Kronos_Banner.jpgThe 21C Music Festival, now in the third edition of its guaranteed five-year run, was originally conceived as an opportunity to celebrate creativity, collaboration and commissioning, all critical elements in  the coinage of new music in the 21st century. This year’s edition of the festival will do just that. Over five days and seven concerts featuring 28+ premieres, its audiences’ ears will be abuzz with sounds that capture fresh creative ideas and directions. Among the seven, three projects stood out in particular for me, all of them offering world premieres and, viewed together, revealing the overall scope and intent of the festival – almost as though they were a single 3-part invention titled Throat Singing – Darkness – Koto & Sho.

Kronos_1.jpgTHROAT SINGING: Imagine having the capacity to sound like a string quartet, all through using your throat and voice. That’s exactly how David Harrington, Kronos Quartet’s first violinist, described the exhilarating and ferocious throat singing of Tanya Tagaq. Although Tagaq was raised on the lands of the Inuit people in the Arctic village of Cambridge Bay in Nunavut, the traditional sounds of throat singing were unknown to her while growing up. In fact the first time she heard it was while studying at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, on tapes sent to her by her mother. Fascinated by the sound, she taught herself the technique by singing in the shower.

It was another recording (a January/February 2003 fRoots Magazine compilation CD) that led to a meeting between Tagaq and the legendary Kronos Quartet. While travelling home on a plane some 13 years ago, Harrington was listening to that CD. Track 1 was Youssou N’Dour. Track 18 of 18 was something called “Ilgok” by Tanya Tagaq. Harrington was transfixed. “It was an incredible vocal performance,” he told me in a recent interview. “Although I had known about Inuit throat singing for 30 years, I had not heard anything like it. It sounded as if it were two to three people singing at the same time. After listening to it about 30 times in a row, I knew I had to be in touch with her and figure out a way to do music together.” They eventually met in Spain when Tagaq, who was living there at the time, came to a Kronos soundcheck and performed for them. “Knocked out” by what they heard, the quartet resolved to make music with Tagaq.

It was up to Harrington to figure out how this was going to happen. The night before their first rehearsal together in Whitehorse, Yukon, he still didn’t know how it was going to work, but finally at 5am he had an idea. Using his granddaughter’s crayons he made five coloured squares – one for each performer – with the idea that each player would musically interpret their own colour. Later they added more coloured squares and found a way to connect the sounds that each person came up with. This first collaboration, Nunavut, will be one of a full program of works performed by Kronos in the opening concert of the 21C festival on May 25.

Kronos is renowned for charting a wildly different musical path for the string quartet as a chamber ensemble, and for their work in mentoring emerging artists. This vision continues at the heart of Fifty for the Future, their latest project, designed to create a repertoire of training works for young string quartets to introduce them to contemporary music. Starting in this current concert season, Kronos will be commissioning 50 new works by 25 women and 25 men over five years. Four of the works from Year One will be performed on the May 25th concert, including the world premiere of a new commission from Tagaq.

Reflecting on the Nunavut project, along with other pieces Kronos and Tagaq have created together, Harrington says: “Tanya is an amazing composer, even though she doesn’t necessarily think of herself as a composer, she just does music.” Harrington so values his experience of having worked with Tagaq that he invited her to be one of the first ten composers to participate in the Fifty for the Future project, because their collaboration over the years has been one aspect of his own musical life and that of Kronos that he wants to be sure other musicians, especially young musicians, are able to experience.

Why a vocal performer as a model for string quartet players, I asked? “Because it sounds to me like she has a string quartet in her throat,” Harrington replied. “And because Tanya is very connected to nature and the way she thinks of music is a natural part of her life, it’s effortless, even though she works very hard.”

For anyone who has had the experience of hearing Tanya Tagaq perform, this statement will ring true. Something exudes off the stage that seems rare yet also distantly familiar, like a calling back to our primal roots. I asked her about the nature of this place it seems she goes to when performing. “It’s not so much a place I go to as a place I come to,” she responded. “It’s a freedom, a lack of control, an exploration, and I’m reacting to whatever happens upon the path.” She spoke about the limits we put upon ourselves as humans, and exclaimed “Things need to happen to raise us to live in the moment!” This place she comes to “requires being in the present, for when you are in the present, it doesn’t matter what else is happening, what’s going to happen or what has happened. That’s what I like about improvisation – it’s all new and it’s all happening.”

She also loves collaborating, describing the process as like adding different rooms to a store. In her collaboration with regular band members, percussionist Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot, she said it’s like “going to see really good friends to have a conversation. We have our own language that we speak, and when there’s a gap in time of not being together, I can feel this anticipation and urge to speak again.” She described singing with the improvisational Element Choir directed by Christine Duncan, who are increasingly accompanying her on stage and will be included on her next recording due for release later this year, as “like having a wind from behind, or someone pushing really really hard in a super positive way.”

Kronos_2.jpgTagaq’s Fifty for the Future collaboration with Kronos is titled Snow Angel-Sivunittinni (meaning “the future children”). Tagaq met with the quartet in a recording studio in San Francisco where she recorded two improvisations –a single track first, then a second improvisation laid down on top of that one. Longtime Kronos collaborator, trombonist/composer Jacob Garchik then transcribed Tagaq’s studio vocal tracks for the quartet, spreading the two layers out amongst the four players, after which  Harrington then had a further idea – wouldn’t it be wonderful if she came up with four vocalized introductions to the piece, each about one minute long and each interpreting a different member of Kronos. One of these four “Snow Angels,” as the introductions are called, is spontaneously selected each night the work is performed. (Harrington is hoping that his will be the one chosen for the Toronto premiere.) Final element of the work: Tagaq will add an additional live improvised layer to the piece during the performance!

Garchik has collaborated on more than two dozen Kronos projects to date; his work will also be in evidence in two other pieces that Kronos will perform on the May 25 program – by composers Geeshie Wiley and Laurie Anderson. And speaking of the May 25 program, Harrington was, as he described it, “smiling from ear to ear. There are works by seven female composers and each one of them is so different from the other, it will be like this incredible meeting of unforgettable people.” The program includes three other commissions from Year One of the Fifty for the Future project, as well as two earlier works by composers who are scheduled to be part of Year Two of the project: Canadian Nicole Lizée’s piece from 2012, The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop, which pays homage to the pioneers of electronic music in Britain, and the aforementioned piece by Laurie Anderson, Flow, arranged in 2010 from a track on her Homeland album.

The key feature of the Fifty for the Future project will be the easy availability of all the commissioned works. Scores, parts and recordings by Kronos of each of the pieces will be accessible for download from the Kronos website, with the first five pieces being available now. Tagaq’s piece will be ready in about six months and will include an interview, a video and the original studio recordings as auxiliary material. After the entire project is completed, it will be an incredible mosaic of music by composers from around the world destined to introduce future string quartets to the diversity of contemporary musical ideas.

DARKNESS: Imagine yourself entering a completely dark concert hall in a line, conga style, with your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you, like a small train of people, ushered by someone using an overhead highway system complete with roads and intersections. Following “driving directions” received from the head usher who is outside the hall with a map, your usher is feeling their way along this overhead tracking system to deliver you to your specific seat. And it’s complete darkness, with absolutely no light being emitted from exit signs, computers, soundboards or windows.

This is how “Blackout”, a late-night 21C concert, May 27, created by Toronto-based composer and saxophonist John Oswald, will begin. Once the audience is seated, what will unfold will be a one-hour concert of music by Oswald, including a 21C new commission, intermingled with quotes and perhaps intact works from Oswald’s previous repertoire. The late-night concert will be more like a variety show, he told me in our recent phone conversation. Not surprisingly, the 10:30pm concert sold out as of mid-April, so an additional concert is being planned starting at 8pm.

Performers will be spatially distributed throughout the room, intermingled with the audience. The piece is scored for up to 50 musicians, including members of Radiant Brass, the Element Choir, a percussion quartet, piano, electroacousmatic elements and three secret singers, all interwoven over the hour. The identities of the singers will be secret in order to create the surprise element of “what is that that I am hearing? Since there will be a celebrity element, people will be surprised at WHO they are hearing,” Oswald said.

Creating a work where all the performers will be in the dark requires different compositional strategies, as there will be no scores. Oswald selected musicians who are used to improvisation “as they know how to navigate through unknown musical territory by listening rather than staring at a score. Simple procedures will be used, so that once you know the seed idea, you just need to listen your way through it.” Even the Element Choir, who are used to performing with visual cues coming from conductor Christine Duncan, will have to rely exclusively on listening. Duncan already uses some sonic cues in the choir’s regular performances, such as singing specific musical gestures or notes to different sections of the choir and her voice is often part of the overall choral soundscape. These features will be the starting place for their role in “Blackout.”

Creating pieces to be heard in a completely dark environment is not new to Oswald. Back in 1976, he spent a summer working with R. Murray Schafer and the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University in BC. Out of that context he began thinking about the best way to listen to something, and how a concert could be set up so that the attention is focused on sound. His first darkness concert was performed at the Western Front that summer in collaboration with Marvin Green, and from there, the two created other events in Toronto at the Music Gallery, the Mirvish Gallery and at Comox Theatre. Oswald adds: “Marvin and I called that field of inquiry and those concerts PITCH, a reference to pitch, but also to the idea of pitch black.”

Oswald admits that a concert in the dark may not be for everyone, but it will be made clear beforehand what to expect. His goal though is for it to be a wonderful and joyful listening experience. Towards the end of our conversation I asked him whether he thought we listen differently when we are not visually stimulated. To answer, he relayed the experience in one of his earlier darkness concerts when photographer Vid Ingelevics came in with an infrared camera to take photos. What the pictures revealed was that many people had their eyes open and were staring off in all directions, especially looking upwards. People were cuddled together and the various poses were unlike any audience Oswald has seen. I guess the best answer is to come and experience for yourself.

Kronos_3.jpgKOTO & SHO: Imagine a sound palette with no boundaries between Eastern and Western instruments, where the traditional Japanese koto (a zither-like instrument) and the sho (a mouth organ) blend seamlessly with an oboe, viola and clarinet. Welcome to the world of the UK-based Okeanos ensemble. Known for their fascinating mix of Japanese and Western instruments, they are actively engaged in commissioning and interacting with the Japanese contemporary music world. Two members of Okeanos will join Continuum Contemporary Music for a May 26 21C concert titled “Japan: NEXT.”

The idea for the concert began when Continuum artistic director Ryan Scott travelled to Japan in 2014. There he was introduced to the music of the younger generation of Japanese composers, and was inspired to put together a program of their music. One of the younger composers Scott researched was Dai Fujikura, currently living in the UK. It was through Fujikura’s five-piece Okeanos Cycle, written between 2001 and 2010 that Scott discovered Okeanos; three of the five pieces will be heard at 21C. Interestingly, even though Fujikura lived in Japan for the first 15 years of his life, he had never heard nor been in contact with traditional Japanese instruments (a curious parallel with Tagaq never having heard throat singing until she moved to Nova Scotia). When Okeanos approached Fujikura to write music for their ensemble, he had to learn about the instruments from the British players. However, wanting to avoid exoticism, Fujikura brought his own energetic and distinctly European style to this hybrid of sound worlds.

Another composer Scott came into contact with while in Japan was Misato Mochizuki, whose piece, Silent Circle, written for a 21-string koto will be performed at the festival, but not without a few snags along the way. Because the koto player from Okeanos had to cancel her appearance, Scott reached out to Mitsuki Dazai, the leading koto player in North America, to perform the piece. But Dazai travels with a 13-string koto, a problem for the proper performance of Silent Circle. The solution? Dazai has developed a way of getting the 21 different pitches on the 13-string koto by splitting the strings on the harmonic points. (Apparently this has caused quite a stir in the koto community.)

The program will also include two world premieres by Canadian composers Hiroki Tsurumoto and Michael Oesterle. Oesterle’s work is a new arrangement of a piece he originally wrote in 2010 for marimba and the virtuoso koto player Kazue Sawai, and for which Oesterle has subsequently made other arrangements for Continuum’s instrumentation. However, for this event, he has pulled out all the stops: another arrangement which takes advantage of all the available instruments. Look on Glass, scored for two shos, koto, harp, guitar and marimba as well as Continuum’s regular sextet, gives Oesterle the opportunity to combine western and eastern instruments in his own unique way.

This portrait of three 21C concerts is just the tip of the iceberg, with so much more to explore. The festival continues to be a unique opportunity to take in the diversity and genre-bending trends of how music is currently being created and conceived. Similar to the mosaic of music that will eventually end up in Kronos’ Fifty for the Future project, the 21C festival series, spread out over its five years, will be creating its own unique tapestry of collaborations, creative exchanges, and experimentations. It’s too early at this stage to see what its long-term effects will be, but hopefully the festival will stand as a significant venture in creating the attention that contemporary music deserves.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist.

Wallace_Banner.jpgThe development of jazz has largely been fuelled by innovators who blazed new musical trails – Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman – to name but an obvious few. These men were so compellingly original that they changed not only how their respective instruments were played, but also how jazz itself would be played or thought of; they altered its overall aesthetic landscape.

Although jazz has undergone many changes since the 1970s, these have not largely been effected by one or two game-changers such as those mentioned above; it’s been more of a collaborative, evolutionary process rather than one involving radical change. This has not stopped the jazz media from a desperate and misguided search in recent years for the next “new, big thing” – several figures or bands have had this hallowed status conferred upon them, both prematurely and inaccurately.

It’s entirely possible there won’t be a next “new, big thing” in jazz ever again, and it’s just as possible the music doesn’t need one, for several reasons. First, when a field grows stronger and wider from its relatively narrow origins, it becomes harder for any particular individual to dominate it, and this is true with jazz today. Second, jazz now has a sufficient back history and wealth of stylistic influences, morphing and cross-pollinating with increasing speed and frequency, that coming up with anything new in any major sense may no longer be possible, or even necessary. In terms of impact, jazz may never again see the likes of recordings like West End Blues, Ko-Ko or Lonely Woman, each of which set the course for an entire generation or more. But the music will continue to change and grow by mixing various elements of its past with more contemporary influences and with borrowings from other musical styles and cultures, which continue to spin off in new directions. We might call this mixing and matching of the old and new “hybridism.”

This musical cross-breeding can be a mixed blessing. It can yield music that’s confusing and of no particular character, but also music that’s exciting and refreshingly beyond the pigeonholing of genre classification. The difference seems to lie with the quality of the musicians who are playing and whether or not they achieve an integral cohesiveness – some chemistry – while assimilating various musical influences. It’s now possible to go to a live performance by a band and over the course of the evening hear music that blends elements of bebop, free improvisation, the blues, New Orleans trad, R&B, hip-hop, modal and folkloric elements with Latin American, European or other world music influences. The improvisational element and rhythmic vibrancy may mark it as jazz, though you may not know what to call it. And you might not care, because you could well walk away feeling energized and inspired, more open-minded and less concerned with musical labels.

Watts_1.jpgWatts/Goode: Such genre-busting diversity should be expected from the Ernie Watts Quintet featuring Brad Goode and Adrean Farrugia, appearing in the May 21 JPEC (Jazz Performance and Education Centre) concert at the George Weston Recital Hall, as each of the principals has a very eclectic and wide-ranging musical reach.

Ernie Watts is a two-time Grammy Award winner who plays soprano, alto and tenor saxophone and flute, but most often tenor. He’s such a versatile musician that he’s been described as an R&B player as often as a jazz one, not entirely without accuracy. He was born on October 23, 1945 in Norfolk, Virginia, and attended the Berklee College of Music on a DownBeat scholarship. He toured for two years with the Buddy Rich band in the mid-1960s and visited Africa on a State Department tour with Oliver Nelson’s band. He settled in Los Angeles during the 1970s, playing tenor for 20 years in The Tonight Show Band, while doing a lot of film and TV work and recording with such as Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, Carole King and many Motown artists, including Marvin Gaye. He joined the Rolling Stones on a 1981 tour, also appearing in their 1982 film Let’s Spend the Night Together.

In the mid-80s, Watts decided to redirect his attention to jazz, his original musical interest since he was 14 and heard John Coltrane on Kind of Blue, an experience he describes as, “It was as though someone put my hand into a light socket.” This was greatly aided when bassist Charlie Haden invited Watts to join his Quartet West band in 1986, along with pianist Alan Broadbent and drummer Billy Higgins (later replaced by Larence Marable.) Watts recorded eight celebrated albums with the group between 1986 and 1999 and it is this association that he’s best known for, locally and internationally. This year his own Flying Dolphin Records label will release Wheel of Time, dedicated to the recently departed and greatly missed bassist.

Watts has a big, soulful sound and a powerhouse attack – though he can also be remarkably lyrical – and his virtuosity never seems to get in the way of his emotional directness. This is because he’s a very committed, very sincere player who means every note he plays regardless of what genre or setting he finds himself in. This sincerity is what makes his versatility successful and is to be expected from a longtime colleague of a musician such as Charle Haden. Perhaps Watts himself sums up his feelings about music best: he believes that it has the power to connect all people, saying that “Music is God singing through us.”

Trumpeter Brad Goode hails from Chicago and is a generation younger than Watts, but shares the saxophonist’s diverse approach to the jazz tradition. He began playing trumpet when he was ten, eventually studying with the great Ellington lead-player, Cat Anderson, and falling under the influence of Dizzy Gillespie and other bebop greats. A neighbour who knew Gillespie took Goode to meet his hero who took one look at Goode’s diminutive stature and red hair and immediately dubbed him “Little Red Rodney.”

Watts_2.jpgRodney in fact became one of Goode’s musical mentors in Chicago, along with such Windy City stalwarts as Jodie Christian, Eddie Harris, Von Freeman, Ira Sullivan, Eddie DeHaas and others. Goode had the opportunity to play in Chicago house bands, thrown into the front line alongside headliners such as Lee Konitz, Pepper Adams, Jimmy Heath, Joe Henderson and many more. Goode suffered a serious lip injury in 2001 and as part of the arduous process of overcoming this he decided to develop his lead trumpet skills as well as delving into both free and traditional jazz; he now divides his work between lead trumpet and jazz playing. He’s also a fine educator, with professorships at the University of Cincinnati 1997 to 2003 and at the University of Colorado in Boulder, from 2004 to the present.

Goode’s playing is marked by a lot of range and technique, a big, lively sound, a wealth of ideas and stylistic openness. Essentially, he’s a modern bebop player who sometimes finds that his musical train of thought doesn’t always fit that style, so he steps outside of it – I’ve heard solos by Goode that remind me of Lee Morgan and Kenny Wheeler all at once. He’s been leading his own quartet since 2010 and in his own words, he’s “attempting to combine my diverse influences and experiences into a style that embraces them all.”

The connecting link between the American front line and the local rhythm team of Neil Swainson and Terry Clarke will be Toronto-based pianist Adrean Farrugia, the only one in the quintet who has played with all its members. His association with Goode dates back to 2003, when the trumpeter was in Toronto to see a prominent doctor about his lip injury and dropped around to sit in at a Rex jam. They had an immediate connection, both musically and personally, and resolved to stay in touch. Despite the geographical distance, they’ve managed to do several dates a year together in various places – Chicago, Toronto, Colorado, and they’ve played together in vocalist Matt Dusk’s band since 2012. Farrugia’s connection to Watts is more recent but no less deep – thanks to Goode, they met and played a concert at the 67th Conference on World Affairs held in Boulder during April of 2015. In Farrugia’s words, “My connection with Ernie almost immediately felt like Yoda/Luke Skywalker. He’s a brilliant, wise and deeply spiritual man.”

It’s fitting that Farrugia should be the linchpin here, because not only is he a scintillating pianist, but also a very empathetic one; his ears and mind are always open. I discovered this the first time I played with him many years ago, on a Saturday afternoon gig at The Pilot Tavern with a quartet led by saxophonist Bob Brough. For some reason the drummer didn’t show up and there wasn’t time to call a replacement, so we decided to go ahead and just play as a trio. Even on an electric keyboard, Adrean’s playing was so rhythmically engaged and propulsive that within a few bars of the first song I completely forgot we had no drummer; the music felt very complete and easy.

Harry “Sweets” Edison once told me, “If I don’t have a good rhythm section I don’t have nothin’ – I’m dead in the water.” Truer words were seldom spoken. Earlier I wrote about the need for cohesion and chemistry and, brilliant as the three principals here may be, they won’t go very far without a good rhythm section. Fortunately, with Neil Swainson playing bass and Terry Clarke on drums, this is not a worry – together they’ve formed a powerful and flexible rhythmic team many times. Neil has been my good friend and colleague since moving to Toronto almost 40 years ago and as far as I’m concerned, you could hardly do better than having him on bass, regardless of the jazz context. The same goes for Clarke, who’s the best overall jazz drummer Canada has produced and remains a dynamo of energy and taste at 71. Enough said.

Rich Brown: In a nice programming touch, Rich Brown and The Abeng will be opening the concert. Brown is one of the most musically authoritative and interesting electric bassists working in jazz today, combining a fat, warm sound, a lyrical and inquisitive approach to soloing and rhythmic mastery. The band takes its name from the African instrument made from a hollowed-out cow horn and plays an exciting brand of groove-oriented jazz, blending African, Latin-Caribbean and contemporary influences. The band consists of the brilliant Kevin Turcotte on trumpet, Luis Deniz on alto saxophone, Stan Fomin on piano and keyboards, Mark Kelso on drums and the leader on electric bass.

This concert promises something of a musical feast which I certainly plan to partake of and I urge others to do so as well. For more information, visit jazz

Steve Wallace is a veteran Toronto jazz bassist and writer. He writes about jazz and other subjects on his blog “Steve Wallace: jazz, baseball, life, and other ephemera” at

Hot_Docs_Banner.jpgHot Docs, North America’s pre-eminent festival of Canadian and international documentary films, makes its annual return at various venues in Toronto for its 23rd edition, April 28 through May 8. Below are thumbnail sketches of a random selection of ten films whose subject is music, and one more, De Palma, which sheds light on the role of the composer in the world of cinema. All films but one screen three times. For details go to

Hot_Docs_1.jpgAim for the Roses is filmmaker John Bolton’s fascinating chronicle of Vancouver bassist/composer Mark Haney’s obsession with daredevil car jumper Ken Carter’s attempt to jump the St. Lawrence River from Morrisburg to Ogden Island, USA, in his modified Lincoln rocket car. Haney spent two and a half years making Aim for the Roses, a concept album devoted to the event. Bolton interweaves vintage footage of Carter with singers performing Haney’s song cycle on the banks of the St. Lawrence, alongside Haney’s own explanation of how he created the piece. (He overlaid 30 tracks of solo double bass playing to produce a super-rich emotionally resonant sound.) Adrian Mack of the Georgia Straight (who’s addicted to the album) calls it “highbrow art and complete trash.”

Speaking from a grand piano, Jocelyn Morlock, composer-in-residence of the Vancouver Symphony, adds a charming layer to the proceedings, characterizing Haney as “real weird, a real composer, a real renaissance man, quite obsessive and hard working, who wears interesting suits and writes very interesting and distinctive music.” She analyzes Aim for the Roses: “It’s not diatonic but it’s not particularly dissonant. It’s very moody. When you get into the more vocal parts, it straddles the line between alternative pop music and classical. It’s really unclassifiable.” This is a one-of-a-kind documentary.

I Am the Blues is a musical journey through the swamps of the Louisiana Bayou, the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta and the moonshine-soaked BBQs in the North Mississippi Hill Country. It visits the last original blues devils – many in their 80s – who still live in the Deep South and tour the Chitlin’ Circuit. With the legendary (or soon-to-be-legendary) Bobby Rush, Barbara Lynn, Henry Gray, Carol Fran, Little Freddie King, Lazy Lester, Bilbo Walker, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, RL Boyce, LC Ulmer and Lil’ Buck Sinegal. Director Daniel Cross has produced a valuable time capsule.

When The Revolution Will Not Be Televised premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, The Hollywood Reporter wrote about political and cultural crosscurrents colliding in director Rama Thiaw’s “boisterously engaging documentary, [a] rousing, rap-fuelled dispatch from the west African state of Senegal.” The film chronicles protests against the country’s president through musical resistance led by two charismatic rappers. “The revolution they seek may or may not (in Gil Scott-Heron’s immortal phrase) be televised but it will most certainly be anticipated, described and glorified in their lyrics. Articulate and forceful, they ‘rage against injustice and fight with words,’ providing the most visible and vocal resistance to the powers that be.”        

Sonita is a certified crowdpleaser, having won the Audience Award at the world’s largest documentary film festival in Amsterdam and at Sundance (where it was also awarded the Grand Jury Prize). Sonita tells the uplifting story of a courageous young Afghan refugee in Iran, a rapper dedicated to ending forced marriage. She sees herself as the spiritual daughter of Michael Jackson and Rihanna, but her music making and social activism make her vulnerable to religious authority. When her mother tries to bring Sonita back to Afghanistan for an arranged marriage, director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami (who spent three years documenting her subject) intervenes and pays off the mother, allowing Sonita’s compelling journey to continue on its path to a fairytale ending.

Contemporary Color: Music maven David Byrne stumbled on the colour guard phenomenon and thought people should know about this high school hybrid of parade-ground drills and athletic dance. With backing from Luminato and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, he commissioned ten composers (including himself) to write original material for an extravaganza of the top colourists which took place at the Air Canada Centre during Luminato 2015. (The material in the film was shot later that year in Brooklyn.) The music is pop-centric, ranging from the sweetness of the femme duo Lucius’ What’s the Use in Crying to Nelly Furtado’s layered hooks and Devonte Hynes’ dreamlike R&B ballad, with St. Vincent’s (Annie Clark) freaky Everyone You Know Will Go Away tapping into teen angst. In fact, the high school vibe is unmistakable in this one-of-a-kind cultural sideshow that marries flag twirling, and the tossing and catching of facsimiles of rifles, with music that romanticizes American adolescence. The experience creates real bonds among the participants, a cross-section of societal groups. The musical highlight was former Philip Glass assistant Nico Muhly’s sophisticated, What Are You Thinking?, which took its post-rock stance seriously, balancing a grounded chamber music centre against a hypnotic percussion groove. A perfect component for what is essentially a high concept reality show.

The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev: According to Hot Docs programmer Myrocia Watamaniuk, Allo “Papa” Alaev, nearly 80, rules his celebrated folk music clan with an iron tambourine. Beginning with his unilateral decision to emigrate to Israel from Tajikistan, the gifted musician micro-manages nearly every aspect of his family’s lives, both on stage and off. Every child and grandchild lives in their single-family house in Tel Aviv, except his only daughter who chose her own way in life, a sin her father will not forgive. Set to a blazing tribal soundtrack, drama and drumbeats sing out from every entertaining exchange in this grand family affair.

Hip-Hop Evolution: The Banger Films team behind Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage traces the evolution of hip-hop using Canadian rapper/Q host Shad as a guide and placing the genre’s huge cultural influence in historical context. Director Darby Wheeler told The Fader that Hip-Hop Evolution won’t be a rehash of the genre’s most well-documented moments. “The process [of making the film] revealed some stories that have never received major attention, and we’re hoping that even the most knowledgeable hip-hop heads will be entertained, informed and surprised by what Hip-Hop Evolution has to offer.”

Gary Numan: Android in La La Land shows the electro pop, 80s rocker as family man, dealing with Asperger’s and wondering how he will ever make meaningful music again. With the support of his wife and three daughters, his painstaking studio work on a new album gives him the confidence to go public once again. As Variety pointed out, despite the film’s occasional feel as a glorified promo for the new recording, Numan himself is “winningly candid and guilelessly charming.”

Raving Iran follows two young Iranian men at the centre of Iran’s techno scene as they dodge the authorities and prepare for one giant rave in the desert. As an Italian critic wrote: “The beats of electronic music become synonymous with freedom and healthy rebellion. [Director] Susanne Regina Meures conveys this world suspended between illusion and reality through hypnotic images of bodies letting themselves go to music completely, like in a liberating exorcism.”

Spirit Unforgettable: John Mann, frontman for Canadian Celtic rock band Spirit of the West, faces the reality of early onset Alzheimer’s at 52. With the support of his wife, he and his lifelong bandmates give their fans one goodbye performance at Massey Hall.

De Palma, the indispensable documentary about Brian De Palma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, is a candid look at one of Hollywood’s longest directorial careers from the mouth of the man himself. In compulsively watchable detail, De Palma – who considers himself “the one practitioner who took up Hitchcock’s form” – talks about each of his 29 features, dropping one factual nugget after another, from camerawork and direct influences to gossip about famous actors not learning lines, while Baumbach and Paltrow seamlessly intercut scenes from 45 years of filmmaking. De Palma has worked with the cream of film composers, from Bernard Herrmann (“who sees the movie and goes off and writes the score”), John Williams, Danny Elfman, Mark Isham and Ryuichi Sakamoto to Paul Williams (who was able to write parodies of all sorts of pop music forms in Phantom of the Paradise) and eight with Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, etc.) and offers several insights into Ennio Morricone’s work on The Untouchables. It all began when De Palma saw Vertigo at Radio City Music Hall as a teenager in 1958.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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We are approaching the half-hour point in my taped conversation with Alison Mackay, Tafelmusik’s longtime violone/contrabass player and concert curator extraordinaire, and are finally getting round to the ostensible reason for having this conversation at this time – Tafelmusik’s upcoming presentation titled “Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House.” As always with Mackay’s projects, it’s an immensely engaging premise – taking two cities, thousands of miles and worlds apart – and viewing them through the musical lens of the same moment of historical and cultural time.

“Let me tell you a fun thing before we get into it,” I say. “On May 21st, which is the middle of your run at Koerner Hall, Zimmermann’s Coffee House in Leipzig will be featured on stage in your show, and the same evening in the Peter Hall of the Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, “Zimmerman’s Coffee House” will be the title of the last evening concert of their 109th festival. And if you trace that college back to its schoolhouse origins, it goes back to 1745, which is only 20 years after Bach arrived in Leipzig!”


“Oh that’s wonderful,” she says, delightedly. “We should get in touch with them and see what we could do together.”

It’s a typical response from Mackay, whose relish for the juxtapositions, coincidences and synchronicities that offer opportunities to see old things anew, has become her curatorial trademark.

Memory Lane: We have just finished a rambled down memory lane, starting with the first of her Tafelmusik projects I can remember, “The Four Seasons: Cycle of the Sun,” back in 2004. That project took 1725, the year Vivaldi’s Le quattro stagioni was published, and made that year the departure point for an investigation of other musics being made in the world in the same year – an exploration that encompassed Chinese pipa, Indian veena and Inuit throat singing.

One can see the same bird’s eye imagination at work in her  “Galileo Project.” “It was in 2009, she says, “part of the International Year of Astronomy, because 1609 was the year Galileo first turned his telescope on the night sky. There were to be international celebrations of that event and we were actually approached by the Canadian committee that was planning events surrounding the year, to curate an event that would link astronomy and art.”

“Cutting across strata of geography and time is something you are good at,” I say.

“For me the seed of these projects is always in the music,” she says. “These events and performances are always concerts and there’s always a concert’s worth of music in them. And it’s very much about celebrating having a chance to perform the very best music in our repertoire. I hate having to include anything that’s only there because it matches the subject. I love to include profound, wonderful music – the best of our repertoire but giving the chance, just once in a while, to see it in a wider historical and cultural context. It shines a new light on the music. So it’s not that I think that audiences now have shorter attention spans or anything like that, or that they need visuals or bells and whistles. I still very much believe in purely musical concerts.”

Conversations_2.jpgThese amplified concert forms are just as much for the musicians benefit as for the audience’s, she points out, using Vivaldi as an example. “Something like The Four Seasons is something our audience likes to hear pretty regularly. It’s a pretty beloved piece. It’s become a little bit cliched, because we hear it so much in elevators and things like that, but our audience loves to hear it, we love to play it, it’s a showpiece for our violins…but it’s very wonderful to bring some new dimension to it, a new kind of excitement for us.

“To give another example, a lot of the repertoire we play contains overtures and dance suites from operas, Lully for instance. And many opera composers in the 17th and 18th centuries were inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Brief stories, a lot of them with a central moment of incredible dramatic power and transformation…when you put that same music in the context of the story that informs each of its movements (Marin Marais’ Alcione, for example) it makes it incredibly profound for the performers and the audience, so not only does it add a cultural dimension to the music but it also adds a new layer of emotional context.” It’s an emotional “informing” of the piece that remains for the musicians after that, even when the piece is performed without the story added. “Somehow I think the emotion of the way we perform with each other, especially when we are playing from memory the way we do in these projects, communicates a new excitement and emotion to the audience. Of all the things that have influenced performing life at Tafelmusik, this – the grounding and heightening and enriching of context – has meant so much.”

Perhaps her most ambitious project to date in terms of multi-disciplinary scope and scale was “House of Dreams.” It was a journey to five houses in five European cities, all of them still standing, which for one reason or another, at some time in their history housed  very important  private collections of paintings. “In London, Venice, Delft, Leipzig and Paris,” she explains. “And in the rooms where the paintings were hanging, there were known to be performances of music, often by the most important composers in those cities.”

The buildings, in their present incarnations encompass a range of uses. “Two are small museums, one is a rather down-at-heel palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice, one is a pancake restaurant in Delft, on the main square which has changed very little since the 17th century.” The Delft house, she explains, was owned by a very poor bookbinder, married to a young woman who died tragically, soon after. When his death followed, a few years later, he was found to have had, “hanging in his little tiny house, 23 of the 36 known Vermeers.”

Today, she informs me, the pancake restaurant prides itself more on the fact that Bill Clinton ate there, and has a letter from him to that effect on the wall. “We had to ask to remove it from the wall when we went to do our photography session there.”

The way the project worked was that over the course of about a year Tafelmusik formed relationships with the present owners for the purpose of photographing all the walls where the paintings had been. They then acquired high resolution images of all the paintings and were able to put the paintings back on the walls, and then put the music, live, back into the rooms with the paintings on the walls. “A bit like a guest in the house experiencing  a Rembrandt on the wall and listening to Handel conduct his music at the same time.” 

“House of Dreams” was also a memorized project; “Tale of Two Cities” will be their fourth. For Mackay, the fact, and feat of incorporating memorization into these projects has radically transformed, for the better the ensemble’s musicianship. She is aware of the toll it takes, but conscious of its immense rewards, for audience and performers alike.

“It’s a huge, huge undertaking for the orchestra and I cannot tell you how incredibly grateful I am at the number of hours of unpaid work that go into that…It’s been socially transforming…The music is so complex. I think that when you memorize something it frees you up physically. You present a more complete physicality. And the more that you do these projects – I think we have done the “Galileo Project” around the world around 75 times and “House of Dreams” in nearing 40, so they continue to grow and develop musically. We had these very nervous discussions at the start, none of us knew how it was going to work. Normally you’d say ‘okay, we are all going to start at bar 76.’ That was never an issue; someone would just start playing and everyone knew where to come in. You practise in a different way. It lifts the technical and it also lifts the ensemble.”

Conversations_3.jpgLeipzig-Damascus: So here we are, half an hour in, finally starting to talk about the current project, “Tales of Two Cities.” We have reached the Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House.

As always it’s finding the similarities in different places at the same moment in time that is her creative spark.

“It’s very interesting. They were both entrepôt cities, at the crossroads of ancient, often Roman, roads - ancient trade or caravan routes. Leipzig was a small city but it lay at the crossroads of the east-west road that went from Santiagio de Compostela right to Kiev and Moscow, and goods and ideas flowed gradually along that route. And then there was a north-south route that ran from Venice and Rome to the Baltic Sea. Those two roads crossed right in the middle of Leipzig and because of that the Holy Roman Emperors declared it a trade fair centre with tax incentives and a protected place, so it meant for centuries traders from all over Europe and as far away as London and Siberia and Constantinople converged in this little crossroad town of about 30,000 - the size of Toronto’s Annex.

“The city of Damascus was a much more ancient city - some people think it is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, and it lay at the crossroads of routes from the Mediterranean, from Tyre and Sidon through Syria to Baghdad, through Iran to the Silk Road and the Far East. And the north-south route that went from Yemen up to Mecca and Medina, Damascus, Aleppo, Anatolia and finally Istambul.”

Damascus became the place where travellers on the pilgrims’ road to the hajj provisioned for the very dangerous journey. And they would come back to Damascus with coffee which was grown in Yemen, first known place of cultivation of what we know as the arabica coffee bean.

The parallels go on and on. Both cities at the axis of a trade route and a pilgrims’ road; both cities famous centres for scholarship and learning; Leipzig hugely important for book publishing and dissemination, poetry, literature, plays, philosophy; the same true of Damascus, renowned for science, theology, law, poetry and travel writers.

From there the stories start to actually intersect in extraordinary and tangible ways – an important family library of secular and religious 18th-century works of Damascene scribes being sold to the Prussian ambassador and finding its way to the University of Leipzig; the Ottoman ambassador to Louis XV bringing 10,000 pounds of coffee to France. And the emergence in both cities of lively coffee house cultures, Zimmermann’s in Leipzig being the one most notably associated with Bach and Telemann.

In the German city of Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach directed an ensemble which gave Friday-night concerts between the hours of eight and ten at Zimmerman’s Coffee houses on the Katharinenstrasse.

In the coffee houses of Damascus, singers and performers on the oud, kanun, ney, and daf played classical Arabic taqsims and muwashshahs, and used their instruments to accompany famous storytellers reciting from the rich tradition of adventure stories and Sufi tales found in Syrian manuscript sources.

The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House of the show’s title promises to be resplendent visually, revolving around a set piece with a large imbedded projection screen which will evoke in turn two 18th-century interiors – a Damascus ajami room and a Saxon wood-panelled interior, prepared under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Anke Scharrahs, a conservator who specializes in the research and restoration of polychrome wooden surfaces and who is one of the most highly respected international experts on the conservation of Syrian-Ottoman interiors.

But true to Mackay’s credo, the music will be, as always, at the heart of things. Tafelmusik will perform, from memory, music plausibly connected with Zimmerman’s; Arabic music, appropriate to the Damascene coffee house,will be rendered by Trio Arabica, an ensemble consisting of Toronto-based, Egyptian-born, and Syrian-trained Maryem Tollar (narrator & vocalist), Naghmeh Farahmand (percussion) and Demetri Petsalakis (oud), with narration/context provided in English and in Arabic by both Tollar and by actor Alon Nashman, blending storytelling and documentary roles as required.

And naturally, at appropriate and carefully chosen moments, the work of the two ensembles will combine and intersect because such hard-earned coincidences have been in one respect or another the lifeblood of the magic she weaves for Tafelmusik. They are, in a way, the continuo of her imagination.

Mackay’s work is not overtly political, but one can detect a quiet satisfaction in her at the timing of this particular tale. In a time of geopolitical ferment when traffic on the road from Damascus to Leipzig appears to be going only in one direction, it does no harm, and may even do some good, to reflect on the extent to which, in terms of history and culture, this is is very much a two-way street.

David Perlman is the publisher of The WholeNote.


Tom_Allen_1.jpgJeunesses Musicales Ontario (JMO) and the National Youth Orchestra (NYO) Canada have orchestrated Raise the Bar, a fundraiser on June 8, as part of their continued support of the next generation of professional classical musicians. Tom Allen will be hosting the intimate evening of music, cocktails and hors d’œuvres, and he’ll be joined by fellow alumni James Ehnes, Russell Braun and other award-winners in performance in the elegant Great Hall of U of T’s Hart House.

Since 1979, Jeunesses Musicales Ontario has provided emerging Canadian artists with concert tours as well as educational concerts for young audiences. Since 1960, NYO Canada has held an iconic reputation as Canada’s pre-eminent orchestral and chamber music training institute, providing the most comprehensive and in-depth training program available to our best young classical musicians.

We asked Tom Allen to comment on the organizations’ shared values, both as an observer and as the recipient of many advantages as a result of his involvement with them as a youth.

He noted that “…the work being done by Jeunesses Musicales and the NYO Canada doesn’t only nurture musical talent - it nurtures a benevolent and caring and enlightened society.”

His own experiences included the honour of being bass trombonist in the NYO in 1982 and 1985, and part of a resident brass quintet in 1984. That quintet went on to a professional career as the Great Lakes Brass, which he toured with from 1984 to 1990. He notes that “during those years we were helped considerably by JMC, who sent us on a couple of tours and helped us find rehearsal space in Toronto, as well” and that there were other benefits to him as a young musician: there was generosity in support and career guidance, as well as lessons not only in artistry and musicianship but also the universal and transferable life skills needed by emerging professionals.

He is still grateful for the connections and experiences he gleaned. Despite a climate of arts-funding restraint, he didn’t miss out on invaluable recording and performance opportunities. JMO and NYOC still nurture high-level playing and professional development. The NYO offers that experience and, likewise, “…because of those same economic forces, classical musicians in Canada (and everywhere else) must be more adaptable, more flexible, more inventive and quick-on-their-feet than ever before, and JMC supports and nurtures that approach. The two are both sides of a (more and more hard-to-come-by) coin.”

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