Ghosts of the Woolly Mammoths Roar (January 27, 2018)

I can't quite believe that 2017 has come and gone! I spent a wonderful semester in Brandon last winter, experiencing (and enjoying!) what it was like to have a singular workplace, from which to pursue a multi-faceted job of lecturing, researching, and performing. It was idyllic! Perhaps that explains why the months since have felt like a whirlwind. 

For the most part, talk during orchestral breaks of 2017 swirled around the politics emanating from our neighbours to the south. And fair enough: orchestras are international—albeit Western—entities, and naturally, a significant number of Toronto musicians are American and/or have connections to the United States. 

Amongst musicologists and cultural critics, though, the big political crisis occurred in the spring of 2017 with the Canadian Opera Company choosing to present Harry Somers and Mavor Moore's "Louis Riel" to mark Canada’s sesquicentennial. The elephant of colonial appropriation—and everything colonialism entails—roared after decades (centuries) of having been silenced. 

I returned to Toronto from Brandon into a spring tornado of conferences, roundtables, panels, meetings all of which grappled with the roaring elephant. And suddenly, everything that caused me to “press pause” on my performing career in order to research the conundrums of artistic identity in a liberal-democratic multicultural country has become relevant. The recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, UNESCO’s Proclamation on Intangible Cultural Heritage, combined with the extraordinary work of my colleague Dylan Robinson is forcing Canadian cultural organizations to take a hard look at themselves. 

The Canadian psyche is in a profound moment. I’m not sure if we’ve just been bruised or if we are in the emergency room in crisis. We carry on as if bruised because our Western structures plan and schedule years in advance. We have to put on a brave face and sell the show we've spent years planning and the medium whose infrastructure we've spent decades building. But if Canadians are truly committed to reconciliation, then we are in crisis. “We”, for me, is every cultural organization that has been historically acknowledged (ergo, also funded) by the government purse for practicing artistic forms that originated in Europe: art forms that have advertised themselves as representing “the best” of human creativity and thus, of transcending tribe and politics. In 2018, we know that this premise is false. 

Thus, we find ourselves in a Canadian cultural conundrum. Between the centennial and the sesquicentennial of this political geographic entity called “Canada”, we have built up cultural institutions (of the European kind) to international standards. In tandem, we have cultivated a cadre of artists whose caliber and output is comparable to those of European institutions (I’ve been one such fortunate artist). This cultivation, though, has come at the price of decimating (othering, belittling, appropriating, exoticising, primitivising) the cultures of those on whose mental, physical, spiritual territory the Europeans colonized. Where do we go from here? Psychically and socially, we cannot afford to have our notions of artistic culture continue to be monopolized by expressive practices that represent the history, priorities and practices of Europe and European notions of cultural superiority. 

And so it is that much of my work these days is centred on examining the conundrum facing Canadian musical institutions. It means I have less time to be a performing musician, a creative musician, and a publishing tenure-oriented academic. Instead, I do a bit of each. 

Creatively, I will be performing/presenting a new score for “Gandhari”, a choreographed work based on the powerful feminine character of the Mahabharata who willfully blindfolded herself. We are three women working on this project--Brandy Leary (dancer), Gitanjali Kolanad (choreographer) and me. As we develop the work, we ask whether the accepted reading of Gandhari blindfolding herself in order to be a “good wife” to her blind husband is a patriarchal reading. Now we ask: did she blindfold herself as an act of willful defiance for having been married off to an impotent, blind man? (And meanwhile, I am surprised to learn that the ancient principality of Gandhara, from which Princess Gandhari comes, contemporary Kandahar?). 

Research-wise, I continue to work (along with equity specialist and poet, Soraya Peerbaye) as an equity consultant for Orchestras Canada, examining the situation of orchestras in the era of the roaring woolly mammoth. At the moment, we are especially interested in talking to people of (North American) Indigenous, South Asian and African descent working in Western classical music in Canada. (please contact me!) 

And I continue to teach at York University and at Regent Park School of Music (where we actively pursue a decolonizing curriculum). At both institutions, I do my best to mentor a next-generation of young musicians and audiences to love the aural-kinesthetic magic of music-making, while being socially aware of what the sounds mean.