Reflections on viral change (February 6, 2021)

Feb, 2021

The last time I boarded a flight was just over a year ago. It was my fourth return trip between Toronto and Vancouver, since (ostensibly) having moved from Ontario ten months before. Everything indicated that this might be the pattern of my immediate future with Vancouver being the place to hang my hat, walk in the forest, and recharge before heading elsewhere for short-term playing and consulting gigs.  

Instead, a microscopic organism (that finds the lungs of homo sapiens a perfect place to thrive) foist a different agenda on us. We discovered that the 2019 SARS Corona Virus parties hard and often trashes its hosts beyond repair. In British Columbia (B.C.), we attempted to fight the virus’ invasion by “locking down”—shutting ourselves in our homes in the hope of limiting the virus’s access to us. We’ve had to reimagine how to be a social species; how to organize ourselves in order to ‘produce’ the things that fashion our days. 

Being still new to the west coast – and a freelancer, at that - I hadn’t yet cultivated a structure to my days; so spending most of my time at home was neither unusual nor difficult. I did, though, have to quickly figure out how to use my recording devices and editing software. At the same time, I realized that my lovely west coast abode had no rooms unaffected by the constant traffic on the secondary arterial road next to it. So much for the myriad of home recording tutorials that said, “the key to good editing and mixing is to start with the best recording”. There’s no way my wood frame building could ever be soundproofed from the road, nor (as I also discovered) from the voices of my neighbours living below me. 

I did my best. Through most of March, I worked on a piece commissioned by Calgary’s Esker Foundation for their permanent collection. “Heme ♦ Stand Healing” is a musical response to two (visual art) exhibits—Jeffrey Gibson’s “Time Carriers”, and Nep Sidhu’s “Divine in Form, Formed in the Divine (Medicine for a Nightmare)”—which were shown simultaneously at Esker in the fall of 2019.  
(Many thanks to the Canadian Music Centre, BC Region, who offered me a residency through January 2020, during which I created the score for “Heme :: Stand Healing”). 

In early April, I recorded Otto Joachim’s “Requiem” (link on this page) for CMC BC and Redshift’s “Music in Isolation” series. I had discovered the piece (originally written for viola) when, as part of my afore-mentioned residence at the CMC, I read through much of the solo violin repertoire in their library. Somehow, recording a requiem felt fitting in the spring of 2020. 

During April and May, I also took part in NOW Society’s innovative “Creative Music Series #8” (CMS#8). The brainchild of NOW’s artistic director, Lisa Cay Miller, CMS#8 brought together improvisers from Vancouver, Holland and the United States in a series of multi-tracked and improvised pieces crafted in isolation. Personally, I found the results extraordinary (you can find links to them here on my home page). My friends in the improv scene who watched the series were surprised to find that, with the exception of Miller (who was in two sextets with me), I didn’t know any of the people with whom I improvised. 

Shortly afterwards, I wrote a reflective article about CMS#8 (due out soon in a special edition of Critical Studies in Improvisation). In preparation for writing about the series, I had conversations (via Zoom!) with half of the 42 musicians who took part in the series (snippets of which will be included in a re-release of the CMS#8 recordings in March, 2021). Yet, more than simply giving substance to the bones of my article, I got to know a new community of musicians—something I had subconsciously been looking for since moving to Vancouver  

In June, I recorded the violin parts for Jordan Nobles’ “Lagrange Point”, a fluidic piece that allows the listener to select whichever instruments they want to hear in whichever order they’d like.   

Also in July, the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra asked if I would like to record an eight-minute piece (of my choosing) for an online version of their Global Soundscapes Festival. I had one such piece in my repertoire, but somehow, it didn’t quite fit my state of mind. I chose, instead, to write a piece based on the first poem of Kirtan Sohila, the  set of five poems Sikhs are meant to recite before bed and at funerals. I attempted to recreate the now-extant raga to which it is meant to be sung, as well as my sense of how a traditional singer might sing and extemporise on the poem. 

Until I started writing the new piece, I didn’t realize how much I had suppressed feelings of grief over losing people in the early months of the lockdown. Childhood mentors. Close friends of my parents. The first patient to die of Covid-19 in Toronto, a grocer on Gerrard Street from whom I bought my spices; a man whose smile lit up his shop's heavily laden aisles, and who always had a box of saffron ready for me. And then in May, my oldest friend’s mother passed away, someone who was as close as I had to a second mother. I wrote and recorded ,“At Your Doorstep” (also on this page) in less than a week. I intend to compose instrumental versions of the subsequent four poems of Kirtan Sohila in the months ahead. 

If we thought the pandemic had turned our worlds upside down, the fact that we were all at home to witness the horrific killing of an innocent man by police added another vector of disruption to our lives. George Floyd’s senseless and brazenly executed death brought the pre-pandemic race-triggered killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery into focus. The coincidental timing, with people around the world already reflecting on the preciousness of life and human relationships, spotlighted the ugliness of overt and structural racism, and finally brought it to the forefront of social consciousness. Consequently, people suddenly (and seriously) began acknowledging the work I have done over the past decade and a half to detangle the knotted threads contributing to structural inequity in Canadian music: my PhD; my teaching and advocacy at Regent Park; my membership in the Toronto Arts Leader’s Lab; my co-authorship of Orchestras Canada’s equity report; and my presence on many equity committees and boards.  

I have never been busier. I have never been more mentally exhausted. The arts infrastructure is struggling—struggling to survive, and also, to understand what and why the organizations that dominate it (particularly in Canada) need to change. The Society of Ethnomusicology, too—home to those who seek to elevate the musics otherwise ignored by our Western music infrastructure—is on the verge of imploding. For all their good intentions, the institution has continued to be led and populated by “white” people speaking for “others”.  The others (we) now want to—and need to—speak for them-(our)selves. (I have much more to say about this … ) 

And for the first time, those who have power want to know about the lived experience of those of us who, not for lack of skills or will, have not been granted the same access to privilege. 

Thus, having been deluged with requests to participate on committees and panels (as well as undertaking a lot of self-directed learning about Indigeneity and other aspects of equity), the stolen moments I have taken over the past months to create music and art have been cathartic and joyful. In September, I contributed a new track (done in collaboration with the artist himself)  for Peter Morin’s “NDN Lovesongs”, part of the (touring) Soundings Exhibition. Through the fall, amidst a myriad of conferences and meetings, I also contributed to Vancouver New Music’s project with Endlings (Raven Chacon and John Dieterich), for which you can find an awesome interactive website https://www.parallel03.com . Together, we constructed and deconstructed music, visuals, words, found sounds (and the parameters of the website), and Endlings reconstructed our contributions. 

At this writing, I am taking part in a project that is about a different kind of deconstruction: we are deconstructing all things until now held sacred in the world of opera creation. I am collaborating with people—physically distant, but in person and fully present. We have all been offered the opportunity to have agency of thought, action and creativity; moreover in an oeuvre in which most of us involved have had very little opportunity to contribute on our own terms. It is quite extraordinary. We are together in Calgary working for three weeks in the middle of winter. I haven’t done collaborative work like this for so long—not since my pre-PhD days working with choreographer. I had forgotten how creative energy can be channelled through true collaborative process (where no one person dominates) … and working together in person. 

(more coming as we go public … ) 

2020 was quite the year   
For those of us who have been advocating for equity and ethical behaviour in Canada, the dial began to turn. These months of isolation from friends and loved ones have been distressing. Yet, the lingering 2019 Coronavirus has offered the precious gift of time. On a personal level: time to think, read, absorb, learn, reflect, listen, reconsider, unlearn and relearn. Interpersonally and systemically: time to activate substantial change, and begin the long overdue process of honest reconciliation.  

This blog is months overdue. But all is well. I, my bubble and my elderly parents have remained healthy. I have much more to say and will continue to write as time gives me opportunity. For now, I am basking in the joy of writing musical notes, creating soundscapes, and spending time in my old hometown. It’s -28C today and snowing. Time to go for a walk and feel the snow melting as it lands on skin that is 50 degrees warmer! 

p.s. If you’re interested in equity, one of the best organizations I’ve come across in the past year is Community Centric Fundraising (CCF). While CCF’s focus is ethical philanthropy, they have an excellent “10 core principles” page listing values that can easily be transferred to any kind of organization. https://communitycentricfundraising.org/ccf-principles/