I had the opportunity to witness two very different yet extraordinary musical performances yesterday — and neither involved a single note of art music. It was a powerful reminder to me that it is not a type of performer or a genre of music that binds us to a performance, but the way in which it is presented.
The day began with the Sun Ra Arkestra at the Daniels Spectrum (a.k.a. the Regent Park Arts & Cultural Centre) and ended with a cabaret show, The Picture of Happiness, inside a Leslieville live-work loft (the Gallery Fontana Swing). The two events could not have been more dissimilar, but each demonstrated unconventional ways of connecting an audience to a musical story.
I was personally involved in the Sun Ra Arkestra event, as one of the leaders of the Regent Park School of Music Choir, which participated in the closing section of the show. But by the time we had rehearsed with the band and the dancers (led by Bill Coleman of Coleman Lemieux Compagnie) on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, I had enough mental space left to sit back and watch it unfold in front of a capacity house on Saturday afternoon.
The Sun Ra Arkestra is nothing short of weird. Its members march to the beat of their own drum(s), playing an idiosyncratic blend of jazz and funk born in early-1970s counterculture. Much of the music (much of it based on structured improvisation and repetitive lyrics) is in the service of peaceful coexistence, which is a message we can’t hear often enough in any genre.
This is not the sort of music any of the children — aged 5 to 17 — get to hear in the real world. Nor do they normally get to see modern dancers blend sound and message into movement, all of which was gorgeously dressed by Hoax Couture’s Jim Searle and Chris Tyrell for this particular show.
The kids, who had spent way too much time cooped up waiting for their rehearsal slots and musical cues, were noisy and restless as we made our way down to the lobby to begin the show. They sat on the floor in front of the stage, with us adults poised to take swift action if any individuals threatened to spill their wandering attention spans on anyone else.
To my delight, every one of the youngsters, including two with particularly short attention spans, were mesmerized by what they were seeing and hearing, sitting in awe as 30 minutes of music, song and dance unfolded at their feet.
I was nearly brought to tears myself as Coleman performed a slow tap dance with a skeleton before a rousing finale involving the kids.
I have not come home wanting to listen to the Sun Ra boys again, yet I feel touched and even a bit transformed by what I saw.
After a nap and snack, my partner and I set out for The Picture of Happiness, a show created by and featuring Toronto pianist Patti Loach (a regular collaborator with mezzo-soprano Jean Stillwell) and singer-actor Brad Hampton at Gallery Fontana Swing, where the living-room furniture had been moved aside for a couple dozen folding chairs arrayed around a grand piano and a stool.
I had seen the show before in rehearsal, and wanted to see it again with a real audience.
The critic in me was also very curious to see how people would adjust to the missing fourth wall between performer and patron in such a small space — especially when the subject matter is at once intimate yet musical. We were going to be party to a very personal journey inspired by Hampton’s family history, interspersed with songs from musical theatre, which defy a whispered delivery.
This is where the revelations began.
Toronto musician and producer Jowi Taylor introduced the show by projecting one personal and one public image of the director (Rae Ellen Bodie) and the two performers on the big wall behind the piano, then asking each in turn what made one so personal and the other one so public.
The true confessions that came out, whether spontaneous or not, had the sound and feel of candour. The give-and-take between Taylor and the artists broke down any defenses we, the audience, would have walked through the door with.
We had been, without being beaten over the head, primed for what was to come.
The fact that Hampton and Loach were in excellent form helped, too.
You see, the secret to great spontaneous-feeling theatre or musicmaking is to rehearse it to the point where the technique and trappings behind it disappear, and then behave as if every syllable and note were being delivered entirely in the moment.
This is so much harder to do than it sounds.
One more observation last night was on the quality of Loach’s playing. This was show music rendered with a grace, subtlety and craft that could put many an art song or opera accompanist to shame.
Just because it’s not classical does not mean it can’t be art. After all, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Art is human activity having for its purpose the transmission to others of the highest and best feelings to which men have risen.”