Nov 22, 2015

Playful Punk Opera

David Pomeroy and Krisztina Szabo in Tap:Ex Metallurgy. Photo by Dahlia Katz
Amidst the many serious features and interviews I've done lately, it came as something of a pleasant surprise to be reminded of the very real importance of play  — even when the notion comes wrapped in some challenging dressing.

The occasion was a creative collaboration between Canadian punk band Fucked Up and Toronto-based opera company Tapestry, which specializes in new works. Following previous collaborations involving electronics and Maria Callas, as well as a daring re-envisioning of the Medea myth this past summer, Tapestry have demonstrated they aren't exactly shy when it comes to pushing the boundaries of opera as an artistic form. Artistic Director Michael Mori has ably, creatively demonstrated his commitment to moving opera into the 21st century, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways; a recent fundraiser for the company featured a mix of Mozart and contemporary composers, while their latest work, which paired members of Fucked Up with mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo and tenor David Pomeroy, conveyed a clear desire to challenge audiences in big ways.

Tap: Ex Metallurgy, as the evening was called, was staged at the company's homebase for operations, located in Toronto's historic Distillery District. Amidst the rumble of not-so-distant commuter trains and the din of highway traffic, the evening's first half unfolded as a kind of meditation on loss, with Szabo and Pomeroy singing the roles of two parents grieving the recent loss of a child. A deeply theatrical work staged with elegant economy, Jonah Falco's music and a libretto by Mike Haliechuk and David Hames Brock offered a heart-full take on a painful subject. Production designer David DeGrow's lighting, a panoply of strong, changing colors, conveyed more than mere mood, but painted a psychological portrait of suffering, in all its myriad forms, while Mori's simple, powerful staging featured musicians assembled onstage leaving, one by one, until the only two figures left, Szabo and violinist Yoobin Ahn, performed a kind of conversational duet that ended in quiet grace.

Fucked Up's Mike Haliechuk in Tap: Ex Metallurgy. Photo by Dahlia Katz
It was hardly the stuff one associates with the bald aggression of punk, but the contrast between the actual experience and the perceived cliche was powerful, and the experimentation behind it was a thoughtful sort of playfulness that forced one to re-think boundaries between musical genres. Haliechuk's guitar effects had a kind of loud if soothing effect that was both ethereal and grounding at once — kind of like the best-sung opera arias.

The meditative nature of Metallurgy's first half contrasted nicely with the evening's altogether lighter second half, which featured Szabo and Pomeroy playing out the various stages of a relationship. At one point the tenor even offered his own unique take on Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love", complete with impressive solo on a flying V guitar placed nearby. There was something so refreshing, so powerful, so gorgeously alive about the simple if highly effective (and entertaining) portrayal of the work's "love-at-first-sight-over-a-lifetime" theme, one that lent itself nicely to operatic expression. The work, by librettist David James Brock and music by Ivan Barbotin, neatly captured the intense ups, depressive lows, and inevitable mediocrities of a long-term relationship with grace, power, and a stylish staging that made nice use of the electric chemistry between Pomeroy and Szabo. The maniacal grin on Pomeroy's face as he wailed on guitar offered a hilariously bald contrast to Szabo's patient, amused/unamused expression, and the air was deliciously electric with a crackling audience excitement feeding off this interaction. Between this moment and the big. bold very punk-like sounds of Fucked Up members Jonah Falco, Mike Haliechuk and Josh Zucker, one could almost hear audience thoughts: this is opera? YESSSS! 

As a disco ball spun overhead and the small, packed space filled with a million little shiny beads of light, I couldn't help but marvel at the importance of play in opera; maybe the medium needs more of it, more than ever. opera really isn't as poe-faced as everyone thinks it is — especially to those who work closely within or beside it. Sometimes it takes a punk band to bring that playfulness out, but the willingness has to already exist. The joyous moments of musical playfulness, whether actualized by kicking down musical boundaries or offering moments of audio abandon, feel too few and far-between, and really, that doesn't need to be the norm in an artform as inherently theatrical and dynamic as opera. Thanks to Tapestry for pressing "play" — and really, really meaning it, maaaan.

Nov 18, 2015

Sex, Power, Freedom (and still no happy endings)

Lucia Cervoni as Julie. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Happy endings are yearned for, but they are increasingly rare.  Things don't end well all the time; it's this ugly fact Hollywood and the advertising industry don't usually (if ever) acknowledge. And yet happy endings in culture are not, as some studios might have you believe, the perennial norm. Many of the best works in music and theatre have dire endings that, with the right production and handling, make one feel something by the closing of the curtain: sadness, wistfulness, a kind of quietude, an absolute tumult. Miss Julie, the 1888 play by August Strindberg, provoked shock at its premiere. At the closing of its operatic adaptation in Toronto lastnight, there was that same sense of shock, as well as confusion, sadness, disturbance. It's that distinct mix that makes the chamber opera such a powerful work, and well worth seeing.

Sharleen Joynt (Christine, L) Lucia Cervoni (Julie, R)
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Director and Canstage General Director Matthew Jocelyn has brought Philippe Boesmans' Julie to North America in collaboration with Soundstreams (an organization dedicated to programming new music), following a highly successful tour of the piece through Europe in 2009. As well as offering a night of dark laughs and deep thoughts, the work is a meditation on the nature of power between the sexes, and a fascinating portrayal of desire that, when mixed within the toxic boundaries of history and class structure, can be deeply destructive. The titular heroine (or perhaps anti-heroine is more appropriate), passionately performed by Canadian mezzo-soprano Lucia Cervoni, is celebrating St. Johan's night (also called St. John's Eve, or Midsummer) by dancing and flirting with her servants, specifically the valet Jean (Clarence Frazer), who is engaged to the maid Christine (Sharleen Joynt). Julie and Jean eventually consummate their flirtations, and later plan to run away together, but don't; the psychological machinations and manipulations between the two escalate, and the work ends with Julie committing suicide.

The work, which uses elements of naturalism, was influenced by elements of social Darwinism, though it has been interpreted in various ways onstage, through the lens of the American South (at CanStage in 2009) as well as the indigenous experience. The play lends itself well to explorations of power, both overt and subtle, and it's here that composer Boesmans and director Jocelyn find their most compelling expression onstage. The scenes between Julie and Jean, in Christine's shabby kitchen, are shot through with a heat that isn't coming off any stovetop; the two alternate between seducing and slapping, insinuating and insulting,  coercing and commanding. Performers Frazer and Cervoni play off these contrasts nicely, seamlessly blending singing and acting into one satisfying whole. Boesmans' jagged, icy score offers a beautiful contrast to the sexual heat, one that heightens the drama without sacrificing momentum, and utilizing a rhythmic interplay that propels the action forwards. As Music Director Leslie Dala notes in the program notes, Boesmans "creates a remarkable amount of contrast with only 18 instruments." These instruments blend perfectly with the sparse, almost Baroque-like score (which was complemented by Alain Lagarde's spare set and Michael Walton's plaintive lighting), and more than once, the conversational nature of Boesmans' work brought to mind Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna, recently performed at the far larger Four Seasons Centre as part of the Canadian Opera Company's Pyramus and Thisbe production.

Sharleen Joynt (Christine) & Clarence Frazer (Jean). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
There's a power in conversation, whether it's with one's own self or with another; putting that conversation to music in a way that clearly, concisely conveys situation and emotion, and indeed, marries the two in a dramatic embrace, is an art, one Boesmans has mastered, whether in his 1993 opera Reigen (based on Arthur Schnitzler's play La Ronde) or 1999's Wintermarchen (based on Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale), another work concerned with power that lends itself to various onstage interpretations. So much of Boesmans' work is powered by a sense of intimacy coupled with the dramatic, and here, Julie's three performers rise to the challenge, combining a strong sense of timing, compelling physicality, and very good singing to create a powerful and intimate operatic experience.

This sense of intimacy was aided in no small way by the venue. With its cozy design and seating for roughly 800 or so, Toronto's Bluma Appel Theatre offered an immersive and immediate experience of Boesmans' work, making the evening's final image (a hanging staged in silhouette) all the more disturbing. Certainly, some unfamiliar with the Strindberg weren't expecting it, especially in light of the dark laughs the piece had enjoyed just moments before. Others, possibly, were so taken with Cervoni's passionate portrayal of the character, in all her dazzling contrasts — sexual power, timid girlishness, haughty snobbery, begging desperation, loudmouth demands, soft admissions — that it seemed a pity to lose her.

Lucia Cervoni (Julie) & Clarence Frazer (Jean). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
But that unease is, I suspect, rooted in an audience desire for happy endings, something Strindberg has violently denied. Rather, one is never allowed to get too comfortable with the characters, the situation, or the work's swirling sub-themes of erotic submission and sadomasochistic power plays. Jocelyn effectively uses this discomfort by consistently underlining sharp contrasts (between characters, reactions, even visual textures) and utilizing effective blocking that highlights the character's relationships to both each other and their surroundings. With a drum consistently beating, the quiet staging of the ending — certainly unhappy but also entirely inevitable — offers a final statement that is at once disturbing, poetic, profound. Justice, or just a waste? Unlike Armide (who has her own unhappy ending of sorts), Julie isn't changed by love, or the experience of it, but rather, seems destroyed by the awareness of its harrowing absence. Her choice at the end is driven by an outside force, a symbolically male one she's always looked to and given her power over to, for validation, acceptance, a strange sense of what she thinks of as freedom. Julie may be powerful in play, but she's not power-full in life. This, perhaps, is Julie's greatest tragedy, though the opera suggests that making peace with the sharp and contrasting desires of life and our human desires is not the easy, blissful path we may believe, much less actually want. Happy endings? No, merci. Harrowing drama? Oui, encore!

Nov 16, 2015

Finding Grace

Dancer Piotr Stanczk in The Winter's Tale. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
The recent opening of The Winter's Tale at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto was preceded by an announcement that the performance would be dedicated to the victims of the Paris attacks, which had occurred just one night before. The National Ballet of Canada's winter season was off to a sombre start, though the beauty of the Christopher Wheeldon-choreographed piece shone through mightily.

Adapted from Shakespeare's 1611 play The Winter's Tale (on now through November 22nd) focuses on Leontes (Piotr Stanczyk), King of Sicilia, who accuses his pregnant wife, Hermione (Hannah Fischer) of being unfaithful with his friend Polixenes (Harrison James), King of Bohemia. Hermione gives birth to a girl, but she faints at the shock of seeing her son, Mamilius, fall dead at her trial. Despite the pleas of Hermione's friend Paulina (Xiao Nan Yu), Leontes orders the baby girl to be abandoned in a remote place; the child is found by a shepherd and his son, and is raised in Bohemia, where, sixteen years later, unaware of her parentage, Perdita (Jillian Vanstone) becomes engaged to Prince Florizel (Naoya Ebe), the son of Polixenes. The King violently objects to the union, thinking Perdita a mere shepherdess, and the pair flee, with Polixenes in hot pursuit. The couple wind up in Sicilia, where they are sheltered by Leontes, who only learns of Perdita's identity through an emerald necklace he'd once given Hermione, one his daughter now wears as a gift from her fiance. The two Kings are reunited, and the pair are married. As festivities die down, Paulina leads Leontes to a statue of Hermione, one that proves to be considerably warmer than mere stone.

The work, while categorized as a comedy, is, like many Shakespearean comedies, less of a laugh-out-loud experience and more of a thought-provoking dramatic meditation. The adaptation beautifully, imaginatively captures the heaving emotions that run throughout the original, whether expressed in grand design (Bob Crowley's sail work, together with the silk effects design work of Basil Twist is especially inventive) or intimate lighting (by Natasha Katz). Wheeldon's choreography pulls no punches when it comes to portraying Leontes' rage and suspicion; the King's wild imaginings are presented in a way that clearly, forcefully implies an unhinged fear sitting at the heart of his character, one that is ultimately very destructive in both the real and spiritual senses. I thought about this rage expressed through movement, as Stanczyk stalked around the stage, expertly tossing Fischer this way and that in a perfectly executed pairing that brilliantly married skill and emotion. He, and his fine colleagues, are just as much actors as they are dancers. This makes the piece as much of a theatrical event as a dance one, as many of the best ballet works often are. In this instance, the seamless marriage of the two is poetic and deeply moving.

What's more, for all its fantastical elements and outlandish The Winter's Tale has real-world corollaries. Who among us hasn't felt distrustful? Or suspicious? Who hasn't done or done things they later deeply regret? The piece asks us to consider these questions, as we observe the expression of so many deeply recognizable emotions manifest entirely through that frail, entirely vulnerable vehicle, the human body. The choreography presents a clear narrative and even clearer emotional weight, allowing the movement to accentuate the inherent tragedy of the piece, and heightening the emotional gravity of its conclusion.

Dancers Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
The Winter's Tale left me with many questions, particularly in light of the previous evening's horror, one that wasn't, I suspect, very far from the thoughts of cast, crew, and audience members as well. Witnessing the rage of Leontes, and then Polixenes, the unfounded fears of each, the anger so horribly manifest, was enough to give one pause. Where does it comes from, this rage? Why does it stay? How does it grow? What ways does it manifest and then fester through the ages? These questions haunted me as I sat at the Four Seasons Centre, a mere twenty-four hours after the horror of the bombings, as losses were still being counted and fingers of accusation were being pointed. How do we find grace at such moments? The ballet's closing scenes, of Leontes realizing Hermione has been alive this whole time, and her actually forgiving him his rage, inspired breath-holding, tear-welling, and finally, a long, deep sigh. Joby Talbot's jagged, propulsive, Glass-inspired score gave way to Bernstein-inflected romanticism and Debussy-esque impressionism, and Wheeldon's keen footwork, together with the clever staging of Jacquelin Barrett and Anna Délicia Trévien, made this intimate, holy moment between Leontes and his wife a moment to cherish, both within the piece itself and outside, to carry around like Perdita's emerald necklace. I want to live in the state of grace Leontes has so clearly found in that moment.

Finding that grace isn't easy, however. Amidst horror, we can't simply grab a handful of goo labelled "grace" sitting in a tin on a dusty shelf, stuff it in our pockets, walk out the door, and think that by the stains on our trousers and the trail we leave behind we're doing any good; that isn't how grace works. Likewise forgiveness, grace's nearest sibling: it takes a big heart to admit wrongs done against us, acknowledge them, and move past our pain. One may not fully accept the atrocity committed against them, their friends, their city, their country — indeed, one may never accept, much less understand — and in no way does forgiving mean forgetting; rather, it is a tacit agreement to absolve hurt, freeze it cold, break its giant, Kraken-like body apart into a thousand pieces, and finally brush it away like so much unwanted dust. That hurt, while palpable and needy in its infancy, eventually grows into an unwieldy monster that serves no purpose and prevents forward momentum. Only forgiveness unties its chain, turns it to stone, and breaks it apart; grace is what happens when you can look at your dust-covered hands and smile.

Dancers Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
The Winter's Tale feels like the perfect piece for our times; wordless but saying so much, fragile but with so much anger, forceful and delicate at once, it is proof positive that culture is one of the things that makes sense amidst an age bereft of logic. There is no rationale for horror, but there is always a place for beauty. These sharp things we feel and experience as humans — rage, hurt, confusion, fear, remorse — are things culture captures and expresses and explores so well. We would do well to heed the idea that art has the capacity to heal, now more than ever.

Oct 24, 2015

No Happy Endings

Peggy Kriha Dye as Armide. Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Happy endings don't always happen; happy endings can't always happen. Happy endings shouldn't always happen.

These thoughts ran through my mind driving home Thursday evening after seeing Opera Atelier's sumptuous Armide, directed by co-Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski. A tragic love story with great outfits and delicate court dancing, the 1686 Lully work, while highly mannered and fantastical, has many rich opportunities for deep emotion and gripping drama. As the Globe and Mail's Robert Harris writes, Baroque opera "was and is a fascinating amalgam of ballet, drama, comedy, luscious costumes, extravagant sets and an overall dedication to theatrical opulence." Opera Atelier, dedicated to preserving the art and integrity of the form, lovingly caters to each and every element with scintillating detail.

Set during the First Crusade, Armide (Peggy Kriha Dye), a powerful Muslim warrior-priestess partially modelled on Homer's Circe, traps Renaud (Colin Ainsworth), a Christian knight; she knows she should kill him, but finds she can't because she's developed feelings. So she casts a spell that makes him love her back (and one that would make it much easier to murder him, since she recognizes her equal in a combative sense) — but she remains haunted by the fact Renaud's love isn't real, and she moves between wallowing in feelings, and swallowing them. Though she calls on Hatred (Daniel Belcher) to assist her in erasing her feelings, it doesn't work. Before she can return to her beloved, two of Renaud's soldiers, Chevalier Danois (Aaron Ferguson) and Chevalier Ubalde (Olivier LaQuerre) appear and break Armide's spell. Renaud prepares to leave, but not before Armide returns and begs him to stay or take her with him; he refuses and departs, and Armide is left alone.

Peggy Kriha Dye as Armide and Colin Ainsworth as Renaud. Photo by Bruce Zinger.
There is a recognizable Orientalism at work, with Lully and librettist Philippe Quinault casting their sights on the world of the near East and its perceived exoticism. It's of particular interest that the opera is based on a tale contained within 16th century writer Torquato Tasso's poem La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered); I recently saw another (shorter) opera by Monteverdi based on the same work, Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (The Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda) at the Canadian Opera Company, and Orientalist elements aside, in that work, as well as with Armide, there's a horrible cloud of despair hanging above the would-be lovers. The idea of different cultures coming together awkwardly, clashing, melding, and clashing again runs like a fine (if hard) gold thread throughout Lully's work; it's as if the realities of the outer world — outside of magic and other fantastical situations — are too difficult to be surmounted. That's awfully gloomy, but somehow, sadly precise, because it's a tacit acknowledgement of the harsh geopolitical situations that prevent so much true understanding between cultures, not to mention the deep sociocultural chasms that exist between men and women. Though Tasso's work ends with its dubious heroines converting to Christianity (surely a mark of the Europe in which it was written, one that perhaps hasn't changed much), it's interesting Quinault felt the need to end the opera where he did, with Renaud's departure and Armide's devastation.

Peggy Kriha Dye (Armide) and Tyler Gledhill (Love). Photo by Bruce Zinger.
So of course, the soldier-sorceress has no happy ending. Why would she? How could she? Not only would Tasso's 16th century never allow it, but a picture-perfect ending would be too saccharine, and frankly disingenuous to the overall sour tone of the piece. Sure, there is the comedic relief of the soldiers (Ferguson and LaQuerre make an immensely likeable pair onstage, channeling Laurel-and-Hardy-style buddy humor) and the lovely dancing of the Atelier Ballet (choreographed by co-Artistic Director Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg); there is also the winged presence of Love (Tyler Gledhill), a stretching, leaping, embracing figure who silently entreats the titular magician to follow a softer path.

But, ultimately, as the final notes sound and designer Gerard Gauci's set reveals hotly-colored flames surrounding a solo Armide, we know the butter-soft visuals and languid scenes of romance that have gone before are a ruse; Lully's music has darkness in buckets, and it's the perfect complement to Philippe Quinault's libretto and Tasso's wrenching poem. More cynical (or perhaps over-romantic) types would argue the ending can't be good: Armide is alone and devastated, and she has to live with a love that can never be satisfied or consummated. But there's a strange freedom in that isolation. Keeping her power (limited as it may be) and sense of independence within the borders of her homeland, close to family and trusted peers feels like a better (less exciting, probably more adult) option than traveling to another country and a culture that would undoubtedly be hostile toward and ultimately reject her, or keeping her lover in a land where he might experience the same treatment.

Colin Ainsworth (Renaud) and Peggy Kriha Dye (Armide). Photo by Bruce Zinger
What's more, keeping Renaud in a haze of love isn't love at all — it's manipulation, a nasty form of control, domination, and possessiveness, behavior that surely drives love (the real kind) away very quickly. Besides, there's something strangely satisfying about the woman not getting the man at the end and living happily ever after, and about the disruption to the cliched princess fairytale that too often dominates cultural depictions around women and love.

Armide still lives in love at the end, just not with a love that is incarnated within the physical form of Renaud. The ending strips away the bullshit romance aspects of the story to reveal something far more interesting and human: vulnerability. That quality is precisely what powers this production, and indeed, so much great art. Staring at the abyss and letting the world see our raw, naked, true selves is frightening — even moreso when we have to do it alone. But do it we must. The question is, will we move forwards, vulnerable and exposed, in love, or in hate?

Aug 16, 2015

Casta Diva

Tomorrow will mark three weeks since my mother passed away.

It feels odd to write that sentence, and odd to sit and look at it. Those are words I never thought I'd write at this stage of my life, in a blog no less, for everyone to see. There's something so awfully personal about losing her, and I've encountered so many emotions and memories the last while — things I want to keep private, things I want to keep in a sacred space, things said and done and understood that need to exist only in the intimate space that existed between her and me. That may change in time, but for now, there are some doors that are remaining firmly shut.

Still, it's hard for me to quantify the effect my mother has had (and continues to have) on my life. So much of what I love — music, theatre, opera, art — stems from her exposing me, at a very early age, to culture. It's become the stuff of folklore to those who knew us well to hear I was in piano lessons at four, an opera gown at five, attending symphonies at six. Much as she complained about and worried over the inconsistencies of my chosen livelihood, she also knew I wasn't really qualified to do anything else, that writing about (and for) the arts was, and remains, as natural to as breathing, as urgent as scratching a bite, as inevitable as sighing.

And I've been sighing a lot lately — over the times we shared, of course, but also over all the things she isn't here to experience. Bellini's great bel canto work Norma was on CBC's Saturday Afternoon At The Opera program today, and I shed a few tears, and heaved a few sighs, thinking back both to my swooning exclamations to her after seeing Sandra Radvanovsky sing the role live in New York in 2013, and feeling horribly sad at the fact she wasn't here to listen to the broadcast and rejoice in it as I was. Her absence feels like a horrible robbery to me, still — a robbery not solely to me, but to everyone whose life she touched (and there were many), and to the many worlds she moved between: cultural, financial, social, familial. Much as we are robbed by her absence, we were graced by her presence, and no one benefited more from that grace than I did. If I had a sense of gratitude before her passing, that sense has deepened, widened, broadened, become almost all-encompassing, to the point that a piece of music, an aria, even the most brief and beautifully-played phrase, will still me, awe me, set me to tears and sighs and silence. Productivity lately, as you might guess, has been something of a miracle — and yet I carry on being busy, because I know it's precisely what she would want.

Still, there are many moments throughout the day that call for pause. The tickets for this season's Canadian Opera Company productions sit in their envelope on the refrigerator in the kitchen, where I do most of my work; I stare at them and wonder what will happen the next few months. I couldn't (wouldn't) have ever dreamed I'd be without her a few months ago. Now, I find myself looking up from my work and over at the fridge — and I'm hungry, but not for what's on the other side of the door. It's going to be painful to enter the doors of the Four Seasons Centre without her, even with all the kind expressions of support I've received from fellow opera-going friends. How do you negotiate a world you've only ever known with someone else? "Make it your own" is a tidy little saying, but it feels far too trite, and somehow, too limiting.

So much of my cultural life is bound up in sharing what I love with others, in bringing them into the arts world to experience and exchange ideas, insights, inspirations. That's a big reason I'm an arts journalist: I like to share what I love and think is relevant, important, moving, enraging, beautiful. I think my mother saw and appreciated that toward the end of her life. As I said in my eulogy at her funeral service, I am who and what I am because of her; my world has been shaped accordingly.

Now I face a world shaped by her absence. I will, of course, see and hear her everywhere — on the radio, between the notes, within the sighs, in the opera house — but it isn't the same. Seeing the spaces where she should sit, hearing the arias she'd swoon over, hugging the people she adored, eating the (rare) dishes she enjoyed — these things underline and highlight an absence that is still, for all intensive purposes, a shock. Art doesn't help to answer any of the questions I'm left with, or resolve the sea of emotions I'm navigating, but it does remind me of the legacy that lives within me, and within those who've checked out a production, a show, a book, a movie, a restaurant, because of our loud, shared cultural passion. This was her gift; it remains her lifetime contribution, one that defies even death, one that I hope will counteract the yawning absence, and become a part of a divine presence that never leaves.

Jun 17, 2015

Getting Jazzed

photo via
Ella Fitzgerald's voice is my first memory of experiencing jazz; high, lilting, melodious, she sounded like an angel to my young ears. When she went into the scat section of "How High The Moon?" my heart stopped — it was such a new and different thing from the classical sounds I'd been exposed to (and played) as a child. It was so... loose, so free, so beautiful. It was pure poetry.

The free-floating, loose, arms-waving, hips-shaking, head-back-laughing-or-crying nature of jazz music is one that continues to inspire and fascinate. So when the TD Toronto Jazz Festival rolls around every year, it's always cause for celebration in my world. The festival (which kicks off this Thursday, June 18th) has welcomed a range of sounds and styles over the years, with a big uptick in contemporary names rounding out the programming and adding a mass appeal to an art form many (wrongly) consider snooty. Happy memories of seeing Mavis Staples, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Bettye LaVette (whom I also interviewed), and Chaka Khan in recent years complement (nay, shimmy) with those considered more formal jazz artists, ones that hew to the path set out by the likes of Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie.

Recently I had the chance to chat with the fest's Artistic Director Josh Grossman,  and we tossed around that "what is real jazz?" question, as well as the role digital culture has played in opening the ears of musicians and audiences alike.

People have said of the festival's programming choices that  much of it isn't real jazz — "George Clinton isn’t jazz, Morris Day isn't jazz!" What do you say to that?

Ha, that’s my favorite conversation ever! (laughs) Well, there’s the philosophical and the reality. The reality is, obviously, we’re a nonprofit, charitable organization, but we still need to be in the black every year financially and we have to make decisions that make sure the right amount of tickets get sold, so we stay in the black. I wish it was the case now that every single jazz artist out there right now could sell every single ticket, but unfortunately in our experience that’s not the case. It’s not exclusively that jazz artists don’t sell, a good percentage do, but we need to find a way to boost things, so sometimes we’ll look for an act that will do better at the box office to support the others.

Photo courtesy Toronto Jazz Festival
That said, the artistic approach is, jazz as a music has evolved immensely over the past century. Musicians these days are listening, and have much easier access, to an enormous variety of music. All of those styles of music, whether that’s hip-hop or rap or rock or whatever the case may be, are influencing jazz players. A group like Tower of Power, I would say, if you ask any jazz musician, “Has this band played any role in your development?”, I'd wager a very large percentage would say yes. We like to have the strictly jazz musician, the ones who’ve influenced the development of jazz, and the musicians who’ve been influenced by jazz music. We’ve not had Prince on our stage or Stevie Wonder —these are artists who’ve performed in the United States and overseas. But someone like Prince has been so heavily influenced by jazz music, you can hear it in his composition... so I think there’s a place for a diverse variety of musicians in our stages.

Photo courtesy Toronto Jazz Festival
How much of that growing influence has been because of digital culture?

Even before mp3s or CDs, when everything was on vinyl, (musicians) would be in the music store all the time, to find whatever they could get their hands on. It's so much easier now: people can sit at their computer and listen to an enormous variety of music. On the audience side of things, it's helping and hindering. It’s certainly helping introduce people to more music and we hope that once they get a taste of something online, they’ll want to come see us live. The hindering part is that more people are pretty content just listening to it online! Getting people out of their houses and into our space is a challenge.

That, combined with the fact there is so much music now means people are choosing to spend their dollars listening to another live artist that’s not at the jazz festival, so there are challenges that come along with that as well. [...] The challenge is always getting people to cross the threshold. Once they’re in the venue, they have a great time, but people, maybe they’re trying to decide where to spend their money and they don’t know if they like jazz, so we need to make it as easy as possible for them to access things.

It’s inspiring the festival is featuring both Morris Day and a tribute to Oscar Peterson.

Each of these shows does serve a goal and a bit of a different purpose. The opening show... we wanted a big party. In past years, it’s worked out really well. With funding we're able to put on these parties, that is what this show is. The Peterson show is going to be a beautiful if very different experience, but still beautiful, with great musicians.

And we're teaming up with the Regent Park School of Music, and with Manifesto as well (an annual hip-hop festival), featuring an afternoon of artists that will resonate with their audience. We’re trying to reach out to all kinds of different audiences.

What does that mean for the future of jazz in Toronto?

I think it’s a really exciting time for music in the city. The challenge in the city is always to find appropriate venues that can be sustained on a long-term basis. There are a lot of great spaces to play jazz, though they don’t look like they used to. That is a challenge for certain musicians. We’ve lost the kinds of venues where musicians could go play for three or four nights in a row. Those venues aren’t around anymore. The Jazz Bistro and the Rex Hotel, those are the big ones right now, but there are 40 other clubs presenting jazz over the course of the festival, a good percentage of them are committed to presenting jazz round-round.

Photo courtesy Toronto Jazz Festival
The TD Toronto Jazz Festival runs June 18th to 29th.

Jun 6, 2015

L'Amour, La Mort

Photo by Darryl Block
Contradiction equals balance.

That was the phrase I kept returning to at the end of Death & Desire, the latest production from Toronto's Against The Grain Theatre. The group, known for their innovative approach to opera and stagings, were lauded last winter when they staged an unconventional version of Mozart's Don Giovanni, called #UncleJohn, first at the Banff Centre, then in Toronto, at the Great Hall. Turning the opera's libretto upside-down, the audience became part and parcel of the action, implicated in the main character's nefarious deeds but nevertheless seduced by his charm.

With Death & Desire, they had no libretto to work from, but rather, two vastly different song cycles, Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin, and Messaien's Harawi, each of which alternate throughout the work. The former, sung from the point of view of a lovelorn man, and the second, from a woman, sharply contrast in both style and content. Yet Director Joel Ivany and Music Director Topher Mokrzewski find the threads of connection that lay bare the bold, bald, frequently painful beauty within. Set within the intimate space of the Neubacher Shor Contemporary gallery, in the west end of Toronto, a world where clashes and conflict equal grace and harmony is laid out, asking us to consider contrast as a means for deeper exploration of both theatrical possibilities as well as emotional ones. It's as if Ivany and Mokrzewski want to jar us on-purpose, swinging from Schubert's sing-song melodies to Messaien's jagged tunes, in order to keep hammering home the balance that is, inevitably, happening before our very eyes and ears.

Photo by Darryl Block
As realized by baritone Stephen Hegedus and Krisztina Szabo, Death & Desire takes on range of hues that far exceeds those outlined by the intentions of its original composers. Schubert's melodies are given a range of deeply felt experiences that move beyond mere Werther-like sulkiness by the work's end, while Messaien's work becomes less a surreal collection of abstractions than a dogged look at the underbelly of that experience, a shadow-self to the Schubert that is needed in order to provide the sour flavor that turns to a smooth, tasty libation by the piece's end. When Szabo rips away bunches of calla lilies, we're horrified by the destruction, even as we note the bizarrely beautiful pattern the white petals create on the shiny black floor. When she sings, at one point in the text, in Quencha, we note the rhythmic nature of the words that slap up against the melodious smoothness of the Schubert he's just sung. Hegedus and Szabo are less "man" and "woman," respectively, than they are representative of different worldviews, contrasting ideas being played out (or rather, sung out) live within an intimate cozy, sometimes suffocating, sometimes deep, dark space. Death & Desire is less about romance than it is about trying to communicate past the ego notions we're expected to identify with; thus does the "desire" bit keep falling away to reveal death, and, simultaneously, a deep kind of love that transcends the physical. "L'Amour, la mort" indeed.

Photo by Darryl Block
Frustrating at times to listen to, Harawi works in this setting precisely because of the intimacy afforded it —via the venue, the careful direction, the loving performance by Szabo, and the stellar chemistry between she and Hegedus, who, himself, brings a heartbreakingly beautiful energy. He might be an idea, but he's one you want to embrace, one you can't help but recognize and feel for, and his strong, gorgeous baritone is perfectly modulated to encompass a range of emotions. Szabo's steely soprano beautifully captures the chaos of the work, as well as its stillness — no small feat. Each performer has such a different feel and sound for the work, but one never overpowers or over-compensates; rather, it's a lovely give-and-take energy that is highly supported by Mokrzewski's fantastic piano playing, and utterly complemented by Jason Hand's keen use of lighting. At one point, Hegedus is bathed in a sickly tomato-red light, at other, tender moments, he and Szabo walk around the perimeter of the performance area with a rich indigo-backdrop and gentle, warm lighting; less a case of obvious indication, the lighting, like Michael Gianfrancesco's elegantly spartan set, serves to highlight the varying viewpoints, ideas, and experiences at play between the characters, to sharpen, and then soften differences — ones that eventually melt away by the end of the work. At no point does Ivany dictate to his audience how we should feel (there's a nice feeling he trusts us enough to avoid the spoonfeeding), a quality in short supply within the opera/theatre worlds, to be sure. I'll be curious to see how he much of that he carries over to his directorial debut of Bizet's Carmen for the Canadian Opera Company next season.

Photo by Darryl Block
In the meantime, Death & Desire is a work for our times — and all times — asking us to consider how much we can stand our views being challenged, and how much peace we can make with that reality. Can we move gracefully to a place of love and acceptance? Maybe. It'll take a bit of work, though -- and more than a few broken petals along the way. That's a good thing. There's beauty in destruction, and balance in contradiction, too. Finding it is painful, but so very rewarding.

May 31, 2015

Beautiful Nothingness

Photo via
Translating complex philosophical ideas onto the stage can be a challenge, particularly when that stage doesn't involve words, but The National Ballet of Canada's Being and Nothingness, based on the work by Jean-Paul Sartre, offers a riveting expression of the ideas around the nature of existence, done with a definite visual poetry that makes for compelling watching. The work is being staged at Toronto's Four Seasons for the Performing Arts as part of the company's spring program (which also includes work by Alexei Ratmansky) and runs through June 6th.

Principal dancer Guillaume Cote turns choreographer for Being and Nothingness, which took shape after fellow dancer Greta Hodgkinson approached Cote about creating a solo. Cote was reading the work of Sartre at the time. As he prepared the solo, Cote says in the program notes that he was surprised by "how many aspects of Sartre's theory began to come up. There was this idea of creating an image of ourselves, an ideal of what we should be, and no longer living in the moment but rather somewhere between what we'e done in our past and what we're striving for in our future."

This "somewhere between," where the dancers look caught between past and future, is the space where Being and Nothingness derives much of its power. Soloist Hodgkinson performs with just the light of a sole bulb dangling on a long string, her body twisting and contorting, a Giacometti come to life. It's as if she is in a frantic fight against inertia and vanishing, fending off the darkness but fearful of what the light might reveal. Her arms and legs turn toward, and then away, from light, toward and back from the corners of Michael Levine's satisfyingly grim set. Cote's choreography nicely integrates the fluid, spatial elements of Tharp and Balanchine, while deftly maintaining a poetic urgency that perfectly matches the gorgeous panic of the Philip Glass Metamorphosis and Etude pieces that score the work, ones expertly performed by Edward Connell.

Kathryn Hosier and Félix Paquet (Photo by Karolina Kuras)
If, like me, you can't quite place Being and Nothingness from your reading past (I did a paper on it in university roughly two decades ago), it's worth remembering that the French philosopher starts from the point of humans being precisely zero essence; we are not "essentially" good or "essentially" bad, we simply are. In other words, life's what you make it. Sartre writes that because humans lack any pre-determined essence, they make themselves purely by acting in the world. This "world" is presented onstage through a series of vignettes, many of which feature couples in various circumstances. This reflects the dualism Sartre explores (and ultimately rejects) in his work; to put it simply, what you see is really what you get.

Thus Cote has staged a work with few light spots, though the ones there shine through brilliantly, and are complemented by intense dancing and a forceful theatricality that dips and dives around the abstract and occasionally surreal. Dancers Kathryn Hosier and Felix Paquet share a lovely, playfully romantic pas-de-deux in "The Bedroom," while Svetlana Lunkina and Brent Parolin bring a strained connection to vivid life, with the help of a carpet (frequently dragged around with someone on it), in "The Living Room." The bridges between past and present, of sitting in a purgatory of the present, couldn't have been made more searingly obvious, and the choreography and imagery presented in this vignette was particularly affecting for its visual inventiveness and seamless blend of movement and design. Further along, an ensemble of male dancers, clothed in natty grey suits designed by Krista Dowson, perform upstage (they're downstage for "The Street") and remind one of Sartre's argument that "we, as human beings, can become aware of ourselves only when confronted with the gaze of another. Not until we are aware of being watched do we become aware of our own presence."

Greta Hodgkinson and Ben Rudisin (Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic)
This idea of presence makes the solo work all the more trenchant;  Hodgkinson's intense performance that opens the show,  as well as Dylan Tedaldi's tormented solo performance in "The Sink," add challenging if beautiful layers to what is, at its essence (and yes it has one), a brilliantly inventive piece of dance theatre.  Fully immersing his head in a sink full of water and then throwing his head back, lion-like, Tedaldi gives a controlled and sure physical expression of Sartre's idea that "the gaze of the other robs us of our inherent freedom" — even if that gaze is coming from a mirror, it would seem. Freedom here looks like a joy and a torment, at once, and choreographer Cote seems to understand this perfectly.

The idea of freedom as a leviathan-like force, haunting, harrowing, beautiful and terrifying, is examined with quiet intensity in the final vignette, "The Call", where Hodgkinson and dancer Ben Rudisin wrestle with a phone call (and an ever-lengthening phone cord); it's as if they are wrestling with their own need for connection, and a repulsion at being defined solely by it, grappling for freedom and pushing against it simultaneously. Such push-pull tension fuels the piece on to a surprising, if nicely contemplative ending, elucidating the philosophical notion that "freedom is humanity’s curse as well as its blessing, and what we make of that freedom is our own."

It is an awful, awesome, awe-inspiring note Cote has chosen to end on, and it will, like Being and Nothingness itself, leave you quietly contemplating the lights, the shadows, the movements, and the stillness; you may even want to pull out that old volume of Sartre again.

May 30, 2015

Digging In The Dirt

Illustration by Kerrie Leishman via
Continuing with my tradition of being terribly late to cool parties, I recently finished reading The Luminaries (Little, Brown and Company), Eleanor Catton's Man Booker-winning novel released in 2013. I had delved into the mammoth work late last fall, and had gone through phases of intense and dedicated reading (mainly over the Christmas break), followed by weeks of leaving it aside in favor of focusing on my own work and on the million responsibilities that built up over late winter and early spring.

The Luminaries requires an intense amount of mental energy and focus; author Eleanor Catton paints a gorgeously rich and detailed world of prospectors and swindlers, dreamers and dawdlers, with each character aligned with either an astrological sign or heavenly body. Every story (and character) is carefully, deftly, beautifully interwoven, with the book eventually becoming a pattern of spiderwebs hung against a canopy of stars on a cold spring night. You want to stare and attempt clarity, even as something inside tugs that, to paraphrase Duchamp, the desire to understand it all fills you with a certain horror. It's a Victorian-style novel, yes, and it's also a ripping good crime novel, but, like any good crime piece, is also a profound meditation on the nature of greed, identity, and existence.

For book-lovers, finishing a book is akin to the ending of a special relationship, one you know is destined to come to a close, but will nevertheless leave a gaping hole in your life. It's a hole you know will be filled by many other things (and authors!) but the prospect of that hole existing is sometimes made all the worse by the anticipation involved in its digging. You carry around the ideas and people and world the author has laid out, even as you remember the experiences you had through the process of reading the book. With The Luminaries, my memory is as full with frequently-painful experiences as the book is with unsavory characters and situations. Over the course of the 800-page-plus work, I endured a series of bladder infections, a violent flu, and the start of what became a two-month health odyssey that necessitated multiple surgeries and visits to the emergency room. I also experienced the start of a serious decline in a family member's health that necessitated huge lifestyle changes for both of us. I can't begin to remember how many waiting rooms and hospital beds Catton's tome was taken to, how many times it functioned, alternately, as a soother, a lullaby, a thriller, a prayer, a pillow, a pilgrimage, or, most always, an escape.

Cover print via
As I consumed more chapters (which become progressively shorter, reflecting the movement of the heavens, apparently), I started to read more and more slowly, hoping (in vain) to draw out the last bits of goodness, like sucking at a bone for the most minute dregs of marrow left in the spiny crevices. At a certain point, as the last words of Catton's work were read late one night (and it should be noted, the book ends on a light, casual note, like an expert nurse giving a needle you didn't know you needed), I felt a sense of something lifting — not heavy or demanding, but a certain conclusion, as if a very unsettled chapter of life was drawing to a close. It's funny how we can become addicted to bad things happening, as if adrenaline keeps us awake and needing another fix of the terrible, over and over, so accustomed are we to the dramatically awful. It's so strangely hard to let those phases go sometimes, to sit back, accept what has passed, and gently remind one's self that it's time to break up.

Dear Luminaries, I love you, but this had to end. I'll always remember Moody, Anna, Lydia, Carver, Mannering, Clinch, Frost, Lowenthal, Gascoigne, Devlin, Ah Sook, Nilssen, Prichard, Quee Long, Balfour, Te Rau Tauwhare, Emery Staines, and poor old Francis Wells. They've become permanent residents in the rattling, haunted attic of my life these past months. I may be just coming out of the gutter at last; I'm definitely seeing the stars, wondering at the heavenly bodies, and remembering the glint of spider webs, the silence of moon glow, the rough-smooth texture of gold, the heavy fog of smoke, and the smell of heavy wool after a New Zealand rainstorm. These things live with me, just as much as my surgical scars do. But the story is over now.

Maybe it's time to see what the attic looks like from the garden. Maybe it's time for sunrise. It's time to dry off and see what I've mined.

May 27, 2015

She's Come Undone

Photo by Dahlia Katz
There's something strange, if marvellous, about seeing a character you think you know in a new light. Sure, your expectations are upset (who goes to the theater without a shred of them, really?) and the image you may've held in your mind's eye might become woozy, if not outright shattered -- but isn't that a good thing? What's presented before you in a live setting isn't meant to conform to your specific worldview; it's meant to challenge it, and offer new, sometimes surprising ways of looking at people and situations. This new presentation enlightens even as it may enrage, making both the micro and macro details of every day living both more understandable and inscrutable, asking us to open hearts and minds in an attempt to bridge our individual selves with a larger 'self' that connects all humans.

All of this comes to mind with M'dea Undone,a world premiere from Toronto-based Tapestry New Opera (with Scottish Opera), and currently on now through Friday. Essentially a re-telling of the Greek myth of Medea, the story (with libretto by Marjorie Chan and music by John Harris) has been stripped of its mystical elements and placed firmly in the present, with the titular Medea (Lauren Segal) now a kind of war bride (if not an officially-married one) to Jason (Peter Barrett), a decorated military figure and close advisor to the President (James McLean). Medea is a survivor of war atrocities, and is presented as having a Middle Eastern background, giving her and the work a contemporary feel that is greatly enhanced by the company's choice of location, an old warehouse, open to the elements, at Toronto's Evergreen Brickworks. As the sounds of traffic and birds co-mingle, the voices of the ensemble rise up, offering a sound that is both against and absolutely a part of nature. This isn't theater as cold, rarified, high-art-museum stuff, but rather, a kind of a home, one that is welcoming, inclusive, and, it's worth noting, interactive. (The audience and performers freely mingled in the yawning stage space following the evening's final bows, something I wish would happen more at live cultural events. This kind of friendly, unpretentious, intimate interaction needs so much to be a larger part of the performing arts.)

Photo by Monika MacMillan
English director Tim Albery expertly makes use a set that spans the warehouse space and is composed of various staircases, bridges, and simple set pieces, allowing for a world that is at once exposed and vulnerable as it is cloistered and confined. These elements gain in importance as M'dea Undone unfolds through its tight 70-minute running time. The work is a gripping ride of tragedy, torment, and it must be said, terrifically great singing and acting. Jacqueline Woodley, as the President's daughter Dahlia (Glauce in the Greek myth) expertly twists her pretty soprano tone into a sneering, squealing expression of haughty entitlement, while McLean, as her father, veers between rumbling bonhomie and self-congratulations before moving to aching anguish. Peter Barrett, as Jason, offers a truly heartbreaking performance, his elastic tenor providing just the right amounts of tenderness, anger, outrage, and desperation, never indulging in one too long or veering into melodrama. Segal offers a towering portrayal of a woman wounded by love and war; her rich, luscious mezzo-soprano tone perfectly captures both the sensual allure of the character, with a wonderfully incisive reading of Harris' jagged score that underlines and continually re-emphasizes the character's inherent humanity.

It's this quality that makes one re-think the character of Medea herself. I've always liked and been drawn to the mystical elements of the character -- a kind of Greek-mythological Stevie-Nicks-type, casting spells and spouting incantations -- but it's the woman beneath the sparkling veils (literal or figurative) that makes M'dea Undone so special. There have been many great Medeas to have graced the stage (Diana Rigg, Helen McCrory, Seana McKenna) and all of them offer a special take on the damaged woman of Euripides' great tragedy. Tapestry's work continues this tradition, but forces audiences to see past the sorceress elements; while they are certainly central to her character, M'dea Undone asks us to consider what power the character might have if she was stripped down entirely, robbed of her spirituality, robbed of her country, robbed of her culture, and ultimately, the man she loves. What would she do? As the New York Times' Vincent Canby noted in 1994, "(t)o play her mostly as victim is to humble one of world literature's most titanic creations." No kidding.

Photo by Dahlia Katz
It's good Tapestry doesn't fall into this trap -- Medea here is certainly ill-treated but she's hardly a victim. And though the way she chooses to exercise her power is horrific, there is something horribly, disconcertingly human about it. We recognize her in a chilling way, and we know the way things will inevitably end. But, knowing the ending in no way diminishes the overall power of her choice, or of the work itself. Instead, what we are left with is an unsettling portrait of damaged people in damaging circumstances, grappling with issues of love and betrayal. As with many Tapestry productions, M'dea Undone gracefully push the boundaries of the live opera experience into new, fresh territory. It may not always be a comfortable ride, but it's one well worth taking.

May 16, 2015

Eternity's Sunrise

(photo via)
The opportunity to sit with a piece of art, undistracted, has become a luxury, especially for those of us with stressful lives. Amidst the hospitalization of a parent, my own health woes, and a skunk-sprayed pet, having the time (mental, emotional, spiritual) and space to just sit with something artistic (and not fall asleep) has been a rare and much-longed for thing, a wish that vanishes with too much wind and implodes with too much noise. Time, place, and condition, of house, of hearth, of heart, have to be just so. It felt like a blessing to have a recent evening where all the phone calls had been made, all the dishes had been washed, and the skunk stench has dissipated enough to allow for clear thinking and open listening.

photo via
I was a huge admirer of U2's work in the 1990s; a sense of adventure, in the sonic, lyrical, and especially visual senses, pervaded every creative choice they made at that time, and I suppose it reflected a more open and adventurous approach in my own life. I also loved the bald, raw honesty of Bono's words, the way they swirled and stomped about with a ferocious kind of poetry, and the deep, dark places he and bandmates Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr. and The Edge boldly stepped into, with nary a look back. The combination of innate playfulness, balls-out experimentation, and unapologetic intelligence was intoxicating, and even now, listening to Achtung Baby or Zooropa or Pop (or even some moments on the Passengers project with Brian Eno) sends chills down my spine. It's hard to describe the incredible nature of cultural discovery that U2 (and their inspirations) provided the soundtrack for in my younger days; I delved into the work of Genet, Duchamp, Basquiat, Antonioni, and innumerable others, with Joy Division, Patti Smith, David Bowie, and The Ramones on in the background. New worlds opened up to me — new ideas inside me were enthusiastically birthed and raised — and, at the time, it felt like so much of it had sprung from randomly seeing a guy writhing around in a pink shirt, and thinking, "hey, that's a good song... I can dance to that..."

Alas, people change, circumstances change, the only constant thing in life is change, and so, my interest in 2000s U2 output plummeted. I can't explain it, except to say that I didn't feel the same kind of connection or fire-lighting inspiration. That changed, however, with the release of No Line on the Horizon; a sense of adventure was palpable in many of the songs from the 2009 album, and I loved the fact that, despite the quick hit / MP3 / downloadable / disposable nature of music in the 21st century, the work still felt like a complete thought, as an album, rather than a series of singles. There were flashes of rawness, realness, and plain old... mischief. It had stuff to dance to as well. And the cover art, by Hiroshi Sugimoto, was (is) poetic and beautiful. There was something daring about the entire venture, and it engendered a kind of new/old respect that pushed my artsy buttons.

I didn't see the mammoth 360 tour, however; it was out of reach financially, and I just didn't have the back strength to stand for any length of time. Something in me snorts at the possibility of having any kind of profound creative experience in the super-corporatized tour world of the 21st century as well (this could be cynical old age creeping in), but one moment (glimpsed via YouTube) that did impress was when you couldn't see the band at all, during the performance of "Zooropa." Done behind a huge metal sheath with the glorious sound blasting out, it was as it the band were begging its worshipful audience, "Please, forget the screens, forget the effects; just use your own imaginations, pretend you don't know us, and just listen." Absence created presence. It was, for me, truly a profound statement, one made all the more powerful for being made in such an immense space by an immensely influential group, and it's one that still resonates.

That dance, between absence and presence, powers Songs of Innocence, released last year. I put off listening to it because I wanted the space, the time, the energy to simply be with it, uninterrupted. Just sitting and spending time with an album is, ridiculously, a kind of a luxury now, so great are the demands on our attention. But, turning off social media, TV, radio, and phone, and simply letting the music wash over me, the way I did in the 80s and 90s when I'd get a new album, felt like the most cleansing kind of ritual. Amidst the tidal wave of frustrations, setbacks, and challenges of late, it was the right time to step into the world the album offered, eyes, hands, and heart wide open.

Its title, referencing the work of William Blake, is a bit misleading; this is a very adult album that looks back to find strength and wisdom in the wide-eyed, pillow-lipped, deep-breath state of youth, and uses that energy to find meaning in the present. Many of the songs have a certain wistful quality lyrically, while there are also some searingly honest moments that feel confessional through not only words but sound; "Sleep Like A Baby Tonight" defies its peaceful title by having a creepy, Throbbing-Gristle-esque electro undertow that provides just the right note of discomforting menace that paints a nightmare portrait of abuse, while "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now" has a pulsating pseudo-dance beat that fits its anti-hero ethos and nicely salutes the sounds on Sandinista by The Clash, a fitting tribute to its Joe Strummer dedication. There's also the continuance of charming geography here. In the 1980s, there was "Red Hill Mining Town" and "Heartland"; in the '90s, "Zoo Station", "Miss Sarajevo", and "Miami"; in the 2000s, "New York", "City of Blinding Lights", and "Fez/Being Born." Now there's "California (There Is No End To Love)" and "Cedarwood Road." It's interesting to consider the contrasts between the latter two, one so rooted in the present, the other so firmly ensconced in the past; this push-pull of contrasts gives the album much of its power, with love and aggression, loss and abundance, acceptance and anger, and of course, presence and absence, providing a kind of dialectic undertow that reveals and conceals at once in a maddening, if eminently listenable dance of modernity.

Right in line with this dance are the album's words. Bono has always had a special knack of making the epic, intimate, and of making the personal, universal in his lyrics. Here he's co-credited with The Edge in lyrics writing duties, but one can still discern the heart, the art, and the electric shock of a life lived so full so as to be bursting with profane (and profound) contradictions. I felt a special, and deeply personal twinge in hearing his plaintive tenor deliver the line, "I've got your life inside of me" in "Iris (Hold Me Close)", a song about his too-soon-departed mother. It's one thing to hear a favorite artist belt out something personal; it's quite another to hear them shout out the pain you happen to have felt over the course of a week filled with hospital visits, phone calls, and meetings. The absence of a mother figure, while always powering work creatively, holds a special sheen here, because it's that absence that works as a kind of guiding presence that allows forward momentum along creative avenues -- ones fraught with dangers, darkness, and dreariness, true enough, but also filled with "cherry blossoms," with seashores, with light. Those things can't exist without the other. Innocence can't exist without experience, and vice-versa. Inspiration can't exist without ennui. Absence can't exist without presence.

And so, this is an album about balance, regeneration, and contemplation, and one that, perhaps, couldn't have been enjoyed and experienced at a better moment, amidst the phone calls, the hospital visits, the surgeries, the skunk smell, and the dirty dishes. Am I a fan? No, I've never, ever felt comfortable in that camp. Am I grateful? Yes. Thank you for putting that in my iTunes, U2. My world's a little richer,  and a little brighter. Innocence is both more wide-eyed and astute, and experience has never tasted more bitter or sweet, at once. Contradiction truly is balance, and that's probably how it should be. Now I'm ready to dance.

May 1, 2015

The Real Cosmopolitan

Photo via CBC Music
It was with a heavy heart that I heard about the passing of CBC Radio host Jurgen Gothe last month.

I'd been thinking a lot about him lately, what with starting my own radio show this past January, and a recent stock-taking of old cookbooks, where I found DiscCookery amongst my culinary collection. Gothe had penned the work on the 20th anniversary of his popular afternoon radio program, DiscDrive, in 2005.

The program, aired on CBC Radio 2, was a regular part of my young life; it was always on in the house or the car after school, and even when I started going to university, I found myself turning it on during my long commutes, between blaring the Pearl Jam CD and the Tom Waits cassette tape. The program's avuncular host had a broadcasting style both elegant and casual at once, like a warm designer cardigan found in a Kensington Market stall; it was something very fine and special, though it was equally familiar, casual, and approachable.

After years of listening, it only feels right to call Jurgen by his first name, despite never working with him, and only meeting him briefly. Part of what I loved (and still love) about Jurgen is how much he defied the stereotypical "Canadian" cliche. He wasn't a maple-syrup-and-hockey-with-Tim-Horton's-tell-me-aboat-it-eh kind of guy (even though he named the Canucks as his favorite sports team). He was smart, well-spoken, curious, deeply interested in viniculture, cuisine, and the world of arts and culture as embodied in his weekday program — but that didn't make him distant; it made him cool.

The quote on the back of DiscCookery (from the Globe and Mail) called DiscDrive "(t)he most intelligent radio in the country."The program was a charming compendium of facts, stories, passions, and pursuits; he'd play Mozart and Bach alongside Grappelli and Ellington. I was introduced to Billie Holiday's magical, horn-like voice on DiscDrive, along with the sad sighs of Marin Marais' viola da gamba pieces; I ventured into jazz clubs in New York because of the curiosity Jurgen fostered. I gained a whole new appreciation in my Toronto Symphony Symphony concerts, recalling a funny anecdote Jurgen shared about Mozart as I listened to "Eine Kleine Nachtsmusik", or a food-wine pairing as one of Beethoven's rich, meaty overtures washed over me.

Radio can change the way a person experiences the world; some programs will only confirm a worldview, while others help to expand, widen, and celebrate it. DiscDrive did all that, and more, helping me say, out loud, "yes, I love these things" while simultaneously making me question the whole idea of "Canadiana" and its relationship with a rapidly changing culture.

Jurgen himself defied the "hoser" cliche by embracing a cosmopolitan curiosity that he then transmitted over the airwaves; his wasn't an attitude of superiority or snobbery. Quite the opposite. It was his warmth and joy and genuinely curious approach — all the things I try to emulate in my own broadcasting life. I miss Jurgen, and I miss Disc Drive — but the things they stood for and provided continue to inspire. My favorite sweater is so warm, and I am forever grateful.

Photo via CBC Music