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Our music is not Canadian, just made in Canada

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Pianist and musicologist Elaine Keillor.

Ottawa pianist and musicologist Elaine Keillor would have us believe that there is such a thing as Canadian music. For proof, she has produced Sounds of North, a four-CD survey of Canadian piano works spanning 200 years. But after much listening and thinking, I don’t believe a note of it.

In saying this, I don’t want to belittle Keillor’s magnificent accomplishment in putting together this album. But all that playing and listening inspired a lot of thinking.

In her introductory notes, Keillor refers to Northrop Frye’s notion of collective myth, to R. Murray Schafer’s professions of an aesthetic shaped by our land and weather and the possible links to a sparseness, coldness in the quality of organized sound Canadians like to create and listen to.

As Exhibit A, Keillor lays five hours of solo piano music at our earbuds, suggesting we come to our own conclusions.

My take is that those who still cling to the offspring of 18th century beliefs such as Montesquieu’s “esprit général” (common spirit of a people) or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s suggestions that there is such a thing as national character — not to mention the wave of pure nationalism that followed in the 19th century — fall into a collective delusion that there is such a thing as a Canadian anything.

If we’re going to begin to call something truly Canadian, we have to pick some points of intersection between geography (will it be Banff or the Tantramar Marshes?), climate (Okanagan peach groves or an ice-encrusted Rideau Canal?), and ethnic origin (Irish Newfoundlander? Scots Nova Scotian? Breton Quebecer? Doukhobor Manitoban? Haida British Columbian? Punjabi or Persian Torontonian?).

Collectively, many of us who comment on Canadian culture continue to cling to the belief that there is overlap between all of these elements, a patch of Venn diagram we can call our own. It’s a little space thickly decorated in Group of Seven paintings, furnished in novels by Robertson Davies and filled with the sounds of radio documentaries by Glenn Gould.

What does Keillor bring to our petit pavillon?

It is not the voice of nation or geography or ethnic origin, but the clarion call of fashion.

Disc One’s 27 pieces (“From 1807 to Ragtime”) begins with a march and ends in jaunty two-step. The dance floor in between is tiled in polkas, galops, gavottes and waltzes written by people whose ancestry lay in the British Isles and France (with the notable exception of Nathaniel Dett).

Disc Two (“Developments to the end of WWI”) contains 27 pieces whose sole contribution from outside the two national solitudes is from Chilean-born pianist and teacher Alberto Guerrero, who left an indelible impression on the country’s musical life as a performer and teacher based in Toronto.

We still hear a lot of music inspired by the ballroom, as well as mood sketches and little tone poems on Disc Two. A 3-minute Fugue by Clarence Lucas (1866-1947) is tossed in to show that someone in the Dominion believed in absolute music at the time. (That magnificent Fugue, written in 1886, is remarkably adventurous tonally for its time.)

The 14 pieces on Disc Three (“New sounds to the end of WWII”) end with one of the shortest, Scherzino, a piece by this group’s sole newcomer, Bohemian-born Oskar Morawetz, who also left a rich legacy from his Toronto home base. The 11 works on the final disc (“Canada’s space in sound”) don’t include anyone from outside a western-European lineage.

In each case, the music reflects European fashion. And, to go beyond Keillor’s survey, if we look at new music programming today, the vast bulk of it still follows European thinking very closely.

Take a stroll through Dundas Square, and then try to come up with a quick answer on what the sound or face of Canada is today.

My point is that the historical music in this box set is made in Canada, but not about Canada. It’s no less valuable for it.

Thank goodness there is someone like Keillor, a devoted contributor to the storehouse assembled by the Canadian Musical Heritage Society, champion of women composers, the musical traditions of First Nations and of new music.

Keillor has an unaffected, elegant playing style that neatly lays out the many, many different styles and atmospheres she has chosen to represent.

This big musical treasure box concludes with British Columbia-based composer Jocelyn Morlock’s 2010 piece, The Jack Pine, inspired by a painting by, who else, Tom Thomson.

It is a harmonically satisfying, atmospheric journey that leads us into a lush thicket of sound, but ends in a sort of question, an ambiguity that suggests many more questions than answers about the image music is meant to represent.

For all the details on this release, from Montreal-area Gala Records, click here.


I was trying to find a little something by Clarence Lucas — born to the wife of a Methodist minister at the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford in 1866 and died in France in 1947 — to post here for listening, and I stumbled across a 1934 recording of Wilhelm Backhaus playing Lucas’s transcription of the Pastorale from J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

Notable here is the overall rhythmic liveliness of the piece — something unusual before the period-performance people came along a generation later.

John Terauds

John Terauds

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