“Basically how it works is that each participant records material while only partially knowing what other participants have made. The full musical piece is revealed without knowing how all the parts will intersect.” – Ben Finley

Exquisite Corpse, Wikipedia says, comes to us from the French Surrealists in the 1920s. As Surrealism founder Andre Bréton put it, “It started in fun, became playful and eventually enriching.” 

As a game or technique it is similar to the game Consequences, where players in turn write something, folding the page to hide part of what they have written before passing it on. The sometimes enriching fun comes when the whole thing is presented, with the missing parts in place. The name itself came from a sentence co-created during an early Surrealist round of the game: “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau” (The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine).

As a technique for collaborative creation, it continues to show up all over the arts spectrum: in the 1940s, composers John Cage, Virgil Thomson, Henry Cowell, and Lou Harrison, composed a set of pieces this way, each writing a measure of music plus an extra note or notes, then folding it on the bar line and passing it on to the next person. (Party Pieces is what the published end result was eventually called.) From post-punk English goth rock, to comic book frame-by-frame co-creation, to music theatre, parody novels, film, tv, art and architecture.

The key to the game is that the full piece is revealed without any of the participants having had prior knowledge of how the parts would intersect.

Exquisite COVID?

Come to think of it, if one substitutes “it started as no fun at all” for Breton’s “it started in fun” life feels a whole lot like le cadavre exquis right now, including not having the foggiest idea what, or when, the “big reveal” will be. 

As Kevin King writes in “On Our Cover” (page 5), “to everyone things seem to be ‘buffering’ in one way or another now, … waiting for the next Zoom meeting or Facebook live stream to start, waiting for your favourite venue to re-open, waiting for someone to invent a face mask you can play an instrument through, waiting for the curve to flatten, or for a vaccine, or for social reform.”

And while we wait, we chip away, each of us, at coming up with strategies and approaches that work for the part of the picture that each of us has to deal with, wondering how (or even if), as Ben Finley says in the quote at the top of this piece, “all the parts will intersect” and what kind of whole they will make when they do. 

One of the contributors to our Community Voices feature in our previous issue (Tricia Baldwin from the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston) made an astute remark: that COVID-19 “has brought forward the tipping point, [and is] hastening the creation of new structures to support the creation and production of the arts in a different way.” 

It’s happening everywhere I look, although “structures” is perhaps too solid a word to describe some of the improvised storm shelters and advance bases springing up: for people wishing for a “new normal” that sounds and behaves more like the old one; and for those of us hoping that the built-in inequities of the old normal never return.

For example, I chatted briefly with Mervon Mehta, executive director, performing arts at the Royal Conservatory in late June. It was right after the RCM made the brave (or foolhardy, depending how the winds blow) announcement of a full season commencing at the beginning of October. Much of what was on his mind had to do with really nitty gritty concerns: How many can we accommodate in our three halls at one-third capacity? How do we get them in and out? Who among our visiting artists will agree to do a 70-minute performance without an intermission at 3pm and repeat it at 8, instead of the one performance they were contracted to do? Things like that. But at the same time he freely admits that the new plan, detailed as it is, may have to go right out of the window if the same dispensations being offered to places of worship, for example, are not extended to the performing arts. Or if the hoped-for stages of recovery don’t pan out and even places of worship are locked down again. 

Another example: the Show One Productions/Starvox staging of the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit now under way at the former Toronto Star building at One Yonge Street. It started first as a “drive through”, thereby capturing the attention of media that would likely not have given the exhibit a second thought. And now it enters a second stage with agreed start time walk-through admission where you must stay within a projected moving circle of space as you move through it. What parts of this, I wonder, have applicability beyond this particular exhibit? Even if only in helping control bottleneck ingress and egress at the larger venues that are Show One’s more usual stomping grounds, and which are themselves in peril if they do not solve these very problems. 

Meanwhile for smaller venues without organized “arts” credentials, like our city’s jazz clubs, it’s a different matter. In Mainly Clubs, Mostly Jazz, Colin Story interviews owner/management at three music venues (The Rex, Burdock, and The Emmet Ray), which, unlike major institutions do not have the benefit of time, major financial resources, and systemic endorsement to stay afloat. Paradoxically, in the longer haul “it is small venues, rather than large, that will have the greater capacity to provide space to diverse programming.” 

Full Circle

Back to the conversation with Ben Finley that sparked this train of thought. Finley is a double bassist, improviser, composer and educator, with deep roots in Campellford’s Westben Festival, where 2020 was to be the third iteration of Westben’s Performer-Composer Residency (P-CR), with Finley at the helm. In previous years, 11 successful applicants travelled to Westben, some from far afield,
for a face-to-face residency, timed to coincide with the performance/audience/showcase opportunities afforded by the festival itself.

This year? No festival. No international travel. So, logically, one would think, no composer residency? Wrong.

Instead of whittling the applicants down to the usual dozen or so, Finley invited all 90 applicants to this year’s program to join a month-long digital residency (all of June) instead. More than 60 accepted and were assigned to 13 ensembles based on intersecting, rather than similar interests. 

“So here we are all of a sudden,” Finley says, “having to cross multi-geographical and communication borders, with groups of participants, covering seven different time zones, having to develop innovative and satisfying collaborative strategies for distanced music making.” Crucially, he says, these approaches and strategies didn’t just try to replicate the in-person musical experience but rather to dive into what web-grounded meaningful connections would look like. “It has afforded diverse intergenerational musical practitioners a place to create,” he says. “It’s as though they have been enabled instead to come up with their own temporary musical institution – an exciting new development and something that may not have been possible in person. 

This unexpected adventure comes to its close July 5 to July 11, with 13 premiere performances, in Westben’s new digital venue
(www.westben.ca), of 15-minute multimedia pieces. All the creative intersections this first Westben digital P-CR has actually provoked in participants will be on display. But that’s just one step on the way. 

“We are not in an ordinary time,” Finley says. “COVID has rippled a tremendous impact. And now that ripple is intersecting with a tide – of people coming together to imagine, organize, and participate in an anti-racist and decolonized world. And we need creative and adaptive musical institutions to do this. This global residency has been an (imperfect) experiment in that.” 

publisher@thewholenote.com

0Black Lives Matter.

Many arts organizations and musicians in Ontario, whose activities are the main focus of The WholeNote's work, are joining the call for urgent and concerted action to bring an end to systemic and deeply entrenched racism in society and the arts, especially, at this moment, as it relates, within the larger framework of racial inequity, to anti-Black racism. As publisher of The WholeNote I add my own voice to that call.

But beyond expressions of solidarity, we have much work to do. For 25 years, our aim has always been to support the musical life of our community by painting as comprehensive a picture as we could of that collective musical life. But calling something comprehensive does not make it so, and in fact makes us complicit in maintaining an inequitable and unjust society.

If we are to be part of the solution and not the problem, we must, individually and collectively, answer some fundamental questions:

  • From whom  do we actively seek information about their musical activity?
  • How do the methods we use for gathering that information, and the structures we impose for presenting it, hinder inclusivity?
  • How do we decide what types of music merit coverage?
  • Who and how do we hire?
  • How do we decide not just what stories are worth telling but who the storytellers need to be? 

As with the arts organizations and musicians whose activities are the main reason for our existence, joining this call for action is a necessary first step. But, moving forward, what we actually do about the things we are saying here is what we will all be judged by. That will be the real story.

-David Perlman, publisher@thewholenote.com

A couple of hours from now, as my final action in the extraordinary roller coaster ride of putting together this second last magazine of The WholeNote’s 25th season, I will call up our designer and ask her to place the final missing piece of the puzzle, on page 5, so we can go to press. After that, I will shut down my computer, shed a few tears of one kind or another, and wander out into the early morning light for the one-mile walk home. The street will be unsettlingly unpeopled. Even if I do encounter someone, we will (how quickly we learn) gravitate to opposite edges of the sidewalk, as though we were oppositely charged magnets, or wearing invisible hoops skirts designed to make physical separation fashionable.

Upon receiving my phonecall, Susan will replace the line in the table of contents which presently reads OPENER: ?????? ?????? with whatever it is that actually appears as the title at the top of this page. But at this moment, just before sunrise, I truly do not yet know what that title is going to be.

The problem is not a lack of possibilities but too many: COVID’s Metamorphoses; Bums in Seats; Duck-Billed Platitudes; In the Blink of a Dystopian Eye; Three-Legged Stools and Shooting Sticks; Something’s Got to Give; There’s Always Time (Until Suddenly There Isn’t); The Writing On the Wall; … and (far and away my favourite if it didn’t take so long to explain) The Initiative Code-Named Breve.

I’ve been carrying the latter around in a corner of my brain for at least 15 years now, always aware that one day, in the implausible combination of elements, masquerading as a business plan, that has sustained this magazine for two and a half decades, something would snap. 

BREVE: Three examples of musical notation attempting to express the doubling of a whole note.I always liked it as a title, mostly for its aura of geekily swashbuckling mystery. “The Initiative Code-Named Breve!” I would say (air quotes included) to whomever I was replying that, yes, we do have a plan for long-term sustainability. And if their eyes didn’t light up in instant appreciation at the ingenuity of the phrase, I would explain: “in that far-away land where musical time is counted in minims, crochets, quavers, semi-quavers and so on, the thing we call a wholenote is called a semibreve; so a breve is a double wholenote. Get it?” 

Because somewhere behind our little-engine-that-could, self-made-entrepreneurial micro-business facade lurks a legitimate not-for-profit doppelganger waiting to be born.Doppelganger, double; second WholeNote, twin, Breve … Get it?” By which time, eyes glazing, smile frozen into a rictus, nodding obediently and only semi-comprehendingly, my victim would be desperately wishing they hadn’t brought the whole thing upon themselves by asking, conversationally, “Gee, you’re with The WholeNote. How do you guys manage to do what you do?”

Three Legged Stools and Shooting Sticks

I think the closest I ever came to articulating the “double wholenote” idea, in any form other than the occasional red-wine-fuelled post-concert reception rant, was in 2018, in the heady days after the Toronto Arts Foundation honoured us with that year’s Roy Thomson Hall Award of Merit, declaring us to be, in the citation announcing the award “vital to the entire music community.” 

Boosted and burdened alike by such heady praise, I embarked on a round of grant application writing (not being a non-profit, those opportunities are far less frequent than you might think) in which I described The WholeNote’s time-tested business model as a “three-legged stool.” 

Leg one: the aggregation, free of charge, of detailed performance listings for all eligible local performers and presenters; 

Leg two: the use of best practices of controlled circulation and unrestricted access, to ensure the placement of this aggregated content in the hands of the broadest possible interested audience, also free of charge.

Leg three: around the core listings, a team of writers drawn from the music community the magazine covers, complemented by a range of affordable display advertising directly related to our core content.

It worked. Free listings meant interesting content for concert-going readers. Free circulation meant reaching lots of concert-going readers. Lots of concert-going readers meant lots of interest from advertisers. Their support in turn meant we could keep offering free listings and widespread free circulation. Win. Win. Win. An unbroken gravity-defying circle, despite a decade-long decline in industry-wide traditional advertising revenues. 

But the writing was on the wall. “Advertising revenues can no longer be relied on as the only load-bearing leg of the three-legged stool if we are to hope to carry our vital community service forward in a vibrant, evolving manner, and in the hands of a new generation of leadership” the grant-writing publisher (me) thundered. 

In the blink of a dystopian eye. Photo by Luca PerlmanAnd now, in the blink of a dystopian eye, the two constants in the formula – that there would always be live concerts to list, and that there would always a way to reach our loyal readers – are, for how long we don’t know, splintered. 

The next issue of this magazine (scheduled to come out on or before July 1, and covering JULY/AUGUST) will mark the end of our 25th season of doing what we do to cover live music in our town and region. I’d been looking forward to trotting out a few tried and true statements about looking forward to the next 25 years, service to the community, vital roles, etc. Now all of a sudden, COVID’s metamorphoses have rendered any such duck-billed platitudes entirely and irrevocably moot. Fact is, if we are to survive this extraordinary moment, it will be because we, like most of you, have found a way to “pivot,” as the fashionable phrase puts it, while avoiding the equally incapacitating subroutine of spinning madly and uselessly in circles.

I like to think this combined May/June issue, in the midst of the mirk, is rife with clues and cues as to where we might find ourselves headed. The next issue, July/August, brings us two months closer to new beginnings, whatever they may. See you on the other side.

publisher@thewholenote.com

At first, about two weeks ago, when the postponements and cancellations of events in March and April and beyond started to trickle in, we thought the best thing to do would be to take them out, as though they had never been planned. But as the trickle turned into a tide, we changed our minds about that. We have an explanation for why, and I’ll get to that. But with “Flattening the Curve” rapidly taking on the weight of an Eleventh Commandment, you will I hope forgive me my mild moment of rebellion in meandering a bit on my way to the point.

Ruth Vellis

I don’t remember when exactly Ruth Vellis’ first phone call to me was, but I can call to mind even now her bright clarity on the phone, every time we spoke thereafter: “Hello, this is Ruth Vellis speaking. I have read your magazine forever. I used to pick it up at St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, right across the road from here, if I got there before they were all gone.”

“Here,” across the road from St. Stephen’s, as she explained, was Kensington Gardens retirement home. “I am 96 and not going to concerts right now, but I still love to read about them, so I can decide which ones I would have chosen to go to. I enjoy doing that.”

From that moment on, without fail, Chris Malcolm our circulation manager made a point of dropping off Ruth Vellis’ personal copy at Kensington Gardens. And every time, over the ensuing years, Ruth would call me (most often, I suspect, at times when she could just leave a message) to say thank you, and the message would be the same: “I am 97, 98, 99, … going to be a hundred soon, I am a hundred now … And I still love to read about the concerts I am not going to, because I enjoy choosing which ones I would have gone to if I could.”

Just as I cannot remember clearly when that first phone call was, I cannot (or perhaps choose not to) remember when they stopped. 

But in this singular moment in time, we offer you, our readers, this magazine in the same spirit. Here are, to the best of our ability, the concerts none of us of us will be going to right now, so that you can enjoy deciding which ones you would have chosen to go to, and so that you can, if you so choose, reach out to the artists and presenters in question to express your sense of connection to them, in whatever way you best can.  

It is our hope that for the community that this issue (our 240th in an unbroken chain stretching back to September 1995) will serve a specific purpose – as a record of what the bright normal would have been, and therefore a useful starting point for compiling an inventory of what has been lost in the April that would have been.

Red Tide

As soon as word of cancellations and postponements started trickling in, we implemented a “cancelled/postponed” filter for our online listings. It is important for readers to note that the  CANCELLED/POSTPONED notices in the listings in this print issue are just a snapshot – a frozen moment in a fluid situation, reflecting information received by us only up to Friday March 20. Do not assume that because something listed here doesn’t say cancelled that it is happening. 

We will continue, to the best of our ability, to keep updating our listings information on a daily basis, including, whenever that may be, the moment when among the “cancelled” and “postponed” notices, we start to see signs that the tide has turned as things are rescheduled and new dates are announced.

Staying in Print, But Not Only in Print 

As you know, if you are turning pages as you read this, we are staying in print, but matching the number of copies to the distribution points (many forced to shutter temporarily) still available to us and to you. But we have a vigorous online, e-letter and social media existence as well, and I urge you, if you haven’t already done so, to avail yourself of these. A print publication that lumbers into existence nine times a year is ill-equipped to deal with the ever-changing, fast-moving pace of things, as a resourceful community in danger acts and reacts in the face of this unprecedented challenge, finding hope and beauty in hard times. Cues and clues to this digital realm, for artists and readers alike are dotted throughout this issue. I daresay most of you have time for a more-than-usual amount of reading and re-reading, so please seek them out.

The virus that went viral

Last Sunday morning around this same time, Jack and I were walking through a largely deserted Kensington Market, and ran across Maggie Helwig, poet, novelist, social justice activist, and minister of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields Anglican Church at College and Bellevue (yes, the selfsame St. Stephen’s at which Ruth Vellis used to pick up her copy of The WholeNote during her concertgoing days). “Shouldn’t you be in church?” we teased. The answer was that the diocese had instructed the suspension of all church services, but – thankfully, from Maggie’s perspective – not the suspension of other aspects of her ministry, in this inner city parish where the worlds of the least and most afflicted in our society most starkly intersect. 

We talked about the strange time we are in. “We’ll never know for sure, whether or not all this was an overreaction or not,” I suggested. She nodded. “Unless, of course,” she said, “in spite of everything, it turns out to have been an under-reaction instead.”

Whether it’s the virus or the way the virus has gone viral that is most to blame for the tidal wave of impacts sweeping our society, is at this point immaterial. Moving forward, all we can do to help is to continue to tally those impacts, and our community’s responses to them, as best we can, in all the media available to us, so that you, our readers, can figure out how best to help, to whatever extent you can. 

I discovered researching this piece that Ruth Vellis died on December 11, 2018 at the age of 102. I am certain she would have enjoyed choosing which of the concerts in this issue she would have gone to if she could. As, I am equally sure, will you. 

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com

Two pm this past February 8 was a Saturday afternoon, and my concert companion and I had barely had time to settle into our Roy Thomson Hall balcony seats with our beer and popcorn before the lights, already dim, dipped even more, and a fractional moment of quiet rippled across the cheerful din of the place, the way a passing cloud wiping the face of the sun high above a summer lake evokes a moment’s hush.

(You can always tell it’s February in Toronto when people like me distract themselves from a task at hand by starting to talk, out of nowhere, about the summer.)

Where was I? Ah yes. February 8, about four minutes past 2pm, in the balcony level of Toronto’s most imposing cultural hall of mirrors. The momentary hush that descended on the room when the lights flickered is turning into a ripple of applause as our conductor for the day, Jack Everly, strides briskly onto the stage.

If it’s less of a ripple of applause than one might reliably expect at that moment in the concert ritual, it’s certainly not because the crowd is smaller than usual – the place is, as far as I can tell from where I am sitting, pretty much its usual respectably crowded self. And it’s not because the audience is already settling morosely into an appropriate frame of mind for something portentous – there’s a palpable buzz and hum in the air. Mostly it’s less of a ripple than one might have expected, because the logistics of applause are complicated with a beer in one hand and popcorn in the other.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra members already seated on stage do their usual decorous bit to salute the maestro as he enters – they tap their bows carefully on their instruments; stamp their feet in a refined (and of course rhythmic) way; there are smiles all round.

Everly strides to the front of the stage, all affable business, picks up a microphone that just happens to be there, and invites us all to have a good time, cheer for our heroes if we feel like it, laugh or cry if we want to, and applaud or not as the mood strikes. And then, all business, he turns to the orchestra, all attention. The lights take a deeper dive, a deeper hush descends. He raises his baton … and the movie begins.

Calling it a “movie” in these splendid surrounds is, I readily concede, not the most formal way of addressing it. Film With Orchestra is how it’s titled on the cover of the TSO program book I picked up on my way out of the hall (I had a hand free by then).

Mind you, that’s not what it’s called inside the program. On subsequent closer inspection, on the page with the official production credits for the highly successful road show, it is styled A Symphonic Night at the Movies which neatly captures the middle-brow appeal of the thing: neither film as art nor “a flick at the bioscope,” as I would have called it as a nine-year-old child in 1962 (in another country) ten years after this particular movie was made.

Whatever one calls it, film with orchestra has become, for a whole bunch of reasons, a hybrid genre that is much in vogue. The TSO, for example, does four of them a year in its own season. Three of them, this season (two Star Wars movies and Home Alone, which has become a perennial Christmas holiday offering), are branded showcases for the astonishing film score output of composer John Williams. The fourth generally digs into film classics: last year it was, if I remember, Casablanca. Today it is 1952’s Singin’ In the Rain, starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds.

Singin’ In the RainI understand the appeal. For movie fans it’s a chance to get under the hood of an aspect of movie-making normally hidden from view. For millions of people, for whom orchestral scores, consciously or unconsciously, are intrinsic to the way we are programmed daily as to what to feel and think, it’s a revelation to see how the all-too-familiar sounds are made: a bit like actually seeing milk come from a cow rather than from a carton on a shelf. I like to think there are favourable statistics out there concerning how many people who came primarily for the novelty value of seeing a favourite film in a new context discover the orchestra as something worth revisiting in its own right.

As for die-hard fans of the orchestra, it’s a chance to spend time in the hall, indulging a passion, without any of the usual self-appointed distractions of having to instruct less couth patrons in the etiquette of cultural palaces – a chance to let our hair down, so to speak.

So I was expecting to have fun, and would have, even without the popcorn and beer. What I wasn’t expecting was the way this particular film in this context has stayed with me for the past few weeks, taking on an aesthetic shape and colour: posing questions
(and suggesting answers) about the relationships we cannot afford to take for granted in regard to the continually evolving relationship between artists and audiences.

Part of the reason it was so interesting is the pivotal moment in the history of film that is at one and the same time the reason for the film’s existence and it’s own major storyline – the advent of the talking picture. Stars of the silent screen died off, metaphorically, in droves; new stars were born; actors who could actually act, singers who could actually sing, and dancers who could actually dance were suddenly able to bring prodigious live performance skills to a mass audience. Studios acquired orchestras where previously movie houses had theatre organs or player pianos. Sound stages on an immense scale came into existence.

Memorably, February 8 in the RTH balcony, I found the inner story of the film being played out all over again, in a crazed, Escher-like version of itself: as though the fun-house mirrored twists and turns of Roy Thomson Hall’s intentionally disorienting lobbies and levels had been transported into the auditorium itself.

There was one moment, for example, where I found myself watching the TSO live on the RTH stage (with a pull-down movie screen most of them could not see above their heads), making beautifully synchronized music for an orchestra on the screen, reduced once again to silent-movie puppetry by technology’s latest twist and turn; while, to top it all off, on that screen an auditorium of people sat watching their orchestra accompanying the same stars that our orchestra was. Layers within layers.

There was a more fundamental moment for me, though, well into the movie’s second half. (Yes, there was an intermission to top up on popcorn and beer.)

It came during one of the film’s memorable songs – not one of the obvious ones, like the title song, that had dozens of audience members happily singing along, but “Would You” a lovely gentle waltz, masterfully positioned at the film’s moment of denouement, ricochetting from bathos to pathos, in a lovely arc:

He holds her in his arms,
would you, would you?
He tells her of her charms,
would you, would you?

I suddenly became aware that the person seated next to me was singing, completely comfortably and absorbed entirely in the moment. Not “singing along,” just singing. Not an audience member “joining in.” Nor aware, even for an instant, that she herself had an audience. Just feeling permitted.

And here’s the point: she would not have had that permission either in a movie theatre or in a concert hall. It was a gifted moment, arising from a uniquely oddball set of circumstances: the live audience watching the live orchestra brought the people on the silver screen to life in a way that film alone cannot. The privacy of the typical film-watching experience kept other audience members at bay, in a way that the typical concert environment does not.

It’s an alchemy we all, artists and presenters alike, need to seek.

After all, if, as the bard says, “all the world’s a stage,” then what’s an audience?

Three days later: Tuesday February 11, at the COC

Oh, it’s a starry night!” my opera companion, delighted, turns to me and says, very quietly, as the Hansel and Gretel overture starts and the mysterious-looking panelled stage curtain we have been eyeing for the past ten minutes or so, speculating as to how its panels will part and divide, reveals what is behind it. Like lightning the person in the row right in front of us spins around. Her “SSSSHHHHH!!!” can be heard at least 15 rows back. Our slightly sheepish discomfort lasts all of the three minutes it takes for the same individual to take things to the next level by whacking the elbow of the person next to them with a rolled up program, for encroaching over the midline of the seat arm.

Thirteen years ago, approximately

In the selfsame balcony at Roy Thomson Hall. It is a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion. One of it’s great chorales “O grosse Lieb” has just commenced and someone, I would guess in his 80s, deep in the moment and alone with the music starts, quietly, to do what Bach instructs – to sing along. Someone turns to chastise ...

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com

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