Stolen Bach – Tue 5 May 2020

Aria from Bach’s Cantata 82, “Schlummert ein” – quarantine collaboration between me at the Georgetown Christian Reformed Church and my old university buddy Dave Kutz, who is now Principal Tuba in the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra

Looking into the realm of musical transcription (setting music written for one instrument or combination of instruments for a different instrument or combination, sometimes taking on new stylistic attributes) it is not long before one notices the prominence among the works chosen of baroque music in general, and the works of J.S. Bach in particular.

Baroque music is known for many characteristics that may have contributed to its favourability as a target for transcribers – but addressing the question must begin not with the music, but with the act of transcription. Why transcribe, when the composer bequeaths to us a perfectly authentic and successful version with instruments and style attributes he/she actually knew and chose? The answer originates in love: we don’t transcribe works we dislike: we transcribe out of a wish to play or hear a work on our instrument or ensemble (organists, having an enormous authentic repertoire for their instrument, are implicated here, perhaps second only to pianists). Baroque music is often the very first music we encounter when beginning our music lessons; Bach and Handel’s names, the first we come to know, and their hugely popular melodies the first to become stuck, welcome or otherwise, in our heads. The Baroque era’s interest in ornamentation offers a particular benefit as a tool for learning: it has a perfectly viable (if inaunthentic) “easy-play” form omitting ornaments.

If we learn by playing and singing Baroque music we are perhaps predisposed to like and transcribe it – but what makes it work so well? Let’s consider this 1989 MCA release by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, a compilation of Bach orchestral and keyboard works, including one meta-transcription, a Concerto Bach himself first transcribed (from Vivaldi) for organ, now ending up for a quartet of instruments that didn’t exist until about a century after Bach’s death.

Here’s the program (you can hear the whole album or read the liner notes online): Badinerie – Suite No. 2 in B minor BWV 1067; Overture No. 6 in G minor BWV 1070; Art Of The Fugue, BWV 1080 (excerpts); Fantasia & Fugue in C minor BWV 537; Suite No 1 in C major (excerpts) BWV 1066; Fugue In G major BWV 577; Concerto after Vivaldi No. 1 BWV 592. A quick ‘needle-drop’ listen (that’s a vinyl reference for you young-‘uns!) anywhere in the program reveals a range of styles spanning the exuberance of orchestral suites, the academy of fugues, the freedom of an organ fantasia and the trademark tunefulness and general simplicity of Vivaldi. Bach may have brought Baroque music to its ultimate flowering, but his range of styles can be found across his 18th century colleagues, and from around Europe.

A range of styles? You can find that in any era, and while Bach is one of history’s most prolific composers (perhaps giving him a statistical advantage) one doesn’t find arbitrary modern classical quartets wildly transcribing Mozart, Beethoven, or even other Baroque composers to the same degree. Nor does one find the same degree of interest in transcribing these giants among groups like the Modern Jazz Quartet, Hooked on Classics or the Swingle Singers (all of which wrested Bach from its classical gatekeepers in the 1970s).

Perhaps the answer comes in the person of Bach, who was himself not just a musical genius, but a great transcriber in his own right. He admired Vivaldi’s music and so respectfully transcribed it for his own use. He had an open enough view of, for example, his solo violin Partitas to transcribe parts of them for keyboard and even orchestras and choirs. Father to twenty children, he also had enough of a sense of humour to compose works like the secular Coffee Cantata. These attributes were by no means unique to Bach, in his own age or in the ages that have followed – but perhaps they aligned in a rare, proto-planetary way, giving us this remarkable legacy of transcribed gems.

When my old university friend Dave Kutz, now Principal Tuba in the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, contacted me early in COVID-19 quarantine about a virtual collaboration there was no need to ask what might be on the menu. And the ethical concerns expressed at times earlier in my own career about the act of transcription from a composer’s “original intent” now seem quaint and even ridiculous. The world already owned Bach’s music – blessings upon him for having given it us!


Posted in IAM.

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.

Music at Home

Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring,
performed by musicians of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from their homes.

As I announced last Friday I’ve made some temporary changes to under the unusual circumstance of self-imposed lockdown in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Of most significance to this weekly blog post is that it is now temporarily detached from the Sunday Service music of Rosedale Presbyterian Church in Toronto because, well, there are no Sunday services there. RPC’s Sunday worship ministry now consists of a set of materials distributed each Friday by the staff for the informational and devotional use of the congregation, including from me a special weekly 30-minute episode of Choral View Radio offering hymns, anthems, organ music and commentary – it is there, in spoken form, that you may find the nearest facsimile of the former RPC Music Notes – because again, there are currently no Sunday Bulletins to print them in.

In the past week of quarantine-based thinking and living, the online world of we unemployed, homebound musicians has virtually exploded with an entirely new genre of music-making… or is it entirely new?

While I’ve been throwing myself into homemade guerilla radio-like podcasts, in the past few days I have been contacted by an old university friend, Dave Kutz, who is currently Principal Tuba to the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, to collaborate online with he and a cellist friend who resides in Australia. On the suggestion of a member of Rosedale Presbyterian Church I and one of the church’s soprano soloists Rebecca Genge scraped together, from our respective homes, a rendition of the storied opera aria Bist du bei Mir by Heinrich Stötzel (which you might, along with many others, understandably think to be a sacred song by Johann Sebastian Bach). I see choirs, including Chorus Niagara and the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus holding proto-rehearsals over video conferencing software platforms like Zoom and Skype, and the much better-tested (and better-suited) giving of one-on-one video music lessons, complete with household noises, pets walking by, sweatpants and unshaven beards. And perhaps most intriguing of all, we are seeing good-spirited daily compositional challenges – “fill your time by creating new music,” be that an original fiddle tune, a song about your experience, or that symphony you’ve never quite gotten around to writing.

Going beyond the fascination of seeing friends, colleagues, choristers and for that matter strangers in their natural habitats, for a professional musician there is something deeply humanising about sharing the imposed regime that is being variously called quarantine, self-isolation, social distancing, and shelter-in-place.

But it also reminds me that amid all of the impressive technology that simply didn’t exist a short decade ago, there is, ironically, a much older story being retold. The German term Hausmusik (‘house music’, a term we wouldn’t typically use in English) was in standard use in the late 18th century as the post-baroque rise of the middle class spurred families and friends to share music, sung or played, in their homes. The piano lay, and remained at the centre of this movement for a century and a half before the advent of recording and broadcasting, and the decline of institutionalised music education gradually shifted music-making into music-listening, and transformed the broadly-held urge and ability to play and sing into an anointed ‘priesthood’ increasingly conferred only upon celebrities and professionals.

Of course the images in my Facebook Feed of music at home are showing me something that existed before; we all practise, teach and sometimes even play or sing together in our homes – always have. But the unexpected explosion of sharing gives me another to add to the positive outcomes some hope of this pandemic such as environmental healing, the re-decline of incompetent and ignorant populism, socialised wealth-redistribution and the retooled non-fossil-fuel energy infrastructure our planet so desperately needs. That hope is for music in the home; music in the heart.


Posted in IAM.

COVID-19 and Ideas About Music

Kaikki Maat, Te Riemuitkatte by Finnish a capella supergroup Rajaton – some brightness and optimism for spring, and the theme music of IAM’s new Choral View Radio shows.

On this first day of spring at a most unusual time in our history I am making a unusual Friday post to the weekly blog. Followers and newcomers alike will want to know about some significant changes here at Ideas About Music in response to changing circumstances around the COVID-19 outbreak. I would first send out wishes to all readers and followers for health, safety and spiritual strength: we are all in need of these.

  1. With the suspension of public gatherings three choirs under my direction, the Georgetown Choral Society, the Marion Singers of Greater Toronto and the Choir of Rosedale Presbyterian Church are unable to meet, and either have already or will likely be cancelling performances / service offerings. I have reached into an old skill set and hauled out old equipment to create Choral View Radio, a tool intended to help choirs keep connected to the music we are working on, and to one another in the absence of meeting. I am producing a weekly 30-minute “radio show” format episode for each choir, all hosted right here at
  2. The suspension of Sunday Services at Rosedale Presbyterian Church, as a particular case of this, has generated a response from us on the staff to create a weekly Virtual Service Bulletin, a regular multi-media transmission of information (and we hope inspiration) intended to replace BOTH our usual print Bulletin, and the Sunday Service itself. My contribution to this has been to convert the Choral View Radio episode I might otherwise have created for the RPC Choir into a weekly curated episode that seeks to fold into 30 minutes two hymns, two anthems, an organ voluntary and in the form of spoken commentary, my Music Notes, as you might otherwise have read them here at
  3. With RPC’s Sunday Music Notes now having temporarily moved in spoken form to the RPC CVR episode, depending on my available time I will be taking the opportunity to think and write about musical topics outside of the church context, so you can continue to expect weekly submissions of some sort. I would encourage you, if interested to look into the three weekly CVR episodes as well – as you know or might guess about them, where I’m concerned if there’s music, the ideas flow fairly quickly around them!

The cover graphic/music for this post is Kaikki Maat, Te Riemuitkatte (‘All Nations, you must Reimagine’) by Finnish a capella supergroup Rajaton, whose name in their native language means boundless. It serves as the theme music for the three weekly episodes of Choral View Radio, but its character and the sentiments expressed by both the song itself and the band’s name are I think valuable to this moment in human history.

As I say at the close of each CVR episode, see you next week, stay safe, keep in touch with one another, look after one another and the people around you, and most of all, Enjoy the View.


Let me Know – RPC Music Notes, Sun 22 March 2020

Lord, let me know mine end (III, Ein Deutsches Requiem – Johannes Brahms)
– note, English translation in recording is slightly different than in RPC’s planned usage

As I write this on 16 March 2020 it seems likely that the Session of Rosedale Presbyterian Church will decide tomorrow (by socially-distanced telephone meeting) to join churches throughout Southern Ontario in suspending public worship as part of society’s broader effort to blunt the progress of the COVID-19 outbreak that is ravaging the world, already devastatingly in some places. Should this happen I hope these notes on what would have been this Sunday’s music become part of our self-isolated community’s life. As so often seems to happen music chosen weeks ago is taking on an eerie – or – perhaps divine – connection to the events unfolding around us.

Brahms’ German Requiem, a concert work largely unaffected by the centuries-old impulse to sing sacred music in a language understood by the listener, is heard most often by English speaking audiences in its original German. As we have journeyed through offering, literally piece-by-piece, this masterwork as part of our winter (and God willing, our spring) services the option has certainly existed to go with this norm – but so too in our Protestant sensibilities has the interest in offering our congregation music and meaning as one, without the abstraction of a printed translation. A discussion of the dynamics of this choice are for another day – today, let’s look squarely at its 3rd movement, made more vivid, perhaps, by the vernacular language, and certainly by the time in which we are hearing it.

The work’s third movement sets an unanswerable question “How long will I live?” answering only with the assurance that righteous souls lie in God’s hands (Wisdom 3:1) – slightly hollow, though set in a magnificent fugue composed entirely over the rock-firm grounding of a D-pedal point, suggesting God’s abiding presence and strength. But am I one of those righteous souls? Is my loved one? What about the unrighteous souls, however determined, and the communities we share? As our days begin to take on apocalyptic tones these matters may affect some of us more than others: to the unknowable future belongs the impact of COVID-19 on our communities and ourselves, but the questions it raises certainly seem closer than mere weeks ago.

In the unlikely event RPC gathers for worship this coming Sunday, the choir will accompany this disturbingly existential offering with a short, simple and strikingly personal prayer text, set in this instance by John Rutter.

God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.

– Sarum Primer, 1558

If the assurance of Wisdom 3:1 in Brahms rings a bit hollow, this prayer strikes me (as it always does) deeply comforting. If God is in my understanding I can think and feel beyond my fear and anger. If God is my looking I can see clearly my correct course. If God is in my speaking I can offer words of wisdom and comfort when they are needed. If God is in my heart I can look beyond my own household, to a community, a species and a planet that ask, and should expect my commitment to their well-being. For me the final, and least immediately comforting petition seems to pale against the riches provided by the others to the situation in which we find ourselves – but that discussion, too, is for another day.

Today we live; today we work together.