Tanya Charles Iveniuk. Photo credit: Danica Oliva.How much energy does it take to build a career as a classical violinist in Canada? And then how much more does it take if you are a Black woman. This struggle sits at the core of my conversation with Toronto-based violinist Tanya Charles Iveniuk – and what enthralls me is the career that she has created for herself within this genre.

Born in Hamilton with roots in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Iveniuk is an established performer and avid educator. She has a Bachelor of Music in Performance from the University of Toronto, an Artist Diploma in Orchestral Performance from the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music, and is an alumna of (and now, a mentor with) the Hamilton-based National Academy Orchestra. Currently, Iveniuk works as a violinist with several ensembles across the Toronto area, including the Toronto Mozart Players, Sinfonia Toronto, and the Odin Quartet. She also plays in Toronto-based mariachi ensemble Viva Mexico Mariachi, and has performed alongside David Usher, Shad, K-Os, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Stevie Wonder. As an educator, Iveniuk works frequently as an adjudicator, and teaches at the University of Toronto and at the Regent Park School of Music.

We last spoke in 2020, when I interviewed several Black classical musicians for The Conversation. All of the musicians revealed how they negotiated their way through the predominantly white spaces, the many gaps in information on how to move through the pipeline, and regular hostilities experienced within the field, into professional classical musicianship. 

Since then, Iveniuk has been at work on several new projects: a new album with the Odin Quartet, a concert appearance with Montreal’s Ensemble Obiora, and multiple teaching and consulting projects throughout the Greater Toronto Area. Dedicated to her practice as a classical music performer and educator, she engages with a broad spectrum of communities – bringing with her a vision of classical music as an offering that should be available for all.

Read more: Violinist Tanya Charles Iveniuk’s classical practice – inventive and equity-focused

(L-R) Understory co-founders Nicole Rampersaud (photo credit: Steve Louie), Germaine Liu (photo credit: Mark Zurawinski), and Parmela Attariwala (photo credit: Sue Howard).There is an intriguing beauty that lies in the parts and processes of trees that we don’t see. We observe a tree’s life story from looking at it aboveground, but what’s beneath – the understory – often goes unseen.

Musicians Germaine Liu (based in Toronto), Nicole Rampersaud (based in Fredericton), and Parmela Attariwala (based in Vancouver) are committed to building—and telling the understory of—a new, nationwide artistic network. Funded by the Canada Council for the Arts and in partnership with Toronto’s MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art), Understory is a new online improvised music series that features artists from across Canada.

In an interview with the co-founders, they explained that they were very deliberate in their choice of artists for their inaugural 2021/22 season. “We’re trying to expand what improvisation is, and who can occupy that space,” they say. “The kind of person that we’ve invited is open and respectful of their colleagues.” For the Understory series, above all else, they value “artistic agency so long as it’s respectful.”

Unlike live group improvisation, Understory features recorded layers of improvisation. “It is not traditional improvised music – nor is it intended to be a replacement for real-time, ‘playing (dancing, singing, rhyming, painting) together in one space’ improvisation,” they say. Each online concert features two sets, each by a different trio of artists. Each trio performs three improvisations, so that each artist has the chance to record the first layer of a track, overtop of which their collaborators contribute additional layers of sound and/or visuals. The artists are given three weeks to co-create their works; in the fourth week, Evan Shaw works his video editing magic, and audio engineers Mark Zurawinski and John D.S. Adams polish the sound.

Read more: Understory: exploring the roots of artistic interdependence

The Emmet Ray in Toronto. (Photo c/o blogTO.)On July 16, 2021, live music was permitted to return to indoor stages in Ontario, for the first time since fall 2020. Gigging musicians were suddenly able to resume work that has largely been impossible for the past year; clubs, long empty, have resumed presenting shows, albeit in a more limited capacity than before the pandemic. For musicians and venues, however, the transition to a “new normal” has involved as much caution as catharsis, as the forced sabbatical of the pandemic has allowed for a drastic rethinking of the relationship between space, labour, and compensation in the performing arts. In Toronto, the first glimpses of post-pandemic music-making have arrived amidst unique, and rapidly shifting, financial circumstances in the local live music industry: ballooning insurance costs for venues, shifts in financial models for presenters, and a change in expectations for musicians returning to gigging life.

There is a tendency, in any gig-based industry, to say yes to every opportunity for which one is available, even when the conditions – remuneration, time commitment, atmosphere – may not be ideal. For gigging musicians, this tendency is further exacerbated by a professional expectation that one must maintain a certain amount of visibility in order to remain relevant; a need to stay on the scene. (In the age of social media, performing this visibility has become easier than ever before: even the most artistically, financially, and personally unsatisfying gig can yield a compelling Instagram post, helping to maintain the narrative that a musician is a vital part of the community.)

To say “no” to even the most unappealing gig is much harder than it seems. Sure, the show you were just offered only pays $50, and is in a tiny, poorly-ventilated bar on the other side of town, and you have to bring your own amp, and the manager refuses to turn off the hockey game on the giant TV right above the stage as you’re playing, and a patron once started drunkenly playing your guitar when you went to the washroom on a set break. But the bandleader who hired you has a tour coming up next summer, and just got a Canada Council grant to fund it, and you weren’t available for their last gig, and what if the sub they hire to replace you this time has a better vibe with the band and takes your spot permanently? Also, that $50 can pay for that brunch you’re going to tomorrow (even if you do end up spending $30 on an Uber home at 1:30am). So: you take the gig.

Read more: Overworked, and over-exploited: Toronto artists and venues talk financial challenges of...

Andrew O’Connor.After being cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, the Kitchener-Waterloo based Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound returned June 3-6 this year with a full online program of both free and ticketed events, featuring performances, artist interviews, and radio broadcasts.

I attended the Soundscape Workshop that took place for one hour each day, run by Andrew O’Connor, an independent radio producer and sound artist. There were around ten participants, and on Sunday, June 6, the pieces made during the workshop were shared as part of a live festival broadcast. (The piece I made can be found here.) O’Connor provided some of his own field recordings of different bird calls, church bells, rain and footsteps in gravel, among others, for participants to work with. He also gave an overview of Audacity, a free open-source audio editing software, as well as the basics of microphones and recording techniques.

I had the chance to speak with O’Connor a week after the festival, and he elaborated on the Soundscape Workshop and his own relationship with sound art and listening. A soundscape – a term attributed to urban planning academic Michael Southworth and later popularized by composer R. Murray Schafer – is a sonic environment, similar to how a landscape is a visual environment. Each day the workshop ended with an example – works by Hildegard Westerkamp and R. Murray Schafer, as well as one of O’Connor’s own pieces. Pauline Oliveros’ Ted Talk was also shared with the participants. 

O’Connor stressed that these are not new ideas. “Listening and being in tune with your surroundings has always been crucial to existence, and it still is,” he says. We live our lives surrounded by specific collections of sounds, many of which we might tune out. The sonic profile of a place gives it a sense of acoustic identity, so working with the concept of soundscape by using field recordings and creative sound design can yield very striking artistic results.

“The really specific sounds that we know [...] immediately evoke something,” says O’Connor. “It’s a very personal thing what they evoke – it could be banal, it could be incredibly significant. It all depends on the ears that are receiving it. But when you really get into the specific and the personal, you tell a much larger and broader story that I think resonates with a lot more people.”

“I use the word story in a very broad sense,” he adds. “Not necessarily the traditional idea of a story [with] a beginning, middle, and end where everything comes to a resolution, but more just movement and emotion is really what I mean by story. Having that present in your work is critical.”

He first got introduced to soundscapes and sound art through CKMS FM, University of Waterloo’s campus radio station, where he began volunteering as a programmer in high school. “Community radio was still analog, so I learned how to edit on reel to reel tape machines cutting and splicing” he explains. For O’Connor, learning how to make a tape loop was “one of those lightbulb moments” that has led to a lifetime of sound exploration.

The participants who attend O’Connor’s workshops come from all sorts of artistic backgrounds: students, visual artists, sculptors, musicians, composers, and sound artists. He tailors the content to best match whoever shows up. “The workshop is really trying to connect those dots and lead you (...) to explore these ideas yourself in your own work, whatever that work may be in the end.”

Often there can be some hesitation from music institutions about how to approach sound art, since it isn’t easily categorizable and its artistic applications are so varied. “Something that I love about Open Ears is that since inception it’s really been about ignoring those lines and just presenting music and sound – not worrying about genre and idiom and what this is called,” O’Connor says. The Open Ears Festival started in 1998 and “innovation and disruption” are listed as core values on their website.

When I ask how someone might start exploring soundscape and field recording, O’Connor acknowledges that it’s something that takes time, practice, and focus – but that many resources and tools for working with recordings, like Audacity, are relatively accessible. “Just start doing it – you’re not going to be a master at first, but the tools are out there,” he says. “Get your phone, make some recordings and start playing around!” O’Connor also teaches workshops on pirate radio, either separately or as a component of his soundscape workshops. He runs DISCO 3000 and Parkdale Pirate Radio, both broadcast live and streamable online.

As part of Open Ears, O’Connor’s workshop offered a hands-on way for participants to explore the creative possibilities offered by field recording and soundscape composition. With an expansive approach to music programming and an emphasis on community, the festival’s inclusion of an event that brought attendees to the table as music creators themselves was a very meaningful addition. The festival alternates yearly between a full lineup and a scaled back version – the 2022 season is already scheduled for June 2-5 next year, so be sure to stay tuned for more details.

And for those looking to expand how they listen to the spaces they’re in, O’Connor says that being aware of the sounds that make up your surroundings is the best way to start. “Really tuning in your world...being aware of how you respond to that and how it affects you and taking that awareness further into really engaging with sound art and soundscape. I don’t really like to pinpoint it and say ‘listen to this or listen to that.’ Just listen! Just listen and follow where that leads.”

Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound ran online from June 3 to 6, 2021. Readers are welcome to reach out to O’Connor over email (aoconnor88@hotmail.com) or on Twitter @parkdalepirateradio for any inquiries about soundscape/radio broadcasting workshops or questions about either practice.

Camille Kiku Belair is a Toronto based classical guitarist, composer and writer. They are currently pursuing an MFA in Composition and Experimental Sound Practices at California Institute of the Arts.

Kendra Fry.There’s a palpable sense of enthusiasm in Kendra Fry’s voice and there’s a good reason why. On April 1, she made her debut as general manager of Stratford Summer Music (SSM). For seven years, she had been in the same role at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church and Centre for Faith, Justice and the Arts in Toronto (TSP), where she played an instrumental role transforming it into a vibrant and multi-faceted community hub.

Working closely with the artistic director, violinist Mark Fewer—who himself took on the role in 2018, as the second artistic director in Stratford Summer Music’s two-decade history—and espousing a shared vision to raise the bar, Fry is setting the stage for a successful season that embraces the spirit of collaboration and innovation, including digital content delivery. “This is an exciting time to be in Stratford,” she explained on a recent phone call. “The city is thinking about the relationship of art to commerce and the lives of its citizens.”

In a city brimming with creativity, and as the second largest arts organization after the Stratford Festival, SSM will continue to showcase a range of musical performances by Canadian and possibly international artists representing a wide range of music, including classical, jazz, folk, performances from Indigenous musicians, and an eclectic blend of genres geared toward children. Programming will take place from August 5 to 29 at seven or eight indoor and outdoor venues, including three new ones: Stratford Perth Museum and Gallery Stratford, as well as Tom Patterson Island (previously used for outdoor programming at SSM, but never for full concerts). “We’re directing our energy toward optimizing outdoor opportunities based on events that really spark joy for people,” says Fry.

Read more: “Creative Collisions”: Kendra Fry becomes general manager at Stratford Summer Music
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