Fall can be either a rough time or a good one to start feeling hopeful, depending on your point of view. Just like “back to school” means a lot of different things, depending where you are coming from and who is taking you there. 

This year in particular, the season of first cold nights and falling leaves brings very mixed feelings. Alongside “fourth wave”pandemic dread that nothing will ever be “normal” again, is a glimmering hope that, yes indeed, there is a chance that some aspects of what we called normal are gone for good, because just like “back to school” what’s called normal depends on where you stand in relation to it.

Blue Pages

Normally, for more than 25 years in fact, the fall issue of The WholeNote has been “Blue Pages” time – a special supplement containing dozens of short profiles by music makers and presenters in our community, telling readers about themselves and their plans and hopes for the season underway. Individual profiles could be interesting or not to a reader, depending on your personal musical likes, but collectively they were always more than the sum of their parts, because they gave a comforting sense of who “we” were as a music community, chock-a-block with the familiar, but always offering up something new for the adventurous to explore.

Read more: Blue Pages and Orange Shirts

The craft that will see us through“You have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” 

That line of poetry smacked me between the eyes early in 2018. It is from a poem, “Home” by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, London’s first Young Poet Laureate. I heard it in the context of a Tafelmusik concert titled Safe Haven, created by ensemble member Alison Mackay, “exploring the influence of refugees on the music and culture of Baroque Europe and Canada today.”

In that one line of poetry those two worlds, 400 years apart, collided: waiting on beaches for frail craft in search of safety and giving back to the places where they found safe haven as much as they got. The 400-year-old version of it fits nicely into a settler version of history. The 21st-century eastern Mediterranean version, maybe not so readily for the people already settled here.   

It was an interesting construct, but what did it take to transform it from a notional exercise into a raw truth that could not be rationalized or equivocated – into a truth we accepted no matter how uncomfortable? Part of it, as in Warshan Shire’s poem, was the indelible memory for most of us of one photograph, three years earlier, of one child lying dead on an eastern Mediterranean beach – Alan Kurdi – that defied abstraction, gave a name and a face to a truth, and took inaction off the table as an option. 

How many more children’s graves will have to be found, here, today, for the truth to take general hold the same way?  

Wendalyn Bartley’s conversation with Claude Schryer this issue digs into a parallel point: how do you practise your craft at something with an esoteric name like “acoustic ecology” in the face of a climate crisis demanding action? “Valorizing nature” is part of the answer, Schryer says. 

“Valorizing art” is the other part, I’d say. It means artists taking all those tricks of the trade they’ve learned these past 16 months – new ways to get their voices out there; to feel alive; to work together; maybe even make a difference or two. And now’s the time to lash all those newfound competencies to the mast of some big truths that need to be shouted to the treetops.

So here we are, dry land maybe in sight: stowaways, refugees, hostages, passengers and crew (depending on the craft we’re in). 

Thanks as always for reading what we have made. It’s bristling with wit and grit and inventiveness. (Oh, and music.)  

Hang in. We intend to do the same.

publisher@thewholenote.com

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. 

publisher@thewholenote.com

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.

publisher@thewholenote.com

*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. 

publisher@thewholenote.com

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.

publisher@thewholenote.com

Back to top