Archive for Writing (other)

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.

A Tale of Two Tárogatós

The tárogató is considered a Hungarian cultural treasure, and it has traditionally bridged the gap between Classical concert music (favoured by nobility) and folk music (popular with the country folk).

Despite the tárogató’s rareness outside Hungary and surrounding Eastern European countries, the tárogató now boasts two players in Vancouver—me and Milan Milosevic (with whom I’ve previously collaborated). While having two tárogató players in Vancouver may be considered enough to constitute a school of tárogató playing, what’s really needed is some distinct concert repertoire to bring attention to both the instrument locally and to put British Columbia on the map with those interested in incorporating ethnic and non-traditional instruments onto the concert stage.

Here are two recordings—both recorded in Vancouver—of Zóltan Kodály’s serene Esti Dal (Evening Song):

Milan Milosevic, tárogató and Bogdan Dulu, organ (recorded at UBC’s Roy Barnett Hall)

Jason Hall, tárogató and Michael Murray, organ (recorded at St. Philip’s Anglican Church, Dunbar)

Standing Wave’s “Acousmatic” – a Synæsthesiac’s Feast

Synaesthesiac

Adventurous. Uncompromising. Inimitable. Sought-after. How great to hear so many superlatives in Vancouver—that are justified. As violinist Rebecca Whitling welcomed us to their “Acousmatic” concert at the Orpheum Annex last Sunday, she seemed to tear up at the prospect of finding even more superlatives with which to thank her fellow musicians. Standing Wave has been around for a long time—long enough to have either earned those superlatives legitimately or to have them dashed on the rocks of hyperbole—but tonight they were well warranted.

Evanescence

The first work, Gordon Fitzell’s Evanescence, was presented as but an amuse-bouche for the ears (amuse-oreille?). This was perfect as my ears needed time to adjust. I’ve been to enough electro-acoustic concerts to know that the batting average for electro-acoustic music isn’t that good—either it fizzles out due to technical glitches or the two media never quite reconcile leading to a cage match. But thanks to some excellent planning and artistic leadership from Giorgio Magnanensi and others, Evanescence proved how satisfying electro-acoustic can be. Surrounded by waves of intriguing sound and my ears sufficiently amused, I was ready for more.

Red Arc / Blue Veil

Although I missed the promised palindrome in John Luther Adams’s Red Arc / Blue Veil, I revelled in all the visuals implied by the work’s title. For the record, synæsthesia had once been my friend until the day I discovered that I was alone in the assumption that each of the four Brahms symphonies had its inherent colour (Number 1 is blue, 2 is yellow, 3 is a dusty pink, and 4 is avocado-green). So it was gratifying for Adams to permit me to let my ears once again see colour.

John Luther Adams is to music what Edward Burtynsky is to photography. To convey the enormity of the landscapes of his native Alaska and his concerns over the deterioration of our natural world, Adams is now writing music intended for performance out-of-doors. To get a sense of the titanic forces Adams wrestles with, listen to his riveting talk, “Music in the Anthropocene” (given last year at the Banff Centre), in which he described the role of the artist in a world of Climate Change. Against such a canvas, Red Arc / Blue Veil was a comparatively small and intimate meditation on “those inner sounds that are the life of the colours” to quote Kandinsky.

Subject / Object

Foreshadowing the physical comedy that was to come in his music, James O’Callaghan slunk onto the stage nervously for his talk about Subject / Object. Percussionist Vern Griffiths was quick (and classy) to put O’Callaghan at ease allowing us to get in touch with his kinesthetic approach to sound. Not at all a grammar lesson as its title implied, O’Callaghan’s Subject / Object was an attempt to “rationalize the irrational” by turning objects into subjects. It’s as if Standing Wave’s Pierrot-plus instrumentation wasn’t quite enough for O’Callaghan, so he poked and prodded about the stage looking looking for more stuff to play with—usually to great comic effect.

While the players diligently performed their parts, an array of surreal theatrics ensued. Balloons popped inside the piano, a kitchen chair was dragged dramatically across the stage and then subjected to other indignities from the percussionist’s toolkit, and we all squirmed as a bucket of “water” was tipped into the open piano (although electronics came to the rescue just in time with appropriately watery sounds). Nothing overlooked, even the click of flutist Christie Reside’s high-heeled shoes was employed as musical counterpoint (I’m not sure if a composer who’s comfortable referencing Ren & Stimpy would be aware of this, but Reside’s transit across the stage was a perfect homage to Michael Snow’s Walking Women). Bravo to that.

O Superman

The featured work of the evening was an electro-acoustic adaption of Laurie Anderson’s 1981 art rock hit O Superman set for Standing Wave by Vancouver composer Alfredo Santa Ana.

I suspected that some form of calculated risk was involved in casting Veda Hille to sing this role (and I don’t mean a box office calculated risk, although that may have accounted for fifty percent of the audience), but why substitute Anderson’s deadly accurate chops for Hille’s folksy peeping except to avoid, as Santa Ana put it, casting “one of those Art Song singers”?

While her vocal range may comprise the full octave the song demands, vocal quality and diction were moot as she leaned heavily on the FX processor, intended in the original as an expressive device. Veda Hille, O Veda Hille. It’s like walking into the room in time for the laughter but too late for the punch line.  Still, Santa Ana artfully exchanged phrases from violin to flute to bass clarinet and onward giving the art rock original an air of chamber music without sacrificing the sensibility of the source material.

Finale

Even if Standing Wave had lower standards or were perhaps more weird, they would still retain their hold as Vancouver’s premier new music ensemble with their ability to seamlessly integrate solid musicianship with glitchless electronics.

In addition to all the gear and high production values, their kitchen-party warmth—whether the informal extemporizing of Vern Griffiths or pianist Allen Stiles’s comic timing—helped ensure that they could programme pretty much whatever they please and still come across as refreshingly accessible.

The Tárogató Project – How it started…

It all started almost immediately after the last concert, Generations, which I had organized at St. Philip’s Church. That concert played on the theme of intergenerational connections featuring the Jeffrey Ryan piece, Timepieces, I’d commissioned (but never performed) ten years earlier.

Following the concert, I invited Jeffrey over for dinner and it was he who goaded, no encouraged, no challenged me to submit a BC Arts Council grant application to get funding to commission some new works for the tárogató.

I guess the timing was good, because the three weeks left before the deadline turned out to be three weeks I had with no structured plans. I wrote the grant.

The way these things work is you write the grant and then forget about it for months and months before you hear anything. So come August and much to my surprise, I was awarded the grant and The Tárogató Project was born.

The Tárogató Project is designed in two phases:

  • Phase one – Commission two compositions for the tárogató by BC composers. I chose Jeffrey Ryan and Adam Hill.
  • Phase two – A public performance of both works on a concert marking the 60th anniversary of the arrival of refugees from the Hungarian Revolution to British Columbia. By telling the story of the one group of Hungarian refugees to Vancouver, the concert seeks to provide insights into the positive cultural impacts of refugees and immigrants to life in Vancouver.

View the The Tárogató Project Timeline

Lori Freedman and the beauty of extremes

LoriFreedman-banner

If there were some sort of measuring tool that could compare Classical music with cheeses of the world on a one-to-one basis — where Pachelbel’s Canon would be Cheez Whiz and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps would be some strain of blue that took you twenty years to work up the nerve to try — well, Lori Freedman’s “Virtuosity of Excess” tour would have to be well off that scale out beyond the farthest margins of Epoisse (a curd so odorous, it was banned from public transport in France), or perhaps even further — can one make cheese from platypus milk?

That’s not in any way to suggest that Lori’s music has anything malodorous about it. Pas du tout. It’s more a comment on her audience, which for deeply nuanced individual reasons has come to revel in her extremes.

It’s arguable that what she’s doing isn’t Classical music anyway. But it draws from many of the same roots, and being a fellow clarinet player who once played bass clarinet alongside Lori back in the last century (it was Le Sacre, which is scored for two bass clarinets), I know her roots. Now I’ve come to get to know her routes.

What is virtuosity?

LoriFreedman-side

photo credits: Jan Gates

I had the good fortune to sit with flautist Mark McGregor who’d come out to the Fox Cabaret to hear, above all else, the Brian Ferneyhough work. He explained Complexity music, which I paraphrase here broadly: The composer, without going beyond the instrument’s physical capability, employs myriad layers of complexity (such as assigning individual contrapuntal lines to different fingers) in an attempt to present to the audience a picture of the performer either breaking down or breaking through psychologically. “So, it’s sort of like a snuff film” I asked and Mark snorted with laughter, “I guess you could put it that way.” The title of Lori’s tour “The Virtuosity of Excess” is a quote from the French composer Raphaël Cendo, referring to the exploration (and sometimes exploitation) of the beauty of extremes.

Enter the “Virtuosity of Excess” tour

And then, before anyone could say, “Release the Kraken”, onto the stage strode Lori brandishing her contra-bass clarinet like a kalashnikov.

As we listened to Brian Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study #2 for bass clarinet, I started to get the full measure of Lori’s virtuosity. She puts her entire body, voice, and being into her playing. It’s so immediate and raw because what she’s after is emotional virtuosity.

Paul Steenhuisen’s Library on Fire for bass clarinet followed in what was by now an established pattern of extremes. This multi-movement, multi-music-stand work again showed how Lori transcends the cerebral by laying bare her humanity. Steenhuisen is a deep thinker able to layer complexity with the best of them, so it’s to Lori’s credit how she also brought warmth and humanity to the work — whether mumbling feverishly sotto voce or sucker punching us from the stage.

Steenhuisen’s Library on Fire as performed live in 2015 at The Music Gallery in Toronto

There’s something funny about Lori’s stage presence too—on account of its emotional ferocity. After screaming, squawking, and committing every excess imaginable, she always finished with a perfect little smile and thanked us all for listening. The contrast suggests some sociopathic older sister who’d just strangled her kid brother and now stands before us with one of those can-we-go-for-ice-cream-now smiles. Perhaps that’s why her own composition, Solor for bass clarinet (which she played from memory) lined up best for me. It certainly had its wild and raw moments, but overall I think it came from a more meditative place in her.

What is excess?

Raphaël Cendo’s Décombres for contrabass clarinet and live electronics was the coup de grâce of the evening. It was also the death knell for my ears, but I stood there anyway basking in the sheer monstrosity of it all like I was taking on Niagara Falls full force. To be in the presence of someone so beautifully uncompromising, so committed to her art — what glory!

After the show when people were mobbing her, I went up with the intention of saying something all-encompassing about what it means to be that emotionally revealed in art, but I couldn’t find the words and instead blurted out some nerdy clarinet-player nonsense about how “underneath everything, I could still hear a solid good clarinet sound”. It was entirely true of course — so always tactful — she laughed kindly as if I’d said, “Gee Mr. Pollack, you shure know how to mix them colours good.” It’s probably the most douche-baggey thing I’ve ever said…

Hey Bird! You’re Beautiful

HeyBrid

As many animals cannot recognise themselves in a mirror, it’s extremely helpful to them if you tell them how great they look. Don’t just walk by and say nothing.

 

Say something reassuring like…

“Hey bird, you’re beautiful!”,

or…

“Way to go Mr. Rat. I like the look. Very edgy, very edgy.”

 

This is tremendously helpful to their self esteem and you’ll probably feel good just saying it too.

rats3.0