When you think of a string ensemble, you may think first of classical music. With a repertoire that moves from classical to jazz, to pop and even to heavy metal in one concert, Atlantic String Machine is giving audiences even more to think about.
Atlantic String Machine (ASM) is described as “a dynamic ensemble of string players who perform as many styles of music as they can fit into their portfolios.”
Based on Prince Edward Island, the five-piece ensemble has established itself at the forefront of new and exciting arts groups throughout the region, according to ASM’s website.
“Their unique approach comes from a desire to keep live music relevant, transformative and, above all, entertaining,” states their biography. “In their efforts to keep themselves and their audiences engaged, they seek out interesting collaborations with other artists, unexpected venues for concerts and write their own arrangements and compositions, keeping their repertoire fresh and alive.”
ASM features Sean Kemp on violin, Karen Graves on violin, Jeffrey Bazett-Jones on viola, Natalie Williams Calhoun on cello and Adam Hill on bass.
Williams Calhoun is one of the original ensemble members.
“We all kind of found ourselves on P.E.I. and had connections to each other,” she said. “I met the original bass player, and he knew our original violinist, so the three of us got together, and then I knew our second violinist, and the other two guys knew our viola player, so they kind of brought him, and I brought the second violinist, and we all met one April. [It was] just a weird happenstance of arriving in a small community and getting connected and figuring out we had something good.”
One of the most noticeable things that sets ASM apart is that they are a quintet.
“When you look at string groups, you mostly see string quartets, and we’re a string quintet, which means we have the bass as well,” said Williams Calhoun. “We really enjoy that extra depth to the group. Especially as the cellist, it’s really nice not to be always stuck with playing the bass lines — I can give the bass lines to somebody else, and that gives me a little bit more freedom.”
As well, ASM writes its own arrangements.
“We tend to kind of come to the group and say ‘I really want to do an arrangement of…’ — I came to the group one day and said I wanted to do an arrangement of ‘Enter Sandman’ by Metallica, so we find ourselves doing just a really, really eclectic and wide variety of repertoire,” said Williams Calhoun. “I don’t think there is anyone else necessarily who does what we do in that kind of a formation. So we’re certainly not a classical ensemble completely — we dive in and out of a lot of things.”
“I don’t want to say we have short attention spans,” she added with a laugh, “but we can have lots of interesting things for us, and then our audiences, I always say at our concerts when we’re talking about things that our concerts are kind of like sonic whiplash — you start off in one area, and then you get dragged somewhere else. It’s also like the weather on P.E.I. where if you wait five minutes, it changes to something completely different.”
Since forming in 2015, the group has earned multiple awards from Music PEI (Achievement in Classical or Jazz in 2016, 2017 and 2019), and their debut album, Lost Time, received two East Coast Music Award nominations (Best Classical Recording and Best Classical Composition in 2017). The band has also been featured at festivals across the country.
Over the past few years, ASM has performed with artists such as Sarah Slean, Duane Andrews, Paper Lions, The Once, James Keelaghan, Meghan Blanchard, Rachel Beck, and Adrienne Gallant. They have also appeared on recordings by Lennie Gallant, Irish Mythen, and Dave Gunning.
Their newest album, The Bayfield Sessions, builds on that spirit of collaboration by featuring guest performances of original songs by Ian Sherwood from Nova Scotia, Catherine MacLellan from P.E.I., Nathan Wiley from P.E.I., Matthew Byrne from Newfoundland and Alicia Toner, who is from New Brunswick but now living on Prince Edward Island.
In May 2019, members of the Atlantic String Machine set up their own recording studio in the basement of the Bazett-Jones was renting. That first week of May also happened to be East Coast Music Week in Charlottetown, and the ensemble invited Sherwood, MacLellan, Wiley, Byrne and Toner to record with them. The singers brought a song with them, and ASM arranged the song for strings, then they recorded them all together live-off-the-floor late at night.
“It was a really fun thing to do,” said Williams Calhoun. “We just kind of challenged ourselves to record it ourselves because we wanted to get an album done, and we didn’t really have the money to go into a studio and do it that way. It was a bit of a D.I.Y. project, but it turned out really well.”
Williams Calhoun is originally from Vancouver Island and has lived on P.E.I. since 2009.
“We love it,” she said. “Especially, I really think that the group, had we formed this group somewhere else like Toronto or Vancouver, it wouldn’t have taken off as well as it did on P.E.I. because P.E.I. has such a small musical community and such a supportive musical community. They really are. We’ve been embraced by everybody, and it’s really helped us get ourselves going, so we have such close ties to P.E.I.”
Atlantic String Machine brings its unique sound to Quesnel Thursday, Feb. 6 as part of the Quesnel Live Arts concert series. The concert beings at 7:30 p.m. at the Chuck Mobley Theatre at Correlieu Secondary School, and tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for seniors and students. Tickets are available at Green Tree Health and Wellness, K-Max, Save On Foods, The Occidental and at the door.
To learn more about Atlantic String Machine, visit atlanticstringmachine.com.
For more information about Quesnel Live Arts, visit qla.ca.