Archive for Reviews

Listening to Mark Dresser


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


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”.


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.

Vancouver Chamber Choir explores spring’s veiled splendours

The following is a review I wrote for The Vancouver Observer.


Vancouver Chamber Choir - Orpheum, 2015

When it comes to springtime, redemption is a less marketable commodity than, say, bunnies and chocolate eggs, so on a blossom-filled Good Friday, I was surprised to see that the promise of crucifixion, mortal sacrifice, and death was enough to pack the Orpheum with an audience enthusiastic to try a bout of the Vancouver Chamber Choir’s darker fare.

After the opening work, VCC Conductor Jon Washburn revealed his enthusiasm, “Isn’t it a gem?” he said. The gem, Heinrich Schütz’s Die sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz (The Seven [Last] Words of Christ) was indeed a gem—hidden in a jewel box, shrouded in velvet, and encased in solid seventeenth century solid German cabinetry. I revelled how, with clockwork precision, it unveiled its beauty layer by layer.

Vancouver Chamber Choir

Photo courtesy Vancouver Chamber Choir

Next up was Schütz’s Italian contemporary, Giacomo Carissimi, who took us back much further to the early days of the Old Testament. Maestro Washburn told us the tale concerning the tragedy of Jephthah, an Israelite general who made a vow that if God would deliver them from their enemy, the Ammonites, Jephthah would offer up the first who greeted him on his return as “a burnt offering”. Tragically, that turned out to be his beloved daughter, Filia. Carman J. Price, tenor, sang Jephte and Catherine Laub, soprano, captured Filia’s fall from girlish innocence to condemned outcast in a way that to me felt as contemporary and horrific as anything on the evening news. Although her role was relatively small, Fabiana Katz, alto (historicus) also picked up on the horror in a way that made my ears snap to attention.

Even though the Requiem is sung in Latin (duh, it’s a requiem), there is something so innately French and nineteenth century about Fauré’s treatment of it. Fauré’s Requiem seems synonymous with Gustave Caillebotte’s Rue de Paris par temps de pluie, the way it portrays everyday life (and death) as a gentle thing.

"Gustave Caillebotte - Paris Street; Rainy Day - Google Art Project" by Gustave

Photo courtesy Wikipedia/Chicago Museum of Art

Fauré is masterful in his reduced orchestra, replacing violins with the throatier violas, decimating the woodwind section but for a couple of bassoons, and retaining only an echo of brass (2 horns, 2 trumpets) enough for one or two volleys, but more in the sense of Haydn and Mozart than the resources his contemporaries had at their disposal.

While the performance was fine and reverent and all, it didn’t really congeal until soprano Siri Oleson captured our attention with Fauré’s indescribably gentle Pie Jesu. With that, I think many audience members succumbed to very personal reflections and, in some cases, even tears.

For the Fauré, the Vancouver Chamber Choir was joined by the Pacifica Singers and the Vancouver Youth Choirand their inclusion added much to an already full programme. Now we see all the faces of Vancouver— many cultures young and old come together­—singing.

If you missed this concert, springtime is full of singing:

  • 24 April, the Vancouver Chamber Choir presents Youth & Music 2015 – New Choral Creators at Ryerson United Church in Kerrisdale
  • 1 May to May 3, The Vancouver Youth Choir participates in Canadian Cantando Music Festival up at Whistler.
  • Also, for those of you whose interest in choral music goes beyond mere listening, the Vancouver Chamber Choir is holding auditions for professional-level singers on April 25 and May 23. Contact Grant for an appointment at

Balkan Music: Re-Thinking Dissonance

In her book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, author and cultural historian Barbara Ehrenreich contrasts the “epidemic of melancholia” that pervades much of the modern world with the “phenomenon of communal, shared ecstatic ritual” that existed in our own culture even until the 17th century.

I touched into this phenomenon during last winter’s ever-rains when I began exploring Vancouver’s burgeoning Balkan music scene. There, I found a lively and musically nourishing community of musicians, dancers, and singers. At an Balkan brass band concert at the Russian Hall, I found a brochure for a music camp put on by The East European Folklife Center and I knew I wanted more.

So with the stench of burning police cars still hanging in the air (and local hockey riot pundits insisting that ‘we’re not like that’), I decided to leave Vancouver and follow a niggling intuition that a week of village life was just what I needed. My destination: The Balkan Music and Dance Workshops deep in the Redwood forests near Mendocino, California.

After the music finally stopped, we’d make our way back to our darkened cabins by flashlight and starlight. The next day, the whole process of singing, playing music, and dancing would start up again.

Dissonance + Consonance = Harmony

I soon found that the camp is an ideal artistic environment for anyone with a propensity for musical intelligence, and also it’s a rare chance to return to a rustic existence of woodsy cabins, merry village folk, and a healthy sense of belonging—even if just temporarily. Each day was punctuated with music, dancing, singing classes, and mealtime feasts. Evenings were given over to story telling, group dancing and intoxicating late-night music warmed by the huge stone hearth in the kafana (Balkan coffee house).

Rachel MacFarlane, general manager, cautioned me about the picture of the camp as a perfect village; although, in the next breath she praised the “collective spirit of goodwill” that stirred fellow campers to give up their cabins to accommodate a rained out gudulka class.

The Desire for Dissonance and Instability

“Western tonal music is based on the dichotomy of dissonance and consonance where unstable dissonances seek their resolutions to consonant sonorities”, states Kalin Kirilov, the camp’s expert on Bulgarian harmony. “If you compare music to energy”, he continues, “the dissonances carry a more powerful charge in comparison to the consonances”.

In 2003, Kalin Kirilov met a guitarist from Detroit who asked him if he could teach him to play Bulgarian music. At the time Kalin said it couldn’t be taught in a formal way, but the idea persisted with him and over the next few years he did figure out how to crack the Rosetto Stone of Bulgarian music. In 2007, he defended his dissertation, Harmony in Bulgarian Music. He now teaches music theory at Towson University in Maryland.

In my music education, I’d understood that complex metres (time signatures) in Balkan music were somehow the needlessly convoluted work of a people who were, well, ByzantineKalin provided the necessary context: “Asymmetrical metres exist in a huge variety starting from 5/8 to 15/8. Pushing the concept of asymmetry further, Bulgarians combine different asymmetrical metres forming complex metric groups (for example: 7/8 + 11/8) or juxtapose different asymmetrical metres one against the other”. Then Kalin startled me, “mixed metres push the extremes of what it is to be human”.

Balkan music is rendered simple as soon as one steps onto the dance floor. Its loping, elegant rhythms soon reveal themselves—it’s how a body of conjoined dancers naturally moves.

Continuous Learning

When some adults might be dreaming of marble counter tops in the suburbs or slowly burning out to channel-changer stagnation, Rachel (who originally joined the camp as a singer), took up the tenor horn (central European euphonium) and was instrumental in forming Brass Menazeri, San Francisco’s pre-eminent Balkan brass band.

Not that learning a new instrument in mid-life doesn’t come with its frustrations. “I’m 44 and I wanted to just throw this thing in the Bay”, she says with mock despair. Rachel stated that the camp attracts a vast range of people year after year, many of whom “wait all year”, and then added, “it’s their nourishment”.

Asymmetry and Autism

Sanna Rosengren is originally from Lund, Sweden, but now lives in San Diego where she works a is project scientist at UCSD in the department of Rheumatology. Sanna plays violin and grew up on symphonic rock bands, such as Emerson Lake and Palmer, but soon found that not only was Balkan music immensely satisfying, but it bridge the communication gap between her and her daughter, Ellinor, who has autism.

Together, they learned the complex melodies and rhythms of Greek and Bulgarian music, including popular favourites Yalo Yalo. Although autism makes is difficult for Ellinor to dance, she has a keen sense for Balkan metres and even despairs at the dull simplicity of most modern popular music, which is invariably in 4/4 time.

Genetic and Musical Homecoming

Bruce Salmon’s musical journey spans many genres. He played rock music with bands, such as Alejandro Escovedo, until at mid life he began to ponder what sort of future he had touring as a rock musician. He, too, was draw to the rhythmic complexity of Balkan music and through it chose to take a new path in life—one that would take him to Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey, including the Bulgarian Folk Music & Dance Seminar in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

Klezmer music was a natural bridge into Balkan music for him, one that elicited what “felt like ancestral memories”. After a fellow musician mentioned his preternatural ease with playing Klezmer music, Bruce delved into his family roots and found a quashed memory of his own Jewish heritage.

Ageism—a thing of the past

Ken Blackwood, from Canmore, Alberta, is 77 and quipped that he may quit at 80. “I’m retired and active, rather than retired and dead” he added. Having witnessed him cut his way across the dance floor night after night (even after a day of Bulgarian, Albanian, and Greek dance classes), I knew he was serious.

A native of New Zealand and a regular at Balkan Camp since the early 90s, he maintained his father “practiced dying for years before he actually died for real”.

The Mystery of Bulgarian Music – Revealed!

Bulgarian music is at the centre of cultural crossroads. Like tectonic plates, three major musical systems have converged and overlapped the ancient pentatonic five-note scales (thought to be the oldest in the world­, as they can be found from Ireland to China). From Greece came the “Church” modes, which also form the basis of Western music (in the form Ionian mode (major scales) and the Aeolian mode (minor scales)). Makams, with their distinctive augmented second intervals and quarter tones, spread from the Middle East along with the conquering Ottoman Turks.

But the real trouble in the mix was tempered tuning system from the West. Far from be well tempered, it is built on a series of increasing compromises designed to allow musicians (particularly those of keyboards, such as the accordion) to play equally in tune (or out of tune as some argue) in all keys.

Bulgarian music draws its fascination by how it reconciles these seemingly irreconcilable differences.

Balkan Music in Vancouver

This week-end (July 30), you can immerse yourself in the wild and compelling music of the Balkan region at the Electric Owl on Main Street. Orkestar SlivovicaThe Tailor (gypsy/folk punk), and from Seattle, the Bucharest Drinking Team are the three bands that are playing under the banner, “Transform a crowd of strangers into a circle of friends!!!” If you’re not familiar with the wild ride that is Balkan music, you’re in for a treat.

Pedal power and the builders of musical instruments in Vancouver

With Bike to Work WeekVelopoloosa, and the In the House Festival all converging this weekend, the stage is set to highlight another fascinating musical instrument maker, Daniel Lunn.

Daniel is making a name for himself as a drummer (and guitarist) around town, but for someone who plays an instrument that is legendary for its lack of portability, it’s his mode of transportation that caught my attention—by bicycle.

None of his instruments is actually played by bicycle; they are just transported that way

Not only does he transport all his gear by bicycle—drum kit, amps, guitars, the lot—but he custom designed a set of drums specifically to be light weight and bicycle friendly. He’s converted old suitcases into drums with drum heads inserted in the sides, and with weather-proof covers, the suitcases can also house the amp and, of course, hold other gear. Oh, and provide him with somewhere to sit when he gets to the gig.

All obvious puns about pedal power and bass pedals aside, Dan came into tinkering naturally. Growing up in the Ottawa Valley, he apprenticed in his uncle’s appliance repair shop where he learned to redeem and extend the life of old refrigerators, dryers, and sewing machines. Added to that was a kinaesthetic need to hit things—a bona fide form of intelligence that, when coupled with a musical inclination, is the foundation of all drummers.

“Anything’s a potential instrument”

In Dan’s Eastside backyard, he shows me his Furnaphone, another instrument made from furnace parts that, when hooked up with a piezoelectric pickup to translate and transform its sounds to a processor, mixing board and amplifier, produces sounds weird and wonderful enough to qualify it as a musical instrument. “No need to call the furnace man Mabel. It’s just Dan practicing again”, I imagine.

Dan tells me that he continues to work as handyman, running his own woodworking and renovation business. How does he get to jobs? By bicycle, of course, although he admits to occasionally renting a truck for larger jobs. He laughs about the time he went to the extreme of his range—Willingdon and Moscrop in Burnaby—with over 200 pounds of gear. It was so heavy that it started lifting his rear wheel off the road as he made his way up the hill to Metrotown.

But it’s not the furnaphone I’ve come to see; it’s the drum set, whereupon he loads up his bicycle and we go for a ride. It’s a sight to bring a tear to Gregor’s eyes. If a handyman slash drummer is able to manage two careers by pedal power, what’s to stop the cubicle monkeys from following suit?

Specializing in found object instruments

Somewhere in the junk fields of Saskatchewan, where old Massey-Ferguson tractors rust into dust, musical instruments are waiting to be born. It’s Dan’s membership with the popular band, Swarm, which specialized in building their own instruments out of “found objects” that Dan found his calling as a drummer and instrument maker. Dan is very careful to credit his co-collaborator, Wayne Mercier of “8 Prime”, a spoken word poet and action drummer (choreographed drumming).

Together, they performed for the Olympics, toured (yes, including Saskatchewan where they found lots of material), and along with other Swarm members and guests, are having something of a re-union at this week-end’s In the House Festival. In a performance called, Spring Evening Doom Lounge – A Celebration of Destruction and Renewal, they will perform at 1934 William St. (Backyard) – Sunday, June 5th from 7 to 8:45 pm.

The In the House Festival is organized by Miriam Steinberg. It focuses on using private homes and back yards as venues for live multicultural, multidisciplinary shows in people’s living rooms and backyards.


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Get your Brit on – at VanDusen Gardens

I was initially drawn to VanDusen Gardens this rainy Victoria Day week-end through a friend, and fellow musician. He posted a concert on Facebook of the Little Mountain Brass Band‘s forthcoming performance at Van Dusen Gardens, although the main event was the British Classic Car Show. Hosted by Western Driver, the car shows draws classic auto enthusiasts and gawkers of many stripes from around Vancouver, BC, and several US states to the south.

For $14, I got to hear a little bit of sweet band music and see more Morgans, Triumphs, Minis, Metropolitains, Bentleys, Rovers, and MGs as well as more brollys than I may ever need to see again. In fact, with the re-appearance of the rains, it gave me an added sense of Britishness to stiff-upper-lip it with the tweed set, hobnobbing with those who’d prefer to debate shades of hunter green than, say, head to the beach.

More pictures on Vancouver Observer site.

Music Review: Ederlezi strikes gypsy heart in Strathcona

I was at a Balkan music festival and was compelled to write a review (compelled and too stoked to sleep). Below is an excerpt from the review posted on the Vancouver Observer site.

Orkestar Slivovica

Orkestar Slivovica at the Russian Hall

Tonight, I attended part one of the two-part concert week-end known as Ederlezi – Balkan Brass Festival (6-7 May at the Russian Hall). Billed as a “Roma Spring holiday”, it features no fewer than three Balkan-style brass bands: Orkestar Zirkonium from Seattle, Brass Menazeri from San Francisco, and our own Orkestar Slivovica. There were also two lovely belly dance troupes, (and assorted vendors of Balkan eats and drinks), but the stars of the show are the brass bands.

The evening began with Orkestar Slivovica, which I thought was playing a little more up tempo than the last time I heard them at the Ukrainian Hall. Perhaps, they were intimidated by the quicker and sharper performances of their American counterparts. Gradually, they eased into their signature pelvic back beat and things began to heat up. That’s the thing about this music: if you’re not willing to let go with the hips, you’re not going to enjoy it. But they let go, and so did we—especially as the Šljivovica (Balkan plum brandy) started flowing.