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The Smile’s Returning

Orchestre classique de Montréal, Illuminations, Magali Simard-Galdès, soprano, Pierre-Mercure Hall, 5 March 2023

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Mel Brooks, the 96-year-old comedian, revealed that even at his age, he doesn’t shy away from controversy. Still, in 2023, Brooks isn’t afraid to tell a good Hitler joke.

Laughter can be the best medicine in even the sickest of times. But Brooks prefers to wield humour as a weapon. Being Jewish helps. It gives Brooks, and all Jewish comedians, a pass. Seinfeld did Nazi jokes, and in an episode of The Larry Sanders Show, opposite a young Jon Stewart, Jeffrey Tambor played a satirical game show host, in head-to-toe Hitler regalia, named ‘Adolph Hankler.’ But that was back in the 90’s, and a full fifty years after World War II.

Is it too soon to start making Putin jokes?

In the future, will it be considered politically incorrect to dress up as Putin, to get all oily and shirtless and ride a white horse, to wear Russian army surplus, to crack wise about the invasion of Ukraine? If so, I am glad that I’m Ukrainian. That means I’m covered for the foreseeable future from censure for mounting my long-planned musical, Springtime in Bakhmut.

Jerry Seinfeld believes that comedy is the closest we can come to justice. It’s impossible to fake a laugh. A joke is either funny or it’s not. Comedy is the real battlefield, and the funniest jokes always settle the fight.

The OCM’s 83rd season continues through 20 June 2023.

White Boy Scream + Wapiti/Pauly, La Salla Rossa, 13 March 2023

After the L.A.-based experimental opera singer Micaela Tobin’s outstanding performance as White Boy Scream on Monday night at Sala Rossa, conversation turned to the term “diaspora.” Somebody wondered aloud where the word comes from. I submitted that it refers to the Jewish dispersion across the globe: it stems from the Greek, diasperiō — to scatter, to spread out. And it has come today to refer to any dispersion of a people around the world: there is an Irish diaspora, a Filipino diaspora, a Ukrainian diaspora, even a French diaspora. Though colonization doesn’t technically count.

The way that cultures flow through the world and end up where they do is as fascinating a study as any natural phenomenon. It’s like watching a cloud of milk dissolve into a cup of coffee, tendrils wisping and disappearing and, in doing so, altering its entire texture and flavour. The reasons behind diasporic impulses are just as interesting to consider: war, oppression, and tyranny often drive people away; but hope, opportunity, and freedom are beacons that everyone can recognize, and that everyone seems to understand, even if we can seldom define and communicate these abstract notions adequately.

What diaspora really means is being an outcast. Displacement. Exile. Still, everyone agreed that it is a beautiful and lyrical word. Someone else suggested it sounded like a kind of elaborate garment. A cape of some sort, perhaps. On next year’s red carpet, will every Oscar nominee be draped in a Dior diaspora?

Bakunawa is released via Deathbomb Arc.

Mark Takeshi McGregor, H​ō​rai (Keiko Devaux), Starts and Stops (Redshift Music)

Following a triumphant foray into the experimental opera world — because classical and experimental music can only benefit from this overdue alliance — the Montreal composer Keiko Devaux goes from strength to strength with this contribution to a stellar compilation album by the flautist Mark Takeshi McGregor. These works combine the flute, one of the oldest-known instruments, with some of humankind’s most advanced modes of music-making. The results are profoundly moving and underscore the idea that history is not linear, that technology is not synonymous with progress, and that we can find harmonies in unexpected sonic configurations.

Starts and Stops is released via Redshift Music.

ALL HANDS_MAKE LIGHT, We Live On A Fucking Planet And Baby That’s The Sun, Darling The Dawn (Constellation Records)

The other day, a guy got on the metro, sat down right next to me, and lit a stick of incense. I was incensed. I said to the guy, have some sense and put out that incense, you insensitive bastard!

Darling The Dawn is released 21 April 2023 via Constellation Records.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, with Moor Mother, MTelus, 9 March 2021

When Montreal’s unofficial house band announced their return in 2010, I vaguely remember that they did so with an apologetic metaphor hand-written on a yellow page torn from a notepad. Something about having left the bicycle outdoors all winter. The bike was meant to stand in for the band getting tuned up after a long, inactive period — locked to a stop sign, gears tarnished, rusty chain hanging loose from a weathered old frame. Or words to that effect.

Montreal’s indie rock scene possesses a characteristically rough, unpolished aesthetic, which Godspeed helped to define — a jangled and raw approach to playing live, to making recordings, and in general to assembling sound. The Emperisti — bands like Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade, as well as electronic acts that Godspeed’s artistic ethos influenced, like Tim Hecker and Marie Davidson — at once reflect and benefit from this image, this archetype of corroded Montreal culture.

If Godspeed was a rusty bike in 2010, they are verily a finely tuned machine in 2023. It sounds as if they might even intentionally fuck up, inserting wrong notes to undermine our expectations, to ruin the audience’s anticipatory gratification. But just when you think that they might have forgotten the song, the band thunder back, composed, in unison, and produce that serrated edge sound for which they are known the globe over, and than which there is nothing heavier.

Late capitalism might have produced Godspeed, but hyper-capitalism refined them. Their anthemic post-rock, tuned, tightened, and road-ready, never fails to lift our skinny fists, and spirits.◼︎

Godspeed You! Black Emperor is on tour through 29 April 2023.

All Dressed

Hold This Thread: in conversation with Kee Avil

“There is something in Montreal,” says Vicky Mettler, reaching for a more evocative term.

We are talking on the telephone about what makes our music scenes unique and how Mettler’s works weave in. Mettler, also known as Kee Avil, the Montreal-based recording artist whose eerie and weird 2022 album, Crease, impressed critics and listeners alike, recently returned home from a triumphant tour and is contemplating her next move.

Released via the iconic local label Constellation Records, Crease earned unanimous high praise: Bandcamp’s Miles Bowe called it “a debut of fiendish creativity”; Antonio Poscic of The Quietus drew comparisons with Jenny Hval, Gazelle Twin, and Scott Walker; au courant music retailer Boomkat even dropped Kate Bush’s name, describing Mettler’s record as “a widescreen set of torched, gothic wyrd rock music that falls in and out of genre with skill and grace.” One could extrapolate that description to encompass Montreal itself; this city has produced its fair share of torched and widescreen music — from Tim Hecker to Godspeed, it’s kind of our thing.

Vicky Mettler appeared on my radar when Kee Avil performed as the opening act in 2018 for Fly Pan Am at their reunion show following a more than decade-long hiatus. The gig was chaotic, held at the Mile-End art gallery Dazibao, a space not particularly designed with sound in mind. But the energy was memorable, the pre-pandemic luxuriousness of an unselfconsciously niche art-rock performance. That energy is what propelled Mettler across Europe in the fall of 2022.

“Touring does give me energy,” Mettler says. “I came back from the last tour and there is something inspiring about it. You go on tour and that’s all you’re doing. That resets me a little bit. I don’t have all the rest of life; it just kind of gets put on pause. And I come back and I’m usually inspired. I’m more energized than tired. I could tour every day — for a long time.” Mettler stops to laugh: “But I also like coming back home.”

One of the most outstanding visual features of Kee Avil’s live performance is her crocheted costume, which Caro Etchart, the textile artist behind Argenta Crochet Lab, designed. Etchart brought her slow fashion brand from Argentina to Montreal in 2021 and has since worked to create an astonishing collection, including the distinguishable garments that serve Mettler’s music in surprisingly tangible ways. Kee Avil’s mask, in particular — half moth-eaten lace helmet, half spiderweb — is indeed an unsettling presentation piece.

image credit: Caro Etchart

“I have a few outfits that I’ve been wearing,” Mettler says, “and I feel like the mask is always striking. When I do it, it works well. Caro makes everything — tops, skirts, gloves. It’s kind of nice to be able to mix and match all of these pieces and see what comes up. I feel like we really get along in what we like, so it’s very easy to find stuff that works.”

Etchart tells me via email that their creative partnership fits hand-in-glove. “I have always been intrigued by costumes and characterization,” Etchart says. “The first mask that I ever crocheted was actually the one that started my experimental crochet project. When I first met Vicky, I was in the middle of a huge mask exploration, and the fact that she sees beauty in them, too, was crucial to start working on the outfits. One of them was definitely going to have a crochet mask, even more, a complete crochet outfit.”

Etchart’s ensemble appears in the live video for “HHHH,” creating just the right amount of creepiness to accent Kee Avil’s serpentine sound. “I simply find masks fascinating,” Etchart says, “and it feels really easy to become someone else or get into character just by covering or decorating your face. A lot like a second skin, but that was somehow hidden. Very beautiful and dramatic.”

“I like the idea of having a mask on,” Mettler admits.

“I would be curious to know, actually, what it’s like to see it. I’ve only worn it twice live, and it makes me feel different, so I’m still figuring out if I like it. Or what works about it and what doesn’t, and how to adapt it to make it better. I feel like it does separate me from the audience in a way. But sometimes I like the setting of the show. If there are no visuals and no projections, I will wear something like that when there’s nothing else in the background. That adds a visual element that I like.”

Mettler’s music is composed just as intricately as her wardrobe, sonic fibres intertwined in remarkable balance. I ask how she does it. “I compose while recording, basically,” Mettler says. “The last record was song-by-song. It was a discovery of what the record should be. I write a song, we do it; I write a song, we do it.”

Mettler then scrubs over her rough tracks with sound designer Zach Scholes. “It helps us to discover the sound of the music, really. Each song is different, too. Like, the source material can be different. Some are more guitar-oriented and some are more electronic-based. It’s really about discovery — how to write songs. I wanted to push that more and I didn’t really know how, so I was figuring it out. I feel like recording at the same time helps because you can add things and take them away quickly if you’d like. I like hearing things and being able to do edits right away.”

Is a new album in the works in 2023? “I feel like that’s the goal, but we’ll see.”

A sense of composed spontaneity is what characterizes Kee Avil’s recordings, and also what places her rightly amongst some of this city’s more legendary artists — and on the roster of a record label that to a certain extent defines Montreal’s storied independent music scene.

“It’s a specific sound,” Mettler opines, tying together the strands of our impure-laine aesthetic. “I feel like maybe we have more space or something here. There’s a way of living that’s different in Montreal. It’s still cheaper than, say, Toronto or New York. I think that somehow affects it, like, how many people can do this stuff. Different cities have different sounds. But there is a Montreal sound.”

Mettler pauses in thought: “I love Montreal. It’s its own thing.”◼︎

Cover photo credit: Carole Méthot

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Gather ‘round the piano

Francesco Fusaro, Clavicentrico (Self-Released)

It is not every day that someone names their album after something you invented.

To clarify, I did not invent ‘claviocentrism;’ but I did coin the term. It was in late 2012 — exactly ten years ago, come to think of it — as I was writing an article for the good folks at The Quietus, on the 30th anniversary of MIDI. I was struggling to find a word to describe how central, both culturally as well as physically, the piano had become to western music since the inception of the standard, black-and-white, ebony-and-ivory, together-in-perfect-harmony, clavier-style keyboard to which we are all so accustomed today. But there wasn’t one. Ergo, claviocentrism.

I received an email from one of tQ’s editors saying that he had Googled claviocentrism and it came back a Googlewhack — there were no prior instances of that word indexed in the search engine. I was embarrassed. I replied sheepishly admitting that I had indeed invented the term, and asked if they would like it changed. But the editor said absolutely not to change a single thing, that they were “chuffed” to publish a neologism, and that it was in fact a “cracking piece.” I still remember those words. A cracking piece!

When I perused the press release for Francesco Fusaro’s Clavicentrico, I had to do a double-take. Clavicentrico? It’s not a word I come across often, never, and I thought it might just be a mighty coincidence. But I scrolled down and noted a hefty quote pulled from my 2018 book, Mad Skills, and realized that my concept of claviocentrism had inspired Fusaro not only to compose a touching cycle of “non-virtuosic” piano music, but also to give Claviocentrism an Italian twist.

When you do things, especially when you do things out of desperation, you can never be sure what kind of impact those things will have. When you write a book, or make an album, or paint a picture, or dance a jig, you can never possibly imagine how that book or album or picture or jig will change the world. Probably it won’t. But maybe it will, and probably is not a reason to not try.

Black Ox Orkestar, Museum of Jewish Montreal, 14 December 2022

It is wonderful to have a piano in the kitchen. The kitchen is usually the room in the house where people spend most of their time, and tend to have the best times, over food and family, fellowship and fun. At every party, I always end up in the kitchen.

Pianos, though, are most often relegated far away to the music room or the study, or worse, they become just another piece of furniture in the living room, covered in framed family photos and all manner of other kitschy trinkets.

But the piano, if you are fortunate enough to possess one of these magical instruments in working order, should be kept, I believe, in the home’s most central location. So that anyone, at any time, can start to play it and immediately turn the moment musical.

Pale Ribbons Tossed into the Dark, Fable Guide, Pale Ribbons Tossed into the Dark (Self-released)

The social position of the flâneur was desirable in the 19th century, a person to emulate, the free-floating subject nonetheless un-subjected to the city’s confines of work and family, not institutionalized by institutions, nor hospitals, universities, corporations, prisons, or other such operational enclosures.

Today, the flâneur that is truly untethered from those enclosures is a terrible zombie wandering dazed and spreading capital virally through the confines of hyper-capitalism, a superstructural biodome surrounding the other operational structures that more traditionally enclosed and still enclose, separate, and subjugate subjects.

Even in domestic spaces and other private, seemingly “free” zones, more often the internet nowadays encloses us, and various platforms and subnetworks divide and subdivide that virtual enclosure into smaller and smaller virtual rooms that ultimately reveal our abject isolation in a post-industrial meatspace. Any collective being, even industrial, is no longer necessary.

The contemporary flâneur is either crazy or an exploitative object vis-à-vis subjectivity; that is, capital liberates their subjecthood, thus they subject others using capital in commercial and service environments to their flâneuristic whims. We are all always either working or making others work. There is no leisure today without exploitation. And the guilt, “onboarded” — to use a terrible bro-culture buzzword — from a Christian social order that no longer exists or applies or is even suitable to our quotidian realities still subliminally dictates that leisure is wasteful, sinful, even to a Godless economic society that only idolizes productivity.

La fête du clavecin Kirckman, Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur, 15 December 2022

One of the things I love about Montreal is that events like this take place: a concert of a 250-year-old harpsichord in an historic chapel, and it’s free. Were the proceedings entirely in French? Oui. And was I the youngest, Anglo-est person there? Oui encore. But did that matter? Mais non.

Halfway through the performance, however, I started imagining that, to audiences 250 years ago, a harpsichord might have seemed like cheating, like a facile way to emulate the virtuosity of a real harp. Harpsichords, although they utilize the same form of 12-tone keyboard as their piano cousins, are different instruments.

For instance, pianos strike their strings with hammers, meaning that the harder a player hits the key, the harder the hammer strikes the string, and the louder the note sounds. Harpsichords conversely pluck their strings with plectra, a piece of stiff leather similar to a guitar pick. So, when a note is played, the plectrum plucks the string with equal intensity regardless of how hard the player hits the key. This gives the instrument an unsettling on-off sound that we 21st century listeners are not accustomed to hearing. It is more like a music box absentmindedly clanging out a tune. The note is either sounding or silent. It is actually very binary, not unlike early MIDI.

MIDI, or the musical instrument digital interface, is a standard computer “language” that makes it possible for digital instruments of different manufacturers to communicate with one another. MIDI is what allows, say, one central sequencer to control an array of peripheral equipment like synthesizers, samplers, effects processors, mixing boards — even lights and smoke machines. In the digital music studio, it is impossible to overstate the importance of using one common language.

Sarah Pagé, Méduses, Voda (Backward Music)

What is the ultimate experience? What experience could you experience that would put an end to the longing for more experiences? How would you know it was the ultimate it?◼︎