Tag: connection

Lera Auerbach: “It Only Matters If The Connection Happens”

composer conductor artist poet Auerbach Russian

Photo: N. Feller

Lera Auerbach is inspiring, and at first glance, more than a little intimidating.

A multi-talented artist, the Russian-born, US-based artist has a range of creative talents: she paints, she writes poetry, she conducts, she is a pianist and a composer. Auerbach’s relentless creative expression is epic in its scope but equally intimate in its manifestation. Gramophone’s Stephen Mudge has rightly observed that “(h)er texts have a universal dimension, rejecting religious dogma in favour of global spirituality” and though written in relation to Auerbach’s awesome, overwhelming Requiem (Dresden: An Ode to Peace), premiered in February 2012 (on the occasion of remembrance of Dresden’s destruction on February 13, 1945), it’s a feeling well applicable to large swaths of her oeuvre. Her works feel incredibly personal, as if one is peaking into a diary, and yet call to mind a very cosmic, broad sense of universal human experience. Her output includes chamber music, symphonies, requiems, concertos, solo piano work, and operas, and she’s worked with a range of gifted artists, including violinists Leonidas Kavakos, Hilary Hahn, Daniel Hope, Julian Rachlin, cellists Alisa Weilerstein, Gautier Capuçon, choreographer John Neumeier (with whom she has created three ballets), and organizations like Theater an der Wien (Vienna), Staatsoper Hamburg, Lincoln Center, Nuremberg State Theater, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, the Netherlands Dance Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, and the National Ballet of Canada.

The aforementioned Ode to Peace, written when she was composer-in-residence with the Staatskapelle Dresden, incorporates forty language and integrates elements of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Its final movement is based on the famous “Dresden Amen” (a sequence of six notes sung by choirs during religious services in  since the early 1800s), a pattern used by Bruckner and Wagner as well, which the composer herself sets in six prayers within the framework of a large fugue. She told Opera News in 2014 that “when you face the abyss, that’s when your true self emerges.” Along with Dresden, Auerbach has been composer-in-residence with São Paulo Symphony, Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa, Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra, MusikFest Bremen, and Norway’s Trondheim Chamber Music Festival, which, as you’ll read, hosted a deeply memorable experience of her acapella opera, The Blind. Written in 1994 when Auerbach was a student at the Aspen Music Festival, it received its premiere in 2011 in Berlin, and was subsequently staged in New York in 2013 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck (the man behind Pelléas et Mélisande), Auerbach’s opera necessitates its audience members being blindfolded for its one-hour duration. The work is a good example of the kind of fearlessness with which Auerbach approaches her work, and the fearlessness she hopes audiences bring, or at least, a quality she, as a creator, hopes to inspire.

The all-piano album Preludes And Dreams (2006, BIS Records) is equally fearless in terms of scope, virtuosity and emotional weight, and is a particular favorite of mine. With its haunting blend of classical (snatches of Beethoven’s Fifth are clearly discernible in some passages), Russian (Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, and Shostakovich), and early 20th century sounds (notably Kurt Weill as well as Schoenberg), it is at once melodic, dissonant, lyrical, and jarring, Auerbach writes (and performs) gripping combinations of eerie chords and sweeping, symphonic runs. The album is a good example of her approach: take her or leave her, but you cannot forget the forcefulness of her expressivity. As has been rightly noted, she “isn’t trying to do a backflip in order to please an audience.”

Exploring the sheer volume of her work the last few months left me feeling a little daunted at the prospect of meeting her at this year’s edition of the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest, where she led a concert of her works with the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestra. As it turns out, I had little to fear. In person, Auerbach is engaging, charming, and very intense conversationally; she looks right into one’s eyes as she comfortably offers waterfalls of personal insights and thoughtful observations. With strong opinions on audiences, expectations, and engagement, Auerbach’s combination of committed artistry and earthy personality mean she’s constantly in demand: she’s currently in the U.S. with stops in California, Iowa, and New York, returns to Europe mid-month for performances in Germany and Belgium, then returns again to the US, and then again back to Europe. It was a blessing to catch her between gigs in her busy, buzzy creative life, and certainly offered a whole new way into the art of an immensely fascinating figure in contemporary music and art. Confident, yes; intimidating, no. Excelsior, Lera.

orchestra bucharest auerbach enescu festival

Lera Auerbach leads the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestrat at the 2019 George Enescu Festival. Photo: Andrada Pavel

What’s been your experience working with the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time?

We have had a great time together. I really enjoy this orchestra – they’re very serious, committed musicians, very creative. It’s been good music-making, with a good attitude. I really enjoyed it.  And it’s special for me, because normally when I come to conduct, it’s usually standard repertoire – sometimes, depending on the program and presenter – but at the Enescu Festival it’s an entire concert of only my music, which is very special.

What does that feel like? Are you overwhelmed, excited, nervous?

It depends on the particular circumstance. Here, when you meet musicians who are focused and serious and want to do their best, it makes everything very easy, actually. I get up on the podium and I feel at home, even though I’ve only just met them. You can tell from the first rehearsal, the attitude, the quality. In some ways, it’s weird to say it’s been easy, because making music is always complicated and challenging in many ways, but as long as life doesn’t get in the way – things that are not musical don’t get in the way – then it’s good, and that’s the case here. In the first half of the program there are soloists from the Boulanger Trio, which is also wonderful, and in the symphony there’s a part for the solo theremin with Carolina Eyck, one of the greatest theremin players in the world. It’s been a very fruitful time, but yes, it’s been intense – we only had a few days to prepare the program, but it felt creative and immediately with the right chemistry.

That’s a blessing, especially when the timing is pressed.

And it’s usually pressed, it’s a question of how it’s passed.

orchestra bucharest auerbach enescu festival

Lera Auerbach leads the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2019 George Enescu Festival. Photo: Andrada Pavel

But so often chemistry is something you can’t totally create – either it’s there or it’s not.

Yes and no. There are times when you walk in front of an orchestra and the moment you walk in you see people looking at you like… you are the last person they want to conduct. And there is still a lot of prejudice against women conductors and composers, and against contemporary music. They’d rather do a Beethoven symphony for the zillionth time and couldn’t care less about doing anything creative. But, what I believe is, in every musician, there is always some inner magic which led this person to become a musician in the first place. Orchestral jobs can be frustrating; sometimes it becomes a routine for some people unfortunately, but you can always connect to this magical place which led this person into creativity and being in music. You can break the walls. So when they realize that you’re there not for some ego boost, you’re not there to tell them what to do or how to play their instruments, you’re there actually for music, and that your only wish is to create the best performance together – they connect to this. You can overcome the most skeptical players, you can really unite them into and bring music-making together and forwards.

The experience of music also – the way it’s experienced – is something you directly examine in many of your works. You force people to rethink things they take for granted, like how they experience sound.

Yes and why we do, and the reason for going to concerts.

auerbach composer conductor artist Russian

Photo: N. Feller

You really seem to understand and appreciate the role of theatre. Is that consciously something you’re thinking about when you create, or does it naturally seep in?

I think any performance, whether it’s purely concert music, abstract, or actual theatre work, any act of performing has a certain quality of being a ritual. There is a certain theatricality. The moment you walk onstage, we can say, “Oh this is pure music… ” but the moment you’re onstage, it’s theatre. And by “theatre” I mean, it’s a reality that can transport the audience somewhere else. The moment you’re onstage, you’re communicating something to the audience, whether it’s a concrete message or an abstract idea, but you need to tell a story –even though the story may not be in normal sentences. It’s a story of emotion, of connection, of memories, it’s something that goes into the subconsciousness. Any type of art is a form of storytelling; one way or another, we cannot escape it. So even the most abstract forms of art, such as music ,are forms of storytelling, because they need associations and audience members. There is no way to avoid it, but there is a way to increase it. And I think that’s what going to concerts is about: connecting to something within yourself, your own story you still don’t know or remember or need to discover, and this is why it can bring tears or joy or whatever. If you think about it, it’s somewhat absurd: you go to the hall and hear these vibrations in the air which is music. All it is is vibrations in the air! And all of sudden you start crying or you’re so moved, or maybe you’re disturbed, or questioning reality, but it’s all happening because of this connection.

The live experience is so intimate that way – I find I sometimes literally feel those vibrations from the floor, the seat, all around me. There is something transcendent about that, but at the same time, very personal.

That’s true.

It’s interesting what you said about storytelling too. I teach radio documentaries every winter, and I always remind my students to tell a story in sound, don’t just use talking to do it. Some audiences just want a straight oratorio, opera, to be told how they should feel and when. 

I think audiences are audiences; they’re a group of humans who come for different reasons. Some come because maybe they want to be seen in the theater. Some come because they love music. Some come because they’re curious or because somebody gave them tickets. The reasons that bring them can be very different, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because you can create this transcendental experience or maybe something that opens doors, I would say, because ultimately it’s up to the person who’s experiencing it, what sort of a journey it will become. Maybe somebody who isn’t prepared but has curiosity and has done some research can appreciate certain qualities on a different level, but again, it almost doesn’t matter; it only matters if the connection happens or not. If it’s a boring concert or maybe not the most generous performance, if it is not really connecting the audience, then it can maybe do more harm than good. It’s individual.

I hate to say this audience is better than audience. First of all, one never knows  who is in the audience. Secondly, I had an experience with The Blind – we had an experience in Norway, it was done during the Trondheim Chamber Music Festival; there were different dates for different audiences, and one concert was specifically for teenagers. It was high school students, regular high school, and the stage director, he kept saying, “It’s going to be a total disaster! How do you make room full of tenagers not to peek through a blindfold for one whole hour?” Because the moment you remove it you lose the experience of it, but I tell you, they were the best audience of all! Not only did they keep the blindfold on, they didn’t want to leave afterwards. They stayed for another hour after it ended; they had so many questions about the production. They were so excited, and they were regular teenagers – not music students, not artsy – just normal, and they were the best they were completely quiet, mesmerized. I think it’s an act of arrogance to look down at any audience; it’s up to us to transport them into this realm.

When I interviewed Vladimir Jurowski last year, he had this smart phrase, “expectation of ecstasy.”

One of the most memorable premieres in my life was one he conducted, which was of my requiem, “Ode To Peace” in Dresden. After this performance, at the Semperoper, there was no applause. It was absolutely… it was so magical. You had this complete auditorium, silent. Everyone stood up and held a minute of silence – it was the entire audience. They felt it and did it, and it was really incredible. And I think, really, applause would just destroy this magic. I had goosebumps when it happened.

For certain works and artists – including your work – I want to sit with it and contemplate; I think it’s important to not be reactive, even in for things that are joyous.

With The Blind, everything happens around you; you don’t really know if it’s ended, there is no visual cue, of course. It ends in silence. When we started (the premiere was at Lincoln Center), we measured the length of time between the piece ending and the audience taking their blindfolds off and applauding, and I think the shortest was a minute-and-a-half, which is already a long time; the longest were the teens in Norway. That was seven minutes. Actually the person who broke the silence then was the stage director – he got nervous, because when you take the blindfold off, you’re in the fog with the dry ice, and they were running out of the dry ice! So he started applauding to cue them, but again, it was this moment of incredibly powerful silence after the performance. 

Sometimes that powerful silence defies description, though it’s interesting the New York Times characterized your work’s themes as largely revolving around loneliness and isolation.

I think it’s what this particular opera was facing, it addressed the themes of loneliness and isolation in our modern times; on one hand, we are more connected than ever. With our gadgets we are always busy; there is a sense of being constantly surrounded by noise and communication and technology, but at the same time we are lonelier than ever and we struggle with understanding each other on a personal level, face to face, where people actually have a conversation, not through gadgets but with real people, looking into each other’s eyes, feeling and connecting with one another. That’s what this opera was addressing. We’re not blind in a physical sense but blind emotionally; we have trouble connecting and understanding each other. I mean, loneliness is one of eternal humanity’s questions, and of course, how the outside decorations are influencing things, whether it’s technology or whatever –if it changes this, or if it’s helping, hurting – it’s all questionable.

Capuçon’s Breathtaking Shostakovich in Dresden

capucon viotti gmjo dresden

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

The music of Shostakovich is not thought of by many people as an easy listen. Frequently characterized as discordant, atonal, and difficult, the work of the twentieth century Russian composer is at once epic, intimate, explosive, emotional, and very frequently uncompromising. It’s also one of my absolute favorites; when done well, it is one of the most rewarding of musical experiences.

And so it was an easy decision to see it live in Dresden this past weekend, especially since this particular performance featured one of my favorite artists. French cellist Gautier Capuçon (who I interviewed earlier this year) was on tour with the acclaimed Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (Youth Orchestra, or GMJO), and would be performing the Concerto No.1 for Cello and Orchestra in E-flat major, op.107 in Dresden, the day (make that morning) after the opera. The timing was ideal, though it was, admittedly, very jarring to go, a mere twelve hours or so, from the melodic sweep of Giuseppe Verdi and into the busy, cacophonous world of Dmitri Shostakovich, with a brief (if very lovingly performed) stop off with Anton Webern’s swirling tone poem,  Im Sommerwind (“In the Summer Wind”). The four-movement cello concerto, dedicated to and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich in 1959, moves, with equal parts grace and awkwardness, between bracingly modern and folkishly traditional. It’s this high-wire act, of desperately seeking a balance between the two, some pyrotechnics on the part of the soloist, and the composer’s frequent couching of his inner rebellious tendencies within a larger framework (fascinating on its own, and no less honest), that makes this work such a very rewarding listen, and one of my big favorites.

Understanding the work through the lens of history is useful. Shostakovich had already faced incredibly political pressure by authorities in Soviet-era Russia by the time of the concerto’s composition, most notably over his opera Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk. An editorial (the infamously titled “Muddle Instead of Music“) in 1936, two years after its premiere (notably after Stalin had seen the work), heralded a dramatic turning point in Shostakovich’s creative life, with the composer seeing commissions and income dwindle away in the aftermath. He became far more cautious in his output, understandably — though it must be noted that the subtexts of his subsequent works are frequently littered with a zesty, hardly-contained fury, a quality I think finds its best and most shattering expression in his monumental 11th Symphony from 1957, ostensibly about the past but so much rooted in the composer’s deep struggles, internal and external. While it’s true that the worldwide fame he went on to enjoy eased many of the earlier pressures, there is still a special bite to this particular concerto (composed during a particularly successful period), one which is notable and very satisfying.

So while the program notes for the GMJO tour (by Hartmut Krones) note that “(a)s compared to other compositions by Shostakovich, the character of (the cello concerto) is relatively cheerful” — I’ve always found the piece to be restless, biting, its “relative” cheerfulness a sort of papery ruse, a sarcastic smirk, an eyebrow-cocking question which repeatedly asks the soloist for definitions that fit them, and the music, and the passing moments in time, best. It’s a sort of Rorschach Test for its soloist, moreso than many other concerti I would argue, and Capuçon’s performance this past Saturday with the GMJO underlined his deep artistry while seamlessly capturing his conversationally rich relationship with orchestra and conductor Lorenzo Viotti.

gmjo dresden capucon viotti

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

So what did he bring, then? What did the “test” reveal? Some of that zesty, under-the-hood-yet-not anger, as well as a relentless and at times, fiersome questing for those ever-liquid definitions. Together with Viotti’s instinctual conducting (the two share a very palpable aural understanding that nicely brought to mind the friendship between Shostakovich and Rostropovich), this was a performance that probed the depths of musical definitions — it didn’t merely dance at its edges.  The initial motif of the first movement (Allegretto) was performed with a beguiling mix of angularity and sensuality, with instrumental juxtapositions and tempi, never settled on a staid set of sonic cliches, but with tones both clipped and rounded, and phrasing at once sour and sweet. This suitably unsettled energy continued through the second movement (Moderato), with its unmistakable lyricism — construction, destruction, reconstruction — reaching (racing at?) an apotheosis of sorts in the lengthy solo cadenza. Here Capuçon displayed a heady mix of  virtuosity and great warmth, confidently fusing Shostakovich’s arch geometric chromaticism with the luscious central themes at start and finish, resulting in something at once thrilling and thoughtful.

And it’s those twin qualities that make Capuçon exciting to watch; he is so fiercely, and rightly, communicative — with audience, instrument, fellow musicians, and most especially the music itself. It’s one thing to hear the recording, or watch a digital broadcast, but it is, of course, entirely another to experience such a work live.  When done well, this work, like so many within Shostakovich’s canon, is one whose sonic vibrations you feel within, in a real, tangible way; you don’t come out of a good performance the same way you went in. (And you shouldn’t.) Focusing on encores becomes something of a challenge in such cases — and so it went, that a loving performance of Pablo Casals “Song of the Birds”, done with the GMJO’s talented cello section, was initially difficult to fall into sonically, but again, Capuçon’s inherent communicativeness eased the transition. Of particular note was the way in which he aligned himself amongst the young cellists (not so surprising when one remembers he once played in the GMJO himself), allowing the spiralling, lilting sounds of Casals’ gentle lines to rise, then fall, then rise once more as one, allowing a long-awaited and necessary exhalation to properly conclude the unrelenting intensity heard earlier.

dresden dome

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

My recent visit to Dresden may have been far too brief, but it was filled with the sort of musical magic that reminded me that things discordant and difficult need not be daunting; when done so well, they lead to a wordless joy one feels resonating within, an embrace of authenticity, a homecoming.

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.

Artsy

I feel like a kind of “us versus them” war is happening in Toronto right now -between people who lives in different regions, who engage in different social activities, who are interested in different things. Can’t we all just get along?

Look! Hear! is a monthly cultural event that happens in the city; its last one, November 30th, was held in the historic Distillery District. The next one happens tomorrow night, in the very-same, neato spot. In the words of the people organizing Look! Hear!, it aims to promote “some of the most exciting and up and coming artists and musicians Toronto has to offer, in the unique and raw space that is the Stirling Room Catacombs.” It closes with a live art auction at midnight.

Art? Catacombs? Auction? Cool! Or at least I think so; unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend November 30th but I definitely plan on following this group. I learned about it through artist Chris Pemberton, whom I interviewed as one of the co-founders of the immensely popular Art Battle. Chris is a great artist in his own right, as the photos here attest; they’re from his super summer exhibition at the Gladstone Hotel.

Now, there are a lot of people in the city who are taking the “us vs them” approach, specifically within the political sphere as a direct result of November’s mayoral race. Chris feels like one of those people who’s trying to break that barrier; would one group of people make it to the Gladstone Hotel, or Look! Hear! if they knew about it? Does that make the groups of people who do go to such venues and events x or y (or *gasp* z)? Should any of that matter when it comes to art? Questions worth debating at any time, in any place. My exchange with Chris demonstrates the heart of connection that lies within the kind of art I like best.

How does your work fit in with the other arts happening at Look! Hear! ?

Look Hear is a special event. Elements such as visual and sound arts are combined to bring an awareness to the space for the evening. I’ve done my best to offer paintings that represent my vision and passion, and let the curator design the rest. Should it fit? Most of the time, yes. Sometimes, if done with care, disjunction is beautiful too.

What does this kind of one-night event give you, as a working artist, in both the short and long-terms?

In the short term it gives the opportunity to share my ideas with a focused community. A special event like Look! Hear! brings people together to be a part of one night, and the enthusiasm becomes a tangible part of experience and the experience of my art. In the long term, it’s an opportunity to connect with the ideas of other people, and to inform my future work or creative process, which is my living process also.

Why do you think it’s a vital event for local artists in the city?

Every artistic element at Look! Hear! is being offered as a best effort in a beautiful venue, produced by a great team. It’s the type of event that supports and creates as it becomes real. I’ve worked with (producer/curator) Morgan Booth on other projects; she has a knack for success and is delightful to work with. I believe Morgan got the artists she wanted, Sarah Eagen and Andrew Dunn Clarke have really impressed me, it’s exciting to show work together.

How does it work with your role as a co-founder of Art Battle?

I’ve really felt a sense of community involvement since we started Art Battle. We’ve met so many passionate and innovative people, it’s inspiring me to maintain my own voice. There’s a lot of work in between shows, whether that’s an Art Battle or an exhibit, it’s important to maintain confidence and creativity. Working and communicating with people who share the same efforts and excitement is how it works. It’s a great fit.

Your exhibit at the Gladstone had a lot of blues and oranges, & was very textural -how long did it take you to find your ‘voice’ artistically? How much is that an ongoing process?

It’s definitely an ongoing process, but if you are true to yourself and what you want to express, the work will always be true, although the voice changes tone over time. My paintings are the paintings that I want to live with -that is my guide.

How do you think events like Look! Hear! & Art Battle foster the culture of a city?

The culture of Toronto will be as rich as we make it. Events like Look Hear and Art Battle bring attention, experience and inspiration to the arts community and beyond. I believe culture is in constant motion, some things take longer to change, some times things shift quickly. The arts often tells us where we have been, sometimes tells us where we are, and occasionally where we are going. I hope that excitement and the connection of good people is where we are going. That’s the culture I want to be a part of.

Sashay, Art, Eh

One of the many things I learned reading Patti Smith’s beautiful memoir Just Kids was that she loved Vogue Magazine as a child. Patti, the (I had supposed) anti-fashion poet? Trying to categorize her is impossible, and, I realize (as with many of the women I admire), that’s just how she likes it. Appearing on the cover of her first album in a man’s shirt (which she got, natch, from the Sally Anne) and rocking a strong, sexy, androgynous look ever since, Smith is one of those figures who stops me in my tracks on many levels, including how I think about fashion.

I had a conversation with a journalist-friend recently about the connections between culture and fashion, how one feeds into and is frequently informed by the other, but how frustrating it is that followers of each so rarely cross into other worlds. Save for the Gaga/Madonna/McQueen/Bjork/Warhol / Jacobs / Murakami types who a/ are super-rich b/ super well-known, and b/ don’t seem to care about categorization (in a more flamboyant if no less effective way than Patti), each world lives in a separate, distinct fifedom of fabulous, heady, arty, blissful ignorance. And that doesn’t seem right. Creative = Creative. And opportunities need to be created to foster that sense of the grandly creative and visionary -in any medium – and to properly to nurture and promote it. Enter Ukamaku.

My visit to the head office of the Canadian online fashion site inspired on various levels; partly because it was exciting to meet the people sewing/making the items -I consider them artists in their own right -and partly because, the way the items were displayed, it was, to my eyes, a mini-gallery of ideas and influences, the way any good exhibition is. And Ukamaku’s office itself is gallery-like: housed in a sprawling linked series of buildings featuring loft-like spaces with plenty of natural light, white-washed walls, and high ceilings and wood floors, it provided the perfect backdrop to the creations of people like Heidi Ackerman, Andy Hall, Paris Li, Breeyn McCarney, and David C. Wigley, among others.

I had the opportunity to exchange ideas around fashion and the founding of Ukamaku with a few of its principal players recently. It struck me, reading over their thoughts, that these ideas could just as well be applied to the art world -be it performance, visual arts, music -as to fashion. Let’s stop the lines and categories, says me. I think after reading this you might agree too.

Why did you start Ukamaku?

Chris Tham, Communications Director:

Ukamaku stemmed from our interest in creating an affordable eco-friendly brand. After looking at the costs involved with designing, manufacturing and marketing a fashion label, we decided that our talents and specialities aren’t enough to cover the different aspects involved. Talking to other designers gave us the same impression. We finally realized that instead of designing and manufacturing, we could help designers with their sales, and marketing their labels with a focus on e-commerce.

George Ng, Operation Director, also Founder/Owner:

We (George and Chris) started Ukamaku after seeing a need within the fashion industry. We realized that although designers are good at fashion design, some require additional help with marketing – e-commerce in particular, due to the cost and training involved. Based on our individual interests in fashion and in e-commerce, we decided to start Ukamaku.

Who do you think it’s for?

George Ng:

We created Ukamaku with two different groups of people in mind. First, Ukamaku targets customers who like purchasing high quality goods at a price that reflects the quality. These customers are people who want unique items that aren’t mass produced (i.e. custom made clothing or jewelery). Customers who want to support Canadian designers are also part of this group.

We also created Ukamaku for independent Canadian designers. Canadian designers wanting to sell their items beyond their physical market boundaries. They want worldwide marketing for their items. Ukamaku gives them the opportunity to enter a new market at a faster pace and an affordable cost. Designers no longer need to spend time creating their own websites, online marketing and shipping. Ukamaku covers all of these for them.

How do you choose designs / designers to feature? How much is it about being ‘trendy’ vs being simply unique & well-made?

Marcus Kan, Fashion Director:

We first look at their quality and designs when choosing designers to showcase on our site. We try keeping a balance between trendy and simple fashion pieces to fulfill our customer’s needs. Many of our designers do not mass produce their products, allowing our customers to purchase unique fashion pieces with high quality materials. A designer with a good reputation in the industry is desired by Ukamaku. However, we believe that new emerging designers are equally as important. We will working alongside the new designers to help improve their reputation within the industry.

The term “locavore” is being thrown around a lot in Toronto food circles -how much do you think it can (or should) apply to fashion as well?

Marcus Kan:

There are many hidden gems in the Canadian fashion industry. However, these designers do not seem to be able to gain their deserved exposure. We firmly believe that Canadians should play a role in supporting these designers. With each person pushing these designers a little bit forward, the Canadian fashion industry can be well known to the public, with some designers becoming household names. In turn, the exposure of Canadian designers would allow Canadians greater options to purchase Canadian designs.

How much do you see
ethical sourcing and production becoming the norm in Canadian fashion and overall in the fashion world?

Chris Tham:

There is a belief with the general public that Canada is environmentally friendly and an equal opportunity country. Many of our designers use environmentally friendly materials to produce their collections. We think they represent Canadian fashion very well. Being a Canadian company, we’ll continue supporting the designers in using eco-friendly materials for their collections. Hopefully one day, when people think Canadian fashion, they’ll think of trendy eco-friendly clothing.

Where do you see Ukamaku in five years’ time?

George Ng:

Similar to the meaning of Ukamaku – “That’s It!” -we’d like to see Ukamaku as the main source of Canadian fashion. We want customers to find Canadian fashion items on our site, and designers finding their customers through us. We’d love to run more fashion related events, not only in Canada, but outside of Canada to showcase the many talented designers we have in Canada.

Photo credits:
Top photo of 1950 Vogue Magazine cover from Make The World A Prettier Place.
Ukamaku office and designer photos courtesy of Magnetic Creative.

It Ain’t Necessarily… Oh Wait, It Is.


If there’s one thing I adore, it’s making connections -whether it’s between people, or ideas, or a crazy, heady mixture of both.

So it was with a mix of curiosity and excitement that I attended the opening of The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer recently. It’s the final show offered in the current season of Toronto’s Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, whose last work, Talk, I was pretty nuts about. The Soul of Gershwin was created and written by Joseph Vass, and it deftly draws connections between the musical artforms that so informed and shaped the work of the inimitable George Gershwin. Using a live band, Klezmerica -a super-talented music ensemble that has performed all across the US and at the International Klezmer Festival in Israel -along with three vocalists (Bruce A. Henry, Prudence Johnson and Robert Marinoff) and a narrator standing in as Gershwin himself (Michael Paul Levin), the show is a celebration of music, culture, history, and heritage -between and around and through several, in fact.

Musical combinations are sometimes magical and sometimes unusual, with surprising, delightful results. The duet between Henry and Marinoff, particularly, as the two engage in a kind of sonic duel between the plaintive intonations of a Cantor and the peppy joy of gospel is particularly beguiling; the duel soon gives way to a smooth synthesis, as the the intimate sonic connection between the two is rendered undeniable. Shalom and Hallelujah become joined in one joyous sound unto every Lord. Magnificent.

Another memorable moment occurs with the sung introductions to common Jewish traditions, followed by a winkingly sly “It Ain’t Necessarily So” -a song that was considered scandalous in its day for its flagrantly non-biblical approach. The “shock” we realize, must’ve been every bit as pungent in the Jewish community as the Christian, what with the convenient lifting of a religious melody to underscore a fundamentally naughty, amazingly tuneful song that hasn’t aged a day since its debut in Porgy and Bess in 1935. Johnson gives a playful, slinky interpretation that shows off the song’s timeless appeal while underlining the sly, naughty lyrics that so shocked (and delighted) audiences at its premiere.

It’s these kinds of connections -between past and present, between cultures, genders and traditions -that The Soul of Gershwin does so well: show (or rather, play) the history, and then show how Gershwin played with it to create something that was entirely new in its day, and still retains the gorgeous, rich sheen of genius crafted so carefully and lovingly by a man who understood how America is, at its very best, a crossroads of history, peoples, experiences, and an ‘otherness’ creating a unified whole. His music, even -or especially -now reflects this.

Now there were whisperings at the show’s opening that the Gershwin pieces were few & far between. But those with complaints need to read the full title of the show: the musical journey of an American klezmer. It’s not meant to be a turnstyle of Gershwin’s Greatest Hits. “Klezmer” (in this sense) means a lowly-paid musician who plays parties. Vass & Co. clearly feel Gershwin was a kind of modern klezmer made good, and it shows. The production is par history lesson, part remembrance, entirely celebration. If you don’t know much about Jewish music or culture, don’t worry: cultural traditions and words are clearly explained, and Klezmerica, as a band, are completely mesmerizing. Levin’s narration occasionally becomes slightly overbearing, if only because the power of Gershwin’s music is such that it really doesn’t need the kind of detailed introduction Voss has written, but then again, if you’re not sure about the history, and enjoy context, the interjections might be for you. Overall, you’ll come away from The Soul of Gershwin rich in knowledge, and in spirit. Shalom, Mr. Gershwin, and thank you, HGJTC. Can’t wait for next season.

Song Song Sunday

Lying in bed mid-morning this sunny Sunday, two thoughts presented themselves: ‘why can’t I go back to sleep?‘ and ‘what the heck is the name of that French-Canadian electro band from the 1980s?‘ Several cups of Bewleys, a plateful of waffles, a scan of the weekend paper and a load of laundry later, I set myself the task of answering the latter question (there is no answer to the former, other than the mysterious wonders of the human body). A bit of snooping, and… voila. I thought of The Box in relation to Gorillaz‘s new single, “Stylo” -there’s that same pulsating beat, that bloopy-bleepy bass, that high-ish, scarily monotone vocal. It’s creepy and compelling all at once.

I have no way of knowing if Damon Albarn et al have heard The Box’s 1980s hit “L’Affaire Dumoutier (Say To Me)“, but I do hear a definition connection between the two:

There’s always been a European sensibility to what Gorillaz do, much in the same way with what Quebecois artists were doing twenty years ago. That spirit of experimentation, of pushing pre-conceived norms, of being… just plain different, feels weirdly duplicated and canned these days; ideas of what constitutes “authentic” within the musical realm are hazy at best.

I type this after an evening of half-observing the Twitter insults flying around over Ke$ha’s appearance on Saturday Night Live between sips of red wine and bites of calamari in a busy trattoria; I couldn’t help but feel compelled to observe the nastiness being hurled at the “garbage chic” singer/songwriter, and feel, at least, a bit sorry for her. Online, the running theme was that she ripped off Lady Gaga, in both sound and appearance. People know -or like to think they know -a fake when they spot it, and yet more often than not, the same fickle public openly applauds pre-conceived, packaged musical figures who’ve been primed to be the sassy “rebel” while simultaneously keeping a well-groomed public persona that has nothing to do with music and everything to do with celebrity. What’s original? What’s a rip-off? Is being obvious a hugely bad thing -especially when put beside artists that look (and, oh yeah, sound) like they’ve dropped out of a machine? I’d argue the online culture has blurred our ideas of what constitutes originality, in both good and bad ways. To borrow Warhol’s phrase, people want their fifteen minutes -but with fifteen different costume changes and a team of publicists, stylists, and hangers-on, ever singing the same damn over-manufactured, cutesy-wootsy, auto-tuned song. Some of us notice.

Incidentally, I remember Madonna’s break-out in the 80s, and her getting the tired old “trashy” / “slut” / “ripoff” insults hurled her way, too. Ergo, there’s something about all the hatred towards Ke$ha that makes her way more interesting to me. Fabulously shabby, awkwardly un-hip, and defiantly dirty, the young singer has less of the Gaga glam that so lends Ms. Germanotta to MAC campaigns and Philip Treacy hats, and more of the desperately young, ambitiously sexy vibe of Madonna’s live performance of “Like A Virgin” from the 1984 MTV Awards. She’s out of tune entirely, gets tangled in the wads of white netting and emanates such a vibe of delicious trashiness, you’ll want to take a shower at the end of it -but you can’t take your eyes off of her, either.

Then again, maybe I’m being an old fart. I do think it’s useful to go back and draw threads from past to present, however obvious, or un-obvious, that may be. Finding an original voice takes time, patience, and most of all, living (especially living away from the nefariously homogenizing forces of the record industry). It makes separating, mixing, kneading, and baking the authentic from the inauthentic that much more rewarding. Imagine a meal in a box; now imagine a meal in the oven. Originality is a tiresome old notion to throw around in the 21st century, but it behooves us to think about it, and how we approach our music, and what we expect from its performers, more carefully. Everything really is everything, as Lauryn Hill sang.

Herewith, a probable inspiration for The Box and Gorillaz -and probably everyone else, too:

He Likes Us

I love this montage of press junkets put together by filmmaker Jason Reitman during his Up In The Air interview rounds. The fun, punchy style of the piece is in stark contrast to the dreary, true nature of junkets.

Having interviewed a few people during TIFF, you do feel as though you’re one in a long assembly-line of reporters armed with microphones, recorders, and the standard line of questioning. More than once, I’ve actually felt bad for the interview subject -if only because they spend their days answering the same, inane questions. Time must surely stop at such moments. I can only imagine how many times Reitman was asked “what was it like to work with George Clooney?” It’s easy to forget, amidst the hype, that there is a real human being sitting in front of you. That person has real thoughts, feelings, ideas and perceptions.


It’s nice to see Reitman thinks the same of journalists; there’s a curiosity about these people, inherent in the fast edits of this clip, that they have lives, too, and those lives aren’t always strictly defined by livelihood. The Joe Strummer soundtrack also hints at a punk ethos that doesn’t quite gel with the promotional duties outlined by Hollywood, that leaving the human out of such marketing-based interaction robs one of experiencing the true joy of the moment. It’s also neat to see Reitman using social media with such flair and creativity; maybe it’s a sign of his (our) generation that we understand its deep ability to share and connect in ways that weren’t possible years ago. I wonder what directors like Frank Capra or Alfred Hitchcock would do, would that they had today’s technological tools at their disposal. It’s too easy to forget the humans amidst machines -that there’s a real person on the other side of the microphone, the tweet, the status update. Reitman’s junket montage, with its myriad of faces and smiles, is a wonderful reminder of the power of connection in today’s techno-obsessed world.

Don’t Sign This

I came across this incredible piece of animation courtesy of my illustrator friend Kit on Facebook, who kindly provided a link. It’s taken from The Beatles‘ Rock Band game. Yes, it seems the Fab Four are everywhere these days, what with videos and box sets, and, from what I can glean across social media networks, a whole new demographic coming to know and adore their enormous -and enormously influential -body of work. Watching this animation, with its combination of running, flying, playing and well… playing, I was struck by the sprightly, fun spirit of the piece, and how it perfectly encapsulates the madness that was Beatlemania.

Equally, I can’t help but look at the footage with confusion and a discomfort. I’m immediately reminded of the masses lined up outside some of Toronto’s swankiest hotels for the past few days. People are breathlessly waiting for some kind of glimpse of a celebrity -a wave will suffice, never mind the pandemonium around a handshake or an autograph. There’s a surreal kind of madness around fame that I do not pretend to understand. Perhaps my own time around the famous and celebrated has jaded me, although, in all frankness, I’ve seen people of all stripes and levels of notoriety at their very best, and at their very worst. When it comes to artists, the guy playing the back room of a dirty beer joint is sometimes more awe-inspiring than the stadium-fillers (and the latter will cop to this, too); the violinist on the subway platform can produce a more transcendent experience than a symphony, a spontaneous piece of graffiti inspire something deeper and more stirring than any framed canvas. I guess it depends on one’s mood, and perhaps more tellingly, perspective.

But at the heart of it, people are people, whether they walk around barefoot or they’re escorted everywhere in Cadillac Escalades. Artists -not ones playing at art or fussing around its edges -are seeking some kind of connection, to a wider world and experience than is easily granted. Does fame water down artistic output? That’s a tough one -one I’m still at odds to work out. Does the public actually want to be challenged? I engaged in a debate around celebrity reporting earlier on my Twitter feed, with Doug Saunders and I both agreeing that, from a journalistic point of view, offering intelligent, insightful reportage is harder than ever (though if you’re looking, check out Lynn Crosbie, who is one of the best). The Beatles manifest in cartoon form is, on many levels, a keen commentary on the nature of popular perception around fame -we like our heroes two-dimensional, don’t we? Don’t make a mistake, don’t get too weird, don’t be political, and talk in a language we all get. (The whole “Dammit, be normal and stop the weird crap, you’re one of us! / Dammit, you’re so awesome and stratospherically awesome, you’re not like us!” dichotomy is a whole other argument, and perhaps, future blog post.) The fact you can now play along with The Beatles, and thus claim your own little slice of Beatles-dom, makes it even more interesting, twisted, and surreal: “You too can be Paul, John, George or Ringo… just press a button!” Forget practise and craft. Pffft.

For me, artists -the ones I really admire, am challenged by, and who open up ways of perceiving existence and point at (indeed, celebrate) the world in all its maddening, chaotic horror/splendor -they aren’t two-dimensional (even if some choose to take that by-now-tiresome ironic pose, or play that damn role into the ground -especially annoying if you know they’re actually interesting). In the same vein, I don’t buy the airbrushed version of celebrity. I don’t want to. Messy, human, faulty, wrinkly, fat, grey and ridiculous: kind of like the rest of us, only with flashbulbs, sharpies, Whole Foods and questionable taste.

I’ll be on the Park Hyatt‘s roof shortly -not because I want to meet any celebrities, but because it’s simply one of my favourite spot in Toronto, and I want to enjoy the September sunshine while it lasts. If anyone wants a chat, famous or not … you know where to find me. Leave the cartoon-you on the street below.

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