Archive for Writing (other)

The Boatman

I

It was an early morning yesterday;
I was up before the dawn.

I’d made a farewell to my father in the night,
and our farewell had the feel
that we’d not meet again.
I could have embarked with him,
but I chose to remain and let him go.
I was done
with hoping,
and waiting,
and instead I’d just come down to the ferry
to see him off.

I gave him a hug,
(but even that landed as a little perfunctory).
He seemed younger (he was a young man again),
but maybe it was I who was older.
The boatman was dressed as an Edwardian-era quartermaster.
The era was wrong. The error was mine.

II

And there was also a woman, my mother.
She had learned to fly
and was therefore suspected of witchcraft.
I knew the real story however.
After all those years chained to a wheelchair,
witchcraft was the last thing on her mind—
she just wanted to get away and be free.

Three men were tracking her as she made
her first attempts to fly.
I don’t know what they thought they’d accomplish following her—
perhaps they’d turn her into the authorities.
They waited too long though,
because all at once she gained full mastery of her powers
and flew up high into the night sky
and out over the sea illuminated
by the light of the moon,
the moon,
the moon,
she danced by the light of the moon…

Somewhere a muffled orchestra tuned up,
but my ear was preoccupied with a different earworm.

Like a ship without an anchor;
like a slave without a chain…

III

It’s funny how a thing can loop back on itself,
because I saw
far below
an outcropping of rocks in the sea
and as I descended,
a dock on which
my father boarded the last boat going somewhere.
Again I hugged him
for the last time;
Again it felt awkward.
For the last time.

As my father’s boat departed for its unknown destination,
my mother slipped along the top of the sky.
The moon hung limp in the darkness a moment
and then it too vanished.
I walked away from the dock.
“Now what?” I thought,
“They’re gone and I’m here”.

There’s a orchestra nearby
and I know
if I go there
I’ll be immersed in people,
and conversations,
and music of course,
and all the things of life.

Good-bye stranger,
And they danced by the light of the moon,
the moon,
the moon,
Good-bye friend,
and they danced,
will we ever,
by the light of the moon,
meet again?

Local Culture; local business

One of the most time consuming parts of producing a concert is getting the word out. When disbursing posters, the locally owned shops are better (because they get what local means); whereas, the megacorp emporia along the Cambie retail strip leave me negotiating with store greeters and those vacant McJob stares.

Also despite their large footprint, most megastores have no place for posting community and local events (although to their credit, Buy-Low Foods did offer to put a poster up in their employee lunchroom — so if I see a row of Philipino ladies at the concert, I’ll know my efforts were not in vain).

That’s why I have a special shoutout for Solly’s Bagelry for taking our concert poster after store hours and the great conversation we had about the tárogató and how Vancouver and the Hungarian Revolution overlapped and its importance to today’s refugees in Canada.

Everything Passes – Forgetting & Remembering

I have a habit of staring at Facebook just a little too long. I enjoy the jokes,and the concert updates, sometimes the politics, but eventually the full weight of the world’s woes overwhelms me. Take for example the story of how the Saint John City Council greenlighted the destruction of several historic wooden row houses, known locally as the “jellybean houses”.

Even Vancouver developers in their naked lust for property development opportunities would blanch at thought of knocking down such buildings (of course Vancouver’s historic stock barely pre-dates the 1940’s, where Saint John’s jellybean houses survived the Great Fire of 1877). So I’m mourning the loss of heritage and the passage of time.

That’s what I found so compelling about Mark Haney’s Omnis Temporalis performed last night at the Richmond Art GalleryOmnis Temporalis mulls over the transitory nature of life—everything passes—but in a very curious way.

By collaborating with graphic novelist, Seth (aka Gregory Gallant), Haney has set to music George Sprott 1894-1975, a graphic novella that follows the quasi-fictional life of television personality George Sprott.

Photo courtesy Seth

Set in a mid-sized mid-century Canadian city (here fictionalized as “Dominion City”) at a time when the bloom of post-war optimism was beginning to fade, the story maps out the last two weeks of George Sprott’s life, a descent into ignominy parallelling the decline of the city itself.

Photo courtesy Richmond Art Gallery

Photo courtesy Richmond Art Gallery

When I asked Haney how he sourced the music while walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, he painted a vivid picture of the tiny medieval church along the route where he composed at sunset in the darkening church. What I was really looking for was “How do you conceive of such projects…and execute them?” Or put more crudely, “How did you get off of facebook and make art worthy of a packed hall?”

Photo courtesy Mark Haney

Haney is a thoughtful composer, but even with first-rate singers and musicians, it’s not the music that drives the show. I think about Orpheus’ journey and remember that—in a world so skilled at forgetting—the role of the artist is to make that descent and to come back with something. By drawing together a community and then sustaining the artistic vision over its long gestation period, Haney, Seth (and many others) takes us into our collective memories and then returns us a little richer than had we simply opted to forget.

jellybean-houses

Nerdy good times – a tárogatónist’s confessional

Nerdy-Good-Times

Quite apart from being unquestionably sexy and having a reputation as savvy trendsetters, musicians also have a nerdy side. When string players visit their favourite luthier to have their bows rehaired, they will talk with disturbingly fevered intensity about the relative merits of Appaloosa over Arabian horse hair required for the job. Pianists tie rubber bands to their fingers to increase dexterity, and are known to also have preferred rubber band manufacturers, about whom they argue on Internet forums. Of course, none are worse than oboists who have no social life whatsoever. How could they? They spend the greater part of their lives sealed up in basement cells shaving their reeds down to a microscopic fineness; then, emerge only to perform and complain about how much more work they need to do to achieve reed perfection. To a lesser degree, it’s the same for other woodwind players of reed instruments: As a rule, most reed players can’t tell a bad reed from a bad week.

By taking up the tárogató, I seem to have painted myself into a particularly arcane corner (even by musician standards), so it’s no surprise that I too find myself just as prone to the same sort of nerdy obsessiveness as what dogs players of other instruments. It was inevitable.

Studio

Working on Adam Hill’s “I Will Stay Here” for tárogató and electronics

When I commissioned my tárogató from Toth & Tarsa of Budapest, I was provided with a deluxe menu of options similar to what you might expect when purchasing a custom Tesla or investing in a teak plantation. I could choose the wood (cocobolo), the fingering system (I chose the German Albert system over the French Boehm only because I’d been playing a borrowed Albert system tárogató prior to investing in my own horn), and the mouthpiece style (I naturally chose one that would take a clarinet reed over one that took a soprano saxophone reed—there are no tárogató reeds).

My tárogató's birthplace - Budapest, Hungary

My tárogató’s birthplace – Toth & Tarsa, Budapest, Hungary

When my tárogató arrived, I was delirious with joy and didn’t mind some of its funky tuning (“hey, it’s a folk instrument!”) and its limited range (only two octaves compared with four on the clarinet). Gradually, however, that nerdy musician thinking started to peer into the room and make suggestions about how—if only I tweaked this or bought that—my playing would improve unstoppably.

All my neighbours are out of earshot of my practising, so it is to their good fortune that they missed out on the months of squawking that transpired as I attempted to extend the range of the instrument. While clarinettists can chose from a number of method books that contain vast anthologies of fingerings for every note on the clarinet (I have one such book with over forty fingers alone for the altissimo G#), the tárogatónist must contend with a miserable starter’s fingering chart displaying but one fingering per note. Working on the two new works I commissioned from Jeffrey Ryan and Adam Hill forced me to extremes, so thanks to them and a lot of aforementioned squawking, I have now amassed quite a handsome new chart of tárogató fingerings.

Tarogato-fingering-chart_Jason-Hall

Caution should be taken when attempting these fingerings as they have only been tested on the Albert system tárogató (nobody knows for sure what would happen on a Boehm system tárogató).

Just as tárogató reeds are not known to exist, tárogató mouthpieces are a rarity. You can’t just march into your local guitar and drums music store and demand to see their display of tárogató mouthpieces.

LOTR_tarogato

My tárogató came from Budapest with a pleasant sounding mouthpiece, but with nothing to compare it against, I really couldn’t be sure if it was good or not. My quest for a superior mouthpiece led me to Dr. Ed Pillinger of Middlesex, England.

Dr. Ed is a skilled craftsman who spends most of his days whittling away at custom clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces. But every now and then, some tárogató-wielding colonial who’s heard he makes a good Stowasser copy, rings him up. I now have two “Pillingers”: one is pitched at about A445 (European pitch), whilst the other is pitched appropriately for North America at A440. The doctor and I had to find a cure in the latter one when the former one proved untunable and untenable with piano (or anybody on this side of the pond).

Pillinger-mouthpieces

Photographed on arrival (nothing makes social-media light up like the arrival of new tárogató mouthpieces).

With all this nerdiness now becoming a fixture in my life, I was instantly smitten when clarinettist François Houle let me try his new Ishimori Kodama II ligature (the thingy that holds the reed onto the mouthpiece). Smitten enough that I couldn’t be stopped until one of these babies was flying its way to me from Japan (of all places).

Ligature-instructions

Ishimori & Co. wins “World’s Shortest User Guide” award for 2017.

All of these marvels together has done much to strengthen the tuning of the instrument (no more excuses) and improve my confidence in the upper register. I’ve yet to start affixing tape into tone holes, a laborious practice to coax individual notes into pitch by adding successive layers of electrician’s tape (or as I’ve recently learned, “Kapton tape” available at any fine purveyor of model train accessories). Tone-hole taping will undoubtedly commence once all the new equipment has had time to settle in.

Tarogato-setup

A marvel to behold – New Pillinger mouthpiece with even newer Ishimori ligature.

So if ever you have romantic thoughts of the life of a musician as some care-free communion with the muse, think again: Musicians are about the nerdiest people you’ll ever meet.


Jason plays a custom Albert-system cocobolo tárogató made by Toth & Tarsa of Budapest, Hungary, a replica Stowasser mouthpiece by Pillinger Mouthpieces of Middlesex, UK, a Kodama II ligature by Ishimori Wind Instruments of Tokyo, Japan, and Légère Signature synthetic reeds formulated by Guy Légère of Montréal, Canada.

Tarogato-Project-logo

On 30 April 2017 (4pm),
The Tárogató Project and St. Philip’s Church (Dunbar) presents
“REFUGE”
a concert of Hungarian music and stories (old and new)
of refugees to Vancouver.
St. Philip’s Anglican Church,
3737 27th Avenue West,
Vancouver, BC, Canada

Beauty amid darkness

Beauty-amid-darkness

With stories of refugees making subzero journeys across Canada’s shared border with the US, the world’s refugee crisis has just attained a new low. I’m not making hay out of blowhards like Trump and his band of orcs with this concert, but it certainly has made any artistic treatment of refugees timely.

The planned concert coincides with the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the Sopron refugees to Vancouver, but I’m neither Hungarian nor a refugee. My connection is through the hauntingly beautiful tárogató—a national instrument of the Hungarians—which I play.
I was fortunate enough to receive a BC Arts Council grant to commission two new pieces for the tárogató, which I will perform on a concert at St. Philip’s Church (Dunbar) 30 April.

Jeffrey Ryan’s Arbutus for tárogató and piano is full of turbulence, optimism, and a most beautiful melancholy. In Jeffrey’s words, “In Arbutus…the bends and ornaments of traditional tárogató playing are an integral part of both soundworlds, and the piano’s tremolos are reminiscent of the cimbalom. The title, Arbutus, comes from the arbutus tree so common in British Columbia, but not native to Hungary, again reflecting the “newness” of the Soproners’ new home.

Adam Hill’s I Will Stay Here presents a different challenge, at least for me, of working with electronics. Adam layers spoken word recordings Hungarian and Syrian refugees with processed sounds of the tárogató (I previously recorded these for him). Even though this concert endeavours to steer clear of politics, Hill’s piece beautifully presents the very real-world challenge for me as a musician is to retain my humanity and focus instead on individual human journeys while playing against a pre-recorded accompaniment—much like the theme of the concert itself.

Read more about the Tárogató Project.

Canada has Learned to Welcome its Refugees

The SS Komaguta Maru—the ship that brought 354 passengers from India (including many of Sikh backgrounds) to Vancouver harbour only to be turned back by Canadian authorities—is a refugee/immigrant story that’s received a lot of media attention. After the ship was turned away, it returned to India where on arrival many of its Sikh passengers were murdered. This incident has left a sickening scar on Vancouver’s collective memory.

In 1914 (at the time of the Komaguta Maru incident), Canadian immigration rules were unapologetically racist, but they weren’t much better come 1956 when troubles in Hungary spewed 200,000 refugees onto the world stage.

The Canadian government was still holding onto its time-honoured immigration policies, which favoured stock from north-western Europe over all others. But as Soviet tanks crushed the nascent Hungarian revolution, the Canadian people themselves pressured the government to revise its policies about what constitutes a prospective Canadian. And so the characteristically Canadian way of opening our hearts and doors to others in need was birthed on the streets of Budapest.

In the early months of 1957, thousands of Hungarians arrived on over 200 chartered flights[1]. At the University of British Columbia, the entire teaching staff and student body from the University of Sopron’s Department of Forestry arrived en masse[2], thus forming (for a time) North America’s only Hungarian-language forestry classes[3].

2016 marked the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, and 2017 marks the anniversary of the arrival of Hungarian refugees to Canada. The Tárogató Project is fundamentally a refugee story.


[1] A Hundred Years of Immigration to Canada 1900 – 1999 (part 2). 1994, http://ccrweb.ca/en/hundred-years-immigration-canada-part-2. Accessed 27 Aug. 2016.

[2] Canada, Citizenship Government of. Forging Our Legacy: Canadian Citizenship and Immigration, 1900–1977. 1 July 2006, http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/publications/legacy/chap-5b.asp. Accessed 13 Aug. 2016.

[3] The Sopron Division of the Faculty of Forestry. UBC, Faculty of Forestry, http://www.forestry.ubc.ca/general-information/ubc-forestry-history/sopron-story/. Accessed 27 Aug. 2016.

Tarogato-Project-logo

On 30 April 2017 (4pm),
The Tárogató Project and St. Philip’s Church (Dunbar) presents
“REFUGE”
a concert of Hungarian music and stories (old and new)
of refugees to Vancouver.
St. Philip’s Anglican Church,
3737 27th Avenue West,
Vancouver, BC, Canada

Refuge

It’s hard to retell someone else’s story and remain authentic. There’s always the spectre of cultural misappropriation lurking in the wings.

Tonight, I saw an adaptation of Verdi’s Macbeth by Third World Bunfight, a South African opera troupe known for its grippingly contemporary interpretations of classic operas. The action is moved from Shakespearean-times Scotland to current day Congo and now it centres on a Congolese warlord and his ambitious wife as they murder their way to the top.

To complete the sense of present day verismo, a lot of multi-media give the sense that this live-action opera is happening online. Even the surtitles operate like a Greek chorus (never quite following Verdi’s original Italian words as surtitles ought to, but instead giving modern-day commentary and basically telling us the truth about what’s happening).

While the 12-member pick-up Vancouver Opera orchestra (sharing the stage with the singers but looking pale and out of place (and sometimes sounding it too), the singers themselves were a powerful presence. And why not? All hail as refugees from Congo’s many recent wars. It’s probably no coincidence that the drama follows the overthrow of the ruling clan of Kivu province where many of the singers are from. How they came to be such dynamite opera singers is a mystery.

That brings me to my challenge of mounting an Hungarian concert about refugees. I’m neither Hungarian, nor a refugee, so how can I find a voice that speaks authentically to the subject matter?

The answer is…give it away.

Before Christmas, I had a series of meetings with just the sort of people who can bring their real-life stories to The Tárogató Project. First, I met Gergö Péter Éles, a cultural emissary sent by the Hungarian government to investigate and report back on the cultural needs of the Vancouver Hungarian community. He’s interested in helping to assemble some of the stories from the Sopron Alumni, which are so needed. I’ve heard him play his disarmingly simple Hungarian shepherd’s pipes and he’s agreed to perform on them in the concert.

I also met two recent arrivals to Canada, both refugees.

Zdravko Cimbaljevic left Montenegro one day on business to Brussels and never returned. He was in fear of his life. His friends told him that all the landmark worked he’d done support LGBT causes would not be lost if he worked from afar. I also discovered that he’s been a force for change here in Vancouver, holding the August role as Grand Marshal for the Vancouver Pride Parade in 2013.

Farooq Al-Sajee is twice a refugee, first from Iraq and then from Syria. He studied music and English literature in Damascus and has a passion for both. He’s enthusiastic about The Tárogató Project and concert. I’m tempted to figure out a way to include him on the oude, but that would go against my Hungarian music only. We’ll see how that plays out.

What’s in a Story?

Last year, when I created Generations as a homage to the many generations that built St. Philip’s Anglican Church in Dunbar (to honour the church’s 90th anniversary), the idea came to me of tying together a narrative of music with a story line.

The first rule of such an approach is to avoid hitting the audience over the head with the story, so I left a lot to their intelligence and their own personal creativity to figure out.

The music selections where lightly connected to the idea of intergenerational connections (A string quartet by “Pappa” Haydn, Songs my Mother Taught Me by Antonin Dvorak, and the feature work, Timepieces by Jeffrey Ryan, which I had commissioned as a memorial to my own father).

This year’s concert part of The Tárogató Project springs from a similar idea—it weaves together three distinct stories:

1) The musical part is a journey through the literature (or some of it) of Hungarian music (from simple shepherd’s songs to grand Romance to newly commissioned works for the tárogató),

2) the next part explores the story of the Hungarian refugees, particularly those from the University of Sopron who came to Vancouver and made a positive impact on the city, UBC, and forestry practices in BC, and

3) the final story deals with the contemporary unfolding drama of today’s refugees and the challenges they face making their new home, Vancouver, home.

The music will weave its own thread leaving the other two stories to drive the narrative (and the music to provide meditation points).

The date is 30 April 2017 (4pm) at St. Philip’s Church (Dunbar).

Bard’s Merry Wives a Basketful of Summer Mischief

Bard’s Merry Wives a Basketful of Summer Mischief

Have you ever walked into a bar—say a blue-collar sort of bar—only to hear someone abruptly say something, strangely Shakespearean? “Argh. The bar wench has cut me off. Forsooth, I am undone.” It’s funny just for being so incongruous, but now imagine three hours of this sort of banter and you have set the stage for this year’s Bard on the Beach production of The Merry Wives of WindsorOntario.

Windsor, Ontario? Yes, Ontario although poor drab Windsor is not, has never been, nor will ever likely be quite so electrifying as you’ll find it here. Director Johnna Wright’s Merry Wives effectively transforms Windsor into a wild Wurlitzer of a town, pulling out all the stops of nostalgia to help you remember (or not, if you were there) the Sixties. It’s one part Shakespeare, one part Hairspray, a little of the old Cheers camaraderie mixed in with enough period Canadiana to rival The Beachcombers (although the writing’s much, much better).

The Merry Wives of Windsor follows the misadventures of one Sir John Falstaff, whom Shakespeare reprised from Henry IV by popular demand. This production (also a reprise from the Bard’s sold-out 2012 production) features all the dramatis personæ you’d expect from a 60’s sitcom: desperate housewives, a jealous alpha male husband, flower children, a toffee-nosed British expat dispatched to the Colonies, beatniks, a foppish Frenchman (though sadly not Québécois), the skipper, Mary Ann…no wait. But it’s the music, ah, cue the music.

As the line between actor and musician faded into irrelevance, the players traded soliloquys for guitars, grabbed a fiddle (naturally the Garter Inn had a house band), and even ponied up to the microphone to croon out a Patsy Cline torch song. All the singing and dancing had the audience clapping along too, even with the never-you-no-mind your Shakespearean iambic pentameters delivered occasionally in Fonsie voice. It was all in good fun. The show grabbed us out of our seats, whirled us ‘round the dance floor (in some cases literally) and didn’t let go until its shit-kickin’ epilogue.

Just as the TUTS production of Hairspray was acknowledged as last summer’s hit, you can wonder no further which production has it in the bag (or basket) for this year. Merry Wives is a basketful of mischief. So lace up your farthingale, brush off your 60’s Canadiana, and make haste thither to the Bard’s Merry Wives of Windsor before it sells out. It’s going to be a runaway hit.

Photo courtesy David Blue

Reading Paul Mason’s “Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future”

Postcapitalism

Writers like Seth Godin giddily describe the “new economy” as if still buffeted and buoyed by Mid-Century optimism. Seth credits the Internet for decentralizing work, “Technology has enabled the transition to the new economy, but connections in the new economy are fueled by a focus on two specific aspects of humanity – generosity and art.” But Paul Mason goes deeper. Much deeper.

Paul Mason tears at the heart of the beast—Neoliberalism. Neoliberalism—that system of endless growth, deregulation, high finance—is The Matrix, “It’s everywhere, it is all around us. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” Neoliberalism has been so normalized as how things are run that we constantly have to review our understanding of it to remember what it is.

Reading Mason’s “Postcapitalism” also gives credence to Ralph Nader and Chris Hedges’s refusal to endorse Bernie Sanders on the grounds that he’s thrown his lot in with the Democratic party (although Hedges’s hedges his bets with Sanders based on his stand vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestine question). They know that America’s two leading political parties are no more than two flavours of vanilla—two near identical facets of the same same system.

Mason contrasts the revolts and uprisings following the collapse of 2008 and the Establishment’s attempts to suppress them with a different path opening up, “The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy, between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next.”

Listen to Paul Mason’s talk at Google Recorded in December 2015, London.