Art in the Box – 28 April 2020

The Finale of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 8, the legendary “Symphony of a Thousand” – this music definitely loses something when viewed on a small screen!

As galleries and museums, churches, opera houses and concert halls around the world remain shuttered for months in the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 there has been nonetheless an explosion of art, music, dance, theatre and every conceivable combination thereof – and all of it is on our screens.

Our screens have brought us art (and its sometimes less respectable relative, ‘entertainment’) since their inception. Indeed beyond movies and TV, born in the bosom of the video screen, the proliferation of computer, Internet and mobile device has meant a steady migration of art with a perfectly respectable ‘real life’ into our projection theatres, our homes, our cars and even our pockets. Predictions of screens causing the inevitable demise of live performance, live gallery-hopping and theatre-going in the face of the ease and economy of home consumption, like the similar accusation leveled at recordings in their time, have appeared exaggerated and even quaint – perhaps until right now.

COVID-19 is endlessly compared to past larger, global-scale pandemics, and though indeed there are virological, epidemiological, and economic similarities to be drawn with the Spanish Flu and even the Black Death it stands alone in outbreaks of its scale and penetration in having emerged in the modern world of media. No aspect of our professional, political, social and personal lives stood untouched by media before 2019’s novel coronavirus, and none could expect to survive a major disruption unchanged by the impact on those media.

What ‘happens’ to art when it is placed in the box? Borrowing an aspect of the virus that has lately placed it there for many of us and despite its decades-long path, it is still inherently novel. To those of us who love art, and indeed also those for whom it is a curiosity, we feel well that distant and costly works of genius, skill and inspiration can be shared so simply and inexpensively in our lives, especially while darkened by confinement, fear and suffering.

Yet we understand that transmission of an art work, as in René Magritte’s most famous painting, is not the work itself, it is a representation of the work mediated by the act and mode of transmission. Self-evident in visual art this is no less true of music, especially so often stored and shared through the skeletal mp3 audio file format.

It may mostly be understood that art shared electronically is not like ‘seeing/hearing it live’, as we apologists for live art love to point out – but for many is it nonetheless ‘good enough’? In The McDonaldization of Society (1993), sociologist George Ritzer suggests that in the latter part of the 20th century the socially-structured form of the fast-food restaurant became the organizational force representing and extending the process of rationalisation into the realm of everyday interaction and individual identity. Ritzer was commenting mostly on us and our society, but I ask, is not also necessarily in evidence in our relationship with art?

Like many of my colleagues I have been active during quarantine in the production and diffusion of music and media intended to fill an acknowledged vacuum, but I am occasionally troubled by wondering how long that vacuum will persist, filled with increasing competence and success through the miracle of technology. Whenever ‘normal’ returns, might we find our art remains comfortably, cheaply and eternally ‘in the box’?


Posted in IAM.

Album Autobiographies – Tue 21 April 2020

Moe Koffman and friends with his version of the Allegro from Bach’s Flute Sonata #2 in E-flat – some may know this as theme music to CBC Radio’s As it Happens program.

We of sufficient privilege in the wealthy west to be confined to our homes and Internet connections have turned resoundingly, if perhaps not exclusively, to social media for entertainment and edification during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the positive side of this sometimes mind-dulling and catastrophically time-consuming pursuit is a particularly interesting instance of sharing that has bubbled up among musicians and music-lovers alike, the 10 Albums 10 Days Challenge.

Though it appears to have had a recent upsurge the 10 Albums 10 Days Challenge is not new to COVID-tide, in fact it was well-established on Facebook at least a year ago. In it, those accepting the challenge post a record album of personal or professional significance (in my age-range these are mainly vinyl and CD) every day for 10 days, inviting a new person to take on the challenge themselves each day as well. One should always be wary of these vaguely pyramid-shaped serial information solicitations on Facebook, as they often are used to harvest information on our tastes, history, biases etc. for uses that range from the commercial to the more nefarious. But revealing our love and allegiance to mostly out-of-print albums we mostly already own seems safe enough – and to we music-types it is DARNED interesting.

Full disclosure: I have been invited to take the challenge several times, but have not yet picked up the gauntlet (although I have included a track above from one such soundtrack of my young musicianship, courtesy perhaps of my Dad, always intrigued by the whole sphere of Bach transcription, and my Mom, who quite loved to play this particular record over and over). I’m not resisting 10-10 on principle: I find myself busy these days, and somehow feel the selection merits some careful thought. On the contrary I find the prospect very interesting: the named choices amuse, intrigue and expand my understanding of whoever posted them. But since around the time I coined and adopted the term ‘metatheory’ to describe my habitual outlook, I try always to take to heart one of my favourite quotations:

“When a thing is funny, search it carefully for hidden meaning.”

– George Bernard Shaw

SO, what is inherent to this exercise? Back to basics – music, the purpose the challenge exists, and the force that has worked upon each one of us to create our experiences, our likes and dislikes, sometimes our political and social leanings and for artists, our muse.

Second, it relies on not just music, but recorded music, invented in the late 19th century and risen to formidable cultural force, identity-obsession and industrial cash-cow in the 20th. We are the first few generations to be able to take this challenge: it simply didn’t exist to help form our musical selves until just over a century ago, and unlike live music, it shows no sign of going away.

Another assumption in the 10-10 Challenge is the album itself, a concept that has become much murkier in the the newer era of streaming, downloading and playlists. It was full albums that we saved for and browsed through unheard in the record stores, that we tirelessly transferred to our Walkman tapes, that we played end-to-end repeatedly into scratched oblivion or… whatever other strange afterlife old CDs reached.

Another, especially in the case of vinyl: album art. 10-10 challengers post the sometimes beautiful, always memorable covers from the albums they cite. These visual markers were at least as much a part of the cultural commodity, to say nothing of a critical piece in the marketing/shopping puzzle of live stores as the only way to obtain the product.

Hand-in-hand with the idea of the album is a sometimes narrative, sometimes conceptual, sometimes stylistic, but always somehow uniting paradigm that made songs of an album belong together – and often in a carefully determined order of playing. This paradigm is far from disappeared from the industry culture of hit singles, format radio and online recommendations – but again, it has certainly retreated.

But here’s the most striking thing to me – the 10-10 Challenge is about ME; about the whole idea that the music we like and listen to somehow shapes us. This is intuitive enough in the case of those of us who actually play, sing, conduct, compose and generally encourage music-making – but it is undeniably also true in Challengers who claim no musical talent or activity. Some 10-10 Challengers insist there be no explanation or documentation of each choice – usually just the album cover to convey its thousand theoretical words to the interested viewer. But many other Challengers go into remarkable apologia of what precisely a given album did to form or influence them, or even share touching remembrances of periods or events in their lives that connect therewith by association. And always there is the undertow of gratitude at being nominated for the challenge, and the rewards of self-examination it brings.

I recently had the privilege of a conversation with a former student-turned colleague who recounted the story of a live performance he had attended that had deeply moved him: in his words it was “life changing.” No doubt he, and certainly I, also have pinnacle musical performances I have given as well as received – it makes me wonder what other 10-10 challenge concepts could flourish in the musical playground and crucible of the Web 2.0?


Posted in IAM.

Crossover – Tue 14 April 2020

The Welsh group Calan performing one of their most remarkable feats of crossover,
their song Kân, based on an old method of Psalm singing, and incorporating elements of traditional instrumental playing, rock, rap and even a snatch of poetry.

My Celtic band Chroí (Irish Gaelic for ‘heart’) began in the early 2010s on the tail-end of a period of my career which saw me working, studying and playing a great deal in the vicinity of culturally-expanding Hamilton, Ontario. A then church-home and some wonderful people around me at the time enabled the founding of a group fitting a vision that I had had for some many years – but like so many others the group faced a problem, that pesky system, phenomenon or construction known as genre. All of us were university-trained musicians, sporting a non-conventional instrumentation for a Celic group (with, for example at the time, piano and cello) we were by no means a church-praise or traditional-folk band. Being in our 30s and 40s we all felt drawn to the rhythms of popular traditions that more and more traditionally-founded celtic bands were also increasingly building into their sounds… so what to call ourselves?

The decade I mentioned above that saw me so much in and around Hamilton featured notably my graduate work at McMaster University in the subject of musical genre, a topic that continues to fascinate me. In studying musical genre one quickly notes that genre labels, especially in the last century or so, have often been founded in arbitrary and constructed ways rather than in rigorous, more scientific ways. Consider ‘world music,’ a title given by western academics to describe mostly the folk genres of other societies, neatly placing them in the realm of the exotic (and more pointedly primitive – for this reason, indefensibly, the sophisticated west saw fit to exclude itself from ‘the world!’) Consider also ‘classical music’, the bulwark thrown up by the tortured descendants of the western canon to defend its fractured 20th-century self and rich heritage from the meteoric rise of popular music at home through recording, broadcasting, and especially targeted capitalism. And let’s not forget ‘popular music’ – a genre that isn’t a genre at all, encompassing whatever music the multi-billion dollar media industry chooses to bless with the machinery of marketing, distribution, and the powerful construction of consumer identity.

Well, another such genre/non-genre that had existed for decades before Chroí (with, I should say, a healthy sense of irony and humour) tackled its existential question of genre was ‘Crossover.’ The name reveals nothing more than the presence of two or more musical paradigms that by implication are traditionally separated, as the banks of a river or opposite cliffs of a gorge. I had grown up with an intense love of Bach, including but far from limited to my parents’ recordings of Moe Koffman, Switched on Bach, the Swingle Singers and so on, this paradigm, which was innovative and outrageous in its time, had become quaint and a standard part of the landscape. Indeed it had spread from the conspicuous early fascination with Bach and jazz (a topic for another day) to ever more complex and intriguing crossovers that included heavy metal bands like Metallica with symphony orchestras, jazz/world rhythms and harmonies, celtic idioms and even recorded animal sounds in the church music of Paul Halley, and the incursion of poetic and cultural mosaics into such fine chamber ensembles as Quarteto Gelato, the Kronos Quartet and the Art of Time Ensemble.

Me personally, I think all the barriers that are put up between genres are so easily broken. People just love music that moves them.

Haitian-American pop icon Jason Derulo

Chroí settled on ‘Celtic Crossover’ because it committed to just one thing – not our early inspiration in traditionally-founded groups like Lùnasa, nor our early Christian forms such as the Iona Community, nor our early embrace of the rich diversity of influences and vocal/choral sound of Irish-American band Solas. No, it stated only our raison d’être, the Celtic music that formed at least a part of each player’s ethnic heritage; that had drawn us to play together, and that despite some changes in membership has kept us playing together approaching a decade later.

Now fifteen years past the completion of my M.A. in Music Criticism I confess I still find myself more often a critic of musical genre than a scholar of it. But I remain fond of the label ‘Crossover’ for its ambiguity and its openness. Like many musicians I have been and remain beneficiary to fortress-like musical institutions seemingly more bent on self-glorification and self-preservation than in artistic creation and emotional gifting to audiences, congregations and societies. For much of my career those institutions have seemed to be in perpetual turmoil and occasional collapse, but through the spirit of Crossover many have taken their place as part of the ever-richer mosaic of musical life. Crossover is no longer news – it is normal – and for me at least the Kronos Quartet has in no way cheapened the classical string quartet, nor Paul Halley the latin mass or motet, nor Welsh super group Calan undermined the range of influences to be found in its work.

Musical Genre can speak much better about who you are than what you do.


Processions and Passions – Tue 7 April 2020

Procession of Palms – Malcolm Williamson
Recorded by the Mastersingers

Music, like all art, tends to thrive on the energy of dialectic – that is, the inquiry real or implied into contradictions and their solutions. When death is both the most radical undoing and yet also the most soothing release – we have a dialectic. When a pandemic causes suffering and fear and yet also connects, strengthens and heals its survivors, same thing. When a work of art can be strangely beautiful and yet strangely disturbing it draws the mind of the onlooker into consideration of meaning and perhaps magic.

Perhaps no stop along the church’s year illustrates this in more striking relief than the dual-named Palm/Passion Sunday, the start of Holy Week, exactly one week before Easter Sunday. It is a well-loved observance from the depths of Lent that juxtaposes the elation and excitement of the crowds that accompanied the young rabbi Jesus into the holy city of Jerusalem with that rabbi’s ever bolder affronts to the Jewish establishment, the horror of his betrayal by one of his chosen, and his trial, suffering and death.

To take a more directly musical example, consider a familiar hymn text, which Australian-born one-time Master of the Queen’s Music set in his Procession of Palms:

Ride on, ride on in majesty, in lowly pomp, ride on to die.
O Christ, thy triumphs now begin o’er captive death and conquered sin.

– Henry Hart Millman (1791-1868)

What form majesty leads its bearer to death? How can anyone’s death be the harbinger of triumph over death and sin? Isn’t that paradox defined?

Here’s a way of looking at it – we have discussed recently the concept of liminality, the notion that it is only when pushed beyond comfort, beyond reason that we can begin to see beyond such assumptions as the permanence of death, the seemingly inevitable triumph of earthly power. How does a beloved become a betrayer? A king become a criminal? One’s triumphant procession become one’s march to execution?

In Williamson’s piece we see a uniquely British attempt to reconcile these diametrics, a piece that folds the great texts of the day into a vigorous, exciting setting that seeks to capture Israel’s euphoria at its inevitable release from Roman bondage through the promised Messiah, but which flows into a tapestry of diverse textures and emotions on the way to a thoroughly unsettling ending.

A Procession of Palms was never sung in my twelve years at St James’ Cathedral in Toronto, but I will always remember the solution arrived at by my colleague and mentor Giles Bryant; though the Palm Sunday liturgy always featured the great hymns, waving branches and choral Hosannas by the tradition’s pinnacle composers it always quietly imploded during and after the Eucharistic celebration with some truly sombre motet and the congregation’s singing of the Passion Chorale, and left the jarred congregation staring ahead on Holy Week’s journey to the cross with no way to go but forward.

It was only many years later during graduate work that I became initiated into such terms as dialectic and liminality. But as in the rhythms, chords and other sounds of my parents’ countless vinyl records that implanted themselves early in my mind only to be named much later when I learned music theory, early experiences such as Palm/Passion Sunday at St James’ indelibly fueled my love of church music long before I had the tools to speak of it philosophically. In this most unusual of Holy Weeks without services, choirs and organs I find myself feeling like that disoriented Palm Sunday congregation, and equally with no way to go but forward.


IAM: COVID-19 and Cogito Ergo Sum – Fri 3 April 2020

Greetings! From the basement web and audio/video studios of IAM in Georgetown Ontario, warm wishes for safety, sanity and hope through these trying times. Thank-you for following along with whatever part of this effort brings you here, and my warmest wishes for you and those around you.

I’ve always been a bit tickled at the unintended reference René Descartes made to us in “I Think, Therefore I AM,” and I was interested recently to read that this argument emerged out of a swirling sense of self-doubt about what, if anything, he could be sure of being true. Most of us today rarely harbour doubts about our own existence, but there is plenty out there posing as truth that we can (and should) doubt. Though Descartes went no further than verifying his existence by the fact that he had thoughts, I like to extend this idea to the self-evident truth that by thinking we can more credibly interrogate the truth than by not.

In view with the swirling landscape of COVID-19 news about us, I’ve been adjusting my activities at IAM better to fit circumstances and serve the constituencies that gather here. A couple of recent developments have suggested changes to the way things have been.

Firstly the final season performances of both the Georgetown Choral Society and the Marion Singers have joined the list of cancelled events and projects we all grimly accumulate in these sorts of times; this has released us a bit from any immediate need to prepare music without the benefit of rehearsals (!), but it does not erase the beauty and the interesting culture around the music in the organisations’ lives. Thus, Choral View Radio episodes continue to emerge for choristers’ and followers’ enjoyment, with a couple of changes.

In the case of The Georgetown Choral Society we will continue to dwell on the May 2nd program concepts and themes – the First Half of which was the subject of an hour-long episode released earlier this week. The cancelled concert, entitled “United we Sing: Songs of Love and Hope for Humanity” is only more compelling in the midst of a crisis – and even while the song is silent for a time, this will continue to be way I hope we as choir – like we as a species – can remain pointed.

In the case of The Marion Singers the loss of our June 6th concert at Jubilee United Church in Toronto is potentially a still greater blow. COVID-19 uncertainty and possible economic legacy may severely impact our ability to secure concert bookings for the fall, which in a normal year we would be booking already. Or, who knows, when public events resume we might have churches beating our door down to help them raise money! In any case with TMS I am taking the opportunity for a step back, and over the next eight weeks am sharing the four CD recordings Marion Singers made between 2000 and 2011 under then-Director Tony Browning. Besides a wonderful snapshot of our group under different direction these recordings are packed with beautiful a capella music, familiar and unfamiliar, that we can consider reinstating. Most of all I am looking at it as a celebration of a wonderful institution, with a bright future when the world is again ready for choirs to rehearse, and for them to meet with audiences in performance.

The biggest change here at IAM will affect the Rosedale Presbyterian Church CVR episodes… after two weeks of offering a diverse set of resources (including a special CVR episode) for home-bound congregants to use at will, we on the RPC staff have decided in time for Holy Week to switch to producing something more formal like a composite audio/video “Virtual Service” containing most the elements found in a typical RPC service – which, of course, includes lots of music. In order to do this we have turned our attention to the IAM YouTube channel as a platform to collect and share the six parts of the service, which will play in order as a Playlist. And to top it all off we will be promoting and holding a virtual coffee hour at 11:30 each Sunday using Zoom technology. None of this will replace the experience of gathering in our church, but it will serve during what, it now seems, might be months without the privilege.

Tuesday IAM Blog posts will of course continue, although the concept of the musical travelogue I had hoped they would be has a significant damper on it at the moment, since I’m neither travelling nor making much music… but if we can reach back for a moment to “I Think, Therefore I Am” – perhaps it suggests that all IAM needs to exist is a brain!


The Green Grass and Blue Grass – IAM Tue 31 March

Some years ago, as early middle-age was ramping up my interest in my Irish ancestry and my longtime love of Celtic music I stumbled across an intriguing album by iconic traditional band The Chieftains in which they journeyed to Nashville and teamed up with some of country music’s top figures. The album, called Down the Old Plank Road offered an interesting range of music which ranged from textbook-country with added Celtic instruments such as whistles and ullian pipes to classic Irish musical forms reincarnated across the Atlantic.

I had never taken much of a liking to, nor interest in country music, but the excellent performances, the historical connection from my recent interest in the history and culture of one line of my family (and tangentially my admiration for the 2000 Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou, its soundtrack and the recent rise of interest in American Roots music they helped spark) had my attention. While doing my Masters in Music Criticism I wrote a paper on a McLuhan reading of the transformation of ‘old time’ music through 20th century urbanisation and industrialisation into the nostalgic and even glitzy modern country music – and then back to its roots; I studied the rise and evolution of popular music through the advent of recording, broadcasting, and the tortures of World Wars and festering post-slavery racial tension. I started a Celtic band, Chroí which is still playing today after eight years. I toured Ireland with a choir, cementing the land and its music – wherever it should wander and take me along – within my musical mind.

And then in 2013, in an unusual moment in my career as a freelance choral musician, along came Carol Barnett’s The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, completing yet another circle, to my long knowledge of and relationship with church music, in what had already for me become its ever broadening circles.

Back in Nashville, the Chieftains reached into the shared culture of the connected people of the Old and New worlds, and found among other connections the “Come all Ye” ballad, common to both. An excellent example is found in the 1947 Merle Travis coal-mining classic Dark as a Dungeon – in it the balladeer, having summoned the listeners with the famous opening words “Come all ye…” warns of the dangers of a life spent mining coal (incidentally a common means of employment for Irish seeking work away from their native land). Another extraordinarily poignant example from the same album is Molly Bán, which warns of the prevalence of gun culture through relating the tragic tale of a man who shoots his beloved having taken her for a swan.

With the significant role played by Celtic peoples in the settling of the New World it is unsurprising that their folk idioms are evident in the new culture, but what has particularly struck me about the Irish American connection is its resilience, and visible presence in genres thought to be uniquely American.

As much of music making for me feels exclusively within the realm of ideas for this unusual quarantined moment I develop some of these themes in a currently postponed concert of the Georgetown Choral Society. Visit the page for the Choir’s episodes of Choral View Radio here on for a look at where that line of inquiry had taken me.


Posted in IAM.