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How the magical Northern Lights in the NWT inspired a musical masterpiece

roman zvada plays the piano under the northern lights

How the magical Northern Lights in the NWT inspired a musical masterpiece

There’s something about watching the Northern Lights stirring and unfurling above the landscape in the Northwest Territories that is wondrous. It’s magical, and hard to put into words. It ignites a deep emotion—just as hard to describe—both powerful and poignant. Somehow, it makes all of the daily distractions melt away.

For some, viewing the  way the Northern sky come alive at night awakens the creative spirit. This was exactly what happened with Roman Zavada, a self-taught Ukrainian-Québécois pianist who penned his first composition at the age of 4.

roman zvada plays the piano in the northwest territories wilderness

You can’t normally see the Aurora in Los Angeles. But last March, Roman Zavada took the wondrous celestial light show to a southern California stage when he performed Résonances Boréales, an album of original music he composed just outside of Yellowknife, under the spectacular Northern Lights.

Playing to crowds in the glow of a panoramic backdrop that showcased Aurora dancing high above the subarctic NWT landscape, Zavada brought the fluorescent phenomenon he witnessed to life acoustically. His compositions are at times playful, mimicking the Aurora when it shimmers across the dome of night. Other pieces are epic in scale, building with layer upon layer of sound until reaching a crescendo that pounds with intensity to depict every Aurora viewer’s dream—the awe-inspiring coronal Aurora (coronal Aurora are the result of a geomagnetic storm, which pulsates and flows with indescribable energy.) 

a piano is place on the Canadian shield waiting for the lights to come out

Zavada made the journey north from Montreal after staring at the stars one night and imagining what creative powers might be unlocked by experiencing the Aurora. Although he had never seen the Northern Lights before, he had an inkling that they would inspire him. He travelled to Yellowknife, well known for its consistent Aurora viewing opportunities, to see the lights and every night for two crisp September weeks, he sat at his piano, perched on a scenic lookout just outside the capital city in the wilderness of the Northwest Territories.

It took six people to lug the massive piano to the lookout, but it was well worth it—giving him an unimpeded view of the Aurora above the enduring surface of the Canadian Shield.

It was here that he let the Northern Lights flow through his fingers to the keys of his piano. 

the aurora dance over a piano in the wilderness

Zavada recorded every keystroke he made throughout these nights, improvising the notes based on the sights and sounds he experienced all around him. He soon began to feel a deep connection with the lights. “Sometimes I started playing and all of a sudden, they showed up,” he said to the CBC. “So I followed them and maybe they followed me too?”

 
“It’s very magical. Almost spiritual,” Zavada said. “There’s something. There’s a special feeling I can’t put into words.”

Zavada later returned to Yellowknife with a film crew to capture high-resolution, 360-degree footage of the Aurora, which he uses to accompany  his concerts. He has toured across North America, sometimes playing at planetariums, where audience members position themselves below a domed screen and feast their senses on the intimate sounds and sights. 

Zavada’s love of the Aurora has inspired others to travel to Yellowknife to see the Northern Lights for themselves. Two of his fans, Gayle and Helene, made their own journey to Aurora Village from Quebec after discovering his music and the story behind it. Here, they found the very piano Zavada had carved his name into, now residing in the dining room at Aurora Village.  And at night, with the Aurora rippling across the sky, Zavada's music enriched their remarkable experience. "It's very calming. It's really perfect for the Aurora Borealis," said Helene. "Looking at the Aurora afterward, I can hear the music in my head. And I was like, wow, this is really amazing."

The piano now sits unassumingly in the dining hall at Aurora Village, a stone's throw from its magical perch above Prelude Lake. 

Listen to Roman Zavada capture that special feeling on Résonances Boréales here.

Explore the Aurora in the NWT here.

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