Play Recent


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.◼︎

All Dressed

Wayback Catalogue: in conversation with Elinor Frey

Popular culture of the third millennium is steeped in what the rock critic Simon Reynolds called “Retromania.”

Though Reynolds put a name to it, a number of observers throughout the early aughts noted a ubiquitous retro-chic nostalgic turn colouring everything from music and movies to art, fashion, even technology — think hipsters with Kodak Brownies and Sony Walkmans.

Yet unlike other fads that fled from their own self-consciousness, the publication of Reynolds’ definitive book in 2010 seemed only to intensify the residual media zeitgeist. So much so that orchestral scores, for instance, that were conventional in 20th century film and TV soundtracks were exchanged en masse in the 21st for covers of popular songs. It wasn’t just the hits, either — a drive to dig ever deeper into the crates of history became a dominant pop cultural force.

Today, a parallel impulse is present in the contemporary classical music world, where performers — and audiences, too — are fatigued with an onslaught of gimmicks, and eager to discover composers and their works that go way beyond the traditional canon.

Enter the Montreal-based cellist and researcher Elinor Frey, who makes it her life’s mission to reanimate the most beautiful early cello music that no one has ever heard.

“If it has the name Bach or Vivaldi on it, nobody needs convincing to think maybe this is a great piece,” says Frey. “Part of the fun is, I want people to say, how is it possible I’ve never heard of this? I love this.”

Frey’s dedication to showcasing cello and gamba music, particularly from their earliest days as Western musical instruments, is what makes her work so compelling. In 2021, Frey released an album of the Italian cellist and Vivaldi contemporary Antonio Vandini’s complete works, six sonatas and one concerto spanning from 1717 to the mid-1750s, and performed with an unusual underhanded bow technique.

“They have all these sketches and eyewitness accounts of Vandini playing underhanded,” Frey explains. “And yet he was writing music that was very demanding with the left hand, very expressive. And pretty early on. It wasn’t like 500 people had written cello sonatas at that point.” Frey was justly lauded in 2021 with the Quebec Opus Prize for Performer of the Year.

Moving from strength to strength, Frey made another record titled Early Italian Cello Concertos, which won the 2023 Juno Award for Classical Album of the Year. Now she returns with an ensemble called Accademia de’ Dissonanti, and an album for the Passacaille imprint of the French composer Jean Baur’s Chamber Music.

“I try to follow my instincts,” says Frey. “I was teaching a course about French cello music and it just stood out. This is the first time I’ve focussed on a French composer. It happens organically: when something’s interesting, I keep going.”

“Part of the fun is, I want people to say, how is it possible I’ve never heard of this? I love this.” Elinor Frey photographed by Elizabeth Delage.

Frey’s entry point as a young musician is a lesson in the importance of representation. Her aunt was a professional singer of Medieval music, and at age five, Frey had what she describes as an “identity moment” — with a string quartet concert at a summer festival “in a barn, in the boonies.”

Frey recalls: “Only one woman was playing, and the woman was playing the cello. So I didn’t even consider that I could play the violin. I was like, I love that. It looked beautiful while she was playing it. And I really loved the sound. When I was growing up, there was more of a sense of, women do this and men do that. It’s changed, happily. But I just felt like there were girl things and boy things. And there was a woman playing the cello, so I thought, that could be for me.”

Coming of age in Seattle in the 1990s, Frey spent her youth making mixtapes of Top 40 tunes for family and friends. “I wasn’t really into Grunge,” Frey admits, preferring Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and George Michael.

“If you were in the car, you turned on the radio and fought with your mom to have it on the cool station,” Frey remembers. “And when you go to school, you have to know all the recent songs. That’s what people talk about: what they’re listening to. But there was MTV back then. People weren’t talking about pop culture in the same way as today.”

Subsequently, Frey became “totally obsessed” with the history of cello. “I try to acquire almost everything that’s been written for the instrument in the first hundred years,” she tells me. “I’ve been teaching courses about it, and my students try to bring things that I’ve never heard of. So we’re discovering the music together. And when something really moves me and is like, oh I like this, then I listen to that nonstop. This is what happened with Jean Baur.”

Baur was primarily a harpist prior to composing for cello, and two of the pieces on Frey’s latest album have no cello at all. “I did it more about that composer, with a cello feature,” Frey says. “So there’s a harp sonata, because that was his instrument, and also a duo for harp and fortepiano, which shows the breadth and the different colours of that composer’s mind. The new CD has the same core wish, which is to explore the history of cello and underrepresented composers, and to celebrate beautiful music — because it’s all just stunningly beautiful.”

Frey confesses that she gets “giddy with excitement” when some detail sparks a mental image. For Baur, it was the score’s cover page, featuring information about who engraved the sonatas. “They were published in the 1750s and were engraved by a woman,” says Frey. “And I started trying to understand why they were writing her name. Why does it matter?”

Delving into the history of the sheet music’s engraver helped Frey to conceive of how the distribution of cello compositions worked at the time, the network that existed in the 18th century of musicians and artisans with engraving tools, how the cello gradually grew in importance, and why a harpist might become intrigued with this new instrument.

“I could see Baur going to the engraver with his manuscript, talking about it,” Frey muses. “And then when the product was ready, going out to the shops, and maybe people buying them. Maybe going to a salon and hearing one of his pieces played. It puts an image in my head where I see these people. Of course it’s not accurate; it’s just my invented fantasy. But I feel like I know them more. Then when I play, it makes that music less distant, more real.”

Frey doesn’t have much leisure time beyond concentrated research, recording, and performance. “I used to take a German class,” she divulges, “and in the first class, they asked, What are your hobbies? And I wrote, This is it.” For Frey, commitment to the outer reaches of retro, going further back and faster, is its own reward.

“When you finally put it together and the harmonies fit and it’s so beautiful, I just feel so touched,” she says, singing the virtues of maniacal musical discipline.

“It’s exciting for me to imagine that pretty much nobody is doing this and we’re bringing this to the world. Like, I love this, and now other people get to have this. Nobody needs me to listen to a beautiful interpretation of Bach cello suites. I mean, I like to do that too. But this music really needs an advocate.”◼︎

Elinor Frey performs with the Montreal Chamber Music Festival at Salle Bourgie on 12 June 2023.

Jean Baur: Chamber Music is released 30 June 2023 via Passacaille Music.

Cover photo by Laurent Theillet.