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Multiculturalism, as Gareth Stevenson has recently argued, is one of the enduring features of Canadian identity in the twenty-first century as a symbol, as policy, and as “sociological fact.” 1 As an idea, it predates its formalization as legislation (in the passing of the 1988 Multiculturalism Act) by several decades, as Canada’s history as a heterogeneous complex of ethnic and cultural identities had been an increasingly central narrative since the massive influx of European refugees following World War II. While policy at federal and provincial (and territorial) levels mandates official recognition and support for multiculturalism, a substantial literature has identified a host of negative impacts on various ethnocultural groups. 2
At present, a newer discourse of diversity has emerged as a central role in public policy, evidenced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s repeated variations on the talking point “diversity is our strength” in recent years. 3 Yet, while diversity expands the ambit to include a range of identity markers that fall beyond ethnic or racial delimiters (gender, ability, age, and so on), it presumes, like multiculturalism, a similarly fragmented mosaic of groups persisting in a mutual, if uneasy, coexistence. Quebec’s legislative term of choice—interculturalism—offers something more dynamic: a fluid and interweaving relation among cultures, ethnicities, but one nonetheless “conceived in the spirit of synthesis.” 4 Implicit within any of the terminological expressions mobilized towards achieving Western liberal ideals of recognition, tolerance, and inclusion is the understanding that such moves towards peaceful coexistence occur within state-sanctioned definitions and allowances. Diversity is not the end goal in and of itself, but rather “unity in diversity.”
In the same way that diversity and multiculturalism have in large part become driving forces in the political economy of music, performance in Canada has equally begun to reflect the intersecting and multivalent paths that settler European, arrivant, 5 and Indigenous musicians have followed in pursuit of professional and artistic goals—namely those best described, if problematically, as inter- rather than multicultural. This article, in surveying several recent examples, asks: what are the valences of intercultural music performance in Canada in the twenty-first century? What politics do they address, and in what ways can interculturality in music reveal a layer of Canada’s social and political fabric that is marked by tension, dissonance, and potential?
The Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra is one of the earliest examples of an ensemble formed as a direct response to cultural diversity in Canada. Composer Moshe Denburg, vico’s founder, had been envisioning the creation of a “large-scale entity” to “present composed music which brought together the instruments and ideas of many cultures” since the 1980s. 6 Denburg recounted the influence of early intercultural experimentations in popular music from the 1960s and 1970s, such as George Harrison’s sitar playing with the Beatles and Ravi Shankar’s Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra, but it was not until 1999, when Denburg approached the organizers of the Sacred Music Festival in Vancouver—which featured smaller ensembles and concerts of traditional music from around the world—to write a piece “for everyone.”
Denburg’s Rapprochements (Reconciliations) for Inter-Cultural Orchestra, written for twenty-eight instrumentalists and seven singers, was vico’s inaugural piece and performed in November 2000—fitting, in that it loosely follows a programmatic scheme tracing a path from musical conflict to reconciliation. In preparing the work for its premiere, Denburg recognized the challenges inherent with working with musicians from performance backgrounds that do not prioritize notation or visual modes of transmission; these have remained a constant ‘problem’ to overcome as vico continues as a platform for singly-authored intercultural compositions. Workarounds, such as midi files, improvisational sections, and so on, have solved most of these impasses, but additional considerations, such as many of the non-Western instruments’ naturally quieter volumes come to bear on the music. For example, Denburg remarks that along with percussion instruments such as tabla, darabuka, and other hand drums, the presence of plucked strings (such as pipa, zheng, oud, and others) are the audible markers of difference in vico. In contrast to Western symphonic instruments, which are constructed to maximize projection in larger performance spaces, the sonic intimacy of a sitar, for example, imposes its own aesthetic circumscriptions on the practical matter of arranging for mixed ensemble.
Since 2001, vico has commissioned over fifty works by more than twenty Canadian composers from varying cultural backgrounds, all in the name of creating “Canadian Music of the Future.” The notion that Canadian multiculturalism as “social fact” merits a new kind of music reflective of its dynamic intercultural exchanges has sustained vico’s programming and outreach initiatives for nearly seventeen years, and the orchestra has subsisted on a range of provincial and federal grants to promote these kinds of musical experimentations. Until recently, vico was unique in its claim as the only permanent large ensemble mandated solely to the commission and performance of intercultural compositions. From 2011 until 2014, the Big World Band, also from the Vancouver area, performed what it described as “new world music:” a reimagining of traditional musics from “China, India, Persia, Arabia, to Spain, augmented by musicians from the traditions of Europe, the Americas, & beyond.” 7 Like vico, Big World Band (bwb) has been hailed in local press as the “United Nations” of music, 8 but the latter operated as a smaller collective of seven musicians performing on percussion and plucked strings “from the Silk Road.” bwb’s repertoire was a mix of original compositions by ensemble members, and reinterpretations of existing works, including a version of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1, which in bwb’s reading emphasizes the non-Western qualities of the work—the modal melodic writing, drone-like harmonic accompaniment that oscillates only between tonic and subdominant chords, and ornamental notes that in some cases become replaced by portamenti afforded by fretless instruments. Although no longer active, bwb, like vico, earned recognition for their efforts in promoting multiculturalism in Canada through musical performance; 9 and, their approach to intercultural exchange was focused on exploiting new creative possibilities resulting from the intersections of musical epistemologies in which aspects of disparate musical cultures engage in a recombinant, generative interplay. Similar to the position taken by vico, as expressed by Moshe Denburg, a foundational idea that drove bwb was that of a ‘root culture’—an autonomous and discrete complex of knowledges and practices that could fuse with several others in experimental collaborative exchanges to produce innovative musical expressions reflective of social conditions in which the ensemble was formed.
The most recent addition to the roster of intercultural ensembles is the New Canadian Global Music Orchestra (ncgmo), formed in late 2016 to celebrate “diversity and cultural pluralism.” 10 Conceived by the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Mervon Mehta, the ensemble is aimed at directly addressing the ever-present tensions that exist between Canadian diversity and classical music performance. The ncgmo’s premiere performance in Toronto’s Koerner Hall in June 2017 was advertised with publicity materials that asked “Where else but in Canada today, at this moment, can artists from different traditions come together to create a new body of work or, even, a new tradition?” 11 Supported by a grant from the Canada 150 Fund, the ncgmo is an ongoing project that has been in development under the Artistic Directorship of trumpeter and composer David Buchbinder, who also leads the successful intercultural jazz ensemble Odessa Havana, 12 and runs the community arts initiative Diasporic Genius which seeks to support intercultural activities in Toronto.
The ncgmo’s working methods, as explained by Buchbinder, are geared towards generating a familiarity among the musicians that goes past the varying technical and stylistic approaches to performance they bring. Without any preconceived sound or aesthetic in mind, the ncgmo’s music evolved over several months of workshops and rehearsals that followed rigorous auditions in 2016 in Toronto. Twelve musicians were selected for their abilities, according to Buchbinder, as performers who displayed mastery on their respective instruments, but who also displayed an aptitude to work well outside their comfort zones. 13 The Orchestra’s members are all immigrants to Canada, with the exception of Métis violinist Alyssa Delbare-Sawchuk; and, most, as Buchbinder explains, are “cross-cultural warriors.” By this Buchbinder hints at the quotidian conditions of being a performer of non-Western music in Canada where performance scenarios involving the intermingling of different traditional musics are frequent, and provide a means of sustaining a professional living. Before rehearsing any music, Buchbinder conducted several experimental group sessions, employing exercises to build confidence and familiarity among the ensemble—including storytelling sessions, a communal retreat, as well as improvising and sectional rehearsals. Musicians were encouraged to share significant recordings from masters of their respective musical traditions in a Dropbox folder, and to spend time listening individually. The music that the ncgmo has performed to date reflects the ensemble’s integrative working methods, and the pieces themselves are the result of collective compositional strategies, jam sessions, and working with ideas emerging out of basic elements of music. Although not all members read music, most, as Buchbinder indicated, possess at minimum a working fluency with Western notation, which made having the pieces arranged for the ensemble a sensible means of finalizing the music for performance.
In the above three examples, common points of tension inflect the intercultural processes of music making, and, I would suggest, define the terms with which interculturality is envisioned and pursued. These include negotiating the spectrum of musical literacy amongst performers; performers’ mastery of respective instruments and knowledge of traditional repertoires, and their willingness and proficiency to participate in inter-traditional collaborative methods; concerns about audibility and sonic aesthetics of placing acoustic instruments in various combinations for which they were not originally intended, and in similarly ill-suited performance spaces (such as larger concert halls or outdoor stages—the main venues for ‘cultural’ performances, festivals, and so on). Despite these practical concerns, these ensembles participate in—and indeed, exist because of—the narratives of cultural harmony promised by what Caitlin Gordon-Walker has recently termed “multicultural nationalism;” that is, a model of nationalism which relies upon its own presumed ability to adequately provide for and accommodate varying strata of difference in its ultimate goal of achieving unity in diversity. 14 Like other ensembles before them—Constantinople in Montréal (active since 1998) and Toronto’s Evergreen Club Gamelan (since the early 1980s) come to mind— vico, bwb, and ncgmo are all reliant, to some extent, upon a merit-based public funding infrastructure that itself operates as an extension of this particular vision of nationalism, and one that accords visibility and cultural legitimacy to its beneficiaries. The point is that these particular expressions of intercultural musical exchange, as exciting and valuable as they are, must be understood within a politics where difference is recognized, tolerated, and celebrated as much as it is institutionalized and managed.
In contrast to a model of interculturality that relies on the merging of traditional musics, there are many musicians working within popular genres whose practices actively critique the rhetoric of tolerance and accommodation embedded in Canadian multicultural discourse. Yamantaka//Sonic Titan (yt//st) was formed in Montréal’s Saint-Henri neighbourhood in the late 2000s by Ruby Kato Attwood and Alaska B, then two art students at Concordia University identifying as “mixed-race.” 15 Described by Alaska B as an “experimental opera collective,” 16 and on their website as a “psychedelic noh-wave” group fusing pop, metal, noise, and folk music into a “multidisciplinary hyper-orientalist cesspool of ‘east’ meets ‘west’ culture,” 17 yt//st imaginatively reappropriate sonic and visual markers of otherness in their recordings and elaborate live performances—Kabuki-inspired face-paint, poorly-articulated lyrics in Japanese, Indigenous vocables, and so on. Although membership in the collective has changed in the past decade (including the departure of Attwood in 2015), yt//st have included an array of multidisciplinary artists from various ethnocultural backgrounds. The song “One” (and its video) from their 2013 album Uzu illustrates how yt//st confront anodyne tropes of social harmony implied by state-sanctioned slogans like “diversity is our strength.” It begins with an Iroquois Round Dance song of vocables superimposed over the faces of singers Ange Loft (who is from Kahnawake Territory, and who adapted the song for the band) and Attwood wearing Kabuki paint. Lyrically, the verses problematize multiculturalism’s tenet of “unity in diversity,” with a series of rhetorical questions asked from a marginalized perspective — “Ever wonder what it’s like to live in America?” 18 Visually, diversity is represented as both subversive as well as mundane: a warehouse party filled with queer, trans, and minority revellers dance while the band plays. Interculturality here is celebrated not for its contributions to the socio-political coherence of nation, but rather as something uncontainable and irreducible to discourse; it is a condition of the feeling of placelessness and dislocation experienced by those whose difference Canadian tolerance does not actually accommodate.
Similarly, queer Latinx singer Lido Pimienta, who emigrated to Canada from Colombia in 2005—and who also identifies as Wayuu—expressed in a recent interview the persistent sense of displacement that is intrinsic to the diasporic experiences in Canada: “Sometimes I feel like I’m not Colombian anymore. But I know that I’m definitely not Canadian, either.” 19 Pimienta’s two albums (La Papessa, 2016; Color, 2010) both draw from her Afro-Colombian and Indigenous heritage, and feature songs mostly sung in Spanish supported by synth-driven beats. The intercultural dimensions of Pimienta’s music comes not so much from any kind of interaction between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity, ’although these are mobilized and juxtaposed extensively in her work. Rather, her increasingly visible presence in Canadian popular music as a queer-identifying immigrant woman of colour—La Papessa won the prestigious Polaris Prize in 2017—highlights the extent to which intercultural exchange is mediated, manufactured, and transacted between performer and listener. And, crucially, these transactions are, as Pimienta has articulated frequently, underpinned by the racism, tokenism, and exoticism that pervade Canadian concert and festival programming, arts funding, and music criticism. 20
Within the past two decades, modes of intercultural collaboration between art music composers in Canada and Indigenous playwrights, authors, musicians, and keepers of traditional knowledge has taken a noticeable shift towards the kinds of long-term, mutually beneficial, and generative partnerships that many Indigenous leaders have been calling for long before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action were published in 2015. Although critical of their potential to merely replicate the “colonizing impulse of integration” 21 Stó:lō scholar Dylan Robinson observes that a notable number of innovating works combining Indigenous musics and early music that were written and staged in Canada during the first decade of the twenty-first century might be thought of as powerfully symbolic iterations of the kinds of intercultural encounters upon which Canada was founded. More recently, many similar works designed to be presented within the art music world have been staged in Canada that prioritize community engagement, consultation, and embedding local Indigenous culture within the conceptual frame of performance. To name only a few out of many: Turning Point Ensemble’s re-working of Barbara Pentland and Dorothy Livesay’s 1952 opera The Lake, realized in consultation with the Westbank First Nation; 22 Brian Current’s 2017 collaboration with Tlicho Dene storytellers Rosa Mantla and Richard Van Camp; and the opera Missing by Métis playwrightMarie Clements, for which Current was chosen to compose the music (with text sung in English and Gitxan). The timeliness of this last work, in light of the current troubled status of the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women, cannot be overemphasized. 23
Most prominently of these, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production of Going Home Star: a Story of Truth and Reconciliation (premiered in 2014) attempts to weave Indigenous creative voices into the structural and aesthetic confines of the ballet genre. Composer Christos Hatzis, who has collaborated on several occasions with Inuit throat singers, 24 worked in studio with experimental throat singer Tanya Tagaq and Steve Wood of the group Northern Cree to sample their voices for inclusion in his eclectic score, which sets a non-linear storyline derived from the writing of Joseph Boyden—himself the subject of recent scrutiny about his claims to being Indigenous. Although it represents a significant and symbolic cultural moment of settler-Indigenous reconciliation, Going Home Star has been criticized as a Eurocentric telling of the Indian Residential School System, 25 and the collaboration between Hatzis, Taqaq, and Wood reflects long-standing aesthetic tensions between Indigenous musics and their ability to properly “fit” in the rigid parameters imposed by symphonic performance.
As Beverley Diamond observes, “it is not surprising that the very nature of cross-cultural encounter and particularly the impact of colonialism” 26 remained a central topic of inquiry over the last two decades with respect to scholarship on Indigenous musical practices and traditions. Of particular significance to how Indigenous musical expressions find themselves entwined in myriad threads of musical modernity is the ethical dimension of intercultural exchange. While a key focus of Diamond’s scholarship has been to explore the ways in which Indigenous musics have embraced non-Indigenous styles as a way of asserting agency, identity, and ownership, Indigenous peoples in Canada have a long and documented history of having musical texts expropriated without knowledge or permission.
Indeed, the history of Canadian classical music can be thought of as an aggressively colonial project, 27 with hundreds of compositions making explicit or indirect use of song, myths, imagery, and so on. 28 Harry Somers’ 1967 opera Louis Riel, which was recently brought into unusually high visibility (for Canadian art music) thanks to the opera’s restaging in Toronto and Ottawa for Canada 150, serves as a well-known example. Somers set a Nisga’a lament, originally recorded in 1927 by Marius Barbeau, and later transcribed by Ernest MacMillan and published in Music in Canada (1955). The lament was sung by Alfred Sg’at’iin (or Skateen) from the community of Gitlaxt’aamiks, whose family retains ownership of the song, and which, according to Nisga’a customary law, cannot be performed without permission. Until 2017, members of the Nisga’a community were unaware that the tune had been used by Somers, first as the source material for the vocal work Kuyas (1965), and then inserted into the opera at a pivotal moment. According to Ahuulk Nisga’a, the complex system of traditional laws, every such performance of the tune is a breach of ethical and legal protocol.
In 2017, Dylan Robinson organized a series of meetings to address possible modes of redress for Somers’ misuse, coinciding with both the COC and the NAC’s performances of Riel, involving leadership from both organizations, cast members (including Indigenous members cast as part of the silent “Land Assembly” for the 2017 run of Riel), Indigenous community leaders and performers, and senior arts administrators from the Canadian Opera Company, Canada Council, Canadian Music Centre, and Canadian Museum of History, and National Arts Centre. While this isn’t the first of such misuses in Canadian classical music, the dialogue that has been instigated between representatives from both the Nisga’a Lisims Government and community leaders, and the estates of Harry Somers and Mavor Moore (Riel’s librettist) enacts a kind of intercultural work that reflects the shifting ethical paradigms of performance in twenty-first-century Canada.
Music has, since the beginnings of official multiculturalism, played an important role in its implementation across Canada. As early as 1973, ten million dollars had been allocated to events and programming, such as folk festivals, to “promote cultural harmony” amongst 500 ethnic groups. 29 And as Parmela Attariwala’s recent research has illustrated, multiculturalism’s steadily increasing impact on Canada’s granting systems has resulted in complex, shifting, and contested criteria for evaluating which kinds of music qualify for funding. Arts councils, musicians, and policymakers continue to engage in an ongoing struggle to “democratize access” to opportunities, visibility, and legitimacy that were once conferred primarily upon European derived art musics and their performers. 30 vico, bwb, and ncgmo have dedicated themselves to performing music that draws from a range of cultural influences afforded by transnational, settler- and postcolonial diasporic flows, and take up the challenge to incorporate musical aspects from several different ethnocultural identities.
But artists working in the pop/avant/indie milieu like yt//st, Lido Pimienta, and many others not mentioned here have practices that respond to and critique racialization, exoticism, and marginalization in ways that are not explicitly represented in sound. Their work addresses the power differentials of multiculturalism and the geocultural landscape wrought by decades of immigration by working in established genres, recontextualizing notions of representation and appropriation in visual and lyrical modes of expression. And lastly, as Canada celebrates 150 years of sovereign nationhood, collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians have taken on a particularly acute valence as a means of articulating resurgence, sovereignty, and ownership over tangible and intangible heritages of which Indigenous peoples have been dispossessed during centuries of colonialism. Space does not permit a comprehensive account of the myriad iterations of intercultural performance that have occurred in Canada, and there are many names of performers and ensembles I have omitted here for the sake of concision. The foregoing illustrates the diffuse and multilateral understandings of cultural identities, their representation and circulation within sonic practices, and, importantly, how utopic narratives of social diversity in Canadian policy can become creatively (and productively) unsettled.
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