trioMethod for the Madness

Toronto weather the third week of October is still comfortably moist and mild. In the park across from my midtown street, mature deciduous trees are still tenuously holding to a blend of burgundy, flaming red, orange, yellow and green – a reminder of the kind of weather that used to signal the fall live music harvest in the times before. Sadly all live concert bets are off during this last quarter of the current year, but The Music Gallery (MG), proudly billing itself as “Toronto’s Centre for Creative Music,” is an example of an organization that continues its programming by all available means. 

Going on 44 years, presenting and promoting “leading-edge contemporary music in all genres,” the MG has its current sights set on an ambitious project involving 15 musicians, six video artists, plus audio and video mixer technicians. Receiving its webcast premiere on November 20, Exquisite Departures is curated by Tad Michalak; the work is part of the MG’s Departures Series which Michalak has been running since 2014. 

The Exquisite Departures title and structure derive from what began as a 1920s Surrealist game – and which is variously seeing new life these days as a way of bringing creative methods to distance madness. As described in “Exquisite Corpse” and Other Coping Strategies in the July/August 2020 WholeNote, the basis of the original Dadaist game was for players in turn to write something, folding the page to hide part of what they had written before passing it on to another player who would have to continue it without seeing all of it. The (sometimes) enriching fun came when the whole thing was presented, with the missing parts revealed. 

And also recently in The WholeNote, in Lessons Learned from the CEE’s COVID-Era Experiences, David Jaeger reported on a Canadian Electronic Ensemble project titled  “Pass the Track” –devised by the six-member CEE in response to not being able physically to meet to make music. Using a process similar to exquisite corpse, Pass the Track relied on a process of layering audio tracks digitally sent from one CEE member to another, each adding another audio layer. It was all mixed and edited by the CEE’s Paul Stillwell who also enhanced two of the pieces with captivating digital animation. (For more details please visit canadianelectronicensemble.com.) 

Read more: Exquisite Departures in trying times

Baroque for BabyThe cognitive benefits of musical studies are well-documented and often repeated – used to attract and draw in prospective students to music schools and studios across the world. For many parents, music lessons for their children is as much an investment in their future as the pursuit of cultural understanding and artistic accomplishment – a résumé-building, college-application-enhancing tool in some future well beyond the horizon.

But while the decision to undertake musical studies is often pragmatic, even when it is not it should be initiated as early as possible, exposing even babies’ ears to the widest possible range of symphonies, songs and sounds and encouraging our little geniuses to connect with as much aural diversity as possible. As a parent, it can be challenging to consider such things, especially when entering one’s fourth Baby Shark marathon of the day, but Tafelmusik is helping make the introduction of classical music to our youngest family members slightly easier with their latest album, Baroque for Baby.

Read more: Testing the Waters: Tafelmusik’s Baroque for Baby

From both a local jazz and personal perspective, I didn’t think it could get any worse than 2019 where, as I wrote here previously, in rapid succession the deaths of Ed Bickert, Gary Williamson and John Sumner robbed the Toronto scene of three of its best musicians, and for many of us, of three long-standing and treasured friends. Norma Thompson and Rochelle Koskie, two great ladies who had adorned the Toronto scene for decades, also passed. In the middle of all of this I fell and tore up my shoulder pretty badly – very small potatoes compared to dying – but for a time the injury called into question my future as a bass player. And about a month later, my good friend Patti Loach had a bad cycling accident and tore up her clavicle. Pianist Norman Amadio made it through 2019, but just barely, dying on January 21, 2020 after a long decline. But his death, coming before the pandemic hit us, seems like last year, too. Several times back then I said out loud that on a close-to-home level, it was the worst year I could remember, ever. How wrong I was.

Cortege

2020 has seen more deaths of jazz musicians than any other year in memory. Not all of these were COVID-related, but many were. Here’s a partial list – the ones I can remember off the top of my head – and it’s not even Halloween yet: Lee Konitz, Ellis Marsalis, McCoy Tyner, Annie Ross, Holli Ross, (no relation but also a wonderful singer), Steve Grossman, Henry Grimes and  Giuseppi Logan (days apart in April), Johnny Mandel, Jimmy Cobb, Lennie Niehaus, Eddie Gale, Helen Jones Woods, Robert Northern, Cleveland Eaton, Keith Tippett, Gary Peacock, Ira Sullivan, and two men who were not musicians but who each had a major impact on jazz for many years – Chicago-based promoter Joe Segal and writer/critic Stanley Crouch. 

And this doesn’t include musicians in other fields – Bill Withers, Peter Green (for my money the best British blues guitarist of them all), Charlie Daniels, John Prine (broke my heart), Eddie Van Halen and many others I’ve no doubt forgotten. Like the ballpark hawker says, “Get yer program, folks, you can’t tell the (dead) players without a program!” There have been more jazz obit notices in my email than nuisance promotions lately. The virus taketh away and then it taketh away more.

Read more: Jazz in the Kitchen: The COVID-19 Sessions

As we sit in anticipation of small white crystals on our lawns, rather than those colourful bright leaves, we have to realize that our community music is going to be very different this year than the rehearsals and concerts we have been accustomed to. While the social aspects of community music have almost entirely disappeared, along with the leaves, with so many advances in digital technology we are seeing amazing adaptations across the musical spectrum.

Tech Talk

In last month’s issue of this column I mentioned that New Horizons Band of Toronto, in collaboration with Resa’s Pieces, would be working with Long and McQuade Music for a “Tech Talk Workshop.” Other than the fact that the venture was to consist of a few online Zoom sessions of advice from specialists at L & M, details were rather sketchy at the time. Since I was not able to participate in the first of these in order to find out more for myself, I asked Randy Kligerman from New Horizons what sparked the idea and how the first session worked out.

Read more: Music for Life

Billy Newton Davis (KMJF)A month ago, as I was putting together the October edition of this column, it seemed as though the live music scene in Southern Ontario was beginning – cautiously, carefully – to reassemble itself. Clubs were posting listings on their websites; artists were beginning to advertise gigs on social media; it was possible to plan a night out. Then, on October 10, restaurants in at least three regions were ordered closed for indoor seating and live music was put on hold once again. While there are still some clubs that are presenting shows, including The Jazz Room in Waterloo, there is a cloud of uncertainty hovering over the industry: venues, musicians and patrons alike. If case numbers go down, will venues be permitted to reopen? If they reopen, will audiences feel safe (and motivated) enough to seek out live music? 

Meanwhile, amidst the gnawing uncertainty, two organizations have committed to presenting major jazz festivals in November, in streaming formats, with a full range of venues, from clubs to concert halls, involved, playing their part in keeping the music alive.

Read more: Rolling with the Punches: A Tale of Two Virtual Festivals

Debashis Sinha. Photo by Shigeo GomiIt was quite a pleasant surprise this month, after months of inactivity when I received the October listings to see that there is a variety of different performances coming up in October. If you are a fan of new and experimental music, you will once again be able to indulge in listening to what’s currently going on, even though these events will be limited to livestream. One of the upcoming concerts that caught my eye was a performance by Debashis Sinha, a sound-based artist comfortable working in a variety of media. He combines his experiences as a South Asian Canadian who trains with master drummers from various world music traditions with a love of electroacoustic music and technology. His work, Adeva (version000_01), will be performed via livestream on October 24 in an event produced by New Adventures in
Sound Art and Charles Street Video. 

I began my conversation with Sinha by inquiring into how his South Asian Canadian identity has impacted his creative work. Growing up in Winnipeg within the context of a very small Indian community that itself was a mixture of different Indian cultures meant that they all shared a hodgepodge of cultural expressions. “For me growing up, everything was all mixed up together. This has fuelled a lot of the work and the exploration that I do with mythology and storytelling by imagining aspects of my culture, its deities and trying to fill in the blanks.” 

Read more: Adventures in Sound Art: Machine Language and Livestreams

TSO at the Drive-In – coming soon! Photo credit Cityview Drive-In“There’s nothing like the sound of 2,000 people applauding,” said Matthew Loden, Toronto Symphony Orchestra CEO, on September 23, as he welcomed back TSO new music director, Gustavo Gimeno, and principal flutist, Kelly Zimba, during the TSO’s Virtual Opening Night event. A video of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No.2, conducted by Gimeno from October 2019, had just finished its online broadcast and Loden was in the process of re-introducing Zimba and Gimeno to viewers for a virtual conversation. 

“I find it uncomfortable to watch myself,” said the conductor – from his home in Amsterdam – in answer to a question by Loden. “My analytic mind wonders ‘Could I have done something different?’ – but the music is moving and emotionally powerful… the human being can’t stop the emotion… I got goosebumps right away... It’s simply wonderful to see the faces of the musicians around me and the audience.”

That October 2019 performance of the Ravel Daphnis and Chloé was Gimeno’s third time conducting the TSO and Loden asked whether it felt different. Gimeno said that he felt a connection to the orchestra within the first half of the first rehearsal he ever had with them. “With the atmosphere, with the sound and the way of making music, I felt in the right place.” And the TSO still feels like his musical family, but now that he’s no longer a guest conductor “the analysis goes much further and deeper.” 

“We were all very excited to work with Gustavo,” Zimba said. “The energy that was onstage was really strong and palpable… We really trusted Gustavo’s musical vision.”

Read more: TSO, RCM, and Sinfonia Toronto: Hybrid solutions for viral times

Last month I focused on the innovative approach being taken by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in response to public gatherings being severely restricted. With essential components of live music-making affected indefinitely, arts organizations, both in Canada and around the world, continue to grapple with the realization that almost nothing is the same as it was before. Paradoxically, it seems that these struggles are being felt most acutely by some of our greatest cultural institutions; by the time you read this month’s WholeNote, it will be public knowledge that the Metropolitan Opera is cancelling the remainder of their 2020/21 season, leaving musicians, administrators and other staff furloughed until September 2021, at the earliest. 

Part of the problem with such large-scale establishments is their inability to make wide-ranging changes quickly. Think of them as the dinosaurs of the music world: impressively massive, overwhelmingly resilient, and built for long-term duration in a relatively stable environment. However, if the need for quick and pivotal adjustment occurs due to a catastrophic change in the outside environment, there is a very real danger that the factors which made these organizations so great may be the same things that lead to their extinction.

It is with interest, then, that we turn our gaze to Kingston, Ontario, where the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts has recently released its Fall Festival programming. Obviously much smaller in scale than the Metropolitan Opera, The Isabel is nonetheless a significant presenter of musical performances, ranging in style from classical to folk and everything in between. Accommodating the impositions of a global pandemic is no easy feat, and the Isabel is facing these challenges by adopting a multi-platform approach, offering concerts both virtually and in-person. 

Each performance will be streamed live through the Isabel Digital Concert Hall and films of the live concerts will be available to ticketholders for up to seven days after the performance. For those attending in person (at time of writing, a maximum of 50 people), single tickets are available in physically distanced arrangements, with a number of additional safety protocols in place to ensure the health of all concertgoers and staff. While the majority of these measures would have been unthinkable even one year ago, the realities of COVID-19 have required such adaptations from those who are able to do so.

Read more: Kingston’s Bader Centre: Alacrity in a multiplatform world

TMC recording sessions, at Trinity-St. Pauls Centre: daily health questionnaires and temperature checks; the stage marked with physically distanced spots for each singer and each orchestra musician (recorded at different times); all participants wore masks, artists removed theirs only in place, to record. Photo by Anne LongmoreThese are challenging times to be a musician. Empathy and compassion is a crucial part of a pandemic response, but it is easily forgotten in the immediate dangers of trying to protect oneself from an unmasked person, or trying to plan out the next month’s rent without income from performing. For some, returning to work, be it the arts or offices or restaurants, isn’t a matter of choice – it’s the difference between having somewhere to live next month or being able to afford dinner that day. The arts are workplaces with livelihoods on the line and right now, we’re all struggling. 

For singers and wind musicians in particular, current circumstances are particularly difficult. Crises are intersecting in our arts communities at the moment and are demanding ever more complex responses from the choral world than ever before if we are going to find a way through. There are real and serious dangers to consider as choristers return to action. 

Speaking with choristers, there is already so much anxiety and lack of knowledge about how to proceed with doing what we love in a time of pandemic. So it is additionally hard to find oneself in a community of interest where, as in society as a whole, some of those voices are pandemic deniers, vehement anti-maskers, who participate in the pandemic conspiracies and spout the paranoia of “state compliance” and our loss of “bodily sovereignty.” The unfortunate truth is that these people are part of our choirs, part of our choral communities, and they present dangers. 

This month, I’m presenting some of my thoughts on recent scientific data and what you can expect from digital rehearsals and upcoming digital concerts.  

Read more: Lessons from Skagit Valley and Beyond: Choral Music in a Time of Pandemic

Rex side-door staff screen and instruct jazz-hungry guests.It would seem the rumours about a second wave in the spread of COVID-19 this fall are not rumours at all. We’ve already seen a dramatic rise of cases in Toronto and elsewhere around the country and the world recently, and fall is just starting. There are various factors to blame: cooler weather, which the virus seems to like; the inevitable relaxation, brought on by partial reopening, of mitigation measures such as social distancing and avoiding large gatherings, with numerous instances of socially irresponsible behaviour across the board; and the Rubik’s Cube-attempt to reopen schools, which is just getting under way. Not to mention that flu season – which will give our health-care system a double whammy to contend with – is upon us.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, but this is likely to get worse before it gets better; we’re nowhere near the end but somewhere nearer the middle of the beginning, or (shudder) on the cusp of a new beginning of this pandemic. It’s easy to forget that the reason we were able to flatten the curve of infection in the first place is that we all made personal sacrifices during the lockdown period, and with the above-mentioned factors in play, now is not the time to relax those efforts, but to redouble them. We can’t do anything about cooler weather or the flu season, but we can wake up and continue to be careful and vigilant before we’re back to square one with another lockdown.

Small ensembles, small audiences and plexiglass.From the point of view of this column I’d like to address the delicate balancing act of reopening jazz, both in live venues such as Jazz Bistro and The Rex, and in the post-secondary schools which offer jazz programs. Both the Bistro and The Rex have partially reopened recently with social distancing measures in place, mostly having to do with a reduced capacity of both the size of audiences and bands. The Bistro is having live music Wednesday through Saturday with solo piano from 5 to 7, followed by duos and/or trios starting at 8pm with audience capacity limited to 50 people. The Rex spent the lockdown refurbishing its stage and began presenting live jazz again on September 3, also with a reduced crowd capacity. They’re going seven nights a week with trios starting at 5:30 and slightly larger bands at 9pm. I haven’t been yet, but I’m told they’ve installed a plexiglass barrier across the front of the bandstand, I suppose to protect customers from the blowing air of wind instruments. I’m not sure how this affects sound but the image conjures up chicken wire surrounding the stages of livelier country and western bars – think The Blues Brothers. Such are the realities of jazz, COVID-19 style.

Read more: Caught Between Jazz and a Hard Place

As the sticky, heady haze of summer lifts, the coming of autumn usually heralds a period of productive reorientation, a clearing of the mind, a collective refocusing of eyes on the road ahead. This year, of course, is not a usual year, and, rather than providing reassurance, many of the traditional markers of the changing season are inducing no small amount of anxiety. Teachers and students return to schools amidst a tumult of hopeful precautions, increased screen time and burgeoning case numbers; CERB, a lifeline for out-of-work gig-economy workers, including many musicians, is set to end; the prospect of seeing family and friends continues to be fraught with peril. (Alternatively: for those who wish to avoid spending time with their extended family, COVID-19 has provided an irreproachable excuse.)

Throughout it all, however, Southern Ontario seems to be settling into an abnormal normalcy, a return to something resembling pre-COVID fall. One of the most exciting musical developments has been the reopening of many jazz clubs, under strict physical-distancing guidelines. Some clubs, like The Emmet Ray, have been open throughout the summer, for takeaway food and beverages, patio service and, eventually, dine-in service, with live music; others, like The Rex, stayed closed until they could reopen all at once, music included.

This October issue marks the first month that listings have been available from individual clubs since March. If you check the Mainly Clubs, Mostly Jazz listings in this magazine (page 47), they may look a little sparse; there are a few reasons for this. The first reason: while many venues have begun to host live music again, the booking process is complicated, and, at the moment, not all venues have their schedules confirmed months (or even weeks) in advance. The Rex is one such club. Though The Rex is presenting two shows a day, their booking process – at least at the time that I wrote this column – is happening on a week-by-week basis. The second reason: some clubs, unsure of what the coming month will bring, are holding off on advertising and even announcements, lest regulations suddenly force them to cancel gigs (or cancel dine-in service altogether). The third reason: some clubs, including 120 Diner, N’Awlins and Alleycatz, have closed.

Read more: Something Resembling Fall
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