Parmela Attariwala – Toronto-based violinist/violist, composer and ethnomusicologist – has been described as “one of Canada’s most original and compelling artists”. She traverses genres from Mozart to the avant-garde, from fiddle to rock, from free improvisation to non-Western crossovers with virtuousic fluidity, and is equally comfortable performing acoustically in a concert hall or plugged-in in a club.
The creative process inspires all that Parmela does, whether it is performing composed music, creating or improvising her own music, mentoring young musicians, or undertaking academic researching on the arts in Canada.  She has been deeply influenced by dance—working extensively with choreographers as a composer, musician and movement artist—and by small-scale works for instruments and voices. In 1995, Parmela created the Attar Project as a vehicle to perform and create with musicians and artists from non-Western and non-classical forms.
Parmela has released three critically acclaimed recordings that defy the boundaries of genre:  Beauty Enthralled (1997), featuring tabla player Ravi Naimpally and ghazal singer Kiran Ahluwalia; Sapphire Skies (2003), which features her own compositions; and The Road Ahead … (2010), a collection of commissioned works for violin and tabla, performed with Montreal-based tabla player, Shawn Mativetsky

As an academic, Parmela has undertaken research on: multiculturalism, democracy and arts funding; improvisation in classical Western music pedagogy; and devotional poetry and music in medieval India. She is currently undertaking research on "Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility" for Orchestras Canada, and in the spring of 2018 will begin researching extra-musical pedagogical knowledges required for teaching youth in high-risk metropolitan communities.

Ghosts of the Woolly Mammoths Roar 

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.

Omnivorous Listening Blog 

I am back in Toronto after a wonderful winter semester sojourn at Brandon University. And really, the winter wasn't so bad. It was actually a relief to go through a winter of sunny, cold days and clean air instead of the grey, cloudy, heavy-traffic of Toronto. 

In addition to teaching a wonderful group of students in a course I called, "Ethnomusicology and the Canadian Musician", I also had the opportunity to proffer some of my ideas on music and identity in the Canadian context through a series of public lectures. And I contributed to a new blog called, The Omnivorous Listener. The blog, and my presence at BU, are part of the School of Music's new Institute for Research in Music and Community. I wish the school all the best as they embark on their research. We are at a critical and pivotal moment in Canadian history as we appreciate the place musicking occupies in community(ies). Our training institutions can no longer pretend that the towers carved of elephant tusk will shield us from engaging in the symbolism musics hold at a deep socio-cultural level. 

Here's a link to my Omnivorous Listener's post https://irmc.ca/2017/03/10/give-me-cannons-for-a-dinner-bell/ 

(photo features my friend's cat, Signy, checking out my CD and ethnomusicology collection)


Hello, Brandon!  

Winter 2017 finds me in beautiful, snowy Brandon, Manitoba as the Stanley Knowles Distinguished Visiting Professor in Public Policy. What can I say? It's my dream gig: thinking about and conducting research on policy, social justice, equity and music, plus teaching ethnomusicology and performing. 

I'm grateful to Pat Carrabré for thinking of me, and for putting my name forward to the university as a candidate for this position. It's an honour to hold this residency - created in the memory of MP Stanley Knowles, who advocated for social justice through his career in public service. Along with Tommy Douglas, (another BU graduate!), he created the CPP and helped create many of the social programs Canadians now take for granted. The institutionalization of these programs paved the way for Canadians to pursue social justice and equity as national ideals. And now, it is my turn to work towards doing the same for music and the arts.

Ah! But what about the cold? Yes, the mildest day I've experienced was my first day here last week. It was -13C; and it has been much, much colder since. But I love it!! The crunch of the snow under my feet, and the immediacy of my body remembering to walk angled forward with heels heavy so as not to slip. The silvery snowflakes settling for mere seconds on my cold skin before evaporating. The bright sun and brilliant blue sky. I am transported back to the carefree days of my youth in Calgary and the morning walks to school (especially the 3 km walk to high school when I missed the bus, which happened often - and subconsciously, perhaps purposefully, so that I could indulge in sinking my feet into snowdrifts up to my knees while watching the sun rise). And to be in a small place? After years of long winter commutes on Toronto's subways, buses and streetcars, it is a relief to be in place where nothing I need is further than the eye can see.


Spring, nature and movement 

Spring has finally arrived in Toronto. After a mild winter, I'd been looking forwards to a long, lovely spring; but no. Winter decided to show up after all: in April!

Under the superficial layer of snow and frozen grass, life has been percolating with projects and performances. And everywhere around me, I have been buffeted by the swirl of what has been potential energy lying latent now become dynamic.

I'm currently in the midst of performances for a wonderful, new, experimental production by Coleman-Lemieux: "Against Nature", a chamber opera featuring the music of James Rolfe, libretto by Alex Poch-Goldin, and direction by James Kudelka. As-ever with Coleman-Lemieux, the production (let alone the richness of its content!) is exquisite. 

Against Nature review

Meanwhile, I've been preparing for my visit next week to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in Wales. I have been working with movement and theatre coach, Kelly Arnsby, on two movement pieces originally choreographed for me by Gitanjali Kolanad. It has been an extraordinary process to integrate a third layer - of emotional contour - into these already complex pieces.  I look forwards to presenting them next week.

In advance of my visit to Wales, The Cusp Magazine, has written a feature article on my dance and music work

The Cusp Magazine Feature Profile 

Looking forwards to Wales!

Recognition for "Under Milk Wood, an opera"  

The highlight of 2014 for me was performing in the premiere of Under Milk Wood, an opera. John Metcalfe composed the music to text based upon Dylan Thomas' radio play of the same name. Under Milk Wood has been nominated for a number of awards, including the prestigious World Premier category in the International Opera Awards. This follows on nominations for both Best Opera Production and Best Design/Costume at the Wales Theatre Awards, and a listing as one of the best operas of 2014 by The Guardian.

Working on and performing in Under Milk Wood marked my transition from academia back to performance. In fact, I flew to Wales to begin workshopping Under Milk Wood just hours after my Ph.D. convocation at the University of Toronto in Nov, 2013. Metcalfe (in whose 1996 opera, Kafka's Chimp, I performed at the Banff Centre) believes that musicians perform better--and learn the score more deeply--without the aid of a conductor as interlocutor/interpreter; and personally, this type of chamber music approach to an opera suits me perfectly. I also love working with singers (and what an extraordinary cast we had!). Singers--and the words they sing--always bring me back to the essence of musical phrasing and breathing: something that I find tends to get lost when music is mediated by conductors who try to convey musical interpretations by explaining them through the language of instrumental technique. 

Under Milk Wood involved eight singers and five musicians - all onstage together. We became a tight knit merry band, particularly during the last rehearsal, performance and touring period in March/April 2014. All of the musicians performed multiple parts. I played violin, viola and learned how to play a 6-string, bowed Welsh lute (based on an 11th c. design)called a crwth. The crwth's tuning was Bb, Bb, F, F, C, C: the doubled notes tuned in octaves. Of course, I didn't play the crwth in a traditional manner (as a drone instrument with an optional single melody line on the top string). Oh no (when did a living composer make things that simple for their musicians?) I had to figure out how to triple and quadruple stop chords - even on the strings that didn't have a fingerboard beneath them. But that is the kind of challenge that I love.

Kudos to all my colleagues and everyone who helped bring Under Milk Wood to life. Next step: let's bring it to North America! 

Parmela Attariwala, presented by NUMUS

Kitchener, Ontario

I will be performing three of my solo works for choreographed violin, including "Piercing Embrace" and "Frank" (choreographed by Gitanjali Kolanad), and a new work (choreographed by Kelly Arnsby).

Join our mailing list for the latest news