Laurie Anderson. Photo credit: Ebru Yildiz.Trying to capture in words my experience of Laurie Anderson’s performance at Koerner Hall on January 18 is almost an impossibility. There was music of course, along with Anderson’s distinctive approach to storytelling, but the entire evening flowed like a dream, from one scene or emotional tone to another. Hopefully some of that can be communicated through the printed page or screen, but I highly recommend listening to her most recent album release, entitled Songs from the Bardo, to fill in some of the sonic gaps. 

When I interviewed Anderson for the story that appeared in The WholeNote’s December/January edition, I asked her to tell me about her new work The Art of Falling that we would hear in her 21C Festival performance. Her response aroused my curiosity: “I don’t know to what extent it will be a brand-new work or to what extent it will be a collection of things.” She described her work as looking back and forward at the same time, and that “it might be something like that, or it might go another direction too.” She did know, however, that it would be a collaborative improvisation with cellist Rubin Kodheli in which she wanted to leave lots of room for things to evolve and “go off the track a little.” My interest was sparked and I couldn’t wait to hear what she would bring to the stage.

As soon as the pair walked onto the stage on January 18, they entered into a musical duo full of pulsating rhythms and repetitive musical gestures, opening up the space for what was to come. Anderson then walked over to the opposite side of the stage to begin telling the first story sequence of the evening, describing various scenes of environmental degradation: burning forests and melting ice. “Am I just dreaming or is this real?” she asked. Moving in a seamless progression, she began to talk about politics in the United States, describing how we end up voting for the person whose story we like the most or feel is the most true. She described the quiet on the streets of New York the night after Trump was elected, and Yoko Ono’s response: tweeting a 19-second long scream. From there she invited the audience to join together and create a collective scream. We were encouraged to imagine similar scenes of environmental destruction and then scream. “Give it your all,” she encouraged. And we did. It was a harrowing moment, but also finally a relief – that collectively we could hear ourselves expressing something that too often we keep below the surface. Later on in the performance, she pointed out that we are the first humans to have to tell the story of possible human extinction and that this is a story nobody wants to hear. The group scream was followed by an instrumental improvisation characterized by aggressive and dense textures created from her technical setup of loops and pre-recorded tracks.

During the storytelling sequences, Anderson alternated between accompanying herself at the keyboard, sometimes using her vocoder to transpose her voice into a low register, and delivering the text standing or sitting at a microphone in other stage locations. The stories were always told floating on top of a drone-like musical texture made up of repetitive sequences, often alongside musical commentary and interjections from Kodheli’s exquisite cello playing. This enabled the performance to move without interruption and created the sense that we were floating along deeper and deeper into a more timeless state of awareness, like birds flying in endless circles in the sky. It was a perfect environment that eventually brought us into Andrson’s presentation of an ancient Greek comedy entitled The Birds (written by the playwright Aristophanes). And in her characteristic humorous style, Anderson set it all up by referencing the dream of the building of a wall by a certain current American politician. In the Greek play, the character Pisthetaerus convinces the birds to create a city in the sky so that they could regain their original god-like status and keep out those they didn’t want to enter. The contemporary parallels were stunningly obvious. As the music shifted into a lament, Anderson began listing the loss of various species, ending with the potential loss of humanity. What would John Cage say? “Listen,” was her response.

She then took the audience into one of the more remarkable experiences I’ve had in a concert:  a guided hypnotic journey designed to create a deep inner state of consciousness. She used various devices, such as imagining the central core of our brain or feeling the similarity between the temperature in the room and our skin. We were to enter each new image on vocal instruction: “I say ONE”. The music grew in intensity and density during this experience, and I can’t quite recall when things shifted again and we were back into a different sea of images:  how Jackie Kennedy faked smiling, Anderson’s personal loss of valuable archives and artworks during Hurricane Sandy. She listed various things that we can lose: looks, reputation, Facebook friends, civility, democracy. Her biggest loss, she then told us, was the loss of husband Lou Reed, a person who understood energy more than anyone else she knew. As the music shifted here into a lush stringed orchestra sound that could have been sampled sounds of the Japanese koto or the Chinese Guzheng, Anderson moved to centre stage and performed a stunning sequence of Tai Chi movements.

As the work grew to a close, we were taken once again into readings from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, no doubt drawn from her album Songs From The Bardo (as she hinted at during our earlier interview). The Bardo is that place after death where our consciousness travels to and where we experience a change in the state of our energy.  As the musical textures soared, all I can say is that I felt a glimmer of that place – the immensity, grandeur and power that resides there.

The following evening on January 19, there was a screening at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema of her film Heart of a Dog, which also referenced themes of death, loss and transition.  During the Q&A afterwards, Anderson was asked about these transitions we go through in the Bardo. She replied: “Everything is a transition. Music is always moving in a state of flux. We are in the Bardo now. We are the ones asleep. The dead are awake.”

Anderson’s more recent explorations into approaching performance as an improvisation – as we experienced it in The Art of Falling – have created a more expansive and visceral atmosphere in her work, a way of being “open and free rather than carving out what will happen,” as she expressed during the January 19 Q&A. She summarized her approach in this way – that she is attempting to “push things together and use the opportunity to bring teachings from my teacher.” From such a simple stance, holy elegance was the result.

Laurie Anderson presented The Art of Falling at the RCM’s 21C Festival, on January 18, 2020.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. sounddreaming@gmail.com.

Photo credit: Claire Harvie.I first heard MELANCHOLIAC: The Music of Scott Walker, written and created by Adam Paolozza with music director Gregory Oh, at the Summerworks festival back in 2015. It was re-mounted at Niagara’s In the Soil arts festival the following year. Earlier this month on December 6 and 7, a new production (presented by Bad New Days and the Music Gallery) took the stage for a three-performance run at The Music Gallery.

MELANCHOLIAC draws on five decades of music recorded, and for the most part written by, a former member of the Walker Brothers, best known to my generation for the 60s hit The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore). No one in the group was actually named Walker, but it seems that the baritone “brother,” born Noel Scott Engel, adopted the name when he went out on his own. The music that followed was a far cry from the pop ballads that had brought the boy band fame which for a time rivaled that of The Beatles, but the darker side of this former teen idol has given him a cult following in recent decades.

Walker’s musical versatility was amply demonstrated during the two-hour Music Gallery production, which featured seven solo “Scott Walkers” plus chorus, as well as an orchestra of strings, winds, keyboards, guitar and a dynamic rhythm section.

The evening began with Nick DiGaetano performing Rod McKuen and Henry Mancini’s The Living End, a swinging rockabilly tune from the 1958 album Meet Scott Engel, who was 15 at the time. This upbeat bauble was quickly overtaken by tumultuous pounding from the much darker See You Don’t Bump His Head from the 2012 solo album Bish Bosh. Walker was profoundly influenced by the music of Jacques Brel, and one highlight of the show was Patricia O’Callaghan’s rendition of Mathilde as recorded on Walker’s first solo album Scott in 1967. Alex Samaras then gave us the mournful ballad It’s Raining Today (in Adam Scime’s arrangement), a Walker original from his 1969 album Scott 3.

Lest we think that the Walker Brothers had gone the way of the dinosaur by then, they actually continued to record together for another decade. The next selection, The Electrician from their last studio album Nite Flights recorded in 1979, is an experimental track foreshadowing some of Walker’s later concerns, sung here by Paolozza. We then jumped ahead nearly three decades with Matt Smith’s interpretation of Clara from 2006’s The Drift. The first set concluded with two more selections from Scott 3, including another Brel song, Funeral Tango, with Paolozza’s tongue firmly in cheek.

The highlights of the second set for me all involved John Millard, whose voice I found closest to Walker’s distressed baritone. Two recent compositions, Brando (Dwellers on the bluff) (2014) with its distinctive bull whips (leather belt snaps here) and the polytonal Epizootics (2012) pushed Millard’s skills to the utmost, with seemingly no harmonic support from the band, and were most impressive. Millard got to relax a bit in the Walker Brothers’ distinctive interpretation of Tom Rush’s No Regrets, a version for which Rush claims to have great respect because the royalties put both his kids through college. Two more tracks from Scott 3 rounded out the set, with Julianne Dransfield and the ensemble featured in 30 Century Man and Samaras leading the triumphant anthem We Came Through to cap the evening.

There were some balance issues between voices and ensemble, especially in See You Don’t Bump His Head, but the instrumentalists were all in fine form, with special mention for percussionists Dan Morphy and Spencer Cole, trumpeter Lina Allemano, saxophonist Shawn Mallinen, guitarist Paul Kolinski, cellist Amahl Arulanandam and, of course, keyboardist and conductor Gregory Oh, who was responsible for most of the arrangements.

Since that first production of MELANCHOLIAC in 2015 I have continued to explore the world of this troubled, solitary artist who died last March at 76. Although he did not perform live in his final years, Walker did allow cameras into the studio when recording the album The Drift. The resulting documentary Scott Walker 30 Century Man, produced by Stephen Kijak (with executive producer credits to David Bowie who professed to have been deeply influenced by Walker) was released in 2006 and is viewable on YouTube. I highly recommend it. And then skip ahead to his last album release from 2014 (there were two subsequent film soundtracks), Soused (4AD CAD 3428CD), which features five extended Scott Walker “songs” (including Brando) on which Walker’s now-familiar melancholy voice is accompanied by the Seattle drone metal band Sunn O))). Not for the faint of heart!

Bad New Days and the Music Gallery presented MELANCHOLIAC: The Music of Scott Walker on December 6 and 7 at the Music Gallery, Toronto.

David Olds is the recording reviews editor at The WholeNote, and can be reached at discoveries@thewholenote.com.

Human Body Expression’s Resonance. Photo credit: Francesca Chudnoff.Friday, September 27 was the day Canada rose to join the Global Climate Strike, with hundreds of thousands of people taking part in climate marches in cities across the country. Those marches, inspired in part by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, were largely led by young people, though those of all ages participated.

This rise of the young in anger against the darker destructive forces of society was also captured by choreographer Hanna Kiel and her company Human Body Expression (HBE), in the recent world premiere of her dance work Resonance. Opening on Thursday, September 26—the day before the climate marches—Resonance was inspired by a recent South Korean political movement: the impeachment of now former president Park Geun-Hye in 2016.

Set to an excellent collaborative rock score with a strangely fitting 80s character by Dora-nominated composer Greg Harrison, Kiel’s choreography has an idiosyncratic yet completely contemporary feel to it, seeming to be tailored to, and inspired by, the varying body types, physical styles, and personalities of Kiel’s dynamic company of 12 young professional dancers.

The first part of Resonance begins with a tortured solo by a single male dancer. As other dancers emerge onstage, we see a society filled by individuals trapped in isolated torment, although in a crowd. They respond separately to stimuli, not working or thinking together, but seemingly kept impotent by some controlling power – perhaps symbolized by the guitarist at centre stage, his sounds sparking angular reactive movement from the dancers around him.

Out of this physical disharmony slips a girl dressed all in black. “Can we learn to forgive what we cannot forget?” she says. “My body has been infected, infected with future from unknown answer (...) it is hunting my present so we are looking back as moving forward (...) and then it starts. Knocking at your chest, there's a pulse, a desire ... A desire to be rid of the storm. A pulse craving to be free.”

Another dancer joins in and the words interweave in a doubly spoken articulation of a society at odds with itself, a young generation looking for a way to make sense of the world they live in and to find some agency within it. “Each disconnected fragment lends a hand to the greatest transformation…” 

Particularly powerful in the midst of this world of rock-fuelled movement, these spoken thoughts (written as well as spoken by the dancers performing them: Zsakira Del Coro and Roberto Soria) seem to lead to an evolution in the physical world we are watching. This in turn is echoed by a morphing of the music to acoustic from electric (a small foot-powered organ is walked out onstage and joined by an acoustic guitar on the dance floor). A further evolution is sparked by the eerie sound of a single whirly tube (those plastic corrugated tubes that children play with), creating a wave of soft, whistling sound, as more whirly tubes are wielded by musicians and dancers together. A magical shift follows: this sound morphs into a strange singing created by the company all playing on silver disks with violin bows, as the choreography equally softens and melds newly awakened individuals into a cohesive communicating group.

After a musical interval, the final section begins with a single male figure, dramatically back lit, playing a drum, literally calling his forces to battle. This, apart from the actual spoken text, was the most literal part of the piece, and welcome as a clear “call to arms” – not only onstage but shared with the audience as well. Swiftly the choreography builds to a powerful, hopeful finish, as this group of individuals find strength in shared purpose and find themselves ready to make a difference in their world.

I had not seen Hanna Kiel's choreography before, but was captivated by her idiosyncratic physical style, and her passionate commitment to her dancers and to creating dance that connects to our contemporary world.

Human Body Expression (HBE) presented Resonance, with choreography by Hanna Kiel and music by Greg Harrison, from September 26 to 28 at Sts Cyril & Methody Church, Toronto.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare, and new Canadian plays.

Jake Epstein. Photo credit: Jacob Cohl.On July 12, I went an hour and a half early to Kensington Market in the hope of being first on the waiting list to get tickets for the brand-new solo musical at the Toronto Fringe Festival: Boy Falls From The Sky: Jake Epstein at Supermarket. Others had beaten me to it and I was number 3 in line, but I took my chances and waited.

The run had sold out very quickly, perhaps because of how well known Jake Epstein is from his time starring on TV in Degrassi: The Next Generation, and more recently on Designated Survivor and Suits – or perhaps because he was so brilliant as Bruce Springsteen in The Musical Stage Company’s 2017 theatrical concert Uncovered: Dylan and Springsteen. In any case, the word of mouth from long before the start of the Fringe was that this was a “must-see” production.

Written and performed by Epstein and supported onstage by music director Daniel Abrahamson on  piano, the show was developed with director Robert McQueen (Fun Home, Life After) and is produced by Derrick Chua for Past Future Productions. 

This is Jake Epstein’s first solo show, and is based on his own experiences of both the highs and unexpected lows of following – and achieving – his dream to be a performer on Broadway. The stories, interwoven with songs throughout, start off with relatable memories such as family road trips to New York, Epstein and his sister singing along in the back seat to recordings of Broadway cast albums from Lion King to Les Mis, imitating the voices of their favourite performers. Inspired by the audience reaction to the child performers they see in the musical Big, he auditions back home for the Claude Watson School for the Arts, and soon is auditioning for professional productions in Toronto and landing the role of the Artful Dodger in the Mirvish production of Oliver. Later he wins a leading TV role on Degrassi: The Next Generation, but when he auditions for the Juilliard School in New York he doesn’t get in – just one of the many self-deprecating stories about unexpected setbacks that he shares with us along the way. However, meeting with two strangers on the street outside Juilliard, they ask to take a selfie with him because they love him in Degrassi and he is inspired to stay in New York  and soon lands leading roles in North American touring productions of cutting-edge musicals American Idiot and Spring Awakening.

When in 2012 he is cast as the alternate for the lead in the troubled Julie Taymour/U2 musical Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, it’s a dream come true (complete with actually flying around the Broadway theatre), but he gets hurt and doesn’t want to tell anyone back home. A year later he has another iconic chance – to create a leading role in a new Broadway musical, Carole King’s husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin in Beautiful. Once again there are brighter and darker sides to the story, and as a result he spends more time back home in Toronto.

A recurring theme in Boy Falls From The Sky (yes, the title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to his role in Spiderman) is Epstein not wanting to seem ungrateful for his luck and the success he has achieved, marked by the repeated singing of snatches of “give them the old razzle dazzle.” Luckily for us in the audience, eventually he did tell the full stories of what his life on tour and on Broadway was really like, and friends and family encouraged him to turn those stories into this show.

This is excellent musical theatre storytelling by a performer with natural star power – including the ability to make everyone in the audience feel as though he is talking to them alone. Add to that the edgy energy of a BYOV “Bring Your Own” Fringe Venue in Kensington Market and the fact that the star and writer is a hometown boy made good, and the 70 minutes speed by too fast and are over too soon.

Jake Epstein's Boy Falls from The Sky is from the first moment engaging and fun, his presence electric and yet relaxed, his timing perfection and the laughs strongly rooted in self-deprecating honesty. I loved this show – as I had hoped I would.

Boy Falls From The Sky: Jake Epstein Live at Supermarket ran from July 4 to 13 at Supermarket, Toronto, as part of the 2019 Toronto Fringe Festival.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.

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