Interview: Exploring the “Lost Villages” With Robert Diack

With his new album “Lost Villages,” jazz drummer Robert Diack is exploring not only the geography of Ontario’s nine “Lost” villages (submerged as part of construction on the St. Lawrence Seaway), but also a new musical topography.  Each of the project’s eight tracks delves into an aspect of such disorientation as must have been felt by those villages’ residents – bitterness, anger, resignation, and eventual acceptance.  In tandem with Patrick O’Reilly (guitar and pedals), Jacob Thompson (piano), and Brandon Davis (bass), Diack tells an engrossing tale with his music.

The album begins with “Displace,” a composition that not only evokes the sense of rootlessness but also slowly builds into the excellently angry stew that is “Bittered.”  “Pluterperfect” (which for you word geeks means “more than perfect”) retains some of the anger from the first two tracks and builds on it with some well-placed dissonance from the piano and ripping guitar solos starting midway through the piece.

“Idyll” brings a peace that is almost startling after the storm of the first three tracks – much like a silence that follows a heavy rain.  “Lacuna” and “Reliquary” continue that sense of peace – acceptance, perhaps, if not peace? – with two absolutely gorgeous tunes; “Reliquary” in particular conjures a dreamy sort of contemplation, the type that happens after a deep grief or sundering.  (Which likely is exactly how the affected villagers might have felt as they processed their feelings after forced relocation.)  “Sap,” the album’s longest track at over eight minutes, begins with an ominous chordal intro from the piano’s lower register (juxtaposed with a haunting treble melody), gradually expanding into a whirl of sound.  With the closing composition, “Placed,” I must admit that my imagination spun a film of sorts, as if a movie camera was panning over newly built houses, their residents outside gardening in the summer twilight as they tried to make their homes once more.

As an occasional music teacher, I’ve often tried to teach my students over the years about the ways in which music can not only make beautiful sounds, but also paint pictures in our imagination.  Robert Diack’s “Lost Villages” is one such set of pieces, that creates imagery with musical notes – it’s a terrifically enjoyable album, one to put on your stereo when you have the time and space to muse and see where it carries your own imagination.

We’re delighted that Robert took some time to talk to us about his album.

This project was inspired in part by several towns/villages that were abandoned and submerged as part of the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. What in particular drew you to this story, both as a point of interest and as an inspiration for your music?

I was commuting from Toronto to Hamilton quite a lot during the composition of most of these pieces, and I found myself spending more time between places which could be considered “home”, this evoked some of that displaced feeling that comes through on the recordings. Because of the large amount of time I found I was spending there, I had researched things to do in Hamilton and the surrounding areas and I found myself winding through Wikipedia, until I struck upon these townships and the Lost Villages. Once I find something which interests me, I find it permeates into the backdrop of most things I do, and that I leave it processing behind in a secret compartment in my mind. Over time these patterns of thought manifest in me, and perhaps I get obsessively stuck on certain things.

I title my songs with single word names as I work on them, usually I try to match the word to the content of what I am experiencing in my life at the time or what I have found in the discrete piece of music I am working on. I found that this set of songs dealt with idealization, pastoral themes, or frustration with a tinge of melancholy. This self-discovery made me realize two things: I take myself too seriously when I title songs (still do), and there is a unified feeling behind a lot of the music that I had been writing.

I use the story of the Lost Villages as a metaphoric journey through my own life and experience. The music is borne out of a feeling adjacent to that of the Lost Villages, I am co-opting it for my own purposes. That said, I found it to be inspiring and I saw a lot of myself in that experience, despite having lived through nothing quite as horrific.

The album begins with “Displace,” then “Bittered”… from what I could find about the displacement of the villages, the bitterness likely began before the villagers were displaced, given the disagreements over the compensation and replacement housing that occurred. I’m curious why you placed these pieces in this particular order?

I think that programmatically the album works better like that. Displace had to be the first track to create the thematic bookend of the displace-placed progression. They share the same naming convention and the majority of the same motivic material. They are the first and last tracks of the album. They function differently and occupy different spaces, but they are reflections on the same material, unifying the conceptual and aural ideas of the album into a cohesive piece.

Bittered isn’t a formalized word, so conveniently its function is pretty flexible. However, to speak of bitterness: I have always found that it is a slow acting emotion, as I rarely find myself bitter about something which has freshly started, it feels more reflective than that – more stale. I mentally equivocated the process of eviction as part of the act of displacement, as one cannot exist without the other; accordingly, I take the whole sequence of events leading to the actual displacement as the displacement. The promise of eviction is displacement. Really the album is a reflection, not precisely a chronological timeline of events, I meant it as a look back in memory, not so much as a direct stand-in for real experience. Memory is prone to collapsing on itself, and I tried to represent that “human”, and ultimately fallible, experience.

Unfortunately, my piece “Threatening Letter from Hydro Company” just didn’t make it to the final version of the album.

Robert Diack

In listening to the tracks on the album, I definitely get a sense of displacement, especially in “Pluterperfect,” which has an almost jarring sense of dissonance and anger. (Which is entirely fitting.)  Then “Idyll” follows – a delicate piece at first that seems to me to build into a sort of quiet fury.  What story does “Idyll” tell?

Idyll and the next track Lacuna are actually one piece of music, they were recorded together and I split them up in post-production. In doing this, they function as a ‘hinge’; equidistant to first and last tracks, which are of the same material. In other words, the first and last tracks are built off of the same material, and the middle two tracks are built off of the same material.

To me, Idyll is a reflective look back at things that used to be, however are now no more; the feelings of dissociation and preemptive nostalgia are also wrapped up in this piece. In essence, the feelings in Idyll are good experiences which did not, or will not, last and were not experienced to their fullest potential.

“Reliquary” also has a feel of quiet with an undertone of – I don’t know, bitterness? Tension? If I’m using my imagination, I think of people who have a home but have lost their roots.  How did this piece come to you?

I tend to have musical parts which move forward and then regress, as I find that regression has a very satisfying feeling – when parts are oscillating back and forth, one can build with new materials and keep each layer feeling familiar. Such is the case with Reliquary. Elements are layered onto each other over and over until the ultimate piano break, where new material is introduced, and then carried over into a recapitulation-like sequence. I suppose I want to trick people into experiencing new things without noticing.

I wrote everything but the guitar melody easily, so I had a frame to set the melody to, and I had a feeling I was trying to evoke; however, at first I couldn’t get it right. I ended up working my way through that part, note by note finding things that sounded right. I must have written it at least two dozen ways before ending up with what is heard. Sometimes getting things right is a matter of pure effort. Perhaps this exertion (and, admittedly, frustration) came through in the recording. I was thinking a lot about transference and loss, and I was reflecting on the first time I felt I had no discrete home, or just a complete lack of being tethered or grounded to something.

The press materials mention that the album is “grounded in and inspired by its own local geography” – can you talk a bit about how your own geography contributes to your composition?

I used the term geography in an experiential way in that. That is, most everyone experiences geography without really thinking about it, and geography therefore affects all people, shaping them as they move through it. The music is written by me, and I am shaped by where I am (forgive my literalness). The content of the album is the product of my being, which is subversively shaped and informed by what and where I experience. For me there are distinct places and ideas to some of the motivic material. For example, I recall waiting for a bus while huge snowflakes were falling and feeling very alone when I wrote most of Displace.

I think that feeling alone is something that everyone experiences. It is this sense of lost connection and one’s internal humanity breaking down that often prompts people to reflect on where their “home” is, conceptually speaking. Sometimes when the internal compass does not point in any direction, things get a bit confusing. In these thoughts I blend geography and physicality. By local geography I mean, the personal experiences through space. My local geography when writing this album was a lot of Southern Ontario.

You had an album release show on 16 April; do you have other shows coming up this spring/summer?

I will be booking more shows in early August, as we will be recording a lot of new material in July. I understand that you are geared more towards experiencing music from Canada despite being located south of the border, and I will say that I am working on coming to the USA (it is a bit of a process), so stay tuned for that.

~ L

Visit Robert Diack’s website.

Preview and buy “Lost Villages” on Bandcamp.

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