The disruption caused by COVID-19 has been cataclysmic for the performing arts – for companies, the artists and audiences. Deeply concerned about the impact of the pandemic – along with erupting social justice issues – on artists, the National Arts Centre Orchestra introduced a new program, commissioning four musical artists to each curate a 30-minute television episode in collaboration with the NACO. The women were given free rein, told that they would be able to express themselves in an undisrupted way. The result: four eclectic episodes that show off Canadian talent – the orchestra, the creators and a long list of other artists. Undisrupted is now streaming on CBC Gem.
Marsha Lederman spoke with Undisrupted’s four curators.
In Forgotten Coast, Nova Scotia-based soprano Measha Brueggergosman teams up with hip-hop artist Jay Vernon and violinist Edwin Huizinga for an exploration of music, collaboration and history – including her own. She also worked with orchestrator Aaron Davis. In one of the episode’s most powerful scenes, Brueggergosman visits the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre, where her ancestor John Goseman – born in 1760 – is part of the narrative, as is Brueggergosman herself.
“It’s not lost on me the position and influence I hold and for the glory of God, I will not be silent about how meaningful it is to have gone from that to this. That is insane, the fact that they were stolen from Cameroon, thrown into slavery, working against their will, get the ray of hope from the British, leave their slave-masters in the dead of night, claw their way to emancipation. And let me acknowledge here that the oppressors of so many people were my liberators.
“We can’t take our eyes off our imperative to eradicate racism. And that’s why Africville, that’s why the Black Loyalist experience is so important. That’s why a white rapper and a Black opera singer are revealing our biases without pointing any fingers. It’s just what is. And so I love Forgotten Coast because we’re still tapping our toes and dancing and looking at orchestra members actually dancing in the pit, just in an atmosphere of gratitude. Like we’re pausing for the cause, because everything that could be shaken got shook, and what remains is us. What remains is songwriting, orchestrating, rapping, singing – operatically, or otherwise. It’s just an outpouring of expression and togetherness.”
In the empowering and moving episode Music Is My Medicine, Mohawk singer-songwriter Shawnee Kish highlights young Indigenous talent and shares the stage with dancers and singers. During a performance with hip-hop artist Nick Stone, Kish, who is Two-Spirit and also a youth mentor, bolts out a plea: “Just stay and show them what you’re made of.”
“That song and that line is meant for Indigenous youth who are faced with the suicide crisis within Canada and don’t feel like they have a place. But I can say that I’ve overcome that struggle, that time of I don’t feel like I belong, I don’t feel like there’s a place for me in the world. But I’m here today to say you do. And everything you’ve ever faced in your life that hurts you or makes you feel pain is meant to make you great. You’re supposed to use that to become who you’re supposed to become.
“I have faced struggles throughout my life and this year has been no stranger of struggle. I’ve definitely used music and this project has been a big source of [empowerment]. Music is such a powerful, powerful medicine and I know that by my own experiences throughout my life. And I feel that with everything that I am. I don’t believe that I’d be here today without it.”
Montreal-based composer and filmmaker Nicole Lizée went high-concept with her fantastical episode, A Guide to the Orchestra. The main character is watching the news when an item comes on about orchestration kits mysteriously showing up in people’s homes, possibly causing societal breakdown (“Orchestration – Just Harmless Fun Or Sorcery?” the onscreen graphic asks). What follows is a wild tale as the woman finds her own kit and explores the National Arts Centre, getting everyone from the orchestra’s principal librarian to a cake-playing violinist in on the action.
“I wanted to feature the orchestra as an entity and to celebrate it. Not to sound overwrought, but art has the capacity to reach so many people and it speaks to people more than ever in these times. The Earth stopped. But we can still express ourselves.
“All of these elements: The script, the props, the visual effects and the music all had to be written in tandem. And then it was a great thing to see it finally work with the orchestra and be with them in such an environment doing these crazy things. To be there finally after months and months of building and planning ... and then we’re here together making this happen, it was nothing short of beautiful.”
With Iskra, Serbian-born, Montreal-based composer Ana Sokolovic has created a 30-minute symphony that puts the pandemic in the context of human history. Through music and spectacular digital effects, the episode explores invention and technology: from the invention of the wheel to video-game tech to how our way of life brought on a pandemic. And what happened after that.
“The tools and machines, which we humans invented, are strongly influencing us. In some way, the exponential progress of technology – with our disrespect of the environment – led us to the pandemic. When the pandemic arrived, everything stopped, which frustrated us. But at the same time, paradoxically, we started to hear our own breathing. That metaphorical journey was a guide for my musical structure.
“My piece started with the solo voice and it ended with the solo voice, making a structural circle.
“After the big explosion we, I hope, somehow optimistically, found ourselves and are hopefully continuing our own lives in a better way.”
These interviews have been condensed and edited.
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