BEHIND THE SCENES with Charles Spearin


Could you tell us a little bit about how The Happiness Project began? What's the background

I'd been thinking about how to make music out of the natural cadences of speech for a long time. At one point I even walked around with a little dictaphone trying to capture some of the different languages and accents that are common in downtown Toronto, hoping to find a magical moment or two. My thinking was that some of the strongest emotions in music can be found in simple, repeated melodic intervals (an interval is the distance between two notes) and, since speech is full of these same intervals, why not try arranging speech as though it were song

I had had this in mind for a long time when I first heard a piece of music called "Different Trains" by Steve Reich (1990), who applied the same technique, and it put some wind in my sails. But still, it took 15 years or so before I had the time and technology at hand to put it together. Eventually -- because I have two little kids and spend so much time on the front porch -- I decided to try it with what was right on my doorstep. The voices of my neighbours. I invited them over for a chat, which I recorded and then listened back for moments that had both interesting dialogue and a natural rising and falling of the voice that I could play on different instruments

Why did you interview your neighbors about happiness in particular? What did you hope to discover about happiness

The theme of "happiness" was vague when I started. It was really my musician friends who had heard bits and pieces who began to call it my Happiness Project, but I suppose I was looking for a common thread to tie the interviews together. In my first interview I asked Mr. Gowrie, the elderly Trinidadian man across the street, if he thought that happiness and contentment were part of our natural makeup and that the complications of life were just temporary obstacles that block us from experiencing that happiness or whether he thought a constant effort is needed to find happiness

I suppose the question comes from my interest in Buddhism (my father is a buddhist) which puts a lot of attention on the nature of suffering. The first thing the Buddha taught was that life is suffering, but at the same time bliss and wisdom are supposed to be our true nature. I suppose I enjoy struggling with these questions and thought others might as well. Mr. Gowrie never really got to his answer directly but the way he talks about growing up in poverty is surprisingly heartwarming

Did one person's voice in particular sound especially musical to you

The one voice that surprised me with its musicality was Vanessa who was born deaf and on first listen you'd swear sounds very stuccato and somewhat monotonic. But after a few minutes of careful listening (and figuring out how to play on piano) I found some amazing flourishes of melody

What's particularly interesting about her story is that at the age of 30 she got a cochleal implant and heard sounds for the first time. She is very articulate and can read lips perfectly so, as long as I keep my moustache trimmed, we can carry on conversation as though she were anyone else. But the fact that she uses her voice in such a sing-song manner suggests that she feels the vibrations in her voice almost in the same way we hear music. I was especially fortunate to have her describe hearing sound for the first time. At the age of 30

The Happiness Project is a curious mix of music and narrative. You are a musician by profession, but before this project, did you consider yourself a storyteller as well

Well, not really, but ages ago (when I was a teenager mainly -- I'm 36 now) I had some experience in theatre. I was mostly working on the technical side of things -- sound, lights, etc. -- but I suppose that that sense of theatrical captivation has always appealed to me. Not so much in the sense of being overly dramatic, as theatre can be, but just that simple sense of being able to relate to the characters and follow their reasonings throughout the story

Was it difficult to make the jump between music and storytelling? Do you see a natural connection between music and narrative

Music, on it's own, is non-conceptual. It blossoms where words fail. And vice versa. So sure, there is a natural harmony between music and narrative. They go together like sight and sound. (By the way, did you know that the lowest frequency the human ear can hear is about the same as the highest frequency the eye can see? If you wave your hand in front of your face fast enough it becomes a blur. If you could wave it even faster it would start to sound like deep bass. So ears really do take over where eyes fail!

But, yes, the jump for me was a little difficult. I have always been more comforable with the abstract. In Broken Social Scene the lyrics have a experssionist/surrealist quality to them and generally my role is that of arranging and texturing. In my other band, Do Make Say Think, we've pretty much done away with lyrics altogether. So the forum I am familliar with has very little to do with storytelling. I guess my entrance into the world of narrative was through the side-door. My neighbours wrote the script

You've begun debuting The Happiness Project in concert with your other bands. What is it like to play selections from The Happiness Project in concert in between more traditional songs? What's the audience reaction

I'm shocked by the overwhelmingly positive responses by the crowds. At first I thought people would, at best, put up with the short digression, clap politely, and want to get back to the rock show but to my (and everyone else in the band's) surprise people really ### listened and then really cheered. I guess it added another dimension to the show which caught people off guard and to some became a highlight. We'll see how it goes over without the support of a set-list full of rockers when I take the project on the road in March

In so much popular music and general radio news reporting, verbal tics and mistakes (likes, ums, uhs, etc.) are struck from the sonic record. In the Happiness Project ** you embrace the speakers' verbal tics. How much of the music of everyday speech would you say comes from these types of tics

Um, well, you know, I try to be, uh, kind of, appreciative of things as they are? Some of my favorite musicians leave in the wonky notes, guitar squeaks, out-of-tune-isms and so on and somehow manage to say more than the virtuosos. The Dirty Three are an excellent example of a band who take looseness and turn it into candor and beauty. I feel the same way about verbal "tics." Although I still try to keep them to a minimum myself (out of silly self-consciousness probably), they are a part of the way real people really speak. And, sure I love Charles Dickens, but c'mon, like, when I'm talking to my friends?