Cellist wins praise for adaptation of Service poem
By The Edmonton Journal, June 20, 2006

Poet Robert Service, who was born in England to Scottish parents, took great inspiration from his years in Canada's Far North to pen classic works like The Cremation of Sam McGee. It's a poetic irony, then, that Alberta cellist Christine Hanson wound up creating her musical adaptation of the famous Service poem in Scotland.

As coincidence would have it, Hanson found out she has been living a short walk from Service's original home in Glasgow since she first left Edmonton about three years ago to pursue musical opportunities in the British Isles. Back then, she had no idea that she would become the first non-Scot to win a commission from the New Voices project of Glasgow's huge annual Celtic Connections Festival, which sparked the idea of adapting the epic poem.

"Basically they say, 'here's your budget, you can have whoever you want, go away for a year and write,' " explains the cellist, who's currently back in Edmonton visiting family and friends. "It was pretty scary because this is the first thing I've ever written, but it puts you in the hot seat."

Live performances of the musical suite at the Glasgow fest this past winter drew considerable acclaim from the Scottish press. At the same time Hanson released her new CD, The Cremation of Sam McGee. It features the gritty voice of veteran singer-songwriter Michael Marra narrating sections of the poem with her hand-picked group of top Scot players drawing out the sort of musical pictures you might expect to accompany a poem so caught up in strong images (the 70-minute album also includes a second all-instrumental version of the music).

She was particularly thrilled to get versatile players like trombonist Rick Taylor (formerly Elton John's musical director in the mid-'80s), fiddlers Bruce MacGregor and Sidan O'Rourke, and string wizard Kevin Murray to lend their talents to a 10-piece ensemble. The result straddles folk, country, jazz and classical genres in a rich, refreshing soundtrack to Canadian pioneer life as it was first caught with Service's dramatic relish.

If Hanson's Sam McGee project felt like a challenge, it's just one of many successful musical experiences she's had in Britain over the past several years. She's toured the U.K. with singer-songwriter Eddie Reader, recorded with English folk icon Martin Carthy, done session work for the BBC and played dozens of gigs in pubs, clubs, concert halls and festivals, travelling to some of the most remote parts of Scotland and beyond.

"Historically there was a place for the cello in Scottish folk music, so that's helped, but cello also seems to be one of those sounds people like to have when they're featuring an instrument with a real individual character."

Edmonton-born Hanson is actually of Irish extraction and grew up hearing a mix of jazz, classical, folk and popular music at home. After graduating from classical training at the University of Alberta, she taught herself guitar to enrol in the music program at Grant Mac-Ewan College. She credits her years there learning to play over chord changes and bass lines with guitar instructor Bob Cairns as one of the most important parts of her studies. That versatility has led to older classical players taking lessons from her in Scotland.

Cello tends to be associated with the classical realm, but Hanson admits she was "a bit rebellious" in wanting to use it in other styles of music. She recorded her first genre-crossing CD six years ago, and before she left Edmonton she had become a regular in folk gigs and taken part in a tango trio that actually toured the Canadian Arctic an experience she credits for helping to inspire her interest in the Service poem. Despite the slight touch of a Scottish accent that has crept into her voice from living in Glasgow, she's still very attached to her roots.

"I really wanted to write something that reflected where I come from, something that could bring together all these influences country and jazz and everything into a melting pot. This commission gave me the freedom to do that. It's just who I am."
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