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.

Read more: Emergent and Evolutionary: The Challenge to Let Go

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. 

Read more: Triple Threat, Double Whammy

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.

Read more: Music in Times of Trouble

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. 

Read more: Notes Toward a Definition of Jazz, Part Two: Swing

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. 

Read more: Didgeridoo Meets Theremin While We Wait and See

As I write this – on March 20, 2020, five days into Toronto’s period of mass social distancing and self-isolation/quarantine – all live musical performances have been cancelled in Toronto venues for the foreseeable future. While it isn’t possible to know when, exactly, we will all be able to return to some semblance of normalcy, it is still possible to celebrate the April shows that would have been. In this month’s edition of my column, I’ve interviewed five different artists, involved in four different April shows, including a long-term weekly residency at La Rev, a month-long weekly residency at The Rex, a double-album-release show at the Array Space, and a doctoral recital in the jazz performance program at the University of Toronto. 

It is imperative, at this critical moment in the history of the Toronto music community, to continue to support one another: musicians, venues, patrons, schools, and publications alike. If you’re new to the artists below, please follow them on social media, check out their websites, and, if you enjoy their music, consider purchasing an album on Bandcamp, or on other services. This goes for any of your favourite local musicians, many of whom, beyond cancelled performances, are also experiencing a drastic cut in teaching, recording and other activities. Also, even in the early stages of this period, many musicians are live-streaming concerts, offering online lessons, and creating new ways to interact with the community. So, please: be in touch! Just not literally.

Read more: Social Distancing While Staying in Touch

Beste Kalender, at Koerner Hall with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra (2014)The year 2020 is coming up roses for mezzo-soprano Beste Kalender, who grew up in Turkey and moved to Canada at the age of 22 to pursue two great interests – post-graduate research in the psychology of musical cognition, and professional singing. One of those is now clearly taking over, and the current year is marked by gigs that she finds particularly meaningful. “I hope I won’t be just a singer who sings pretty music and has no other interests,” she says when we meet in the RCM cafe, deserted for the long weekend. Our voices are ringing in the empty space but the security guy on duty doesn’t seem to mind us being there. “I’d like to be able to engage with larger issues and causes. And have my own distinct voice. This year feels like I do.”

One of those larger causes is cross-cultural collaboration. Last month, Kalender performed as a soloist with Sinfonia Toronto in Musical Bridges: Komitas@150, a program of Armenian, Turkish, Azerbaijani, Hungarian and Greek music conducted by an Armenian-Canadian, Nurhan Arman. Komitas – composer, Orthodox priest, ethnomusicologist, and the first Armenian national music systematizer – was born in the Ottoman Empire in 1869. April 24, 1915, Komitas was among more than 200 prominent Armenians rounded up by Ottoman/Turkish forces and deported from Istanbul to Ankara. Unlike most of the group, he survived, but he had a breakdown, was moved between military hospitals, and ended his life in a Paris asylum in 1935 a broken man. “This concert is about celebrating Komitas, and it’s about celebrating peace and always working to keep it”, says Kalender. “I’ve listened to a lot of Armenian music alongside my Armenian friends at the Conservatory in Istanbul, and loved it. Our musical traditions share so much.”

Read more: Beste Kalender: Mezzo Rising

Peggy Baker Dance Projects
Collaborations between choreographers and composers have played a significant part in the creation of some of the most loved pieces of contemporary music. The classic example is, of course, the partnership between composer Igor Stravinsky and Serge Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes that resulted in the scores for The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. Among the first of the contemporary dance companies to form in Toronto were Toronto Dance Theatre in 1968 and Dancemakers in 1974, and both companies quickly began to work with contemporary composers, many of them local. One of the early company members of Dancemakers was Peggy Baker, and in 1990 she went on to establish Peggy Baker Dance Projects. Over the years, she has received much praise for her collaborative partnerships with composers such as Michael J. Baker, John Kameel Farah, Ahmed Hassan and Ann Southam as well as with performers Andrew Burashko, Shauna Rolston, Henry Kucharzyk and the Array Ensemble, among many others. Over the last five years, contemporary vocalist innovator and music creator Fides Krucker has collaborated on all of Baker’s new works, bringing to their collaboration her expertise in the creation of non-verbal human sound textures and her commitment to an emotionally integrated vocal practice.

Anne BourneBaker’s latest work, her body as words, will be performed March 19 to 29 at the Theatre Centre. For this piece, Baker has drawn together a unique intergenerational ensemble of dancers and composer/musicians who have taken up the challenge of addressing questions of female and gender identity. I invited one of the composer/musician members of the ensemble, Anne Bourne, who herself has collaborated on past projects with Baker, to have a conversation with me about her contribution to the piece as a composer and how her distinctive performance style of combining vocal toning while playing the cello will contribute to the overall musical score.

Read more: Gender Fluidity in Music and Dance

Benjamin Grosvenor. Photo by Patrick AllenBenjamin Grosvenor first came to prominence when he won the Keyboard Final of the 2004 BBC Young Musician Competition at the age of 11. He was invited to perform with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the First Night of the 2011 BBC Proms at 19. In the same year he became the youngest British musician ever, and the first British pianist in almost 60 years, to sign with Decca Classics. Gramophone named him Young Artist of the Year in 2012. A riveting performer with keen musical insights, many inspired by pianists of the past, Grosvenor’s Music Toronto recital on March 31 marks his fourth appearance here since 2014, a testament to his prodigious talent. In the following email Q & A, which took place in mid-February, Grosvenor spoke about his latest CD and the program for his upcoming Toronto concert.

WN: I very much enjoyed your new recording of the Chopin piano concertos which I found to be highly contemporary yet informed by a sensibility reaching back into the last century. I interviewed you in the fall of 2017 and remember your response to my question “Who was the first composer you fell in love with as a child?” being Chopin. How did you decide to select his piano concertos as your first recording since Homages in 2016? How long have the concertos been part of your repertoire?

Read more: Fourth Grosvenor Recital Tops an Intriguing List

Over the last seven centuries, German-speaking artists have provided a powerful and innovative influence in almost every artistic discipline, from the region’s beginnings as a constellation of independently governed states to the present day, setting a standard for excellence in music, art, and architecture, and producing a roster of artists and artworks that are exemplars within their chosen fields.

Consider, for example, these composers from what now constitutes a unified Germany: Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss and Schoenberg; each is a pivotal figure in the Western art music tradition, their music appearing countless times each year on concert programs throughout the world. Also consider these interpreters, conductors who have revolutionized the way we think of the baton-wielding orchestral leader: Mendelssohn, von Bülow, Furtwängler and Klemperer. Their recordings are some of the best-selling of all time. Expand our lists of German-speakers to neighbouring Austria, and the list becomes even more astoundingly impressive: Mozart, Mahler, Karajan, Böhm, Kleiber ….

Read more: “Im Deutsch” - Exploring Germanic Musical Identity

The end of March and beginning of April mark a special time for anyone in the post-secondary education sector. The term comes to a close, the academic school year settles into its final exams, papers, and for music students – final concerts. This month we’re exploring the end-of-term concerts at Western University, University of Toronto (my alma mater), and York University.

University of Toronto is lucky in its breadth of ensembles and guests. The program is also very large with four major choral ensembles and over 200 students across the various ensembles. As conductors Mark Ramsay, Elaine Choi, Lori-Anne Dolloff, and David Fallis share, this work begins the previous year before the students even start classes.

It’s a delicate balance to program works that are familiar while challenging; pedagogical, but fun. Not all the music needs to be new, because as Ramsay shares, “Working with a new conductor and/or singing with new colleagues can bring a fresh perspective to a familiar work. Singers also sometimes note [by revisiting familiar works] that their own skills have improved. Elements such as break management, vowel unification and dynamic control that were challenging the first time, may now be easier.” But they note, “It’s important to have some challenging music late in the season to keep a goal to strive for.” The MacMillan singers, under David Fallis also have the pleasure of singing a composition written by one of their own, Katharine Petkovski’s The Angels.

Read more: Graduation With High Honours in Song
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