The economic ramifications of COVID-19 will play out in the coming months and years, and will have an effect on the artistic community unprecedented in recent memory. But long-term economic effects must, necessarily, be of less concern than the immediate, urgent need to stay inside, to save lives. One of the initial challenges of this period for many of us, no matter how community-conscious we strive to be, was to confront our own natural reaction to view with skepticism any potential changes to our everyday life. The coffee shop where I like to write, the studio space where I like to practise, the grocery store where I like to stop every few days and purchase more cheese than a single man living by himself should have any healthy reason to consume: these communal spaces were the sites at which I experienced the mundane foundational joys of my life. But now, things are different: the studio is closed, the coffee shop is open for takeout and delivery only, and the grocery store, though open, is no longer amenable to the contemplative cheese-counter flâneur.
Beat Columns (Live Music)
To wildly understate matters, these are not normal times. Neither will this be a normal WholeNote issue, nor is this a normal column for me, if such a thing exists. I don’t intend to make this seem all about me, but I do want to go into detail about how the pandemic shutdown has affected me as a musician and music teacher, in the knowledge that mine is just one of thousands of such stories, and in the hope that my experience will resonate with others in the same position. Or those who are worse off.
The crisis really hit home on March 11/12, when all professional sports shut down almost at once; this sent shockwaves about how real and serious this virus is, and remains. Within hours schools closed, social distancing measures were implemented and by March 16, Ontario had issued lockdown orders re non-essential businesses closing, limiting travel and large social gatherings, etc. To quote two lines from W.B. Yeats’ poem, Easter 1916: ”All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”
On March 11, my wife Anna developed a sudden, burning cough, a concern for obvious reasons. It was diagnosed the next day as “only” pneumonia, perhaps the first time ever that a fairly serious illness was greeted with relief. On March 15, the last day I appeared in public, I developed a bad cold: sinus congestion, bad cough, but no other overt COVID-19 symptoms. We were laid up for about three weeks with these ailments and there were times we were certain that we had it. There’s nothing like a highly contagious and deadly virus to waken the inner paranoid hypochondriac in all of us. Like most others, we stayed home as much as possible and tried to stifle our uncertainties and anxieties.
Come What May
Readers of The WholeNote know me primarily as the Choral Scene columnist and an active participant in choral music in Toronto. My involvement and experiences in the rich cultural offerings of Toronto isn’t purely journalistic though, I’m also an avid theatregoer and it feels strange to me to go more than a few weeks without live art of some kind. This month I’m expanding our “What May Be” exploration beyond the choral world for some other touchpoints in the world of performing arts that I will miss.
What Was, and Yet Again May Be, Thoroughly Enjoyed
The biggest theatre event of the year, hands down, was the Toronto arrival of the touring production of Hamilton. Toronto was home to the “Phillip” cast of the tour, and this was the biggest selling, most expensive set of tickets ever released for a Toronto music theatre show. The state of emergency happened a month into the Toronto run. I had early tickets in February, a trick of luck with the subscription my mom and I have had for a decade. And then I was lucky enough to catch it again when a friend’s tickets became available and my boyfriend snatched them up so he could see it as well. I’m lucky, so very lucky to have experienced this magnificent theatre magic twice.
This month’s column is a very different perspective on the current status of music in our part of the world. There is no point in discussing in generalities the coronavirus pandemic. We have heard enough about it. As a columnist friend, Roger Varley, who writes for Cosmos, a weekly community newspaper in Uxbridge, recently remarked, “It’s rather like going to a Luciano Pavarotti concert only to hear him sing Nessun Dorma over and over again for two hours.” Instead, let’s have a more specific look at how this pandemic is affecting our musical world, starting by dividing our musical world into two groups: performers and listeners (with, hopefully, almost all performers being listeners to forms of music other than that which they perform). The coronavirus has forced us all into quarantine.
The regulations now in effect, affect music makers in several ways. First, as they stand, the laws have closed all possible locations where groups might rehearse or perform until further notice. Second, even if there were places, no groups larger than five individuals, other than those who live in the same location, are permitted to assemble. Third, all people in a group must maintain a separation of at least two metres.
I stay sane these days by walking industrial wastelands, edges of construction fields, less travelled ravine trails and the dead-quiet side streets of Toronto’s east and north. Last time I clocked in just over 9.5km – it was raining, then overcast with nasty winds – while listening to This Jungian Life, a podcast in which three Jungian psychoanalysts talk amongst themselves. The recent shows have all been about the current situation, with titles like Facing the Fear, and When Everything Changes: Is There Opportunity in Crisis, and Nigredo: Finding Light Out of Darkness. As I was rounding the final stretch of Rosedale Valley Road where it joins Bayview Avenue, past the outlier graves on the slopes of the St James Cemetery, I could hear the analysts in my earphones saying, When the darkness descends, when the Nigredo is upon us, we will have to sit in it for a time. We can’t deny it away. We will have to stay in it, and then survive it. But the only way is through.
It’s been impossible to read fiction these last few weeks. I’ve been searching for something escapist and plotted, precisely the books I don’t enjoy in ordinary circumstances. My own library doesn’t contain anything carefully plotted and neatly resolved, so I call Book City on the Danforth and bike over for a curbside pickup. I’m now nursing what turned out to be the least-plotted thing Patricia Highsmith ever wrote, Found in the Street. Jenny Offill’s Weather was pointless; Jean Frémon’s Now, Now, Louison non-immersive and even self-indulgent. It’s been impossible to listen to recorded music too because you can’t give over to it. Seconds in, you’re besieged by thoughts about the future of live performance. I’m not a techno-optimist on the topic of performing arts. Every now and then a few singers start the conversation online with “how we can change and improve our profession for the future,” presumably by adding an aspect of digital distancing to it. You can’t. We can’t. Things are either live, or they’re not performing arts. Anything consumed on a screen at home is a different shebang.
We’d already begun self-isolating too much before the pandemic lockdown forced us to go full hermit. We as a society have already started preferring screens to live performance, digital communication to people in the flesh. Maintaining friendships outside the family unit was already made hard. Ticket sales for opera and song recitals have already been slowly but steadily declining in Toronto. We’ve already been living as citizens weary of other fellow citizens, not bothering to abstract out of our own condition to the life of the commons, in the public square. The end of the lockdown won’t reverse this trend.
Art of Time Ensemble was to have presented “S’Wonderful,” their Gershwin brothers’ tribute at the beginning of April and “Dance to the Abyss,” with music by Kurt Weill (and lyrics by Bertold Brecht), Schulhoff, Spoliansky et al, early in May, both already cancelled. To ease the pain, artistic director Andrew Burashko has created “The Self-Isolation Playlist” on Soundcloud, inviting everyone to listen, and saying this:
This song list is a desire to share with you some of the music we’ve made over the years - a kind of offering at a time when everything is being taken away. Suddenly, having more time than I know what to do with - trying to distract myself from the fear and madness outside my window, I’ve been digging through recordings of past concerts - some not heard in years, and reflecting on the immense privilege I have had of making music with such remarkable people/musicians. I hope you will enjoy it.
If you’re reading this online, go to: soundcloud.com/user-185119516/sets/the-self-isolation-playlist, where you can hear Art of Time’s take on nine songs by the likes of Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, Gilles Vigneault, Charles Trenet and Robert Charlebois.
Self-isolation, social distancing, stay at home, connected isolation, the new normal, flattening the curve – all phrases that are becoming the latest updates to our current vocabulary. But as I along with everyone else take all this in, I am also listening to those who speak about how what’s also emerging are new levels of global co-operation, and that this is a time for societal reset, even a time that offers a choice for humanity to change or die.
In a sense we’ve all known somewhere inside us that this was coming, in some form; living in a culture that was killing off the very planet our lives depend upon was not sustainable. It’s almost as if the Earth is presenting a challenge to us to let go of our old and familiar ways. Now is the time to slow down and listen, and to sense what might be emerging and arising out of the old. When a caterpillar forms a chrysalis around itself, everything that once was disintegrates and turns to goo. The only things left are the imaginal cells that come together to form the new template – the emerging butterfly. This image gives us a model for the evolutionary process we are currently in the midst of.
Although it is early days for this new reality, I found myself looking to the ongoing Emergents Series at the Music Gallery for some hints as to what these emerging changes might forecast for the future of music-making. Flutist Sara Constant (who also does editorial work for the WholeNote website, but has no role in assigning or editing print magazine content such as this) has been the curator of this series since 2018, taking over from Chelsea Shanoff. Even though the April 25 Emergents Series concert, featuring the two string ensembles Vaso and unQuartet has been cancelled, this felt like a good time to find out more about her curatorial vision for the series.
What strange days we are living in. As I have been preparing and researching to write this column over the last week or so, the true scope of the COVID-19 pandemic has become increasingly clear. Ontario’s provincial government has declared a state of emergency and theatres of every size have first postponed or cancelled spring performances, then followed that by closing down rehearsals and production altogether for an unspecified length of time, at least until the pandemic should be under control.
For theatre artists this is a double whammy. Not only are our livelihoods suddenly up in the air but our world is abruptly taken away. Even the smallest one-person show is created by a group of people, and one of the great joys of being part of this industry is that of working with other artists onstage, backstage, in preparation and rehearsal; experimenting with words, music, design and movement to craft our storytelling to the best of our abilities, then looking forward to the fulfillment of sharing our creations with a live audience. All of that is now on hold.
Many companies and individuals are looking for ways to move some of our work online at least temporarily, which is wonderful, but it is not and cannot ever be the same as sharing a live theatrical experience.
The world is not the same as it was before. Over the past few weeks we have been inundated with news and information about self-quarantines, social isolation, and a virus that has the potential to take thousands, if not millions, of lives. With national economies grinding to a halt and governments injecting billions of dollars into them, borders closing, and the word war being used more and more frequently, the impact this episode will have on the future is inestimable.
While this global pandemic affects every aspect and component of everyday life, the arts and culture sector has received a particularly severe blow. With concerts cancelled around the world and artists being released from contracts and freelance arrangements, performers are struggling to determine how to manage their lives and careers, and to plan for a highly unpredictable future. To put it mildly, the performing arts is not, by and large, a work from-home sector; it is the gathering of people to share in a communal experience that lies at the heart of what it means to be a musician, whether in a church or concert hall, and the loss of this fundamental participatory component has rendered the entire cultural sector inert. While broadcasts and livestreams can replicate the concert experience to an extent, the inherently human facet of congregational listening (in both secular and sacred contexts) is left wanting. In short, it simply feels different when it’s not in person.
This is not, however, the first time that global events have impacted the arts in a wide-scale way, threatening to decimate an already precarious industry. Over the last five centuries there have been numerous instances in which war and disease have affected and influenced the process and product produced by composers and performers, and we learn that severe societal unrest has the power to evoke significant artistic changes. Consider, for example, the rise of the avant-garde after the World Wars, where composers such as Boulez, Stockhausen, Schnittke, Ligeti, Nono, Berio and Penderecki produced radical and often grotesque musical representations of the terrors of war. Little consolation, but it may be that such radical advancements in the musical lexicon might never have resulted if not for the immense anguish and savagery of war?
And here are some other examples.
In Part One of this article, last issue, I offered this working definition of jazz: Jazz is a music of collective improvisation which swings, and which places a premium on individual sonic expressivity. I went on to discuss the collective improvisation and individual sonic expressivity aspects, but ran out of space before getting to the business of swing and why it matters, which I’ll take up here. But before getting to that ... perhaps not surprisingly, given the music’s moving-target nature, I’ve already expanded the definition: Jazz is a music of collective improvisation which swings, and which places a premium on blues tonality and individual sonic and rhythmic expressivity.
Apologies for complicating things, but jazz is complex, and after all, the first part of the title is “Notes Toward…”. In all honesty, I may never arrive at a definition of jazz which is satisfactory – indeed, that may be impossible – but I’m trying to assemble the essential elements of the music and what makes it distinct from others and it occurred to me that the individual freedom essential to jazz extends not just to a player’s personal sound, but also to matters of rhythm and phrasing: Coleman Hawkins did not phrase eighth notes like Lester Young did and Wayne Shorter doesn’t phrase eighth notes like Young did, and so on down the line. And no two drummers play the iconic skip-beat on the ride cymbal the same way – not quite.
As to the use of blues tonality, I think we can all agree that it has been prevalent in jazz throughout its history. Not just on the standard 12-bar blues form, or in the obvious use of blue notes, but as a pervasive stylistic influence informing matters such as pitch, vocalism, sound, phrasing, spacing, vibrato (or the lack thereof) and above all, emotion; the feeling in jazz. To be sure, this blues influence is not exclusive to jazz; it can be heard in country and folk music, and in rock ‘n’ roll, but in jazz it’s much more central, more varied and subtle, even to the point of abstraction. Every time you hear a great jazz player – from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman and beyond – put a buzz or a smear or a bend on a note, or play what seems like a wrong note, you’re hearing the blues. Lester Young could play the most obvious note – the tonic of a chord – and invest it with an extraordinary feeling; the feeling of the blues.
Last month’s column opened with the following cautionary note: “Beware the Ides of March. Thus spoke the soothsayer as he warned Julius Caesar of his impending doom. As we know from history, the soothsayer was correct in his warning to Caesar.” With this quote, I was merely indicating that we had no idea what might be happening in the band world, because we had not heard from any bands about their scheduled activities. We did not think that there might be any impending doom. We certainly could not have forecast the doom which has beset our planet. Call it coronavirus or COVID-19, this pandemic has certainly upset our musical world. Most community musical groups rehearse and perform in schools, community centres, churches or similar venues. Almost without exception, these are all closed until further notice. Even if the venues had not been closed, most groups would certainly not get together with so many people in close contact.
For many bands this will be a wait-and-see situation. Some have already announced a suspension of all rehearsals and concerts for the season. A couple that we have heard of have announced innovative plans. In one case, the band has made arrangements for those who do not have their music folder at home and would like to keep up with practice during this break time. The Band Librarian has offered to create PDF copies of music from individual music folders. These would then be emailed to those who wished, and they would print them at home. In this situation each member would be limited to three or four pieces. Members also have been given the link to MP3 sample recordings of music in the band’s practice folder.
Another approach is to have the band “Go Virtual on Practice Night.” Their band memo says: “COVID-19 might stop us from having our weekly Monday rehearsals and social gathering BUT with modern technology we can “STAY CONNECTED”!! Band members are invited to “Join our rehearsal night VIRTUAL GATHERING (in lieu of rehearsals) from your computer, tablet, iPhone, iPad. They are also given information on how to join a Zoom meeting.