Welcome to The WholeNote’s third annual guide to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) spotlighting films in which music plays an intriguing role. Selections range from music-centred documentaries and musicals to movies featuring characters involved in making music to soundtracks that are integral to the quality of the films they help drive. With 285 feature films in this year’s festival, there was some alchemy involved in choosing the 22 titles on the following list – the soundtrack category is particularly difficult to predict in advance.

tiff tips - seymourYou meet the most interesting people at New York City dinner parties. That’s where Ethan Hawke first met Seymour Bernstein, the 85-year-old subject of his documentary Seymour: An Introduction. Bernstein began playing the piano as a child in Newark, New Jersey and by the age of 15 was already a teacher. He had a brief concert career after studies with such giants as Alexander Brailowsky, Clifford Curzon and Nadia Boulanger before settling into his role of helping others develop.

It was Hawke’s explanation of Bernstein’s teaching mantra in response to Hubert Vigilia’s question on flixist.com two years ago (just as the film was taking shape) that piqued my curiosity and made Seymour a must-see on my TIFF to-do list: “What is harmony? What is dissonance? Why should we practice? Why should we work hard, and what difference does it make when you play the right note or don’t play the right note? He’s a very deep guy. I was touched by him, and I thought he had a lot to teach me about acting, and then I slowly realized that the way he’s talking about the piano relates to every profession.”

Read more: TIFF TIPS

Panamania-Bound: Obeah Rising

panamaniaThere is an old adage that says, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” but that is exactly what composer/lyricist Nicole Brooks did with Obeah Opera.


In 2012, the hit production earned a nomination for a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Musical/Opera. Nonetheless, the Obeah Opera that will be unveiled at Nightwood Theatre’s New Groundswell Festival (September 11 to 14) is a totally new work. “I always knew it wasn’t complete,” says Brooks. “Both the story and the music had to evolve. The ancestors wouldn’t allow me to rest.”

The ancestors Brooks references are the West African female practitioners of the ancient healing art of obeah. Obeah women who were captured and enslaved brought their healing practices to the Americas where the pressure of Christianity converted the concept of obeah into an evil force. Even today, some superstitious people from the Caribbean fear the very sound of the word. When Weyni Mengesha, the director of the new version, asked each member of the cast to bring one fact about obeah to the first day of rehearsals, over half cited negative connotations. One cast member said her mother even refused to talk about it.

Read more: Panamania-Bound: Obeah Rising

Ready, Set... Houselights Down

ready set - marc mahonOpening night of a concert season is something of a landmark moment, and one likely to have presenters and concertgoers alike on the edge of their seats. The first show of the year acts as a beginning of sorts, setting the tone for the season ahead. And yet, a season opener is also in many ways a culmination of the great work of preparation – the not-always-visible efforts of the myriad people who shape a musical project into its final, public form.

We spoke with some of those behind-the-scenes music professionals whose work is just that – to ensure that each concert of the season, for both audience and performers, happens just the way it should. Opening night, when the houselights go down and the curtain rises, is in fact a very different sort of landmark for each individual involved – and for some, just another day on the job.

What follows are conversations with a cluster of industry experts: the acoustician working on the The Isabel, the hall in the new Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts at Queen’s University; the principal Toronto Symphony Orchestra librarian backstage at Roy Thomson Hall; and two individuals whose sets and surtitles respectively, help give opera in Toronto its visual presence. As each prepares in his own way for the onset of another season, they divulge the secrets of the job and reveal just how crucial that behind-the-scenes clockwork can be.

So, as you enjoy your musical firsts of the upcoming concert season, be sure to keep an eye (or an ear) out for the handiwork of some of these industry experts. While you may not see them onstage under the spotlights, you’ll know just what, at that moment, they might be up to.

Read more: Ready, Set... Houselights Down

For The Record | Kiran Ahluwalia


for the record - kiranIn his 2005 article “Ghazal Original” British music critic Ken Hunt reckoned that Kiran Ahluwalia “has the potential to become one of the great ambassadors of Indo-Pakistani diaspora music, not [just] from Canada, [but] from anywhere…” (fRoots Issue 269). With each new album she has come closer to fulfilling that promise; two JUNO Best World Music Album awards (and several nominations) later, Ahluwalia has proven her perennial appeal to audiences and critics alike. In 2009 the Songlines/WOMAD Best Newcomer of the Year Award heralded her as an international world music star of growing stature. Various World Music charts over the years have echoed that trend. Her 2011 cover of the qawwali song Mustt Mustt, by the celebrated late Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, recorded with the Malian group Tinariwen, has garnered an impressive 314,000 visits on YouTube.

Since Ahluwalia‘s first CD in 2001, her string of album releases, accompanied by evolving instrumentation and stylistic components, has been called “one of global music’s most interesting adventures.” It seems that each new album marks personal growth, the expansion of her careful listening to yet another geo-cultural zone of our world. She has also shown a continued eagerness to contest the borders of her musical comfort zone in live performance. For instance, last year she shared the Harbourfront Centre stage with the rising Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq as well as divas from other musical traditions. On other occasions she’s sung with electronica groups Eccodek and Delerium, with an Afghan rubab player and a Cape Breton fiddler. She has performed her compositions, as arranged by Glenn Buhr, with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. The list of genres she’s collaborated in also includes Portuguese fado, sub-Saharan percussion, Pakistani qawwali, and most recently, African blues. Incorporating just one culturally “other” element in one’s music can be problematic on several levels, yet she integrates each new element with seeming grace and ease.

Read more: For The Record | Kiran Ahluwalia

The Muted NoteTakes Wing

A rare wedding of the arts – poetry, music and dance coming together in the spontaneous combustion of improvisation – is taking wing across Canada this fall, with nearly 50 performances in nine provinces (all but Prince Edward Island) and over 30 cities, stretching from early September to the middle of November. It’s called
The Muted Note, and it’s a remarkable tour for a work so subtle in its refractions and spontaneous in its creativity.

The poetry of P.K. Page is one of the great accomplishments of Canadian poetry, lucid work that possesses a sense of language and the world in moments of exchange and transformation. (Page had a rare gift for expression, developing a parallel practice as a painter under the name P.K. Irwin.) Lately two young artists, composer/trombonist Scott Thomson and singer/choreographer Susanna Hood, have used other arts to extend Page’s work, interpreting it in new dimensions. As Thomson says, “Page’s poems are what the show is about. The songs and dances extend directly from the verse, and are composed and improvised in order to animate and activate it. We’re looking and listening for the connective tissue that makes poetry, song and dance one thing.”features - muted note

Rooted in free jazz, Thomson and Hood began an intense exploration of the work of saxophonist Steve Lacy a few years ago. Lacy had a unique gift among jazz composers and improvisers for setting text, working with poetry from the ancient Lao Tzu to Beat Generation outliers like Bryon Gysin and Robert Creeley. Thomson – the founder and curator of Toronto’s longtime creative music performance space Somewhere There – formed a quintet with Hood and saxophonist Kyle Brenders called – both pragmatically and allusively – The Rent, specifically to explore Lacy’s work.

Read more: The Muted NoteTakes Wing

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