Aella Choir

Power Through Voice

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Artist's Corner: An interview with Natalie Hanna


Today on Aella's blog, we interview local poet Natalie Hanna, with whom we are collaborating in Her Voice.  Hear Natalie performing her original poetry during Aella's final full-length concert of the season, 7:00 p.m. at First Baptist Church, Ottawa on June 4.

Tell us a bit about your background. How long have you been writing poetry? What sort of themes do you tend to write on?

I am a lawyer, a feminist, and the daughter of parents who immigrated to Canada from Egypt in the early 1970s. I have been writing for poetry for approximately 20 years. My writing focusses on women’s experiences, queerness, otherness, diaspora, relationships, politics, nature, and the body, though this is not an exhaustive list.

How did you get involved with this project? What drew you to Aella and "Her Voice"?

Jennifer Baker, whom I have the privilege of calling a friend, approached me to see if I may be interested in contributing to a project where poets would complement a choir singing music reflective of a multiplicity of women’s voices. I appreciate projects that foster inclusivity, so this was immediately interesting to me. I was also very excited about the prospect of joining music to poetry - a sort of modernization of and echo back to the Greek chorus.

What did you use as inspiration for your "Her Voice" pieces?  

The pieces I will perform focus on the struggles of my mother in overcoming the challenges of her life. They discuss her longing for broader horizons as a child, her hopes for her life and her children, and overcoming mistreatment. She was a doctor in her professional life and has retired now, and there is something of practical healing in the poems to honour her. The poems move backwards and forwards in time, so the audience comes to learn more of her story in the same scattered way that children often do. The poems are delivered through the lens of nature, with the sun and the moon figuring prominently in our cultural memory. The sequence closes with a poem for displaced people of the Middle-East. 

Have you ever undertaken a collaboration of this nature?

This is my first time working with a choir. Recently, I performed in the Blood and Bones (Ottawa) show, which merged storytelling (JD Hobbes) and poetry (Natasha Clery, Jamaal Jackson Rogers), with the gifted Jason Sonier collaborating on upright electric bass (bowed) and guitar. This brought such a beautiful added dimension to the stage. This collaboration is different, but I hope it will still be as entertaining for the audience.

Aella was very excited to work with you one-on-one. What was the experience like for you? Was it what you expected? Did hearing the choir change anything about the way you envisioned your pieces?

Working with Aella was an enriching, entrancing, and intimidating experience all at once. I am very cognizant of their skill and the work that they have put into their instruments. Imagine sitting in the pews of the sanctuary of a church, listening to a group of poised, precise, attuned women begin to raise their voices in a song that quickly becomes not words, but a feeling. Imagine that the feeling mixes hope, loss, power, praise, and daring. Imagine that they carry you forward in that space, on that sound, until you’ve forgotten where you are. Now imagine that someone tells you that you have to get up and speak to the room to which they were just singing. You’re not sure how. You’re not even sure it’s a good idea anymore because you don’t know if you can pair with something this beautiful. 

Listening to the choir absolutely changed how I decided to deliver my pieces. After learning which songs would bookend my sequence of poems, I incorporated phrases from “Warrior” by Kim Baryluk (of the Wyrd Sisters) which is the music that immediately follows the sequence, into the beginning and end of my poems, for continuity. I also approached my friend and drummer, Badger Jones, to collaborate for the set, taking the percussion from Maid On The Shore (which precedes my poems) into my set. I also approached Jennifer Berntson to see if the choir may be open to trying new sounds, and they were completely open and generous with working with me on this aspect. 

Final word: in your ideal world, what would you like the audience to take away from this performance?

Ideally, I’d likethe audience to seek out pieces of music in their everyday lives that reflect diverse experiences and share them with each other, in the spirit of this show. I’d like them to reflect on their own stories, as well, as there is power in each person’s history.