999 Words

New Saturday Night

On any given weekend, there are seemingly limitless things going on in Montreal. Springtime is the beginning of a lively festival season, and since the pandemic formally ended, cultural events are rushing back to auditoriums — and audiences are returning, too. In unexpected places and in well-established venues, something for anyone awaits everyone.

I love finding two very different things to do at weekends, to maximize the variety of experience that this great metropolis has to offer. Dichotomy characterizes Montreal more than most cities. There are the French and the English Montreals, of course. But there are also the disreputable and respectable Montreals, the underground and the established, the vicious and virtuous.

Take nighttime and daytime Montreal. There’s Saturday night Montreal, which shamelessly sniffs questionable substances in graffitied bathrooms, and then there’s Sunday afternoon Montreal that sings in the church choir and serves soup afterwards. Respectable Montreal likes to prance around pretending that Montreal of ill repute isn’t lurking just beneath its surface, waiting to emerge like a werewolf in Paris-lite, beneath the gleam of a silvery moon. But it’s there. These two Montreals need each other, they feed off of each other, they benefit from this delicate cultural dance.

Last weekend began on the decadent side, with a bloodbath. Not an actual bloodbath, mind you; rather, a daylong event called Cyber Market organized by Bloodbath Montreal, the local promoter. A gritty loft space on Saint-Laurent boulevard provided the location for the day’s festivities, which featured a creator’s marketplace and pop-up tattoo parlour. Throughout the day, about a dozen musicians and DJs graced a transient squad of attendees, and the evening culminated in a performance by the rapper and artist, Emma Rose.

Emma Rose performs at Cyber Market, 27 May 2023.

I was certain that I was the oldest person there, until a man in his mid-50s approached me and introduced himself as Rose’s father. I told him it was cool of him to come, to wade through the sea of early twentysomethings drinking vodka and cranberry juice and vaping. “You’ve got to support your kids,” he stated. He asked me for a business card and I mentioned I was thinking of having some made. “Cards, stickers, get ‘em, put ‘em everywhere!” he said, slapping nearby surfaces, offering sound advice, as dads are wont to do.

Bloodbaths, or “Taurobolium,” were common in the Roman Empire between the second and fourth centuries and were connected to the cult of “Magna Mater,” the Great Mother, known to the Greeks as Cybele, the Goddess of Phrygia, located in present-day Asian Turkey. The Christian poet Prudentius detailed the bloodbath ritual in unflattering and hyperbolic terms, describing a brutal baptism — technically more of a blood shower — in which a pagan priest was drenched in the plasma of a sacrificial bull.

Despite transubstantiation being a core tenet of communion, blood rituals came to symbolize paganism and were rejected by an increasingly Christianizing Rome. But their influence still exists — in Marina Abramović’s works of art, for instance, or Red Bull’s corporate mythology, the energy drink whose key ingredient is the stimulant, Taurine.

One might imagine that an organ concert at Maison Symphonique the following Sunday afternoon would be the heavenly flipside to this Montreal weekend of extreme duality, the redemption after the massacre. The Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna performed rotating pieces composed by J.S. Bach and Philip Glass, spanning centuries in moments with the angelic sound of the Grand Orgue Pierre-Béique.

This music was nothing like the DJs and rappers of the evening prior. It was stunningly beautiful, technically perfect, like a holy waterfall washing away all the froth and grime of the night before. Yet virtuousness is mere veneer, dependent upon historical context and perspective.

Early Christendom didn’t approve of organs, either. No bloodbaths in the second to fourth centuries, but definitely no Bach or Philip Glass. Musical instruments of every kind were considered too tempting, in fact, too sensuous, potentially leading to the commission of all manner of sin. If one wanted to sing God’s praises, the voice had to suffice. A recent tabloid article suggesting that the L.A. Philharmonic produced a patron’s climax seems to support the rationale that any form of music is indeed the devil’s music.

As I was leaving the crusty loft on Saint-Laurent the night before, I ran into Rose’s dad. He ducked out and into the night, turned and waved and shouted, “I love you, man!” It might have been the cranberry juice talking, but those were words I had not heard for years from my own father, accompanied by a sentiment so offhanded for him and yet so meaningful to me. That emotion carried itself into the subsequent afternoon as I sat staring at the ceiling trying to keep the tears welling in my eyes from spilling over whilst listening to Apkalna alternate between Bach and Glass on the Maison Symphonique’s unholy musical instrument.

After the OSM concert, I fortuitously bumped into Iveta Apkalna, the organist, who was walking hurriedly through the Complex Desjardins. She evidently left the building faster than Elvis Presley, but absent of any security detail. Not even a valet, just a pair of precious hands and the woman to whom they belong, and crystal blue eyes still high on performance, a white whale swimming upstream, clutching her own garment bag. All the unions in Quebec and yet no one to escort this starlet from the auditorium, to keep at bay those of us who’d bathed in blood the previous evening. Apparently, her father did not come to the show.

I pondered back to the Cyber Market and wondered what Apkalna would have thought of the kids’ music, and what the kids might think of an organ recital. How to resolve these two realities? They each have their virtues. And they’re not all that different. They both concurrently glorify creation, and are sexy as bloody hell.

Again, it’s all about perspective. In a Montreal that often seems split down the middle, one person’s Sunday afternoon is another one’s new Saturday night.◼︎

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The Schwartz

Charles Richard-Hamelin with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, Prokofiev’s Concerto no. 2, Maison Symphonique, 13 May 2023

Ambivalence characterizes everyone who’s ever managed to leave a cult. Nobody just quits. Everyone hems and haws and deliberates. There are reasons to join, after all. The sense of belonging. The us-versus-them mentality. The Kool-Aid.

But really, when it comes right down to it, cults are a bit silly. They often have arbitrary and opaque rules, their members always reveal themselves to be individually weak, and their leaders never possess the qualities their followers attribute to them. Jesus Christ probably couldn’t really turn water into wine. Not after 3am anyway. And if Charles Manson’s singing voice was any indication, his leadership and management skills likely left a lot to be desired.

There is strength in numbers — I supposed that’s why gangs and armies are such a thing, never mind cults. And yet one person can change the world. Look at Einstein, or Putin, or Jim Balsillie. Cults naturally form around great people. Great people don’t go out there trying to start cults.

If you’re going to give your life over to crazy ideas, why would you decide to adopt someone else’s crazy ideas? It just seems nuts to join any fringe movement when you can be your very own fringe movement. That is why I don’t want to be a cult member. What happens if their crazy ideas are wrong? Or worse, what happens if they’re right? No cultist really wants to lead; it’s much easier putting the entire cult in charge.

One problem with leaving a cult is that former members often struggle to find their own identity again, to remember who they are independent of the cult. It is important to nurture and encourage these people, to remind them that they are special and unique individuals capable of thriving and flourishing on their own. Being gentle helps.

The Orchestra Symphonique de Montreal’s Season Finale concerts run 31 May, 2 June, and 3 June at Maison Symphonique.

Wolves: The Art of Dempsey Bob, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 16 May 2023

“Art is what makes us human. Art is what makes us civilized. Art is the glue that holds us together. Art is a record of our cultures. Art gives us identity, gives us meaning.”

Listening to Dempsey Bob speak these simple, true words restored, if only for a moment, my faith in people and art. I suppose that faith has faltered of late. Because we still live in a world where cultural genocide is tolerated, even encouraged. Ukrainians are Indigenous people of Ukraine. In that genocide, I fear the worst is still to come. My hope, though, is that after the worst, it won’t take another century to make minefields and mass graves permanent history.

Wolves: The Art of Dempsey Bob runs through 10 September 2023 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Rhinoceros in Love, Dir. Huirui Zhang, Mainline Theatre, 16 May 2023

Love is impossible to define. But everyone knows exactly what love is. And things done for love are defined comparatively easily. Their traces, their consequences, are real.

I don’t think I’ve ever really been in love. Certainly not enough to kidnap a person — that seems unlovable. You can’t make someone love you. Nor can you make yourself love someone else.

My views on love are inspired by late-1990s Robert De Niro movies: never get too attached to anything you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner. Maybe it’s climate change, but every corner seems like a hot corner these days.

The Montreal Fringe Festival runs 29 May to 18 June 2023.

Schwartz’s Deli, immediately afterwards

I had never been to Schwartz’s Deli. In 20 years of living in this city, I had never actually set foot inside nor even slowed down when walking past the place. Ever since I’ve been here, Schwartz’s is where tourists with too much money and too much time line up for a smoked meat sandwich, which is literally meat in bread. It’s not complicated. Smoked meat is available all over Montreal, and there are a number of places that do it very well indeed. I didn’t go to The Main, either (I was a Ben’s man) but I never felt required to give Schwartz’s my money, or feed the mythology.

But as I walked past immediately following “Rhinoceros in Love” and noted with curiosity that there was no lineup, and hardly anyone inside, I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. A few tables were occupied with a few regulars; I surmised this because they bantered familiarly with the nighttime staff. Two guys behind the counter were ready to take my order. I didn’t want to sit. I wanted a smoked meat kit to construct at home. So I ordered 300 grams of meat with a bit of fat and a loaf of rye bread, to go.

A sturdy woman behind the register rang me through cheerfully. I mentioned that I had never previously eaten there and she looked at me and said, unselfconsciously, “you’ll be back.” When I put together my home version of this classic Montreal sandwich, a mountain of meat wedged between two slices of soft bread slathered in yellow mustard, I knew what she’d meant. The stuff’s addictive. Use the Schwartz responsibly.

Folk Noir, Collectif9, Bain Mathieu, 20 May 2023

Nicole Lizée’s compositions are so completely of their time. Like the music of Philip Glass, which celebrated our previous generation’s fascination with machinic perfection, Lizée’s pieces — when performed properly, mind you — stutter like CDs skipping, stretch out, contract, trip, glide, jump forward, stop, start again, and loop back like a facsimile curling into itself. In the best possible way. They mimic the cacophony of an era awash in digital noise, competing platforms, broken links, incomplete transmissions, routed through various channels, those channels being human beings making sound with archaic musical instruments. In music as in life, harmonies are obscure, elusive, and ephemeral.

It’s impossible to say what this or that Romantic or Baroque-era composer would be writing today, and it is equally impossible to imagine Lizée in another musical moment than this one. By capturing the present, this music becomes timeless.◼︎

Cover image: Dempsey Bob, Transformation, 2011, Yellow Cedar, 51.5 x 38.5 x 12.9 cm, Collection of Cheryl Gottselig QC and Yves Trépanier, Calgary.

999 Words

Eternalize the Drive: notes on orchestras and orgasms

A story in The New York Post about a woman apparently having what patrons seated nearby at the Los Angeles symphony described as an orgasm senza sordino pricked up my ears for obvious reasons.

Lifted from an L.A. Times article, it’s just the sort of spicy content the Post adores. Titillating tabloid clickbait. Yet I paid particular attention to this story because I, too, recently attended an otherwise pleasing orchestral concert, entitled Rafael Payare: from Andalusia to the Plains of Venezuela, at the OSM. I won’t embarrass the woman who was sitting with me, only to say that she did not achieve screaming climax. The orchestra did all they could. I also offered.

But seriously, folks.

The invasion of gratuitous extreme sexuality into public space really should sound more worrying. This is not, as it superficially may appear, a cathartic expression of creative sexual liberation, or some Reichian reclamation of the repressed libidinal order; this is the sudden erosion of social mores that evolved over centuries and are the foundation of civil society.

An orgasm at the symphony is not a beautiful expression of passion; it is a public sexual assault, full-stop. Even if there was consent involved in the act, none was granted in its publicity. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for coming to the orchestra. Just not cumming at the orchestra.

In October, 2022, as Ukraine was preparing for the foreboding winter ahead, amidst the threat of nuclear annihilation, a group formed in Kiev to organize an orgy in which hundreds of participants enlisted to have every kind of public sex. One partaker characterized the event as “the opposite of despair.”

Radio Free Europe covered the story. Then Vice. Predictably, The Post picked up on it, ‘orgy’ being one of the publication’s top ten keywords. Next, Žižek wrote an op-ed applauding the sexual revelers, employing the argument that a pleasurable orgy was justified in the face of more horrific uses of sex and sexuality — namely, the evidence of genocidal rape.

Žižek might know. Members of the Bosnian Serb Army were convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for using sexual violence as part of an ethnic cleansing policy during the Bosnian War. The public nature of those terrifying crimes and their seeming routineness shocked their victims and the world.

Russian soldiers are using the same tactics. To the victims of these kinds of sexual violence and others that remember, a public orgy would function as another trigger as effective as a land mine in inflicting trauma. An orgy in Kiev in a time of war is arguably another form of sexuality weaponized against its own people.

In the West, we have been shedding our supposed sexual inhibitions at an alarming rate over the past century or so. This is one of the key differences between classically capitalist and communist societies: attitudes toward sex. For Westerners, embracing every new niche identity and accompanying sexual practice was a sure sign of the freedom of liberal democracies. To Russia, it became the ultimate confirmation of our bourgeois decadence. Fighting fire with proverbial fire, Russia paradoxically utilizes genocidal rape as a strategy to combat that moral decay. Yet the West seems less shocked now than we were during the 1990s Bosnian conflict.

One reason is precisely the fascination that a woman having a screaming full-body orgasm at the symphony arouses. A culture obsessed with absorbing the cultural shock of public sexuality is one which has eternalized the drive and made desire itself the object of desire. No longer is the goal to pursue when pursuit becomes the ultimate goal, when fixation on sexuality is itself the new form of sexuality. The libidinal drive is furthermore displaced fully away from both its natural procreative and symbolic revolutionary potential. An orgasm at the orchestra renders the most explicit the most quotidian. Just another boring dystopia. Social decay porn.

Since the fall of the former Soviet Union, Western liberal society has been preoccupied with defanging the old Foucauldian disciplinary enclosures — school, hospital, prison, institution. But Deleuzian Control societies replaced them, as protocol usurped discipline, and digital technologies more and more began to organize and regulate modern life. The private and public spheres became disputed terrain, too, as social networks over the past two decades increasingly encouraged the publicizing of our once-private lives. No Baby Boomer ever accidentally encountered boudoir photos of their friends — or worse, relatives — on Facebook.

But we’re still subjects. And as subjects, we’re still subject to being subjected to Control. We just lived through extreme enclosure in which our own homes were transformed into prisons from which we were granted conditional and fluctuating release. And now that we’re back out, we’re all the way out.

In an effort to release ourselves from our restrictive disciplinary enclosures, we in the West have eradicated discipline, but not the enclosure. So we are instead left enclosed with the undisciplined.

Sexual exhibitionism is shocking because it should be shocking. When it ceases to be, then other forms of violence — like an attack on a sovereign nation — appear all the more acceptable, too. We must resist the creeping acceptance of every form of violence: sexual, physical, psychological, economic — all of it.

A common English-language phrase when everything seems to be going wrong, is: ‘fuck it all.’ That saying has taken on a grim literality, as it appears more and more people nowadays are choosing to say fuck everything, in every way, including being properly fucked. But what differentiates us as moral creatures is our ability to choose not to fuck it all. Even though we could, we don’t. It’s what separates us from animals. It’s what makes us human.

There must be some places in which we are not bombarded with casual sex of varying degrees of disturbance. But most of all, I don’t want to wonder if something is wrong every time my date doesn’t have a screaming full-body orgasm at the symphony.◼︎

Photo: Antoine Saito