Oh Canadian Mosaic!

2017 marks the 150th year since Canada became a nation so on Saturday, March 4th at 8:00 pm, Laudate will be performing a lovely programme of Canadian choral music called Canadian Mosaic, surrounded by Canadian art at the Gordon Smith Art Gallery (2121 Lonsdale Ave, North Vancouver). I am writing this to shamelessly promote the concert but I’ve also been thinking a great deal about current events. Any person with a moral compass is terribly distressed about the state of affairs, especially abroad. I will not get on a political rant on this blog post; I will leave that to the comedians whose wit eviscerates bigotry and hatred wherever it is found. Instead, I feel the need to write about why Canadian Mosaic matters, why art is essential to us all.

“If You Could Wear My Sneakers” is a delightful set of three pieces by Scott MacMillan and Sheree Fitch, with the poetry based on three of the fifty four articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The articles are as follows: “All rights apply to all children without exception”, “Disabled children have the right to special care to enjoy a full life in dignity” and “Children have the right to leisure, play and participation in cultural and artistic activities”.

The first piece is about a little kid who is trying, unsuccessfully, to make friends with another kid because they might both find out that they like broccoli! How often have any of us tried to be included in a social circle and have been shunned – both as children and as adults? How many of us have put with workplace bullying because we had no other immediate financial options? Or perhaps, we have been the bullies ourselves? We cannot expect children to treat others respectfully if we do not model the correct behaviour in the first place. Besides, broccoli covered in melted cheddar cheese is delicious.

The second piece is told from the point of view of a sloth (a child with special needs) and why others find the sloth “just weird”. Most people don’t consciously discriminate against folks with disabilities but typical people are often very nervous around the disabled. I see it all the time with my own son who is mobile, goofy, non verbal, unpredictable, has no social boundaries, and, owing to Cornelia de Lange Syndrome (Google it), looks unusual. He is widely accepted by the other kids at the public elementary school that he attends because the teachers and aids don’t treat him much differently than they would treat any other student. The regular staff don’t get all nervous around him when he approaches them and, no surprise, neither do the students. However, when we are out in public, children who don’t know him will often avoid him. Most adults are fine with my son but I can almost smell the trepidation with which some people look at him when he approaches. Often, I watch the reactions of other adults as much as I watch him before I decide if he should even try to make contact with particular adults. It’s been my overall experience that if the adults aren’t “weirded out” by the person with special needs, the kids probably won’t be either. (General tip: when in doubt, just ask. Parents will talk your ear off about their kid, given the opportunity).

The third piece is a jazzy piece about a beagle and a beluga who like to eat buttered bagels, goof off, play and sail and see “the seven million wonders of the world”. This third piece sums up the entire set. Sometimes, it’s easier and more effective to be silly when making a point about treating people with respect and dignity – in this case a set of silly songs that are supposedly aimed at children. If we as adults can sing a wacky song about a beagle and a beluga, children can have fun and be goofballs too.

Rehearsing these pieces has made me confront my own prejudices toward the text. I normally don’t publicly admit that I don’t like a piece that we are doing but I will admit it here: I did not like these pieces at all the first two times we performed them. I thought to myself, “Yeah, yeah. We all know that kids should be treated with dignity. Stop being so preachy. No kid is going to listen to these pieces, like them or understand them anyway. Just be nice to kids. Enough said.” Pretty harsh, I know. So when I saw these pieces back in my choir folder, I was not thrilled. Then, as we started to sing through the pieces, I began to realize that these songs are not for children at all; they are morality lessons for adults, all tidily wrapped up in silly text and music. Children learn how to behave based on what they see around them, what they see adults modelling for them. The UN is like one big parent that nations sometimes sort of listen to when it suits their interests. But the people around the world listen to artists, writers, comedians and musicians. The irony that I disliked a work about not being prejudiced because I was prejudiced against it in the first place is not lost on me.

Two other pieces that stand out for me are “The Wife” by our most recent composer in residence, Eric Wettstein and “Tabula Rasa” by Don Macdonald. “The Wife” is told from the point of view of a recently deceased wife. This might seem morbid but it is not. The harmonies are full of colours and suspensions which weave through the text in a lovely tightrope of tension. The wife comes to the conclusion that yes, she is dead and that’s okay. It’s just death. “Tabula Rasa” or “blank slate” is in Spanish and depicts the beginning of an infant’s life. Only a newborn baby has a truly blank slate, an open life where anything and everything is possible. The harmonies that interlock masterfully with the text are clean, simple and elegant.

Your birth and your death are the most important events of your life and yet you cannot observe them and tell the story; the stories must be told by others, the observers, the loved ones. “The Wife” and “Tabula Rasa” tell the same story because birth and death feel very similar, like when the moon rises in the east as the sun sets in the west on a warm summer evening. When one experiences the birth or the death of a loved one, small, insignificant details come into sharp focus; the water, the air and the sky are so much more vivid. I have experienced both birth and death in the last decade and it astonished me how magnified my immediate surroundings were and how utterly absurd it seemed that the rest of the world could possibly continue to go about its business as if nothing happened. I felt closer to the ground somehow. The ordinary had become extraordinary.

“Song” by Imant Raminsh, text by is about an Inuit hunter out in his kayak in the middle of the winter. The harmonies are dissonant, jagged and disturbing, like the stunning but capricious Arctic landscape. Singing this piece feels like a bracing Arctic wind in the darkness of the Arctic night with the stars and the Northern lights overhead.

No concert of Canadian choral music would be complete without the music of Stephen Chatman, including one of my favourites, “Prairie Lullaby”. I really like the line “the patchwork quilt” to describe the prairie landscape. If you have seen the prairies from the air, especially if you are coming from the west coast, you will know how shocking and abrupt the change is from the jagged teeth of the Rocky Mountains to the flat, “patchwork quilt” of the Great Plains. The open harmonies, 4ths and 2nds underscore the vastness and openness of the prairies. “Lukey’s Boat” is a delightful and rather dark tale of Lukey, the Nova Scotia fisherman. On this concert, Laudate travels coast to coast.

I have written before that music helps us understand what it is to be human but this concert programme encompasses even more. “If You Could Wear My Sneakers” helps us understand how to be better human beings so that we can pass on those lessons to our children. We can also see and experience the beauty and wonder of our vast country through music. I can almost taste the Arctic wind when I sing “Song” even though I have never visited the north. All art, not just music, helps us understand how to live as human beings, as citizens, often in a more compassionate and empathetic way. From the point of view of a Canadian citizen, I’m glad that Canadian choral music performed in a gallery full of Canadian art can be part of that conversation, can add beauty to the world and be a part of something good and kind. Oh Canadian Mosaic!