B Exalted Choir cropped close by DavidLeeStudio.com bAnnerB-Xalted!. Photo credit: David Lee Studio.There’s a new choral project in town—and it all goes back to Handel’s Messiah.

Co-founded by Barbara Gowdy and Whitney Smith, B-Xalted! is a choir of Toronto-based writers and arts workers who, as they explain in their press release, “have put aside their laptops” to sing—a community project that gives professional writers and other creative professionals the chance to sing choral music together for the first time. A concert of excerpts from Handel’s Messiah on December 11 at Toronto’s Church of St. Peter & St. Simon-the-Apostle will be their debut.

For Gowdy, attending a performance of Tafelmusik’s annual Sing-along Messiah was the catalyst for the project. After giving up writing following a cancer scare to spend more time with loved ones, it was singing in the Tafelmusik audience that gave her the inspiration for community choir built around Handel’s music.

The Messiah theme may feel a bit arbitrary at first glance—but the idea of a community project built around this music isn’t so far-off. One of the holiday season’s most ubiquitous musical traditions, Messiah is near-synonymous with choral community-building: with festivity, with meaningful memories of classical music, with standing and singing along. Something about Messiah, and the way it unites community initiatives with musical professionals, gives it a special place in the city and scene’s musical fabric.

Messiah for the City is another example. Founded by the late Jack Layton and presented this year by Toronto Beach Chorale in partnership with St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Messiah for the City is a concert project dedicated to providing seasonal concert-going opportunities to Torontonians who otherwise might not have access to such events. This year’s Messiah for the City takes place on December 22, featuring singers from the Toronto Beach Chorale, MCS Chorus Mississauga and the Georgetown Bach Chorale, as well as players from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Tickets will be distributed by United Way and its partner agencies.

And for those looking for other public Messiah performances this year, there are all of the usuals and then some: Tafelmusik’s rendition December 19 to 21, with its famous “Sing-Along Messiah” on December 22; the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, conducted by the Canadian Opera Company’s Johannes Debus, December 17 to 23; Pax Christi Chorale’s special “Children’s Messiah” performance for children and families on December 1; and the fourth edition of SoundstreamsElectric Messiah at the Drake Underground, December 4 to 6.

Of her upcoming performance with B-Xalted!, Gowdy writes that it’s the courage of a choir coming together for the first time that will make their debut special. “There’s a fearlessness, even a recklessness, to our enterprise,” she says. “We’re all taking a risk, and we’re taking it together.”

It’s the same spirit that embodies all of the upcoming Messiah performances this season. Community-minded fearlessness—and joy.

For a complete list of Messiah-related shows across southern Ontario this year, search “Messiah” in our online concert listings at www.thewholenote.com/just-ask.

Sistema 138 bannerPhoto by Stuart LoweLate September, Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti came to town for a two-performance engagement with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.2). No stranger to the world’s concert stages, on the Friday afternoon between the two performances, Benedetti proved herself equally at home in front of an audience that many professional musicians would find infinitely more daunting—60 to 70 of the children currently enrolled in Sistema Toronto’s flagship after-school program at Parkdale Junior Public School.

It was a three-part encounter, starting with Benedetti meeting and playing for all the children in the program. In my experience occasions such as these are most nerve-wracking for the teachers in attendance, torn between the demands of impressing “the guests” with the children’s level of  discipline and decorum, and at the same time wanting to celebrate the exuberance and sense of confident ownership the children in the program feel. So prior to Benedetti showing up there was the usual herding and shushing as the children filed in, by class: “straight lines” and “remember we have guests” and “indoor voices, please.”

All such anxieties were dispelled when, accompanied by Aaron McFarlane, the TSO’s newly appointed director of education and community engagement, Benedetti arrived, her 1717 Gariel Strad dangling casually from her hand. She straightaway asked the children what the special signal was at their school when silence was needed (a fluttering downward hand movement, she was shown; “like a fountain,” she was told.)

She asked what different instruments they all played, and told them she was going to play a “theme and variations” for them, by Bach, and that the piece was almost exactly as old has her violin was. She asked if they knew what a theme was, and built on every answer given. She told them they would be practising listening, not because it was polite but because learning to listen, even more than practising the notes, is the most important thing a musician must do. She told them she would play the theme and then she would say “variation” each time she played a variation. And then she played.

No one had to be shushed.

Afterwards, she said “When I started, your listening was very good. But by the time I finished it was wonderful. So thank you all very very much.” Then she took questions, and they were all good questions. My own favourites were “How come you were lifting off your feet?” and (more an observation than a question) “You didn’t smile when you were playing. You are supposed to smile.” Her response to the latter: a question of her own. “Were there any smiley bits in the music? Because if there weren’t wouldn’t it be strange for me to be smiling?”

Photo by Stuart LoweSecond stop in the event was the school library where the Sistema senior orchestra was assembled to rehearse the piece for the third and final stop (which was to be a short concert by the senior orchestra in the school gym, for family and the more junior members of the program). Her capacity for instant rapport, genuine engagement with the orchestra, and the ability to zero in on a single teachable thing (in this case encouraging “big sound,” and then evoking it), were all on display.  

In the gymnasium concert that followed, she started out by taking her place in the back row of the violin section. After the piece had been played through, she followed up on the library lesson, this time expanding the notion of “big sound” – collective dynamic bravery – by coaxing and coaching the orchestra, and its conductor, to also play more quietly than they would have thought practical under the circumstances.

How opportunity knocks

Looking back on the event after it was over, I found myself reflecting on how effortless the whole thing had seemed (and by extension, how much work probably went into creating the illusion of effortlessness).

Part of the explanation is that Benedetti was on familiar ground. She has had a longtime and ongoing role in the Big Noise Orchestras movement, “Big Noise” being the way the Scottish Sistema movement has branded itself. Altogether there are more than 2,500 children and young people engaging regularly with the four established Sistema Scotland centres, and in addition to the Big Noise orchestras attended by children up to 11 hours each week, they run Baby Noise and Adult Noise programs which enable the Sistema Scotland family to reach as many as possible in the communities where they are based. Benedetti is not only on the Big Noise board of directors but also the movement’s “Musical Big Sister,” visiting schools and conducting musical clinics throughout the U.K. since 2005.

Photo by Stuart LoweI asked Aaron McFarlane (who coincidentally comes to his education/outreach role at the TSO from a key role with Sistema New Brunswick in Saint John) if their common Sistema roots had helped bring about this particular piece of matchmaking.

“Nicola Benedetti had asked if it would be possible for her to do some outreach as part of her visit to Toronto, and we were happy to oblige,” he says. “The wheels were set in motion well before I joined the TSO in July, but considering my affinity for El Sistema inspired programs, I was thrilled!”  

McFarlane’s TSO responsibilities include overseeing everything the orchestra does that is educational or that involves outreach or engagement. “Currently, our main programs are our School Concerts, our open rehearsals (Mornings with the TSO), our Young People’s Concerts, and the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra. Beyond the tremendous musicians that make up the TSO, we also have the good fortune to welcome incredible musicians each season from every corner of the globe. We recognize that we are a part of a community, and feel a sense of responsibility to support those who are encouraging the development of young musicians whenever we can.”

Not all musicians, resident or visiting, have the same aptitude or appetite for engagement that Benedetti does – but it was a bright start to the year. “We need to go out of our way to engage with communities that might not otherwise have access to the TSO,” MacFarlane says. “This workshop was a small event in the context of a large organization like the TSO, but it may have made a huge impact on some of the children who got to interact with Nicola Benedetti.”

Raploch Estate is a run-down district in Stirling, Scotland, and is the site of Sistema Scotland’s first Big Noise Orchestra, established in 2008.

“The children I have taught in Raploch really are hugely talented,” Benedetti says, “and I don’t say that lightly. These children have enormous potential. It is phenomenal to walk round the estate and see all these children carrying instrument cases and talking about their orchestra. It is very moving for someone like me. I have always dreamed of our communities experiencing the infectious joy of playing music together. The teachers and the community recognise how these children are shining, and being nurtured every day by the musical environment they now live in.”

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com.

bannerSlowPitchSoundListening to the music of Toronto turntablist Cheldon Paterson, the first thing that comes to mind is a sense of space.

Not space as something “out there” and abstract, but space as something tangible – the sounds of actual places, soundscapes and environments, with suggestions of how we as people might fit within them. Paterson – who performs as SlowPitchSound – characterizes his approach as “sci-fi turntablism”: integrating scratching with heavily altered samples and field recordings to produce something ambient, but with an experimental edge. It’s a recognizable sonic magic trick: using layers of sounds to transport listeners to another place.

And it’s a focus that is clearer than ever in his latest work. On October 26 to 28 at Toronto’s Array Space, Paterson will present Alternate Forest – a new, hour-long performance that combines turntablism, dance, and projected visuals to guide listeners through an imaginary mythical forestscape. Collaborating with dancer Lybido and video designer Aaron Dawson, Paterson plans to provide audiences with an immersive, multidisciplinary experience – one that offers new ways of thinking about nature and sound.

Alternate Forest was developed as Paterson’s award project from his Honourable Mention win in the 2018 CMC Toronto Emerging Composer Award competition. As far as his work on environmental issues goes, it’s his biggest production to date. “I'm not a very outspoken person, but I'm concerned with the state of things,” says Paterson in our recent email exchange. “And [I] find it more comfortable to speak the best way I know how, through my music.”

Along with the incorporation of video and visual elements and his work with Lybido – Paterson’s longtime collaborator – Paterson hopes to use Alternate Forest to not only represent something realistically ‘forest-like’, but also create something more imaginative. “I tried to represent as much natural aspects of a forest as possible, but also created sounds that are inspired by nature, making what I imagine to be a magical forest,” he says. “I spent a lot of time out in the woods gathering sounds, pictures and notes so that I could replicate the feeling for the audience. The results are pretty amazing.”

Alternate Forest rehearsalGiven the context of Paterson’s project, this sound collection process, the archival quality of it, is a meaningful act. During a time when environmental issues are increasingly connected with a sense of global crisis, Alternate Forest exists at the border between creation and loss – and feels uniquely positioned to navigate between the two.

Alternate Forest was born out of a sense of urgency that I've been feeling,” Paterson says. “The Earth loses 18.7 million acres of forests per year, which is equal to 27 soccer fields every minute, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). With this project I just wanted to do my part in helping them out. It's hard for most people to see what's really happening around them when they live in the city bubble, so I wanted to bring the forest to them.”

In that sense, Paterson is both creator and guide: one who at the same time brings listeners to a new place, and brings that place to them. And in Alternate Forest he aims to put this positionality to good use – taking the spaces out there in the world, bringing them close, and revealing an often overlooked magic.

SlowPitchSound presents Alternate Forest, produced by Exquisite Beat Theatre and Arraymusic, in three performances from October 26 to 28 at Array Space, Toronto.

Donna Garner, Peter Deiwick, Bruce Dow & Rielle Braid. Photo by Dahlia Katz. The Johnson sisters from Stratford, Ontario, Britta and Anika, are building an enviable reputation as creators of new music theatre – both individually and as a team.

Britta is probably best known for Life After, her musical that opened Canadian Stage's 2017/18 season a year ago after an auspicious beginning at the Toronto Fringe Festival the previous year. (Anika was both the dramaturg on that show and a member of the cast.) Anika is most likely best known for her work with frequent collaborator Barbara Johnston at Edge of the Sky Productions, most recently One Small Step, a new musical in part about Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield that debuted at the 2018 Toronto Fringe. Together, Britta and Anika previously created Brantwood, their first immersive musical and first collaboration with Mitchell Cushman and Outside the March Theatre Company, in 2015.

This year the sisters have teamed up to create a new immersive musical together: Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, running until October 14 at Toronto’s Heliconian Hall. Book, music and lyrics are by both sisters, Mitchell Cushman directs and Barbara Johnston is both assistant director and choreographer, with Elizabeth Baird as music director. Outside the March is co-producing with The Musical Stage Company, who have chosen Britta as their inaugural composer for the Crescendo Series, committing to developing three of her new musicals over a three-year period (of which Dr. Silver is the second, following Life After.)

Intrigued about both the production concept and the process of the sisterly collaboration, I asked Britta and Anika to tell me a bit more about both and what an audience might expect to experience coming to see their new show.

The following interview has been condensed and edited.

The WholeNote: What or who inspired the story and concept of Dr Silver: A Celebration of Life?

Britta and Anika Johnson: In 2015, Outside the March put out an open call for new large-scale immersive theatre projects. We are both musical theatre writers, and so immediately started brainstorming ways in which a musical could be immersive – and more specifically, immersive in a way where both the music and the immersive element felt effortless and essential to the storytelling.

That’s how we arrived at a funeral. In a funeral, the guests function in much the same way that an audience does – so their role in the immersive experience is already built in. We often sing at funerals, so again, it provided an inherent justification for the show to be musicalized. But we wanted to raise the stakes even higher. So we made it the funeral for a cult leader.

Our fictional cult worships music as divine, which provided a way for us to use music as the primary carrier of the narrative. It’s also proved useful on a deeper level. Cults are obviously super fascinating, but in our research we always found a moment of disconnect when it came to examining their various belief systems. We’d listen to an interview with someone from a cult, and relate to them completely on a human level – that is, until they started talking about beaming up to the spaceship in order to reach the next level of existence (or whatever). But music is the most universally evocative thing we know. Everyone has had an experience of feeling healed or transported by music. So by placing music at the centre of the Silver worship, we hope that audiences will be able to enter our fictional world, feel the same emotional stakes that our characters do, and hopefully find a human connection to what it might be like to be part of an organization like this.

WN: This is billed as an immersive musical; can you tell me more about what that means?

BJ/AJ: As soon as the audience enters the space, they are guests at Dr. Silver’s funeral. We don’t waste a lot of time with exposition. The assumption is that the guests at this funeral know why they are there and know the ritual that is about to take place and their role within it. The audience is invited to discover the world by being immersed and implicated in it, sometimes even singing along.

There is also a psychedelic element to the show. Without giving too much away, the audience begins their journey by joining the cast in drinking a toast ‘to the master conductor’. From there, the style of music and storytelling evolves as the show goes on to help the audience feel like they are joining our characters on a kind of drug trip, and we try to continuously change the rules of what you can expect from the piece as we journey deeper into the cult mentality.

WN: You have collaborated before with director MItchell Cushman and his company Outside the March on the Dora award-winning Brantwood. Did Dr. Silver grow out of that initial collaboration?

BJ/AJ: Our initial proposal was anonymous, but once Outside the March selected Dr. Silver for development, our past collaboration certainly helped us to hit the ground running. This show is quite experimental and does not live on the page alone – its development has depended on a constant collaboration with our team. As such, having a pre-existing shorthand and a deep level of trust with Mitchell has been vital. Constructing a new show is a massive act of faith, and our long history of working with Mitchell and Barb [Johnston] (our choreographer/assistant director, and also a frequent writing collaborator on other projects) was what made the process possible.

WN: You have a longstanding partnership working together on shows. Did that start when you were young?

BJ/AJ: We definitely grew up making up silly songs and putting on little shows together at home – but we only began working together officially about four years ago, when we collaborated with Mitchell on Brantwood. We had been writing a lot separately and then one day decided to see what would happen if we worked together. We were amazed with the result and have just kept writing together ever since. We kind of have the ability to get inside one another’s minds and we are not afraid of disagreeing – we’re sisters, so we’ve been disagreeing our whole lives. Above all else, we just trust each other completely.

WN: The high school-aged Edge of the Sky Young Company, from Wexford Collegiate, is joining you on Dr. Silver. Can you tell us more about deciding to make them part of this project?

BJ/AJ: Wexford, under the leadership of Ann Merriam, has a truly special arts program. It’s a public high school in Scarborough whose student population comes from a super diverse set of backgrounds. Their faculty has a real focus on helping students perform authentically, as themselves, whatever that might mean – without any of the artifice or assumptions that often come along with a clichéd idea of what a musical theatre performer should be.

When we were first conceiving this show, we immediately envisioned working with a youth choir, since choral music (and youth groups!) are so deeply embedded in religious and spiritual traditions. I knew that the students from Wexford would be well-suited to the pop/classical hybrid style that we were writing in, and that they would be uniquely capable of channeling the specific energy that the show requires. So the collaboration kinda seemed like a no-brainer.

WN: Can you tell me about the choice of the historic Heliconian Hall in Yorkville for the production?

BJ/AJ: We wanted a location that felt sacred and important while maintaining a sense of intimacy. We were drawn to Heliconian Hall because of its incredible acoustics and rich history of experimental music performances. We also love how it feels like a church without being one, which felt like a perfect backdrop to construct our fictional musical religion. It’s such a cool building that hides in plain site – it’s right downtown, but no one knows about it. Plus, for over a century, it’s been a club for women in the arts. In every way, it felt aligned with both the logistical and artistic needs of our show.

WN: Did the Luminato Festival “in-progress” performances in June 2018 lead to changes in the script/music/staging?

BJ/AJ: Absolutely. We kept writing this script right up until we opened. A new work is never done and a piece this experimental requires constant trial and error. We’ve had the benefit of sharing the piece with audiences a few times during its development, which has been harrowing and super-vulnerable for us as creators, but ultimately hugely beneficial to the work. Now that the show is open, and audiences are seeing it every night, we’re learning even more things about it, and frankly already have the next draft prepped in our heads.

WN: How would you sum up in a few words what an audience member will experience coming to this show?

BJ/AJ: An experimental electro-pop opera that starts as one thing and ends up as another. An epic story about a cult that’s actually an intimate story about a family. A show that may not be perfect yet, but is courageously fighting to find a new language for musical storytelling, and in doing so is inviting its characters, its audiences, and (frankly) its creators to risk venturing away from certainty and into the unknown!

Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life runs until October 14 at Toronto’s Heliconian Hall.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

Photo credit: Jordan Browne.

Photo credit: Jordan Browne.Photo credit: Jordan Browne.Photo credit: Jordan Browne.Photo credit: Jordan Browne.“Dance Brain is a highly innovative performance work in which brainwaves are converted into music in real time, which is then danced to. It interfaces neuroscience and performance practice, and takes advantage of the state-of-the-art technology in the LIVELab at McMaster University, Hamilton.”

That description, from the Facebook page for an event at McMaster on September 20 this year, certainly piqued my attention – yet I had a feeling for what may be brewing at the LIVELab. As an undergrad studying electronic and many other music genres at York University in the very early to mid-1970s, I witnessed and also participated in pioneering brainwave music experiments and performances under the direction of noted composers, musicians and sonic explorers David Rosenboom and Richard Teitelbaum.

Teitelbaum was the first to use a synthesizer to sonify his alpha brainwaves, along with other biological signals such as heartbeat and breath, in his composition In Tune (1967). Five years later, Rosenboom’s Portable Gold and Philosopher’s Stones incorporated the brainwaves of four “biofeedback musicians” into a unified musical work. While both Americans, they were teaching then at what was considered Toronto’s “other” university, making York for a time in the ’70s a centre of brain wave music.

Last week I spoke with Monahan, the 2013 Governor General’s Awards winner for Visual and Media Arts and the composer/sound artist behind the project, about the ambitious-sounding Dance Brain concept.

“McMaster neuroscience professor Steve Brown received a research grant to explore the intersections of music, dance and neuroscience,” said Monahan. “He was joined by Dan Bosnyak, neuroscience professor and the technical director of LIVELab, an advanced acoustic space and PA system at McMaster University, Hamilton. After a lengthy search for suitable artistic collaborators, he found dancer Bill Coleman and me last January.”

The process began with Brown and Bosnyak sending Monahan samples of recordings of alpha and delta brainwaves in the 8 to 16 Hz range (sub-audio for many of us) that they had produced at the lab. Monahan then transposed those samples up a few octaves using the software program Reaper, so they could be audible.

“Upon arriving at the LIVELab to begin work [in June], however, Prof. Brown pointed out to me that straight transposition resulted in a very compressed audio spectrum, which distorted the signal,” Monahan said. “Rather than additive transposition, as happens in music notation (when say transposing up an octave), in consultation with the scientists we tried a multiplication process which results in a full sound spectrum. Invoking my composer’s prerogative, I then made the decision to choose to use both processes (additive and multiplicative), resulting in the possibility of more and richer musical variation.”

This led to the development of several discrete compositions, each of which uses a different technological strategy. These pieces will be heard in Dance Brain’s premiere performance on September 20.

“The first work uses frequency analysis of transposed live brainwave audio brainwave audio which triggers midi notes,” says Monahan. “I then developed a patch in Max [a visual programming language for music and multimedia] to perform notes on a Yamaha Disklavier [a midi-controlled keyboard] combined with sampled sounds of an orchestral harp.

“The second piece uses brainwaves generated live by the dancer while performing, as do all the works on the program,” he adds. “These signals are hooked up to a motor which plays a snare drum, as well as to another motor which plays a long wire attached to another snare drum acting as an acoustic resonator.”

The third work uses aspects of Dollhouse, a work that Coleman and Monahan have already been performing for a few years. “It uses multi-channel spatialized dispersion and reverberation controlled by brainwaves generated in real time by the dancer,” says Monahan. “During the course of Bill’s performance he strips down to reveal the source of some of the acoustic sounds the audience hears: a number of plastic cups attached to his clothing. There’s certainly an element of slapstick humour in this part of the performance.”

What are the roots of this kind of performative-scientific exploration? Monahan immediately replied: “To me, this work shows a direct influence of Alvin Lucier’s pioneering Music for Solo Performer (1965).” Many consider the piece to be the first musical work to use brainwaves to directly generate the resultant sound.

“I bought a copy of David Rosenboom’s book Biofeedback and the Arts: Results of Early Experiments (1975) at the Music Gallery around 1980-81,” continued Monahan. “That text was a point of departure for me when starting Dance Brain.”

Are there future plans for Dance Brain? “In the scientific experimental tradition, we’re aiming to learn something from this development and performance process,” noted Monahan.

He has found working with the McMaster scientists in this project a productive challenge. “For one thing, it appeared surprising to one of our scientific collaborators when I referred to my individual Dance Brain works as ‘compositions.’ It seems to me that it can be a challenge to establish a protocol between composers, choreographers and scientists. In any case, we work together well and there are many promising aspects to the work that we've developed.”

It’s the kind of negotiation artists have to conduct when taking a major creative risk, particularly one which involves working with other disciplines. I invite you to join me for the premiere of Dance Brain on September 20 and explore this fascinating inner-outer sound-body landscape for yourself.

The premiere performance of Dance Brain takes place on September 20 at 8pm, at McMaster University, Hamilton. For details, see https://www.facebook.com/events/1087454958072962/.

Monahan and Coleman perform their work Dollhouse on September 22 at 8pm, at 201 Geary Ave., Toronto. Details at https://www.facebook.com/events/1867792106667915/?active_tab=about.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.

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