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Arts group invents history with music and mixed-genre book

By Cheryl Minns, The Other Press, April 9 2015 —

When Vancouver-based interdisciplinary arts group Sun Belt set out to make their debut album, they ended up with more than a collection of catchy tracks. The result was instrumental and lyrical digital album Cabalcor, accompanied by a mixed-genre book, Cabalcor: An Extracted History.

The book documents the history of a fictitious oil sands town named Cabalcor, following its discovery as a grassy place with shallow ponds, to its dissolve into an abandoned desert wasteland. The album includes instrumental pieces that set the scene for the town and lyrics about its history and its residents.

Sun Belt member Rick Maddocks, a creative writing instructor at Vancouver’s Douglas College, chatted about the project and its evolution from a collection of songs into a multi-genre artifact.

“The book was inspired by the music, both lyric songs and instrumentals. All of the songs, from “So Far the Stars” to “Red Bird,” shared a certain quality: a sense of place, a dusty, surreal kind of landscape,” he says.

To capture the music’s desert feeling, Sun Belt travelled to WaveLab Studio in Tucson, Arizona, to record the album. The studio provided a “distinctive, dusty and spacious sound” that added to the project’s personality.

Once the album was recorded, the band decided to present the music in a unique format. This led to the idea of including an illustrated book full of fictional radio excerpts, diary entries, facts, song lyrics and more.

“Our initial idea was to release the album within an almanac that was full of dubious desert-related facts and figures. We knew the book would include strange diagrams, plus I had hundreds of photographs of desert ghost towns from research trips over the last three years,” Maddocks says.

“Early in my writing process, I realized I was following the vision of a history book more than an almanac, one that was based entirely on invented primary sources,” he says.

The book is a compilation of Sun Belt members’ various artistic works, including Maddocks’ and Lyons’ writing, Maddocks’ photographs, Walker’s illustrations, and Dave Wilson’s diagrams and a map of Cabalcor. Wilson also designed the book’s final page, an advertisement spread that includes a code to obtain a free digital copy of the Cabalcor album.

There are also artworks by Sun Belt members Jon Wood and Sandra Carvalho González, who is the only artist to have their real name credited next to her artwork. Other artists’ works are attributed to made-up names in order to maintain the book’s fictitious history, while being appropriately credited on the credits page.

Maddocks’ parents Phil and Frances also supplied some of the book’s artwork under the names Felipe Downing and Frances Williams.

Cabalcor: An Extracted History is a mixed collection of genres that is connected to the Cabalcor album. Because of this, Maddocks feels there are many ways readers can experience and interpret the book and music.

“You could begin at the beginning with the origin myth and follow the text in a linear fashion. You could treat the text as a tar-sands coffee table book and flip it open to whatever page, checking out a bit at a time. You could tackle individual chapters in random order,” Maddocks says.

“As for the music, you could listen to selections from the album that relate to specific book chapters as you go. You could play the album as background music while you read. Or you could, of course, just listen to the album by itself,” he says.

The album and book debuted during Vancouver’s PuSh Festival in a performance on February 1. The event featured several Sun Belt members who performed music from the album, readers who read from Cabalcor: An Extracted History during the performance and a historian emcee.

“Our first stage adaptation of Cabalcor presented the vision as a surreal historical lecture with slides, readings, and music. This is one way to explore the many layers of the work, and we plan on developing it further,” Maddocks says. “There’s also an abridged, 10-minute version we performed with guests at a Real Vancouver Writers event, plus a music-oriented performance that experimented with audience participation.”

Cabalcor: An Extracted History, and Cabalcor are available online at SunBelt.bandcamp.com.

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