Archive for Reviews

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.

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 grantwutzke@live.com

Balkan Music: Re-Thinking Dissonance

This article was published in July on the Vancouver Observer website. In it, I explore the idea as dissonance as valuable in its own right (not all dissonances have to be resolved) through the medium of the rich and exotic world of Balkan music. Below, I’ve included a short excerpt, all the images, and a link to the complete article.

“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.

“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.”

Read the full article on the VO site. It’s been renamed The Balkan Music and Dance Workshops: re-thinking dissonance originally published 29 July, 2011.

Pedal power and the builders of musical instruments in Vancouver

Last December, I developed an interest in Vancouver’s hidden music makers—the builders of musical instruments. I wrote a double-barrelled story about natural fibre horn maker, David Gowman, and harpsichord maker, Craig Tomlinson.  Now, let me tell you about the Furnaphone, and why “anything’s a potential instrument.”

Drummer Dan keeps his carbon footprint small getting to his next gig.

Drummer Dan keeps his carbon footprint small getting to his next gig.

With Bike to Work Week, Velopoloosa, 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.

» Read more..

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.