Pain in the neck

What is dignity if not a kind of self-respect.  You notice it most when it’s not there, perhaps taking it for granted otherwise.

I got my hair cut on the way to a concert. In passing I want to make a comparison.

As usual I was at Lone & Co, my hair in the capable hands of Cheryl Lone after getting my hair washed & my scalp massaged by some unidentified person: who left me feeling wonderful. Now of course I recognize that massages are something most people enjoy, so you may be giggling at the thought that this is in any way unique.

Bear with me for a moment.

3_loneand co pano

It struck me for the first time today to wonder: was I imagining it? Yes, it was another in a series of ecstatic hair-washings & massages that left me feeling amazing.

Here’s the thing. Until I started coming to this salon, I used to dislike the hair-washing experience. No wait dislike is too mild of a word, it’s more like detest or even hate. I remember with one of my favourite cutters, I’d always wash my hair at home to avoid being at the mercy of the salon, because the hair-washing was always unpleasant.


It’s ankylosing spondylitis, which has led to a great deal of stiffness in my neck. I feel weird talking about it because it’s a little thing.  It’s awkward and humiliating sometimes, to be asked to do something you simply can’t do: such as turning your head the way most people do. Sometimes it’s painful, and not merely awkward. So normally this would mean, that I’d be struggling to get through the hair-wash experience, trying not to make the poor unfortunate washing my hair feel too frustrated at my lack of flexibility.  And this would recur once I was in the chair getting the cut, unable to move my head much to make things easier for the hair-cutter, who would want me to tilt my head this way or that.

And so: I had to ask Cheryl. Is it just a fluke that I feel so great in her salon, that when I get my hair-washed it’s always a comfortable experience? I was tempted to call it something so much more, such as “empowering” or “ecstatic”, which may seem excessive, until you remember that for decades, my salon experiences were unpleasant, painful, awkward. I’d avoid getting my hair cut, and just let it grow.

So I asked her. Is it a fluke that I had this experience, or are your staff trained to deal with this?

Aha! Yes it was actually part of the training. You see Cheryl too has ankylosing spondylitis (or “AS”).

I should also explain that the concert was the one Sept 5th and I hesitated before posting this item: wanting to be certain it was permitted to talk about Cheryl also having AS. I called to confirm and she said sure no problem. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being indiscreet (otherwise I would have published this earlier this week).

So there you have it. When I’m there, they know that I am another one with the same condition. It’s in my file, and so they‘re told to treat my neck the same way they treat Cheryl’s neck. And of course Cheryl too is sensitive, so my haircuts no longer involve any of those hopeless attempts to tilt my head in such a way to make it easier for the cutter. She knows my limits and of my possible discomfort.

She explained to me what that means. She told me how she responded once to one of the apprentices, when she asked: “so what’s it like?”

Cheryl demonstrated for her. She held her hand up against her head, and said (while holding her hand against her head) “okay now try to turn your head” (while preventing it from moving).

I burst out laughing, with recognition. Oh my God,  yes that would do it!  Yes that’s exactly what it’s like.

The funny thing is, I’ve been at theatres –not wanting to name any names—where there wasn’t nearly so much sensitivity shown.

A director decided that they would surprise the audience, beginning the show behind them.   It’s clever.  But it’s problematic if you can’t turn around. Suddenly there’s a class distinction in the audience as if some couldn’t see or hear as well as those who could. I sometimes notice such things, especially at intermission, when I see that some aren’t as mobile, struggling to get to a bathroom at the bottom of a stairway.  There is a huge population of concert- & opera- goers who are advancing in age, but less & less mobile with every year.

This massage & hair-washing was ecstatic, reminding me of the innocent times of my youth when I didn’t need to think about such things.

It may seem like a little thing to be able to get a haircut and a scalp massage without feeling my physical limitations. I’m only appreciating it now because Lone & Co make it seem so effortless.

I liked the haircut, too.

Posted in Food & Nutrition, Personal ruminations, Psychology and perception | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

24 ways of looking at Winterreise      

Tonight’s event at Lula Lounge from Tongue in Cheek Productions was not your typical song cycle.

Yes we did get the 24 songs in Schubert’s romantic Winterreise, or “winter journey”.  But instead of a single singer going along that cold lonely pathway of angst & self-exploration, we heard 24 different men.

The press release prepared us this way:

“Founded by Toronto-based baritones Aaron Durand and Michael Nyby, Tongue In Cheek Productions aims to add a twist to the traditional idiom of classical performance by bringing an element of humour, irreverence, and whimsy to the concert stage. For Winterreise, instead of one singer presenting the entire cycle in a solemn recital hall, twenty-four singers will perform one song each in the festive atmosphere of Lula Lounge. “We wanted to do something memorable for our launch,” explained Nyby. “What better way than to get as many artists involved as possible.”

I had so many responses to the concert, I was tempted to come up with 24 different observations, which is one of the meanings of the headline (as I remembered one of my favourite send-ups of deconstructive exercises). More literally, though, we had 24 different singers, each singing one of the songs in the cycle.


It may be early in the fall season but I was surprised at the turnout.  Joseph So of Opera Canada and Greg Finney of Schmopera, Guillermo Silva-Marin, Henry Ingram, and lots of singers, Wendy Nielsen of the Canadian Opera Company & University of Toronto, Julie Nesrallah of the CBC.  Yet I wonder:  hmm were any Toronto baritones in attendance (perhaps we’d count Greg) who weren’t actually singing?  If you’re a Toronto baritone and weren’t in this show, you would feel as left out as if you were a three-year old colt on the sidelines, watching rather than running in the Kentucky Derby.  You may think it’s a silly analogy, but we were in the presence of a great deal of testosterone, manly energy.

Any opera or song cycle combines a story / text and the performers who would bring it to life.  When it’s a single singer undertaking the 24 songs, we experience something like a marathon, an endurance test of singing.  Changing that to 24 singers each singing one? The feat becomes more akin to a relay race, each of the runners taking the baton and going full out for their little portion of the race, with nothing held back.

But of course that would only apply if this were a series of songs sung full out. In fact many of Schubert’s songs call for subtleties, nuanced expression.

Just as there are 50 ways to leave your lover, there are at least 24 ways to sing about it (note, in Schubert’s cycle the leaving has already been done by the beloved).

I recall a conversation on the opera listserv back in the 1990s, when I suggested that in a real sense the role of Violetta changes, becoming so different, one act to the next, that it calls for a different sort of singer in each act, and might be better in some ways if we had –for example—Callas for Act III, Cotrubas for Act II, or Sutherland for Act I.  Feel free to quibble with the choices, naturally, to each their own.  My point was that in any big work, there are not only multiple solutions to the problems posed by a text, but different ideals we might point to. For the pure bel canto, we’d favour one singer, whereas in the scenes calling for drama, a different singer, etc.

And I’m sure you’ve heard that while one woman is expected to sing Brunnhilde in her three operas of the Ring, one man sing Wotan in his three operas, or one man for the two Siegfrieds: they’re quite different, one from the other, and might benefit from different casting, recognizing –for example – the killer tessitura of the Siegfried Brunnhilde, so different from her other appearances.

And in this case? 24 songs, perhaps benefiting from the multiple voices & styles.  Nyby & Durand turn up, likely singing their favourite song.  Many other songs were well served by the variety, the change of tone, let alone the change of body language, intensity, style. Some were perfectly in tune, perfectly attuned to Schubert & to the pianism of Trevor Chartrand.  

I remember discussing as aspect of taste with my brother, baritone Peter Barcza, just a few days ago. He was talking about preferences, how some people might say Leonard Warren is the greatest baritone ever, while others –him for instance—would say it’s Robert Merrill.  There are differences of opinion as to what the ideal baritone sounds like, whether it should be dark or light, big & loud or smooth & lyrical.  I remember too he was chuckling as to what to do if as a teacher, you encounter someone with a different notion of what is ideal.  Arguably that’s a really important conversation. But here we were, listening to so many different ideas of what a baritone can and should sound like.  It was a bit like being in a fabric store looking at swatches, timbres laid next to one another arbitrarily different because a new singer must sing. And how perfect, in a way, that this deconstructs the cycle, injecting another sort of variety. And I couldn’t help wondering: whose Winterreise were we hearing? 24 different songs, but filtered by Chartrand, whose sure hand guided us wonderfully, without a slip or mistake as far as I could tell.

I felt we were in a kind of laboratory, studying this cycle, studying all cycles.

I sat at the same table with Joseph So, exchanging quips sometimes between songs.  I couldn’t help feeling that in some respects our conversation was a lot like the one underlying the presentation itself. There we were in Lula Lounge, a venue that might seem singularly inappropriate for classical music, at least if one is accustomed to silence & respect every moment, not clinking glasses and the bustling of waiters bringing patrons their food & drink.  If this radical rethink of the work was aiming for a conversation with convention, then it was a success, judging by what we discussed.

For example, at the end of the first song: the audience burst into applause.  Naturally, this is not what we usually get in a concert: where applause is held to the end. And the cycle was divided in two, allowing for an intermission in the middle.  When I started clapping Joseph glared at me disapproving, saying something like “there shouldn’t be applause between the songs”.  I grinned, surrounded by other shit-disturbers.  I think we all knew it’s not how Schubert is usually done: which made it that much more enjoyable, being naughty.

But it became more intense, when some performances drew bravi from the crowd.

I wonder, what was it like at a Schubertiad?  Audiences were much noisier in bygone centuries, but for most of the past centuries theatres were lit rather than darkened as now (and only since Wagner’s time).  In Schubert’s day encores were called for and given.  We live in a very different sort of time, audiences conditioned to behave themselves, stifling spontaneity.  I can’t help thinking that in some ways this venue with the exuberance, the noise & distractions might in some respects capture some aspects of authentic concert life, as it might have been lived in the first decades of the 19th century.

There were some other variations, too.  Doug McNaughton gave us a song on guitar, without piano, without shoes, and yet: captivating.  The next song to open the second half was somewhat ironic, Keith Lam giving us the emotional contours of “Die Post”, the piano imitating not just the posthorn but also the singer’s heart-beat rhythm.  24 singers meant some emphasizing voice, some emphasizing expression & body-language, to dramatize as much as making music.  The balance was different in every song, and none is wrong of course. They’re all different. The variety was captured brilliantly by the changing personnel.  Some stood. Some glared. Some under-played.

In case you can’t tell, I loved it.  Tongue in Cheek Productions promise something on the other side of the gender divide next time, although they didn’t tell us much more.  If you’d like to read about them & their Winterreise, including the names and bios of the singers who participated, check this out.

Posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Popular music & culture, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II

Tonight was the opening night concert of the 2018 Ashkenaz Festival at Koerner Hall, an unforgettable evening of Yiddish culture titled “Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II”.


For awhile Soviet scholars worked to assemble an archive of the songs of the Yiddish resistance to the Nazis, comprised of men, women & children. While Stalin is spoken of heroically in many of the songs, Stalin is himself lurking villainously as subtext for the story, as the political winds shifted, the scholars were all arrested, and their work presumed lost: until miraculously it turned up in the 21st century.

I’m proud of this on so many levels:
• As a Torontonian
• As a guy with some allegiance to Jewish culture, still trying to figure it all out. While I was brought up Christian I look Jewish enough that people jump to conclusions based on the size of my nose.
• As a fan of thorough multi-disciplinary scholarship, and as an alumnus of the University of Toronto, whose presence in this concert was front & centre.


Professor Anna Shternshis

Yiddish Glory was a musical & dramatic event but I feel first & foremost that it’s a careful work of history. Violinist Psoy Korolenko and Professor Anna Shternshis, ( Professor of Yiddish Studies at the U of T’s Centre for Jewish Studies) are called the “creators of the project” in the program, work that is at once curatorial & dramaturgical.

There is an album of these songs available.

What we got tonight was so much more than that, and ideal as Shternshis presented contextual introductions to many of the performances, like a dramaturg explaining the framework for what had been assembled for us. I don’t know the extent of Korolenko’s role in preparation, except that he’s mentioned as “matching music to archival texts”, which in some cases meant re-purposing music for the project.

Some songs are satirical, as Hitler turns up a few times. Some are bleak, despondent, sad. But the overall contour is hopeful, as the Soviets and Stalin are beating Hitler & the Nazis. Tonight we were hearing songs that have not been heard before, brought to light by scholarship & good fortune. I can’t help wondering if at least part of the reason that these songs survived—in spite of Stalin’s purge of the historians preserving them in the USSR—is because Stalin is so often spoken of as a hero, as the beloved leader. I’m reminded of the scene in The Death of Stalin, that I saw so recently, when the peasants arrived for his funeral, heart-broken at the death of this murderous S.O.B. (I apologize to any canines who might be offended at the usage). Throughout the concert we’re hearing great things about Stalin & the Red Army, and ridicule of Hitler & the Nazis.

Excuse me that it’s almost an afterthought to mention the brilliance of the singers & instrumentalists, whose music was given such depth by the background we were given by Shternshis. Korolenko was inevitably star of his own show, aided by a fabulous band, including Sergiu Popa on accordion, Mikhail Savichez, guitar, Beth Silver cello, trumpeter David Buchbinder and Sir Julian Milkis, clarinet. There were some last minute substitutions so I may not have all the names correct.  It was a colossal labour of love, a collaboration among lots of eager and thoughtful individuals. Sasha Lurie was fortunately available as a substitute for Sophie Milman, who you can see on the video but who was unwell tonight and unavailable.  Sergei Erdenko did the arrangements, for example.  While the opening included a long list of thank you’s for funding, this was somehow different, as the expressions of gratitude, the explanations of the origins were important, vital acknowledgements.

My thoughts drift to another project, the Jeremy Dutcher album I wrote about recently, also seeking to preserve a language & culture.  There seems to be a natural alliance there, so many parallels.

The songs are in my head already, but I need to get that CD . The 2018 Ashkenaz Festival continues until Sept 3rd.

Posted in Music and musicology, Politics, Popular music & culture, Spirituality & Religion, Theatre & musicals, university life | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Kent Monkman—Miss Chief’s Praying Hands

Kent Monkman is back.  The show at Project Gallery is only on until September 1st, so see it while you can.   In 2017 “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience” was one of the highlights of the year.  This time it’s “Miss Chief’s Praying Hands”, a solo show that includes a great variety of creations that conform in greater or lesser degrees to the usual expectations of a visitor to an art gallery.  Sometimes (s)he’s giving us art that engages with the traditions of art, sometimes playing with those traditions, and playing with us too.  When you’re overpowered by one of these huge canvases (“Wedding at Sodom” is 10 feet by 6 feet, for example), you notice how powerful art can be.

I recall feeling unhinged and unbalanced at the show at UC last year.

I caught myself thinking back as I did my laundry earlier today: that if someone were to put me into a dryer, the best thing would be to go with the flow rather than struggle.  I think the same is true when an artist is playing with you, the way Monkman plays with us.  Size matters, and not just when the paintings include genitalia.


“Wedding at Sodom” from the “Rendezvous” Series, 72” x 120” Acrylic on Canvas 2017, Kent Monkman

And there are indeed sculpted hands that might put you in mind of Dürer’s praying hands, although Monkman offers coloured versions.


There are a couple of videos playing outrageously.  In one we watch a nervous priest approach someone we might call Miss Chief, then run away.

I’m in awe of the wardrobe.


Not like any boots I’ve ever seen before

And the softcore porn imagery becomes more overt when we come to a display case with this hilarious label:  “Series: Miss Chief’s Pictograph Porn”…complete with the dead-pan description of the work. So many things are being mocked, questioned, deconstructed: I might be back inside the dryer for real.


You may be outraged, you may laugh, you may cry.  I don’t know that there’s a right response, only that I’m grateful for work that does many of the traditional things art used to do, employing recognizable references & styles, yet often mocking those traditions.


Canadians will recognize Robert Harris’s painting “The Fathers of Confederation”, parodied here.

Here’s the blurb from the Gallery website:

Kent Monkman is a Canadian artist of Cree ancestry who creates provocative reinterpretations of romantic North American landscapes. Themes of colonization, sexuality, loss, and resilience – the complexities of historic and contemporary Indigenous experience – are explored in a variety of mediums, including painting, film/video, performance, and installation.

His gender fluid alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle appears in his work, reversing the colonial gaze and upending received notions of history and Indigenous people.

Monkman describes Miss Chief Eagle Testickle as “a gender bending time-traveling two spirited alter ego” representing “the gender variance that was present in traditional indigenous cultures across North America when the settlers arrived. She embodies the flawed and playful trickster spirit to tease out the truths behind life’s painful twists and turns. She is central to my work, reversing the gaze and representing an empowered antidote to colonized sexuality.”

The title is serious.  The art is much funnier than last time.  Forgive me for saying that as the show still includes a couple of overpowering pieces.  But I feel that Monkman is being easier on us this time, using the gentler path of satire and parody rather than the unbearable power of historical chronicle (still present in “The Scream”) and reminders of cultural genocide.

Here’s my last reminder to you.


Project Gallery 1210 Dundas Street East

Posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Personal ruminations, Politics, Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Exploring: Liszt and the Symphonic Poem

Serendipity leads me in my choices at the library. Sometimes I get lucky.

There is so much more to Liszt than his abilities as a pianist, or his virtuoso compositions for piano such as the Hungarian Rhapsodies. Did you first encounter this music with the help of Bugs Bunny (for Rhapsody #2)?

By coincidence you may have heard that Sardanapale a Lisztian opera has been unearthed, recently completed and premiered this week. I can only go by
• what I have read online
• What I heard in the trailer

As it turns out Sardanapale is mentioned and is an important piece of subtext in one of the three recent Liszt books I’ve taken out of the library.  As I said, sometimes we get lucky.


The first of the books that I began this summer was by Joanne Cormac. When I saw the title—Liszt and the Symphonic Poem – I was hesitant: because I don’t know his symphonic poems. Is it enough to admire a composer, to like their music, even when you don’t know the works in question? I figured I’d learn something about the subject, discover a reason why I should want to listen to the symphonic poems, and perhaps find not only a new way of listening to them but even the other music of Liszt as well.

Yes there’s so much more to Liszt than just symphonic poems. For example early in the book Cormac tells us about Liszt’s ambition to be the next Donizetti, perhaps through Sardanapale and subsequent compositions. When I read this I wondered what he could be thinking. But with the completion of the work and an eventual recording of the project on the way we will have a whole different way of understanding his choices, and indeed to wonder at what might have been.

Let me repeat, there is so much to Liszt, he is still not fully understood. Cormac sheds some light on Liszt’s thinking:

Though Liszt’s decision to move to Weimar certainly raised eyebrows, it was perhaps less surprising than it first appeared. Through the 1840s, Liszt began to tire of his exhausting lifestyle and wanted to concentrate on composition…However Liszt had not won his place at the Weimar court because of his reputation as a composer, but through his virtuosic playing. The programme from his first public concert in Weimar is fairly typical of what he was generally playing for audiences at the time… He gave them what they wanted: familiar tunes and spectacle. He did not take the opportunity to showcase some of his more experimental music… Liszt would have his work cut out to convince the court to allow him to retreat from the piano and to persuade them to take him seriously as a composer. [Cormac 3]

And so while Weimar was to be Liszt’s home and base of operations, he had his sights set higher, namely Vienna, as he hoped

…that Vienna might supply a prestigious venue for the premiere of his first mature opera, Sardanapale, which he was working on at the time. Liszt’s letters show that in 1846 he was hopeful of taking up Gaetano Donizetti’s post, for the great opera composer was gravely ill. Nonetheless, Donizetti retained the post until his death in 1848. Timing was not on Liszt’s side, though it is doubtful whether he would have been offered such a prestigious post even if it had become available given his inexperience as a conductor. Equally, the absence of a successful opera in his compositional portfolio did not make him an obvious successor Donizetti. [5]

Based on conventional wisdom about Liszt, his strategy would be something akin to arrogance: unless one could hear reason to believe that he could write an opera (as this recording might help us to better assess & understand). However it came about that Liszt had his reality check, in rethinking his Viennese ambitions and turning instead towards a more realistic goal –namely the Weimar position—Sardanapale is again a likely subtext.

Cormac explains:

It was not until February 1848 that he decided to take up the post full time. At this point Liszt still retained hopes of completing Sardanapale and launching his career as a composer, and Weimar had a theatre, albeit small one. It also offered a place where he might experiment and refine his craft. He could safely premiere his new works on a small stage in relative obscurity before taking them to Vienna and other more prestigious venues. [6]

What happened? Weimar and the requirements of the job, first of all, and a change of heart. The book tells us about the symphonic poems while

From 1851 progress on Sardanapale slowed. The project had previously featured heavily in Liszt’s correspondence, but now disappeared completely. Instead Liszt’s thoughts turned increasingly to his orchestral series.[8]

And yes, that’s precisely what the book is really about, a profound shift in attitude & focus. I know only one of the baker’s dozen of symphonic poems, namely Les Preludes, troubled by the piece’s associations with the Third Reich.

I remember reading somewhere that it was one of Hitler’s favourites. But aside from that warhorse, I don’t know the others at all.

cormacWhat I’m finding especially fascinating in this book is that it’s not just musicology. We’re instead dealing with a multi-disciplinary study, embracing all the different aspects of Liszt’s life, all the different hats he was required to wear in Weimar. And so while we see Liszt turn away from his own Sardanapale score he is still involved with operas composed by others.  Cormac gives a modern flavor to some of the descriptions, in her analysis of the kinds of pressure in adaptations of Gluck for 19th century audiences.

The symphonic poems are settings of a variety of literary subjects & themes.  I realize now that I must study further. And so I’m persuaded, as Cormac has not only given me a rationale for taking Liszt more seriously as a composer, but makes me want to circle back to read her analyses when I have had a chance to explore the other symphonic poems.

Yes indeed, I’m hooked.

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Winterreise at Lula Lounge


On Wednesday, September 5, Tongue In Cheek Productions enters Toronto’s already-vibrant classical music scene with what promises to be an unforgettable inaugural concert. Twenty-four basses and baritones will join forces at Lula Lounge for a performance of Winterreise, Schubert’s iconic song cycle as you’ve never heard it before. This one-time-only collaboration of some of Canada’s finest low voices is an evening you won’t want to miss.

Founded by Toronto-based baritones Aaron Durand and Michael Nyby, Tongue In Cheek Productions aims to add a twist to the traditional idiom of classical performance by bringing an element of humour, irreverence, and whimsy to the concert stage. For Winterreise, instead of one singer presenting the entire cycle in a solemn recital hall, twenty-four singers will perform one song each in the festive atmosphere of Lula Lounge. “We wanted to do something memorable for our launch,” explained Nyby. “What better way than to get as many artists involved as possible.”

The powerhouse list of performers from across Canada span a wide-range of experience levels, from established stars with decades of experience on Canadian and international stages to a few talented emerging artists at the very early stages of their careers. The concert will feature the piano talents of Trevor Chartrand, and a number of recognizable voices including Alain Coulombe, Jason Howard, Doug MacNaughton, Giles Tomkins,  Alexander Hajek, Olivier Laquerre, Dion Mazerolle, Cairan Ryan, Justin Welsh, Andrew Tees, Keith Lam, Clarence Frazer, and many more.

Lula Lounge, located at 1585 Dundas West, is one of Toronto’s foremost music clubs, but rarely plays host to classical concerts. The venue features a bar and restaurant with table service, as well as a dance floor that likely won’t be necessary for this performance. Doors open at 7 pm for drinks and snacks, performance begins at 8 pm. Tickets are $35 general admission, $25 for arts workers. Tickets and more information are available at


“Press releases and announcements” are presented verbatim without comment.

Posted in Personal ruminations, Press Releases and Announcements | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Our Maliseets Songs) from Jeremy Dutcher

I’ve been listening to Jeremy Dutcher’s debut CD, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. When I googled to try to find out what that means, the phrase “Our Maliseets Songs” came up.

Wikipedia tells me that “The Wolastoqiyik, or Maliseet are an Algonquian-speaking First Nation of the Wabanaki Confederacy. They are the Indigenous people of the Saint John River.”

I heard some of this music for the first time in a live performance back in April at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre when Dutcher sang & played one of the most powerful noon-hour concerts I’ve yet seen, grabbing a copy of the CD on my way out of the RBA. I’ve been listening & reverberating to the CD ever since. If you’re interested in obtaining it, try here directly from his website.


Dutcher explained some of his subtext, his motivation. I’d never thought about Indigenous languages in terms of numbers of native speakers, but of course this is fundamental to any notion of languages that are understood as “living languages” (given that designation because people speak the language from birth, rather than as an academic exercise) as opposed to those in danger of becoming a “dead language” like Latin or Sanskrit (which are only spoken in the academic sense, as a second, third or fourth language and never from birth). But of course this is precisely the concern underlying the conversation about cultural genocide & the residential schools, where children were forcibly assimilated into our western culture while being stripped of the language & customs with which they were born & are their birthright.

Listening to this CD, it gives a whole new meaning to this idea, when one realizes that song, dance and ritual celebration were also torn away from these children. Dutcher’s album is 100% positive, a celebration of song across generations, as the talented young singer & pianist puts forth the premise that the songs –in whatever form—make the culture live.

I recall the reverence with which Dutcher circled the stage at RBA, softly drumming as he addressed the unseen in our midst as well as the seen.  The CD is several songs in different styles, but includes a brief fervent conversation that I keep listening to over and over, a reminder of his project to make the culture live. I paraphrase roughly:

“When you bring the songs back you bring the dances back
You bring the people back
You’re going to bring everything back
Music will bring you back
It will be just like when we first started.”

It’s a gently moving vision of cultural rebirth.  His work is informed by spirituality, a deep reverence for those who went before and who come to life in his work.

And speaking of incarnations, Dutcher manages to be several sorts of artist at the same time. While his singing voice is classically trained, we’re in territory closer to something like folk or even popular music, a powerful voice that is more direct and straight-forward than what you usually get from classical singing. I recall the opera of my youth, before the advent of surtitles, when it was normal to hear music in an unfamiliar language without having a clue what it means. I let it wash over me the same way I would listening to Puccini or Verdi, beautiful meaningful sounds.

The resulting creation is a curious blend, suggesting something post-modern in the way he straddles several idioms and cultures, creating a synthesis that is neither this nor that. I sense him throughout, a modern man walking on the land, with a simultaneous awareness of the new occupants of Turtle Island with whom he collaborates, and his own culture. I think of a pragmatic post-modern creation such as the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the ROM, a modern building that is attached to a beautiful old structure, allowing us to see old and new at once, both old and new at the same time. Another metaphor I recall is Linda Hutcheon’s notion of the palimpsest, whereby one sees through layers, to view what came before and what is overlaid in the new adaptation. Dutcher sets old songs as though putting diamonds into platinum rings, complete with the occasional sample of the original voice from long ago.

I could also mention an idea from John Ralston Saul, that Canada is a Métis country.  The most authentic Canadian music must somehow be a blend, a mix of the cultures we blend in making Canada.  I think Dutcher is enacting that blend, striving towards an ideal that is more genuinely Canadian than anything I’ve ever heard.

While I’m thinking of his music as though he’s enacting a kind of crossover, simultaneously new and old, traditional and hybrid, I am less concerned about genre & form than what’s in his heart. Above all we are in the presence of his spirituality, unmistakable throughout this album, working to bring a culture to life.

And Dutcher’s out there, performing his music. This Saturday August 18th he’s at the Grand Theatre, Greater Sudbury, Saturday September 8th at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre in Yellowknife, Saturday November 3rd in Québec City and Saturday December 15th at The Danforth Music Hall here in Toronto. For tickets and/or information about any of these see

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