Archive for Music Matters

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).

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…

Listening to Mark Dresser

MarkDresser-listens

What does it take to let go of the past and embrace pure potential? Billions are shuffling about — fearing. Fearing! Clearing the mind takes courage. It takes fortitude.

Not long ago at the Western Front, I heard a great musician—Mark Dresser. I could tell he knew implicitly that we weren’t there for the notes—so he didn’t play any—he was concerned with following the Muse.

The Muse is real. I saw him once at the Safeway. He stared at me with dark eyes. He was holding a roll of waxed paper and some bananas, looking frankly dazed in the bright neon. I won’t forget those dark imploring eyes though. It was as if they were asking me ‘Why?’ ‘Why do you shop here?’ I don’t know. Maybe the farmers’ market is only opened Saturdays and in any case, it’s overpriced. When I looked up he’d vanished. —JH, 2014

The Muse always seems a little sad when I encounter him. Sometimes I think it’s my influence—on account of his devotion to the present—that causes his sadness. The Muse has difficulty understanding the human obsession with planning and the constant need to gather up our past possessions. To him, we must seem like idiotic squirrels—burying, then searching.

But Mark Dresser’s contrabass would not sadden the Muse as others do. Why? First, Mark listens—he waits until he can hear the whispers—and then he goes. He clearly has years of experience and technique to draw on, but he didn’t drag any of that out on stage like a bag of old chestnuts. When Mark played, I sensed how my mind would work were it freed of its feverish thinking. As I followed Mark, instead of the usual memory-anxiety machine, my mind became a finely tuned astrolabe constantly adjusting for those moments of inspiration.

Mark’s playing is instructional too. It provides a working example of how to think creatively and spontaneously. Mark follows phrases of his own making only so far as they’re fresh and then, whenever their trajectory hints at turning into stock patterns or set clichés, he abandons them in favour of another direction. I learned (again) that this is how creation works. Let go of cleverness. Let planning go. Defer your inevitable fame and trust that the next impulse is the right one.

But how quickly we’re drawn out of that shaft of light and descend into our infernal calculations. For me they go something like, “Will they like it?”, “Will they like me?”, “I must prove I’m not a fraud.”, “I’ll show them!” So you see, the Muse is frequently sad. He sees all that distraction right away and in that, little hope for anything new or authentic.

Lucky for us though, the Muse is ever hopeful of an opening—he’s the ultimate optimist. Even in the most formulaic calculating turgid undertaking, he’s there, waiting to be called upon. Who knows? With our human knack for calamity, something could go wrong forcing a desperate act of improvisation—and that’s his opening.

“Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.”

—Leonard Cohen

We all know our endless planning is little more than a buttressed attempt to avoid that opening. That’s why a sincere artist knows to let go of his craft. First, he knows he doesn’t have anything to prove (something yet to be learned by the unseasoned artist), but more, he learns that the tools (of his craft) are but a means to the end.

I found Mark Dresser a great player because he listens deeper than mere impact. He’s listening to the Muse’s whispers and making visible (or in his case, audible) those whispers for us. With Mark, we can witness the Muse at work and, of course, that’s ultimately why art matters.

You had me at gravitas — two concerts

St.-Andrews-Wesley-Church

Every Wednesday, three musicians hold a little performance of improvised music inside the cavernous St. Andrew’s Wesley United on Burrard. I went because I’m curious to hear Classically trained musicians who are willing to improvise. The constriction of their music training is such that, when improvising, many highly skilled Classical musicians can do little more than eke out a few trills.

These three musician could clearly do more than eke out trills — despite their Classical training — particularly the pianist Craig Addy who had the capacity to create vast landscapes of sound enough to fill the church and parts of Burrard street as well. Unfortunately for the three, they’re trapped in a new constriction even more asphyxiating to improvisation than Classical music — New Age music.

I listened patiently waiting for something to happen. My mistake. The entire point of New Age music is that nothing should ever happen, and to that degree it was a success. Here’s the core problem. New Age music is already “there”. There’s no getting “there” because it’s already “there”. So it has nowhere to go. New Age Music merely sits in its self-satisfied beauty doing nothing. Occasionally, it’ll glance about and change from a state of serene beauty to beautiful serenity, but that’s about all it can do. It’s a downright infuriating experience if your life contains other hues, which is the case for most people still claiming a pulse. Or in Dorothy Parker’s words, “a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B”.

PuSh2016_Limmediat2_credit-Cyrille-Cauvet-675x449

The other performance, L’Immédiat (part of the PUSH Festival), was something of a circus. There are really no words to compare the two performances, except that I have a few extras so I’m going to try anyway.

L’Immédiat plays in the diametrically opposite court to Craig Addy’s group. Instead of well-worn clichés of peace and serenity, L’Immédiat plays with chaos and to a certain extent tragedy — although not in a way you’d recognize it as such because it’s so absurdly funny.

Mostly, L’immédiat is about gravity. Not the concept of gravity, but the reality of gravity. Spoiler alert: Everything falls down. The sets fall down. The actors fall down, climb up again, then ultimately fall. It’s pure inspired (brilliantly choreographed) chaos.

And the gravity of the thing is that here I could recognize myself. Witnessing the wrenching futility of life pushing against gravity relaxed me in a way that was paradoxically the most uplifting experience I could imagine.

How It Ends: A Post-Apocalyptic Schubertiade

Scientists speculate sometimes that an asteroid impact would be what it would take to throw us all back into the Stone Age. But no one ever imagined that the end of Modernity could actually turn out to be something much less dire.

In the end, it was a coronal mass ejection that took down our power grids—we lost all satellite communications, international travel, automated traffic systems, and Smart phones.

Lacking what we’d known as modernity, we could do nothing but gather with our friends about the piano…singing by candlelight.

So, it was not a bang, nor a whimper. Instead of the Stone Age, we’d been thrown into the Biedermeier.

Post-apocalyptic Schubertiade

“They all agreed that they could scarcely remember the time when ceaselessly checking their iPhones seemed so important.”