You Fly, Girl


"All those who see me, and all who believe in me, share in the freedom I feel when I fly."

Interview: Diana McIntosh - Musician: Performer, Beryl Markham - Flying West With the Night

Diana McIntosh has an active career as a distinctive, original, witty, and innovative composer/pianist/performance artist. She has a dynamic stage presence, and has performed throughout Canada, in the USA, and in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Portugal and in Kenya.

In recent years she has attained a high profile for her one-woman, inter-disciplinary creations, in which she has explored singular ways of working with voiced texts in a theatrical relationship with music. As well as her own original texts, she also uses texts of well-known authors (Diane Ackerman, Gertrude Stein, Beryl Markham, Jon Whyte, Joy Harjo, Liliane Welch, and others). Her eclectic style ranges from the evocative and provocative to eccentric humour. Her repertoire also includes many works of other composers, particularly, though by no means exclusively, those of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Beryl Markham (nee Beryl Clutterbuck) was born on October 26, 1902 in England. When she was five, her father moved the family to Kenya -- then British East Africa-- and worked a farm in Njoro. Although her mother promptly returned to England, Beryl stayed in Kenya with her father, where she spent an adventurous childhood.

As an adult, she met hunter and pilot Denys Finch Hatton, and inspired by him, took up flying. She worked for some time as a bush pilot, spotting game animals from the air and signaling their locations to safaris on the ground.

She is the first woman to fly the Atlantic east to west in a solo non-stop flight On September 4, 1936, she took off from Abingdon, England. After a 20-hour flight, her Vega Gull, The Messenger, ran short of fuel, and she crash-landed near Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. In spite of falling short of her goal, Markham had become the first woman to cross the Atlantic east-to-west solo, and the first person to make it from England to North America non-stop.

Markham chronicled her many adventures in her memoir, West With The Night, published in 1942. The book went out of print quickly. Markham moved back to Kenya in 1952, and became a horse trainer.

Her book was re-released in 1983, and she was lauded for the remaining three years of her life as a result. She died at age 86.

How did you first learn about Beryl Markham, and why did her story inspire you to make a one-woman show about her? Are you a pilot yourself?

A friend told me about West With The Night, Beryl Markham's autobiography, knowing that I am interested in reading about adventuresome, courageous people. When I got into her beautifully-written book, I knew it would make a unique theatre piece. So I marked the sections I would like to use and got permission from the publisher. I then researched East African folk tunes, and found one I liked.

I based my original music for the show, which I titled Beryl Markham: Flying West with the Night, on this folk tune, which immediately gave the work an evocative flavour. In the show I assume Beryl's persona, including speaking with an upper-crust British accent. The work combines spoken text, piano and tape. On the tape I have the sounds of the same type of small plane that Beryl flew across the Atlantic in 1936. The drones are like a cello accompaniment to the piano music and text. I mixed some African drumming and jungle sounds in with the drones, occasionally.

I have performed Beryl Markham: Flying West with the Night many times - most recently at the University of Nevada, in Reno, and at the Metropolitan Club of San Francisco. I have performed it in the Canadian National Aviation Museum in Ottawa, the Scottish National Aviation Museum in East Lothian, Scotland, the Knitting Factory in New York, and in many other centres in Canada.

But the highlight for this work was being invited by the Aero Club of East Africa, in Nairobi, Kenya, where Beryl had been a member, to perform my work for them at their 75th Anniversary celebration, in October, 2002. That was a trip of a lifetime! My husband and I were extremely well-received and looked after, and, as part of my fee, the Aero Club gave us a safari in the incomparable Masai Mara, including a magical hot-air balloon trip.

I am not a pilot myself. Being on top of mountains is high enough for me!

The first performance was in 1995? How long from conception to first performance did it take for you to create the piece?

You performed your work in Nairobi, Kenya at the invitation of the Aero Club of East Africa, as well as for the Karen and Muthaiga Clubs.

About six months.


My performances in Kenya were in 2003. I asked the Aero Club to help me find additional performance opportunities there, and the Karen and Muthaiga Country Clubs both took me on. The performances went very well. Audiences got larger and larger, and the clubs more and more posh.

The Aero Club - - was the most casual of the three Clubs, with lots of activity of pilots coming and going. They have several motel-like units for their members, and we were given the privilege of staying there for almost 2 weeks all together.

The Karen Club - - is a private Sports Club, with a championship golf course, built in the neighbourhood where Karen Blixen had her plantation. We stayed in the lovely home of the Manager and his wife, two charming New Zealanders.

The Muthaiga Club - - is a very elegant establishment from the early days of British East Africa where, until very recently, women were not allowed in the bar. We were given accommodation there for a couple of nights, and it certainly was comfortable elegance - four-poster beds surrounded with mosquito netting. And a very fine dining room. The Canadian High Commissioner attended my performance there with a number of his friends, and Grant and I were invited to join their table for a fabulous dinner there, following my performance. (At all three Clubs the arrangement was the same - refreshments before the performance that began about 7:00 pm, followed by multi-course dinners. That suited me admirably, because, whereas I'm not up to a big meal before a performance, I'm famished afterwards!)

At the Muthaiga Club, especially, I met people who had known Beryl! One lady, who said Beryl was her best friend, invited us for tea in her magnificent home in a walled compound, where she raised race horses that galloped around the property. She showed us a video of Beryl that had been made for broadcast in Kenya, so I actually heard Beryl speaking.

This photo was taken in England when I was invited to do a brief extract of my Markham show at "fly-in" day at the Shuttleworth Collection, at Old Warden airfield, a grass field in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire.

They had me do my thing outdoors atop their control tower, using their PA system, with Beryl's type planes flying around me. What an incredible place, and experience. That's a story in itself!! That was about 1999.

From her husband Grant:
It was a beautiful day, and loads of people were there for the "fly-in". Many people had actually flown in their own planes to the event, and many were camping in tents and vans on the sight. It was a grassy airfield and many of the ancient planes were flown. They call it the Shuttleworth "Collection", rather than "Museum", because the craft are airworthy, and are flown. They also have some ancient automobiles, and we were driven around the grounds in a 1926 open-tourer.

Diana was up on the control tower, in the sunny breeze, and they asked her to wait while some of the noisy planes landed and parked. I was on the grounds watching the Gypsies taxi and park. All of a sudden, over the sound system I heard a British voice say, "Hello, I'm Beryl Markham...", and then she did her 10-minute excerpt, to a hushed crowd. One little plane circled as she spoke - per that photo.

Afterwards, in the crowd on the grounds, a gentleman spoke to Diana in a most peculiar way. He was an unusual-looking fellow, and as he was incomprehensible, she decided just to back away, saying, "I'm sorry, I don't understand you." To which he replied, "Why not, I was speaking Swahili. You're Beryl Markham, aren't you?"! Another person said she was amazed at how Diana had spoken with the British accent, "tinged with Africaans"! That person had as much imagination as Diana!

Do you have any plans to do the piece in future?

I certainly do plan to perform the work again, but although I have several other engagements in hand, none is for the Markham show. What might you be able to do about that???

Readers: her website is should you like her to perform at an airshow or school or other venue near you!

Please share your biography.

I was born in Calgary, Alberta, in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. I began taking piano lessons when I was about 8 years old. Hated practising, so my mother stopped the lessons for about a year. Then I begged to start again - when I was about 9 or 10. I took piano, theory, history and harmony lessons for the next 10 or 12 years. I wrote several little piano pieces when I was about 11 or 12. I only played them for my mother, who thought they were wonderful (!), but the writing went into a holding pattern for about 15 years. I played in various concerts of my music teachers' and in music festivals, and I won some classes.

When I was about 20 I went to Toronto to study piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music, for a year, and another summer.

After I got married and moved to Winnipeg I went to the University of Manitoba and got a Bachelor of Music in Performance degree. It was during those studies that I began writing music seriously. My first major chamber work composition was for flute and piano - a commission from well-known New York flutist, Patricia Spencer. She later invited me to New York to perform the work with her on a Da Capo Chamber Music concert in Kurt Weil Hall, in NYC. This began my concerts in NYC, and I have now given 8 concerts there - in Kurt Weil Hall, Merkin Hall, Symphony Space and the Knitting Factory.

In 1977 I started the first New Music series of concerts in Western Canada, in Winnipeg, and I was its President and Artistic Director for 14 years. In 1990 I joined with two smaller new music groups here to form GroundSwell ( - the major new music series in Manitoba. I am one of its Co-Artistic Directors, and, currently, President.

I have been fortunate in receiving many commissions from solo artists to orchestras since that first flute and piano piece. I have written 2 works for piano and orchestra commissioned by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and I performed the premieres of both of them with the orchestra, as guest pianist.

I have toured throughout Canada, widely in the USA, in parts of Europe, in Great Britain, Ireland and in Kenya, Africa, doing solo performances mostly of my theatrically-oriented music.

I began to bring a strong theatrical element into my writing - using spoken text, etc.., about 20 years ago. Most of my larger works have been about outstanding and adventuresome women - Roberta Bondar (Canada's first female astronaut), Gertrude Stein, Beryl Markham and Joyce Milgaard (Canada's most famous mother, a friend of mine, who fought our justice system for 23 years to get her innocent son out of prison here).

I have used a lot of text by the New York writer Diane Ackerman (with permission.) I am not a feminist, per se, but I happen to read books by or about fascinating women (most recently a wonderful book by San Francisco writer Arlene Blum, Breaking Trail.)

I juggle a multi-faceted career as a composer, performer and Artistic Director of GroundSwell.

Being brought up in the foothills of the Rockies, mountains have been a direct or indirect inspiration for my creative work. I am an avid mountain hiker and have done some climbing with a guide. I particularly love going up and down glaciers - Victoria Glacier, and others.

You have created many one-woman shows. I'm interested in your Mountain Climbing show - how did you first get started in Mountain Climbing and how did you turn that into your one woman show?

I discovered the many parallels that I see between mountain climbing and going in to new music as a career. That resulted in an autobiographic theatrical music work (55 minutes) called, "Solitary Climb". I explore these parallels through music and text - poignantly, dramatically, and humorously - the dangers, the thrills, the successes, the failures, the special techniques required, the magic, the beauty, the fear. I perform the work wearing climbing gear.

One night at Lake O'Hara Lodge, in our Yoho National Park, a Japanese couple was being f?ted at dinner time for having climbed Mt. Schaeffer that day. I sized them up - they were quite small of stature - and I said to myself, "If they can do it, why can't I?" So I sought out their guide, who asked what sorts of somewhat rugged things I'd been doing in the mountains (getting off the beaten path and rock-scrambling), and he agreed to take us up the next day. All that night I worried about what I'd gotten myself into!

At breakfast the next morning I told the guide about my concerns and he said, "Diana, there's a fairly steep pitch near the beginning. We'll go that far and if you feel too frightened and want to stop, we'll come back, and I won't charge you!" Well, we had lunch on the summit, and a whole new world seemed open to me! What a great sense of accomplishment! "Real" mountain climbers would scoff at my climbing that little one, but for someone who normally spends all day sitting at a piano keyboard, it was a huge challenge, and it spurred me on to do tougher ones.

My husband and I have hired guides a few times to take us up, the most memorable one being to Abbott's Pass, where we stayed in a hut overnight at 10, 000 feet, and in the early morning, before the sun came up and melted the glacier causing avalanches, went down Victoria Glacier through the narrow 'death trap' to Lake Louise.

My "Solitary Climb" show flowed from those experiences, and in it's writing I hired a guide and a climbing photographer for a special trip to Yoho to get photos of myself in action. They are spectacular, but not used in all my performances of the work because of the complicated logistics of projecting them during the show.

All text © 2006-2008 Volcano Seven unless otherwise credited.
All illustrations retain original copyright.
Please contact us with any concerns as to correct attribution.
Any questions, comments or concerns contact Volcano Seven.