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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 However, Gardiner, who is 80, has withdrawn from his remaining European tour dates, and this incident will doubtless shade the twilight of his career.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.