On any given weekend, there are seemingly limitless things going on in Montreal. Springtime is the beginning of a lively festival season, and since the pandemic formally ended, cultural events are rushing back to auditoriums — and audiences are returning, too. In unexpected places and in well-established venues, something for anyone awaits everyone.
I love finding two very different things to do at weekends, to maximize the variety of experience that this great metropolis has to offer. Dichotomy characterizes Montreal more than most cities. There are the French and the English Montreals, of course. But there are also the disreputable and respectable Montreals, the underground and the established, the vicious and virtuous.
Take nighttime and daytime Montreal. There’s Saturday night Montreal, which shamelessly sniffs questionable substances in graffitied bathrooms, and then there’s Sunday afternoon Montreal that sings in the church choir and serves soup afterwards. Respectable Montreal likes to prance around pretending that Montreal of ill repute isn’t lurking just beneath its surface, waiting to emerge like a werewolf in Paris-lite, beneath the gleam of a silvery moon. But it’s there. These two Montreals need each other, they feed off of each other, they benefit from this delicate cultural dance.
Last weekend began on the decadent side, with a bloodbath. Not an actual bloodbath, mind you; rather, a daylong event called Cyber Market organized by Bloodbath Montreal, the local promoter. A gritty loft space on Saint-Laurent boulevard provided the location for the day’s festivities, which featured a creator’s marketplace and pop-up tattoo parlour. Throughout the day, about a dozen musicians and DJs graced a transient squad of attendees, and the evening culminated in a performance by the rapper and artist, Emma Rose.
I was certain that I was the oldest person there, until a man in his mid-50s approached me and introduced himself as Rose’s father. I told him it was cool of him to come, to wade through the sea of early twentysomethings drinking vodka and cranberry juice and vaping. “You’ve got to support your kids,” he stated. He asked me for a business card and I mentioned I was thinking of having some made. “Cards, stickers, get ‘em, put ‘em everywhere!” he said, slapping nearby surfaces, offering sound advice, as dads are wont to do.
Bloodbaths, or “Taurobolium,” were common in the Roman Empire between the second and fourth centuries and were connected to the cult of “Magna Mater,” the Great Mother, known to the Greeks as Cybele, the Goddess of Phrygia, located in present-day Asian Turkey. The Christian poet Prudentius detailed the bloodbath ritual in unflattering and hyperbolic terms, describing a brutal baptism — technically more of a blood shower — in which a pagan priest was drenched in the plasma of a sacrificial bull.
Despite transubstantiation being a core tenet of communion, blood rituals came to symbolize paganism and were rejected by an increasingly Christianizing Rome. But their influence still exists — in Marina Abramović’s works of art, for instance, or Red Bull’s corporate mythology, the energy drink whose key ingredient is the stimulant, Taurine.
One might imagine that an organ concert at Maison Symphonique the following Sunday afternoon would be the heavenly flipside to this Montreal weekend of extreme duality, the redemption after the massacre. The Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna performed rotating pieces composed by J.S. Bach and Philip Glass, spanning centuries in moments with the angelic sound of the Grand Orgue Pierre-Béique.
This music was nothing like the DJs and rappers of the evening prior. It was stunningly beautiful, technically perfect, like a holy waterfall washing away all the froth and grime of the night before. Yet virtuousness is mere veneer, dependent upon historical context and perspective.
Early Christendom didn’t approve of organs, either. No bloodbaths in the second to fourth centuries, but definitely no Bach or Philip Glass. Musical instruments of every kind were considered too tempting, in fact, too sensuous, potentially leading to the commission of all manner of sin. If one wanted to sing God’s praises, the voice had to suffice. A recent tabloid article suggesting that the L.A. Philharmonic produced a patron’s climax seems to support the rationale that any form of music is indeed the devil’s music.
As I was leaving the crusty loft on Saint-Laurent the night before, I ran into Rose’s dad. He ducked out and into the night, turned and waved and shouted, “I love you, man!” It might have been the cranberry juice talking, but those were words I had not heard for years from my own father, accompanied by a sentiment so offhanded for him and yet so meaningful to me. That emotion carried itself into the subsequent afternoon as I sat staring at the ceiling trying to keep the tears welling in my eyes from spilling over whilst listening to Apkalna alternate between Bach and Glass on the Maison Symphonique’s unholy musical instrument.
After the OSM concert, I fortuitously bumped into Iveta Apkalna, the organist, who was walking hurriedly through the Complex Desjardins. She evidently left the building faster than Elvis Presley, but absent of any security detail. Not even a valet, just a pair of precious hands and the woman to whom they belong, and crystal blue eyes still high on performance, a white whale swimming upstream, clutching her own garment bag. All the unions in Quebec and yet no one to escort this starlet from the auditorium, to keep at bay those of us who’d bathed in blood the previous evening. Apparently, her father did not come to the show.
I pondered back to the Cyber Market and wondered what Apkalna would have thought of the kids’ music, and what the kids might think of an organ recital. How to resolve these two realities? They each have their virtues. And they’re not all that different. They both concurrently glorify creation, and are sexy as bloody hell.
Again, it’s all about perspective. In a Montreal that often seems split down the middle, one person’s Sunday afternoon is another one’s new Saturday night.◼︎