The Horned Enemy from The Princess of the Stars, (Wildcat Lake, 1997) designed by Jerrard and Diana Smith. Photo by Sean HagermanOn a particularly sunny and warm May day in Belfast – one might even have called it summery – my thoughts turned to the coming season, and to the phenomenon of music performed in the great outdoors, or even deep in the wilderness, if the friends and followers of Murray Schafer are to be emulated. My reverie gradually took me back to a much earlier time when such thinking was a fresh idea.

I recalled that in the summer of 1979 my CBC Radio colleague, John Reeves, approached me with an unusual proposal for a broadcast. He asked if I would consider funding an episode he wanted to produce for my recently established contemporary music series, Two New Hours (1978–2007) on what was then known as the CBC FM Network. The notable aspect of his proposal was that it would feature a composition by Murray Schafer, to be recorded on a wilderness lake. The title of the episode was simply, Music for Wilderness Lake. The performance of the work would be by an ensemble of 12 trombonists, ringing the lake, and the recording would be made from the perspective of microphones positioned in a canoe in the middle of the lake.

I thought about Reeves’ proposal, reflecting on other Schafer compositions I had already broadcast on the series, such as his now iconic Third String Quartet, which I had commissioned. The quartet had been a highly unconventional piece, one which begins with only the cellist on stage and in which the other three string players gradually join after slowly progressing, one by one, from the back of the hall to centre stage. In the middle movement, the string players perform all manner of un-string-like sounds. They shout, growl, stomp their feet, and generally carry on in an unhinged and bellicose manner. Needless to say, this kind of innovative writing worked beautifully both on stage and on the radio! The idea, therefore, of a new Schafer composition to be recorded from a canoe in the centre of a wilderness lake was only momentarily surprising. I responded by authorizing the necessary budget to Reeves to produce the segment.

I subsequently discovered that the audio recording was only part of the project. A film crew would accompany Reeves and his recording engineer into the wilderness. The filmmakers eventually contracted for the rights to synchronize and mix our CBC recording as a part of the soundtrack of their film were Barbara Willis Sweete, Niv Fichman and Larry Weinstein; it was released as the first ever film by their new company, Fichman-Sweete Productions, which later evolved into Rhombus Media.

Schafer mentioned in his 2012 autobiography, My Life on Earth & Elsewhere, that Music for Wilderness Lake was his first environmental piece. “I had been canoeing around one of the many unpeopled lakes in the Madawaska area and had noticed how the sounds changed throughout the day and evening. I decided to write a work for the lake and take advantage of those changes,” he wrote. “Just at this time I was approached by a group of 12 trombone players who wanted me to write a piece for them. I suggested my idea and they liked it.” The book, published by The Porcupine’s Quill in Erin, Ontario, is not the focus of this article, but bears mentioning; it is a remarkable read, divided into two parts. Part one is subtitled Student, Sailor, Wanderer and part two is The Music of the Environment. It’s furthermore am increasingly valuable document, since Schafer has become afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, and unable to further share his remarkable story.

Brooke Dufton, a soprano and scholar who has devoted much of her career to studying and performing the works of Schafer told me: “Given the many obstacles to presenting this music publicly – gathering a dozen adventurous trombonists at once, to play at dawn, and getting performers and audience to that location, and at those times – it is remarkable how frequently Music for Wilderness Lake is professionally performed. In the last three years alone, almost 40 years after its creation, it has been featured in at least seven events. These are ones I know about: Stratford Summer Music, Stratford ON; Make Music New York, New York Central Park Lake; Nuit Blanche, Huntsville ON; The contemporary Austin Sound Series, Austin, Texas; Kalvfestivalen, Gothenburg, Sweden; and Living with Lakes, in Sudbury ON.” Dufton herself is often included in such performances, positioned in the front of a distant canoe, singing Ariadne’s Aria by Schafer.

Music for Wilderness Lake proved to be pivotal for Schafer’s subsequent works for performance in the natural environment. Schafer wrote: “Following the success of Music for Wilderness Lake, I began to think of a larger, more theatrical work in which the action would take place on a lake with the musicians situated around the shores.” The resulting piece, Princess of the Stars, composed in 1981 is an environmental opera, which also serves as the prologue for the 12-part Patria Cycle, which revolves around the journeys of three central characters: the Princess of the Stars, the Wolf and the Minotaur.

In 1997 our Two New Hours production team was able to record and broadcast a production of Princess of the Stars, staged on and around Wildcat Lake in the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve by Patria Music/Theatre Projects. This was a large- scale undertaking, requiring advance research of the lake itself in order to determine ideal locations for microphone placement. Once the locations were set, our team constructed simple floats, which were anchored at those precise locations with microphone mounts. For each performance, we paddled out to these positions with the mics themselves, installed them, together with the portable recording devices, and then ditched our canoes behind large boulders on the nearest shore, becoming invisible. This was all accomplished before the pre-dawn glow and the arrival of the audience. After the performances, we collected the recording gear and headed to the mixing station. Listeners to Two New Hours across the nation were thus transported to the lake to experience the opera.

Prior to that, in 1995, as a sort of warm-up to the Princess of the Stars opera broadcast, Schafer prepared several pieces from the final movement of Patria, the Epilogue, titled, And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon. Several musicians travelled with us to Wildcat Lake, where recordings were made using those same methods that we would subsequently employ for the later production of Princess of the Stars. The resulting broadcast, titled Wolf Music, was heard on Two New Hours in 1996 and subsequently leased to Centrediscs, the record label of the Canadian Music Centre. This recording is still available through the CMC and Centrediscs. Wolf Music was also entered by CBC Radio as a submission to the 1996 Prix Italia, an international competition for public broadcasters, where it earned a special mention from the jury.

Two New Hours was also involved in the commissioning, recording and broadcasts of two more parts of the Patria Cycle: Patria 5 – The Crown of Ariadne and Patria 8 – The Palace of the Cinabar Phoenix.

Scanned scores courtesy of Neil DallhoffAnd Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon lives on, continues each summer in the Haliburton forest as a cohort of up to 64 participants who spend a week and a day in the forest, organized in packs, to live in the wild creating music and performing together. Poet and essayist Rae Crossman describes it as, “an annual pageant involving musicians, actors, dancers, artists and storytellers who create musical drama in the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve, on the edge of Ontario’s Algonquin Park.” Crossman explains: “This is music theatre like no other: the stage is a moose meadow, a rock-strewn gorge patterned with moss, a raft assembled from rugged cedar driftwood, or a quiet forest pool, fringed with cardinal flowers. The lighting: dawn through filigree of pine, intense noonday sun on a burnished lake, flickering campfire flames, or a million stars. Flute music accompanies birdsong. A trombone echoes across the bay. Is that wind in the tamarack or an ethereal voice singing sibilant notes of sorrow? “

Double bassist Neal Evans says: “One of my chief impressions from participating in several Murray Schafer works is that everything he does creates community.” Evans, together with his wife Peg and their two sons, have been long-term participants in The Wolf Project, as it’s also known. They told me that over the space of eight days it “creates a community of people who feel a close bond, much closer that would be achieved by a regular week-long camping experience.” The reason, they explain, is because participants’ days together are purposeful. “There is the immediate need to create short ‘pieces’ (Encounters) to perform for the rest of the group, and the overarching need to create the large-scale composed piece (Great Wheel Day) for the final day. What makes this experience so different, is that at the end of our ‘creative’ work periods, we continue working together to prepare meals, set up a campfire, dig a latrine, hang a tarp or paddle in some supplies. There is no audience, only members of the group, which means that our guards do not/cannot effectively go up on the final day. There is a heightened sense of ‘performance,’ of course, tempered by the awareness and understanding of our shared humanity.”

Given the current fragile state of his health, Schafer no longer participates in this ongoing Epilogue to the Patria Cycle. But his story continues to be told. There are two large-scale projects in process that aim to put his life and career into perspective. One of these is a documentary by filmmaker Neil Dallhoff with the working title, R. Murray Schafer: Into the Mouth of the Wolf. Dallhoff told me he has spent countless hours with Schafer and his wife, mezzo-soprano and doctor of divinity, Eleanor James, talking, planning and filming at their rural home in Indian River. Dallhoff says: “The film is going to strongly represent Murray’s outdoor works, mostly through archival drawings, participant accounts and Murray’s writings. As we continue filming, the theme of the Patria Cycle is emerging in parallel with the story of his life and work.”

And filmmaker Barbara Willis Sweete, our cinematic partner in crime for the CBC Wilderness Lake recording, 40 years ago, is creating Schafer’s Labyrinth for the 2020 edition of Luminato. It will be a multimedia work in which, according to the project proposal, the Molinari String Quartet will perform live on stage in front of a giant movie screen showing motion picture images that include choreographed dance, shots of nature, archival and present-day images from Schafer’s life, visual effects, graphics and animation. “More than 50 years ago,” the proposal goes on to point out, “Schafer envisioned a Theatre of Confluence that would combine elements of opera, theatre, dance, music and projected images – and which would immerse its audience in a totally unified multi-sensory and multi-disciplinary experience.”

Schafer’s Labyrinth will include all 13 of Schafer’s string quartets, performed over two consecutive days in four distinct programs, each lasting between 60 and 85 minutes. “Schafer’s quartets embody his entire philosophy and symbology and are filled with visual allusions and extra-musical references,” the proposal continues. “Images invoked in his quartets include the behaviour of water (Quartet No.2), the sounds of birds and the howling of wolves (Quartet No.10) and the movements of Tai Chi (Quartet No.6). The quartets also reflect Murray’s preoccupation with mythology. Traces of the Greek myth of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur are threaded through all his quartets, taking the form of musical leitmotifs that interact with each other in fascinating ways. The archetypes within this myth form the primary thematic underpinning of Schafer’s Labyrinth.”

Murray Schafer. Courtesy of Neil DallhoffAs I open my autographed copy of his book, My Life on Earth and Elsewhere, which I acquired on the occasion of Schafer’s 80th birthday, I see his inscription: “For David: New sounds every day of your life! Listen!”

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

Maracatu Mar Aberto. Photo by Marcela Boechat You’ve seen them. Actually, you probably heard them long before you saw them, when the sound of funky, rhythmic pounding drifted past your ears as you made your way to a street festival in Toronto. I’m talking about those big Brazilian-style drum groups that pop up whenever there’s a festival in the summer. Loud, exuberant and infectious, baterias have become mainstays in multicultural Toronto. Sometimes there will be dancers – usually women – all decked out in feathers and sequins, shimmying along in high heels, deftly navigating the streetcar tracks. (How do they do that?!)

Mostly though, it’s simply a group of drummers and percussionists emulating the massive Brazilian samba clubs, albeit on a much smaller scale. With their matching T-shirts, jaunty hats and big smiles, they bring a little taste of Carnaval, the huge celebration that happens every year before Lent in Rio de Janeiro, to the streets of Toronto.

Samba as a way of life

Samba is a cultural icon of Brazil, with its roots in Africa, and an integral part of life for the majority of Brazilians. Throughout the country, samba is played, danced and sung in various styles and settings.

Samba de roda (samba circle) and samba de raiz (roots samba) involve smaller groups with guitar, cavaquinho (a small ukulele-type instrument) and percussionists getting together at parties and taverns to sing and dance. Ballroom samba dance (samba de gafieira), similar to Argentine tango, became popular in the 1940s and is still danced today.

Toronto musician, music professor and ethnomusicologist, Gordon Sheard sees samba as a central part of life in Brazil. “Starting in the early 20th century, it played a key role in the formation of the Brazilian national identity,” explained Sheard. “It’s both a unifying element and an instrument of diversity, as its outgrowths evolve to serve the needs of specific communities – from the bossa nova of Rio’s middle classes to the samba reggae of the Afro-Brazilians of Bahia.”

The massive drum groups (known as samba schools, although they aren’t schools in the traditional structured sense) formed to take part in the pre-Lenten Carnaval. Samba schools became fixtures in the community throughout the country and especially in Rio de Janeiro in the poorer neighbourhoods (favelas). They provide a social life as well as musical training and are a part of life for many in Rio.

“We need to have a beach; We need to have futbol; We need to have samba. It’s all linked and part of the culture. We grow up knowing that,” says Maninho Costa, a Rio de Janeiro native.

For the samba schools, Carnival parading has become a major competition, with different levels of schools – similar to professional sports leagues – competing against each other every year over a four-day period. The biggest Carnival is, of course, in Rio de Janeiro, where some legendary schools, like Mangueira, have been playing and competing since the 1930s. Samba squads often have hundreds of members and each of the main schools spends many months each year designing their theme, holding a competition for their song, building the floats and rehearsing. Each school’s parade may consist of 3,000 participants, including celebrities, dancers, singers, veteran performers and elaborate floats.

The preparations, especially producing the many different costumes, provide work for thousands of the poorest in Brazilian society. The resulting competition is a major tourist draw and media event, with tens of thousands attending in the Sambadrome and the event televised to millions across South America.

Baterias in Toronto

The Brazilian percussion groups here are about more than drumming and often become like little communities or families for the participants. And samba can get under your skin, whether you’re Brazilian or not.

Torontonian Gloria Blizzard started playing with a drum group 15 years ago until a hand injury forced her to back off the practising. So she switched to dance so she could continue to “stay deeply connected to the music in a different way. Samba is something that you catch. Once you’re in, that’s it.”

AlanHetherintonThe first samba school to appear on the scene in Toronto in 1994 was Escola de Samba de Toronto, led by Alan Hetherington. Although born and raised in Canada, Hetherington is an expert in Brazilian music through his frequent travels to Brazil, playing with some of the famous samba schools in Rio and Sāo Paulo and studying with several of the master sambistas of Brazil. Finding suitable rehearsal space was a challenge for drum groups then and Escola de Samba started out in Christie Pits park, until noise complaints chased them out. When Lula Lounge opened it was a fitting home for the group for many years, being a hub of Latino culture in Toronto’s west end.

In 2003, Hetherington moved the Escola de Samba Toronto to the Royal Conservatory of Music on Bloor Street. Today he teaches beginner and intermediate classes there every Sunday from September to May with opportunities for students to perform at the school and local street festivals. Hetherington also draws from the class to populate his professional samba groups, A Fantástica Bateria and Batucatronica, the latter of which is a mashup of samba drums and electronic dance music.

Samba Squad was the second bateria-style band to form in Toronto and is led by percussionist Rick Shadrach Lazar, who founded the group in 1999. Samba Squad has played virtually every festival in the Toronto area and beyond over the years and is one of the most recognizable groups. Lazar describes the style of music as inspired by the Escolas de Samba of Rio, the Afro Blocos of Salvador, Bahia and the Maracatu nations of Recife, Pernambuco. “I see it as following the path of the drum along the African Diaspora,” said Lazar. “Our repertoire also includes gahu from Ghana, sabar and donba from Senegal, comparsa and salsa/mambo from Cuba, soca from Trinidad, funk from the USA and baladi from Egypt.”

In 2005, Lazar continued the tradition from Rio of support for the community, especially at-risk youth, by holding workshops, along with partners Janet McClelland and Gili Zemer, at Rose Avenue Public School where McClelland taught. That grew into a full-fledged Samba Kidz program with workshops for at-risk youth. Kids who came through the Rose Avenue and Jane-Finch programs grew up in Samba Squad and went onto post-secondary programs at Ryerson and York Universities.

“The program developed student leaders and the student leaders, in turn, became the teachers of our summer camps and workshops,” said Lazar. “We’re proud of the program and the progress the kids made.”

Aline MoralesTwo natives of Brazil have become prominent band leaders and teachers in Toronto – Maninho Costa and Aline Morales. Costa’s group, Batucada Carioca is in the traditional style of the bands from his native Rio de Janeiro. Costa brings his experience playing in elite groups in Rio from a young age – including the renowned Uniao da Ilha do Gobernador run by his uncle – to the tight, swinging shows of Batucada Carioca. Costa regularly holds Women’s Samba Bateria workshops for women wanting to learn the basics of Brazilian drumming with a chance to try out all the instruments.

Baque de BambaMorales hails from Belo Horizonte and her group, Baque de Bamba focuses on a style of folk music from the northeast region of Brazil called maracatu de baque virado. The group is largely made up of women but all genders are welcome. Their performances include some dancing and singing of traditional maracatu songs and the joy is infectious. “Some people say that you don’t choose maracatu, that maracatu chooses you. And I’m starting to believe that,” said Morales. “I wasn’t born in Recife where this tradition came from, but since the day I started to play, I couldn’t respect more what maracatu represents.”

Morales holds evening workshops that have often been taught by veteran members of the group such as Mari Palhares, who has gone on to form her own groups, and Ana Maria Higuera, who started playing with Baque de Bamba when she was just 12 years old. Morales explains that “Big groups like ours need this kind of support from the members. It’s vital for the growth of the community.”

Maracatu Mar AbertoMaracatu Mar Aberto, led by Alex Bordokas, also performs maracatu de baque virado and plays regularly at festivals around town, such as Pedestrian Sundays in Kensington Market. “We have a collective approach where the sound and impact of the group is greater than the sum of our parts,” said Borodakas. “Our focus is on the creativity of Mar Aberto and not any one artist in the group.”

Among the newer bands on the scene is Tdot Batu. Led by Patricio Martinez, the group focuses on the samba reggae rhythms from Martinez’s home of Salvador, Bahia, in Brazil’s northeastern region. Performances are high energy and the infectious rhythms get their audiences partying and dancing.

Started just three years ago by Adam Kafal, a member of Batucada Carioca, Blokoloko is the latest group to emerge on the scene. Their rhythmic style is inspired by the samba carioca of Rio and they are also mainstays of Kensington’s Pedestrian Sundays and a few other festivals. But performing isn’t everything for them. “I think the process of creating and sustaining a rhythm is more of a joy than performing,” said Kafal. “Blokoloko started because I wanted to play samba with an emphasis on more complex breaks and arrangements.”

At the end of the summer of 2018, a Brazilian supergroup comprising about 70 members from Batucada Carioca, Blokoloko, Samba Squad and Escola de Samba – and led by Maninho Costa – rocked Kensington Market with an afternoon of exuberant percussion. A similar event is being planned for the summer of 2019.

Joining a bateria

Almost all of the groups in Toronto hold beginner workshops for people interested in trying their hand at Brazilian percussion. All that’s needed is a good sense of rhythm. From these workshops members for the performing group are often chosen.

The groups in Toronto follow the aural teaching tradition of Brazil for learning songs. The use of written notation is rare. New members learn through attending workshops and rehearsals and listening, as well as studying audio clips or videos. “Samba is hard,” explained Adam Kafal. “It’s not something you can pick up by coming to a single two-hour rehearsal per week. My goal is to make people care a little more about the music and show them the way.”

The seasoned players are encouraged to help the novices. Emphasis is on watching and listening and, often, singing the parts and keeping time with your feet before an instrument is ever picked up and played. It can be a long process for people who don’t have a background in drumming and students need to have patience and openness in order to gradually learn enough to contribute to the group. It’s a lesson that can be applied to life as well as music.

“Learning to listen and absorb and digest before jumping in, is a tool I try to equip my students with,” said Hetherington. “And it can serve us well in many other aspects of our lives, too.”

Brazilian Music 101

Percussion groups are just the tip of the iceberg that is Brazil’s vast, varied musical culture. Toronto is lucky to benefit from an influx of Brazilian immigrants who have brought their skills to our city. Plus we have plenty of local musicians who are adept in these musical styles.

Here is just a handful of the other styles of Brazilian music and bands you can enjoy:

Choro, which means “cry” in Portuguese, is anything but sad. It’s a happy, upbeat music and is often compared to ragtime or New Orleans-style music. It’s primarily instrumental and is covered authentically by Tio Chorinho. Led by mandolin player, Eric Stein, the band plays festivals and does the occasional club gig.

Samba de roda (samba circle) is a mix of guitars/cavaquinho, percussion and singing. Musicians get together to jam and go through popular samba tunes. In Toronto, Roda de Samba plays every other Saturday at Yauca’s, where expat Brazilians and Brazilophiles gather to dance and sing along. Good times.

Although the source of the name is unclear – it may be derived from the term “for all” – forro is a lively folk music from the Northeast region of Brazil. Trio PernamBahia, led by Carlos Cardozo, plays at Lula and other bars and Forrobodo is a monthly event, produced by percussionist Mari Palhares, that delivers a full cultural experience of traditional food, dance lessons and music.

Of course, bossa nova is one of the most famous Brazilian musical imports, with Stan Getz bringing it to North America in the 60s. A crop of young expat Brazilian performers are keeping classic bossa nova, MPB and samba alive – Aquarela Brasil, singers Babi Mendes and Giovanna Correia and guitarist-singer João Leão, who channels João Gilberto in clubs around Toronto.

A couple of songwriters producing beautiful
Brazilian-esque music are guitarist André Valério and multi-instrumentalist Louis Simao. Catch them in concert if you can (or buy their CDs).

And a final note!

Don’t miss Festa Brasileira – Um Grande Encontro as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, Saturday, June 22, 2019, 3pm to 6pm, Bloor Street at Avenue Road

Cathy Riches is a self-described Toronto-based recovering singer and ink slinger.

Cris Derksen. Photo by Red Works PhotographyLet’s do a little bit of time travelling to set the scene:

On June 14, 2017, Tributaries, the show that opened the Luminato Festival in Toronto, was billed aspaying tribute to the immeasurable power, passion, beauty, and resilience of Indigenous women … in a large-scale celebratory experience.” It was divided into four parts, titled Roots, Resurgence, Reclamation, and Emancipation.

On February 19, 2019, at the Banff Centre, ten musicians met in Banff for an event titled Call to Witness: The Future of Indigenous Classical Music. “It was one of the first gatherings of its kind,” according to the CBC, “and included musicians from Alberta, the west coast, and northern Ontario. Along with creating music, participants also drafted a statement to the music industry about the importance of including Indigenous musicians in any music project involving Indigenous culture.”

On May 8, 2019, Soundstreams mounted a show titled Fauxstalgia at the Drake Underground, on Queen St. W. in Toronto. Lawrence Cherney, Soundstreams’ artistic director elaborated: “Fauxstalgia speaks eloquently to our priorities, first of all, because it presents deserving younger Indigenous and queer artists making their debuts on our stage,” he said. “Equally important, these artists are passionately engaged in reflecting the past, including ‘classical’ repertoire, through a 21st century lens.”

On Saturday May 18, 2019, the Toronto-based Eybler Quartet held a CD-launch concert at The Burdock Music Hall, tucked away in a trendy brew pub/restaurant on Bloor St. W. The CD in question is the Eyblers’ second showcasing their groundbreaking take on Beethoven’s Opus 18 String Quartets. Some of the music played on the evening’s program was by Beethoven. But the piece that got played twice, once at the beginning and once at the end, was not.

June 12-16, 2019, Kiinalik, a Buddies in Bad Times/Luminato co-production comes to the Berkeley St Theatre. In the Inuktitut language, when a knife is dull, it is said to “have no face,” the Luminato website explains. The word Kiinalik, in contrast, means that it does! As we are told, Inuk artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and queer theatre-maker Evalyn Parry met on an Arctic expedition from Iqaluit to Greenland. Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools is their concert, dialogue, and symbolic convergence between North and South, mapping new territory. “How,” it asks, “do we reckon with these sharp tools.”

Finally, towards sunset on June 23, 2019, at Harbourfront Centre, Lakeside, Maada’ookii Songlines, a free performance with a cast of hundreds including at least eight choirs will ring the proverbial curtain down on the 2019 edition of Luminato. “Maada’ookii is a genderless Ojibway word describing what happens when one distributes or gifts, or shares something with others. And songlines, or dreaming tracks as they are also called, is a term, drawn from Australian aboriginal teachings but present across Indigenous traditions, for songs that help us find the way, both over short but perilous journeys, and over hundreds or even thousands of miles, traversing many languages and cultures along the path.

Look more closely into these six disparate acts of musical gifting and sharing, and you will come across one individual, Cris Derksen, at the heart of each of them.

“My name is Cris Derksen, and I am a half-Cree, half- Mennonite electronic cellist and composer” says Derksen, in the introduction to a five-minute video in the Banff Centre Spotlight series, designed to “explore the stories behind the artists who come to Banff Centre.” (Also appearing in the Derksen spotlight video is Eybler Quartet violist Patrick Jordan, but we’ll get back to that.)

Cris Derksen Trio, with dancer Nimkii Osawamick (left) and drummerJesse Baird (right). Photo by Kathy Campbell“I go back quite a long way in my association with Luminato,” Derksen tells me. “I moved to Toronto five and and a half years ago and started doing stuff in Derek Andrews’ world music concerts. And I played in Iftar that year at the Hearn [a 2016 Luminato show welcoming Syrian newcomers to the city]. But 2017, the first year that Josephine Ridge was involved, was when I started to work with them more intentionally.” “Did she reach out to you?” I ask. “Yes she saw me in a show I did with A Tribe Called Red and called me in for a meeting. And that year I did an hour as one part of Tributaries where I invited a bunch of my Indigenous female friends to each do a song and I arranged that and got the band together.”

One of those singers in Tributaries was Tanya Tagaq; it’s a friendship going back in time to Derksen’s graduation (with a Bachelor of Music in Cello Performance degree) from University of British Columbia. “I was in Tanya’s band from 2007 to 2011,” Derksen says. “It was a great way to cut my teeth. I was so fortunate graduating with a gig like Tanya.” It was the start of a ride, performing and touring, that has taken Derksen across the globe, as well as coast to coast to coast in Canada, in the company of an extraordinary range of musicians and other collaborators.

The sesquicentennial year, 2017, saw a significant spike in awareness of Indigenous performers and performance practice within the arts community, but, as I expressed it to Derksen, my own fear was that there would be a drop off when the special sesqui funding dried up. “But you’re not seeing that, are you?” Derksen responds. “There are too many strong people doing strong interesting work and there’s so much work to be done. We’re living in such an interesting timeline where we seem to be going backwards instead of forwards as far as racialized issues go, and as far as inequality goes. For me, reconciliation is between people, not working on the big level.”

The February 19 Banff gathering arose at least in part from the dynamics of the sesquicentennial year. “Put it this way,” Derksen says, “Classical music is pretty good at having an Indigenous idea without the Indigenous performer. So there’s some steps to be made.” Convening the gathering came directly out of Derksen’s Banff residency, bringing together ten Indigenous classically trained musicians, among them composers Andrew Balfour and Ian Cusson, violist Melody McKiver and her mom, pianist-educator Beverly McKiver, and Jeremy Dutcher, with Derksen cheerfully but insistently moving the action along. Perhaps its most enduring outcome will be the joint manifesto created by the attendees and passed around among the attendees to be read out to the audience at the gathering. Its bottom line? Nothing about us without us.

Soundstreams’ Fauxstalgia at the Drake Underground saw Derksen on familiar turf, performing a solo set for cello and looper, before laying down the groundwork for an evening-ending improvisation with the evening’s other performers, pianist, Darren Creech, performing artist/soprano Teiya Kasahara and contemporary harpist/improviser, Grace Scheele. Cello and electronic looping as core performance practice started for Derksen “probably 18 years ago. My room-mate had a looping station and I borrowed it and then I kept it. It opened up my eyes to being able to create music on my own without hiring a band and it was also my first real foray into composing stuff.”

I observe to Derksen that the looper work that night seemed rhythmically effortless, making the technology almost invisible. “It’s clear that the thing is your friend,” I observe. “Yeah we’ve been hanging out for a while, so I don’t have to think about that as much anymore. I can just focus on the notes. The first loops are nailed down, I know what they will be; the melody is in my head and I can choose how to use it, to expand it, so it’s loose but formed. It’s all 100 percent in the moment though. I don’t have anything saved in the station, so everything is fully live.”

Cello, sans looper, is also the heartbeat of the Cris Derksen-composed work, White Man’s Cattle, which opened and closed the Eybler Quartet’s Burdock Beethoven CD-release concert this past May 19; but Derksen was sitting in the audience, not playing it. The work premiered at Banff, where the Eyblers and Derksen put in the heavy lifting on its creation. It evokes the collision of cultures in Alberta’s history, via an interpolated, scratchy soundclip of an early 20th-century Alberta farmer, master of all he surveys, speaking about “his land.” It’s a layered, driving work, demanding of every ounce of the Eyblers’ astonishing bowmanship. “The hoofprints of cattle and bison in the dust are not so different,” Derksen says laconically to the audience when asked by Patrick Jordan to say a few words before the piece is repeated.

As for Kiinilik in its upcoming June Berkeley Street Luminato remount, Derksen, who created the music for the piece, with be in the middle of things again. “I get the lovely musical job of underscoring. It’s one of the few theatre pieces I actually am happy to be in. Usually if I get a theatre contract I compose the music and pass it on. But this is a really beautiful story, and again truthful. We have taken it many places from its start at Buddies – Montreal, Iqaluit, Vancouver, Luminato. And we go to the Edinburgh International Festival next!”

Maada’ookii Songlines, June 23, was only vaguely in the works when Josephine Ridge left Luminato, but the transition under new Luminato artistic director, Naomi Campbell, has been a smooth one. “It took a moment for us to find each other and talk and sort out what they wanted to do and what I could do with what they wanted to do,” Derksen says.

“A bit different than looping so you don’t have to hire a band,” I remark. “With a cast of hundreds it’s definitely a different style,” Derksen says. “More notes on the page and throughlines, that kind of stuff. But we do have some interesting soloists and for the solo parts I am giving them a lot of free rein; they get the fun part improvising on top of moments.”

Part of the description of the show on the Luminato website talks about “a noisy fury blaring out a cacophony of frustrations and dreams?” So I ask Derksen if it’s an angry work. The response is unhesitating: “No its not angry at all ... maada’ookii is an Ojibway word, I’m Cree but I chose to use an Ojibway word because we are on Anishinaabe territory … When Indigenous people meet there’s a feast, there’s gifting involved, so this word and this work’s meaning is she/he shares, gifts. Angry it is not. Truthful it is.”

As mentioned earlier, the gift of songlines is the ability to navigate hundreds or even thousands of miles, traversing many languages along the way. The choirs involved seem to epitomize this idea: Canadian Arabic Choir; Darbazi; Vesnivka; Coro San Marco; YIP’s Children’s Choir; the Bruised Years Choir (part of Workman Arts); Faith Chorale; and an Indigenous Hand Drum Choir.

“Will it get crazy?” I ask. “There’s an underscore,” Derksen says. “They all have their parts but I expect there will be moments of chaotic!”

“And you? Are you going to be sitting inside or outside it?

“Oh I’m going to cello along.” With a laugh.

You can find the entire proceedings of the Feb 19 Banff gathering at https://vimeo.com/317295761.

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com

Near to the Wild Heart: Impossibly HappyFor over a decade, Susanna Hood has been developing projects that explore and develop her identity as dancer and singer, choreographer and composer, often incorporating other arts as well.

There’s the edgy, Dora Award-winning solo dance She’s Gone Away and Shudder, her visceral interpretation of Francis Bacon paintings. In 2014 she combined singing and choreography in The Muted Note, settings of poems by P.K Page with her partner, composer and trombonist Scott Thomson. Her latest work, Impossibly Happy, is more ambitious still: she’s debuting as songwriter and bandleader in addition to roles as singer-dancer-choreographer with her Montreal-based company of dancers and musicians, Near to the Wild Heart. Setting poems by the 15th-century Zen master Ikkyū, Impossibly Happy combines art forms with a singular physical and emotional intensity.

Ikkyū was no ordinary Zen master, but a monk whose poems explore and celebrate drunkenness and carnal adventures. For Hood, “Initially, it was the poetry itself that drew me; its simplicity and openness of form and the possibilities that leant to discovering my own musicality within. But once I started choosing and working with poems, it was the raw, unpretentious truths that I found in the words, unfiltered by conformity for appearances’ sake, that compelled me. That’s the aspect that made me curious to know more about this extraordinary person and particularly the paradoxes he seemed to live without apology. For example, how he/we contain the frictions between wisdom, grumpiness, sacredness and lust.”

Hood’s conception of Ikkyū takes in dance, song and poetry, exploring him as spirit presence, paradox and contradiction. The stage, containing both dancers and musicians, is alive with movement, sometimes resembling a battle, sometimes a kind of hypnotic anarchy, with dancers moving rapidly amongst the musicians or suddenly freezing into muscle-tensed, almost calligraphic forms. It’s made more precarious by Hood’s simultaneous embrace of choreography, composition and improvisation: “In all cases, I was looking for people who could balance working with both set forms and form-making through improvisation. Along the way I’ve realized that how different people approach each of those demands is highly specific and subjective.”

Hood’s dancers combine interests in improvisation and contemporary vernaculars: “Sovann Prom-Tep comes initially from break-dancing culture, and Lucy M. May has been dedicating a good part of her practice to Krump in the last three years. Both of these dance forms demand that one is always reinventing and developing one’s own dance within the form.”

Assembling the musicians to realize her sometimes spiky melodies, Hood managed to achieve a distinctive sonic palette via the skilled improvising of drummer D. Alex Meeks with tubist Julie Houle and violist Jennifer Thiessen. Adding to the special skill set required, every member of the company is also called on to sing.

Impossibly Happy is risk-taking, interdisciplinary work that seems to demand all the individual and collective resources that its performers might bring to it. As Hood remarks: “It was a huge learning curve for all of us.” As such, it’s a worthy embodiment of Ikkyū’s special vision.

Near to the Wild Heart presents Impossibly Happy, June 20 at 8pm at Array Space, 155 Walnut Ave.

Stuart Broomer writes frequently on music (mostly improvised) and is the author of Time and Anthony Braxton. His column “Ezz-thetics” appears regularly at pointofdeparture.org.

Asiko Afrobeat Ensemble. Photo by Dominic Ali2019 marks an interesting anniversary for the TD Toronto Jazz Festival. A mere three years ago, in 2016, the TJF looked much different than it will this year, or even than it did in 2017, when it first made the move from Nathan Phillips Square to Yorkville.

Of the many changes that took place between 2016 and 2017, there are three that seem most significant. The first: instead of anchoring the outdoor festivities around large, ticketed tent shows, the TJF’s outdoor shows would be free, and would, for the most part, feature local or up-and-coming acts. The second: by moving from Nathan Phillips Square to Yorkville, the TJF sought to integrate itself within a pre-existing commercial (and residential) area that is largely pedestrian, automatically expanding the potential attendance pool of the free outdoor shows to people who just happen to find themselves in the area, and making it easy for festival veterans to “make a day of it.” (One could, of course, wander around Nathan Phillips Square, but it was hard to find a passable beer, a cup of coffee, or even, say, a salad on the premises. Even the most ardent jazz fan found it tough to do a whole day at the festival as it existed at NPS.) And the third: the TJF would discontinue the longstanding practice of automatically including all of Toronto’s jazz (and jazz-adjacent) clubs in TJF materials, with no input as to those clubs’ programming and no real control over attendee experience, reducing the breadth of the festival’s offerings in order to focus on depth.

Personally speaking, while I was out of town touring for most of the TJF’s inaugural Yorkville run in 2017, last year I had the opportunity to both play in the festival (on an outdoor stage on Cumberland, as well as indoors at The Pilot) and to attend a variety of shows, including Dan Weiss’ Starebaby group, a ticketed event at The Rex, Savion Glover and Marcus Gilmore’s duo show at Koerner Hall, also ticketed, and a healthy number of free shows that took place at (mostly) outdoor stages. (For those with an interest in last year’s TJF, please visit The WholeNote website to check out the pieces I wrote.) As a performer and as a spectator, I genuinely enjoyed myself; though it lacked the large open space of NPS, the area’s village-esque qualities ended up lending themselves well to a multi-stage set-up with staggered set times. It felt, as I wrote last year, festive, for the first time in my experience of a jazz festival in Toronto.

Josh Grossman. Photo by Marie ByersIn mid-May, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Josh Grossman, the Artistic Director of Toronto Downtown Jazz (the organization that administers and runs the TD Toronto Jazz Festival) to talk about these relatively recent large-scale changes to the TJF’s format, the unique aspects of this year’s festival, and the TJF’s future in its new home.

In order for a festival to feel immersive, a sense of momentum must be cultivated within the grounds, Grossman says. Audiences should be able to move naturally from one event to the next, without ever feeling as though they’re waiting around with nothing to see. When Grossman looked at other jazz festivals, such as Ottawa or Montreal, or even other festivals within the city, including those that occur at Harbourfront Centre, he took note of the way in which there were events “happening all the time on multiple stages,” which he felt the TJF “couldn’t ever get at Nathan Phillips Square.” One of the biggest problems? The “relatively strict sound restrictions in place” at NPS, owing to its proximity to City Hall and to the courts, which, as Grossman told me, also made the development of any serious sense of momentum difficult.

Mounting frustrations with the festival’s old location coincided with the appointment of Howard Kerbel as Downtown Toronto Jazz’s new CEO in 2016. Kerbel – who was previously a member of the Toronto International Film Festival’s leadership team, and had, according to Grossman, “fond memories of how TIFF ran in Yorkville,” before its move to King Street and the TIFF Bell Lightbox facility – helped to initiate the move away from NPS at a time when there was a dearth of multi-day festival activity in Yorkville. Finding the business community and local leadership amenable to the idea of the TJF in Yorkville, the timing was right for Toronto Downtown Jazz to make the move.

One of the best parts of the TJF, in its current iteration, is the proliferation of free outdoor stages. Beyond helping to fulfil a vision of a festival with porous borders, the free stages have tended to skew local and young-ish in their programming. This is, of course, helpful for musicians at an early or intermediate stage in their own career development, but it is also helpful for the TJF, which is still focused on its own long-term growth. A combination of sponsorship and operational funding from municipal, provincial, and federal levels of government allow the TJF to pay for its approximately 170 free shows; making these shows as accessible as possible to the general public. It also helps with fundraising and development, Grossman says, “making it easy for potential sponsors and donors to come down, get a feel for the place, and say ‘this is something we’d like to support’.’”

The drastic reduction in the number of clubs included in TJF programming has not been without its detractors. In the wake of the 2017 festival, club owners to whom I spoke mentioned that being excluded from the festival’s promotional materials had resulted in a definite dip in attendance during the period, as compared to the previous years. In the research process for this article, I spoke to (and emailed) a number of musicians who had played at the TJF in the last two years – i.e. in the festival’s current format – and asked them about their experiences, both as performers and attendees. The responses were fairly consistent: while musicians like the idea of integrating a greater number of clubs into the festival, it doesn’t necessarily follow that having more clubs participating will automatically make the TJF experience better; there is something to be said for the community-building power of geographical proximity, and the possibility that a festival may cease to feel like a festival if the majority of its offerings take place at discrete locations at various points throughout a city.

When I asked Grossman about the club situation, he touched on the same points, as well as what for him was the primary issue: that Toronto Downtown Jazz wasn’t actually programming the clubs, had no overview over their operational standards, and had no control over attendee experience at events that were explicitly being advertised as TJF events. Moreover, the festival was doing this promotion for free, and, in some cases, club shows “would be up against events that the festival had “programmed directly,” creating odd conflicts of interest. Another major issue that Grossman touched on: musician pay. The TJF works to pay “at the very minimum, the Toronto Musician Association’s recommended rates.” Again, stressing that all clubs operate differently, Grossman pointed out that “when a musician would go in to play” a venue that had a “pass-the-hat” payment arrangement, it would get very tricky to say “this is an official festival show.”

This is not to say, of course, that there are no clubs involved in the TJF; there are a handful, including a number of venues adjacent to the Yorkville festival grounds, such as Sassafraz, the Gatsby bar at the Windsor Arms Hotel, and Proof Bar at the Intercontinental Hotel, the latter of which will host the nightly jam. As it did last year, the Home Smith Bar at The Old Mill will represent the TJF’s furthest-flung outpost, with four nights of vocal jazz performances hosted by Heather Bambrick. In the downtown core, The Rex will again function as a major festival hub, and will feature major artists such as David Binney, Donny McCaslin and Chris Potter. Grossman tells me that the TJF and The Rex have a “co-curatorial relationship;” throughout the booking process they go back and forth, working through any questions about which artists will work best in which setting. “What we end up with,” he says, “is a lineup on our stage that [The Rex] is cool with, and a lineup on The Rex stage that we’re cool with.” Issues concerning pay, marketing and promotion are all covered in “a very strict venue agreement,” resulting in all parties being comfortable and mutually invested in a positive outcome. And, as Grossman puts it, if it’s possible to develop similar relationships with other clubs that can provide complementary programming to the TJF’s other venues, it’s probably “the way forward.”

Five years from now? Grossman returns to the move from NPS to Yorkville. “The goal with moving to Yorkville,” he says, “was to refresh the festival, change things up, a little bit, but also to create an environment in which people” – attendees, sponsors, artists – “can come and get excited about what we’re doing, see that we’re trying to build this thing, and get on board.” Fundamentally, he says, all of the Yorkville activity will remain more or less the same, because “that’s the vibe” they’re looking for. When asked about what’s missing, he let on that he’d been in preliminary talks with the University of Toronto about space to accommodate a large stage, a marquee venue at which 10,000 or so people could watch major artists perform. I asked if he maybe had a place like King’s College Circle in mind, but I was wrong. “Varsity Stadium,” he answered. “But,” he added wryly, “I think that’s very challenging, for any number of reasons.”

And so, on its third anniversary in Yorkville, the TD Toronto Jazz Festival seems confident, self-assured, but also duly concerned with the necessity for future growth. Beyond the improved attendee experience, it is this potential for growth that seems most exciting about the festival, and which illustrates one of the less obvious outcomes of its exit from its old location in Nathan Phillips Square: by narrowing its scope and reinventing itself as a leaner, more focused festival, the TJF has given itself the space to better manage its own development. Through this process, it has quickly (re-)established itself as part of Toronto’s cultural landscape. As to the future, we’ll have to wait and see.

This year’s TD Toronto Jazz Festival runs from June 21 to 30. For details visit torontojazz.com.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached at www.colinstory.com, on Instagram and on Twitter.

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