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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.

999 Words

At the Last Trumpet: Handel’s Messiah

The secret things belong unto the Lord our God:
but those things which are revealed belong
to us and to our children for ever,
that we may do all the words of this law

—Deuteronomy 29:29

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together:
for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it

—Isaiah 40:5

A new philosophy of the future is needed. I believe it should be curiosity about the Universe – expand humanity to become a multiplanet, then interstellar, species to see what’s out there. This is compatible with existing religions – surely God would want us to see Creation?
—Elon Musk

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re going to have to serve somebody

—Bob Dylan

What would Jesus do?

This clichéd old question often comes to mind, but more recently in the past few years. It comes to mind on a personal level: What would Jesus do if the dry cleaners shrunk His favourite trousers, or His metro station was closed for a month for COP-15? It comes to mind on a global level: What would Jesus do if He had to live through a pandemic, a world war, climate change, the destruction of Creation, and then try to reach His followers, like the flock that had clearly gone astray, far more interested in watching a little black-and-white ball kicked about, or the taxes of a former US president? And it comes to mind on a more practical level: What would Jesus do to get the word out — y’know, the word of God?

What would Jesus do if Jesus Christ Himself returned as per prophecy and had to let the world know He was back to kick some ass? Surely, He would take to Twitter.

Today, Twitter has achieved an almost prophetic position in digital communication. We assign figures who amass significant Twitter followings nearly messianic status, regardless — in spite of, in some cases — expertise or good intentions. Their follower numbers are equivalent to authority. With impressions visible, we can now account precisely how much they impress us.

In earlier times, other social networks emerged over common interests and various modes of communication. Music is one example. Putting ideas into song is among the most enduringly powerful and universal ways to interact with large-scale audiences. From Pythagoras to the Pied Piper, Beethoven to Boards of Canada to the Wu-Tang Clan, music has always been for the children.

In Georg Friedrich Handel’s day, it was enough to just write Baroque operas. By the mid-1730s, the German composer’s music had garnered a significant and influential European audience. After settling in London in 1712, Handel made an even bigger name for himself churning out compositions at a feverish pace, founding three opera companies, and presenting more than 40 operas in London’s theatres. Handel wrote the score to one of his most beloved oratorios, The Messiah, in a little over three weeks in late August and early September, 1741. It was like a tweet he tossed off in the middle of the night, in that hazy hypnagogic state between degrees of consciousness.

Some people believed that Handel composed the score in a fit of divine inspiration. Others thought that it was a bit rushed and sloppy, and that he probably squeezed it in between jobs like any journeyman of any trade might do, paying little attention to quality or craft. According to historians, the score was riddled with mistakes — ink blots, scratched-out notes, unfinished passages. Was Handel himself a kind of fake messiah for potentially duping his followers into believing in his genius, when it was likely just another gig for some guy in a powdered wig?

The Libretto to The Messiah is largely comprised of Biblical passages and has none of the earmarks of narrative opera: there is no dramatization of the action, and no characters in elaborate costumes. Soloists approach the stage and address the audience directly as if giving a sermon. The choir and a relatively small orchestra accompany these Acts, culminating in the Hallelujah Chorus, perhaps the most recognizable piece of Western music ever written.

Insofar as communication goes, it is impossible to calculate how many impressions Handel’s score has accumulated. If it were a tweet, it went viral and continues to do so every Christmas season around the globe. In Montreal, for instance, The Messiah is performed annually at St. Joseph’s Oratory, under the world’s 20th tallest dome.

The Messiah is a Jewish concept for an anointed leader conferred with Holy powers. Those powers are to reveal God’s Word. The twelve disciples who followed Jesus, His Apostles, believed that Jesus was a strong messianic title contender, and they tried to tell as many people about Him as possible.

Matthew, a tax collector, was one of these Apostles. Matthew was different than the other Apostles. He hung out with unrepentant sinners; he collaborated with the Romans. But he was highly educated, literate, and the first person to write down Jesus’s teachings. Having a scribe on staff meant access to social networks Jesus might not have reached.

Messianic language surrounds no one today more than tech-bro billionaire Elon Musk. His supporters regard Musk as some sort of saviour who will lead Earthlings two hundred eighty characters by two hundred eighty characters towards a mythical Martian future. His detractors view him as a petulant child and false idol subject to base carnal desires and flights of megalomaniacal fancy.

Musk sees himself as a visionary savant with a hair-trigger Twitter finger, hellbent upon success, whatever that means. What success means today is not what it meant to Jesus, or even to Handel, who did not conceive of his works as messianic, but rather as calls to recognize Jesus as the true Messiah, as God’s anointed emissary. Jesus might have turned Twitter upside down, whereas Elon bought it.

No Messiah exists today, and if one did, it would be a bitch competing with Musk for followers.◼︎


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One Perfect Shot

Marcus, 12 November 2022

As with all things Scorpio, birthdays are fraught with ruminations, existential angst, examinations of life, and preparations for the inevitable long winter sleep, whatever that may bring. No human being has ever experienced winter and returned intact, so it’s a surprise every time around.

This year, I treated myself to another mini Montreal staycation—a weekend sojourn at one of downtown’s fancier hotels, topped off with a solo Sunday dinner at Marcus. I was turning 45 and had no one special to spend the weekend with, so I took it upon myself to make my own day special. Although I could have paid for some company. The man staying below me did, and awkwardly, I heard their antics from dawn ‘til dusk all weekend long, complicating my writing schedule, and serving as a reminder that capitalism rules everything around me, including intimacy. Especially intimacy.

Later that evening, I sat by myself at a table on the third floor of the newish restaurant at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel. I wasn’t entirely solitary. There was an Indian tech bro sat next to me trying desperately to impress his hot Asian date with talk of start-up ventures and his family’s business connections; there was a large party across the aisle with several well-dressed teenaged cousins sipping mocktails and bantering with their flirty middle aged aunties; there was the wait staff who very attentively served me a lovely meal of portobello mushroom with a perfectly done filet mignon to follow; and there was Leonard Cohen’s mural outside, haunting the place, mythical literary tradition veiling the foggy November city. All the while I felt extremely seen. None is as naked as a man dining alone.

As I finished my meal, which was characteristically exquisite (why, exactly, are there no Michelin-starred restaurants in Montreal?) the waiter asked if I had saved any room for desert. I said no, that I would just pay the cheque, and he coolly told me to take my time. A few minutes later, the very same waiter emerged again from the kitchen carrying a wedge of caramel chocolate cake and two sparklers, which he proceeded to place before me and ignite with a barbeque lighter. I am not sure how the restaurant knew it was my birthday. Maybe I had entered my date of birth into the online reservation system when I signed up. Maybe Big Data is thoughtful, after all.

The entire restaurant swivelled around to watch the sparklers sputter and spray sparks all over me, and the cake, and bounce onto the floor. The good teenagers at the party table smiled genuinely and wished me a happy birthday. The tech bro and his date made Leonardo DiCaprio-ish faces and raised their glasses in my direction. The sparklers continued sparking for an inordinately long time as I sat in place waiting for them to fizzle out, like the first 45 years of my life had just done—before my very eyes; too long and yet too short.

La beauté du Monde, Composer Julien Bilodeau; Librettist Michel Marc Bouchard, Opéra de Montréal, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, 19 November 2022

I am fascinated by tourists who stop to take photographs next to the concrete slab of the Berlin Wall that is preserved for some reason in the atrium of the World Trade Centre in Old Montreal, when there are several other perfectly functioning walls the globe over—between Israel and Palestine; between the US and Mexico; between the COP 15 conference and the rest of Montreal—that still serve to divide nations and their natural citizens.

Like an opera meant to mythologize the abject horrors of World War II while another, realer war wages on in our midst, it’s too soon.

Mue, Télophases, Les Vasières (Halocline Trance)

What is it about modern ambient music that is at once relaxing and unsettling, simultaneously calming and tense, like a cup of third-wave coffee followed by a hit of some strong-ass indica? Les Vasières, by the Montreal electronic duo composed of Catherine “YlangYlang” Debard and Léon Lo, quintessentially captures this ambi-ambivalence, a slow and beautiful speedball of tortuous rhythm and melody.

Unruly Sun, Composer Matthew Ricketts, Librettist Mark Campbell, Orchestre Classique de  Montréal, Cirque Éloize, 1 December 2022

The English artist Derek Jarman left an indelible impression upon countless cultural scenes, from avant-garde film and music, to experimental literature, dance, photography, and painting. Now, a new operatic song cycle entitled Unruly Sun, inspired by Jarman’s journal entries during his final demise due to HIV/AIDS, serves to celebrate a man who helped pave the way towards awareness of sexual health and liberation. We’re not there yet.

Toula Drimonis in conversation with Leila Marshy, Paragraphe Bookstore, 4 December 2022

Nearing the end of a lively Q&A around the Montreal columnist Toula Drimonis’s excellent memoire, We The Others (Linda Leith Publishing, 2022), I decided to lob a rhetorical question: How many cultures are there in Quebec? Attendees immediately met me with incredulous responses like, “too many to count!” and “the more, the merrier!” All valid answers. I admit, though, that I was trying to tease the author and audience into acknowledging our basic assumption that there is such a thing as “Quebec Culture” in Quebec. It’s a kind of singular spirit or groove, if you will, that we expect others to get into when they come to call this place home.

The word “integration” is instructive. We often use integration in this province to talk about whom and how should best fit into Quebecois society—people from the Francophonie; refugees fleeing conflict; skilled workers; families, &c. Surely Quebec has more power than other provinces to pick and choose who is allowed to come here to stay, and integration is first and foremost on the minds of those who do the picking and choosing. The word presupposes a monolithic—or, at best, binary—Quebec society into which immigrants should integrate.

But Drimonis saw my rhetorical move coming up the 40 and adroitly made the important distinction between integration and assimilation. Of course Quebecois culture exists; it’s a mishmash of Indigenous, French, English, Irish, Greek, Ukrainian, African, Iranian, Syrian, Chinese, and myriad other nationalities, languages, customs, and worldviews. The government in power today would prefer that new and recent transplants assimilate into the French version of Quebecois society. But Quebec more broadly, and Montreal, specifically, has evolved, increasingly rapidly in recent years, into a truly international social mosaic, a mosaic for which integration is a more proper modus operandi. Integration is a journey, not a destination.

Acknowledging this means that even those of us who were born in Canada also need to integrate and reintegrate into our own society, a distinct society that nonetheless constantly ebbs and flows as new people come and go, raise new families, forge new communities, build new neighbourhoods, and remake society in a new and improved image.

I think that another sound metaphor for Quebec, or for any distinct society for that matter, is a vinyl record. Trick question number 2: How many grooves are there on an average LP?

One. There is one long groove that spirals around and around and around again. Within that groove, on any given recording, there are possibly many songs, many movements, and moods. But they all belong on that particular record together. It’s the groove that unites them.◼︎


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Autumn Serenade

Janet Werner, STICKY PICTURES, Bradley Ertaskiran, October 15th 2022

Tucked in the back room of Bradley Ertaskiran — the old Parisian Laundry, and one of the finer gallery spaces in the city — was the book launch for Janet Werner’s formidable new publication, Sticky Pictures. People talked and drank wine and had their books autographed by the artist in attendance and pretended not to look at one another.

I adore the frequent subjects of Werner’s paintings — girls. And I revel in the pleasure of adoring them through Werner’s painterly gaze rather than my own sharp male one.

A joke about Andy Warhol’s desire not only to be a part of the art scene but to be seen being a part of the art scene was that he would even attend the opening of a drawer. I am such a space cadet for art in this city that I go to the launch of a book.

Il Trovatore, Opera de Montreal, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, September 13th, 2022

An open letter to my dear ex-wife of 43 years, the lovely Ms. Marlene Ssøørreennsseenn:

Dear Marlene;

It is with heavy heart that we must equivalently admit after trying to make things work despite having been divorced for over four decades that our 12-day marriage was a mistake. Had we children they might have given us grandchildren by now, but alas we were only wedded for a little less than two weeks in the late 1970s, and starting a family didn’t come up in conversation, as women’s liberation at that time socially forbade any unsolicited babytalk.

Suffice to say that we did not bring out the best in each other, what with the fourteen-year legal battle in the mid-‘80s over the fortunes from the fortune cookies following our second and final dinner date at Wings, which as you will apprehend is long since closed due to health violations.

With this Wing fortune, I thee forfeit the last scrap of our love affair, leaving you the better luck, both figuratively and literally. Should the numbers on the verso ever win a lottery, I trust your solicitor to contact me forthwith with my fair share, as determined by concurrent legal precedent for post-nuptial fortune cookie winnings.

In closing, please forward any and all future correspondence to:
L. Oserfield

Heartbreak Hotel, room no. 237 (haunted)

Backxwash, with with LaFHomme, Morgan-Paige and Jodie Jodie Roger, October 28th 2022, Le Monastère

There is no doubt that Backxwash is the hottest hip hop artist in Canada. The crystalline concentration that comes with sobriety shines on HIS HAPPINESS SHALL COME FIRST EVEN THOUGH WE ARE SUFFERING. This year’s Halloween weekend album launch was a triumph of both style and substance, fashionable and profoundly meaningful, profane and sacred.

Backxwash is the antithesis of mainstream rappers who self-aggrandize and court controversy, or make patent pitches for luxury products that their listeners can ill afford. A constant and self-reflexive state of awareness permeates the recording and was ever-present in its live performance, too. Refreshing is not the word because the album is akin to gargling with activated charcoal, but whatever the descriptor, it’s deeply cleansing.

Boris: His Life in Music, Orchestre Classique de Montreal, October 18th, 2022, Salle Pierre-Mercure

The loss of Boris Brott to Montreal’s classical music community is immeasurable. Still, the show must go on, and the Orchestre Classique de Montreal paid appropriate tribute to the verve of a man who lived for that orchestra. The OCM began its 83rd season by lovingly presenting some of Brott’s all-time favourite musical works.

Before the performance, a photographic montage of Brott cycled onscreen, images of the maestro with celebrities and dignitaries, clowning around, full of wit, wisdom, and life. What a life lived, and what a legacy Brott left behind, carrying dutifully on in the tradition of his musical family before him who dedicated their days to tuning the world.

Brott’s death seems all the more tragic considering its accidental nature, and after his miraculous recovery from the nastiest strain of covid at the beginning of the pandemic. However, as the saying goes, the man who dies in an accident understands the nature of destiny.

This Is Not A Scarf, Soha Zandi, Somaye Farhan & Elahe Moonesi, Place des Arts, October 30th 2022

In protest of the shocking human rights abuses taking place in Iran right now, a group of artists created an inspired imaginative response that took place on the steps of Place des Arts, without any fanfare or official permission from the usual authorities. They showed up with a pile of scarves and stood there waiting for passersby to tie them on in any fashion they saw fit. The result was a sincerely moving performance, which was a performance by virtue, but produced a spontaneous moment.

I was temporarily enlisted to stand guard next to a pile of camera equipment on the busy Saint-Catherine Street sidewalk when an elderly gentleman approached me inquiring, in French at first — a Quebecois accent from another time and place — what was going on. He appeared to be about sixty-five, tall, lean and cleanshaven, with an enviable headful of smartly styled salt-and-pepper hair. He had on a fitted black leather jacket and hanging around his neck was a comparatively outdated digital camera, an old Sony with a top-mounted viewfinder.

I apologized that my French was not as good as my English, but he was well-spoken in both languages and when I told him this was a performance art piece for Iranian freedom he looked at me for a moment, his face becoming very grave, and said, “I think this is the end of the world. But I won’t be here to see it. I’m eighty.” I was surprised by his candour and tried to nod knowingly as he took leave to photograph the happening.

Returning, he mused, “A lot of people in Quebec complain, but we are lucky to live here.” I knew what he meant. Peace activism begins and ends with peaceful activism, acting peacefully.◼︎