Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó and pianist Christopher Foley. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz.Editor’s note: Since the concert covered here, where a reduced team of Tapestry artists and production staff put together a livestream performance, more stringent physical distancing precautions have been recommended by community and government groups. We currently do not recommend in-person gatherings of any size with anyone outside of your household. (updated 26/03/2020).

As many performing arts organisations around the world have had to make the difficult decisions to cancel their activities amidst the escalation of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Tapestry Opera cancelled both its emerging artists showcase, Songbook X, and its three-day emerging artist masterclass, New Opera 101. However, what could have been a sad footnote in the company’s year-end debrief, will instead possibly become a road map to navigate the challenging times ahead for artistic organisations. Tapestry Opera’s artistic and general director, Michael Hidetoshi Mori, was able to transform Songbook X into Tapestry’s first livestreamed concert.

On Saturday, March 21 at 8pm EST, over 200 listeners joined Tapestry on Youtube for a free virtual recital with mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó and collaborative pianist Christopher Foley. With a reduced production team inside the Tapestry studios, and with only one week of preparation time, the company treated its virtual audience to a night of carefully curated music, mostly Canadian, that ranged from art songs, oratorio and opera arias, “opera briefs” compositions, and solo piano works (for a complete list of works, click here).

That the recital itself was an absolute success is no surprise; Szabó and Foley are consummate professionals who are both meticulous on details and generous on emotions. More pressing for me were the technical considerations related to the presentation of a virtual recital: Will there be a program with notes I can follow? What will the sound quality be like? Will the performers be able to engage with a virtual audience? How will I emotionally connect with the performance? Was there a mock recital to test all this out? Tuning in to the livestream recital answered most of those questions.

Each selection was briefly introduced by Michael Mori. To my delight, the Tapestry online moderator space was used as a tool to inform the audience and invite further research: the moderator not only uploaded links and repertoire information, but also answered repertoire questions from the virtual audience. As for the sound, although there was a momentary glitch, it was quickly rectified. The performers, perhaps not aware of the technical difficulty, or simply well trained in ‘the show must go on’ maxim, continued until they were interrupted and asked to start over.

Though I had initially envisioned a possible emotional challenge for performers and audience to connect, this did not occur. What did transpire, however, was an element typically not considered in live performances: the very obvious fact that the audience is not in the room. And by focusing my initial concerns on the individual audience member’s experience, I had missed a most vital component of the recital: the collective virtual audience. When the concert began and the sound did not work, the live chat section became overactive with a rapid succession of comments such as “no audio,” “no sound,” and “please start again” (the Tapestry Opera moderator was appropriately reassuring, although one wonders if there was not a certain amount of nervousness in the studio).

Pianist Christopher Foley. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz.For the audience to have such an impactful and immediate voice in the middle of a concert is unprecedented. On the one hand, and this was the case here, users were active, eager, complimentary, and engaged with one another (composers Dean Burry and John Estacio said hello). This particular situation is a positive one within a fairly tight-knit community. But what happens when that is not the case? And while the information shared by the moderator is valuable, is the constant flow too distracting? Does it take away from the performance? When audience members ‘converse’ during the performance or share their activities (dancing while listening, joking about unwrapping a candy, eating or drinking wine), does this compromise the quality of our experience? Are there new social boundaries or etiquettes that have to be developed to ensure the success of future livestreaming concerts?

At the end of the recital, Szabó and Foley, probably unaware of the enormous amount of praise they were receiving, emotionally addressed the audience to thank them. When Christopher Foley spoke of the uncertain times artists are facing, he suggested that companies throughout the world will most likely have to adapt and find new music models in order to survive. With the Songbook X Livestream, Tapestry has potentially tapped into one such model of digital musicking. As we rethink our current frameworks for musical performances and engage in collective experiences that are meant to bring communities together, it is nice to know that in one click, however isolated we may feel, we can momentarily be uplifted by truly inspiring performances.

Tapestry Opera presented a livestream recital edition of Songbook X on Saturday, March 21 at 8pm EST. The video is viewable here. To donate to Tapestry Opera, visit their website here.

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

COVID-19 Artist Resources

This list has last been updated on Thursday, April 13, at 12:00EST. We will try to continue updating this article as new information becomes available; if you have suggestions of new resources to add to this list, or of other ways that The WholeNote editorial team can help support the local music community during this time, please feel free to direct them to editorial@thewholenote.com.

In light of recent cancellations, closures, and quarantines around the world due to the ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many folks are facing suddenly precarious financial and social circumstances. Arts organizations, freelancers, arts workers and other gig/temporary workers constitute a particularly hard-hit group—one that our team is trying our best to support. 

There have been several resources circulating online and in the news about efforts to provide financial support to those who need it (including some incredible lists already compiled by other organizations and community groups). Our intent here is to amplify the work put in by those who created (and are creating) those resources and support systems, by sharing them directly with our readership—especially those resources that might particularly apply to musicians and other arts workers based in the area we serve.

Financial health in times of crisis is a multifaceted thing, and there are many ways in which this list falls short. Many of the ‘official’ resources provided here assume Canadian (or in some cases, United States) nationality or permanent residency. Others may not be applicable sources of support for all artists. And of course, at its best this list provides assistance with only a small sliver of the many things that contribute to personal well-being and security during uncertain times. Nonetheless, we hope it is helpful, and that you find it a useful source of information and support.

For official information on medical issues related to COVID-19 in Canada, please refer directly to official sources, such as the Government of Canada website.

Compilation Documents

These are large, compiled resource lists that provide an overview of resources for arts workers struggling with issues related to COVID-19.

*updated March 26, 2020: COVID-19 CANADA MEGA RESOURCE LIVING LIBRARY: Musicians & Music Industry Professionals

This ‘living library’ is a frequently-updated list of resources related to professional music-making in Canada and COVID-19.

COVID-19 & Freelance Artists

One of the largest and most comprehensive resource lists for arts workers, this website provides information about financial advocacy groups, social equity initiatives, online support platforms, and many other useful tools. Many of the resources here are US-specific, but others are widely-applicable.

COVID-19 & Freelance Artists and Writers, CANUCK EDITION / CBC Resource List

A Canada-specific version of the COVID-19 & Freelance Artists resource list, available both in its original Google Doc form, as well in an article written in collaboration with the CBC, available here

Opera.ca COVID-19 Resources for Artists

A resource list compiled by Opera.ca with a focus on financial support for Canada-based artists.

Financial/Advocacy Resources

These are organizations who routinely work to provide support and emergency funding for professional artists in Canada.

Unison Fund

The Actors Fund

Financial Resources: Information from Government and Granting Bodies

This is where you can find information related to government and grant support.

*updated April 17, 2020: Government of Canada: Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB)

This program provides financial support to Canadians who have lost their job, are sick, quarantined, working reduced hours, or taking care of someone who is sick with COVID-19, as well as working parents who must stay home without pay to care for children who are sick or at home because of school and daycare closures. It applies to wage earners, as well as contract workers and self-employed individuals who would not otherwise be eligible for Employment Insurance (EI). Individuals are eligible for CERB if they are 15 years of age or older, live in Canada, have had an income of at least $5,000 in the last year and who currently earn less than $1000 monthly as a result of COVID-19 disruptions.

Government of Canada: COVID-19 Economic Response Plan

Government of Canada: COVID-19 Updates - Employment and Social Development Canada

Government of Canada: EI Support for Self-Employed Workers

 

*updated March 26, 2020: Toronto Arts Council TOArtist COVID-19 Response Fund

Small grants of up to $1000 for Toronto-based artists who have lost work due to COVID-19.

COVID-19 Updates from the Toronto Arts Council

COVID-19 Updates from the Ontario Arts Council

COVID-19 Updates from the Canada Council for the Arts

*updated April 23, 2020: Canada Council for the Arts - “Digital Originals” micro innovation grants for creating digital work or adapting work to a digital platform

Community-led Initiatives

These are initiatives for support led by individuals, organizations, and community groups.

I Lost My Gig (Canada)

A Facebook support/resource group for arts and freelance/gig workers in Canada.

Caremongering-TO: TO Community Response to COVID-19

A Facebook group for local/grassroots resources and support actions in Toronto.

For musicians to record lost income

A downloadable Google spreadsheet template for musicians to keep track of lost income due to COVID-19-related issues.

Glad Day Emergency Survival Fund for LGBTQ2S artists, performers & tip-based workers

Toronto-based Glad Day Bookshop has set up an emergency fund to help LGBTQ2S artists, performers & tip-based workers. This fund is not meant to help people recover lost income, but is an emergency resource for urgent aid in paying for necessities.

COVID-19 Black Emergency Support Fund

Black Lives Matter - Toronto has launched a fundraising campaign to create a GTA Black Community Emergency Support Fund for Black folks in the GTA who require support due to COVID-19-related concerns. 

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For those readers who do not require assistance, but would like to support arts workers and folks in otherwise precarious circumstances, please consider donating to one or more of the funds listed above. In addition, consider supporting the artists whose work you admire: now is a great time to donate to local arts organizations, buy artists’ merchandise, and tune in to (and financially support) musicians’ livestreams.

More locally: consider joining a community support effort. Offer help to those in your community or your neighbourhood, especially those who can’t leave the house or are in otherwise precarious situations. Advocate for those facing more challenging circumstances than yourself. And be kind to one another. We will be trying to do the same.

Geronimo Inutiq, a presenter at the CNMN 2020 Forum. Photo credit: Photo: Pedro Ruiz, Le Devoir, 2016.In November 2005, the non-profit Canadian New Music Network (CNMN) / Réseau canadien pour les musiques nouvelles (RCMN) was founded with a mandate to foster community-building, networking and to broaden awareness of new music activity. It’s an organization that is designed to support those involved in the pursuit of creative art music and sound art within Canada, including creators, performers, presenters, music educators, musicologists, and others. One of their activities is to present a bilingual and biennial CNMN Forum, held this year in Regina, Saskatchewan from May 21-24, 2020, on Treaty 4 Territory, the traditional territory of the nêhiyawak (Cree), Anihšināpēk (Saulteaux), Dakota, Lakota, and Nakoda, and the homeland of the Métis/Michif Nation. Titled “Listen up / Tendez l’oreille,” this year’s Forum will be focused on five streams: Accessibility, Community, Indigenous Resurgence, Land, and Technology-Innovation. 

As I read the details on each of these topics, I was encouraged to see that conversations of this nature are now being considered within the new music community. The various presentations this year will address such issues as how we incorporate our listening and presencing skills as well as ecological activism into music-making, how the music community can respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action, the celebration of the ways music can be experienced beyond the concert hall, and how more inclusive audiences can be built in the dissemination of experimental music and sound art forms.

I spoke with CNMN executive director Terri Hron to find out more about the nature of this year’s Forum. In previous years there have been conversations around issues of diversity, environmental sustainability and the social impacts of a musical practice, she told me. When Hron was hired a few years ago, her goal was to continue those conversations and expand them to include larger cultural issues, including taking concrete steps towards responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She stated that questions such as “what does having right relations with Indigenous communities mean in the context of music-making?” and “how can we create more events that are Indigenous-led and work in good ways as allies with Indigenous artists?” will be part of the conversation at the Forum, with a goal to design an action policy regarding these issues.

Most of the presenters were selected by the Forum’s advisory committee members as well as by a jury that selected from an open call. Olivia Shortt, a Tkarón:to-based artist and currently involved at Toronto’s Music Gallery as an Artistic Associate, was one of three jury members that helped select from the submissions. I asked Shortt about some of the proposals that stood out for her.

The Vancouver-based Astrolabe Musik Theatre was one of her mentions; they will be presenting their documentary film entitled The Lake / n’-ha-a-itk, made in collaboration with artists from Westbank First Nation. The film integrates an opera composed by the late BC composer Barbara Pentland with syilx/Okanagan culture, music, language and dance. A presentation by Kayla McGee, the current executive director of the Music Gallery (and a leader in the Music Gallery’s partnership with The Dandelion Initiative, an organization committed to creating safe and inclusive spaces, including performance venues) was another of Shortt’s picks. McGee’s topic is entitled “Beyond EDI,” and tackles how we can expand our understanding of the principles of equity, diversity and inclusivity.

Shortt also spoke about a performance entitled Aspects of Trees, a collaboration between Newfoundland-based composer/technologist Teresa Connors and New Zealand filmmaker Andrew Denton that gives attention to the escalating pine beetle epidemic that has decimated forests on the west coast of North America. The work includes video footage of the forests and audio captured from the tree bark and inside the trees. The performance will be an improvisation between Connors using her laptop-based tree instrument and Ellen Waterman (Ottawa) on flute, who will also be presenting as part of the accessibility session. During this panel, Waterman will discuss her involvement with the Adaptive Use Musical Instrument (AUMI), a project founded by the late Pauline Oliveros, and the recent developments of a vocal version to explore issues of accessibility in choral music. Geronimo Inutiq, originally from Iqaluit and now Montreal-based, will be discussing his process and approach to electronic music production and performance, highlighting his ideas around interconnectivity and independent music production in a post-internet age.

These are just a few of the presenters; listings of the full CNMN Forum program can be found on the CNMN website, and profiles of many presenters on the CNMN’s Facebook page.

The good news is that if you are interested in attending, for the first time, the CNMN is offering financial assistance for travel for select attendees. Terri Hron emphasized during our conversation that the application process is very simple and is open to anyone who wishes to attend. The deadline is coming up on April 1; you can find application information on the CNMN website. This Forum promises to bring the conversation around music and sound-based artistic practices to a new level.

At the time of publication, the CNMN has released this statement on their website regarding the future scheduling of the conference given the current global coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic: “CNMN is monitoring the development of and response to COVID-19 and will be updating here if there are any changes to the Forum. Registration will open April 1.”

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

Catrinel Marlon as Gilda in The Whistlers. Photo credit: Vlad Cioplea. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.The Whistlers, the new film by Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest; Police, Adjective), is a lighter-than-air pastiche, a diversion filled with film noir tropes and other cinematic homages, all buoyed by a soundtrack that ranges from Iggy Pop, Ute Lemper and Anna Netrebko to Johann Strauss father and son, punctuated by the likes of Diomedes Diaz & Nafer Duran, Lola Beltrán and Jeanne Balibar.

The well-chosen music begins with Iggy Pop’s jaunty tune, The Passenger, as soon as police detective Cristi (subtly played by Porumboiu regular Vlad Ivanov) arrives at La Gomera in the Canary Islands for a ride inland. He’s there to learn the whistling language, a coded method of communication native to the island of La Gomera that sounds like birds singing, which will enable Cristi to work around any surveillance in the layered, opaque goings on to come. He’s also re-introduced to Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), a bona fide “femme fatale” (a shout-out to Rita Hayworth’s iconic character in Gilda).

As Porumboiu said in an interview with Marcus Rothe: “She’s the archetype of a woman who plays the femme fatale: she betrays the men, turning against them. Catrinel Marlon plays this lure very well, as an ambiguous and unsettling character who manages to manipulate others without them realizing it.”

Cristi is a compromised cop in the pocket of gangsters and known to his fellow detectives who follow his every move in what sometimes resembles an intricately plotted police procedural. He checks into the Opera Motel, its lobby permeated with the sound of an LP of Anna Netrebko singing Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma. (The hotel clerk tells him that “we are trying to educate” the clientele.) The operatic spirit continues with Netrebko and Elīna Garanča filling the soundtrack with the Barcarolle and its “nuit d’amour” from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann as Cristi drives to a small house where he leaves a package. Later the hotel clerk sings along with it before slitting the throat of a policeman who had asked him to turn off the music. The lovely foreboding and air of mystery of Mozart’s cavatina, L’ho perduta me meschina, from The Marriage of Figaro (sung by Patricia Petibon) accompanies more Cristi subterfuge while later, Ute Lemper’s sublime rendition of Kurt Weill’s Moritat der Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife) is cleverly introduced by its familiar tune being whistled.

As Porumboiu put it: “Music has a strong and important presence in this film with rapid shot or scene changes, since it permeates short scenes and quickly denotes a character’s world. I also like to create interesting shifts using unexpected musical tracks. For instance, by playing classical music in violent scenes or action sequences. This is another way I play with the conventions of the genre film while subverting them.”

The action, which cuts between the rainy gloom of Bucharest and the streams of sunlight beneath the clouds of La Gomera, ends in the neon explosion of Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, with a greatest-hits medley of waltzes by the Strausses (On the Beautiful Blue Danube, Du und Du and Radetsky) and Tchaikovsky (Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker) climaxing in the “Galop infernal” (better known as the French can-can) from Offenbach’s Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld. All of which is introduced by a portion of Orff’s Carmina Burana.

It’s the art of artifice writ large.

The Whistlers is currently playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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.

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