It's graduation season. My friends here at art school are graduating around me, and while I still have a couple classes left to take, the future is approaching fast, and it's intimidating. When my impending transition into "the real world" looms, and that world seems like a place where I might not measure up, I reach for a certain DVD, a film that effectively says, Take heart, and take part in creation: The Sea in Between.
When it comes to categories, The Sea In Between is its own breed. The filmmakers, Mason Jar Music, call it "our own vision for a possible future of distributed media: a full audio-visual album. In essence, an LP of sights and sounds." It's a documentary of a week of music-making. Josh Garrels performs his songs in beautiful settings around Mayne Island, off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, accompanied by several very talented young musicians.
But the film is also its own "behind the scenes" — we see Garrels at home with his wife and kids, and he shares his stories from why he decided to give one of his albums away for free to how he came into his faith. We meet the Johnson family, who discovered Garrels' music and decided to host the week-long retreat. We meet Gordon "Punch" Robson, a ninety-one-year-old Mayne Island local who owns some land the musicians play and film on. We see the concert they give as a way to thank the community for their hospitality. But what gives The Sea In Between its character, what makes each intimate performance that much more stirring, is that we get to hear the stories behind Josh Garrels' music, and how the whole experience affected everyone involved.
One of the most striking moments of the film is one that seemed like failure: in the middle of a forest at night where they are recording "Fire By Night," the generator runs out of gas. Woven through this is Garrels sharing the story of how he met his wife, how he let her down and they broke up. The musicians start playing quietly in the tiny light of a few flashlights. Garrels tells how she got engaged to someone else, and yet he felt a certainty that the two of them would be back together, without him manipulating her, but he didn't know how. In the forest, the lights suddenly come on, and the musicians begin to play. Garrels walks into the circle of musicians and starts to sing.
As an art student, what resonated most with me were the stories from the accompanying musicians. They agree to go to a tiny island off the coast of Canada and play, unpaid, with a musician most of them have never met. As they board the tiny plane and fly over lakes and trees, there is a sense of adventure. But there is also a sense of searching, a hope that this retreat will bring clarity.
Why do they create music? What validation do they need as artists? How can they recover that joy of playing music they had when they were thirteen? Sitting on hay bales in a barn lit by strings of hanging lights, they play the gentle "Bread and Wine." We hear the voice of violinist Russell Durham share:
"My Juilliard conditioning kind of came back and I was like, this isn’t good enough. I’m not cutting it. But in reality, the experience had very little to do with me and everything to do with the song. And that’s when the best music is made: when people are out of their heads, and just sharing that moment.”
There is the silent moment that comes after every song, when the players look up from their instruments and look at each other. Almost imperceptibly, Durham leans back into the hay behind him and smiles. But the film isn't heavy with the weight of its own significance. Most of the time it's just plain fun.
That's one of the heartening things about it: the music fills people with a joy that grows throughout the week. Heading home, one of the musicians sees a piano in a waiting area at the airport. He sits down and begins to play, joined by a percussionist and Durham on violin, all with relaxed smiles. While the strangers and fellow travelers enjoy the impromptu performance, we hear Durham say:
"Before this trip, I felt like I needed to carve out a career for myself, know what I was going to do and prepare for it. This trip made me enjoy being in the process more, being a musician. ...Ever since then, I haven't actually given so much thought to the future. And amazingly... things still work out. And at the same time, I'm enjoying where I am a lot more."
With my own career search beginning, this is exactly what I need to hear. And I suspect that anyone can find something they need to hear in The Sea In Between. Back at his home, after the retreat, Garrels says, "When someone can take their craft, their profession, their area of genius, and present it in way that is inviting people into their joy — that's when the most beautiful things are formed." The Sea In Between is one of those most beautiful things.
Aubrey Allison is a Texas transplant in Seattle, working for ImageJournal and the SPU MFA in Creative Writing. She graduated from SCAD in 2013 with a BFA in writing. Her favorite things include the smell of old books and shoes that are silent when she walks. See more of her work at aubreyallison.com.
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