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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

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