Njo Kong Kie, in I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz.On the evening of May 17, I had the opportunity to experience the world premiere of Njo Kong Kie's new one-man show, I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron. I had been expecting a show of larger scale, as had been suggested by pre-season publicity last spring when Kong Kie's earlier work Picnic in the Cemetery made its Canadian premiere in the same space (Canadian Stage's Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre). However, this is a good space for intimate shows, as the furthest away you can be as an audience member from the stage is 6 or 7 rows—and I Swallowed A Moon Made of Iron is an even more intimate and personal creation than the earlier piece.

The enigmatic title comes from the source material, which, perhaps counterintuitively, is not of a  whimsical fairy-tale nature but the opposite: a collection of almost 200 poems by factory worker Xu Lizhi, detailing the soul-destroying reality for many young workers on the assembly lines at the giant Foxconn manufacturing plant in southern China, where many of the world's cell phones and other personal electronics are made. 

Although he had started to gain some recognition for his literary gifts, Xu Lizhi jumped to his death on the last day of September 2014, when he had just turned 24. He was not the only worker to take this way out of a life he felt was destroying his humanity, and a group of his friends collected his poems and published them as widely as they could to not only celebrate their friend but to open the eyes of the world to the inhumane working conditions at the plant. 

Journalists around the world reported the story at the time. Apparently conditions at the plant have since improved somewhat—but the poems continue to circulate, and a growing number of theatre artists have been inspired by the simple poetic power of Xu Lizhi's words, creating new works of music, movement, and design to make more of us aware of the human cost of gadgets we take for granted.

This February 2019 at Toronto's Factory Theatre (in a co-presentation by fu-GEN Theatre and the Music Gallery), Remy Siu's Hong Kong Exiles presented Foxconn Frequency No. 3. Taking Xu Lizhi’s poems as a starting point, they created a futuristic theatrical event where three pianists competed in what has been described as a “kind of randomized real-time video game” involving three keyboards connected to computers and 3D printers, with webcams adding live footage of the performers' efforts as they compete. Each performance was different depending on the real-time results of the “game.”

While I didn't have the opportunity to see this show live, I have seen excerpts online and read many accounts of the disconcerting effect on the audience of the (thematically simulated) inhumane pressure placed on the three “worker/competitors” as they attempt to keep up with the demands of the “game.” The performance seems to have been a fascinating recreation of the factory life depicted in the poems, also functioning as a warning to the audience of the human pressures of our product-hungry modern world.

Njo Kong Kie, in I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz.Kong Kie's creation is very different. In contrast, it could be seen as almost old-fashioned in its simplicity. Onstage is a grand piano on a highlighted square of floor, with a screen behind the piano on which the poems and various images are projected. A man (Kong Kie) enters and walks around the square marked on the stage, miming what seems to be a feeling of being constricted by his living and working space. After a while he sits down at the piano and begins to play.

There are several interludes in the 60 minutes of this theatrical concert, where Kong Kie performs other passages of mime, some seemingly-literal depictions of claustrophobia, others more symbolic, such as moving an anonymous cube from the floor to the piano, or raising it into the air with a pulley. These passages help to create a contextual world for the poems, feelingly spoken by Kong Kie in their original Chinese while English translations are projected on the screen behind. The performer's voice is rich and moving without being overly dramatic, and the impact of the poem's words is often enhanced by being spoken first before a blank screen, with a translation only being projected afterwards alongside the music.

The great richness of this theatrical concert is the power of the music, which varies from simple melodies to richly dramatic harmonies to clashing jangles, depending on the poem. Where it fell down for me was in the lack of a strong enough dramatic arc for the performance. The suicide to come at the end, I felt, was too clearly foreshadowed at the beginning, and the middle sequence was too often mired in shapeless melancholy.

In spite of this, the show is an intriguing introduction to the poems and world of Xu Lizhi, and a moving personal response to those poems by a musical artist of great experience and power. Kong Kie was for many years the music director for dance company La La La Human Steps, and many of his compositions here have a plasticity and dramatic tangibility that cry out to be interpreted by dancers. In many ways this felt like a first personal draft of something that may, in the future, grow into a larger work of music and theatre.

Njo Kong Kie’s I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron was presented from May 17 to 26 by Canadian Stage, at the Berkeley Street Upstairs 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Glasper (left) and Herbie Hancock. Photo c/o MIRA FILM.This ambitious music-centric chronicle of the history of Blue Note Records manages to tie the current Blue Note All-Stars – pianist Robert Glasper, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott – to the past by adding vintage Blue Note luminaries Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock to the recording session celebrating the 75th anniversary of the label which is the film’s fulcrum. Shorter and Hancock talk about the atmosphere in their early days with Blue Note, where the intention was not to make a hit: “I never got the sense of pressure from them to create in any particular way, other than whatever might come out of me,” Hancock says. “The goal was to allow the music to emerge without being shackled.”

Their conversation leads us back to the groundbreaking musicians who were the foundation of the company’s legacy: Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Miles Davis. None of it would have happened without its soft-spoken, jazz-loving founders who gave the artists complete freedom and encouraged them to compose new music.

Alfred Lion (left) and Hank Mobley. Photo credit: Francis Wolff.Alfred Lion and Francis (Frank) Wolff were German Jews, boyhood friends in Berlin, who fled the Nazis in 1933 for the US and started Blue Note in 1939. We hear a portion of a radio interview in which Lion (born in 1908) remembers hearing jazz for the first time when his mother brought a record home in 1926. “I was very much impressed with what I heard, not knowing it was jazz,” he said with his distinctive German accent.

Wolff said of his first encounter with jazz, also in Berlin: “I couldn’t understand the music. I just liked it.”

Sophie Huber, the documentary’s Swiss-born director, summed it up: “This is a story about people who followed their passion and – against all odds – built a lasting platform for a music they loved, a music that was cathartic, and represented freedom, both to the German-Jewish founders and to the African-American musicians.”

“I don’t think they ever lost the purity and the innocence that came with it,” says legendary producer Don Was, current president of Blue Note.

Key to the story was the joining of Lion and Wolff with recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, a New Jersey optometrist whose home studio was the source of Blue Note’s transparent, balanced sound (“It was my parents’ home, and I was allowed to use the living room to record my jazz music. They allowed me to put a control room window in one of the walls to the living room. And I brought all the equipment in there to record my jazz music.”), and Reid Miles, a classical music-loving commercial designer. Lion’s uncanny A&R instincts, Wolff’s stylish photography (he photographed almost every recording session from the early 1940s to the late 1960s), Van Gelder’s sterling sound quality and Miles’ striking cover artwork plus the inimitable music. The Blue Note catalogue parallels jazz history from hot jazz, boogie-woogie and swing through bebop, hard bop, post-bop, soul jazz, avant-garde and fusion. Another key is the re-affirmation of hip-hop as the natural outgrowth of jazz.

From Monk to Coltrane, Lion, who was close to his artists, encouraged them to write new work. And he had an idea of how the music should sound. The result is a back catalogue that is the source of half the company’s revenue. Blue Note records became the go-to for sampling. Saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s Ode to Billy Joe is their most-sampled track.

Miles Davis. Photo credit: Francis Wolff.Major components of this treasure trove of a film are Wolff’s vivid photographs, recordings of outtakes, banter between the takes, concert footage of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and others, and old radio interviews with Art Blakey and Coltrane. The musicians voices are paramount.

As Norah Jones puts it: “The reason I love being on this label is because I’ve always felt like I had that freedom – to make my own music and do whatever I want and I don’t feel confined by the restrictions of the jazz genre.”

Alfred Lion couldn’t have put it better.

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes plays Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema March 29 to April 7.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Affairs of the Heart: The Life and Music of Marzan MozetichA film titled Affairs of the Heart: The Music and Life of Marjan Mozetich, produced and directed by Jamie Day Fleck, and in which I make an appearance, was given its premiere showing March 1 at the most recent edition of the Kingston Canadian Film Festival. The title of the film borrows from what is arguably Mozetich’s (b.1948) most successful composition, the violin concerto Affairs of the Heart, composed in 1997/8 for the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra and violin soloist Juliette Kang, with the support of a commission from CBC Radio Music. Filmmaker Fleck told me her story of hearing a broadcast of the concerto on CBC Radio Two while driving, and her need to remain in her car after reaching her destination in order to learn the identity of this stunning work.

Affairs of the Heart: Violin Concerto (1997). Photo by Jamie Day FleckMozetich says that Fleck’s story is similar to those of scores of CBC Radio listeners he’s heard from. The so-called “driveway experience” is even mentioned in the CD’s liner notes.

Early in the film, Mozetich remarks, “The music I write has this kind of spatial quality to it: distance and landscape.” On his website, he also applies the term postmodern Romanticism to his style. These are characteristics that have helped to make his music immediately appealing, so much so that he has become the most frequently broadcast Canadian classical composer. But it had not always been the case.

Prior to 1980, Mozetich had been struggling to conform with the aggressively modernist approach embraced by his young composer colleagues. In fact, in 1978, the year I created the CBC FM Radio network contemporary music series, Two New Hours, I chose an emphatically modernist Mozetich work, his Disturbances for solo viola – a piece we had recorded for broadcast on Two New Hours – as one of the CBC Radio submissions to the International Rostrum of Composers (IRC) in Paris. The IRC is a contemporary music meet-up sponsored by public broadcasters from some 35 countries, and organized by the International Music Council. It has been running with the participation of public broadcasters since 1954. Mozetich’s dramatically dissonant Disturbances was broadcast in several counties as a result of its presentation by our CBC delegation in 1978. He might have used this opportunity to advance his reputation as one of the emerging new voices in advanced contemporary composition. But he didn’t.

At a crucial point in Fleck’s film, I recount how a work I commissioned in 1979 for CBC Radio supported Mozetich’s decision to change his artistic direction. On the heels of his presentation at the IRC, Mozetich and I began a series of frank discussions in which he questioned the modernist approach. He complained that he was fed up with musical modernism and declared his intention to do something about it. We offered him a commission for Two New Hours to prove his point. The work he created, a delightfully tonal and exuberant composition titled Dance of the Blind, did more than offer a new approach. It was, for Mozetich, a watershed composition that strikingly displayed his new Romantic, accessible style, redefining his artistic voice. Accordionist Joseph Petric was the featured soloist in the work. “He had a lot of courage to do that,” Petric remarks in the film, “because it wasn’t a very popular style. And yet he’s become, in time, the most performed composer in the country.”

Dance of the Blind was recorded and broadcast on Two New Hours in 1980. “After the national network broadcast,” Mozetich said, “there was no turning back.” It didn’t take long before many more commissions were offered. In 1981, the Canadian Electronic Ensemble (CEE), the live electronic music group I co-founded in 1971, commissioned him to compose a work called In the Garden. In the process of our working together on the composition with Mozetich, he shared some rather candid thoughts about his working process. He confessed that, as his bedtime reading material, he would bring the great Romantic orchestral scores. He read Dvořák, Mahler, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky avidly. “You can learn a lot from those guys,” he remarked. He responded to our commission with a virtuosic display for electronic keyboards. The CEE members decided to digitally sequence the entire score, for both ease and accuracy of performance. The work became a core composition in the CEE’s repertoire, and was performed frequently on tour.

In 1984 the Music Gallery in Toronto invited Mozetich to prepare a retrospective concert of his music. It was a mixture of music from the early 1970s, and three works in his new postmodern Romantic style. We recorded the concert for broadcast on Two New Hours. Listeners to the broadcast were struck by the individuality of the music. It was another significant watershed moment, one that many people noticed. A 15-year-old Chris Paul Harman, a loyal Two New Hours listener even as a teenager, and now one of our leading contemporary composers, and a professor of composition at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University, listened and was impressed. Harman remembered the program: “The first sounds I heard consisted of abrasive scratch tones played by a string quintet; these eventually gave way to vigorously bowed passages outlining clustered pitch collections, in turn leading to a plaintive modal chant and finally, an austere dissonant chorale. When finished, the work was identified as Serenata del nostro tempo (1973) by Marjan Mozetich. There followed an interview in which Marjan explained how he had eschewed such sensibilities to embrace a lighter and more whimsical style in works such as Fantasia...sul un linguaggio perduto (1981). I was absolutely intrigued. How does one reinvent one’s self in such a manner? Is one such ‘self’ more authentic than another ‘self?’”

In the course of producing that concert recording and broadcast, I had mentioned to Mozetich that his quartet, Fantasia...sul un linguaggio perduto (...on a lost language), might work well in an adaptation for string orchestra. He subsequently did just that, and his string orchestra adaptation has become one of his most performed works. Not too many years later, in 1989, CBC Records accepted my proposal to make a CD of Mozetich’s music on their Musica Viva sub-label. The CD, titled Procession, included the Amadeus Ensemble, a string ensemble led by Moshe Hammer, joined by guest soloists Joseph Petric, accordion, and harpist Erica Goodman. The recording included several important pieces in Mozetich’s developing style, such as Dance of the Blind, the string orchestra version of Fantasia... sul un linguaggio perduto, and his 1981 work for harp and strings, El Dorado.

It was this latter work which revealed the special feeling that Mozetich had for the harp. As Mozetich told me: “It all started with El Dorado and my friendship with harpist Erica Goodman. It was with this work that it all gelled with me and the harp. Over the years Erica commissioned three other works with harp which have all been recorded. I think it is the unique resonance and visual allure of the harp that attracted me to it. Subsequently I wrote four quintessential harp pieces, Songs of Nymphs, that are performed by numerous harpists around the world. To date I’ve written seven works with significant harp parts.” One of those harp pieces, The Passion of Angels, actually includes two harps: Mozetich wrote the work in 1995 on a commission from CBC Radio Music, for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and harp soloists Nora Bumanis and Julia Shaw.

Mozetich moved to the Kingston, Ontario area in 1990, initially to find the solitude he needed to compose. The move was just what he needed, and many of his most successful scores come from the post-1990 period. In 1992, he wrote the imposed Canadian work for the Banff International String Quartet Composition, supported again by a commission from CBC Radio Music. The quartet, Lament in the Trampled Garden helped the St. Lawrence String Quartet win not only the Banff competition overall, but also the award for the best performance of the imposed work that year. In Fleck’s film, Barry Shiffman, one of the founding members of the St. Lawrence says: “After winning the competition we went on to share that piece that he wrote in concerts all over the world.”

Jamie Day Fleck with Marjan Mozetich.  Photo by Perry WalkerAll the repertoire on the CD, Affairs of the Heart, was composed during this period. Besides the violin concerto that gives the CD its title, there is the double harp concerto, The Passion of Angels, and a set of short pieces for string orchestra, Postcards from the Sky, composed in 1996. Vancouver producer Karen Wilson, who was managing the CBC Radio Orchestra at the time, had met Mozetich while serving on an arts council jury. They hit it off, became friends, and when that fateful broadcast of Affairs of the Heart created scores of “driveway experiences” and CBC switchboards lit up all over the country, she knew she would have to quickly get a proposal together for the CBC Records selection committee. The recording with the radio orchestra under Mario Bernardi, and soloists Juliette Kang, Nora Burmanis and Julia Shaw, went flawlessly, and by the summer of 2000, the CDs were being scooped up by the truckload by thousands of consumers who couldn’t get enough Mozetich into their listening lives. Randy Barnard, who was the managing director of CBC Records at the time, said: “A Canadian composition outpacing core repertoire was a rarity, never mind becoming a bestseller in the catalogue.” The original CBC Records CD has been out of stock for years, but it’s now available as Centrediscs catalogue number CD-CMCCD 21815. For ordering information, see: cmccanada.org/shop/CD-CMCCD-21815.

Mozetich has made an impact in the Kingston community since settling there almost 20 years ago. In the film, Glen Fast, conductor emeritus of the Kingston Symphony notes: “I think Kingston knows they’re lucky to have him here, in this position as a composer, as a real music maker, as a substantial composer with his own voice.” Mozetich also taught as an adjunct professor of composition at Queens University most of those years. He retired from that position last June. John Burge, who, along with his teaching at Queens, is also in charge of the Queens Faculty Artists Series, commented in the film: “I know that if I can find a way to integrate Mozetich’s music into the concerts that we put on in Kingston it’ll make everyone happy. And I can tell you, that if we present a concert that has Marjan’s music programmed, there will be people that will come because they just want to hear Marjan’s music. They just want to see him walk up onstage and talk about his music.”

As for hearing live performances of Mozetich’s music this month, the Niagara Symphony Orchestra and music director Bradley Thachuck will perform his Postcards from the Sky on Saturday, April 27 at 7:30pm and Sunday, April 28 at 2:30pm in the recital hall in the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines.

David Jaeger is a composer, producer and broadcaster based in Toronto.

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, led by Masaaki Suzuki in their performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Photo credit: Jeff Higgins.It is the challenge of any conductor of early music: how to take works with innumerable minute sections and transitions, and smooth them into a cohesive performance. This challenge becomes particularly demanding when the individual sections themselves are complex and technically formidable, requiring an elevated level of focus from each performer and precise control from their leader. Within the corpus of such works, J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion reigns supreme: almost three hours in duration and scored for two choirs and orchestras, the immensity of every aspect of this piece makes it the apotheosis of Baroque religious music, the pious parallel to Handel’s great operas.

To the delight of Bach fans across the city, Tafelmusik presented the St. Matthew Passion, led by the renowned Japanese Bach specialist Masaaki Suzuki, on March 21 to 24 as part of their 40th anniversary season. Expectations were understandably high as Toronto’s premier early music ensemble joined forces with their legendary guest director – but this performance surpassed them all, providing an experience that made both a musical and spiritual impact. By neither losing the musical details in favour of dramatic effect nor neglecting the dramatic elements in favour of the musical, the Tafelmusik musicians reached a balance that resulted in a fulfilling, complete performance.

Central to this success was Suzuki’s incredible knowledge of the score and control of the ensemble, whom he guided with assuredness and precision. From beginning to end, each recitative was led with intention, looking ahead to what followed, providing innumerable transitions that felt logical and organic. The chorus was in top form throughout (their blend and tuning perhaps the best it’s ever been), and their agile maneuvering of Bach’s complex counterpoint conveyed both clarity and affect in perfect balance. The orchestra was magnificent as well, leading the chorus and soloists through their retelling of Christ’s passion with a wide range of expression, and following Suzuki’s leadership and interpretive ideas with precision.

The continuo team and strings deserve particular mention in this regard, as they had the task of accompanying a vast amount of recitative, from the secco narration of the Evangelist to the accompagnato words of Christ. Their unity and control lent a support that helped the audience to forget the technical difficulties and potential pitfalls of accompanying recitative and focus instead on the drama as it unfolded, guided through our journey by the stunning Evangelist, tenor James Gilchrist.

All of the soloists were in superb form, providing sublime reflections on the narrative unfolding within the Passion story. Of particular beauty was the final bass aria, ‘Mache dich, mein Herze’, which connected soloist and orchestra in such a way that they existed as one, an alchemic moment that set up the tranquil and introspective conclusion in which the choir is taken to ppp, the very bottom of their dynamic range, bringing the performance to rest.

If it is impossible to find a perfect live performance of this work, this one came incredibly close. Everything and everyone worked together in synchronicity to realize the musical vision of one of the world’s great Bach interpreters and, ultimately, what one hopes was the vision of the composer himself.

Signing his contract as Thomaskantor in 1723, Bach had to agree not to write in an excessively operatic style; despite this apparent stylistic restriction, Bach’s score is incredibly fertile, spanning the gamut of human emotions in three short hours, and reflecting his own theology in musical form. We are exceedingly fortunate to have such gifted interpreters in our midst, who provide their audiences the rare opportunity to hear such extraordinary music performed in an extraordinary way.

Tafelmusik presented Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, led by Masaaki Suzuki, March 21 to 24, 2019, at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oliveros cityhall TerryLimbannerThe February 17 performance of To Valerie Solanas And Marilyn Monroe In Recognition Of Their Desperation at the Toronto City Hall Council Chambers. Project initiated by Christopher Willes. Contributing artists: Anne Bourne, Allison Cameron, Victoria Cheong, Ishan Davé, Prices Easy, Ellen Furey, Thom Gill, Claire Harvie, Ame Henderson, Brendan Jensen, Germaine Liu, Bee Pallomina, Liz Peterson, Heather Saumer, Brian Solomon, Anni Spadafora, Evan Webber, Christopher Willes and others. Rehearsal direction: Kate Nankervis. Produced by Public Recordings and Christopher Willes. Photo credit: Terry Lim.In mid-February, the Music Gallery and other presenting partners created a weekend of events focused on the work and legacy of Pauline Oliveros and her partner IONE in a three-part form: a reading, a workshop and a concert.

The experience of Deep Listening, Oliveros’s core practice, was at the heart of all three activities, so I will begin with a look at the middle event of the three: a Deep Listening workshop presented by the Music Gallery and 918 Bathurst on February 16. Offered by Anne Bourne and special guest IONE, this opportunity for a hands-on experience of Deep Listening involved the creation and performance of a selection of Oliveros’ best-known scores, pieces she called Sonic Meditations earlier in her career. She later coined the term Deep Listening to mean “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing.”

The scores we performed are one way to experience this way of listening, as they invite the audience to collectively create the piece while simultaneously listening and sounding. The workshop opened up with both body and vocal warmups, including intoning on different vowel sounds while being aware of different areas or energy centres of the body. The group began to cohere as one sounding body, within one resonating place – and this awareness of collective listening and sounding deepened throughout the afternoon as we moved from one score to another.

One of my favourite scores we performed that afternoon is entitled Extreme Slow Walk, one of Oliveros’s first pieces that I had experienced many years ago in the late 1970s when the Music Gallery was located on St. Patrick Street. This time, we were instructed to walk very slowly around the room, being aware of each micro movement necessary for placing one foot in front of the other. While walking, we were also to sing a favourite childhood song, sustaining each note of the song with each step. What emerged in the listening space was a full sonic texture of shifting pitches and harmonies that created a tapestry that one’s own sound was a part of. As discussed a bit later in the workshop, most participants found it almost impossible to hold the melody intact, even if the song were as simple as “Row Row Row Your Boat.” Despite this sensation of dislocation, it didn’t seem to matter so much, as the more collective goal of creating a shifting harmonic texture took precedence. Something else was at play.

Appropriately, it was Valentine’s Day when IONE offered a reading from her book Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color, a memoir that is clearly a work of passion and love for the astonishing and accomplished women in her family’s lineage, including her mother, grandmother, great-aunt and great-grandmother. Reading at A Different Booklist on Bathurst Street, at an event co-presented with Art Metropole, the Music Gallery, and Public Recordings, IONE began the evening talking about the important role that both Toronto and the Bathurst Street area played during the days of the Underground Railroad, and shared that one of her uncles used to own a railway, a history she’s currently researching. She began working on Pride of Family in the late 1960s, around the same time that Pauline was composing the piece that was performed on the February 17 concert – To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation – an interesting detail given that the two had not yet met one another. IONE had been very involved in the burgeoning feminist movement of the late 1960s and 70s and published some of her research in Ms. Magazine. She spoke about the how these feminist gatherings helped change her “from a negro girl to a black woman, going from wearing bangles to combat boots.” She began raising questions of whether she felt at home as a black woman in America and realized that the lives of her female ancestors were shrouded in mystery.

In the preface to her book she wrote: “From the moment I read the words [my great-grandmother] Frances Anne Rollin wrote in Boston on January 1, 1868 – ‘The year renews its birth today with all its hopes and sorrows’ – she became my beacon, the foremother who would finally share with me our collective past.” And so she began her search for the stories of these foremothers, a term she coined as she researched and wrote. What she would eventually discover was a lineage of extraordinary, educated and accomplished women. Her mother was a journalist, actress and composer; her grandmother was a proprietor and chef of a well loved restaurant; her great-aunt was one of Washington’s first black female physicians; and her great-grandmother played a significant role in the feminist and abolitionist movements of the late 19th century, writing the biography of black statesman Major Martin Delany, the first full-length biography written by an African American, with her own diaries being the earliest known diary by a southern black woman.

IONE’s book was published in 1991. She remarked during the Q&A that this was during the same time period that Pauline released her Deep Listening CD (1989), recorded in a water cistern located in Washington State. The term ‘deep listening’ began as a joke when Oliveros reflected on the music she and her colleagues had just completed several feet below the earth’s surface. As IONE and Oliveros embarked upon their life journey together, IONE became a regular performing partner, at first by reading poetry as part of the musical performance, and later on allowing words and sounds to spontaneously arise in the moment.

That Sunday, February 17, I was honoured to sit beside IONE during the performance of Oliveros’s To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation, a collaborative effort from Public Recordings and the Music Gallery that took place at the heart of Toronto’s political life – the City Council Chambers.

It is difficult to find the adequate words to describe the experience, as was often the case after listening to Pauline perform. She wrote the piece in 1970 after reading the Scum Manifesto by Valerie Solanas, who argued that men have ruined the world, and that it is up to women to fix it. In a note passed on to me by Christopher Willes and Anne Bourne, who were both involved in the city hall performance, Oliveros stated: “Intrigued by the egalitarian feminist principles set forth in the Manifesto, I wanted to incorporate them in the structure of a new piece that I was composing. The women's movement was surfacing and I felt the need to express my resonance with this energy. Marilyn Monroe had taken her own life. Valerie Solanas had attempted to take the life of Andy Warhol. Both women seemed to be desperate and caught in the traps of inequality: Monroe needed to be recognized for her talent as an actress. Solanas wished to be supported for her own creative work.”

The concert performance of this work on February 17 lasted well over an hour, yet time passed as in the blink of an eye. In my own experience, I felt as if I had entered into a sonic trance, the sound acting as a carrier wave to create a gestalt-like experience. Instead of listening to lines of activity as in many musical performances, I experienced being within a solid sphere – a space defined by sound and awareness that encompassed and surrounded me, with a continuous invitation to enter within. The 20+ instrumentalists gathered for this particular performance included violin, cello, double bass, several percussionists, voice, flute, trombone, electric guitar, electronics, synthesizer, and an orange traffic cone. With no conductor, the piece’s three sections were marked out using lighting cues, and other key points in the score were demarcated using strobe-like white flashes. Each performer came prepared with five chosen pitches which were to be played as very long tones, at times with modulations or changes to volume, timbre, or other possible ways within the instruments’ abilities. (In preparation for the performance, there were two public rehearsals held, one at OCAD university and the other at U of T’s Faculty of Music.) And the chosen performance space – a place where democracy is played out (in varying degrees of success) – was the perfect setting for this work of high-stakes politics.

Oliveros once said, in response to being questioned about what musical ideas she was working on: “Well, I haven’t been working with musical ideas for a while, but I’ve been working on my consciousness, on my mode of consciousness, and the result of the mode is the music.” For me, this is the essence of her work – to offer the opportunity for people to experience another paradigm or way of being with sound that stands in stark contrast to the traditional Western European classical music model. Given the conflicts currently playing out on the world stage, it is my opinion that any form of resolution or movement forward can only be accomplished through the act of listening – and how we participate in and deepen our skill with listening, and with understanding our modes of consciousness, is a critical aspect of being and living within the present.

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

Article and photo credit updated on March 15 at 3:20pm to better reflect the participating artists and intent of the author.

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