34375373Music - A Subversive HistoryWhat if true innovation always comes from the outsider, the marginal and the underdog? Prominent American arts journalist and music historian Ted Gioia took this idea for a walk across the centuries in his new book Music: A Subversive History (Basic Books, 2019) and found a lot of evidence for it: musical progression toward new art forms and styles of expression is often pushed from the outside of the mainstream – slaves, foreigners, the underclass, the second sex, the precariat. New ideas become mainstream when the upper classes and musical gatekeepers adopt them too. A Subversive History however, at 487 pages without the index, is much more than its main thesis: it’s a history of human song from the Paleolithic era till the current era of our digital overlords, and a detailed look at the socio-economics of music-making – who earned what working for whom, with what degree of autonomy. Once the chronology reaches ragtime and jazz, the book becomes almost exclusively American in focus, but no matter: the rest of us can use the final chapters to compare and contrast local musical developments with American pop-culture dominance. Ted Gioia and I corresponded over email as 2019 was drawing to a close.

Ted GioiaWN: Why, do you think, do many musicologists avoid taking cross-cultural research on any musical phenomenon, and seem to be terrified of adopting a planetary, universal POV, like you do? The kind of (frankly, refreshing) view that you take when you look at similarities between, say, shamanistic practices in distinct cultures, similarities between myths that appear in distant territories at around the same time, musical forms that persist in very different circumstances. To prove your main thesis, that it’s the outsider, the exploited, the subaltern that brings about musical innovation – you look across cultures.

TG: A huge divide now separates most musicologists from almost everyone else researching the role of music in human life. On the one hand, we have neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, evolutionary biologists and other researchers publishing persuasive and detailed evidence of universals in music. In the other camp, old-school music professors are holding on to a very different worldview in which musical cultures exist in isolation, incommensurable and resisting cross-cultural analysis.

You ask why this is taking place. I see three reasons. First, the growing specialization in all academic disciplines makes it harder and harder for scholars to take a truly cross-cultural and multidisciplinary approach to studying music. I’ve tried to do this, but as you probably know it took decades of research on my part before I could navigate through these issues with any degree of comfort and expertise. Music: A Subversive History builds on more than 25 years of research – and that process could not have been accelerated, given the complexity of the issues at play.

The second reason for this narrowing of focus in musicology is the problem of groupthink—an unwillingness to challenge embedded ideas even when they no longer possess explanatory power. Every field suffers, to some extent, from groupthink, even musicologists.

The third cause for this close-mindedness is a historical legacy. There was a day in the early and middle decades of the last century when the study of musical cultures benefited from an isolationist perspective. When addressing a musical genre or practice that had never been studied by academics before, a narrow focus on the specifics at hand was probably justified. But when that narrowness becomes an ideological mandate, and close-minded academics start claiming that individual communities do not participate in the larger human musical experience, we have reached a dysfunctional point. It seems as if these smaller communities are being othered and marginalized by experts who should be opening up connections rather than shutting them down.

WN: Practical ‘management’ of work/hunt, communication with the world of the spirit and animal, group cohesion, unity before enemy: the early song, you remind us, performed all those functions. Today, the song is very different – most often an expression of inner states and feelings – though there are echoes of the old song in some of the new functionalities (workout music, protest songs, sports and national anthems, ecstatic raves). Music is still used for manipulation in the 21st century, as has been in the 20th. So here’s a question for you in Adorno’s voice: should we not criticise the manipulative, group-forming side of music and advocate for a music that consciously refuses to speak to the atavistic, irrational in us?

TG: Yes, music has tremendous power in promoting group formation and interpersonal bonding. But this can be good or bad, depending on the context. Every group creates bonds through song – labour unions, soldiers, sports fans, religious believers, music fans at a concert, protesters, revolutionaries, even families and romantic couples out on dates. My goal as a historian is to cast light on this process, because only when we understand how it works can we channel the power of music in a positive direction.

Frankly, I don’t think we can remove this element from human music-making. It’s as much biological as it is cultural. When we listen to music in groups, our body releases the hormone oxytocin, which makes us more trusting of those around us. Our brainwaves adapt to the rhythms of the music. In dozens of other ways, our bodies are altered by the music. These are constitutive elements of the power of song, and removing them is not possible, and probably not even desirable.

WN: The book seems to be suggesting that the pre-Pythagorean, pre-systematized, pre-mathematized musical practices – the era associated with the superstitious, magical, ecstatic, Dionysian employment of music – was also a domain in which women musicians (eg. female drummers) played an important role. What evidence is there that women ever held positions of power in music performance and religious ceremonies that involve music performance?

TG: The deeper we dig into the history and pre-history of music, the more we encounter women innovators. The oldest songwriter known to us by name is Enheduanna, a high priestess who lived around the year 2300 BC. There’s good reason to believe that the shamanic tradition was closely linked to women in its earliest days – this is supported by the documented practice of male shamans dressing in female attire, as well as various linguistic evidence. We can also trace an important female role in the Confucian musical tradition, in Islamic societies, in various ancient drumming traditions, in the origins of Western love songs, and various other styles, settings, and genres.

In so many instances – documented in great detail in my book – men eventually took credit for these innovations, and also changed how these songs were used in society. When women were drummers, the music was used to create ecstasy and trance. When men took over control of drums, they became used in military music. I’m simplifying a lot there, but the larger trends here are unmistakable.

WN: I know you have Gimbutas and Bachofen [known for their theories on ancient matriarchies] in your endnotes, but you also remind us that that scholarship has been put into question: there is no evidence that matriarchy ever existed before the patriarchy took hold.

I do appreciate that you observe that the repudiation of the ecstatic, sexual, boundary-threatening aspect of music has always been present in societies where there’s repudiation of femaleness and actual women. But I’d caution against associating the visceral aspects of music with femaleness – because that would take us in the Jordan Peterson, feminine-chaos vs. masculine-order view of the world, and to the old philosophical chestnut of women being associated with the lower part of every duality: nature, instability, irrationality, softness, darkness, etc.

TG: I’m really not concerned with creating ideological frameworks. There are plenty of other people who specialize in that kind of work, but that’s not the main thrust of my writing. My primary focus is on reconstructing facts and the sequence of events. And this is essential work, because conventional accounts are so misleading. In many instances, you could actually describe them as blatantly deceptive. I could have written a book of aesthetic theory based on my research – and maybe I will at some point – but before we can get to that point I felt it was necessary to lay out a true chronology of music history.

By the way, I offer no final verdict on Gimbutas’s hypothesis of a dominant matriarchy in early Western culture – that’s an issue much larger than music history. But I can say that my research makes clear the female musicians had a much higher profile during this early period, and their innovations were later taken over by men, who worked very hard to hide the original sources of these new types of songs. There are so many examples, it’s hard to know where to start. I’ve already talked about the role of women in drumming, but the shift in lyric song, for example, is just as important. When Sappho emerged as the key innovator in this field, her songs captured the imagination of listeners as platforms for personal expression. But a little more than a century later, Pindar became the dominant figure in the lyric song, which now served as vehicle for praising the deeds of great men.

In my book, I trace similar shifts in dozens of other settings. You can put whatever ideological label you want on this, but the significance of this recurring process and its impact on music history are undeniable.

WN: As a person who grew up in the Balkans, I’m always glad to come across Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s thesis about the kinship between the South Slav epic poetry performance and the way that Homer’s epics were originally performed and came to be preserved… But although it’s still a plausible thesis, we can’t know for sure if the Iliad and the Odyssey have been orally performed by anonymous bards until somebody(ies?) called Homer wrote them down. It’s probably the best thesis around but – we don’t know for sure, do we?

TG: We can never make any definitive and final claims about Homer. But we can get a very good sense of what singing bards can do by the many documented cases that I describe in the book. Albert Lord’s research is just one part of a much larger tapestry of evidence. In fact, we find these amazing singers in every culture. When researcher John Lomax encountered convict James “Iron Head” Baker at Huntsville Penitentiary in Texas, he was so impressed that he called the prisoner a “black Homer.” The illiterate epic singer Vasily Shchegolenok had a similar impact on Leo Tolstoy. Beatrice Bernardi is another example. She was just a herder, but amazed art critic John Ruskin with her ability to sing lengthy tales by memory.

This gets back to my earlier comments on the chasm between theory and practice. People construct elaborate theories about narrative and epic, but if they don’t actually do research into the real historical data, they are building castles in the air. Many people might find it hard to believe, for example, that a single individual could create and perform an elaborate sung epic of Homeric proportions. But the illiterate peasant Avdo Međedović did just that for Parry and Lord – performing a story song that went on for more than 12,000 lines. That’s as long as Homer’s Odyssey.

P.139: “No force in the history of the western world has ever matched the early Christians in their determination to police, prohibit, and punish singing among the populace.” And as a result, “Virtually no secular songs in the vernacular European languages have survived from the long centuries preceding the rise of the troubadours.” How much do we know about these songs?

The authorities did such an excellent job of censoring sinful songs in the vernacular language that almost none of them have survived. Yet the fact that they were attacked and condemned so frequently over the course of a thousand years tells us that they must have been sung and heard by countless individuals. This is why gaps in the historical record are often as revealing as the officially sanctioned accounts.

This, too, is a recurring pattern. Take, for example, the lullaby. These have been found in every part of the world, and have existed for thousands of years – Plato even cites this kind of song as an example of the power of music. Yet for many long centuries these songs were not preserved. This should remind us that a huge gap separates the real musical lives of people and the documented songs that make up music history. One of my key goals has been to close that gap as much as possible.

WN: Some of the recurring themes of troubadours, like being a slave to love, you suggest, probably come from the qiyan, the enslaved female singers of El Andalus – the Muslim Spain of the 8th century... How would the errant knights and aristocrats have come into contact with them in Islamic Spain, be allowed to hear their singing, and be influenced by it?

It’s only a short trip from Spain, where these Muslim songs flourished, to Provence where the troubadour revolution took place. We know that the earliest troubadours had close contact with Islamic culture, and almost certainly heard these songs. The fact that the songs were associated with slaves probably only added to their allure. The ruling class always craves the energy and excitement of forbidden songs performed by the underclass. Even when their public stance is to criticize these songs, they also want to hear them. Or if they don’t, their children do. It’s hardly a coincidence that William IX of Aquitaine is famous as the first troubadour, but his father fought against the Muslims in Spain. The very culture that the parent opposed, the child assimilated. Today we would call this an example of the generation gap.

Ted Gioia’s book Music: A Subversive History was published on October 15, 2019 by Basic Books. Click here for details

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto.

Composer and percussionist Sarah Hennies.The coming of 2020 signals—among other holiday traditions—reflections on the past year in art and music. Rather than compile a unified ‘best of’ list, however, it felt more appropriate to share the individual thoughts of some of our writers and staff, who are deeply invested in—and who deeply love—live music in all its forms. 

Here, read some of their top picks for the most memorable concert of 2019—as well as the one show in 2020 that they’re looking forward to most.

PAUL ENNIS, managing editor + columnist: Classical & Beyond

Most memorable concert of 2019:

“Last June 28, 29 and 30 there was a series of concerts as memorable for their historical significance as they were for the electricity that linked orchestra and audience in a symbiotic mutual transfer of energy. Gustavo Gimeno conducted the TSO for the first time as music director to be—his five-year contract begins with the 2020/21 season. The night I was there was exhilarating, highlighted by the visceral virtuosity of Stravinsky’s The Firebird.”

And in 2020:

“Next year I look forward to the orchestral balance and sense of musical architecture that Gimeno evinced then, coupled with the musical dynamism that pianist Yuja Wang brings to everything she plays—in this case, both of Brahms’ piano concertos over four days on two separate programs (April 8 and 9 for No.1; April 11 for No.2), each time paired with Brahms’ bucolic Symphony No.2 under Gimeno’s sensitive baton.”

More: https://www.tso.ca/concert/gimeno-yuja-wang-brahms

JENNIFER PARR, columnist: Music Theatre

Most memorable concert of 2019:

Billy Elliot: The Musical at the Stratford Festival. Donna Feore’s electric production of this story of one boy’s dreams of becoming a dancer set against the dark background of Britain’s national coal mining strikes was more powerful than I have ever seen it, thanks not only to a brilliant cast (notably Nolen Dubuc as Billy) but also to Feore’s instinctive knowledge of how to use the Festival stage and auditorium to their fullest potential.”

And in 2020:

Kelly v. Kelly, May 15-June 7 at Canadian Stage (book by Sara Farb, music and lyrics by Britta Johnson). I can’t wait to see this world premiere in the spring, having caught a preview glimpse at the Canadian Musical Theatre Project’s Festival last year. Based on the true story of a mother taking her daughter to court for “incorrigibility” (spending too much time with a seductive tango dancer) in 1915 New York, it promises to be great fun with some social commentary thrown in—as well as lots of dancing.”

More: https://musicalstagecompany.com/production/kelly-v-kelly-2/.

KAREN AGES, advertising department

Most memorable concert of 2019:

“On Friday, December 13, 2019, I saw "The Ward" cabaret, in its newest iteration [and first full production]. A wonderful historical exploration of a part of Toronto's immigrant experience in song and story. Congratulations to David Buchbinder and amazing team of singers and instrumentalists for the show!”

And in 2020:

“I’m looking forward to playing oboe in Respighi's symphonic poem Pines of Rome with the Niagara Symphony in March!”

More: https://www.niagarasymphony.com/concerts/masterworks-series/undaunted.

DAVID JAEGER, features writer

Most memorable concert of 2019:

“The Neil Crory Tribute concert at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre on October 11, 2019, featuring an unbelievable lineup of internationally-famous Canadian singers (including Phillip Addis, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Ben Butterfield, Krisztina Szabó, Daniel Taylor, and Erin Wall). It was a fitting tribute to the late producer Neil Crory, who championed Canadian singers and composers through his work with CBC Radio Music for 30 years. The stunning evening culminated in Vaughn Williams' Serenade to Music, with the tutti company singing together under conductor Howard Dyck—all in loving memory of a unique creative individual who made an enormous difference to the classical music community.”

And in 2020:

“I'm looking forward to another concert at Trinity-St. Paul's: Pieces for Bob, another tribute event, this one on April 4, in honour of the very much alive and active composer, flutist and artistic director Robert Aitken, who turned 80 last August. New Music Concerts will present a mixed program of pieces which have proved defining works along the course of Aitken's long career. These include Norma Beecroft's iconic work for flute and electronic sounds, Piece for Bob, as well as Elliott Carter's Scrivo in vento, George Crumb's An Idyll for the Misbegotten, and the premiere of a new work written for Aitken in honour of the occasion by Daniel Foley.”

More: http://www.newmusicconcerts.com/styled/page17/index.html

LYDIA PEROVIĆ, columnist: Art of Song

Most memorable concert of 2019:

“Highlight of the year in any discipline was Revisor, Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young's latest collaboration brought to Toronto by Canadian Stage. It's as emotionally searing as their first, Betroffenheit, but it's also politically sophisticated, international in outlook, and encompassing much of 20-21st century—a more complex and larger work of art in every respect. It's Pite's best work so far.

My operatic highlight was the intelligent, modestly budgeted Opera North's Giulio Cesare (Leeds, UK) directed by Tim Albery. And in the concert and recital genre, The Plucked Opera concert by Vesuvius Ensemble stands out: a night of popular arrangements of operatic arias which Italian people DIY'd in their homes, among friends or on street corners. It shares first place with Gemma New conducting Mahler 5 with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra.”

And in 2020:

“Damiano Michieletto directs Der Rosenkavalier in Brussels in June, with two Canadian mezzos Michele Losier and Julie Boulianne alternating in the role of Octavian. Same month, over in Paris, Marie Nicole Lemieux will sing Nerone in Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea at Théâtre des Champs Élysées, Christophe Rousset conducting. Impatiently waiting for the seat sale emails from the airline companies on Boxing Day.”

More: https://www.lamonnaie.be/en/program/1233-der-rosenkavalier, https://www.theatrechampselysees.fr/en/season/stage-opera/lincoronazione-di-poppea

SARA CONSTANT, editorial department

Most memorable concert of 2019:

“I was sad to have missed the Thin Edge New Music Collective/TIFF presentation of Sarah Hennies’ Contralto—a one-hour work for video, strings, and percussion, presented as an experimental documentary with live music—this time last year in Toronto, but by coincidence was able to see and hear it in February 2019 while travelling for work, at the Edition Festival in Stockholm, Sweden. It’s an inventive, emotionally powerful exploration of sound-in-context, and a critical look at the entangled relationship between identity and voice. If you have a chance to attend a screening with live musicians, I recommend it totally.”

And in 2020:

“On March 14 at the Music Gallery (where I work), Montreal-based vocal collective Phth (Sarah Albu, David Cronkite, Gabriel Dharmoo, Kathy Kennedy, Elizabeth Lima, Vahram Sarkissian and Andrea Young) travels to Toronto for a set of improvised and composed vocal music, with an opening set by pop-art duo xLq. I haven’t yet had the chance to see all of Phth’s members onstage together, and I look forward to what I’m sure will be a deeply thoughtful, and sonically adventurous, set.”

More: https://musicgallery.org/events/phth-xlq/.

DAVID OLDS, reviews editor

Most memorable concert of 2019:

“My favourite concert of 2019 was baritone Daniel Lichti's performance of Schubert's Winterreise with the Penderecki String Quartet at St. George's Lutheran Church on College St. on November 1. (Not only was it a very satisfying performance by all concerned, I am pleased to note that I had a little bit to do with instigating the event. A couple of years ago I received a recording by the Copenhagen String Quartet of their cellist Richard Krug's arrangement of Winterreise with bass-baritone Johan Reuter. I wanted Daniel Lichti to know about this new transcription and sent him my review. I was pleasantly surprised earlier this fall to receive an invitation to his performance with the PSQ.) A truly memorable evening.”

And in 2020:

“On January 21 at Hugh's Room, LOOK UP! celebrates the music of Paul Quarrington. Quarrington collaborator Stuart Laughton's current band Radio Dial features several other long-time Quarrington cronies, including lifelong friend and multi-instrumentalist Martin Worthy and singer extraordinaire Rebecca Campbell. Quarrington's talented brothers Joel and Tony will also be along for the ride. I have just re-read Quarrington's last epistle Cigar Box Banjo - Notes on Life and Music, and with his memorable and moving anecdotes fresh in my mind for context, this event promises to be a highlight of my year.”

More: https://hughsroomlive.com/tag/paul-quarrington/.

The Egyptian qanun.Chinese guzheng, Indonesian kacapi, Iranian santour and Middle Eastern qanun: these representatives of the vast global zither family remain relatively unknown outside their region or country of origin. And yet they all have very deep musical roots, tapping into the bedrock of the communities in which they have flourished for thousands of years.

At 7:30pm on Saturday, November 30, “Encircling the World: Zithers!,” produced by North Wind Concerts (NWC) at the Heliconian Hall, aims to redress Toronto’s zither lacuna with a transnational zither exploration and celebration – or as NWC more succinctly put it, “Different cultures, similar instruments, shared musical meanings.” 

The event is the second installment of NWC’s ongoing “instrumental families” concert project. The first concert last March focused on members of the global flute family. This one features four different variants of the family of zither, dulcimer and psaltery, from Egypt, Indonesia, China and Iran, presented by leading Toronto musicians. The presentation format is unconventional, too: they will each play a solo feature and share about their instrument and music, then play together as a group and end with an interactive audience Q&A.

I spoke to NWC artistic co-director Alison Melville, as well as the four participating musicians, asking for their zither origin stories and thoughts on the future of their instruments.

It seems that in North America today, the zither’s profile is relatively low. Does it have an identity problem, I asked Melville over email.

“I think this depends on which musical community and musical tradition you're considering,” she countered. “The hammered dulcimer, for example, has a long and strong tradition in North America. Someone who listens mostly to European classical music, however, might have had no contact with the hammered dulcimer, and might think it's not as significant or developed an instrument as, say, the violin. That's an unfortunate assumption which I'm pretty sure would change if they got to know a great dulcimer player.”

What informed Melville’s choice of these specific musicians? “Toronto is very fortunate to have so many great musicians from different traditions living here,” she writes. “I've known qanun master George Sawa for many years and have long admired his artistry and his ability to easily connect with audiences. Lina Cao (guzheng), Amin Reyhani (santour) and Bill Parsons (kacapi) were all recommended by friends and colleagues.”

Melville also makes clear that each musician will present and demonstrate their instrument as they see fit. “This could include discussion of the construction of the instrument, playing techniques, etc., as well as the role the instrument plays within its musical tradition.”

Guzheng soloist Lina Cao shared her earliest musical memories. “When I was little my father had many musical instruments in our home, sparking my own my love of music at a very early age,” she says. “When I was five, I was strongly drawn to music coming from the home of my grandmother’s neighbour. My mother took me next door to investigate. I discovered the instrument making that beautiful music was the guzheng! Not so many years later I began to learn to play it.”

Here in Canada, Cao has performed in the opera The Monkiest King, produced by the Canadian Children's Opera Company, and has also played a guzheng concerto with orchestra. 

“I thought for a long time about what I will play at the concert,” Cao says. “In the end I decided to play a guzheng piece based on the Chinese folk song Jasmine.”

Also performing on the concert is santour player Amin Reihani, an Iranian traditional musician who also started his musical journey at an early age. Amazed by the sound of the santour when he first heard it, he has continued to play, explore and create music for it. 

A dedicated teacher of the santour, radif (the Persian tonal mode system) and Iranian ensemble music, Reihani enjoyed 20 years of teaching before immigrating to Canada, where he has since played santour with several Persian ensembles – in 2018 founding the Navak Ensemble to perform and record his compositions as well as those of past masters.  

At “Encircling the World: Zithers!” Reihani looks forward to “an environment in which musicians have the rare opportunity to compare their instruments and learn more about their strengths and weaknesses.”

“Other than physical and structural differences in size, shape, scales and playing techniques, I believe the most crucial aspect of music is the connection between the musician and the instrument,” Reihani says. “To me, playing santour is more than just playing songs. It is more like praying. It is my form of meditation, helping me relax.”

Veteran qanun master and respected scholar of its music George Sawa weighed in on how his instrument differs from the other zithers on the program. “I think the main difference is the presence of a fish skin membrane below the stable bridge,” he notes, “plus the set of levers that allow qanun players to get tones, half tones, quarter tones and [eighth] of a tone.” These fractions of tones produce the intervals essential in rendering the characteristic tonal modes of qanun music.

“From the time I was a kid in Egypt,” writes Sawa, “I heard the sound of the qanun on the radio. I would rush to the set and press my ears right to the speakers: I was mesmerized by its heavenly sound.”

Sawa notes that while it is the quintessential ensemble instrument, the qanun has a soloist side too, typically performing unmeasured improvisations. At the concert, he plans to discuss the essence of these improvisations and showcase the eleven levers on the qanun that give it its unique sound.

The final performer on the program – composer, guitarist, music educator and kacapi player Bill Parsons – is an old friend and colleague. He’s also the only musician not born into the culture of the zither he’s played for over a quarter century – and arguably the most experimental in his approach to it.

Parsons’ creative life began in Winnipeg as a teenager with a guitar. He first encountered the kacapi (Sundanese trapezoidal twenty-string plucked zither) in 1994, when he was invited to join Toronto’s Evergreen Club Gamelan (ECG). (ECG plays on a gamelan degung, a type of orchestra also from West Java.) Years later he travelled to the West Javanese kacapi heartland to further his studies with a local master.

“I feel honoured to be a part of the program,” says Parsons. “I plan to write a new piece that features the kacapi in the way I see it: in a largely textural role. I’ll be using looping, [and] preparations of the kacapi strings. Intermingling the techniques and cultures of the guitar and kacapi are on my mind at the moment.”

 “We had a wonderful time at the flutes show last spring,” North Wind Concerts’ Melville concluded at the end of our conversation. “There was a great atmosphere, lots of beautiful music and interesting questions from the audience. We're looking forward to another such evening on November 30!” As am I.

“Encircling the World: Zithers!” takes place at 7:30pm on November 30, at Heliconian Hall, Toronto.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.

Dancers of The 9th!. Photo credit: Alexander Antonijevic.Thirty years ago, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. After 28 years dividing East Berlin from West Berlin and standing as the tangibly concrete symbol of the Cold War's Iron Curtain, the wall was suddenly porous and would soon come down altogether, leading to the reunification of Germany. On Christmas Day 1989, a celebratory concert of Beethoven's famous Ninth Symphony was performed in East Berlin's 'Konzerthaus' by an orchestra made up of musicians from around the world, conducted by Leonard Bernstein who, to mark the occasion, changed the lyrics of the fourth movement's choral Ode to Joy, to Ode to Freedom (“Freude” to “Freiheit”). Broadcast to thousands in the square outside the theatre and to millions around the world via television, Beethoven's Ninth has been associated ever since with this moment in history.

Last week on November 8, I had the opportunity to see ProArteDanza's Toronto premiere of The 9th!, a powerful ode to freedom in dance form set to Beethoven's iconic score and inspired in large part by the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Ten years ago in 2009, ProArteDanza artistic director Roberto Campanella and artistic associate Robert Glumbeck were invited by Trois Rivières’ Dansencore Festival to create choreography for the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth as part of a large anniversary project involving choreographers from around the country, with live orchestra and chorus. Something about the project resonated with the two creators: they received permission to perform their segment of the show with their own company, and then decided to go ahead on their own to explore and experiment with the other three movements, one at a time. In Campanella's words, they have “been humbly tiptoeing around this monumental masterpiece ever since, and it's more frightening now than it was then.”

Why frightening? For one thing, Beethoven's music is considered by dancers to be “un-danceable,” so choreographers tend to avoid it. For another, “The Ninth” (officially  Symphony No. 9  in D minor, Op. 125) is arguably Beethoven's most famous symphony, so 'daring' to choreograph to it can be daunting.

When I asked Campanella how they were dealing with this challenge, he laughed. “Yes, what were we thinking?” he said. “On the one hand,” he added more seriously, “we humbly bow to the music, but  on the other we layer our ideas on a conceptual level, so that at the end of the day what we are creating is not separate music and dance – it is one combined whole.”

The inspiration for the concept that would anchor the choreography came not long after the Trois Rivières experience, when Campanella was working on a film in Berlin and went on a day off to visit the site of the Wall. All around the site there are video stations where you can look at old archival images; one that “really hit” him, and still does, was from before the actual wall when the uncrossable divide was marked only by barbed wire: “There were two families waving at each other from either side of the barricade,” he said. “And what struck me was that the body language of these people who knew each other at first seemed the same – it looked as though they were using the same movements – but actually they were very different.”

So strong was the impact of this image, and the inherent power of the emotion in the two sets of figures, that Campanella says he called Glumbeck right away and asked, “‘Could it be that the concept behind all the layers for our version of the Ninth Symphony should be this wall that divides us, whether structurally or figuratively?’” Glumbeck agreed and they began what became, in total, a ten-year co-choreography process of experimentation and exploration. The coincidence of the music they were choreographing to just happening to be the symphony played to celebrate the fall of the Wall only added to this feeling of rightness.

For this production of The 9th!, there were a number of challenges. First, there was a decade’s worth of existing choreography for each of the separate movements for Campanella and Glumbeck to look at, work through, revise, and meld into a whole that would have a satisfying emotional arc. Second, ProArteDanza is known for its strongly muscular, athletic choreography that melds ballet technique with a more modern dance vocabulary, but this new work, with its ambitious thematic scope and emotional journey, was going to demand the performers be as much actors as dancers, willing and able to throw themselves into the creative process and performance with an emotional vulnerability not always looked for in the dance world.

Hearing about the process the company took to arrive at this point was fascinating. According to Campanella, they strove to not be tied to a specific point in history or to make any specific reference to current events. “What we are really focusing on is the people from this community who were forced to live in a completely different manner (behind the wall) and explore what that does to us as human beings,” he explained. “And then, where that is going to take you thirty years later when you actually have the chance to go back to the life that you once had.” To achieve this and go beyond the technical movement, the co-choreographers invited the dancers to be vocal and inventive in the creation process, speaking up and making suggestions to help the creators reach their goal.

In the final run of The 9th! from November 6 to 9 at Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre, the results of all this dreaming and hard work felt powerful, emotional and satisfying. The dancers were superb, their admirable technique and emotional commitment together enabling them to create onstage a society inhibited by barriers – walls both inside and out – that then finds its way to a stronger, happier, community of people. There were four strongly individual  threads within the arc: the tormented figure of Ryan Lee; Daniel McArthur’s emerging leader; the darkly energetic figure of Kelly Shaw who finds her way to peace; and Sasha Ludavicious as an emerging prophet of hope. (These are my characterizations, not anything stated in the program – but following their threads gave me a path to follow through the whole, to the joyful, hopeful finish of the choral “Ode to Joy” in the symphony’s fourth movement.

Altogether, this was a passionate performance of a powerful work that I hope will go on to further productions, with eventually live orchestra and chorus and more elaborate technical elements.

ProArteDanza’s The 9th! ran from November 6 to 9 at Harbourfront’s Fleck Dance Theatre, 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.

240A4205 1024x683bannerThe Canadian Arabic Orchestra and Choir.The third annual Festival of Arabic Music and Arts (FAMA), presented by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra (CAO), graces venues across the Greater Toronto Area, Montreal and Halifax in more than 12 concerts, shows and plays from October 25 to November 10. This year’s festival will include a satirical play, a comedy show and concerts covering several genres, including one aimed at children.

Ever since its establishment in 2015 by the husband-and-wife team of qanun (Arabic zither) expert/orchestra president Wafa Al Zaghal and pianist/music director Lamees Audeh, the Mississauga-based CAO has sought an inclusive modus operandi.

In a 2017 phone interview, Audeh stated that “we wish to connect expatriate Arabs with their classical Arabic musical culture… maintaining this cultural heritage in the hearts and minds of the Arab community in Canada and presenting it to future generations. But at the same time, we want to engage with all non-Arab communities. Our aim is to build bridges between Canada’s diverse communities... through music.”

FAMA’s programming shows both objectives at work.

In my November 2017 column First FAMA Fall Feast Continues, I spoke with two longtime Toronto Arabic music scenesters about FAMA’s place in the local musical community. George Sawa, a renowned scholar, qanun player and music educator, vividly recalled what it was like here in the 1970s. “At the time, Arabic music [in Toronto] was mostly encountered in cabarets and clubs which featured belly dancing.” He further observed that the GTA’s Arabic community has grown considerably in the past few decades. “For example,” he added, “I think it’s very significant and healthy that before securing support from Canadian Arts Councils, the Canadian Arabic Orchestra initially sought patronage from local Arabic businesses who believed in what they were doing.”

In 2017, I also spoke with York University ethnomusicologist and multi-instrumentalist Rob Simms, a specialist in Middle Eastern and West African musics. Simms reminded me of the devastation to cultural life impacting large swathes of Iraq and Syria as a consequence of sustained armed conflict in recent years. One of the results of this upheaval has been the displacement of millions of Iraqis and Syrians. Many have found themselves as refugees in foreign lands, including Canada.

Here are five highlights of this year’s upcoming Festival of Arabic Music and Arts. 

1. Carole Samaha - October 25, Living Arts Centre

Carole Samaha, one of the world’s top Arabic music, film and theatre divas, opens the festival on October 25 at Mississauga’s Hammerson Hall at the Living Arts Centre. Winner of the “World Music Award” for best performer in the Middle East (Monaco 2014) and other prestigious international awards, the Lebanese star launched her career as an actor at Beirut’s Drama Theatre, eventually starring in five popular TV soap operas. Refocusing a few years later to develop a solo pop singing career, in 2004 she won the Arab Music Award for best female newcomer. To date she has released six studio albums, each with charting songs.

The YouTube video of Samaha’s show at the 2016 Byblos International Festival in Lebanon shows her in full-on diva mode. There are gown changes, costumed dancers, elaborate background videos, a large band and choir, and even a passionate Miley Cyrus cover in English. Thematically the show is a pop music pageant of the millennia-long history of her home region’s peoples, including Phoenicians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans up to the present-day Lebanese. No matter what songs and production values she brings to Hammerson Hall, I’m sure Samaha’s concert will convert that Mississauga venue into a temporary centre of Lebanese identity. 

2. Hamza Namira - October 26, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts

On October 26, Hamza Namira and his band play the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in downtown Toronto. Namira is a Egyptian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. In the early 2000s he established his band Nomaira, with which he has toured internationally and released four albums.

One thing that distinguishes Namira from fellow Arabic singer-songwriters is his avowed interest in regional Arabic folk song. In 2016 he launched a series titled Remix on the pan-Arab TV channel Al Araby. The popular series, filmed in a number of countries, featured Namira collaborating with singers, musicians and music groups, then remixing their traditional songs in line with contemporary pop aesthetics. It’s a safe bet his October 26 concert will feature his brand of Arabic pop with distinct folkloric musical touches.

3. Oumeimah El Khalil - October 27, Armenian Youth Centre

On October 27, the veteran Lebanese singer Oumeimah El Khalil takes the Armenian Youth Centre stage in North York. Already a singing star at an early age in the 1970s, at the pinnacle of her career El Khalil commanded international stages like Sydney’s Opera House, the Barbican Centre, Queen Elizabeth Hall in London and Montreal’s Place des Arts.

With a sweet, light, flexible and expressive soprano, El Khalil specialises in rendering the poetry of leading Arabic writers. Audiences can expect songs with universal themes by masters such as Mahmoud Darwish, Charbel Rouhana and Marcel Khlaifeh.

4. Greek Arabia (November 7) and Maghrebian Night (November 8), Aga Khan Museum

One of the more intriguingly-themed festival concerts is Greek Arabia, presented in associate partnership with the Aga Khan Museum on November 7. The CAO takes the audience on a musical journey mixing Greek and Arabic musical cultures. According to the FAMA website, the program promises to “transcend geography and the ages, speaking to us in one language, the language of love.”

Also in associate partnership with the Aga Khan Museum, FAMA presents Maghrebian Night on November 8 at the Museum. The CAO celebrates the music of the Maghreb region—Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco—with sounds that “carry the smell of the sea and the warmth of the sun.”

5. Musical Tribute to Arabic TV - November 10, Metro Toronto Convention Centre

FAMA’s 2019 music series concludes on November 10 with a concert at the 1,200-seat John Bassett Theatre, Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The CAO and Choir will perform “their largest production ever,” featuring theme music and songs from some of the best-loved Arabic TV series of the last three decades. This is certainly a must-see for Arabic vintage vernacular music and TV show fans.

The Canadian Arabic Orchestra’s 2019 Festival of Arabic Music and Arts (FAMA) runs from October 25 to November 10, in various locations throughout Montreal, Halifax, and the Greater Toronto Area.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.

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