contains relevant historical documents, but non-French readers will have problems understanding about half of this material. The improvising, which accounts for the radical aspects of the “soundtrack”, functions as superior mood music and is at its most dissonant when describing conflict or the threat of it. However, Lou Babin’s vocal and accordion improvisation on L’exil, one of the work’s highlights, is both lyrical and memorably poignant, later supported by the enchanting flute of Jean Derome. Batoche with its solemn processional tempo and eruptive military horns has an Ayleresque flavour. The excellent live recording matches the performance of a 12-piece ensemble which includes some of the finest musicians in Canadian New Music.