Sheila Jordan, at Jazz Bistro. Photo by the author.Now’s the time to listen up to Sheila Jordan. 88-years-young and singing better than ever, she is at a creative peak, touring the world as jazz singer, educator and “jazz ambassador.” Much is amazing about this beautiful songbird who weaves her soul’s magic on all sorts of stages, changing lives one gig at a time. She does this all herself and always has, and as the song goes, she did it her way. “I’ve never had an agent or a manager,” she once told me. “I’m not a diva, if you know what I mean. I just want to sing, teach, and spread the message of this music. Most of the gigs I get, I get from musicians.”

On June 26 and 27, 2017, the TD Toronto Jazz Festival presented Sheila Jordan at one of the city’s premier jazz venues, Jazz Bistro. Pianist Adrean Farrugia, bassist Neil Swainson and trumpeter Brad Goode all provided inspiring accompaniment for the singer. There were two performances nightly, at 7pm and 10pm, and I was fortunate enough to be in attendance for all four of them. (Thanks to Brian Chahley, the last set of the four can be viewed here:

Before I get to the review of these appearances, just in case some of you reading this will say, “Sheila who?” I will give you a little introduction; for those curious about this woman’s extraordinary life, music and legacy, I highly recommend Ellen Johnson’s biography “Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan”.

Sheila Jeanette Dawson was born on November 18, 1928 in Detroit to unwed teenagers. As a toddler she was raised by her grandparents, at one time 10 people sharing a room, in Summerhill, a poverty-stricken coal-mining town in rural Pennsylvania. It was there that she discovered her gift of expressing her woe through songs, her Cherokee bloodline seeping with chant into the likes of You Are My Sunshine, Downtown Strutter’s Ball, Shine on Harvest Moon and When I Grow Too Old to Dream in the beer gardens for an inebriated crowd of coal miners. She returned to Detroit at 14, but her alcoholic mother’s abusive husband drove the precocious child to early independence.

Then it happened – the moment that changed her life forever – sparked by a nickel in a jukebox. The record was Charlie Parker and His Re-Boppers and it was a huge eureka moment for her. The bold risks and expressive innovations of modern jazz, especially those by its magical main man, Charlie “Bird” Parker, struck a (bebop) chord deep within the adolescent, and since dedicating her life to jazz music 70 years ago, she has never looked back. Following Charlie Parker around from club to club, she and her friends inspired the song Chasing the Bird and Parker lauded her “million dollar ears.” They were close friends until his death in 1955.

Bird lives on in Jordan’s music to this day, his adventurous spirit felt in every note. On Tribute, her lyrics in dedication to Parker culminate in a sentiment her own fans can relate to: “…somehow I find it rather strange knowing that there are those of us who really love him, while so many aren’t even aware of his name…” A memorable performance of this tune can be found here, in duo with bassist Harvie S – “bass and voice” being a collaborative form Sheila herself originated after experimenting with Charles Mingus in the early 1950s.

Sheila’s life story is actually best summed up herself, in the tune Sheila’s Blues which she recorded on one of her finest albums,The Crossing in 1984. It is an incredibly personal artistic statement, encapsulating not only her dazzling musicality, but also the honesty which makes it matter. There are a handful of brilliant versions of this song on YouTube, including this one posted last week, filmed in 1988 in Graz, Austria where Sheila was teaching a workshop, and this one from 2012 in front of an appreciative hometown crowd in Detroit.

Fast-forward to June 27, 11:21pm, TD Toronto Jazz Festival, Jazz Bistro, Toronto, Canada. Sheila Jordan and the Adrean Farrugia trio just finished performing her cathartic composition about recovering from alcohol and drug abuse, The Crossing, and there is not a dry eye in the house. Advertised by the festival as “one of the finest singers in jazz since Billie Holiday,” Jordan’s astonishing depth as a ballad singer was evidenced by songs she sent out to musicians who had touched her life. The second night in particular was poignant, in huge part by jazz pianist Geri Allen's passing. The 60-year-old jazz luminary was well-known for her spirited, deeply blues-oriented style of playing and composing. Jordan, a close friend of the artist, dedicated The Thrill is Gone to her, managing to avoid her own tears while inspiring a plethora in the audience.

Jordan's rendition of Abbey Lincoln’s melancholy Bird Alone was imbued with a bossa nova beat that only enhanced its mood. Kenny Dorham’s still-timely Fairweather was dedicated to its composer, an underrated trumpet player she urged the audience to check out. A splendid composition by Alan Broadbent and Dave Frishberg encouraged each audience member to follow their Heart’s Desire: “I quit my day job at 58 and here I am today. It’s never too late!”

Maybe what makes Jordan’s ballads so arresting is the humour that surrounds them. Hardly trying to hide her age, she channels her inner child, improvising her own lyrics on the spot with consistently hysterical results. On a slowed-down tribute to Ella, titled Lady Be Good, she purposely didn’t scat, but told the story of the first time she heard Fitzgerald, on a 78 she purchased with a quarter earned by scrubbing a woman’s steps.

A genuine jazz giant in a tiny frame, it is Jordan’s lightness of being, her casual ability to connect with strangers, that makes her not merely refreshing, but wondrous. Some 70 years after she first heard Bird, this sage storyteller is as fearless as she is precious; may she long continue to sing, swing and inspire.

Singer (with) Heart, Educator In-The-Moment! Loving Audiences
Jazzy Open Range, Dreamlike Agility; Now’s the time to listen up to Sheila Jordan.

Sheila Jordan performed a total of four sets on June 26 and 27 at Toronto’s Jazz Bistro, as part of the 2017 TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at


Jean-Pierre Melville (left) and Pierre Grasset.To celebrate the centennial of the birth of French director Jean-Pierre Melville, TIFF Bell Lightbox is screening 12 of his feature films and one short between June 29 and August 19.

Most of Melville’s films dwell in the shadowy world of men who live close to death – gangsters, cops, French Resistance fighters. They usually unfold in B&W, methodically, in stories told like a procedural. His characters often drive around in big American cars, finned gas guzzlers from the late 1950s and early 1960s, and Melville likes to shoot them externally through the front window and internally from the back seat. He’s fond of long looks filled with unspoken words, and of scenes of dancing girls in clubs. But even fonder of jazz, which he uses extensively in the films I was able to preview for the TIFF retrospective.

Melville himself stars in Two Men in Manhattan (July 9), as a journalist for Agence France Press dispatched by his employer to investigate the disappearance of a French delegate to the United Nations. Released in 1959 (but more importantly, shot in Manhattan in November and December 1958), this noirish B-movie looks terrific, the authentic footage of NYC exquisitely beautiful and time-capsule worthy. The journalist turns to an alcoholic photographer pal (Pierre Grasset) for help in the case – he’s got photos of the diplomat with three different women (possible mistresses) – and the duo set out to cherchez la femme. One of these women is a jazz singer with a light, dusky voice (played by Glenda Leigh), who they meet during a recording session of Street in Manhattan at Capitol Records. (Leigh was still active in Florida as recently as 2013.)

Two Men in Manhattan: Martial Solal, piano; Bernard Hulin, trumpet.The evocative score is by Christian Chevallier and Martial Solal (who also wrote the score for Godard’s Breathless, Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest and Bertolucci’s The Dreamers). From the opening trumpet underneath footage of Times Square, you know immediately that you’re in New York in the 1950s. The trumpet theme recurs periodically as the city is unveiled from the UN to Greenwich Village, including contemporaneous marquees of movies featuring the likes of Jeff Chandler and Esther Williams. But it’s images of Times Square and 42nd Street that jump out like time-lapse photography. Two Men in Manhattan may not have the gravitas of Army of Shadows, the elegance of Bob le flambeur (July 7) or the gangster demi-monde of Le Doulos (July 29), Le Deuxième Souffle (July 25) and The Red Circle (July 28), but it’s a jewel in its own right and not to be missed on the big screen.

Jean-Paul Belmondo in Le Doulos.Army of Shadows (June 30; July 30) is an unmissable portrait of a handful of French Resistance fighters (Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret star) inexorably doomed in the early days of the movement; Léon Morin, Priest (July 16) also takes place during the German Occupation which serves as backdrop to its erotically charged tale of a lapsed Catholic-turned-Communist widow (Emmanuelle Riva, fresh from Hiroshima, mon amour) and the intellectually engaged priest (Jean-Paul Belmondo, fresh from Breathless) who rekindles her faith.

The series opened with a 35mm print of Le Samouraï (June 29; August 19), a film that influenced John Woo and Jim Jarmusch among others. Its ultra-cool hitman is played by the magisterial Alain Delon, his screen presence at its peak. The jazz-based score, filled with foreboding that mirrors the psyche of its protagonist, is by François de Roubaix. In Melville’s last film, Un Flic, Delon is a cop who plays piano for his mistress (Catherine Deneuve), the girlfriend of his prey (Richard Crenna, whose craggy face can’t be dubbed the way his voice is). Michel Colombier’s score was his first for Melville (who never used any composer more than twice) but followed in the jazz footsteps of most of its predecessors since Eddie Barclay and Jo Boyer’s memorable work in Bob le flambeur.

TIFF’s retrospective on the work of Jean-Pierre Melville runs until August 19 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information, visit

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.


 The cast of Uncle Vanya. Photo credit: Valeriy Myasnika.As I made my way through the lobby of the John Bassett Theatre on Saturday, June 24 to find my seat, I was surrounded by Russian speakers excitedly in conversation, waiting for the curtain to go up on the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre production of Russia’s Uncle Vanya (as part of the 2017 Luminato festival). What a perfect unexpected pre-show start to an evening of classic Russian theatre that I was to review as part of my work as The WholeNote’s music theatre columnist

“Wait a second,” you say, “Uncle Vanya? But that's Chekhov, right? Slightly turgid, sad, straight plays about people who want to go to Moscow or not sell their Cherry Orchard...right?” “Well, yes,” I reply, “and no.” This company is famous for using the theatrical methods of Meyerhold – large-scale symbolism, mime and music – in their productions, so it does qualify as “music theatre” to some extent. I was interested to see how important music would be to telling the story, as well as what would be different in the Vakhtangov company’s approach, and how it would affect my response.

It took a while to acclimatize to the style and its conventions, which at first were almost alienating, but by halfway to the intermission I was won over and the production began to take hold. From the beginning, the music was a constant. Almost no scene was un-scored or unaccompanied by sound – sometimes in accord with the surface emotion of a scene, but more often expressing what lay beneath – and only rarely was there no music or sound at all, and only for specific effect.

While the text of the play (and the program stated, no word of Chekhov’s writing had been omitted) was spoken in what one would think of as a natural, realistic way, the physical expression of emotion, feelings and relationships was not. At first it seemed strangely presentational and arbitrary, but later it became refreshingly evocative of what the characters were feeling – often the opposite of what they were saying. From Elena throwing herself onto the floor in the middle of the stage or walking across the stage with a silver hula hoop (which naturally folded into the staging), to Vanya’s caressing of Elena’s feet and calves (the only part of her visible from behind a screen), to characters feeling no need to look at each other as they spoke, to the grand mimetic entrances and exits for the professor and his entourage, the physicality of this production was used to powerful, and often disconcerting, effect.

From my reading about Meyerhold I had expected the stylization to have more influence over the speaking of the text, so that was the biggest surprise, and for me a great part of the success of this production. Somehow in this particular combination of words, movement and music, the inner needs and lives of the characters were set free and allowed us to love them and laugh at them at the same time. World theatre criticism and production has finally moved on to a more general acceptance of the fact that Chekhov’s plays are actually meant to be funny (alongside the personal and societal sorrows they depict) but this production was a revelation, the comedy and tragedy so strongly interlaced and exposed to us in the audience that we came to really care about these odd, desperate trapped people, in all their absurdity and flawed humanity.

Dancers Ching Ying Chien and Christine Joy Ritter in Until the Lions. Photo credit: Jean Louis Fernandez.Until the Lions: Earlier in the festival on June 18, I had the chance to see Akram Khan’s dance production Until the Lions, and in this the music was even more integral. Long before the show itself began there was an almost subliminally present, ominous wind-like soundscape playing through the theatre’s speakers, interlaced with moving light and shadow on the stage. As the piece itself began this was layered with live music performed by a team of musicians using their voices, drums, a guitar and various other instruments to create an invigoratingly live soundscape score for the dancers. There was a magical quality to the setting: a stage looking like the rippled stump of a giant tree with springy bamboo shoots growing randomly on its uneven surface and around the stage, in front of an audience seated on all four sides, was a path for the musicians, and occasionally for the dancers, to travel. Taken from the “Story of Amba,” a princess in the Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata, Until the Lions explores the unseen side of her story in an immensely fierce and passionate hour of choreography for three dancers (Akram Khan, Ching-Ying Chien and Joy Alpuerto RItter.

Pss Pss. Photo credit: Pipo Gialluisi.Pss Pss: On the same day as Until the Lions I went earlier to see Pss Pss, a clown performance by the Italian Compagnia Baccalà at Luminato’s “Famous Spiegeltent,” not expecting it to connect at all with the later show and yet, much to my delight, it really did.  Brilliant clown duo Camilla Pessi and Simone Fassari, looking like white face versions of Edward Everett Horton and a young Christina Ricci, began almost in silence, finding hilarity in the shared desire to eat an apple with barely a sound other than the whispered “pss pss” to catch one another’s attention. Then, the music erupted into the space – wonderfully circus-y dramatic music, selections from Ekberg, Torgue, Houppin and Lindvall – and these two goofy figures we were starting to love morphed into brilliant, slightly clumsy (but not really) acrobats throwing each other around. Pessi balanced on Fassari’s shoulders, head, even a single hand, the two bodies supporting each other then falling and tumbling and intertwining in a choreography that would find a serious counterpart in the passionate dance duets of Until the Lions later that day. Such synchronicity, and fascinating to see the relationship between two people depicted in such funny and then such searing detail.

All in all, an impressive array of shows at this year’s Luminato festival – and a reminder of how successful “music theatre” can be found in even the most unexpected of places.

The Luminato festival ran from June 14 to 25, in various locations throughout Toronto. For more information, visit

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.


Westben concerts at the Barn.Classical music aficionados, rejoice! Westben Theatre is gearing up for their annual summer festival, which runs from July 2 to August 6 this year. The lineup is nearly entirely Canadian, making it a fitting celebration for the country’s 150th birthday. All the more reason to get out of the city and celebrate classical music as Mother Nature intended: in the great Canadian backyard. All you need is a curiosity to hear classical music packaged differently – have you ever heard a professional piano concert in a barn? How about a birdwatching walk with piano music serenading participants on the trail? Or a late night jazz pub crawl around the Trent Hills region?

Based out of a barn-style theatre in Campbellford, Ontario, Westben has 25 events slated for its music series this summer – most of which can be sorted into six categories:

International – a homecoming for Canadian artists who perform on world stages
Canadian Acts – eminent homegrown acts
Novel Experiences – sound explorations presented in non-conventional formats
Technical – technical demonstrations or presentations
Jazz – casual presentations around town
Miscellaneous – performances falling outside classical and jazz genres

Here are some of The WholeNote’s picks from each category:

Rolston String Quartet
Sunday, July 9, 2pm

The winners of the 2016 Banff international String Quartet Competition are on a busy touring schedule, playing at various festivals across the country. It will be interesting to hear how the acoustics of a string quartet resonate in a barn…

Great Pianists: Jan Lisiecki
Saturday, July 22, 2pm

Gramophone Magazine 2016 Young Artist of the Year, the 21-year-old Calgarian first came into the international spotlight in 2010. He will perform works by Bach, Schumann, Chopin and Schubert.

Fiddle! Everything Fitz
Sunday, July 16, 2pm

Old-time fiddling and Ottawa-Valley step dancing. This promises to be an engaging and patriotic concert!

Song Birds: Find the birds, find the pianist!
Saturday, July 22, 7am

An out-of-city experience: a hunt for music and birds in Ferris Provincial Park, as pianist Rashaan Allwood interprets birdcalls in the park. Allwood will have performed the evening prior in the Barn, in another bird-themed program of piano works by Olivier Messiaen. The composer’s fascination with birds is well-documented: he would attempt to imitate their chirps and warbles in his music. As Allwood wrote to The WholeNote, “[the space] is a great venue because it's isolated, and quasi-outside in a barn that was turned into a concert hall. Really cool stuff.” He also has plans to bring the performance to Toronto audiences: “I'm planning to do the same program with images in Montreal, Scarborough and Toronto, sometime between September and November this year.”

On the Record
Saturday, July 22, 7pm and Sunday July 23, 10am

This is your chance to learn about the recording studio from sound engineer Andy Thompson. How does that life-changing performance get transcribed onto CD, for repeat enjoyment? After the workshop, participants will take away a recording of their own performances.

Emilie-Claire Barlow
Saturday, August 5, 2pm

Trent Hills will be alive with the sound of this two-time JUNO Award winner. Barlow is a Canadian jazz singer, arranger, record producer and voice actress. She will appear with Amanda Tosoff (piano) and Jon Maharaj (bass).

Jazz Jam
Saturday, August 5, 9pm

Bring your own instrument and jam with the Band! Featuring vocalist/pianist Rob Phillips, bassist Howard Baer, and drummer Harry Ellis.

Jazz Brunch
Sunday, August 6, 11am

An easygoing way to spend a Sunday. Breakout performances at various locations. See website for details.

TGIFun! Arrogant Worms
Friday, July 7, 7pm

Those who are averse to fun should stay away from this performance! The Arrogant Worms will perform selections from their latest album, on Canadian themes. Billed as “tuneful and silly escapism for everyone who needs it!”

Waves of Broadway
Wednesday, July 26 to Saturday, July 29, 2pm

Performances of water-themed Broadway hits.

Montreal Guitar Trio & California Guitar Trio
Friday, August 4, 7pm

These two trios have been giving joint performances for the past seven years. On the bill: jazz, world music, classical, rock, blues, progressive, and quintessentially Californian surf music. With six guitarists on stage, this promises to be a fun event!

Westben’s summer festival series runs from July 2 to August 6 in Campbellford. For more information, visit Stay posted at for more updates from this year’s Westben festival.  

Jennifer Liu is a recent graduate in piano performance, and has written on classical music for La Scena Musicale, The WholeNote Magazine, and Musical Toronto.



Suki Waterhouse. Courtesy of NEON.With its hallucinogenic mood, stunning cinematography, survival-revenge theme and lone-wolf protagonist, Ana Lily Amirpour's follow-up to her striking debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night shows off its confident director's singular vision of a post-modern western with aplomb.

Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is a young woman unceremoniously dumped into the vast Texas desert, lumped in and fenced off with other marginalized rejects of American society known as the bad batch. She's soon caught by one of the area's many cannibals (bridge dwellers), who severs her right arm and leg. Managing to escape using her toughness, ingenuity and a skateboard, she's found by a Good Samaritan who brings her to the town of Comfort, where a Hugh Hefner-like, LSD-dispensing strongman known as The Dream (Keanu Reeves) holds its citizens in his thrall. But Arlen can't resist the call of the wild in the form of Miami Man (Jason Momoa) and his young daughter. As the story unfolds (with frequent satiric jabs), it's clear that Arlen is living out an allegorical distillation of the American dream of family and freedom.

Jason Momoa and Suki Waterhouse. Courtesy of NEON.The Bad Batch's languorous dystopian atmospherics are enhanced, amplified and re-enforced by Amirpour's well-chosen soundtrack. Federale's All the Colours of the Dark, for example, begins sleepily, like the day itself. “I awoke in the dark / called out into the cold dark” it sings out, as the day unfolds in a series of landscapes and skyscapes matching the music's druggy somnambulance: “All the colours of the dark will remind you of someone who once was you.”

Keanu Reeves as The Dream, with his enforcers. Courtesy of NEON.Black Light Smoke's Screws in My Head, with its cool, insistent beat, buttresses the carnival-like dance music played by Comfort's resident DJ (Diego Luna) that introduces The Dream and his coterie of pregnant machine-gun toting enforcers with their “THE DREAM IS INSIDE ME” T-shirts. Earlier, the same band's Firefly underscores Miami Man and his bridge-dwelling family with a rolling, hypnotic beat and pointed lyric: “I'm like a firefly trapped in the spotlight.”

And what could be more apt than the lyric of White Lies' Fifty on Our Foreheads to put a bow on the movie's happy, if uncertain, ending: “A quilt of darkness dotted with our teardrops. The moonlight licked the face of danger.”

If you're a fan of post-apocalyptic movies, The Bad Batch is a must-see.

The Bad Batch plays from June 23 to June 29, at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.


The Seven Deadly Sins at the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.What a treat to hear Wallis Giunta sing Anna I and to watch Jennifer Nichols dance Anna II, to experience them playing two exquisite halves of a whole. Their plight was the centrepiece of last night’s concert at the TSO, in a semi-staged version of Brecht/Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins that documents the seven-year, seven-city trek that two ‘sisters’ undertake to make enough money to build the “little house in Louisiana” that is everything their family wants.

The Seven Deadly Sins was originally envisioned as a “ballet chantée” – a “sung ballet” with a full ballet company as well as singers and a leading dancer, telling the story of two sisters (or are they?) encountering the seven deadly sins in seven American cities as they strive to raise money for their family. Last night’s semi-staged version, directed by Joel Ivany and choreographed by his frequent collaborator Jennifer Nichols, did a very clever job of having the four male singers take on the roles usually performed by dancers as well as their own characters of the “family” (father, mother and two brothers). As Nichols had earlier told me (and as she explains in the program notes), her approach to the choreography was “to find a way to express that the family of Anna does not simply sit outside of her in judgment but are an extension of her own self-examination, her hopes and fears.” This, added to the usual interchangeability of Anna I and II in spite of the divided sides of her personality, led to a very interesting new take on the piece. The four male singers (Isaiah Bell, Owen McCausland, Stephen Hegedus and Geoffrey Sirett) proved admirable actors and performers of the choreography and staging – Geoffrey Sirett standing out in a moving pas de deux with Nichols in the “Lust” chapter.

Giunta and Nichols also blended seamlessly – Giunta moving like a dancer as well as acting powerfully, and Nichols also acting wonderfully while dancing and speaking. Looking almost identical but subtly differentiating themselves more and more throughout the piece, practical Anna I (Giunta) became more and more hardened to the “practical necessities” of the world while the ”she is an artist” Anna II (Nichols) grew more vulnerable and beaten up from fighting impossible fights. The pair’s repeated refrain (ironic for the audience) of “Nicht wahr, Anna?” (Right, Anna?) and “Ja, Anna” (Yes, Anna) still echoes in my memory, with poor Anna II more and more discouraged even while continuing to agree with her stronger and more soulless half.

The original production in Paris in 1933 was apparently received with some puzzlement, and while The Seven Deadly Sins is considered a modern classic and true to the political values seen in other Brecht/Weill collaborations, watching it tonight I was not surprised that it would have been received that way. The irony in the libretto is sometimes too subtle, sometimes too over the top,  and the sins themselves not easy to depict onstage – perhaps why this work is much more often seen in concert form rather than being fully staged. In this case, though, the semi-staged, choreographed production last night was much more satisfying than a straightforward concert singing of the material would have been.

It was also fascinating to see in this third collaboration of director and choreographer such a seamlessly smooth blending of approach and staging. Perhaps it was my high expectation of these friends and their abilities that made me want even more from the performance – perhaps a more pointed political context given the state of the world today, or another way to give the production more of a contemporary urgency, but that may be just me. Already their work together is reaching new heights and depths, and with the new video element to bookend each chapter of the story (enigmatic, Bergman-esque black-and-white video images created by Jennifer Nichols with Christopher Monetti), they are already exploring new territory. I look forward to seeing their next collaboration, as well as which other semi-staged productions the TSO will make part of future seasons.

Brecht/Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins was presented by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday, June 14, alongside works by Balfour, Barber and Bartók. A second performance takes place on Thursday, June 15.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

Toronto, meet TONE.

Percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, who opens the first concert of TONE. Credit: Jonathan Sielaff.A new undertaking by Karen Ng, Tad Michalak, Ron Gaskin and Daniel Pencer, TONE is a newcomer to the local summer festival scene this month. But unlike other festivals this summer, this one focuses exclusively on experimental music—programming a breadth of artists known for their adventurous approach rather than zeroing in on specific genres or styles. And unlike most other first-time projects, TONE—which features no less than eight concerts between June 14 and 29—has a scope that echoes that fearlessness.

In a recent interview with NOW, organizer Tad Michalak talks about how TONE was conceived as a way of filling a void, in a city that often omits experimental music from its summer festival offerings. “Year after year, it got disheartening to see a scene we worked year-round to build and invigorate get ignored by many major festivals,” he explains to NOW’s Carla Gillis. “TONE came about essentially out of necessity.”

If their goal was to do something about the dearth of summertime avant-garde music in Toronto, then TONE is a promising start. The festival features several sets of improvised music from both local and international artists, and aligns itself with some of the most active local venues for experimental music in the city. Acclaimed Japanese percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani opens the festival tonight (Wednesday, June 14) at the Tranzac, with other concerts taking place there in the following weeks, as well as at the Burdock, Array Space, the Jam Factory, and Ratio—which, having just announced its closure as a music venue, will present a TONE show on Saturday, June 24 as its last-ever concert.

Apart from a mandate for supporting experimental music, the TONE team—each of whom has a wealth of experience running music collectives and curating experimental music of one kind or another during the regular Toronto concert season—has been intentionally indiscriminate about genre. It means, ultimately, that among fans of the avant-garde, there really is something for everybody. Beyond opening night and the Ratio show, other standouts in the festival lineup include a three-set show co-presented with the Music Gallery on Thursday, June 15, featuring groups DKV, Icepick, and Invisible Out; an appearance by Berlin-based pianist Achim Kaufmann’s trio Grünen at Array on Monday, June 19 (in a double-bill with local group The Cluttertones); and a co-presentation with Electric Eclectics on Wednesday, June 21 at the Jam Factory, which opens with a performance by Ethiopian jazz accordion virtuoso Hailu Mergia.

Tickets range between $10 and $22 per show, with a 4-show pass available for $45 and a full festival pass available for $85—all of which are available at the door or in advance at Circus Books & Music, Rotate This, and Soundscapes.

Congrats to TONE for being bold, for making a plan for re-invigorating the summer experimental music scene, and for making it happen.

TONE, curated by Karen Ng, Tad Michalak, Ron Gaskin and Daniel Pencer, runs from June 14 to 29 in multiple locations throughout Toronto. For details, visit

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at

Erin Stone, from the cast of Whose Opera is it Anyway?!. Credit: Dahlia Katz Photography.Opera is no stranger to onstage ridiculousness—but it isn’t always as slyly self-aware as this.

Following its inaugural show of the same name in July 2015, Loose TEA Music Theatre is back with a new installment of opera improv series Whose Opera is it Anyway?!. Inspired by the popular improv comedy TV show Whose Line is it Anyway?, Loose TEA’s production strings together improv comedy games into an opera of sorts, where professionals from the local opera community are forced to put their vocal and theatrical talents to comedic, and unexpected, use.

The show, which is organized by Loose TEA’s artistic director Alaina Viau and coached by Carly Heffernen of Second City, takes place on Friday, June 16, at Bad Dog Theatre in Toronto. The cast itself is a promising cross-section of local opera singers, including Jeff Boyd, Amanda Cogan, Adanya Dunn, Gillian Grossman, Rachel Krehm, Jonathan MacArthur, Erin Stone and Lindsay Sutherland-Boal. Schmopera’s Greg Finney will host and Natasha Fransblow will accompany at the piano.

Loose TEA isn’t the only group experimenting with musical manifestations of improv comedy, either. Also in town this month from London’s West End is Showstopper!, an improvised musical comedy running at the Panasonic Theatre until June 25. The show features a troupe of musical comedians billed as ‘The Showstoppers’, who, similar to Whose Line, use audience suggestions to create an on-the-spot performance of musical theatre. While the show has toured extensively in the UK, this Mirvish-hosted run is the group’s North American debut.

Whether these shows represent a growing trend or simply coincidental offshoots into music theatre’s less serious side remains to be seen. And though it’s of course impossible to say exactly what these shows will offer, the mix of operatic and musical tropes with improv comedy is an interesting one, which pokes fun at the melodrama of music theatre while offering something more casual, spontaneous and light-spirited than your average Verdi or Wagner. A bit of a collision of worlds, perhaps, but one that makes sense—and one worth watching.

Loose TEA Music Theatre’s Whose Opera is it Anyway?! takes place at Bad Dog Theatre in Toronto on Friday, June 16 at 9:30pm, and is a 19+ show. Tickets are $12; for details visit Showstopper! runs until June 25 at the Panasonic Theatre; more info at

Sara Constant is a Toronto-based flutist and musicologist, and is digital media editor at The WholeNote. She can be contacted at

John Cage in 1981, “Music is an act of aspiration,” claimed historical novelist Rose Tremain (Music and Silence, The Gustav Sonata) in her Writers & Company (June 4, 2017) CBC radio interview. And aspiration was also at the top of American iconoclast composer John Cage’s list of research topics when he set to work on his CBC commission for a work, in Cage’s words, to “observe the bicentennial of the United States of America.”

The composer tells us in his pre-recorded, self-narrated Preface to Lecture on the Weather (1975), played back before each performance, that the  “first thing I thought of doing in relation to this work was to find an anthology of American aspirational thought and subject it to chance operations.” His motive was transformational: “I thought the resultant complex would help to change our present intellectual climate.” Unfortunately, no such anthology existed, he tells us.

This compellingly rich yet provocative Cage work received a rare and thought-provoking concert performance on May 28, by the Music in the Barns Chamber Ensemble at the Great Hall in Toronto.

It was the keystone work of a concert which included works by American minimalist Philip Glass (Tissue # 1, 2, 7, 2002) and Canadian postmodernist Michael Oesterle (Daydream Mechanics for string quartet, 2001). The concert was the centrepiece of the evening, which also included, in other Great Hall rooms, Becoming Sensor, a multi-sensory installation by Natasha Myers, Ayelen Liberona, Allison Cameron, Rosina Kazi and Nicholas Murray; and The Great Arc by the New York City duo Dana Lyn & Kyle Sanna. All of these Music in the Barns events were created for the Canadian Association for Theatre Research conference titled Performing the Anthropocene: Setting the Stage for the End of the World, held in Toronto the last week in May.

One of Lecture on the Weather’s most significant – and perhaps challenging – features is the work’s essentially multimedia and highly collaborative nature. It is a result of the collaborative processes set up by the composer to include his own text, texts by Henry David Thoreau (from which Cage selected relevant sections, filtered through I Ching procedures), recordings of environmental sounds produced by American composer Maryanne Amacher, plus a film by Chilean visual artist Luis Frangella using Thoreau’s drawings. As for live performers, the score calls for 12 expatriate “vocalists and/or players” with independent sound systems, each “given an equalization distinguishing it from the others” – emphasizing Cage’s socio-political agenda in the piece.

As far as I could tell, those stipulations were adhered to in Music in the Barns’ recent performance. The Music in the Barns performance also included composer Jim Montgomery, who also served as performer at the work’s premiere in 1976 – a nice touch of continuity.

On one level, Lecture on the Weather is an homage to Henry David Thoreau’s philosophy, words and drawings. A New England transcendentalist writer and naturalist, much of the nature sounds reflected in Thoreau’s work are represented in Cage’s piece. On the other hand, the methodology of Lecture on the Weather conforms to well-established Cagean practices of that period, such as employing I Ching divination to determine compositional choices, as well as a tip of the hat to his own back catalogue in the form of his most iconic work 4’33”: the durational range each speaker-vocalist is given is determined by multiples of 4’33”.

The work also serves as a radical personal political statement, an incisive critique of his home country’s place in the world. Cage concludes the first section of his Preface by linking the corruption of the laws of the land when it “concentrates its energy on protecting the rich from the poor” to leadership lacking in “not only aspiration but intelligence (as in the work of Buckminster Fuller) and conscience (as in the thought of Thoreau).”

Lecture on the Weather has long been recognized as the most overtly political of Cage’s oeuvre. It points fingers, raises questions. It is part polemical lecture, part experimental film, theatrical performance, part environmental sound poem. It is problematic (and problematizing) to the bone. And – as the compelling Music in the Barns performance on May 28 demonstrates – that is why it’s still as relevant today as the day it was first performed.

Lecture on the Weather was presented by Music in the Barns on Sunday, May 28 at the Great Hall in Toronto, as part of a series of works presented for the conference Performing the Anthropocene: Setting the Stage for the End of the World. For those curious about the deep backstory of this work’s commission, I recommend David Jaeger’s first-person account in his October 26, 2016 WholeNote article.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at

annes cropped finalSt. Anne’s Anglican Church is a beautiful, welcoming environment in which to hear a performance. Entering the church on Sunday, May 28, I was greeted with an exhibition of Indigenous artists, on the theme of reconciliation. The first piece I noticed was a striking silk dress with a subtly integrated traditional star quilt pattern created by designer and artist Sage Paul. Placed about the auditorium are other works of art, including paintings and a beautiful birch bark canoe. Beyond that, in front of the altar, the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan (ECCG) was assembled to add its musical voice to the conversation.

St. Anne’s ensemble-in-residence, the Junction Trio, opened the concert – titled “Post-Industrial Gamelan!” – with a Haydn divertimento, and the St. Anne’s Choir further quieted the mood with Tallis’ If Ye Love Me, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, and Canadian composer Rupert Lang’s Kontakion.

After the release of two new recordings recently, the ECCG returned to more familiar territory for this performance. They began their portion of the set with a staple of the group’s repertoire, Anjeun (you), by the late Indonesian composer Nano Suratno. The piece was a pop hit in Indonesia in the 90s, but is a much subtler composition than any of the pop versions would have you believe, and is also a great introduction to the degung orchestra (and the ECCG is first and foremost that).

Rengga Renggi by Burhan Sukarma (arranged by ECCG member Bill Parsons) featured a lively section of “trading fours” between hand drums and other percussion, an energetic highlight of the performance.

Another mainstay of the ECCG repertoire, Lou Harrison’s Ibu Trish, a gently contemplative piece, was well suited to the ambience of the room. Canadian film composer Paul Intson’s Rainforest rounded out the program as the least traditional-sounding piece, full of melodic and rhythmic twists and turns, and fully utilizing the timbral possibilities in the gamelan.

The ECCG’s part of the program came to a close with a loosely-structured vehicle for joint improvisation between the gamelan and the Junction Trio. No one really took any risks, but the tremolos and long tones made for a gentle landing at the end of the program. In all, a subtly diverse set of compositions played with a relaxed familiarity, giving evidence to the ECCG’s long history of working together.

I feel compelled to commend St. Anne’s for its annual series of diverse programming, and even more so for its series of events on the theme of reconciliation (the current art exhibit but one of many this year). The concert performance of the ECCG, Junction Trio and St. Anne's Choir proved a powerful example of the diversity of music on offer at this venue. And as for the art exhibit that set the tone for afternoon, I was reminded, first, of the systematic persecution of local Indigenous communities, and second, of the Louis Riel quote: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”

"Post-Industrial Gamelan! took place on Sunday, May 28 at 2pm, at St. Anne's Anglican Church in Toronto.

John Carnes is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, jewellery designer and skateboarder.

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