Brott Opera’s Don GiovanniBrott Opera’s Don GiovanniIt was a phone call from Hamilton, from Boris Brott, that put me on the trail of this story. Brott is indefatigable: between May 2 and August 13 the Brott Music Festival offered up 18 online productions, none more intriguing than their virtual Don Giovanni which aired, on Facebook, on July 30 and remains available at “You should watch it,” Brott said, so I did. Half way through I was hooked and called him back with questions. “You should talk to Anna [Theodosakis],” he said. So I did.

What follows is a highly condensed version of a half-hour telephone chat. 

Read more: Opera Squared: Anna Theodosakis on Brott Opera’s Don Giovanni

bannerL to R: First pressing of "Livery Stable Blues" by ODJB, 1917; sheet music for the ODJB version under the alternate title "Barnyard Blues", from 1917, and a 1998 “Giants of Jazz” re-release of Ellington’s 1929 recording.As a first-year undergraduate at Capilano University’s Jazz Studies program in 2005, I, like the rest of my cohort, was automatically enrolled in a mandatory jazz history course. It was a survey course, designed to teach us how to listen actively, to distinguish between Armstrong and Parker and Coltrane, and to develop a sense of the historical arc of jazz in the 20th century. Our very first listening example was Livery Stable Blues, by the Original Dixieland Jass Band. 

Something of a novelty song, its name derived from the horns’ imitation of animal sounds in stop-time sections, Livery Stable Blues has the distinction of being the very first jazz recording, released by New York’s Victor record label in 1917. It also holds a more dubious distinction: all five members of the ODJB, who billed themselves as the “creators of jazz,” were white. 

To his credit, our instructor mentioned this unexpected fact, though we, as a class, did not investigate it further. There was much we could have considered: the circumstances behind the recording, the tricky concept of artistic ownership, the way in which Black American Music gets repackaged by white performers – from the ODJB to Elvis Presley to Justin Bieber – and profitably sold to white audiences. But we didn’t; instead, we moved on to the next song, and focused on learning to correctly identify excerpts for our upcoming exam. 

This experience is indicative of what is still a defining characteristic of Canadian post-secondary jazz programs: namely, that they are primarily concerned with teaching students how to be competent professional performers, and that teaching students to engage with issues of race, gender and equity within their field is outside of a program’s purview. On the surface, there’s an undeniable logic to this: students come to learn performance skills, and that’s what programs deliver. One of the unintended consequences of this outlook, however, is an erasure of the lived experiences of jazz’s canonical figures, the vast majority of whom are Black. 

Read more: Back to the Future: The Struggle for Equity in Jazz Studies programs

CEE and Exploded Ensemble in the studio, preparing for their collaborative concert at Carnegie Mellon University Feb 2020. Photo by Paul StillwellA significant event in the history of the Canadian Electronic Ensemble (CEE) took place during the last week of February, 2020: the nearly 50-year-old ensemble was engaged by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) School of Music for a four-day residency at their Pittsburgh campus. It was one of the most ambitious and impactful tours in the long history of the CEE, a live-electronic music group that Jim Montgomery and I co-founded in 1971, together with David Grimes, who left in 1986, and the late Larry Lake (1943 – 2013) The current membership includes violinist, synthesist, composer Rose Bolton; pianist, synthesist, composer John Kameel Farah; synthesist and composer Paul Stillwell; synthesist and composer David Sutherland, as well as Jim and me. The significance of the residency, which felt at the time like it was opening up new audiences, soon revealed itself as having prepared the CEE members for a creative path through a pandemic. 

The residency was organized by CMU assistant professor of Musicology, Alexa Woloshyn, who is Canadian. She created a plan that had CEE members working closely with CMU students in masterclasses, lecture demonstrations, composition workshops, and of course, live performance. “Pittsburgh and CMU have vibrant electronic music communities,” said Woloshyn. “I thought it would be great to learn from the CEE’s almost 50 years of experience in electronic sound-making and collective improvisation. The week was energizing for the students. I witnessed new and renewed interest in improvisation, modular synthesis, electronic composition and collaboration.” 

Read more: Lessons Learned from the CEE’s – COVID-Era Experiences

Array Space in Toronto. Photo c/o Arraymusic.When I wrote about Arraymusic five years ago in a WholeNote series on Toronto concert spaces, I described it as a “seminal venue”—one that maintained a strong place as both a presenting organization and as a rental space for experimental music in Toronto. Now in the midst of the 2020 pandemic, the same remains true. Despite unprecedented challenges, Arraymusic continues to search for new ways of supporting local experimental music and its affiliated performing art forms—and to find relevance in the changing musical fabric of the city.

Array’s Early Years

Years before it managed a concert venue, Arraymusic was an experimental music ensemble and presenter dedicated to commissioning and programming “full spectrum multimedia works, electronic events, group improvisations, music and dance collaborations.” The group was launched April 20, 1972 by a cohort of University of Toronto composition students. By the early 1980s, the group’s growing activities moved to a refurbished garage on a leafy upper Annex avenue.

From 1991 to 2012 Arraymusic rented a multifunctional space in an Artspace-run building. It was among a cohort of artists and organisations which reinvented Liberty Village as an epicentre of creative sector employment. I spent many happy hours rehearsing with the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan and several other groups there, as well as leading community gamelan music workshops.

Read more: An Array for Challenging Times

Katherine Carleton. Photo by Esther VincentKatherine Carleton, C.M. is the executive director of Orchestras Canada. We talked over Zoom in June.

LP: What are you hearing from the orchestras these days?

KC: I’m hearing several things. They’re looking back on the season that was and endeavouring to see from a financial perspective where they’re going to be at the end of the fiscal year. Some have fiscal years that end in May, some in June, some in July and all are trying to sort through financial impact of the forced closures in mid-March. At the same time, they’re each working on a range of scenarios around what the coming season will look like, potentially. I don’t think there’s a single orchestra that has a complete picture of what next year’s going to look like. Reopening and the speed with which that can happen, the size of groups that can convene, is all decided at the provincial level. It’s different picture in each part of the country.

Simon Rattle and several other musicians in the UK recently published an impassioned letter to their government that says, among other things, “Our entire industry is united, ready, prepared, and desperate to get back to doing what we do best.” They’re eager to cooperate with public health, and are asking for timelines. Do Canadian orchestras need a timeline? What do we need from the government?

Read more: Stuck on Safety: Go Small or Stay Home? The Orchestral Dilemma | A conversation with Katherine...
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