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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.◼︎

All Dressed

Permanent Waves: in conversation with Keiko Devaux

“The aesthetic theme throughout this opera is noise,” says Keiko Devaux over the crackling airwaves of a cellular telephone.

The Montreal-based composer and award winner, most recently, of the Juno for classical composition for her 2022 piece, Arras, is telling me about her latest production, a major new operatic work entitled L’Écoute du perdu, to be premiered across three performances at the Darling Foundry in February.

“It starts with the idea of turning a radio on. You’re lost in noise — the noise of space, the noise of silence — looking for a signal, and you tune into this signal.”

Devaux’s opera, co-presented with Group Le Vivier and Musique 3 Femmes, is something of a supergroup, too, a veritable who’s who of Quebec’s best and brightest talents, with mise-en-scène by the celebrated contemporary theatre director Marie Brassard; the Paramirabo Ensemble performing Devaux’s score under the conductor Jennifer Szeto’s direction; texts commissioned from the authors Daniel Canty, Michaël Trahan, and Kaie Kellough; sung by soprano soloists Sarah Albu, Frédérika Petit-Homme, and baritone Raphaël Laden-Guindon; Lucie Bazzo on lighting conception; scenography by Antonin Sorel; and with the legendary filmmaker and Godspeed You! Black Emperor member Karl Lemieux providing video imagery.

L’Écoute du perdu draws together a star-studded company and wrangling them is itself an impressive task.

“It’s my first big, ambitious, and really high-concept work,” says Devaux. “And being surrounded by such amazing artistic collaborators — I really mean it, sincerely. I was like, wouldn’t it be great if we could get these people? And then we got them.”

Devaux initially conceived of L’Écoute du perdu on the concept of wireless telecommunication, the rhythms of memory, and memory’s distortion via repetition.

“My whole doctoral thesis is about memory and its artistic and actual applications,” says Devaux, “so this is a theme that’s been running through quite a few of my pieces. My music, aesthetically, is very immersive. I knew immediately that I didn’t want a story, a linear story. I didn’t want a narrative. I wanted it to be based around different treatments of the voice, and because it was going to be based on memory, I didn’t want it to be one individual’s memory; I wanted it to have more of a universal appeal, a more fantastical appeal.”

L’Écoute du perdu is inspired in part by Devaux’s fascination with the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi’s most famous innovation: radio. “I’m kind of an amateur science geek,” Devaux admits. “I read about brains and different phenomena in nature and stuff, and it’s very evocative for me, musically. And I’d come across the story of Marconi, who believed that sound waves never die, and perhaps one day we’ll invent a machine that can tap into these sound waves. It was such an evocative idea and I thought, this needs to be a large-scale work.”

A delightful incongruity exists, though, between Marconi’s wireless radio waves, which are ephemeral, and our understanding of memory, a more permanent, enduring repository for the entirety of human experience. L’Écoute du perdu’s experimental form and structure emphasize this tension with at times bilingual and at times non-lingual passages repeated, looped, stretched, and their corresponding musical movements varied through reiteration and distortion.

“When I was reading about memory, I came across the idea of episodic memories, or ‘flashbulb’ memories, as they’re often called in pop culture,” Devaux elaborates. “Memories have strong emotional links to them. We play them back a lot because they help develop a sense of self. And the more you play back a memory, the more you distort it. And I thought, that’s so beautiful — and sad — this idea that the things that are most emotionally important to us and self-identifying to us are the things that become most distorted. I mean, we remember them vividly. We remember the smell of something, or how something felt. But then you forget what colour something was, or how many people were in the room.”

Yet Devaux’s work is memorable, indeed, and a packed house on opening night concurs. L’Écoute du perdu is a world-class compositional achievement adroitly weaving acoustic and amplified strands and sonic and visual elements together into striking aesthetic unity.  

“It’s not like an ‘oh, you killed my father’ kind of opera,” Devaux explains. “It’s a more subtle thing we’re working with. You are connecting to a sound that’s invisible in the air. You’re remembering something. It’s evocative. I didn’t really want coherence in a traditional way. I didn’t want to serve an audience a story. I wanted it to evoke a really clear emotional arc or narrative, and for there to be a tension between the audience and the piece in terms of understanding. I wanted for it to be really focussed on sensation and emotion, but not in an overly acted way. Just in the way the words and the music are treated. And I wanted it to have a high visual impact. It’s taken on all these different dimensions as all these different people come on and dialogue about it and add their artistic expertise. So, voilà!”

In spite of her magic touch, Devaux is gracious and seems especially indebted when discussing the collaborations and meaningful connections she has cultivated.

“There’s a difference,” says Devaux, “between people just doing a gig, doing it well and professionally, and people really being invested in the piece. And there’s this real feeling that everyone’s really invested. There was a lot of thought put into our conversations right away — talking a lot about the concept with the singers. Voice is so personal. I don’t know about you, but I can tell, even if someone’s amazing when they’re singing on a piece that they don’t really love, or that they don’t even really get. These three singers get it.”

That unmistakable sense of being tuned into another wavelength is at the heart of Devaux’s work. “Heightened emotion brings this sort of distortion,” she says, “and yet it brings at the same time this really intense sensorial vividness.”

Devaux takes a beat, laughing. “And I thought, oh, this is kind of how I feel about my music.”◼︎

Cover photo credit: Robin P. Gould