This past summer we spent two weeks at an artist residency in Malaysia, at Rimbun Dahan, a beautiful complex outside of Kuala Lumpur. It is designed by the great Malaysian architect Hijjas Kasturi who co-founded the art centre with his wife Angela Kasturi. As we were travelling as a family of artists, Michel and myself, our two sons and my dad, with Reg arriving towards the end of our stay, they invited us to stay in a beautiful historic house on the grounds called Rumah Uda Munap, a restored Perak house carved with dragons and birds. The house is set back from the main buildings of the art centre, surrounded by tropical forest and wildlife. With its three bedrooms and large living space, the house was ideal for us. The artist residency is managed with care by Syar S. Alia who greeted us and showed us around.
As a female artist keen on balancing my creative life with my family responsibilities, finding an artist residency that is open to family stays always feels miraculous. And yet it is vital too, as our children also gain so much from witnessing our creative process. It is a great privilege too to see my children discovering Southeast Asia with their grandfather who was so often reminded of his own youth in everything he saw. So he would keep stealing fruit from trees and sharing stories with us as we went along.
Michel created illustrated scores with his new drawings, pieces of objects and plants he found, sounds that inspired him. I gathered sounds with my camera and photos while writing poems, reading and filming. We also all played gamelan together in the large dance studio and worked on our music for our performance in Sulawesi after our stay.
The break and mental space away from North American news was a great relief. We visited the library in the artists’ lounge, wandered through the underground art gallery and soaked in the atmosphere. We enjoyed authentic and inexpensive Malaysian food all up and down the road in front of the centre in Kuang, quickly realizing this was more worthwhile then cooking for ourselves. We travelled easily to Kuala Lumpur where we got our fill of shopping and delicious food courts and saw more architecture by Hijjas Kasturi.
There were many cinematic moments, like walking along the dark road at night to the soundtrack of competing mosques with only a small flashlight to guide us or tiptoeing towards the lake by the pool to watch birds and monkeys in the early morning hours. There was a day when I ate cendol, fried chicken, banana chips, okra, durian, young coconut, lemang and mango. I was spoiled by the vast assortment of uncooked krupuk available at the small shop across the street, having been raised to treasure these dried discs for years while growing up in Canada.
So here are some of the lines I wrote as we took a deep breath, discovered new things, and gathered inspiration.
We can hardly hear the prayers
over the racket of the crickets
electric on this rainy night
where the lizard jumped over the mouse
under the ceiling fans we grow silent
reading books about gardens, talking cats
country squires and the Wallace line
I mistook my brother’s flipflops for frogs
Michel is making musical instruments
from ropes and a dry broom
I am slowly unravelling
my white flowing pants
are endlessly drying in the sun
a black sarong now drapes
and flashes my legs when I walk
I’ve lost all my hair elastics again
and knot my hair into itself
a swimsuit or a bra are interchangeable
no makeup, no shoes, no bug spray even
just me, rolling in the humidity
chasing the breezes of the fans
as the ants at my feet get smaller and smaller
I am like the nutmeg shell
tumbling to the ground, popped open
As our visit to Toraja approached I spent a long time thinking about what I would sing there, within those magical mountains and mysterious caves. I knew I wanted to sing some of my dream haiku as I’d been doing in Montreal since the spring. Singing my dreams combines mystic detective work with musical ideas I’ve gathered while singing free jazz, something like Jack Kerouac’s haiku with jazz but delving beyond stream of consciousness to a stream from the unconscious.
With the sudden passing of my cousin Marianne, the babysitter of my youth, my comrade-in-arms for revitalizing hiking getaways in Palm Springs, I scoured my journals for dreams of her. And wrote my haiku based on these. As news of Marianne’s illness was unfolding far too swiftly, my friend Susan Briscoe began her blog The Death Project, which was born of her own terminal cancer diagnosis. I selected a page from the Crow’s Vow, a collection of her poems, and brought all these words with me to our artist residency and up the winding road to Toraja. I wasn’t sure what else I would sing but I was determined to sing Susan’s poem and dreams of Marianne together as my offering to the mystical caves of Ke’te Kesu, here in one of the few places of the world that treats death, not as something to be feared and avoided, but as the quest of all life.
Here is the song we performed, with the joyful accompaniment of my band and our new friend, bassist Fendy Rizk. There was dancing in the audience and singing along and one could feel the spirits were with us, helping us to send our best wishes to everyone on all astral planes.
Much of the imagery is from my travels in California, with the bighorn sheep, cliffs, sand and Susan’s coyotes, and I’ve returned to mix the song as wildfires destroy so much of the beauty around there again. So this is an offering to the fire gods to give it a rest and to step away as quickly as possible too. I don’t know if it will work but it is a song filled with wishes from the past, the present and the future. What more can we do?
October 20, 2017
by admin Comments Off on The Bumblebee Bull’s Eye
There is a psychic dreaming game played at every IASD conference where everyone tries to dream a target image in advance. Images are selected from a random pool and then someone, a sender, is given 4 envelopes, each with a different image. She pulls one of these as the target and begins sending the imagery out to all the participating dreamers, many of whom have been trying to dream the image several days in advance.
I wasn’t able to attend the latest IASD conference in Anaheim this year but as luck would have it, I’m in an online group of psi dreamers who participate in cyberspace. We all tried to dream the target image from our homes in the week before the conference.
I was discouraged by my own dreaming. I was about to begin a whirlwind trip through Indonesia and Malaysia with Michel and my family. We had a few destinations well planned out, an artist residency in Malaysia followed by the Toraja International Festival in Sulawesi. But due to our flights and other scheduling details we had a week in the front of these events when we could go to any number of places. We considered a lot of exciting options, Tokyo, Singapore, Yogyakarta but finally our sentimental favourite rose to the forefront and insisted on our attention. Once we’d decided to go to Ubud, Bali, somehow all the pieces of this complex travel puzzle fell quickly into place, like a rubik’s cube waiting to be solved.
With my family at Ubud Palace. I’m the little blonde one in the front
Ubud has drawn me in since my first trip there at age three. I was at the perfect age to be marked for life by the twirling, golden, colourful dancers who all looked like princesses to me. I’ve been back many times since so there was a nice comfortable feeling in beginning this adventure in a place I know.
In the week leading up the psi game I was dreaming of dancers in Bali, hearing gamelan music as I fell asleep, seeing all the swirling and the twirling colours in my mind’s eye. It was as if I’d already dashed ahead, impatient to get to our destination. I didn’t bother noting these dreams, as I chocked them up to mental overflow from all my travel planning.
When the four possible target images were selected, the first one I saw was of two Balinese dancers. That made me laugh, like the cosmos was winking at me to say, when you think you know what you are dreaming, you really don’t know anything. The other three images were strong and clear as well, three frogs, a pyramid and a camel, and a tuba player.
I joined in with the other online psidreaming participants and considered our dreams collectively and our best guess for a hit. We’ve been working with notions of ripples of precognition, how we should be noting syncs or hits with target images not just before a psychic game but also after. Because why should hits after a game be discounted based on some kind of linear time bias? Studying this wave on both sides of a target has now become part of our practice. We also note things that pop out at us in our waking lives as often we notice synchronicities there.
I confessed my strong attachment to the image of the Balinese dancers. But then, my upcoming trip could be influencing me. A Google image search turned up a website with the target photo that confirmed that yes, these were Balinese dancers (Wiki now tells me they are from the Sekar Jepun dance troupe in Yogyakarta), and that they are depicted dancing a less known dance called the Oleg or Bumblebee dance. Oh, I had assumed they were dancing something I’d seen often like the Legong. Apparently a distinguishing feature of the Oleg dance was the raised arms of the female dancer as she lifted the sashes of her sarong like wings. The dance speaks of how the male and female in nature are dependent on one another, a lovely egalitarian sentiment.
And then the target image was revealed! It was almost anti-climatic for me that it was the photo of the Balinese dancers. I felt they’d been calling to me from afar for decades, a kind of pull that is described well in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. If you have an island filled with people offering gifts to spirits several times a day, often in a quest to increase tourism and bring awareness of their island to others, isn’t the place likely have a stronger pull than others? It’s something I regard with a hint of suspicion, wondering, what does this place want from me or have I got it backwards and I return regularly because of what I want?
Triumphant in any case, my action plan to honour the dreaming game and all the dreams I’d had was to get my psidreaming friends a fresh new photo of some dancers very soon. I like to bring dream energy into waking life this way and the process is important to me. I thought the target photo might be vintage since the version I saw of it had a kind of sepia cast to it, and this rare dance was unlikely to be on my radar during my short 5 day stay in Ubud but I would bring them a photo with similar energy.
As it turned out, after two days in Ubud, I hadn’t gone to see any dances at all. I did pick up a program of dances in the area but none of them mentioned anything like the Oleg or the Bumblebee dance. Never mind, I decided, I should be relaxing, getting over my jetlag. What will be will be.
In the past, we always went to Ubud Palace to see the traditional dances, the same palace we’d stayed at when I was a small child, back when there were no hotels. And we did end up near there one night but instead of heading to the Palace we were at a restaurant across the street, listening to a friend play a blues gig. After he’d finished I dashed across the street, impatient to catch the tail end of a dance that might still be ongoing, questing for that elusive photo of dancers I’d promised to my dreaming pals. In my haste I left my family behind. After seeing that all the dances were long since finished, the Palace empty, I turned to discover my dad, Walter, had tripped on the uneven sidewalk in the dark and had nearly fallen flat on his face. Luckily Michel had grabbed onto his arm in the nick of time. Was my photo quest was making me neglectful?
The delicious durian from the market
It was not the first time during our trip that we’d been up and down the busy street in front of the Palace. The day before we’d stopped to buy a durian at the market nearby. While my dad was negotiating with the durian seller in Indonesian, asking me what I thought of the price and the particular fruit she was offering, we were interrupted by a tourist curious about durians. In the midst of all this back and forth, four people talking at once in many languages, my youngest son tapped on my arm, said something quickly to me and waved his hand. I nodded and went back to the durian negotiations. When we’d concluded the sale and had our prized fruit firmly in hand we turned and looked through the throngs of tourists milling around. There was no sign at all of Michel and the kids.
We walked towards the shop we thought they had gone to, but no sign of them there either. We went around and around along the crowded, noisy strip of road, blocked by cars and motorcycles, tired sweaty tourists and irritable vendors, searching endlessly. We stopped and had an ice cream across from the durian seller and waited to see if they would emerge. But after an hour or so we gave up and made our way back to the hotel, the pungent durian dangling from my arm.
As it turned out, the boys had gone in the entirely opposite direction and had also sat in front of a durian seller waiting for us, except it was the wrong seller a block away. And they went back to the hotel by a different route.
This tedious mix up, this expanse of lost time, reminded me of something from last summer. I remembered all of us being stuck in Nice, France, wandering along the Promenade des anglais, desperately trying to find a bus back to our vacation rental, wasting hours waiting for buses that never came, being rejected by taxi drivers, until finally we got Uber working and one of their drivers rescued us. I was so annoyed by it all that I adamantly refused to go back into the city the following day. That fateful day turned out to be the day a truck drove into the tourists on the Promenade des Anglais and crushed so many of them to death. I flipped my perspective on the bubble of time that had trapped us and also kept us from being there at the site of the tragedy when it happened. I was no longer annoyed but was instead grateful. What ripple or wave was reaching out before and after that tragic, violent event?
So I took this repeat of a kind of trickster energy as a sign that we should probably stay away from Ubud Palace, which now felt to me like the place of lost family and tripping grandfathers. It was a harsh decision for my photo quest but I tossed that aside. And there was a community centre near our hotel that also offered dances. Why not go there instead? It was just a short walk and would greatly decrease the margin of error and the number of hazards along the way.
The women’s dance and gamelan group at B. B. Ubud Kelod
So at the last minute we arrived at the le Balai Banjar Ubud Kelod and hastily bought our tickets. We were greeted by several women in pink sarongs, members of the all female gamelan orchestra. That was a pleasant surprise, as gamelan orchestras are nearly always male. We were seated by a breezy open window and given jasmine flowers for our hair to indicate that our ticket was paid.
I took one photo after another now, thinking how nicely these photos would fulfil my action plan. And as luck would have it, the dancers were often wearing sashes and were holding them up a lot. Gradually, after a few more dances and more photos, I saw the target image appear before me and begin to move. The female dancer raised her sashes and the male dancer moved delightedly around her. Amazing! I snapped one photo after another but it was dark and as they moved quickly the photos were fuzzy so I switched to video instead.
I left the dance hall very satisfied, excited to be able to send off a nice souvenir photo as promised to the psi dreamers, my action plan fulfilled, and all so comfortably. In the morning I asked Michel for the program we’d been handed in the dark as we’d entered so I could note the name of the dance troupe. I also pulled up the target image so I could try to grab a shot that was a bit similar.
I noticed immediately that the sarong of the male dancer was very like the sarong of the male dancer in the target image. And was that the same fan, the same head dress? The costumes were the same. This really was turning out to be rather astounding. I studied the program and discovered, aha, that the performance I’d videotaped was the Oleg or Bumblebee dance! I’d found it entirely by accident!
I uploaded the video to my dreaming friends and they were suitably impressed. In the program, I read the history of the female gamelan orchestra who had overcome all kinds of social pressure and were finally allowed to perform in public about 13 years ago. Their quest for equality was fitting with the theme of the dance as well.
Maybe it’s not a ripple or a wave to find a lovely performance of the Bumblebee dance a week after the target image was revealed. Perhaps it’s simply that I was looking for a needle in a haystack and succeeded. But with the swirl of chaos keeping me from the Palace (where no one was performing the Oleg) and my utter lack of information before heading into the performance, I can only attribute it again to the power of many, many women praying on the island of Bali. Or was it the magical power of Angel Morgan, the dreamer whose story of sending the image to the dreamers at the conference in Anaheim matched my trip to come so wonderfully?
Did the spirits around the dance know about the psi game in California and jump in to join us all? Or did the dreamers get pulled into the swirl of the dance and become one kind of tornado force of energy? Or am I making something out of nothing and isn’t this just a charming coincidence? And what if it had occurred the other way around, with me seeing a dance first and target image second, would that change how I feel?
Because the way I feel is that I have been shown time and energy as a kind of universal spiral, a linking over continents, and a wonderful dance of a bumblebee that can soar over obstacles and be seen from afar by anyone with the clarity of vision to notice. And of course everyone should go to Bali to sense these energies themselves. And what better place for a dreaming conference in the future? May many more women play gamelan and may many more women enjoy hearing them. I sent one of the photos of the women playing gamelan to some female friends of mine in Montreal with the caption, there’s still time for us, let’s start an orchestra too!
As it turned out, a week later I arrived at the Rimbun Dahan artist residency outside of Kuala Lumpur and one of the things I did there was play my own version of free jazz improvised gamelan in their wonderful dance studio. May my Javanese ancestors, female and male, be proud! One action plan has led swiftly and creatively to another and a new musical creation has just begun.
My recent Toronto weekend filled with jazz singing and dream talk was a great success. Reg and I performed jazz standards we love, as well as songs we’ve both written and songs we invented on the spot. From a bossa nova about dreaming, to our Dreamcatcher song to singing dream haiku, it was a joyful musical experience enhanced by an attentive audience of friends and fans and the great staff at the 120 Diner.
Here are some excerpts captured by our father Walter. The first song is one I wrote while travelling in Portugal. Michel and I travelled to Sintra to see the castle on a foggy day in November and as we were hiking up the mountain I tripped and twisted my ankle. Now I think back to that trip with some pain and melancholy, all the emotions contained in a good fado song. Later that night I was sure I heard someone whistling this melody on the train from Sintra to Lisbon. Maybe they were? Then I woke up and realized I was dreaming. The song is called Sintra Song.
On Sunday my dreamsharing pal Barbara Allen and I headed to a day long event organized by Jeanne van Bronkhorst with other members of the local branch of the IASD. There we began with a dreamsharing circle and in the afternoon Barbara and I led a talk about connected dreaming together, why we love it and why we do it. We told stories of how we’ve dreamt for one another, with one another and sometimes together for others. The depth of story and imagery shared and discussed by everyone was elevated and before we knew it we had spent six hours collectively discussing dreams.
Several of the members of the Toronto IASD Meetup group are authors and you can find their books here.
Before leaving my brother handed me a digital recording console he’s not using so I managed to stuff that into my little carry on suitcase with all my usual Chinatown snacks. I have the coolest big brother and get the best hand-me-downs. So I’ll be working on new music and projects this season!
As well, I’m looking forward to the Psiber dreaming conference, two weeks of great reading and discussion online with an international bunch of kindred spirits. And for the first time I’ll be giving a paper on a subject close to my heart, Dream gifts and action plans. That’s right, when I dream a recipe, I cook it. And more. See if you can find me in this stylish conference banner below. If you join the IASD you can attend the conference for free. It’s cutting edge thinking and the wave of the future, frankly.
August 28, 2017
by admin Comments Off on My Favourite Things
I have back-to-back events in Toronto in September that represent some of my favourite things (as the song says), jazz song and dreaming.
My brother Reg and I will mine our extensive repertoire of jazz standards and our own jazz songs for an evening of music at 120 Diner on September 9 from 6pm – 8pm. We’re very picky about the songs we love and take great joy in sharing them.
The following day, Sunday the 10th, my dreamsharing pal Barbara Allen and I will share our thoughts and experiences around connected dreaming with the Toronto branch of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. It will be a full day event with lots of conversation and many tips on how to work with one’s dreams. And there’s a potluck so yeah, you should come.
I’m guessing these two events will overlap here and there – I’ll sing about dreams, dream about singing and and talk about everything! Somehow in this swirl of energy I shall dance towards the new season, become more myself, embrace the Autumn Leaves and get ready for the PsiberDreaming Conference that begins a few weeks later on Sept. 24. It’s an online festival of great thinking and writing about psi dreaming. It’s my third online conference and for the first time I’m presenting a paper called Dream Gifts and the Importance of Action Plans, a topic that is close to my heart. I encourage anyone interested in reading cutting-edge ideas and stories about working with dreams in new and creative ways to join in. It’s a great space to share one’s thoughts and get feedback on all those puzzling experiences we seldom talk about. There’s nothing else quite like it.
And now see if you recognize the soundtrack in this video for the PsiberDreaming conference.
August 10, 2017
by admin Comments Off on Our summer adventures
I remember when the great jazz trumpet player Herbie Spanier, a family friend, complained to me about the seasons. He said something like: why are we expected to do all this work in the dead of winter when it’s so cold and dark and you just want to hibernate, and yet in the summer when the days are long and we’re full of energy we’re expected to go on vacation and relax?
I’ve taken that analysis to heart and after long months of organizing in the cold months, we usually spring into action in the summer. I bristle a bit when people ask how our vacation has been, as this is a time of creative work and gathering ideas, not relaxation. This summer has been no exception, as Michel and I embarked on a whirlwind of activity that included Bali, an inspiring stay at the Rimbun Dahan international artist residency Malaysia, and performances in Sulawesi. Our sons and my dad were along for the entire adventure and Reg joined us for the last leg.
I have a lot of stories to tell about this magical summer, so many that I don’t even know where to begin. So I’ll take all my notes and photos and videos and dreams and thoughts and sort them out as the days get shorter. With any luck I’ll share some of them here.
I will start by sharing this video of our last night on the adventure, when we performed at the Toraja International Festival in Ke’te Kesu, Sulawesi. It’s an excerpt from a poem I wrote about Toraja so it felt very right to sing it there, at the site of the inspiration.
We also performed some of Reg’s songs from his wonderful, evocative Songbook album. And I sang a page of poetry from my friend Susan Briscoe’s Crow’s Vow, aiming to send her energy for her overwhelming health challenges. I followed this with dream haiku written for my beloved cousin Marianne who had passed so suddenly a few weeks before from pancreatic cancer. Toraja is a very spiritual place with such a startlingly different approach to life and death so it felt right to delve into these themes in this beautiful environment. Much of that was also reflected in Franki Raden’s multimedia opera of the first night of the festival, when we had a chance to collaborate with an amazing range of local and international musicians.
June 6, 2017
by admin Comments Off on The Intuitive Art Game
Yesterday my dreaming friend Maureen shared a dream with our small online dream group that included a magical cat. As I read the description I was reminded of a small watercolour I made once of a similar cat. Where is that painting? I plan to scan it and show it to her but life interrupted. The following day she posted a second dream and tagged me as there is singing in the dream and Michel appears, so perhaps I’ll understand some of the imagery?
In fact, a portion of today’s dream about a red dress reminds me very much of a dress I bought just this weekend. I was so happy to chance upon it as it reminds me of a dress I made and wore all through my first pregnancy. The floral paisley pattern, the shape, are all very similar. In Maureen’s dream, her friend tells her she wore a dress like this after her pregnancy, a little flip on the detail of my pregnancy dress. Thinking about the dress and that time period reminded me that I wanted to find the watercolour of the cat. I jump up to get it.
I head to my office cupboard, thinking, don’t I often come here to find old things prompted by Maureen? I grab a green document folder that might contain the watercolour but it isn’t there. It contains five drawings I made once when playing an intuitive game with my mother many years ago. She was working intensely with Carl Jung’s book, Memories, Dreams and Reflections and a Dictionary of Symbols, all while teaching drawing in new and inventive ways.
The art game we played that day involved taking 3 paint tubes and working intuitively with them on a big piece of paper. Don’t think too much or try to draw something specific, but let the energy of your hand and your intuition guide you. That was the process. Afterward, take a small matte board with a rectangular hole cut out of it. Move it around the big drawing and select parts. Cut the parts out and write what you see, rapidly, with just a few words. What is in the brushstrokes you threw in there so quickly? What symbols, images?
The first two drawings are familiar to me. In one, a woman is standing at the beach and her shadow looks like a faun. There is blood nearby. It reminds me now of how I would give birth on all fours a few years after making the drawing. And the second drawing, using the same red as the blood in the previous one, is of a red dragon (see above). And as it turned out a few years after I made this drawing, my first child JJ was born in the year of the red dragon. I would never have guessed that when I painted this. When was it exactly?
The notes are dated … June 5/6, 1997! I stop, look at my computer and realize, it is twenty years exactly to the day today. And it started yesterday, so June 5/6 is a good way to express it. How uncanny is that? And as I think about this detail, I feel honoured by the energy that presents itself so beautifully on a kind of anniversary. Maureen is so often behind these syncs within my office archive. It was a question she asked that propelled my Chan Chan story with my dream journal a few months ago.
The third drawing makes me hesitate. Will I even scan it? My note on the side is that this is a couple on a snowmobile on water or perhaps a peace sign greeting. It reminds me of a tragic snowmobile accident in our circle of friends. I once saw shadows of that story in a dream Maureen had, with details that were again startling in their accuracy. Seeing traces of it here raises so many questions for me. Is it possible that this is all tied into these random brushstrokes from 20 years ago?
The last two drawings are still a mystery, no doubt waiting to reveal themselves in the years ahead, that is: if the years ahead really are in front of us and not perhaps coexisting with us right now, in this moment. My mother’s notes are copious, a bit like my notes today. She writes that my dragon has a proud nose (underlined) just like my son. The blue is femininity, fecundity, meditation and serenity. The shadow shows the darker side of the soul, a vital part of herself. There is much water – that the Chinese consider water the abode of the dragon. Water also carries the symbolism of intuitive wisdom. She definitely had plenty of that.
As I scan the drawings I am about to file them in a directory with other drawings. The first one I see is a lovely painting of a red dragon, made by my dragon boy’s baby brother. He doesn’t hesitate or play intuitive games. After being taught how to draw by his attentive grandmother, he just goes for it. But I should try the game with him anyway, and feel sorry I only played it once. I’ll try it again soon and report back here on any new magic that occurs.
May 2, 2017
by admin Comments Off on Melancholy in springtime and inspiration
This is always a bittersweet time of year for me, when we’re waiting breathlessly for the leaves to emerge from the trees again, and yet there is a tinge of loss in the air. You’d think I’d feel that way in autumn but with the riotous colours we get here and the crystalline blue and white winters looming ahead, it turns out, as the song says, spring really does hang me up the most. I’m not the only one. My Facebook feed fills with tributes to other people’s mothers a few weeks before Mother’s day.
A couple of years ago, while in Barcelona, a book of Catalan poems jumped out at me from the bookshelves of the artist’s studio we were staying in. I began singing some of these and this one feels most apt for how I feel today, on this anniversary of my mother’s passing.
It’s called “Springtime” appropriately enough. Our trio worked with what we had on hand, Reg with his small acoustic guitar, Michel with a few things he found in the kitchen; a bucket, a broom, some chickpeas, echoing the sounds of the city. I had some small recording gear in my suitcase and made a mic stand out of a Nike soccer shoe box. This track includes my first attempt at singing in Catalan so apologies if I mangled it.
I’m reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic these days and in it she mentions how creativity is the ability to receive ideas that are looking for us. This reminds me of my mother’s philosophy of art as well, as she sometimes told me that ideas live longer than people. That’s why we could enter a space and pick up ideas that were waiting there. That’s definitely how I felt in Barcelona, a city so dense with inspiration and creativity. I could barely catch my breath while marveling at all there was to see and hear. This is something that motivates and interests me, how our ideas and creative projects change and morph depending on where we are in the world. Our children were inspired as well, as you can see in their drawings made during our stay.
Michel was also struck by a plethora of ideas in Barcelona and he composed a wonderful piece called les cahiers de Barcelone that we’ve released on his cd Alom Mola. It’s a collage of sounds and snippets of songs gathered in his walks. And when indoors he created illustrated scores. Here are a few of the images he created that are included in the cd booklet.
As a child I was spoiled by my father’s academic life and our occasional year long sabbaticals. Now I do what I can with summer holidays and try to give our children a taste of that freedom to travel, to explore and create. It’s a chance for all of us to break free from the routine of the school year so we have our mini-sabbaticals together, our family art residencies, in the summer. And springtime? Well, that’s just something to muddle through.
My mother, Agatha Schwager, painting out of the back of our orange VW camper, brought back after one especially inspiring sabbatical.
April 6, 2017
by admin Comments Off on Words or music; chicken or egg?
It’s like the chicken or the egg question: which comes first, the music or the words?
I’m happy to write songs in either order, words first or music first. When the words come first I like to tease out a melody, stretching it, bending it, looking for the music in the natural rhythm of the syntax, the flow of the syllables. I was a teen when I started writing shy, short texts like “are you paranoid? are you perpendicular to the wall? are you parallel to the ground? are you paranoid?”. Next I would pull out a big four track tape machine, the Fostex, that my gadget-happy brother Reg offered me. In the privacy of my room, I would sing different overlapping tracks until I arrived at the melody that really struck me as being how it goes. An example of how that sounds can be found in the song Anchor which features vocal overdubs and a more developed sort of paranoid lyric.
Or if you flip it all around and start on the opposite end, one can listen to a melody and tease out the words instead. It’s like deciphering a mystery or untangling a lost story. I don’t generally compose with melodies first so I’m more likely to collaborate and write lyrics for someone else. When we were kids and my brother wanted to learn every song under the sun, he would appear with fake books full of tunes and settle in with his guitar. We spent a lot of time learning jazz standards, picking and choosing our favourites. What else can you do when there’s no colour t.v., no internet, no computers? Ah, the good old days. The fake books were big and fat but even that source of inspiration wasn’t infinite so it was only a matter of time before Reg had to start writing his own tunes. And I had it in my head that I wanted to be Stevie Wonder but as a little blonde girl in Northern Ontario, I was pretty sure I’d have to go to some lengths to accomplish that. The best I could come up with was that I should probably start by writing my own songs like he did. So I was motivated to take Reg’s melodies and sit with my eyes closed, pen and paper at hand, and try to hear the words inside the guitar lines. Sometimes it would jump out me and I’d just trust that those first words that popped into my head would take me somewhere by the end.
Last year, when he told me he was working on a new album featuring a collection of many songs he’s written for vocalists, I was happy to join in and resurrect a few of the songs we’d written years ago. And I asked him to send me some new tunes so we could add some fresh songs to the mix. It seemed right to celebrate his song collection with even more songs.
He sent me a batch of guitar melodies titled things like song #8, Untitled #6, so no hints at all. I went through them, listening closely for songs that felt as though they are speaking to me. Then the scribbling began, the fast forwarding and rewinding, testing the words and discovering a small story. Sometimes it is very visual, other times it has more to do with a mood. And once in awhile there’s just a lot of guitar and I move along to the next one.
One of the first melodies I picked in this recent batch made me feel like I was gliding along somewhere in nature. As I listened I had an impression of being on a bicycle and thought of my cousin Marianne and all her cycling adventures in Provence in France. Imagining how she must feel when she returns there every couple of years, I started writing about the fields of lavender. This left me with the dilemma of singing the word purple several times in a row, not an obvious word to hang on to in a flowing melody but I persisted nevertheless. It is fitting that Reg invited our old friend, the great saxophonist Perry White, to play on this piece as he too is an avid cyclist.
The last song on the album is from a different landscape altogether, a dreamy place that is yet haunted by cold winds and unpredictable weather, and populated with a myriad assortment of birds. This song, which Reg titled Crow’s Call, has a mystical air to it so the story here is not really narrative but more about brush strokes of of imagery, much like the artwork on the cover of the Songbook cd.
That artwork was created by our mother Agatha Schwager for her last exhibition here in Montreal, The Shadows of My Hand. She studied Chinese ink brush painting before producing this last series of artwork and her goal was to express the energy of her ideas in her swift, strong brushstrokes. She told me that after she showed these abstract paintings to her Chinese brush painting teacher and one of his friends, the two men stood together for a long time in silence, contemplating the work. Finally they turned and asked her, “did you study the crows for a long time before you painted them?”. That made her laugh, surprised that they saw crows where she had seen abstraction.
Brodie West’s contribution on this song fits the ornithological theme well. His inventive sounds reminded me of a cardinal so I included a photo of one of my backyard red cardinals on the album artwork to honour this bird’s input, as he is overlooked in the lyrics.
Two other vocalist/lyricists, Luanda Jones and John Alcorn, contributed to Reg’s oeuvre and it is fascinating to hear their lyrics alongside Reg’s compositions. All the songs are consistent and the lyrics are always perfectly in step with the melodies. It’s proof, I think, that the melodies contained the lyrics all along, and we are just the detectives who have peeled away the layers to reveal them.
This past weekend we had a wonderful evening making music at Resonance Café here in Montréal. Michel and I invited our nephew, accomplished and versatile guitarist Gabriel Lambert, to join us. We also invited bassist Guillaume Bouchard, who has been so dedicated to Michel’s Journal des Episodes project. Guillaume is emerging from intense treatment for lyme disease, something that had left him bed-ridden for far too long so we were very grateful he was able to return to the stage and his music.
Our sons (more Lamberts!) and some of their friends joined us for the evening as roadies, videographers and ticket sellers. And we were greeted by an enthusiastic and encouraging audience of friends and others who followed us along for an inspiring evening. Resonance Café is a great venue, with good sound, thoughtful vegan food and a welcoming, all ages atmosphere that allows for creative freedom. What more could you want?
In the spirit of free jazz and my beatnik ways, our music was very loosely structured around poetry I have written or collected, and these texts were the jumping off point for our improvised music. Earlier in the week I selected some poetry that felt right for this moment in time and shared them with the musicians. Perhaps the recent epic snowstorm made an impact, or my newfound interest in knitting. I sang about nuns embroidering (Federico Garcia Lorca), Catalan poetry in translation (JV Foix), stormy forests (Anne Bronte) as well as my own poems about storms, dangers in forests, dream haiku and newborn children. Here are some clips.