Coal Miner Canary in cage BWBACK IN THE DAY (almost 20 years ago), flushed with the success of our annual fall BLUE PAGES directory of presenters (aimed at readers looking for music to listen to), we decided to start an annual spring choral directory (aimed at readers searching for opportunities to sing). Calling it our YELLOW PAGES was an obvious choice – you know, “let your fingers do the walking … .” But it was pointed out to us that “Yellow Pages” was already taken as a name, by an organization with lawyers. 

So “Canary Pages” it became instead. Truth be told, the necessity was a virtue,  because not only did “canary” keep the “yellow pages” allusion alive, but it also straight out said “songbird,” which made it an even better fit. It also carried with it another, somewhat grimly useful undertone: after all, in society, as in coal mines, as long as the canaries are still singing, everything is relatively fine.

The canary underground

As far back as the 1880s, canaries (along with coffins) had become part of the regular supply lists for coal mines in Britain, Canada and the United States. The vast amounts of air the canaries took in with every breath to fuel their singing made them highly sensitive to poisonous gases of one kind or another, and in particular to carbon monoxide, the miner’s most insidious and dangerous airborne enemy. When the canaries fell silent, or dropped from their perches, there was just enough time for miners to down tools and reach for respirators. But as long as the canaries were singing, it was business as usual, for better and for worse.

To be clear, coal mine canaries were not volunteers the way the vast majority of choristers are, at least in these parts. And, not your standard choral practice, the better the canary sang the less likely they were to get the job, because the birds with the best voices (the males, according to the usual reliable sources), fetched prices too rich for coal mine budgets – like aspiring tenors, dreaming of gilded rather than miners’ cages.   

It took a lot longer for the coal mine canary to be rendered redundant than it did for Paul Bunyan’s ox to be railroaded by technology. They were only outlawed from British coal mines in 1986, for example. But slowly and surely “canary in the coal mine” as a phrase has become almost universally metaphorical and detached from its origins. Interestingly, the less rooted in particularity it has become, the more easily it can be used with an equally straight face by doomsayers across the entire socio-political spectrum, and up and down the scale from the momentous to the trivial.

Dire seems to be the only requirement. “Are car sales the canary in the post-pandemic coal mine?” asked one recent headline. “Australia may be the canary in the climate-change coal mine” said another. And my most recent favourite: “Is Alberta the coal miner’s canary in the great Canadian environmental divide?” 

Here at The WholeNote, mind you, we have, for almost two decades, happily, and only slightly manipulatively,  stood the metaphor on its head – pointing to the dozens and dozens of choirs signing up for our choral canary pages every May as a significant sign of the music community’s good health. 

But this year, since early April when the invitations to join the 19th annual Canary Pages went out, we have for the first time since we adopted the Canary Pages name, had to face up to the grim side of the “canary in the coal mine” metaphor we so cheerfully cocked a snoot at all these years. We’re holding our breath and hoping for the best while choirs and choral societies make up their minds again about whether it might be wiser to hunker down and say nothing at all, rather than run the risk of getting it wrong. Or, worse, that the silence will be broken not by song but a series of little thuds as one by one they fall from their perches.

Full circle

Just over a year ago,  choirs were among the first musical collectives forced by a different kind of noxious air to fall silent. So, rather than flocking to our directory in droves in early spring, they straggled in all the way from May to September, determined to to say something about their upcoming plans, best laid or wishful as the case may be, but jinxed every time they did, it seemed, by another twist or turn to the plot. 

And a year later, here we are again facing the reality that it’s still going to take months for a clear picture to emerge of a path forward for live collective community arts. So we’ve put the Canary Pages online again, making it possible for choirs to join whenever they are ready, all the way through to the fall, and, just as important, to be able to say “oops” when COVID makes liars of us all, and to update the information they gave us on an ongoing basis. 

We all have our dark moments these days. But slowly and steadily our canaries are finding their way back to us, and what was a trickle is becoming a steady flow. The stories they are bringing with them, about their hopes and plans for the coming year, tentative as they may be, speak to the hard-won resiliency of the past year.  And to a determination to keep collective singing alive, for those of us who need to hear the singing, and just as important for those of us who need to sing. 

It’s an odd kind of metaphorical full circle to have come when it’s the canaries that are the “canaries in the coal mine” for the entire live performing arts sector! But it’s a small ray of hope, at a time when the air we breathe in common cannot be taken for granted, that they are still perched and prepared to sing.

If this was the preamble to a “For Openers” podcast (now there’s an idea!), instead of just words on a page, I’d start each episode with 15 to 20 attention-grabbing seconds of arrestingly musical noise. Then, once I had your attention, I’d lure you further in with a few carefully scripted off-the-cuff remarks, like these, as to why that particular soundbite was the perfect lead-in to this particular episode. 

Next, I’d drop in a choice quote about the snippet we’d just heard (“It’s a sort of bizzaro polka with some incredible combinations of sounds and, as you can see from the smiles of the musicians’ faces, a treat to perform.”) After that, we’d listen to the whole piece (about five minutes). And after that, the big reveal – “my guest this episode is …” And away we’d go. No more script, and only a few holds barred. 

If this were a podcast, by now I’d have told you that today’s opening soundbite (and the choice quote) come courtesy of percussionist Ryan Scott, director of Continuum Contemporary Music, one of several presenters around (a topic for another time) who have really latched onto the e-letter, with its capacity for embedding music, as fundamental to maintaining contact with their audiences. 

The pandemic-inspired Continuum newsletter I found this piece of music in is called “Throwback Thursday”. It features performance videos from back in the day when videos like this were the icing on the cake, not the cake itself – more like souvenirs, for those who were there or wish they had been; moments in real musical time, with live audiences attending on sounds flung live into the air, unfiltered, and the players in turn feeding off the energy of that attentiveness. 

This particular “Throwback Thursday” segment revolves around a Continuum concert from almost a decade ago (February 12 2012) titled ORGANized. It took place at the Music Gallery, back in the Music Gallery’s St. George-the-Martyr days. The clip, I’d have explained by now, is the premiere performance of a commissioned work titled Remix for Henk, which opened the concert. And I’d have mentioned that not only did the piece set the tone for the evening, but the whole evening would likely not have happened had the composer of the piece not introduced Scott and his co-director Jennifer Waring to Henk de Graauw in his shed in Bramalea … . (But that’s their story, not mine.) And then, if this were a podcast, we’d listen to the whole piece, right through (five minutes). 

After that – the moment you’d have been waiting for – I’d introduce my guest: Richard Marsella, composer of Remix for Henk, executive director of Regent Park Community Music School, the eponymous “Friendly Rich” of the band Friendly Rich and the Lollipop People (you can look them up). And, drumroll please, the writer of a community arts story in the current issue of The WholeNote, on the post-pandemic community-building potential of musical playgrounds. 

I’d probably start by asking my guest to connect the dots: from the music he composed for Continuum almost a decade ago, inspired by Henk de Grauuw’s musical workshed, to the piece he just wrote for us, inspired by post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction in New Orleans. After that? We’d gallop off in all directions. If it worked, you’d be left with some things to think about in terms of the nature of community arts, as well as suggestions for other samples of arrestingly musical noise to go look for.

If this were a full-fledged launch party for the current issue, to take the podcast idea one step further, there would be way more planning involved, and a compelling argument for inviting supporters of our magazine, like you, to join the audience (live and/or virtual, as permitted) at some appointed moment in real time, for the event. There would also for sure need to be more than one guest, given the range of content the issue covers. 

In any issue of the magazine, like the one you have just started reading, figuring out a running order that connects the dots is always a challenge – figuring out how to paint a larger picture, without compromising the integrity of each separate piece. A bit the way good concerts do. But a launch party like this would be a whole other challenge, and one that, come to think of it, I’d probably be lousy at, given the kind of choreography required for the kind of occasion it would need to be in order not to crash and burn. I get too easily distracted by delightful coincidences. 

In this case, for example, I’d be obstinately insisting to my co-curators that the next guest after Marsella has to be Max Christie and his story about Ottawa’s SHHH!! chamber duo, which digs into why the things that make small indie ensembles most vulnerable right now will very likely be the things that will help them bounce back faster. 

Why? Obviously because, as it happens, clarinetist Christie shows up as a member of the Continuum ensemble in Remix for Henk! It’s the kind of segue I find as irresistible as the Sunday New York Times crossword. “You can’t plan coincidences like that one,” I’d be arguing. “Yeah, but so what?” someone would need to be brave enough to say to me. 

I am not for one moment suggesting, by the way, that eight or nine WholeNote launch parties a year is on the agenda. But it sure sounds like a good idea for the launch of Volume 27 in the fall. 

So let’s pretend for a moment: that these next couple of hundred words are the final paragraphs of my opening remarks at an upcoming Volume 27 season launch party (date to be confirmed): “An Evening with the WholeNote” (virtual and real). 

We’ve bumped elbows with some of you, live at the door, on the way in, and informed you that there’s an $8.00 cover charge for the event. You’ve happily paid, and some of you have even said keep the change, it’s a good cause. And we’ve said thank you. 

Others of you, dozens of dozens, have arrived at the venue through some virtual portal and paid your $8.00 cover charge* some other way (a three-issue subscription is $24, for example). Whichever way you bought in for your $8.00, you did. So thank you for that.

The important thing is you are here, in spirit, sharing a musical moment in common time, witnessing the attentiveness of a live audience responding to music carried through live, virus-load-reduced, shared air. 

And then I’d wrap up my remarks by saying “a warm welcome, dear friends, to Volume 27 no 1. Who the hell would have dared hope, a year ago today that we’d make it this far.” 

“Because that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? Gathered here today we are a microcosm of the “cultural ecology” without which the titans of our so-called “cultural industries” would have no source of sustenance.” 

It’s a picture we try to paint every issue, including this one.

*As for the $8.00 cover charge, if you already think it’s a good idea, you don’t have to wait till September. Contact our circulation department and jump in right away, with a three-issue subscription (as some of you already have done, so thank you for that.) Your $24 will take you all the way to September 14, 2021, Volume 27 no 1. And you will have helped us get there.

Workers removing plaque. Photo credit TWITTER @MCALLISTER_MARKSomewhere out there, in Hogtown, there’s a developer shitting bricks. 

Our lead story by Brian Chang about the Dominion Foundries at 153 Eastern Avenue goes into the details of the community response to our provincial government’s end run around the city’s usual planning procedures, so I won’t go into detail here. And I have no idea who the particular developer is who did this deal with the Ontario party in power. But I have a sneaking suspicion that by the time you read this, their names will be known and the aforementioned bricks will hit the fan.  

Even if I did know, mind you, I probably wouldn’t say, because here at The WholeNote we are not well equipped for the fast-moving “big scoop” newshound business. As I mentioned, with my other hat on, on page 2, these days we can’t even keep up, in print anyway, with the dizzying pace at which our formerly reliable monthly concert calendar, the backbone of what we have always existed to do, goes out of date before we’ve even hit the street. 

But for now let’s stick with the growing stink around the Dominion Foundries site.

The developers could turn out to be party-in-power cronies, about to benefit from a sleazy provincial end-run under cover of of COVID darkness.

Or at the other end of the spectrum they could be one of a rarer species: developers who understand that when they participate in building functional communities it costs more at first but makes what they build, in the longer term, a more valued place to be.

Or they could be somewhere in between – not particularly interested in the longer term because why should they care about the longer term when there’s always new ground to hog? 

I’m no Wiarton Willie or Punxsutawney Phil when it comes to prognostications, but if I have to guess, I am leaning more towards crony than community builder. I’d love to be wrong. 

Let’s just say, for sake of argument, that the community alliance (arts groups, existing residential associations and business districts, housing advocates) that has  temporarily prevented demolition of the heritage structures on the site wins a much bigger victory, and manages to persuade, compel or publicly shame the province and whomever they’re in cahoots with here into some form of meaningful negotiations, however long it takes to get there. 

That’s when things will get really interesting. Because one of the things that will immediately be put to the test will be the word community itself. And that will mean having to be specific about  what “the community” does want, rather than just agree on what it doesn’t. At which point things either cohere into something splendidly more than the sum of its parts, or disintegrate into clusters of competing visions, with epithets like “elitist” starting to fly. 

Let’s hope it’s the former, and we end up with something worth putting on the map. 

So what’s with all these groundhogs?

In the 1993 film Groundhog Day a jaded Pittsburgh weatherman reluctantly makes his way into the western Pennsylvania hinterland for the station’s obligatory coverage of the annual Groundhog Day hoopla as Punxsutawney Phil, for the 135th consecutive time, is prodded out of hibernation into the early morning cold, and either sees his shadow or doesn’t. If he does – sorry folks, six more weeks of winter, as decreed by Phil or Willie or Sam, for Punxsutawney; or, due north, for  Wiarton; or down east for Shubenacadie. 

In the film, our human weather forecaster (also called Phil), finds himself trapped in time, waking to the same song on the radio, going through the same day over and over again each time with variations, but with each episode ending and restarting the same way – trapped in the same day, with the same song on the radio, without hope of redemption, until ….

So here’s the really terrifying thought du jour: what would happen if each time Willie or Sam or Phil heads out of hibernation they have forgotten the previous excursus, and thinks it’s still February 2? Does that mean we get six weeks piled on another six weeks, and another... Just think what that would be like. 

At some point the whole Groundhog Day routine, designed as a fun and fine way of putting a small town on the map, would turn into a predictable moment of dread  –  a bit like the regular province-by-province COVID briefings, either announcing that because it’s gloomy out there things are about to get bright; or that, precisely because we have started behaving as though things are looking brighter, there’s now an even longer shadow of doubt as to when, or even whether,  they will. 

They will. And in the meanwhile, here are some stories to read.

Looking over my notes, there were a lot of things I thought this last “For Openers” of 2020 was going to be about.

Last week, for example, I had what I am tempted to call my “usual” chat with a cherished reader, who calls without fail after receiving the issue, but only after having had time to read it closely enough to make specific observations (occasionally trenchant), about its contents. But also always unfailingly encouraging, as well as (time after time over the years) offering suggestions (usually in the form of questions) for stories we should consider taking on. 

This time the question was “Have you considered doing a story for readers like me (who need for various reasons to get tax receipts for our donations) who are willing and able, especially at a time like this, to support musical organizations (particularly those with a sense of social justice)? A story like that would help us figure who to give our money to.” A good idea indeed, I agreed. 

Except that afterwards, I’m sorry to say, I found the idea irking me like a scratchy tag in a new shirt. Why? Because I am less sure than ever before that being able to issue tax receipts for donations is necessarily a reliable indicator of which organizations, in the music community and beyond, are the most at risk right now, or the most deserving of support. A bit like the way, back in March and April, when it came to deciding who should be eligible for governmental pandemic support, only T4 employment earnings were initially deemed proof of “real work” – no comfort to workers in the gig economy, or small businesses, where the dreamers usually pay themselves last anyway. 

So, there’s a story there, but definitely a more nuanced one than at first glance. And yes, we’ll probably tackle it – but, um, not right now. 

A few weeks before that, according to my notes, it was the “We’re all in this together” pep talks from our social, cultural and civic leaders that were seriously irking me to the point I was vowing to thunder about them here. What’s the “this” we’re supposedly all in? Not the “same boat,” that’s for sure, I scribbled. The same storm? Yes indeed, but in a whole range of craft, not all equally seaworthy and not all equally equipped to issue life jackets (or T4s) to those on board. But that one is not so simple either. After all, how do you define “seaworthy” when what is needed for the urgent task at hand is the alacrity to change course to avoid an iceberg? 

So, yes, there’s a story there too, but definitely a more nuanced one than at first glance. So … um, not right now. 

Instead, there’s this, from all of us at The WholeNote whose lives, like most of yours, are under (re)construction without benefit of blueprint: a crazy quilt of artistic initiative and endeavour and tenacity on the cusp between what was then and who knows what next? Still all doing the things we know how to do, but in ways we never needed to know till now; still figuring out ways to keep telling the stories we are driven to tell; hanging in until we can hang out. And maybe, just maybe, getting a teensy bit better, with each other’s help, at figuring out when to say “um, not right now” to the things we long for that just bloody well have to wait.

Right now “all in good time” is not the worst thing to wish on. Enjoy the read, and we’ll see you on the other side.

05 DRUM CLASSIFIEDS COLOUR SCANA couple of issues back (Vol 26, No 1) in this slot, I drew readers’ attention to the cheeky tagline “Priceless” on the top right hand corner of our front cover (where one would usually expect to find a newsstand price, or, failing that, the word “Free”). “But for how long? And what comes next?” was the question I asked. For what it’s worth, if you’ll be sad to see the Priceless tagline go, turn back to the cover and bid it a fond farewell. 

What will replace it? Perhaps nothing, immediately. The title of this Opener is maybe a good candidate. It captures the essence of what will need to change in our relationships with all the different constituencies within the music community who benefit in one way or another from the fact that we are around – in other words, you, our readership. We know how much you like us. But “what are we worth to you? is a different question to grapple with – now that most of us, having slammed into an economic and social brick wall, find ourselves having to re-examine the fundamentals of how we used to ply our various trades. 

“You Can’t Fake the Classifieds”

Reading Jenny Parr’s interview with Musical Stage Company’s Mitchell Marcus in this issue – especially the bit about Porchside Songs – brought to mind what I wrote here last month, after her recent death in Italy, about Kensington Market arts pioneer Ida Carnevali and her visceral understanding of how art is rooted in community. Which in turn got me thinking about another Kensington character from those days (thankfully still alive if not geographically among us), Buzz Burza. 

Buzz, as we all called him, had the same neighbourhood-rooted understanding of community publishing as Ida did of community theatre, finding his way into our lives in the 1980s (by way of such landmark controlled-circulation publications as the Toronto Clarion, The Skills Exchange, and Now magazine) when we were in the early stages of founding the Kensington Market Drum. While Perlman was ranting about how the Market needed our own voice to withstand the tides of cynical change, and the onslaughts of city hall, Burza was quietly signing up dozens of businesses or agencies in and around the Market who would agree to carry the newspaper if we ever got it off the ground. “You can fake-build everything else in a community newspaper but you can’t fake the classifieds” was a favourite bon mot of his, and we took it to heart – the DRUM’s classified (DRUM HUM community ads, we called them, took the form of a brick wall across the bottom of as many pages as required, with “DRUM Bricks, only $10 a throw” as our rallying cry.

Brick by Brick

It was the same brick-by-brick approach to controlled circulation and community listings with which we built The WholeNote, from modest beginnings as a column in the Kensington Market Drum into what it was as recently as half a year ago. And, in principle, it’s the same approach – one brick at a time – that will see us (and I suspect many of you) through this next while. But we will only be as real as you help us be. 

There are four brick walls (five if you count the one on this page) in this issue, each representing an aspect of what we do that can’t be faked. Check them out. They are as fundamental to what makes The WholeNote hum as unfakeable classifieds were to the Kensington Market Drum. “I’ll buy that!” is the response we’d love to hear. And they are not all monetary asks either. But they are all crucial as we rebuild our usefulness (see page 2). 

Mind you, come to think of it, if you have thought about taking a subscription, for yourself or someone else, this might just be the time to consider doing so! And if you have immediate paid work to offer for musicians and other arts workers, see page 28. Till February those “bricks” are free!

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