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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.

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Good Times Gone

Canadian Police and Peace Officers’ National Memorial Day, Alberta Legislature, 24 September 2023

I had occasion to be in Edmonton in September.

While there, I was fortunate to meet several members of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. The Alberta UCC President, Orysia Boychuk, had just returned from Ottawa to welcome Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for his second diplomatic address to Canadian Parliament. Another tireless UCC volunteer, Cynthia Fedor, whose son is an RCMP officer, invited me that Sunday afternoon to the police and peace officers’ memorial ceremony taking place at the Alberta Legislature grounds.

Normally, honouring cops is not in my purview. I’m more like Hunter S. Thompson at a cop conference than anything approaching Jack Webb. My personal experience has been more ducking and running from cops than saluting them. But as time passes, and as violent incidents increase, I have come around to the police. I certainly have always respected their sacrifice to apply some semblance of order to a chaotic society. Not all cops are bastards.

In Zelensky’s speech to Parliament, he noted several times the need for what’s being called a “rules-based order,” upon which the world must function. We need rules. We need order. Order produces peace, on a local and global scale.

There’s no peace in a world where violence is more or less legal in this or that country, or where it is fine to exploit children in this or that region, or where nobody really pays any attention to what’s going on for an entire portion of the planet.

It’s one planet, it’s one-of-a-kind, and we need to start recognizing it as such. We have to begin to behave as if planet Earth is the irreplicable and irreplaceable home of life as we know it. Still for now, that’s what it is.

Everly Lux, Is It True?

Justice is incommensurate with capitalism because justice is inherently monopolistic. If we lived under true capitalism, someone would have come along long ago to deliver a fairer form of justice. Cheaper, too.

Catherine Lamb, Curvo Totalitas (2016), La Sala Rossa 2 October 2023

I missed Pop Montreal in its entirety this year. Not by choice, but by necessity. I’m still kicking myself. Happily, I was able to attend No Hay Banda’s season premiere, a more niche poptimism.

Valérie Blass, This Is Not a Metaphor, Darling Foundry, 8 September – 22 October 2023

Valérie Blass, This Is Not a Metaphor, photographed for NicheMTL.

Doubtless, the West is decadent. We’ve been decaying since the Enlightenment. Whether this is a permanent decline or just the low end of a sine wave that will arch back upwards at some point remains to be seen. Probably not in our lifetimes.

But there is no political or cultural alternative to decadence; only corruption of a different order, exploitation under another name. Putin is sleazier than Trump. Xi Jinping is sleazier than Putin. Kim Jong Un is sleazier than Xi Jinping. And the eye in the sky is sleazier than them all.

In the film Superpower, Sean Penn’s documentary about Zelensky, someone — a Ukrainian — says something like, “so long as there is corruption, there is justice.” Nowhere is that truer than in this great city, a rhapsody of virtue and vice, depravity and integrity.

To decadence.

Wu-Tang Clan

A common axiom goes, don’t meet your heroes. The implication is that our heroes will inevitably disappoint us because they could never live up to our heroic expectations. But there are two ways to cheat this. 1: Don’t have any expectations of your heroes; and 2: try to meet them when you’re least expecting it. Surprise them, too; don’t meet them where they’re normally met.

On Tuesday morning, I was walking along Rue de la Montagne with a colleague after a press conference at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. We had passed the entrance of the Four Seasons Hotel in front of which was parked a long, black tour bus. A tattooed and bearded and good-natured dude stood in front of the door, waiting.

I asked him who the bus was for, and he said, mysteriously, “my boss.” So I gently pressed him on who his boss was, and he said, RZA. I paused and confirmed that this bus was for the Wu-Tang Clan and he nodded with pride and told me that he was the RZA’s tour bus driver. He also told me that he would be right down and I might be able to say hello.

Moments later, there he was — the RZA, standing right in front of me. He had on his signature Carreras and looked fresh in a black velour track suit. I had nothing for him to autograph, and I didn’t much think to take a photo. I just introduced myself and said, ‘Mr. RZA, thank you for your music, and thank you for the teachings, which have changed — and possibly saved — my life.’

Mr. RZA responded with kindness and grace, thanking me for sharing the sentiment. He looked me in the eyes and called me by my name and bumped my fist. I’ve met many movie stars and musicians and wealthy people before, but none whose greatness was so immediately palpable, whose energy was so generous, whose aura was so contagious. I felt greater in his presence.

I still can’t believe that I was just walking downtown in Montreal on a Tuesday morning and almost tripped over one of Hip-Hop’s most brilliant and influential artists. I wasn’t lying. The Wu might be bigger than The Beatles. And they were bigger than Jesus. You can do the math.

And just as quickly, the boys were piling onto the bus, shuffling off to Buffalo for their next tour stop. So I wished them Godspeed and waved goodbye — and I might have accidentally slapped a NicheMTL sticker onto the back of their trailer as they pulled out and beyond the black horizon.◼︎

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Escape This Desire

Les lumineuses Vêpres de la Vierge de Monteverdi, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, 20 August 2023

Antoine Saito for the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal

After their tremendous performance on the truncated stage at a reconfigured Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, conductor Eric Milnes shouted out to an enthusiastic audience, “Want some more?”

Everyone did. But I wonder if all the musicians wanted to give more. Or if the audience might have liked a moment to soak in the experience before the encore. Of course no one said no.

Nonetheless, Mr. Milnes is hardly the most scandalous maestro of Monteverdi in recent weeks. The acclaimed English conductor John Eliot Gardiner slapped a bass soloist in the face after he reportedly stepped in the wrong direction off the podium at a festival in La Côte-Saint-André, in the south of France. There were no serious injuries, only bruised egos. And a flurry of apologies. However, Gardiner, who is 80, has withdrawn from his remaining European tour dates, and this incident will doubtless shade the twilight of his career.

Who would have imagined that the void of Hollywood plot twists left by the tandem writers’ and actors’ strikes might be filled with the Baroque classical music world’s high melodrama?

Jake Bowen, No Rhyme or Reason, Atelier Galerie 2112, 24-28 August 2023

Jake Bowen photographed for NicheMTL

I hope I’m not telling tales out of school.

But the bright young artist Jake Bowen confessed to me at his recent vernissage that he was leaving Montreal to return to his native Toronto. Citing a number of valid reasons, chiefly among them language, rising costs, and the difficulty of making a living under the first two conditions, Bowen painted a picture of Montreal as a city that can seem especially cruel to sensitive types like him.

This was not the city I moved to.

Montreal was once a metropolitan magnet to aspiring artists. Cheap rent, a laissez-faire way of life, and diverse and expanding creative communities used to draw people like Bowen from Toronto and beyond.

Not anymore.

Inflated property values mean inflated rents, putting Montreal on par with other Canadian cities for affordability. And living and working as an Anglophone painter under an increasingly hostile Francophone government is no longer such a romantic sacrifice.

It’s a shame that we can’t retain Bowen and others like him who leave. He didn’t fail to make it here; Montreal failed to make it for him — and it is our loss.

They call it the brain drain. Still, that term has a double meaning: not only is Montreal being drained of our brains, but enduring the absurdity in Quebec’s minutiae of language-based political bureaucracy literally drains the brain.

Ensamble de Cámara Orquesta Experimental de Instrumentos Nativos, La Sala Rossa, 15 August 2023

ECOEIN photographed for NicheMTL

Ten years ago, I travelled to Peru to participate in the sacred ritual ingestion of ayahuasca. Motivated by the romanticized stories of telepathy and time travel alluded to in correspondence between William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and published as The Yage Letters, I was certain that ayahuasca would somehow benefit me immensely. It would offer me profound insight into the human condition. It would open up my third eye. I’d be at one with the universe. Or whatever.

It didn’t do those things — and that’s not to say that it wasn’t worth doing. The trip alone was instructive. I gained new perspective on completely different ways of living. I reconsidered travel and tourism, labour and leisure. I awoke, ate, and slept in the jungle. My experience of time changed. But it didn’t take ayahuasca for that.

The psychedelic trip was only a fraction of the whole trip, broadly speaking. It may have facilitated learning, but the medicine itself didn’t teach me anything new.

Psychedelics are more akin to diagnostic tools, like a finely tuned machine that tests a car’s horsepower. It’s a close look under the hood. It doesn’t make the old clunker go any faster. It just gives a general indication of what shape it’s in — if you need wheel alignment, say. Or brakes, or shocks. But if your vehicle is running smoothly, there’s no need for diagnostics. And probably no need for psychedelics, either, if you already have a sense of perspective.

What Burroughs and Ginsberg didn’t say, perhaps what they never considered, is the simple age-old wisdom: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The Lives of Documents — Photography as Project, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Until 3 March 2024


Notions of beauty have changed significantly during my lifetime. What we consider beautiful is not universal, much less timeless. And it’s a pity that beauty graces our senses unevenly — that is, what is beautiful to the touch is not necessarily beautiful to the eye, or the nose, or the ear.

A new hierarchy of beauty has emerged, though: the beauty of reality. It doesn’t matter how attractive a beautiful woman is in a photograph. The photograph isn’t the thing with the beauty; she is. Ugliness, out there in the real world, possesses more beauty than the prettiest pictures.

A happy medium exists when photographs of beautiful objects are themselves presented as a collection of beautiful objects. Let’s call it happy mediumicity.

Nennen, La Sotterenea, 31 July 2023

Buddhists believe that desire is the source of all suffering. If we could only somehow sublimate our constant cravings and yearnings for that which we yearn and crave, the theory goes, then those old familiar achy breaky feelings of unsatiated longing would subside and we’d attain enlightenment — Nirvana.

But Buddhism is dumb. Buddhist philosophy doesn’t want to admit that desire is the very essence of life, the primordial stuff of which it’s comprised. Desire is what makes things happen. It’s our most basic element, our most essential ingredient. If there were a cookbook for all that ever was and all that ever will be, every recipe would end with: “a dash of desire.”

When we cease to desire — things, people; to be loved, to love in turn — then the ride ends. The fire inside burns out and we might as well expire.

Desire is to humans as constant movement is to sharks. Cheat death: stay hungry.◼︎

Cover image: Bowen, Jake. Ball of Energy (2022), detail, 30×24″, acrylic, oil, and spray paint on canvas.

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Whomever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whomever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.

Galatians 6:8

Manchester Collective, Quanta (featuring Lyra Pramuk), NEON (Bedroom Community Records)

On a recent sunny afternoon, I took a walk to the local café that I sometimes go to for a cup of tea. Coffee gives me heart palpitations as if I were high on methamphetamines, so I stick to tea. The Western world thrives upon caffeine and anxiety — and alcohol, and regret. I truly believe that most murders are likely resultant from some combination of those. You’ll never regret murdering a good cup of Earl Grey tea, though.

I had on this occasion a handful of cherries from the fridge that I’d brought in a bowl to share with the baristas with whom I’d become friendly. So there I was, walking down the street with a bowlful of cherries on a sunny summer afternoon. And why not? Part of me simply wanted to see what would happen if I took a bowlful of cherries on my walk down a busy city street.

I approached the façade of an empty storefront where a homeless man had made his makeshift camp for the day. He sat on an overturned milk crate with his hand outstretched and asked me for change, which I didn’t have. But I offered him the cherries instead and his eyes lightened.

I expected him to take the whole bunch — there might have been a dozen or so — but he picked two cherries by their conjoined stems and said thank you and I proceeded onward to the café to share the remaining cherries with the baristas.

In that moment, that man had nothing. And he could have had it all — he could have taken the whole bowlful of cherries. I intended him to do so. Yet he chose to pick only the cherries he needed.

Choice is what elevates us as spiritual beings. We have no natural inclinations to accumulation and conspicuous consumption. That is how animals live. It’s a choice to be a human or a beast.

Tent Music, Fade Away, Tent Music (Whited Sepulchre Records)

I am not a happy camper. 

My earliest memories of being on holiday are of camping with my mom and dad, the three of us crammed into a six-man army tent of heavy olive canvas. This was dad’s idea of fun. It’s all he ever wanted to do on vacation — go camping. He would drag me and mom and we’d sit in lawn chairs with his buddies in a circle around a campfire. They would spit sunflower seeds into the flames and talk about nothing, warming cans of beer wedged between their legs.

Whenever it rained, which was often, there was nowhere to go but back in the tent. Passing hours playing Monopoly on a warped board, or staring into space. You could easily lose your balance in the tent, too, accidentally palming a perfect print on the inside wall that would immediately begin leaking rainwater in the shape of your hand, a wet slap in the face. 

To me as a kid, there was something morbid about the notion of six actual soldiers in an army sleeping in that tent. Maybe somewhere in Vietnam in the ‘60s, or Korea a decade earlier, a canvas tent their only shelter from monsoon season and never-ending artillery fire, nights spent much like their days, in constant discomfort, in constant fear for their lives.

I could imagine nothing worse than that — except of course for us piled together in the pouring rain in the tent that the six of them eventually died in. 

Taylor Swift’s “misprints”

Word spread in mid-July about a rare “misprint” of a Taylor Swift record that one fan had purchased through Amazon. Much to the fan’s surprise, her copy of the album Speak Now contained not one note of Swift’s music, but rather a compilation, entitled Happy Land, of British electronic music circa the early rave era. The New York Times picked up on the fan’s story, dubbing the blundered pressing Taylor’s “scary version” and noting that the mix-up produced something of a crossover between two unlikely camps: pop music and experimental electronica.

This has happened before, though — and with Taylor Swift, too. In 2014, back when people still largely consumed music by paying to download digital files, Swift briefly peaked on the Canadian iTunes chart with eight seconds of noise, prompting a flurry of sarcastic tweets suggesting that the country-pop artist may have made a secret crossover collaboration album with the likes of Merzbow or Prurient. Suddenly, the whole — albeit niche — Canadian glitch music community was talking about Taylor Swift like she was the newest Super Friend.

Experimental music enthusiasts possess omnivorous cultural consumption habits and will listen to Taylor Swift out of guilty pleasure. Whereas it’s doubtful that diehard Swifties will take to buying AIDS Wolf or Cabaret Voltaire records because they accidentally encountered their works whilst trying to spin Swift’s latest hit. The pop music industry’s insistent cynicism at mining every marginal musical community undoubtedly knows no bounds.

Joni Void, La Sotterenea, 7 July 2023

Joni Void performs at La Sotterenea, 7 July 2023

The construction holiday, another quirky feature of Quebec culture, is one of my favourite times of the year. It’s a period during which an estimated third of the province’s population hangs up the high-viz vests and makes for their cabins, or drives their motorhomes somewhere out of the city. During this heavenly time in Montreal, there is a literal void of activity, and most importantly, noise. No jackhammering, no beeping heavy machinery, walkie talkies both stationary and silent.

A recent scholarly study from the pnas’s at PNAS suggests that silence is its own form of sound. If you would like to experience the sound of partial silence, there is a hemi-anechoic chamber in the EV building at Concordia. Or you can book the Orfield Laboratory in Minneapolis, a completely anechoic chamber, for just $400 US per hour-and-a-half tour. Although nobody has been able to stand it for more than 45 minutes.

The OM Alfresco with Naomi Woo, Parc Marie-Claire-Kirkland-Casgrain, 12 July 2023

I used to think that doing improbable things sheerly for the delight of it was decadent in the face of immeasurable suffering. Staging an entire orchestra in a public park, for example, whilst there was a real war going on on the other side of the world seemed, maybe, a little showy.

My mind has changed, however. Improbable things for delight’s sake are precisely what we should be doing to reaffirm our collective values, our hopes, and how we imagine the future. In the public company of music is one of the most resplendent modes we have of being together.◼︎

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Fat of the Land

Moishes, Rue du Square-Victoria, 29 June 2023

An entirely new sensation recently came over me.

I won’t say who or how I learned the news, but I discovered last month that someone who had very badly trolled me online — one of the few people who actually made threats, and about whom I filed a number of unanswered reports to Twitter, leading me in no small part to leave that platform entirely — has died. A person who wrote that they would harm me has departed. Dead dead deadski. Gone. Split. Outta here. Afterlife, kids. I wished them dead, and they died.

Only Scorpios and the Germans have a word for this.

Carmina Burana, Orchestre Classique de Montréal, Maison Symphonique 20 June 2023

The OCM closed out its season with a rousing rendition of Carl Orff’s cantata, Carmina Burana, otherwise known as the soundtrack to every action movie between about 1984 and 2010, when it achieved peak cliché status.

A new orchestral work by Maxime Goulet, entitled Fire & Ice, inspired by the devastating Montreal ice storm of 1998 and commissioned by director Taras Kulish, preceded the Orff performance. No shade to ’98, but we’ve already endured an equally wicked ice storm, several heat waves, and ongoing apocalyptic forest fires as if 2023 has been one giant hold-my-beer meme.

War soundtracks are either from a soldier’s perspective or from the sidelines. The front-line fighter wants to hear something that charges him up — like Russia’s favourite, The Prodigy.

Whereas the armchair spectator craves something more emotional and dramatic, like William Ryan Fritch’s heartrending, ambient soundtrack to this slickly produced New York Times documentary.

Russia provides the war, The Times provides the score.

Jim Holyoak, Gargantuans, McBride Contemporain, 25 May – 30 June 2023

On 6 December 1969, a free concert was mounted at the Altamont Speedway outside of Tracy, California. The lineup featured a who’s who of 60s psychedelia including Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, The Grateful Dead, and The Rolling Stones. The event’s organizers billed it as the Woodstock of the West, promising peace, love, and all the dope that anyone could desire.

The security detail, however — the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang — was not on the same trip. As night fell, the Altamont concert descended into chaos, resulting in numerous injuries and deaths.

A Hell’s Angels member repeatedly stabbed Stephen Stills in the leg with a bicycle spoke, and the lead singer of the San Francisco band the Ace of Cups, Denise Jewkes, suffered a fractured skull when a bottle was tossed in from the crowd.

Meredith Hunter, a black teenager, took a knife in the back after he charged the stage with a pistol. He succumbed to his injuries.

Hunter’s target was unclear. Was it simply revenge for an earlier skirmish, or did the devil’s sympathizers somehow possess this man in a lime green suit?

Inevitable, 540 St. Laurent Blvd, 26 June 2023

Everything I know about Italian food I learned from either Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese. I recall an appearance by Scorsese and his mother, Catherine, on an episode of Late Night With David Letterman to promote the film Goodfellas. Mrs. Scorsese had baked a pizza for Letterman’s audience and was cutting it with scissors. Dave remarked that she wasn’t using a knife or a pizza cutter, and she informed him that to scissor was the preferable method.

I immediately noticed that Mr. Arciero used scissors to slice his pizzas, too. This affirmed its legitimacy to me. I’m not Italian; I’m Ukrainian. But Italians and Ukrainians have the same word for tomatoes, which makes us practically comrade paisans. And dare I submit that Italians know better what to do with tomatoes. We use them as sauce for cabbage rolls. Italians mix them with basil and spread them on fermented dough. And damn, it’s delicious.

There isn’t any pretence about Inevitable. No ultrahip font or incandescent bulbs with glowing filaments exposed. Just Italian goodness made by some fellas.

Maison Margan, 370 Place Royale, 27 June 2023

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the hot dog king of Moscow, has increasingly been employing divisive, populist rhetoric in public, saying things like, “The children of the elite smear themselves with creams, showing it on the internet; ordinary people’s children come in zinc, torn to pieces.” 

Though Prigozhin is no ordinary person. He’s a billionaire with a private army that would make David Koresh’s compound look like a carnival in a parking lot. Prigozhin is decidedly a member of the elite.

But he is so ugly. His skin is rough and ruddy. You know what’s decadent? Those teeth. Someone could use a makeover.

Screenshot from a New York Times Opinion Video entitled “A Salute to the Honest(ish) Russian Warlord.”

Prigozhin and madmen like him would rather the elite’s children come in zinc, torn to pieces, too, than, God forbid, ordinary children smear themselves with creams on the internet, even though there’s nothing decadent in the strictest sense of the word about a good cream smearing from time to time.

Rather, self-care resists decay. This is why lipstick was such a coveted commodity after World War II. Cosmetics might have even stimulated the Baby Boom and the period of peaceful Western prosperity that followed.

At the beginning of the Ukrainian invasion, I volunteered at St. Sophie’s Cathedral, helping to organize the immense and generous volume of community contributions to incoming Ukrainians displaced by war. Coats, clothes, boots, books, games, furniture, cups, saucers, dishes, cutlery, soap, shampoo, body cream.

My eyes fell upon a wooden bowlful of toiletries donated by a local luxury hotel. A woman who had come to the church with her two children picked out a tube of body cream from the bowl as if it were a precious gem or an orchid.

This woman was by no means elite. But nor was she ordinary. She was in a church basement in Montreal selecting a donated tube of hotel body cream under extremely extraordinary circumstances.

We are fortunate in this city, despite having to navigate between orange cones and languages, to have nice things. We deserve nice things. Everyone does. Even Yevgeny Prigozhin. Let’s oppose zinc and ordinary children torn to pieces, not body cream.

Grace means beauty amidst brutality. It is not an end, but a means to one.◼︎

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The Canadian Grand Prix

I had a bad dad.

One lesson my dad did teach me, though — and quite by accident — is how to spot other bad dads and people who had them. What kinds of bad dads? Weinstein bad? Epstein bad? Frankenstein bad? D: All of the steins. Nicole Spector and I were friends on Twitter.

This is why I so despise the F1 weekend in Montreal, I realized. It is a concentrated convergence of grand pricks in wrinkled suits that descend like bad dads upon this otherwise fair city, drinking whisky, smoking cigars, banging hookers, burning rubber, and all right around Father’s Day. This year it’s as if they were astrologically aligned. I shouldn’t take it personally. But I do.

Another lesson I learned later in life was from a film called Shame, directed by Steve McQueen. The British Black filmmaker/photographer, not the White American movie star/race car driver. I sympathize with Michael Fassbinder’s character because we are about the same age, if not the same shoe size. And also because of the brutality of addiction to tame trauma that the story portrays. It’s sex for Fassbinder’s Brandon, but it could be anything: whisky, cigars, rubber.

The family trauma is never revealed in the film. But Sissy, Brandon’s sister, played by Carey Mulligan, indicates its dark sexual nature. She reminds her brother in a moving line of dialogue: just because we come from a bad place does not make us bad people.

So this Father’s Day, if you had a bad dad, I see you. And if you had a good dad — or no dad — be glad. Because unless you’re Roger fucking Waters, coming up dadless is decidedly the better draw.

Ky with HRT and Genital Shame, La Sotterenea, 1 June 2023

There are such things as evil spirits. They can inhabit anyone. One of the most common and overlooked ways that this happens is alcohol.

Recently at a show celebrating the album launch of the Montreal artist Ky, an extremely intoxicated man wandered into La Sotterenea. There was simply no security to stop him. His visage was grizzled from drink and life on the street. His behaviour reflected no vestige of autonomy. He bounced around the room like a pinball, alternately asking patrons for change, and scanning the floor for anything of value.

I was worried for a moment that he may accost someone, possibly me, and an altercation might ensue. But fortunately, or unfortunately, depending upon your perspective, there was exactly nothing for this lost soul in the basement of La Sotterenea. And so he simply ascended the stairs and was spat back out into the night.

There was once a human there. Though his body is now animated entirely by a poison colloquially called spirits. This man was not in good spirits. That is, good spirits did not possess the man.

The Montreal Museum of Illusions

There is, though, some light still left in the world. One place it’s found is in that innocent sense of childlike astonishment at optical illusions. I will never forget a New Years Eve party I attended one year where a group of friends brought their kids. There happened to be a book of optical illusions on the coffee table, and Mrs. Doubtfire couldn’t have made a better babysitter.

The Museum of Illusions, newly opened in Old Montreal, is just such a place. It’s a welcome addition to a previously derelict stretch of St. Antoine, and an excellent way to entertain the whole family when visiting Montreal, or just coming in to the city from the suburbs at the weekend. Ironically, the illusory brings us back in touch with life’s important, real things.

Orchestre Metropolitain, Symphonic Explorations, Maison Symphonique, 11 June 2023

Lately the authorities have been testing the REM network. And one problem I don’t think they anticipated is how loud the things are. It’s a ghostly noise, too, those empty cars gliding back and forth on elevated tracks.

I identified a similar sound in Keiko Devaux’s newest piece, which premiered triumphantly at the Orchestre Metropolitain’s Season Finale concert, and was conducted with gusto by our superstar maestro, the pride of Montreal, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Echoes of technology often crop up in contemporary music — cell phone static is big these days — and perhaps it’s where it’s best dealt with. Devaux’s signature glissando, more subdued now, emulates that constant velocity motivating modern life, smearing cacophony into harmony.

Go Baroque! Montreal Chamber Music Festival, Bourgie Hall, 12 June 2023

The kids used to have a phrase: pics or it didn’t happen. So the photographic evidence presented below proves that the sordid tale that is about to unfold is one hundred percent true.

I was greatly looking forward to a performance by the cellist Elinor Frey at Bourgie Hall as part of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival. And I was in awe of Frey and her quartet of assembled musicians pouring their combined lifetimes of practice into producing this beautiful music. Likely never before in three hundred years had it been played so exquisitely, and in such a setting.

It was about three quarters into the evening that I noticed the couple sitting to my left, a man in a blue collared shirt and a woman wearing a black cocktail dress. I noticed because the woman emitted a giggle following one of the pieces and I wondered what struck her as particularly funny.

In part because something like this just happened at the L.A. Philharmonic, and also because I just wrote about it, I realized what was transpiring. It wasn’t a screaming full body orgasm. But the man’s hands were undoubtedly in the woman’s lap, and hers in his. Through their clothes, they were “manually operating.”

You can’t make this stuff up. And of course it has to find me.

I didn’t know what to do. I immediately felt embarrassment at being subjected to this immensely intimate act in public. So I reached for my water bottle and was about to literally pour cold water on the pair. But I also didn’t want to interrupt the concert. So I reached for my camera instead. The images are blurry because of circumstance, but what they depict is clear.

I don’t follow the world of pornography because of the aforementioned. But I wonder if there is some sinister version of a Tik Tok challenge weaselling its way through the dark web, egging on this sort of exhibitionism. If so, it should be unequivocally named and shamed.

If you’re feeling amorous, especially at a Chamber Music festival, get a room.◼︎

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The Schwartz

Charles Richard-Hamelin with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, Prokofiev’s Concerto no. 2, Maison Symphonique, 13 May 2023

Ambivalence characterizes everyone who’s ever managed to leave a cult. Nobody just quits. Everyone hems and haws and deliberates. There are reasons to join, after all. The sense of belonging. The us-versus-them mentality. The Kool-Aid.

But really, when it comes right down to it, cults are a bit silly. They often have arbitrary and opaque rules, their members always reveal themselves to be individually weak, and their leaders never possess the qualities their followers attribute to them. Jesus Christ probably couldn’t really turn water into wine. Not after 3am anyway. And if Charles Manson’s singing voice was any indication, his leadership and management skills likely left a lot to be desired.

There is strength in numbers — I supposed that’s why gangs and armies are such a thing, never mind cults. And yet one person can change the world. Look at Einstein, or Putin, or Jim Balsillie. Cults naturally form around great people. Great people don’t go out there trying to start cults.

If you’re going to give your life over to crazy ideas, why would you decide to adopt someone else’s crazy ideas? It just seems nuts to join any fringe movement when you can be your very own fringe movement. That is why I don’t want to be a cult member. What happens if their crazy ideas are wrong? Or worse, what happens if they’re right? No cultist really wants to lead; it’s much easier putting the entire cult in charge.

One problem with leaving a cult is that former members often struggle to find their own identity again, to remember who they are independent of the cult. It is important to nurture and encourage these people, to remind them that they are special and unique individuals capable of thriving and flourishing on their own. Being gentle helps.

The Orchestra Symphonique de Montreal’s Season Finale concerts run 31 May, 2 June, and 3 June at Maison Symphonique.

Wolves: The Art of Dempsey Bob, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 16 May 2023

“Art is what makes us human. Art is what makes us civilized. Art is the glue that holds us together. Art is a record of our cultures. Art gives us identity, gives us meaning.”

Listening to Dempsey Bob speak these simple, true words restored, if only for a moment, my faith in people and art. I suppose that faith has faltered of late. Because we still live in a world where cultural genocide is tolerated, even encouraged. Ukrainians are Indigenous people of Ukraine. In that genocide, I fear the worst is still to come. My hope, though, is that after the worst, it won’t take another century to make minefields and mass graves permanent history.

Wolves: The Art of Dempsey Bob runs through 10 September 2023 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Rhinoceros in Love, Dir. Huirui Zhang, Mainline Theatre, 16 May 2023

Love is impossible to define. But everyone knows exactly what love is. And things done for love are defined comparatively easily. Their traces, their consequences, are real.

I don’t think I’ve ever really been in love. Certainly not enough to kidnap a person — that seems unlovable. You can’t make someone love you. Nor can you make yourself love someone else.

My views on love are inspired by late-1990s Robert De Niro movies: never get too attached to anything you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner. Maybe it’s climate change, but every corner seems like a hot corner these days.

The Montreal Fringe Festival runs 29 May to 18 June 2023.

Schwartz’s Deli, immediately afterwards

I had never been to Schwartz’s Deli. In 20 years of living in this city, I had never actually set foot inside nor even slowed down when walking past the place. Ever since I’ve been here, Schwartz’s is where tourists with too much money and too much time line up for a smoked meat sandwich, which is literally meat in bread. It’s not complicated. Smoked meat is available all over Montreal, and there are a number of places that do it very well indeed. I didn’t go to The Main, either (I was a Ben’s man) but I never felt required to give Schwartz’s my money, or feed the mythology.

But as I walked past immediately following “Rhinoceros in Love” and noted with curiosity that there was no lineup, and hardly anyone inside, I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. A few tables were occupied with a few regulars; I surmised this because they bantered familiarly with the nighttime staff. Two guys behind the counter were ready to take my order. I didn’t want to sit. I wanted a smoked meat kit to construct at home. So I ordered 300 grams of meat with a bit of fat and a loaf of rye bread, to go.

A sturdy woman behind the register rang me through cheerfully. I mentioned that I had never previously eaten there and she looked at me and said, unselfconsciously, “you’ll be back.” When I put together my home version of this classic Montreal sandwich, a mountain of meat wedged between two slices of soft bread slathered in yellow mustard, I knew what she’d meant. The stuff’s addictive. Use the Schwartz responsibly.

Folk Noir, Collectif9, Bain Mathieu, 20 May 2023

Nicole Lizée’s compositions are so completely of their time. Like the music of Philip Glass, which celebrated our previous generation’s fascination with machinic perfection, Lizée’s pieces — when performed properly, mind you — stutter like CDs skipping, stretch out, contract, trip, glide, jump forward, stop, start again, and loop back like a facsimile curling into itself. In the best possible way. They mimic the cacophony of an era awash in digital noise, competing platforms, broken links, incomplete transmissions, routed through various channels, those channels being human beings making sound with archaic musical instruments. In music as in life, harmonies are obscure, elusive, and ephemeral.

It’s impossible to say what this or that Romantic or Baroque-era composer would be writing today, and it is equally impossible to imagine Lizée in another musical moment than this one. By capturing the present, this music becomes timeless.◼︎

Cover image: Dempsey Bob, Transformation, 2011, Yellow Cedar, 51.5 x 38.5 x 12.9 cm, Collection of Cheryl Gottselig QC and Yves Trépanier, Calgary.