Friday, 27 July 2018

Just Be Gemma

Last week was Pride Week in St. John's.  It is good to see that the week-long event has become more than a marketing ploy with rainbow flags in store windows or even a token ceremony at City Hall.  Pride Week has become a much more inclusive event, with family flair, with readings in bookstores by drag king Doctor Androbox and art activities at The Rooms.  Gender inclusive washrooms were noted in programs.  Times really seem to be changing.
Dr. Androbox at Chapters bookstore.

The documentary that traces Gemma Hickey's gender transition over a two year period was also screened at The Rooms.  This documentary is the product of Peter Walsh and his style is understated.  The result is a film that is intimate rather than dramatic and shows a much more vulnerable side to Gemma Hickey.  Hickey (no relation to me) is well known as a social activist, especially as they have championed same sex marriage, fought for survivors of clergy abuse and most recently gender neutral birth certificates.  Clearly, no shrinking violet.
Peter Walsh (left) and Gemma Hickey(right) with film poster.

The film starts with Gemma's first day of testosterone therapy.  Since 2014, there have been a spate of tv programs–both "reality" and dramatic– like "I am Jazz", "Transparent" or "I am Cait" that have banked on the growing interest in gender identity.  What makes "Just Be Gemma" outstanding amid this crop of films is its subtlety.  This is not a simple case of transitioning from one gender to another.

There's a very moving section in Hickey's story when she consults with her Nan, who is the family wise woman and matriarch.  Hickey shares that she doesn't know whether she wants to be a boy or a girl.  Nan's advise is to "just be Gemma".  And it is that process of discovery that is the film's strength.  It is not about binary definitions, sensational surgery or miracle hormones.  This documentary reflects on what  is lost and what is gained and an evolving sense of self that impacts a whole family and community.  The film is a coproduction of CBC.  Here's the link:

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Everything from yacking to yoiking

Frode Fjellheim
Last night (Saturday July 7/18) was another jam packed evening of talent and good camaraderie at the Sound Symposium.  Even before the opening act there was a tangible good vibe that filled the LSPU Hall.  To me, this is one reason that makes the Symposium so extraordinary.  Not only do you get to experience astonishing talent on stage but you get to talk with the performers afterwords.  I am always impressed by the feeling of community that develops in such a short time at the Symposium.  It is a pressure cooker of musical and sonic talent.  It seems to bring out the best in so many people.

It would be difficult for me to pick a favourite from last nights’ musicians.  Hildegard Westerkamp’s multilayered recorded set based on boat horns was delightful.  Bill Horist’s guitar stylings was a surprise (at least for me) and Frode Kjellheim and Snorre Bjerck’s performance was nothing short of memorable.  I think everyone’s favourite new verb is yoiking.

Frode Kjellheim’s interpretation of yoiking is a soulful blend of jazz and Nordic traditions.  I thought he played the keyboard with tenderness.  Combine this with Snorre Bjerck’s percussion and you indeed have something special.  I particularly liked how he played the rim of his drum set.
Snorre Bjerk

What I also found intriguing is how so many music traditions were brought sensually together by Kjellheim and Bjerk.  Was that really Turkish neh I heard blended in the composition?  And Bjerk’s use of ankle bells reminded me of Kathakali temple dancing.    Don’t get me started on his brush work.  Speaking of dancing, it took every shred of my self-discipline just to stay seated.  I know for certain I was not alone in that regard.  It was a comment I heard from several audience members.

My only regret of the evening is that I knew we would run out of time before music.  But that’s what happens when you have so much talent in one room.  Thank you to the staff and volunteers for another wonderful Sound Symposium!  I am sure St. John’s, especially for such a sparsely populated city, is the envy of many provinces in this country.  

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

The Red and the White of Canada Day

I hope I never have to read another book like this one, Seven Fallen Feathers, Racism, Death, And Hard Truths In A Northern City.  This is worse than dystopian fiction.  Sadly, all these stories are true and exhaustively researched by award winning journalist Tanya Talaga.  Seven Fallen Feathers was on my radar when it made the CBC Canada Reads challenge.  I have been on something of a year-long marathon of learning about Indigenous culture.  When a friend gave me a copy, it fit perfectly in my purse and it became my go-with-me-everywhere book.  As it turns out, I was very glad to read it in short bursts of time and in waiting rooms, airport lobbies, etc  The stories it tells are hard and harrowing–as Katherena Vermette says in her review.  I found them so harrowing that I had to keep putting the book down and I was glad when I was not alone. 

Seven Fallen Feathers is heavy medicine and I could only take it in small doses.  When I read that Canada's Indian Act had been used as a template for Apartheid in South Africa, I felt physically ill.

Another curious thing occurred about taking the book with me and reading in public.  There were frequent, spontaneous conversations with strangers.  It seemed everyone had an opinion or their own heart breaking tale to share.  I met two people with direct experiences in Thunder Bay that included open acts of racism (like having a beer bottle thrown at your head from a passing car) and the tragedy of suicide within the family.  All of a sudden being a Canadian meant something different to me.

Alanis Obomsawin
Thankfully, the darkness of these bleak truths was somewhat alleviated by the National Film Board's Wide Awake Series.  This initiative addresses the need for more women filmmakers and especially Indigenous women filmmakers.  So far, there have been 900 free screenings across Canada that showcase these films.  Last week I was able to attend two, here's a snippet from the press release:

Our People Will Be Healed is 85-year-old Alanis Obomsawin’s 50th film. It follows a school in a Cree community that experienced a remarkable increase in high school graduates after introducing ancestral culture to the curriculum. 

Both of the film presentations were accompanied by Q&A sessions and social events.  This gave us a chance to learn more about Obomsawin's and Clements' creative vision and decades long careers.  Obomsawin had a lovely grace about her too and I could only wish to "grow up" and be like her.

Marie Clements
The film on the next evening was The Road Forward, Marie Clements’ stunning musical documentary about First Nations activism, told through seven story-songs, performed by an ensemble of some of Canada’s finest vocalists and musicians.  I will never forget the opening scene where the keystrokes of a 1920s typewriter are paired up with the urgent sound of a tribal drum.  The ensemble acting in this film was seamless and the collection of activist musicians from across Nations was inspiring.  Please let there be a CD released of this soundtrack!  Anyhow, long story short –these two films tell much-needed, honest, good news stories of resilience.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Ranting versus reviewing

“The unexamined life is not worth living” or so the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates supposedly said–and I am willing to bet that if he were alive today he’d add something like, “and bitching doesn’t count”.  Socrates was a proponent of critical thinking, which is often confused with criticism.  

I’ve been pondering the topic of critical thinking because I am currently involved as a mentor in a critical art writing project organized by CARFAC Saskatchewan.  Decades ago, when I first starting writing art criticism there was much more of a cult of the critic.  Print media encouraged coverage of the novel and the controversial and that certainly rubbed off on art critics.  “Painter paints picture” is hardly news nor were most journalists trained to analyze fine art.  What happened is that we ended up with human interest stories about artists, often with a regional slant, or articles that focused on the financial aspects.  It was a narrative approach or story telling, if it was an outrageous story or an extraordinary event all the better.  Think of finding a Maud Lewis at a flea market for a fraction of its market value.

What troubles me most is that the negativity that is sometimes attached to criticism has morphed into something more potentially sinister.  Ranting is replacing reviewing.  The well reasoned argument has changed into a seductive sound byte or a punchy tweet.  Now that we are equipped with phones that rival professional video and audio capacity combined with near-immediate access to digital broadcast platforms there is little to hold back the unfiltered “really, really stupid” comments.  Everyone can become a critic of almost any topic–and one without an editor. We live in a visual culture and unfortunately lots of finger waving and fast paced, loud talking mixed in with animated exclamation marks can be convincing to a surprising number of people.

Perhaps we are vulnerable to caustic ranting because we live in a society that is equal parts anxious and distracted.  We are over-stimulated and our attention span is splintered. We consume flashy headlines but not balanced debate. The more uncertain the future becomes the more attractive is a romanticized version of a slow-motion past.  We are bombarded with tragic and frightening events both at home and globally. A dose of gallows humour may relieve stress but it is no match for the roar of the rant.

Monday, 14 May 2018

A Transfusion of Colour

Susan Parson's painting on the traffic box was a welcome boost.
My Mother's Day was not turning out the way I had hoped.  Without going into details, my plans and expectations went awry but I knew better than to complain.  I didn't want to feel sorry for myself.  Instead, I prescribed myself a walk in the sunshine.  At least I could count on a Newfoundland breeze to clear the cobwebs from my mind.  Instinctively, I reached into my closet to put on the brightest piece of clothing I had.  No black outfits today.

Colour has been my remedy on many occasions.  When I first moved to St. John's, I couldn't get over the persistent grey skies and fog, which I knew would affect my moods and my comfort with my new home town.  So, I painted the living room yellow.  I couldn't change the weather but I could change my immediate environment.  It's like the Russian expression, "there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing".  I've always been amused how men will wear navy blue business suits but women's power suits were usually a bright red.  Take charge…I decided I would also paint my toenails, what I call, rich girl red.

Fortuitously, the sun came out for my Mother's Day stroll and I was rewarded on what could have been a day of drudgery.  When I went to Churchill Square to do some errands I was greeted by an eye-catching piece of traffic box art by Susan Parsons.  It was a giant sunflower against a vivid blue sky.  The yellow and blue painting sings with optimism. 
Katie Voutour's Crayons appeals to the kid in me.

The traffic box program is a project of Clean St. John's and has the goal of local beautification.  The transformed box I encountered is one of forty nine in the city; the project started in 2012.  With at least 100 boxes in the city there is plenty more "canvas" for local artists. Each year, a call for artists goes out and eight proposals are selected.  Most of the imagery is upbeat but is definitely not ho-hum.  Encouragingly, I have never seen any of the artwork on these boxes defaced.  The success of the St. John's project has spread to nearby Mount Pearl and Torbay.

And on a positive note, my Mother's Day ended with two of my favourite young servers giving me three red and three yellow roses.

Monday, 30 April 2018

My Leonard Cohen is not a Planetary Icon

I was not amongst the nearly 300,000 visitors to the Musée d’art contemporain’s blockbuster exhibition, Leonard Cohen Une Breche en Toute Chose/ A Crack in Everything, which closed this April 12th.  This show was three years in the making and I recall director and chief curator John Zeppetelli saying that he was both delighted and relieved when Cohen agreed to the concept of the show and generously made his entire artistic output available to MAC and its participating artists.  A Crack in Everything would evolve into a sprawling show that would take over six exhibition halls at MAC for several months.  It was a massive multimedia undertaking and wowed audiences.  Discussions are underway to see if a version of the show might travel to international venues.

As it would turn out, the show opened exactly one year after Cohen’s passing.  It transformed from an ardent celebration of a universally acclaimed Montrealer into something more solemn and commemorative.  It was an exceptional project that fulfilled its goal of marking Montreal’s 375th anniversary.

I am a native Montrealer and I happened to visit the city in March.  I could have gone but resisted the opportunity and this puzzled me.  So, I decided to reflect on that decision and I realized that I did not want the MAC’s version of Leonard Cohen as a planetary icon.  My reasons were entirely personal, emotional and subjective.  I wanted to hang on to my own version of Leonard Cohen.

Leonard Cohen was very fond of my mother’s BBQ sauce and she was a cook at the BBQ Chicken Chalet in Montreal.  As a little girl, I would frequent the family restaurant, entertaining myself in a booth.  Occasionally, when I got restless I’d visit with customers.  If I was bold, I’d sing and dance for the regulars.  Cohen as a young man had a favourite booth and I remember him, keeping to himself reading and writing in notebooks.  Back then you could smoke in restaurants and eat your french fries.

I could never shed that image of Leonard Cohen at the BBQ, even as I grew up and became old enough to buy and read his novel Beautiful Losers or listen to his music.  Still, decades later I bumped into the now famous poet and bard at Concordia University.  I was with friends who were taking a class in Jewish mysticism.  Leonard was a fellow student in that class, which was taught by a conservative rabbi.  I remember standing in a circle after class and the students introducing themselves to the rabbi.  Cohen presented his hand ceremoniously and intoned “And I am Leonard Cohen”.  “Nice to meet you Lenny!” the rabbi exclaimed.  It was clear that this rabbi, who neither watched TV nor was in tune with popular culture knew who his famous student was.  It was delicious.  

I believe that as life worn on, with all its ups and downs–including financial upsets–Leonard Cohen grew into a humble man.  Perhaps, it had to do with his lifelong interest in spirituality, including Buddhism.  Whatever the cause, his acute sensitivity to the human condition of suffering was a magnifying lens for his talent, which indeed did connect with audiences worldwide.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Looking Through Painted Glass-Rosemary Lawton's Debut CD

Rosemary Lawton’s premiere CD, Painted Glass is a delightful listen–full of colour, tone and nuance and a few surprises.  What follows is an excerpt of our conversation:

GH:  Can we begin by talking about the title, Painted Glass?  It is a very evocative title and I can imagine so many interpretations, what did you have in mind when you picked the title?

RL:  Well, when I was working on this project, I thought of how each tune I had chosen came from someplace different in Newfoundland. The whole project is comprised of old and new tunes but all fits together somehow. It reminded me of a patchwork quilt or something pieced together to create something special.  When I finally got the artwork from Trevor de Verteuil, It made me think of stained glass, which still fit that idea so I thought I might name it “Pane of Glass.” When I mentioned it to my dad, he thought I had said “Painted Glass” and I actually liked it better so that’s what it became.

GH:  The first track is your arrangement of the Emile Benoit tune, Sally’s Waltz.  It is sweet but not sentimental and has a mellow quality.  What would you like to tell us about this track?

RL:  When I was working on my undergrad at Memorial University, I took a course from Dr. Andrew Staniland. Throughout the course I learned how to compose and arrange for all different types of ensembles.  After I graduated, I was hired by Beyond the Overpass Theatre Company to work out in Twillingate for 4 months.  During that period, I had time to write and compose, and that is when I started to fool around with some arranging of traditional Newfoundland tunes.  Sally’s Waltz happens to be the very first one I arranged and it is what ignited the flame that is now “Painted Glass.”

GH:  It is followed by the traditional Kitchener’s Army.  I found this arrangement driven by melody rather than rhythm.  It made for an easy going army!  Can you tell me about some of the decisions you made with this piece?

RL:  I was guided towards this tune set by Christina Smith who recommended that I look in the Memorial University Folklore Archives and the Centre for Newfoundland Studies for a specific set of field recordings from the Codroy Valley done by Margaret Bennett at the University of Edinburgh. They were tunes performed by the MacArthur family and from these field recordings, I transcribed their versions of the tunes. The tunes are both commonly known Scottish session tunes however; I thought it was very interesting that the tunes were preserved in such a rural area of Newfoundland.  Not only were they preserved, but the second tune was also assigned a Gaelic name when its original name was in English.  Looking back on the process now, I suppose I took the feel of their recordings with me when I arranged them, which provides a more peaceful arrangement to something with “army” in the title.

GH:  Next came one of your own compositions, The Siren, which I thought made a great contrast with the prior tracks.  
RL:  Thank you. 

GH:  You sing on The Siren!  I realized that although I’ve heard you play violin for years, I was unaware of your vocal talents.  What do you want to tell me about this side of your creativity?

RL:  When I was a kid, I loved all forms of music including dance, musical theatre, violin, and singing. I was very shy and had trouble performing in front of people so my mother put me into singing lessons.  I pursued singing throughout my school years and actually got accepted to do vocal studies in university as well as violin but I had to make a choice and the choice was violin.  I never stopped singing although, I was eventually labeled as a violinist.  When I decided to record this CD, I saw it as a chance to break out and sing more.

GH:  The image of the captain having to choose between the pull of the deadly siren and the safety of home harbour is a wonderful metaphor for so much in life.  It’s universal and yet very appropriate to Newfoundland.  What was going through your mind when you wrote The Siren?

RL:  I am absolutely passionate about traditional Newfoundland music.  I had heard of many songs of men leaving their wives and children behind while they work on the water, but when I was living in Twillingate, I started to branch out and do some more research. I heard of songs written about women dressing as men to rescue their husbands and fathers, ghost stories, mermaids, and more.  I decided that I wanted to write my own Newfoundland folk song. I really liked the idea of having two powerful female images in a folk song and that is really where the story unfolded.  I had read a book called the Sea Captain’s Wife by Beth Powning, which I found to be a great inspiration.  In the book, a young woman’s husband is off at sea when she gives birth to her daughter, and he does not get the chance to meet his child until she is three.  I used this story in the song and her child became “the daughter he never knew” in the song. The fear of her husband never coming home was always present, thus the repetition of “head towards the rocks,” which I decided to include as a percussive type of vocal sound.  I really wanted the arrangement to create the soundscape of a stormy sea, and the high vocal lines were meant to imitate the call of the Siren.

GH:  The progression or build on the Dave Panting medley of Circumstance Waltz, Stomp and Rockaway was very appealing.  Why did you pick this one for your CD?

RL:  When I was putting this project together, I knew I wanted to create this blend of old and new, with well-known tunes and lesser-known tunes too. I contacted Dave Panting who was incredibly kind to give me three of his tunes that have never been recorded before. I decided that I wanted to have a Dave Panting tune set so I strung the tunes together.  I started with the waltz because I really liked the idea of making the arrangement grow throughout and leave the audience “rocking away” by the end.

GH:  There has got to be a story behind your composition The Movie Jigs.  Can you share it?

RL:  There is indeed! While completing my undergraduate degree, I took many courses from the incredible Dr. Andrew Staniland as mentioned before and another one of those courses was Electronic Music. During the course, I had to write a score for a short film about a girl who adopts a baby dragon.  There is a scene where the dragon gets loose in the market and has fun chasing some chickens and another scene where he is kidnapped and the girl has to set off on a quest to find him. I decided to write some jigs to fit the score and thought they would be a good addition to this project.  Looking back, I could have called them something more interesting like the “Dragon Jigs” or something but as of now, they remain “Movie Jigs 1 and 2”. 

GH:  Your album ends with the traditional, Ghostly Lover.  I’ve always found the lyrics to this piece almost achingly beautiful.  Why did you choose to end your album on such a melancholy note?

RL:  I actively sought out a ballad to end the album. I liked the idea of fading out for the end.  I looked through various ballad collections and found this song in a Greenleaf edition.  The supernatural aspect of the tune interested me but what drew me to the piece was the melody.  I am a very melody-driven musician and I will often hear a song many times before I even notice the words.  There were many ballads that I saw with stunning poetry but the melody decided it for me.  It was my producer Ian Foster’s idea to add the gentle strings to the background, which I feel really set the scene for the last song.