Eugene von Guerard’s oil painting Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges (1857), featuring two lyrebirds in the foreground.As a venue, Toronto’s Heliconian Club sets a charming tone for an afternoon concert. On February 2 at 3pm, the intimate space was dimly lit, with a screen projecting the images of three types of birds, in preparation for “Where Song Began,” a chamber music project by violinist Simone Slattery and cellist Anthony Albrecht based on the theme of Australia’s songbirds.

The program starts on a chilling tone, low and singular. Slattery is on one side of the stage, vocalising to the notes played by Albrecht, who is on the opposite side. Sounds of nature and birdsong swell, while projected on the screen is a quote: “…the majority of the world’s songbirds have ancestors from Australia” – Tim Low. This introduces the performance, which, as Slattery later explains, was inspired by Australian ornithologist Tim Low’s book Where Song Began on Australia’s history of songbirds and their global impact.

The audience is transfixed in absolute silence. The only thing that disturbs this silence is a thud of my neighbour’s phone as it hits the floor. We are briefly snapped out of our trance.

Slattery makes her way to the centre of the stage, standing in front of the screen which now exhibits a bare expanse of land. She begins Arvo Pärt’s Fratres for solo violin. It is eerie, yet enchanting. Though perhaps not intentional in their choice of pieces, the bariolage of her violin bow gives Slattery a bird-like quality. She is mesmerizing to watch, her arm flapping, akin to wings; at one point, the video projection displays a flock of birds, swooping across her body.

Before Slattery ends, Albrecht is ready to take over with the next piece. He mimics bird sounds by sliding his finger down the cello strings, blending perfectly with the chirping that continues in the background. The performance transitions are tastefully thought out, with recordings of birdsong, gorgeous visuals, and the sounds from the artists flawlessly combined.

Another projected quote by Tim Low: “Songbirds make up 47% of the world’s bird species. If the comparisons are valid they may tell of birdsong influencing the evolution of human acoustic perception, and in particular our sense of what sounds pleasing.” The selected quotes are very thought-provoking, especially in light of recent news coverage of devastating bushfires across Australia. While much of the news coverage of Australia’s bushfires has focused on mammals and devastation of trees, it has not typically covered the massive loss of birds that these fires have caused.

We are about 20 minutes into the program, and we see a new projection—a group of birds singing and soaring without inhibition. There is no depiction of tragedy in the videos and images presented. During the Question and Answer session following the performance, Slattery explains that this was in fact done on purpose. She reasons that we have seen the tragic images of birds and animals in distress, the extensive number of trees destroyed in Australia’s recent fires. Slattery and Albrecht, therefore, chose to show the birds in their natural state amid beautiful landscapes. The program takes a lighter tone with the next piece, Ross Edwards’ violin/cello duo Ecstatic Dance No.2.

The audience’s attention is brought to the cuckoo bird, as Slattery and Albrecht together play the Cucu Sonata by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. The playful quality of cuckoos is demonstrated beautifully with this piece, Slattery smiling throughout the performance. The literature onscreen informs us that the musicality of the cuckoo inspired works from composers such as Vivaldi, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Next onscreen is a quotation from Charles Hartshorne: “…bird song is recognisably musical by all basic human standards. It has nice bits of melody, charming rhythms, even bits of harmony (for birds, unlike us, can sing contrasting notes simultaneously)…”

The lyrebird, characterized as “…a Shakespeare among birds,” is the next focus. Albrecht begins Prelude from Cello Suite No.1 by J.S. Bach. There is a collective sigh from the audience, and smiles are exchanged as we hear the easily-recognizable work of Bach.

We are then introduced to the honeyeaters, a family of birds that, we learn, are “crucial to the Australian landscape and habitat” and are known for their harsh calls. Fittingly, the next piece, Anthochaera carunculata, by David Lang, was a bit uncomfortable to listen to, laden with firm accents and dissonant chords. Slattery straightens our backs with a powerful stroke of the bow. At moments, her bow ricochets on the fingerboard and she looks at all of us in an amused manner, gathering our reactions to it. I, for one, am confused.

The program ends as it started—on a sombre note, with Slattery singing an Indigenous hymn, Ngarra Burra Ferra. Slattery and Albrecht succeed in educating the audience on birdlife in Australia and keeping us captivated throughout the 50-minute benefit performance.

Simone Slattery and Anthony Albrecht presented their Toronto performance of When Song Began on February 2, 2020 at 3pm, at Heliconian Hall. For details, visit their website www.wheresongbegan.com. To learn more about birdlife in Australia or donate to efforts to support birdlife in light of Australia’s recent bushfires, one online resource is https://birdlife.org.au/.

Menaka Swaminathan is a writer and chorister, currently based in Toronto.

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.

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