Women From SpaceFor the second year in the row, a group of committed exploratory musicians are celebrating during the weekend around International Women’s Day, March 5 to 8, with Women From Space: a four-day festival at two Toronto venues, Burdock and 918 Bathurst. This year, Women From Space is geographically even wider in scope than previously, with musicians arriving from Halifax, Vancouver, New York and Baltimore to play alongside committed performers from the GTA. The mostly women-centred 16 sets will feature free improvisation, contemporary notated music, dance, intercultural projects and even some pop grooves. “Our goal is to create a festival that is majority women performers, but not exclusively women,” explains alto saxophonist Bea Labikova, one of Women From Space’s two organizers. “We do our best to present the festival as a celebration of International Women’s Day, which anyone and everyone can and should celebrate.”

The Women From Space name was initially used for a series curated at the Tranzac Club by festival co-organizer, soprano saxophonist Kayla Milmine. “I drew inspiration from Sun Ra, especially the film Space is the Place,” she remembers. “I like the idea of ‘women from space’ exploring the universe for new musical sounds and ideas and featuring them in this festival.”

The majority of the Women From Space performers this year are women, with efforts to feature queer, transgender and non-binary artists; men will be playing as well, largely in supportive roles to the women improvisers, composers, and bandleaders. While the number of participants has increased over the 2019 festival, showing the depth of Toronto’s musical scene, only a few individual performers are returning this year. Furthermore, these returnees’ 2020 Women From Space projects are completely different than the ones they were involved with in 2019. Notes Labikova: “We are consciously trying to expand our scene as well as audiences, by presenting new performers each year.”

Pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn.Another change from 2019 is that financial resources were made available to Women From Space from various funding bodies, allowing the festival to host sets featuring international players. For instance, Baltimore-based pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn will play a solo set at Burdock on March 5, sharing a bill with solo sets by Halifax-based guitarist Amy Brandon, Vancouver harpist Elisa Thorn, and Toronto-based keyboardist Claire Yunjin Lee. At that same venue two days later on March 7, New York soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome will improvise alongside Milmine. On March 8, the official International Women’s Day, the festival moves to 918 Bathurst for closing night celebrations. Among the features will be the duo of New York-based German tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and Canadian-in-Brooklyn pianist Kris Davis. That same night, New York double bassist William Parker will be part of a trio with locals, percussionist Germaine Liu and Labikova. 

Although the American guests are known for their jazz and improvisational skills, composition will also be emphasized at the 2020 festival, including new works commissioned by the festival organizers. Toronto-based Dutch composer and vocalist Lieke van der Voort and Toronto saxophonist/clarinetist Naomi McCarroll-Butler are each composing works for a special festival ensemble of double bass, baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, which will give premiere performances at Burdock on March 6. McCarroll-Butler will also perform as part of a trio with bassist Lauren Falls and saxophonist Olivia Shortt, at the club that same evening.

Meanwhile, West Grey Township-based trombonist Heather Saumer has composed special pieces that will be premiered at 918 Bathurst on March 8 by Felicity Williams, Robin Dann, Thomas Gill and Alex Samaras, who are singers as well as instrumentalists. Also that evening, former Montrealer, now Toronto-based Elizabeth Lima will perform a solo set based around vocals, clarinet and electronics, interacting with visuals by Meghan Cheng which were specially commissioned for the performance.

Pantayo. Photo credit: Sarah Bo.Other sets will emphasize still other music. On March 6 at Burdock, for example JUNO-nominated vocalist/trumpeter Tara Kannangara and her band will perform electric pop tinged with jazz. That same night, Teiya Kasahara, who specializes in contemporary opera and whose practice often incorporates opera, theatre, and taiko, will offer a solo set. At the same place the next night on March 7, all-women group Pantayo will preview selections from its upcoming album, which mixes percussive metallophones and drums from Kulintang traditions of the Southern Philippines with synthesizer-based electro grooves. On the final evening at 918 Bathurst, local independent dance artist Sahara Morimoto will perform with percussionist Raphael Roter.

These are just a few of the 40-odd performers who will be featured during the four days of this year’s festival. “Ambitious, fresh and diverse programming helps us increase our audience base,” states Labikova. “It also contributes to increasing Toronto’s reputation abroad and draws attention and recognition to women in music.” Plans for next year’s festival are already being germinated, she adds, maintaining the four-day schedule and likely inviting more international players.

The second annual Women From Space festival takes place in Toronto at Burdock, 1184 Bloor St. West (March 5-7, 2020) and 918 Bathurst (March 8, 2020). For more information about the complete lineup, as well as details about tickets and festival passes, visit www.womenfromspace.com.

Ken Waxman is a Toronto-based journalist who has written about improvised and other musics for many years. Many of his articles can be found at www.jazzword.com.

The company of Hamilton - National Tour. Photo credit: Joan Marcus, c/o Mirvish.

"I'm just like my country, I’m young scrappy and hungry, and I'm not throwing away my shot."

On February 12, I finally had the chance to see the musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's famously hip hop biography of America's lesser-known founding father, and first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. It has been a long five-year wait for Hamilton fans in Toronto since the show debuted at New York's Public Theater in February 2015 to immense popular and critical acclaim, moving to Broadway just months later and almost sweeping the Tony Awards, as well as being awarded that year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The show has continued to be showered with accolades, nearly unanimous raves, and a Grammy Award for the already six-time platinum-selling original cast album – which many fans have learned by heart, but hasn’t been seen in Toronto until now.

How does a touring production making the show's Canadian debut live up to that sort of reputation?

My fingers were crossed as I took my seat, my expectations so high that I didn't think they could be met. By intermission, however, I was a full convert, dazzled by the immediacy and urgency of the storytelling, the layered detailed brilliance of the libretto, the perfectly matching music – a heady mix of hip hop and R&B ballads with bits of Brit pop and traditional Broadway mixed in – and the superb staging of Thomas Kail melded with the idiosyncratic choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler.

The opening is almost subversive in its subtlety. There is no overture, just a lone figure entering the stage to quietly ask, “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore/and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a/forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence/impoverished in squalor/grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” It almost slipped by without everyone being aware that something magical was beginning. Meanwhile, the golden, space-filling, multi-level set began to fill with figures in 18th-century dress, and we were swept into the thrilling, intoxicating ride of Alexander Hamilton's unlikely rise from his obscure birth on a Caribbean island to a life in New York, urgently wanting to make his mark, to play a leading role in the American Revolution and the creation of the new nation.

"I'm just like my country/I'm young scrappy and hungry/and I'm not throwing away my shot!"

Joseph Morales (who led the Chicago company) is a magnetic Hamilton with a clear, strong voice and a vibrant sympathetic presence, making us feel every emotion on his journey. Equally strong and a great foil as Hamilton's friend and later enemy Aaron Burr, is Jared Dixon. Part of the brilliance of the book is this pairing of opposites. Hamilton is fiercely passionate, his emotions on his sleeve, while Burr, much more opaque about his own motives, cautions him to “talk less, smile more,” to “wait and see” rather than jumping into revolution or innovation.

Part of the thrill of the show's storytelling is also that all these “dead white men” (and women) are played by Black, Latin, and Asian performers, even – and there has been some questioning of this – slave owners such as Washington and Jefferson. This isn't “blind casting” but, as Miranda has expressed it, this is “the story of America then told by Americans now.” The lone white actor (other than some members of the ensemble) is Neil Haskell, who has a lovely time portraying England's King George III, the one character who is mostly seen alone onstage, and who sings in a vaudevillian Brit Pop style, with clever tongue-in-cheek lyrics highlighting a disbelief in his “revolting” colonial subjects' actions.

This casting strategy works, along with the music and verbal style, to make the urgency of the story feel as if it were happening today. Ironically, of course, Hamilton debuted when Barack Obama was president of the United States, and it did feel as if that country was entering an optimistic new era, whereas now not only the US but other places around the world are facing new forces of oppression, and there are new – or should I say old? – battles to be fought.

Perhaps this change in our social context is partly why the second half of the show felt less inspiring. The headiness of the success of the revolution gives way to the building of the new nation. It isn't as easy to keep the urgency and energy high onstage as politics and factionalism get in the way of accomplishment, though the Cabinet debates – played as rap battles – are fun, and the dueling scenes pulse with tension.

Part of the issue with this particular production is that Warren Egypt Franklin as Thomas Jefferson, while full of energy, is rather over-the-top in his portrayal of the brilliant but eccentric statesman, and his diction is so unclear that it is hard to follow and become engaged with the details of the political situation. The personal side of Hamilton's story also bogs down a bit here, as Stephanie Jae Park as his wife Eliza is not a terribly nuanced actor, though Darilyn Castillo as his fatal love interest Maria Reynolds is very effective, and Ta'rea Campbell as Eliza's sister Angelica (Hamilton's “intellectual soulmate”) makes a welcome brief return after her strong presence in Act One.

It feels a bit as though Miranda is trying to cram too much into too short a time, and it would be nice if there was a more rousing, inspiring finish, to send us out still as full of hope in the future as at intermission. A flawed second act notwithstanding, this is a “must-see” production for its passion, ambition, and innovation. It plays in Toronto until May 17.

The Canadian premiere of Hamilton runs until May 17, 2020, at the Ed Mirvish 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still from the film Parasite. Photo c/o TIFF.As movies from last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) continue opening and the awards season advances towards Oscar glory on February 9, we’re checking in on the status of some of the films we spotlighted in our eighth annual TIFF TIPS in the September issue of The WholeNote.

Dancers Ashley Chen and Melissa Toogood in Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace, choreographed to music by Morton Feldman, with costumes and décor by Robert Rauschenberg. Photo credit: Mko Malkhasyan, c/o Magnolia Pictures.Alla Kovgan’s eye-popping, entertaining Cunningham, an invaluable look at the life and work of legendary American choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), has just opened at TIFF Bell Lightbox (with a future engagement to follow at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema). The film features 14 dances that were originally created by Cunningham between 1942 and 1972, including his first collaboration with composer/life partner John Cage, 1942’s Totem Ancestor. Cage’s singular philosophy and wit are prominently displayed throughout (as well as several other choreographed compositions) as part of the fascinating archival footage – some never seen before – that illuminates Cunningham’s early years, rehearsals, tours and “chance dance” technique. Cunningham’s own wry wit emerges in several anecdotes and it’s striking how similar the two life partners’ cadences are when they speak.

The many music and dance re-creations of music by the likes of Morton Feldman, David Tudor and Erik Satie serve as signposts to an artistic world that also contained Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and the Black Mountain poets. But as Cunningham says: “I don’t describe it, I do it.”

Recently opened, François Girard’s The Song of Names, from the book by Norman Lebrecht, is the director’s latest music-themed film after Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin. It’s a sweeping historical drama, about a man searching for his childhood best friend – a Polish-born, London-raised violin prodigy orphaned by the Holocaust – who vanished in 1951 on the night of what would have been his first public performance. Not only does the movie evoke the collateral damage resulting from the Holocaust, it draws us directly to those who perished as a result of it by way of the film’s eponymous musical performance by Clive Owen as the one-time prodigy. Tim Roth also stars as Owen’s adoptive brother. Howard Shore’s indispensable score helps the film hit the right notes while Ray Chen’s world-class violin playing (for Owen) leaps off the screen.

A symbiotic relationship between two families, one rich, the other poor, is at the root of Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s socially conscious genre-buster that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2019. An ingenious and unpredictable twist-laden black comedy overlaying a B-movie construct, its musical component by Jung Jae-il consists mostly of a solo piano melody playing against cello, guitars and orchestral strings, with an original song with lyrics by the filmmaker performed by Choi Woo-shik, an actor in the film. One of 2019’s best films as endorsed by the Academy itself, Parasite – with its six Oscar nominations for Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Production Design and Best International Film (a rebranding of the old Best Foreign Language Film category) – is highly recommended.

 Still from the film Les Misérables. Photo c/o TIFF.Ladj Ly’s Cannes Jury Prize-winning debut feature and Academy Award nominee for Best International Film, Les Misérables set to open January 17 at TIFF Bell Lightbox – ingeniously weaves the thematic underpinning of Victor Hugo’s classic novel into an explosive contemporary narrative spotlighting France as a place of seismic political and social change. According to cinezik.org, the score by Canadian rock band Pink Noise (founded by Toronto-based Mark Sauner) is made up of consistent, unchangeable, undifferentiated electronic tablecloths that serve to maintain the film’s palpable tension. An empathetic look at the underbelly of the City of Light, life in the Paris suburbs has not been this well-portrayed since Mathieu Kassovitz’s fondly remembered La Haine (1995).

Nominated for two Oscars (Best International Film and Best Actor), Pedro Almodóvar’s superb new film, Pain and Glory, which bursts with autobiographical references, deals with creativity in a most novel way. It’s the story of a film director, Salvador Mallo (a graceful, subtle, nuanced Antonio Banderas), who is blocked creatively and consumed by physical pain: tinnitus, wheezes, headaches of all kinds; and what he calls pains of the soul – anxiety and tension. When we first meet him, he’s in a swimming pool trying to alleviate his back pain by exercising. He remembers, as a child, watching his mother, Jacinta (a radiant Penelope Cruz), singing A tu vera, a popular Spanish song from 1964, along with three other women, all doing their laundry at a river. It’s a happy memory, seeing his mother so joyful, and as he escapes into it, the soundtrack supports him with quizzical strings whose mysterious melody backs up the voice of a clarinet.

Alberto Iglesias has composed the soundtrack for all of Almodóvar’s films since 1995. Here, his companionable, fully integrated score is linked to what the director calls “three different atmospheres.” The first is inspired by the sunlight of the Valencian village memory; the second is linked to Mallo’s moments of pain and isolation, often adopting faster, repetitive patterns, more frantic musical movements or little tremors. The third sound, “luminous in its simple spirituality,” accompanies the scenes featuring the elderly Jacinta and grown-up Salvador, in Madrid, with the music adopting the mother’s spiritual attitude towards death. Iglesias won the Cannes Soundtrack Award for his intensely moving score – and Banderas won Best Actor at Cannes for his warm, humanistic performance. For more on the music of Pain and Glory, please see my full review at thewholenote.com.

There’s been a Stephen Sondheim shoutout (or more precisely, a sing-out) in three of this year’s TIFF-alumni, Oscar-nominated films. One such film is Noah Baumbach’s astutely observed Marriage Story, which includes Best Actor (Adam Driver) and Best Actress (Scarlett Johansson) among its six Oscar nominations. Johansson, Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever singing You Could Drive a Person Crazy is a useful piece of the movie’s fabric, while Driver’s tour-de-force cover of Being Alive is integral to its artistic success.

Among Todd Phillips’ Joker‘s 11 Oscar nominations is Hildur Guonadóttir’s for Best Original Score. According to her website, the Icelandic-born (1982), Berlin-resident cello player is at the forefront of experimental pop and contemporary music, with the band múm, for example. In her solo work, she draws out a broad spectrum of sounds from her instrument, ranging from intimate simplicity to huge soundscapes. She has written widely for symphony orchestra, theatre, dance and film, and recently became the first woman to win a Golden Globe for Best Original Score. Like fellow Best Actor nominee Adam Driver, Joker‘s Joaquin Phoenix sings a Sondheim song (Send in the Clowns, naturally). While Phoenix’s grip on Oscar gold seems secure, Driver deserves an award for the depth of his musical sensitivity.

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (its sole nomination is for Best Original Screenplay) included Daniel Craig’s character singing the Sondheim song Losing My Mind, which Johnson found to be a perfect analogy for the fact that Craig can’t quite figure out the mystery at the movie’s core. Baumbach, Phillips and Johnson all wrote the Sondheim songs directly into their screenplays before any footage was shot.

Finally, to complete this TIFF 2019 update, as expected, Renée Zellweger remains the favourite to win the Best Actress Oscar for her impersonation of the last months of Hollywood icon Judy Garland’s life in Judy.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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/.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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