The first thing I thought after I wrote the title of this blog were eye-glasses. Yea, you know 'transition lenses', the kind of prescription lenses that darken when they are in the sunlight and lighten in the dark so you…
It's been about a month since my last post. And I know, I know, the first thing I learned about being a blogger is.... 'Be consistent!' And here we are with a rather delayed 8th backstage blog. Please accept this blog my dear readers.
There are a lot of things I have to share. We'll see what fits with today. This blog may twist and turn. In my head I feel somewhat like a charging rhinoceros who really likes the colour red. And yellow. Oh! And anything sparkly. And purple wigs. And the Maia nebula. And...well you get the point.
I'm thinking of a number between 1 and 100,00
What happens in the space of a month?
One thing for sure.
I spent a lot of time getting from one place to another. In fact, I think I spent most of my time getting from one place to another. Let's see. 6:30 in the morning the 1st of March, I lifted myself up, transported my entire physical body from my bed to the kitchen..somehow hitched up my mind and dragged it along with me to get my day started. And then there were all sorts of little journeys during the day-to the water fountain, to the window to get a closer look at the squirrel sitting in the tree outside-and there was the 35 minute walk to to campus, and the 35 minute walk home, complemented by any extra travel needed on any given day.
And I'd like to say that at this point in my life I have become pretty efficient about getting myself from one place to another. But have I become good at it?
Let's delay the answer to that question for a moment.
Another good chunk of my time is spent practicing my instrument(s), thinking about music, repeating motions in order to perfect passages and improve technically. Actually when I sit down to practice I'm still working on getting from one place to another. My fingers take many miniscule journeys up and down the strings of my instrument, all directed by the master traffic manager sitting in my brain. And these motions are supposed to create music, but how? It's so easy especially when working directly on technical exercises to neutralize the brain's perceptive capabilities and to just let the muscles repeat their motions over and over again.
Here's what I like about walking. I'm relatively good at controlling my legs to propel me forward. I can pay attention to what's happening around me as I pass through city frame after city frame. My commute is interesting because I often walk the same path twice a day, but even if the backdrop is the same, each time there are different people, animals, noises, empty pizza boxes, flowers, clouds, odours...you name it... Each time I accomplish the same task; that is to get somewhere (usually the same place as the day before). I also enjoy a sense of mental relaxation when I walk. The walk becomes a time of day where I don't dedicate myself to work, but instead I am this thing that is in between places, between my work and between my home, it's freeing, and I get to do this everyday.
Each time I play a scale I accomplish the same task I did maybe just seconds before. Each time I perform a piece, I make the same physical movements I did the last time. There's something to a single movement though. I may press my third finger down on the fret board to play the same note as I have countless other times, but this time it lands slightly different, this time I am thinking about something slightly different and it ends up sounding one way or another.
I have to be aware in the way that finger would be aware of its surroundings if it could see and hear and think. This is how I am able to practice the way I do. There are certainly days were I have a hard time opening my mind to perceive these small events, and on those days working on technical exercises are a real hard chore. But the more I work on perception and the more aware I can be in these working moments I find these tasks that may on the surface sound and look mundane to be full of inspiration.
Sometimes though, I'm not the best at getting myself to a destination. Sometimes it's too far to walk and I need help. Not too long ago I was in one of these situations. Actually it's not so unusual is it, I don't know anyone who can get themselves *anywhere*. Over the past month I've been doing a lot of long distance traveling, from being in Toronto for the Cygnus Trio's last performance, to Kingston to perform there, and I'll be heading back to Ontario in April, again in May, and then to France, and well a lot of places that my two legs would take me a long time to reach. So I rely on other people. I often find taking a cab to be interesting...well either interesting or somewhat awkward...but when you get into the cab you hope for the best. Recently I was heading to the north end of Montreal with my archlute, which as I've hinted at before is often somewhat of a conversation starter. Anyways, the cab driver was enthusiastic to talk about music, and shared with me some information about music from his home country of Nigeria. What stood out to me was the Talking Drum. This is an hour-glass shaped drum with chords tied along it lengthwise and can mimic tones of human speech. He told me that historically it would be used by royalty to address the people, and I even learned that some drummers have names that can be played on this instrument. The idea of mimicking the human voice is not foreign to other musical traditions, but this particular instrument seems to have integrated with language in a unique way.
What does this have to with walking and practicing and performing? Well perhaps this is just a particularly sparkly rock that distracted me this afternoon, but on the other hand it's an example of a means of communication. Communication is not just something that I'm trying to improve between my mind and my movements, but I'm also trying to improve my communication as a performer, with you, a listener. I don't have an instrument that mimics human speech, nor am I usually speaking while playing a piece of music, but I do experience new things everyday, and I'm always learning about what makes me notice, remember and relate to them. My goal then is really to be you. No, I don't mean I'm going to try and steal one of your hairs or something and brew up a potion, don't worry. I mean I want to become part of my own audience, to react to what I hear, to be able to anticipate, to be surprised, to perceive in real time.
So did you guess the number?
Adieu ces bon vins de Lannoys,
Adieu dames, adieu borgois,
Adieu celle que tant amoye, Adieu toute playssante joye,
Adieu tout compaignons galois.
De moy serés par plusieurs fois
Regretés par dedans les bois
Ou il n'y a sentier ne voye;
Puis ne scaray que faire doye,
Se je ne crie a haute vois:
Some of the lyrics of a famous chanson by 15th century composer Guillaume Dufay. This tune Adieu ces bons vins de lannoys is a sad farewell to pleasant times, and a rather bleak description of the speaker's life in the present. You can listen to a good (although frustratingly incomplete) recording of this piece on youtube here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4esGXmuz4Qg. In english this excerpt reads
Farewell, you fine wines of Laon,
Farewell ladies, farewell townsfolk,
Farewell she whom I loved so much,
Farewell all pleasing joy,
Farewell all bawdy companions.
You will frequently by me
Be missed, in the woods
Where there is no track or way;
Then I shall not know what to do,
Unless to cry out in a loud voice:
There is another verse that talks of not finding beans and peas, and being frequently bored. If you don't already know this song, you may still find the text to sound familiar. A bitter departure, longing and nostalgia are all things that I've experienced, and will certainly experience again. Actually these are all things I am reminded of and feel when I listen to this music.
Why am I starting my blog with this sad song?
I am filled with these feelings right now; feelings that are particularly relevant to the Cygnus Trio concert coming up this Thursday. Memory, place, loss, nostalgia. What wonderful ideas to make music about. As you can see in the text of Dufay's chanson people have been singing sad songs far longer than you or I have. And why not? The emotional intensity is captivating.
The Lost Islands program that we will be performing came about when Ben, Erica and I were brainstorming and suddenly hit upon a subject that moved us emotionally. This is what I want to share today; I want to explain the genesis of this project, and how we have put it together.
Programming is at once extremely enjoyable, like coming up with an exciting dream to realize, and difficult. I don't want to simply create a list of pieces to be played in public, I want to craft a program that is emotionally, and intellectually engaging, something that is structurally cohesive so as to create a path the audience member can follow through the concert experience. That being said, I also don't want to prescribe a specific way of experiencing the concert for everyone. How is this done? There are obviously many ways: it can centre around a specific piece of set of pieces, or a particular style of music. This wouldn't be an interesting read at all though if I just listed a bunch of ways to design a program, which is why I will focus on Lost Islands.
Here's where it started. We had Arie van de Ven's 'Algoma Miniatures' which were looking for an opportunity to premiere, and needed to fit this piece into a program. We spent some time looking through our existing ensemble repertoire and thought Anita Perry's 'Okanagan Vignettes' complemented 'Algoma' nicely, it being another piece inspired by a specific region of Canada. Next step, can we incorporate more Canadian elements into the program? We searched for folk stories and here we found something inspiring. Lost Island stories. Islands discovered and even inhabited for a time which disappear. This got us thinking about the 'Islands' in our lives. Ben and I, having spent formative years growing up in Okanagan Valley reflected on our returns to this former home after our move away, and how in a sense the 'Island' is lost to us. Think about a meaningful place from your past. It could be a childhood home, or a schoolyard, a town, a forest trail. In my mind, memory collects the experience of these places, so that when I go back later in life (on a new set of strings shall I say) the experience is of course, different. It could be wonderful, I could think it is better, it could think it's worse, or it could be neither, but it is different. My memories could be beautiful, I could be longing to go back to them (De moy serés par plusieurs fois / Regretés par dedans les bois / Ou il n'y a sentier ne voye;) they could be painful, but regardless the emotions of a certain part of my life become attached to a place, or the memory of a place.
These thoughts made the three of us emotional. My eyes were tearing up. We were on to something.
This idea of memory and loss was particularly poignant to us at the time. Some of the key components of our upbringing were changing. For Ben and me, our parents were moving from British Columbia (where we both spent the first 18 years of our lives) to Toronto, a connection to our long time home was disappearing. At the same time Erica's grandmother moved out of the home she built with her husband decades ago. The home that was the focal point for family gatherings all through her life. In addition to this it was a couple weeks before Ben and Erica's wedding! Not a minor life event for them to say the least. In the midst of all this change we had found a folk story tradition that spoke directly to us.
The trick for us at this point was to create a concert program that can share all of these emotions and be general enough to be able to invite the public to experience these feelings with us. We don't want to stand up in front of crowd and say "This is how I'm feeling because this happened to me...blah blah blah..look at my specific experience...relate!!!" No, we want to invite people to have their own experiences. So how do we do this? In order to make this work, we thought that we couldn't lay it out like a traditional concert where we play a piece, audience applauds, we bow, play another piece, more applause, we bow... etc.. etc.. To create an immersive experience, more akin to a theatrical performance we decided to string our musical selections together with poetry to be read by a professional actor to create a mixed media presentation, allowing the program to flow and with the added effect of not exhausting an audience with a long sit through of one kind of material.
We had a solid concept, and we had two pieces of music. With these ideas floating around it suddenly became quite easy to recall a piece that would fit nicely into the program. I remembered a solo guitar piece written by my first classical guitar instructor Selwyn Redivo called 'Okanagan Landscapes", Erica proposed Missy Mazzoli's 'Dissolve O my Heart', another piece imbued with references to past experience, and we rediscovered some of my folk song arrangements.
Also integral to our program are our collaborators: composer Arie van de Ven, actor Paul Hopkins, and poet Nancy Holmes who's work, skill, and gifts will make this experience possible!
Here's what our final program looks like.
Okanagan Landscapes - Selwyn Redivo
Grassland Equations - Nancy Holmes
Okanagan Vignettes - Anita Perry
The Lake Isle of Innisfree - William Butler Yeats
Dissolve O my heart - Missy Mazzoli
Off the Path, in the Dark Woods - Nancy Holmes
Simple Gifts - Traditional arr. Jonathan Stuchbery
I Saw Three Ships - Traditional arr. Jonathan Stuchbery
Ferries - Jane Urquhart
Algoma Miniatures - Arie Van de ven
Black Bear - Nancy Holmes
Teardrop Waltz - Reg Bouvette
Here is a blog I wrote last month on the Cygnus Trio website that talks about our continuing journey finding and playing new repertoire for flute, violin and guitar.
The original post can be found here https://thecygnustrio.com/2017/07/07/music-to-play-music-to-enjoy-music-for-all-2/ on the…