Against Nature, by Citadel + Compagnie.In a former Salvation Army building on lower Parliament Street in Toronto, a quiet revolution in music/dance/theatre creation is emerging at the hands of Citadel + Compagnie’s artistic director Laurence Lemieux and resident choreographer James Kudelka.

At the end of May and beginning of June, the company is remounting their Dora-nominated 2016 work Against Nature, based on the decadent 1884 novel of the same name (À Rebours) by Joris-Karl Huysman.

The central character of the story is Jean des Esseintes, a 19th-century aristocrat who has become so disgusted with human society in fin-de-siècle Paris that he exiles himself to a villa in the country to create for himself a perfect world of art and artifice. Against Nature is widely believed to be the novel that poisons the mind of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s famous story The Picture of Dorian Gray, and in James Kudelka’s work we will also see the downward spiral of the hero, des Esseintes (played by baritone Alex Dobson), as he tries to escape nature and mortality with the help of his two servants (played by dancer Laurence Lemieux and baritone Koran Thomas-Smith).

What makes this work unique is its combination of opera, dance, theatre and visual art, and its creation for the specific salon-style performance space of the Citadel, which seats only 60 at a time. The creative team is a powerful mix of award-winning Canadian artists, including  composer James Rolfe (The Overcoat, Beatrice Chancy), librettist Alex Poch Goldin (The Shadow), lighting designer Stephen Rossiter, and projection designer Jeremy Mimnagh. Accompanying the three performers onstage there will also be three musicians performing the score live: pianist Stephen Philcox, violinist Pamela Attariwala, and cellist Carina Reeves.

Leading the creative team as director and choreographer is James Kudelka, perhaps best known here as the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada from 1996 to 2005, and the creator of many large-scale ballets including his own versions of Cinderella, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, as well as many works for companies around the world, including audience favourite The Four Seasons.

Intrigued about the genesis of this project, its experimental nature and scale, I reached out to Kudelka to ask him about what had inspired him to make this change in focus from his earlier work.

James Kudelka. Photo credit: Ian Brown.The WholeNote: What drew you to this initiative, creating not only intimate salon-sized works, but works that cross genre lines to combine ballet/opera/theatre?

James Kudelka: First, let me say that my preferred way to describe these works is music/dance/theatre. I don’t want anyone to think they are seeing a ballet or an opera, but I do want them to think they are seeing a theatrical event. We use singing and dancing, voice and movement—whatever will tell the story best. To call it opera will keep as many people away from it as calling it ballet would.

In brief, I was wanting to do something that used Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth but because of the nature of the story the possibility of it being a full-fledged opera house style ballet for the National Ballet of Canada was remote. There was too much in the novel that couldn’t be danced, mostly to do with debt and money. It went well beyond Balanchine’s saying that there are no mothers-in-law in ballet. This was an unmeetable challenge.

Because I was beginning to work at the Citadel I thought it was a good place to try an experiment, and use a librettist and a composer, and to make a rule that the women in the cast would dance and the singing men would carry the narrative challenges through text, and that the whole thing would be to music. Each of the art forms would be used to what it could do best. The remarkable thing is that though the men in the cast of From the House of Mirth carried the language, one never had the feeling that the women had no voice.

WN: Against Nature is the second part of a trilogy (of which the third part is still to come). Can you tell us about your choice of source materials and why they inspired you? I am intrigued by the contrast between Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, the source of the first part of the trilogy, and Against Nature (À Rebours) by French-Dutch author Joris-Karl Huysman, the source material for the second part and current production.

JK: We had been working very hard to secure the rights to a different second project, that never came about. I went into my library and found Against Nature, which was a fascinating book I had read, but I really wondered if a music/dance/theatre adaptation was possible.

I met with the team—Alex Poch Goldin who had written the libretto for From the House of Mirth, and James Rolfe, a composer whom my agent suggested I meet—after the novel had been presented and read by them, and strangely I got excited enough by the idea of it that it lit a spark in us all. I don’t think any of the three of us went to that meeting with much faith in it until then. It was actually pretty grim.

From the House of Mirth had four female dancers, four male singers and five instrumentalists. For Against Nature I wanted to use a smaller ensemble, in the hopes that it would be less expensive to tour.

WN: Do you know yet what the source material of the third part of the trilogy will be, and how the three pieces will fit together?

JK: Yes, but there is no real connection between the pieces other than that they are all music/dance/theatre works. It is true that they are all late 19th or early 20th century sourced. I don’t have a thematic agenda, though I am the artist I am, and no doubt everything I do has some kind of connective theme because it has to come from a deep place within me to bother with it. As I get older I begin to wonder whether a whole career of creations is really just an exercise in trying to get the one idea you have right.

WN: How did the creative team for this project come together? Had you worked together before?

JK: I keep the librettist; I change composer from project to project. It happens that Alex Dobson (the baritone) and Laurence Lemieux have both been involved in both productions so far. It is not unusual for me to try and work with people I know, but I always try to work with someone I don’t know in each project to keep things stirred up and keep me out there and social, meeting artists from all disciplines and introducing new people to the team I know.

I prefer to work with Jim Searle and Chris Tyrell from Hoax for costume because we are a small organization and though we don’t have a permanent wardrobe department, having the same designers creates continuity from project to project and we can borrow from ourselves. They are also lovely and very flexible people…

WN: You are both choreographer and director of Against Nature. How do you incorporate directing actors and singers into your usual work as a choreographer of dancers? Have you found that your approach has changed between the first and second parts of the trilogy?

JK: I am not the music director of Against Nature, but in terms of basic moving the players around the stage, creating the situations and blocking and staging, motivations of character, props and overseeing all the elements, I am not doing anything differently than I would do or continue to do when I create a ballet for a ballet company. (When I rehearse something like The Nutcracker, my job is really almost solely direction, since the choreography was done before the show opened in 1995 and is still performed.) If there is something on a stage, it has been a choice made by a director, or a choreographer. The title ‘choreographer’ tends to lead one to think only of the dance. As artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada I was in charge of a large repertoire of narrative ballets that I myself did not create and these works do not direct themselves.

There is a confusion in this, because people have seen my two music/dance/theatre pieces and can’t really figure out how they came about. I think it would be more usual for a composer to want to write it before a theatrical production was planned. The truth is that in essence, I have an idea, and I invite a librettist and a composer, and after some discussion of tone and numbers and very basic restrictions (since creativity is best achieved with restrictions), I sit back and wait until everyone has finished their jobs and then I come in and finish the work by directing and choreographing. I basically start the fire and then I have to put it out.

We usually have a series of workshops on the way to the premiere. I think FHoM and AG both had two or three 2- to 3-day workshops which usually ended with a showing to interest patrons and start some conversations about how we are doing. It is then also a chance to invite costume and scenic designers in. We are able to work very holistically at the Citadel, creating the show as it evolves, lighting and projections coming into the space early and over a longer period. We bring lots of props and clothing from home. It is a very lovely process, very natural as the project takes shape. By the time we perform the finished project, it has not gone through the usual franticness of a move to a theatre and a broken projector and an unhelpful union crew. So often in our world the day of the opening is a nightmare and has little to do with the weeks of work it took to get to that day.

WN: Do you find that the intimate performing space changes how you approach directing and choreographing, and do you find that audiences relate differently to these hybrid works—particularly being in such close proximity to the performers?

JK: I do this work because of the intimacy, after so many years of trying to fill a stage in a 3200-seat hall. Not that I can’t do that, but it is exhausting. I think to put the audience itself in the actual room with the performers demands a heightened discipline from all concerned in that room. (If your cell phone goes off during the show you can’t hide in a 60-seat theatre!) To hear the breathing, and the inhalation before a word sung, the rustle of a silk gown six feet away, the sweat flying off a dancer, it just may be this kind of intimacy that is the future of theatre “in a world that’s at its end,” to quote the Master in Against Nature.

Against Nature plays at the Citadel May 22-25, and May 29-June 1 at the Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance, Toronto.

The Ensemble of Against the Grain Theatre’s production of Kopernikus. Photo credit: Darryl Block Photography.Claude Vivier’s opera Kopernikus was revived for six performances this past April by Against the Grain Theatre. The opera unfolds in a series of scenes where Agni, the main character, undertakes a ritualistic journey where she encounters historical mythical beings who accompany her from one world to the next. Through a series of initiations, Agni ultimately reaches her final and purest spirit state—her dematerialisation. The opera pushes operatic boundaries, playing with genre expectations (the traditional duets and arias are notably absent from the score) and destabilizing typical avenues of listening (most of the opera is written in Vivier’s own invented language). Kopernikus is therefore a meditation of sorts, where Vivier invites the listener to follow Agni via tonal colours and emotions rather than typical parameters of form and language.

AtG’s cast (seven singers, seven instrumentalists, and two dancers) brought to life a complex score and deserve every single word of praise bestowed upon them by the critics. Singing Vivier without a score is extremely challenging, and the audience was treated to a display of refined musicianship, especially from the singers.

The complexities of the score, both musical and linguistic, as well as the non-traditional storytelling, have been the focus of many reviews. This ‘postmortem’ expands on these themes by focussing specifically on extramusical elements of the opera: translations, visuals, and the portrayal of Vivier in the media.

In his score, Vivier wrote: “Il n’y a pas à proprement parler d’histoire, mais une suite de scènes...” This has repeatedly been translated, both in press releases and reviews, as “there is no actual story.” ‘À proprement parler’ is a common francophone expression and, in this case, it simply means that Kopernikus is not a story in the traditional sense. Although the narrative is not what opera goers are used to, Agni’s series of initiations is very much a story—it simply evolves in a musical narrative as opposed to a literary narrative.

A second mistranslation relates to the opera’s subtitle, “rituel de mort.” AtG’s press release translated this to ‘ritual for the dead,’ when in fact it should have been translated to ‘ritual of death’. This is not semantics; the difference in meaning is significant. Mistranslations are often inconsequential, innocent mistakes. However, in this case, these mistranslations prevent the audience from fully experiencing the meaning and aura that the composer originally intended.

As for the visual appearance of this production of Kopernikus, it was most likely influenced by the 2000 production of the Dutch National Opera, with the stage transformed by tiered scaffolding and the performers constantly moving around the multilevel set, via ladders and stairs. This, along with the additional cold effect of the scaffolding, stiff choreography and the dark exaggerated makeup, landed the production visually somewhere between a stereotypical image of a sanatorium and the underworld. This, for me, missed the mark: this piece is not about the underworld, it is about the ethereal. And the costumes and choice of setting do not help either—the story gains nothing by being placed in a factory. Vivier was such an intensely spiritual man, the assumption that the opera probably takes place somewhere on the highway to heaven would have served the production better. Perhaps the previously discussed mistranslation—that the story is a ritual for people who are already dead (for the dead) as opposed to for one’s journey towards dematerialisation (ritual of death)—also informed these choices. For the same reasons, they did not work for me.

Moving beyond the production to the core promotional material used by various outlets to promote Kopernikus, my opinion is that it set up a chain of causation that led not only to the perpetuation of the mistranslations referenced above, but also to the dissemination of a misleading portrayal of Vivier himself that interferes with viewing, and perhaps even producing, the opera in its own right. For one, the manner of his death: Claude Vivier was gay, and he was murdered, strangled, in his Paris apartment by a man he picked up in a gay bar. To leave the story here reveals only a partial truth. The complete story is that Vivier was the third victim of a trickster, a man who lured gay men back to their apartments to rob them and kill them. The individual press package given to every audience member at the AtG production (a yellow envelope with a black stamp of Vivier’s date of death) includes a copy of a newspaper clipping found in the most complete account of Vivier’s life to date, a biography by Bob Gilmore, where the author chronicles in detail the sequence of events that led to and followed Vivier’s death.

It is true that Vivier lived openly as a gay man in the ultra-conservative Quebec of the 1970s. In much of the promotional material leading up to productions of his work this is presented as “living hard and fast.” But we would do well to remember that this was a lens that was put on his behaviour at that time by his contemporaries, and also that complete information about Vivier’s death would only have been published in the newspapers many months after his death (there was no social media in 1983) and would not have been assumed to be information essential to an understanding of his work. In adopting that lens as essential pre-information, other aspects of Kopernikus that could have been discussed fell by the wayside: the influence of his musical lineage on his complex score; the origins of the sonic and linguistic environment created in Kopernikus; and that it was the opera that marks the beginning of postmodernism in Quebec’s operatic history.

A more rounded discussion would have provided the audience with a better general understanding of Vivier’s world and a deeper appreciation for the moods of Kopernikus. If the public is to fully understand the importance of this work, those involved in the performance process—from production companies to reviewers—need meticulous research in order to go beyond uncritically rehashing old accounts of Vivier’s life as an explanation of what the opera is about.

All that being said, restagings of Canadian operas are rare, and AtG’s revival of Vivier’s Kopernikus is a brave artistic and financial undertaking that should be celebrated. As I wrote in my preview of the production, with AtG's history of audacious reinterpretation of operas of the classical repertoire, it is a natural fit for them to move towards shaking things up in the unexplored world of Canadian opera (there are over 300 Canadian operas to choose from!). All my misgivings aside, director Joel Ivany's passion for the opera, along with that of the production's stellar musical team give much to hope for: hope that Kopernikus continues down the path of receiving the recognition it deserves; and hope that this leading opera collective will to guide us in towards a new era of (re)discovering our own Canadian works.

Sophie Bisson is a PhD student in musicology at York University and an opera singer who is passionate about Canadian repertoire. Her doctoral research focuses on Canadian opera.

ERIKA NIELSEN shayne gray WEB image bannerCellist Erika Nielsen. Photo credit: Shayne Gray.As a toddler, cellist Erika Nielsen fell in love with the cello after seeing Yo-Yo Ma perform on Sesame Street. Growing up with her talent nurtured by a musician mother and excellent teachers, she seemed headed on the path towards a successful musical career. In fact, Nielsen developed into an accomplished multi-genre musician and teacher, as well as a gifted visual artist and writer, earning diplomas from Queen’s University and the Glenn Gould School.

But Nielsen’s world was shaken to its core some five years ago when, at 27, she was diagnosed with Bipolar Type 1 Disorder, a mental illness formerly known as manic depression. The illness is characterized by alternating moods of euphoric mania and deep depression.

Now she has written her mental health story – clearly and constructively – in a new book, Sound Mind: My Bipolar Journey from Chaos to Composure (Trigger Publishing, UK).

Cover of Nielsen’s book, Sound Mind.To be sure, people with bipolar disorder have plenty of company. The 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, released by Statistics Canada in 2013, revealed that some 1.5% of Canadians aged 15 and older met criteria for the disorder. Historically speaking as well, Nielsen was in the company of several eminent musicians. As Kay Redfield Jamison, a specialist in bipolar disorder, described in an interview with Marc Shulgold in the Los Angeles Times in May 1985, “Berlioz often pondered his ‘disease of isolation’. Hugo Wolf described ‘streams of fire’ running through his veins. Schumann chronicled a seemingly unending series of violent mood swings, noting that ‘if we musicians live so often … on sunny heights, the sadness of reality cuts all the deeper…’ [and] Schumann’s wife, Clara, described a night in which her husband ‘wrote down a melody which, he said, the angels had sung to him. When morning came, the angels transformed themselves into devils and sang horrible music’.” Two weeks later, Schumann threw himself into the Rhine (and survived).

Redfield Jamison, who has herself had bipolar disorder since early adulthood, is Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Co-Director of its Mood Disorders Center. In her Los Angeles Times interview, she called Schumann’s action “an example of a classic stage-three mania.” Based on their own accounts, Berlioz, Wolf, and Schumann all had bipolar disorder, she said. So did the late Otto Klemperer, one of the revered conductors of the 20th century.

The symptoms of this “high-energy disease” seldom vary, according to Jamison. Most people with bipolar disorder, she says, “will alternate between deep lows and exalted highs; an individual will experience delusions, such as hearing voices, and will often sense a fluency of thinking and bursts of creativity; [they] will maintain a strong belief in [themselves] …yet will often find difficulty in activities such as handling money prudently.”

Despite some early signs of fairly serious emotional turmoil during her teens and early twenties, Nielsen’s own bipolar diagnosis came as a total shock to her, she told an audience at the University of Toronto in late March. “I had just married my sweetheart of eight years… and my music career was seven days a week, teaching, auditioning for orchestras, performing with a 25-piece Motown band and recording with a quartet of opera-crossover sopranos… I was feeling more positive and energetic than ever – only to wander into a doctor’s office and gradually over the next few weeks, be told by three psychiatrists that I was suffering from a major mental illness.”

Nielsen learned that those with bipolar disorder suffer from a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes drastic mood changes, from euphoria to crippling depression.

After Nielsen’s diagnosis, the cellist “felt isolated, humiliated, ashamed and alone,” as she told a High Notes Avante audience on April 4 at Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts.   Treating her disorder meant re-learning patterns of sleep, nutrition, and time-management and stress reduction. Her painstaking regimen also involved taking medication to complement revamped daily routines.

Sound Mind confronts the stigma of mental illness head-on, testifying to Nielsen’s courage, compassion and resilience. These qualities are reflected in writing of searing candor and vulnerability. Part memoir, part wellness guide, the book is structured in two parts. The first recounts her life story in the most vivid terms. In the second, she outlines the tools which enabled her to achieve stability on what she has called her “road map to recovery.”

The fearlessness displayed in Sound Mind is aimed at others with bipolar disorder. In fact, helping others learn to deal with mental illness – especially struggling teens and youth – became a prime motivator for Nielsen to write the book.

Though her bipolar disorder affects her every waking and sleeping moment, Nielsen works nonstop to manage it. Today, with treatment, she again feels capable of having the life and career she hoped for. The multi-faceted Nielsen plays the Baroque cello as well as its modern counterpart, teaches at National Music Camp of Canada and in her own studio, and performs with Cor Unum Ensemble, Musicians on the Edge, and Rezonance Baroque Ensemble (with whom she will be touring an all-Handel program at the Early Music America festival at Indiana University in May.)

She also recently performed as part of the Dora Award-nominated ensemble of The Musical Stage Company’s Onegin: The Musical  in Toronto and on tour at The National Arts Centre, Ottawa; tours internationally with Classic Albums Live and Electric Light Orchestra Tribute Band Strange Magic; and has performed with artists as diverse as rapper Kanye West and country music’s Johnny Reid. And she still performs with the 25-piece Toronto Motown band The Big Sound, as she was doing at the time of her diagnosis.

Her vibrant cello playing was in evidence at the two recent events mentioned here, promoting Sound Mind at the University of Toronto and with High Notes Avante in Richmond Hill, where she performed two movements from J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major for solo cello.

A key insight is Nielsen’s understanding that having bipolar disorder is not what makes her an artist or a creative being. “If anything, I’m more productive, effective and expressive than ever because bipolar is no longer holding me back,” she says. She considers her illness analogous to managing a chronic heart condition or diabetes – and hopes that others will come to see it that way as well.

Stephen Cera, a pianist, journalist and concert programmer, played recitals with Jacques Israelievitch not long before the untimely death of the late TSO concertmaster. He lectures widely about music, writes about international classical music events for MusicalAmerica.com, and maintains a blog at www.stephencera.com.

The Toronto Bicycle Music Festival.This week, the Toronto Arts Foundation (in partnership with the Ontario Trillium Foundation) announced the creation of a new online resource for artists and organizers interested in developing creative projects in the city’s green spaces.

The Arts in the Parks Toolkit, available on the Toronto Arts Foundation website and as a PDF, is – in its PDF form – a painstaking 96-page booklet covering the process of mounting artistic projects in Toronto’s parks. The resource is aimed at helping community organizations and municipalities plan their own arts events in parks and urban green spaces.

The project grows out of the Toronto Arts Foundation’s “Arts in the Parks” initiative, which was launched in 2016 to bring free arts events to parks throughout the city each summer. Working with community organizations and artists throughout the GTA, the TAF presents Arts in the Parks as an annual series of artist-produced projects. Last year, the Arts in the Parks series featured 282 events produced by 33 different artists and arts groups, in 36 public spaces across the Toronto area. In the past, these events have included projects by such arts groups as Shadowland Theatre, Kaeja D’Dance, Arts Etobicoke, Feast in the East, and Tune Your Ride Collective’s Toronto Bicycle Music Festival, which connects free concerts in parks throughout the city via group bike rides.

With the publication of this Arts in the Parks Toolkit, the TAF hopes to provide a guide for other artists and community organizers to navigate the processes, often daunting to the uninitiated,  involved when mounting creative projects in public outdoor spaces. The toolkit is also connected with existing resources for community organizing – including the Ontario Trillium Foundation’s Knowledge Centre, an online forum for knowledge-sharing and community-building within the provincial nonprofit sector.

The toolkit includes general reflections on the function of a park within a city, and suggestions on dealing with the practical considerations of outdoor, public and site-specific creative work. Perhaps most useful is the toolkit’s nuts-and-bolts information on the permits, insurance, and various other regulations involved when planning events in local parks, as well as its tips for funding and grant writing – something that might prove especially helpful for those artists considering applying for grants from the Toronto Arts Council.

In the opening pages of the toolkit, Claire Hopkinson, director and CEO of the Toronto Arts Foundation and the Toronto Arts Council, talks about her vision of the city’s parks as spaces for community-building. “We hope [that this toolkit] will add to conversations about the changing role of parks as social and cultural spaces,” she writes, “and serve as a helpful resource for community visionaries to tap into the transformative power of the arts in public spaces.”

Hopkinson ends her comments with a disclaimer – and a call to action. “It’s not a playbook, but a guide to help navigate some of the logistical, financial and artistic considerations involved in producing arts events in parks and other public spaces,” she says. “Make this your own.”

The Arts in the Parks Toolkit is available as a PDF booklet, and as an online resource on the Toronto Arts Foundation website.

clock radio cover web bannerMichael Davidson and Dan Fortin’s duo album Clock Radio.On Saturday, March 23, vibraphonist Michael Davidson and bassist Dan Fortin will perform together at the Canadian Music Centre in celebration of their debut duo album, Clock Radio, which will be released the previous day (Friday, March 22). This event marks a confluence of the new: a new project, with a fresh book of tunes; a new label, Elastic Recordings, helmed by Davidson and Fortin, of which Clock Radio will be the first release; a new direction for the CMC, which, until relatively recently, has primarily hosted performances by classical musicians. But it also marks a point of convergence in an ongoing history of collaboration shared by the two musicians, who experienced an immediate rapport when they first played together as students in the mid-2000s. Since then, they’ve appeared together with a wide variety of different projects, notably the band Stop Time, whose album Twice was released in 2011, and on the Fortin-led album Brinks, released in 2015.

The material that would form the basis of Clock Radio was primarily composed in the summer of 2017, during which time Michael Davidson spent two months in Berlin, studying with percussionist David Friedman. Following an inspiring first lesson, Davidson went to a coffee shop, wrote about the experience, and then started sketching out a musical idea on score paper. After his second lesson, he repeated the process. “Pretty soon,” as Davidson told me, he “had maybe 10 or 12 pieces, and an entire notebook worth of stuff.” As his time with Friedman came to a close, Davidson decided that the logical next step would be to actually play his pieces with other people, both to honour the music he’d written and as “a lovely way to document the experience of living in Berlin and studying with this person who was one of the people responsible for getting [him] into the vibraphone.”

Knowing that he had a significant collection of new work, Davidson booked a recording session at Canterbury Music Company as soon as he returned to Toronto from Berlin. But the music needed rehearsal time, and Davidson needed an ensemble that would be committed, as Stop Time had been, to a collaborative workshopping process that would give his sketches the necessary time and space to develop naturally into more structured pieces. The idea of playing in a duo format with Fortin occurred to him near the end of his stay in Berlin; when he got back, Davidson called him, saying “I have this idea, and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’ve got to meet every week” to make it work. Fortin agreed, and they organized a series of intensive rehearsals leading up to the recording session. Davidson returned to Toronto in early September; by the end of October, they’d recorded Clock Radio.

Duo albums have long been part of the recorded jazz tradition, from the 1962 Bill Evans / Jim Hall recording Undercurrent to Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden’s Last Dance, released in 2014. There are, however, few duo recordings of vibraphone and bass. Hotel Hello, the 1975 Gary Burton / Steve Swallow album, is perhaps the best known, but, replete with keyboard overdubs, it is as much a showcase for Burton and Swallow’s studio prowess as it is for their improvisational abilities. With Clock Radio, Davidson and Fortin were working with a relatively blank slate, and few pre-conceived notions about what they should sound like. “Certain instrumentation,” says Fortin, “can come with certain baggage. With a piano trio, for instance, people come to expect certain things.” Without the pressure to contend with the conventions that attend a large body of work in a given instrumental format, the duo felt free to let the natural rehearsal and recording processes guide the album’s development.

Of the many qualities that make Clock Radio special, two stand out in particular. The first: the depth of the sounds on the recording. A duo recording, particularly one without any drums, invites a different kind of listening than a larger ensemble does; a larger range of an instrument’s timbral qualities suddenly become audible, as do the sounds of a musician’s hands moving through the air of the studio. With the freedom to hear more from each other, Davidson and Fortin felt an increased ability to engage in deeper, collective improvisation. “With a larger group, the ‘moment before something happens’ isn’t necessarily there as much, whereas in duo playing the moment before it happens is right there with you,” Davidson told me. “It’s beyond feeling it coming; you can actually hear the beginning of the sound. I can hear Dan’s finger just starting to touch the strings; my mallets are making a sound as they approach the bars. All this stuff is intense, and it gives me goosebumps as it’s happening.”

The second standout quality that makes Clock Radio special: the places where composition and improvisation overlap, and the blurred boundary between the two. Beyond each player’s considerable technical ability and their shared commitment to group improvisation, this particular aspect of their music speaks to Davidson and Fortin’s trust in each other’s musical sensibilities. Playing together for so long, terminology has emerged to explain certain aspects of their connection. A URO, I learn, is an ‘Unidentified Rhythmic Object’; as Fortin tells me, “we kind of feel time the same way. If the time is moving, we can follow each other really easily.” IBS, on the other hand, refers to the duo’s shared sense of harmony; it’s something that “you know is there, although you can’t always identify it, but it disrupts things and results in interesting choices.” Clock Radio’s mixing process was also a point at which the intersection of composition and improvisation was explored. Influenced by Toronto drummer/producer Jean Martin – whose label, Barnyard Records, serves as an influence for Elastic Recordings – and with the help of mix engineer David Hermiston, Davidson and Fortin used a number of post-production effects to highlight and extend their improvised material. This process was not ‘production,’ in the conventional sense, but rather one in which the duo followed, according to Davidson, “the wake of the potential thoughts and feelings that might have been involved in the improvisation.”

Clock Radio, as both Davidson and Fortin tell me, is not meant as a monument, but rather a snapshot – a tribute to a particular moment in time, and to the living history that the two share. Much like their approach to music-making, it is as much about has been as what is to come.

Michael Davidson and Dan Fortin’s Clock Radio will be released on Elastic Recordings on March 22, followed by a CD release on March 23 at 8pm, at the Canadian Music Centre, Toronto.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached through his website, on Instagram and on Twitter.

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