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Now And Then

Françoise Sullivan, I let rhythms flow, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1 November 2023 – 18 February 2024.

When I first moved to Montreal nearly 20 years ago, I felt like an immigrant. Coming from Edmonton — a “city,” in the loosest sense of that designation; a big small town — Montreal was larger and metropolitan and had its own distinct culture that I loved and wanted to be a part of in every way. But I never dared say that I was “from Montreal.” At first, I just lived here.

Relocating to Montreal to attend university meant being accepted and rejected all at once: accepted by the institution to study, yet rejected by the government and society at large to qualify as a Quebecker. Hailing from Alberta doubled the difficulty — I was not only an out-of-province student, but also from the dreaded nemesis. “Bizarro Quebec,” as I like to call it.

I converted to Quebec like an anti-capitalist American defecting to the Soviet Union. In doing so, I accepted a second-tier societal position. I accepted the existence of a glass ceiling. I accepted most of all that I would never become a part of the ruling class. But over the past two decades, I have watched as that class has deteriorated and failed, betraying itself and the Quebec I loved.

A student protest took place in 2004. Another one in 2012 brought Jean Charest down and catapulted Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois into politics. Montreal’s students have always been at the avant-garde of progressive social change. And Quebec’s French students are smart enough to understand the current government’s ruse. (They’re also smart enough to be bilingual.)

I have lived in Montreal longer than anyone who was born here who is 20 years old or younger, regardless of their language or culture. And I know more about Quebec’s history and society than most pure laine Quebecois folks. What I know is that Quebec is not a place. It’s an idea. I have a pretty good idea of what this place is. Dare I now say that I am from Montreal?

Jo Compadre, So Soulful (featuring Jadakiss) (produced by Anthony Bailey)

“Not America.”

That is always how Canada has traditionally defined itself — in its antithetical opposition to our nearest neighbour. America has a definite identity, exemplified by Apple Pie and Norman Rockwell paintings and an an air of undeserved superiority. Canada doesn’t. We’re supposed to be polite. But we’re not even known as being that anymore. “Used to be polite” isn’t an identity.

America was a melting pot; Canada became a mosaic. In the 1970s, Trudeau Sr. entrenched Canadian policies of bilingualism and multiculturalism, and Trudeau the Younger has welcomed immigrants to Canada in numbers never before seen — 985,000 over the next two years.

Quebec will accept 60,000 newcomers by 2027. But Montreal isn’t Quebec. And Quebec isn’t Canada. Without some strong sense of national identity, I wonder what sort of city, what kind of province, which country, and whose culture new immigrants feel like they’re arriving to today?

Tomoko Sauvage with Diego Bermudez Chamberland and Nicola Ratti, Festival Akousma, Usine C, 19 October 2023

It has been one year since I launched NicheMTL. In that year, Niche has posted more than one interview per month, and more than one article per week. We have had the honour of publishing writing by young new writers and photos by up-and-coming photographers. NicheMTL has expanded into a real publication. And why not? Check the credits, both street and academic.

There are only two levels of notoriety in this city. Because Montreal is not New York. It’s not Berlin. It’s not Paris, either. In Montreal, you either have cult status, or you’re more niche.

Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, La persistance, l’éphémère, Édifice Wilder, 16 October 2023

I wrote a book on MIDI, which is an acronym for the Musical Instrument Digital Interface. MIDI is a standard computer protocol that enables devices of different manufacturers, and even different eras, to work together. A Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer made in 1984 can be plugged into a MIDI patch bay and function perfectly well with 2023 technology.

As standards go, MIDI is an anomaly because of its longevity. Most standards become obsolete after a few years. Remember SCSI? MIDI celebrated its 40th birthday in 2023, and it is still the technical standard used in every music studio, in every music school, on stage, on screen, and in every mobile phone the world over.

As I have often overstated, it is impossible to overstate MIDI’s importance to music. If there were no standard musical interface, Yamahas would only work with other Yamahas. Korgs would only work with other Korgs. And there would be no “Get Ur Freak On” ringtone.

MIDI was never perfect. It was a compromise — the least worst option that every digital music company in 1983 could agree upon, at a time when digital technology was still in its infancy. This kind of cooperation is practically unheard of in other industries. Imagine if oil companies had united on infrastructure at the precise moment the internal combustion engine was invented. Or if movie studios collectively developed a streaming service.

It seems counterintuitive for competitors to cooperate. But that’s what digital musical instrument manufacturers did in 1983, and their efforts not only produced fortunes for each of them, but also gifted the world with amazing music that may have still been possible without MIDI, but a lot less intuitive to make.

The reason I bring up MIDI is because it is like a language. MIDI is a standard computer grammar that, individually, nobody really loved, but that, collectively, everyone liked enough to adopt for creative advancement’s sake. Kind of like how the business world has more-or-less adopted English. They speak English in Japan. They speak English in Germany. Hell, they speak English in France. Quebec missed the standard memo.

Testament (2023) dir. Denys Arcand, Cinéma Cineplex Forum, 10 October 2023

They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.◼︎

Cover image: Françoise Sullivan photographed for NicheMTL.