Bagshree Vaze

White Night Roots

While some cite Paris’ 2001 Nuit Blanche as the concept’s ground zero, it likely had its roots in Helsinki in 1989; Helsinki’s nighttime festival of the arts, with all museums and galleries open “until at least midnight” proved to be contagious, steadily spreading to over a hundred of the world’s cities, including across Canada, including Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Halifax, Winnipeg and Saskatoon.

I well recall the buzz around Toronto’s premiere Nuit Blanche in 2006. I cut out the double-page downtown event map in NOW magazine to facilitate my bicycle-driven art crawl to well over a dozen events and installations. Dubbed Scotiabank Nuit Blanche for its title sponsor, it is today the City of Toronto’s baby, after the bank withdrew in 20125, saying the event no longer aligned with its sponsorship priorities. By then, it had “grown into one of the largest public art exhibitions in North America,” according to the city’s website. How large? In 2015 the city claimed in a promotional video that “Since the inaugural event, more than 9.5 million people explored 1,200 art projects by 4,500 artists.”

Read more: Bridging the Space Between Us | NUIT BLANCHE TORONTO 2022

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his Party performing at the 1985 WOMAD festival. ANDREW CATLIN/ REAL WORLD RECORDSTwenty-five years is a respectable milestone for an organization dealing with culturally diverse music, and Toronto’s veteran leader in this category, Small World Music, is celebrating in style. It has launched “25 for 25”, an ambitious yearlong festival, with the initial September 13 to 19 event lineup consisting of eight online and in-person concerts, plus a panel discussion, Beyond Community, co-presented with BLOK (Eastern European music summit). Three of the events are online, three in-person at Lula Lounge and the rest at DROM Taberna with its patio/parking-lot stage; the musicians being showcased range from emerging to well-known, and include both local and international talent. 

The Founder’s Journey

When I reached Alan Davis, Small World Music’s founder, on his cellphone he was relaxing at a Georgian Bay cottage, BBQ-ing and soaking in the last hot days of summer. His comments in our wide-ranging talk on his “baby,” Small World Music, were understandably framed within his founder’s perspective. He was eager to share thoughts on his music curating career, with its roots going back to his days at Toronto’s Music Gallery beginning 35 years ago.

As long as I’ve known Alan, his passionate appetite for musical exploration and expression has been fundamental. I reminded him that he was among the first cohort to join Gamelan Toronto in 1995 when I was invited to organize that large community music group by the Indonesian Consulate General, Toronto. “It’s very funny that you mention that,” he replied, “because I literally just had a conversation about it with a new friend last evening, ... about my music practice and how it intersects with Small World, about playing gamelan at the Indonesian Consulate.”

Read more: “Still Feels Beautiful Every Time” | Small World Music @ 25

What is 12-ET A440 anyway?

Over the course of more than a decade, my WholeNote editor and I have developed a certain ritual around each upcoming article. After we agree on the story that month, it’s usually followed by a conversation on the phone, where I present my take, ask practical questions, and fret about approach and tone. My editor offers editorial guidance, and invariably offers an offhand quip or two in regard to whatever I am fretting about. As lay rituals go, I find it reassuring.

This month’s conversation point revolved around “a truly fret-worthy concern,” as my editor described it – for Labyrinth Ontario, the subject of this story, and all practitioners of modal music. One of LO’s signature concerns around its core concept of “modal music” is the ever-growing bias for “flattening out” traditional regional tunings, some very ancient, and modal-melodic performance practices in favour of the ubiquitous so-called “concert pitch.” That’s the Western-origin A440 pitch, the “settler” in the tuning house, which, given its ubiquity, we may assume has been around for centuries. But no: it was reconfirmed under the name ISO 16 recently as 1975 by the International Organization for Standardization.

Concomitant with it is the older model of 12-tone equal temperament (12-ET), where the octave is theoretically divided into 12 equal intervals. Taken together, this conglomerate-tuning model, with minor deviations, defines the sound of the modern symphony orchestra, its many spinoffs, and nearly all of the world’s commercial vernacular music.

Read more: Modal Stories Are Alive and Well in the Labyrinth

Photo Credit: Small World MusicEstablished in 1997 by Toronto music curator Alan Davis, Small World Music Society has for years maintained its position as one of the city’s premier presenters of culturally diverse music. All in, they reckon they have presented and partnered on close to 800 concerts and related events in venues ranging from top-tier concert halls to their own venue, from outdoor festival stages to clubs across Greater Toronto, making SWMS one of the this country’s most significant global music presenters, reaching audiences of many kinds.

Full disclosure: I first met Davis when he was a programmer at The Music Gallery, probably back in the late 1980s. Later on he joined Gamelan Toronto, a community music group I started in 1995; in fact, one of Small World Music’s first projects, in 1997, was to present the Gamelan Summit Toronto, a ten-day festival of which I was the founder and artistic director. I have also performed as a musician at SWM-produced concerts since. And over the last decade I’ve followed various aspects of Small World Music Society’s programming and evolution here in The WholeNote. One example was when its Small World Centre, a hub for the culturally diverse arts community, opened six years ago; another was my summer 2017 World View column about the 2017 launch of Polyphonic Ground, a multi-organization umbrella group of ten GTA-based music presenters working collaboratively to showcase the voices and sounds of Toronto’s global music scene.

So I was all ears when, early this year, SWM announced not only its annual springtime Asian Music Series, but also an ambitious Global Toronto conference. It was all set to go in May as a showcase for select culturally diverse Canadian musicians, plus a place where Canadian and international buyers could meet, greet, hear and book them. Then the COVID-19 crisis suddenly locked (almost) everything down, and both those events were cancelled. End of story it seemed.

Read more: One More Pivotal Moment For Small World Music
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