Nov 29, 2010

To The Left

Trying to balance fashion design and ethical sourcing and production can be a right headche for many designers. Cleverly integrating past designs and looks with modern ideas can be just as hard. I thought about these issues as I took a wander through Canadian company Ukamaku's loft-style offices recently. Located in an up-and-coming, just-gritty-enough-to-be-hip section of west-end Toronto dominated by renovated factories, Ukamaku has a mission to promote young Canadian designers in new and innovative ways. A big "way" would be online, where you can go and buy all the items featured, read the designer blogs, and see just how much Ukamaku is trying to push the envelope in Canadian fashion with their offerings.

When I visited, it struck me just how many of the designers under the Ukamaku umbrella were interested in two things: one, trying to find that fashionable/ethical balance, and two, fusing the past with the present. This concern was made most obvious in my conversation with Heidi Ackerman. The bespecled young Canadian designer, who sports a huge set of green-black wings tattooed on her upper chest, has a sexy, cosy mix of styles but a consistent high-quality frame of cuts, colours, textures, and shapes. Her patterned cowl-neck dress proudly proclaims on its label that half its materials are bamboo, with the remainder of the dress's fabrics being ethically-sourced soy. This label, running across the top of the garment, proudly adorns her other work as well. There was a real pride when Ackerman told me that, for the most part, she's able to balance her design ethos with her ethical concerns, but she quickly added that design always comes first, and always will. Her work is reminiscent of the women's pieces Sharon Wauchob designed for Edun this past fall, especially the modern, angular knits and Japanese touches. Ackerman captures something elegant, feminine, and experimental, all while balancing wearability and sustainability. Nicely done.

Worth By David C. Wigley also displayed an incredible flair for the fusion between forward-thinking and classic design. Like Ackerman, Wigley expressed a furrowed-brow over trying to balance sourcing and production with quality -and price point. Wigley's work was among the most modern and stylish men’s design I’ve seen in a while in North America; eschewing the conservative dark palette most men's designers favour, Wigley opted for an eye-popping furnace-red, sharply-cut suit. Like a lot of the Worth collection, it fuses punk-rock and dandy with more than a touch of hip-hop. This ethos extends into casual wear. My initial reaction to a Wigley-designed gold-studded hoodie jumper was, "I can see Jay-Z in this!" The response, met with a chuckle, was, “Everyone likes this one!” -and I can see why. Wigley is super-good at combining classic qualities -good tailoring, square shoulders, sharp lines -with modern sensibilities -bright colours, unique fabrics, details like studding and dyeing -and doing it in a high-quality way that is both cost-effective and entirely unique.

This talent for integration isn't specific to menswear, either; he also for gals. Wigley's angular, sexy, fitted crop dress has square, kimono-like sleeves that slit open from underneath, and sphere-like white embroidery that provides a nice contrast to the heavy charcoal color. Like other designers Ukamaku features, Wigley has a few tie-dyed pieces in his collection, notably a drapey hand-dyed silk dress that wouldn't be out of place at an event like Open Roof Films next summer.

What accounts for the return of the 60s technique? "Designers like the organic quality," Wigley told me, before adding, "you can’t control it.” It was interesting just how much this sentiment was echoed by other designers, and indeed, Marcus Kan, Ukamaku's Fashion Director. "Retro theme is a major trend in the fashion world right now," he said via email. "No one can forget the tie-dye trend back in the 80s. (It) gives off a fun, bright, care-free and funky feeling to the clothes, perfect for a Spring/Summer collection. If people are into technology more, laser print pieces is a great option. The feeling is similar to tie-dye pieces, but the laser prints are more precise and futuristic."

Precision is one thing, spotaneity quite another. As Wigley noted, you can't quite control what tie-dye on fabric will do, and that's part of the joy for him as a designer. The sense of "happy accident" with the dyeing technique mirrors the sort of spontaneous, quasi-accidental artistic accidents that happen at something like Art Battle. Painters and some designers have this much in common: they’re willing to embrace the unknown if it makes the end result more interesting. They're also willing to embrace the fantastical. While at the Ukamaku head offices, Wigley excitedly showed me another of his popular ladies' pieces, a snappy fitted red coat that had a distinct Little Red Riding Hood vibe; the "hood" part was clevlerly. stylishly replaced by a massive sprawling grand collar that flattered the wide arms and fitted waist of the very-warm looking piece. It was like Kate Hepburn meets Sioxsie Sioux. Beguiling, sexy, adventurous.

This sense of creative exploration and spirited adventurousness most clearly seen in the work of Breeyn McCarney, whose 1950s-meets-punk-rock looks definitely makes her a stand out in the super-traditional world of fancy women's wear. A myriad of cultural touchstones and figures, new and old, came to mind in looking at her stuff: Elvis Presley movies, Mad Men, Grease (the movie version), Johnny Suede, 1980s Madonna, 1990s Courtney Love, Tim Burton in Wonderland. A bright yellow party dress, a sheer, corseted, party-like black dress, another sheer lace number with big gold hearts… it was all very new and yet very vintage, all at once. McCarney has a distinct voice that defies easy categorization, which, I realized, is probably the way she wants it. Who wants to be stuffed into a box, in life, fashion, art, or otherwise?

In conversation, McCarney confessed her love of theatre, calling the dresses "costumes" and talking about the various elements of theatre she integrates into her work. Dressed in worn-looking leather boots, black leggings, and a ruffled, short-sleeved chemise with a spectacularly ruffled back, the petite designer gave off a vibe of punk, rockabilly, and pirate. In response to a question about inspiration, she, rather casually, responded with a bon mot I consider to be the good and proper mantra of artists of any discipline, at any given time:"Every day I wake up and wonder, 'Who am I going to be today?’" (I would add, "Does this still fit me?") McCarney's adventurous, cute-sexy designs are clearly aimed for the downtown party-girl crowd who wants to make a statement with the confidence of modernity and the cool elegance of vintage. She'd have to be a theatrical gal for sure to pull off the numbers McCarney designs. I leaned towards a sheer, short, simply-cut polka-dot dress with a contrasting black polka-dot cloth belt; flattering, feminine, flowy... just plain pretty, the piece proves McCarney is a designer of many moods, visions, and talents. She, along with Ackerman and Wigley, will be ones to watch as the Canadian fashion designer scene expands further. It's encouraging Ukamaku wants to be part of that road.

Later this week I'll be posting a Q&A with a few of the people behind Ukamaku -why they started it, what it means. I think you'll find it illuminating in terms of the cultural conversation around the role -and worth -of fashion in the 21st century.

Nov 26, 2010

See The World Up Close

"iPhone gloves... really?!"

That was my exact reaction reading a friend's tweet recently. Technology is everywhere; so go the accessories. Life without a cellphone (and the ubiquitous apps) seems unreal; twenty years ago, life without a Walkman was unthinkable. Technology has been so ubiquitous now that it's turned into a simple matter of choosing what we want, and when, and being absolutely confident it'll be there at our convenience.

It's hard to imagine the shock waves English photographer Eadweard Muybridge created with his early experiments in photography -experiments that lead to the creation of cinema. Can any of us imagine life without movies or still images? It's easy to take them for granted, especially since they're everywhere: TVs, movie screens, the internet, computer monitors. A work colleague of mine has a lovely photo of her daughter set as her desktop; in Muybridge's time (the mid/late 1800s), the only image of the girl that could've existed would have been a painting. Beautiful, but hardly the same thing.

The conveniences of technology, and its role in our lives -scientifically, artistically, socially -ran through my mind watching Studies In Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge, produced by Vancouver's Electric Company Theatre and presented by The Canadian Stage Company, currently on in Toronto at the Bluma Appel Theatre. The lauded work opens with a naked man carefully manoeuvring his way across the stage; I write "manoeuvring" because there is a real sense of trying to capture the basic -or seemingly-basic movements Muybridge did in his own experiments. The English-born, American-living/working photographer worked at the University of Pennsylvania between 1884 and 1887, and invented new techniques and technologies that significantly furthered the art of photography and lead directly to the world of cinema. The opening scene of Studies In Motion is exactly what its title suggests: studies (that is, people) in motion, across a grid-like space, forcing us to look at muscles, bones, structure and form, and the various shadows they cast across the bare expanse of stage -this mortal coil, perhaps or the new terrain someone might embark on whenever they try anything new.

Within the context of societal mores depicted within the play, the nudity is a source of shock, of course. One not-so-amused woman looks on pie-eyed and mouth gaping as the models demonstrate their daily business in the lab. Yet Muybridge (Andrew Wheeler) tells the shocked visitor this isn't about titillation; if he could, he'd rip the flesh off to see the bone, and then take away the bone to see pure movement itself. Models cover and uncover according to the readiness of the equipment, but they are also comfortable around their technician cohorts. Thus the straight-laced Victorian world falls away, and we are taken somewhere considerably more modern; this modern sense is reflected, meta-theatrically at least in a sense, via Crystal Pite's dance interludes, where the actors become the motion their theatrical counterparts set out to study. With a pulsating soundtrack (courtesy of composer Patrick Pennefather), the ensemble reaches, runs, stretches, and sashays through all variance of human-doings.

The team behind Studies In Motion are a talented bunch; director Kim Collier is a Siminovitch Prize-winner, and the impressive set, lighting, and video design is by Canada Council award winner Robert Gardiner. Crystal Pite is celebrated across Canada and has won a Dora Mavor Moore Award (a Toronto version of a Tony). Writer Kevin Kerr's other works include Unity (1918) and Skydive, and the show itself was previously produced at Montreal's impressive Festival TransAmériques in 2009. While there's a true sense of exploration and curiosity and even wonder, I was left cold emotionally -but then, that's probably the point. Kerr's work eerily echoes the cold efficiency with which Muybridge approached his work, and even the inclusion of the famous murder he trial he was involved with (he shot his wife's l0ver) fails to touch; it's at its most compelling when in the lab, showing movement you take for granted -human technology at work -across a massive, sprawling grid.


Gardiner's contribution was, I admit, my favorite part of the show. His eye-poppingly gorgeous grid-like design was complemented by various projections of Muybridge's original works flashed acros the long screen running the length of the stage. The natural tendencies of the eye (moving left to right, small to large) were challenged, gently, skillfully, with a notion of continually widening, then narrowing Kerr's narrative focus. The design was a dramatic dance companion to the occasionally-maudlin script, though it shuld be noted that Kerr is incredibly good at knowing when his characters should shut up and let the images do the talking. Here Collier's incredible eye for integrating the piece's various elements -dance, video, images, movement -comes forward as truly impressive, and truly remarkable. There was a nice future-looking play of words and sounds and images I experienced in watching Studies In Motion too; artists like the Lumiere brothers, Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, and in a more contemporary sense, Daft Punk, Jenny Holzer, the early 90s videos of U2 (Mark Neale's direction of "Lemon", above, was directly influenced by Muybridge's work), and the entire Krautrock and industrial movements are all here, in various guises, occasionally naked, occasionally still, probing and pulsating and prowling.

Muybridge, and by extension, Collier's work attempts to look at the mytery of humanity and existence by taking mall slices of movement and analyzing them to bits; thing is, there's an art in those small moments, in and of themselves, that doesn't require analysis so much as acceptance. We may marvel at the technical and scientific feat Muybridge achieve, but it brings us no closer to the mytery of the human heart, or indeed, the mysterious ways we're moved by art itelf.


So this, then, is the final question Studies In Motion left me with, one I'm still wrestling with: does a person make better art through isolation? isolated movement, position, placement -consciouly created -good or bad for art? I don't expect easy answer -and in fact, I'd rather enjoy the questions anyway. There's poetry in the motion, and in stillness, and having both at my disposal through this little life feels like the best kind of technology I could want, iPhone gloves be damned.

Photo credits:

Top and bottom photos courtesy of Canadian Stage Company.
Photos by Tim Matheson.

Nov 20, 2010

Healing

Music has played a large role in my life lately. In the weeks leading up to the Grinderman show last week, I interviewed Laila Biali, Micah Barnes, and James Di Salvio (Bran Van 3000) about their respective new releases, received the new album from the fabulously-rockin' Preachers Son, and have been diving headfirst into the work of recently-deceased composer Henryk Gorecki. I'm also been looking into attending more live shows, trying to get more familiar with the massive Sondheim catalogue, and preparing for the Einsturzende Neubaten concerts here in Toronto next month.

Amidst all of this, the gorgeous, babbling trumpet of Hugh Masekela has been reigning like some supreme being, dancing and swirling with magical silvery notes and the soft-sheen of hand-claps and rising voices. Masekela's music is rich but spacious at the same time, and he gives a show like no other; his warm smile and funky dance moves leaves a trail of inspiration, and I think I can say with some confidence now that seeing him here a few weeks back marked the beginning of my musical renaissance of late.

It was a miserable Saturday night when Masekela came to Toronto to complete his latest North American tour. Cold rain fell hard and noisy across the concrete slabs and high scaffolding dotting the city-scape. Crowds huddled together under the tiny awnings outside restaurants and shops, barely daring the wind and the wet, and I arrived at Koerner Hall with pant legs soaked and in a slightly chilly mood. The new space put me somewhat at ease, though. The architecture is so... pretty, all glass angles and soft colours and grand open spaces. The hall has been creatively fused with the rambling old architecture of the old Royal Conservatory building, a place I shuddered to enter as a child.

It was in the fusty old Conservatory building that I would take my dreaded yearly piano exams, and it's there I have an ashen collection of singed musical memories. Between the glaring, smile-adverse examiners, the creaky floors, the yellowed keys of ancient pianos, and the sheer terror of waiting outside a closed door as piano-playing way, way better than mine emanated from within, it's a spot I was convinced I'd always despise. It's no exaggeration to state that the Conservatory system pounded out whatever sonic creativity I had in favour of more rigorous, "proper" sounds. Stop fooling around, play what's in front of you, technique over emotion, no improvising allowed, ever. Don't do that to Bach/Beethoven/unheard-of-people-I-didn't-give-a-toss-about-anyway! Hardly worth mentioning: I don't play the piano anymore.

The building itself, which I remember as a fusty, cold, old space, has been fused with something warmly modern and welcoming; the regal (if equally cozy) Koerner Hall has top acoustics, comfy seats, and a nice smattering of old instruments in the basement, museum-style. Along with featuring Masekela that particular night, the Hall also hosts classical concerts (duh) a well as local groups like the excellent Art of Time Ensemble. Next year's lineup includes jazz, Indian sounds, and blues shows. That eclecticism is a great reflection of not only the city, but the approach the Royal Conservatory is now taking to shape the nature of cultural experience in the 21st century. It's not all poe-faced, serious, miserable, head-down-and-shut-up-ness stuff. Gosh, I almost wish I was playing piano again. Almost.

So what to say about Masekela? The term "legendary musician" feels incredibly trite for someone so multi-talented. Human rights crusader, politician, artistic ambassador, showman, loverman... where to begin? With a mellow touch, of course. Hugh and his five-man band gave one of the most beautiful concerts I've ever seen. Liberally mixing old and new favorites, Masekela proved himself a master of many sounds and emotions, from the sexy growls of his famous trumpet to yowling imitations of a steam whistle, and even to his funky dancing, Masekela proved he's a supreme entertainer and musician of the highest order.

With the accompaniment of a strong, intuitive five-man band, Masekela worked the crowd with a gentle wit and highly watchable style. He took the time to include Toronto in his roll-call of cities in "The Boy Is Doin' It", and chatted to the audience with much familiarity and warmth, easily blending humour and politics. Between quick comments on the rainy weather (which seemed, to my ears, to be a chide to the numerous latecomers) and amusing references to the G20 debacles of earlier this year ("I hope we're safe here?"), Masekela appeal to the collective conscience of his spellbound audience, wondering aloud if the natural calamities of this year were the result of the Mother Nature taking revenge against an ignorant populace. He then spoke about the history of "Stimela (Steam Train)", how it referenced South African coal mines, and how the numerous troubles of his home continent require the world's attention.



"Stimela" is a powerful evocation of time, place, and circumstance, and its live version was a wholly moving blend of sound effects, native South African rhythms and ... frankly, rock and roll. I couldn't help but think of how much the middle instrumental section resembled various favorite rock tunes (especially favorite live tunes), and I marveled at this spry, funny, smart, accomplished 71-year-old for being able to channel so many different energies and styles simultaneously, via his innate, if finely-honed ability to integrate dance, voice, and presence.

But perhaps that's the special magic of Hugh Masekela. The second half of the program was chalk-full of fun, upbeat numbers, which inspired much dancing of the onlookers in the cheapie seats, located directly behind the stage. There was something wholly encouraging about watching the skinny-tied/ironically-bearded/thick-framed-glasses hipster set sway, swivel, and shake to the earthy, sexy sounds of "Happy Mama" and the famous "Grazin' in the Grass" (which he played at the 2010 FIFA World Cup). Music makes the people come together indeed. Masekela and his band acknowledged the dancers as well as the numerous audience members familiar with his numerous references to South African culture. During "Kauleza" Masekela instructed us to call back the song's title (which translates to "Police!"), noting it was what he and his siblings would shout growing up in illegal drinking establishments. "You're not shouting loud enough!" he chided, "The police are coming!" My favorite moment was during the legendary Fela Kuti song "Lady", when Masekela imitated a haughty woman, shaking his hips, pursing his lips, cocking an eyebrow. It was a hilarious, playful blend of satire and musical mastery, and completely spellbinding.

Indeed, the whole evening seemed to be a balm to soothe my awful Conservatory memories. Musicality takes all kinds of forms, of course, but it's hard to flush bad energies away in one go. Attending Masekela's concert in my old horror-movie stomping grounds felt like a good first step toward creative musical rehab. 2011 could be the year of Koerner Hall, both for me and many others seeking the kind of inspiration -and liberation -only music can provide.

Photo credits:
Top photo of Hugh Masekela originally published in The Telegraph.
Second photo of Hugh Masekela courtesy of Rock Paper Scissors.

Nov 17, 2010

(S)He's a S/He

Onnagata” is a Japanese term used in kabuki theatre that refers to a male performer who would play the female role in a work. In the upcoming Eonnagata, a production created by theatre master Robert Lepage along with dancer Sylvie Guillem and choreographer Russell Maliphant, it becomes a metaphor for the exploration of gender, identity and finding one's place in the world. Lepage uses the 18th century figure of Charles De Beaumont, who worked in the court of Louis XV a a diplomat and spy. Beaumont, known as the Chevalier d'Eon, was a skilled swordsman, and would don female clothing for his spy missions. At the time of Louis's death in 1774, he was living in exile in London, but was allowed back to France three years later, where he lived as a woman. Even after his (her?) death in 1810, d’Eon’s gender remained a source of debate, though post mortems confirmed Beaumont was anatomically male. Not that genitals should be a pre-determining factor in one's predilection toward frocks. Just ask Eddie Izzard, after all.

The sense of playfulness and provocation that figured so much in d'Eon's life seems to have seeped into Eonnnagata, with Lepage blending his keen sense of grand theatricality with Maliphant's muscular choreography and Guillem's beautiful dance stylings. The 90-minute piece was produced in 2009 at Sadler's Wells in London and runs here in Toronto for a quick two-night-run starting tomorrow at the newly-refurbished Sony Centre.

At a recent press conference, Lepage sat like an excited parent, with an elegant Guillem and a serious-looking Maliphant both couched to his right, and the director of Sadler's Wells to his left. Between snatches of French (pour les journalistes Quebecois) and plenty of smiles, Lepage explained the whys and wherefores of choosing Beaumont as the subject of exploration. His answers were long but fascinating, showing a complete passion for the subject matter as well as its presentation. The Chevalier was "a playful character ", a quality that, one realizes, could just as easily apply to the international theatre artist himself. adding that Beaumont's life "(has) things to say about ...our own lives and energies" as well as "how you deal with the idea of identity, not just gender or sexuality" -but the issue of nationality.

The idea of drawing a base identity from gender is one that's always fascinated me. How does genitalia dictate life choices? Professional choices? Sexual choices? Codes of conduct? Codes of behaviour? Even now, three hundred-plus years after d'Eon has passed, we're still grappling with this notion, even as we both embrace and revile those who might question the strict rules that govern our ideas around what men and women "should" and "should not" do/ look like / react / choose / play / entertain / act in the world (see last post re: female aggression). I can't help but think of Patti Smith yowling out "Gloria and posing on the cover of Horses, and the accusations of her being gay that floated around. Similarly, I can recall when Annie Lennox donned a brush cut and a suit for the "Sweet Dreams" video back in the early 80s, with the same (stupid/unfair/ignorant) comment being made about her (and me, because I was a huge fan & wound up emulating my heroine by wearing men's suits for a time, and yes, eventually chopped my hair off too). Nowadays, Antony Hegarty patently skirts the issue of gender (pardon the pun), as rumours about Gaga being a hermaphrodite and good-grief-is-James-Franco-gay?!-isms float about. Despite refreshing attitudes in some quarters, I can't help but smirk: we just have to label, define, know... don't we? Arrgh.

Charles de Beaumont, or d'Eon as he was called, didn't think anyone had to know. He did just as s/he pleased, living a stuffed-full life filled with adventure, tragedy, and more than its fair share of political intrigue. He moved between France and England throughout his/her life, and negotiated important historic/political moments (including handing Canada over to England, natch). A sense of self-assured fluidity pervaded everything the Chevalier touched. Such uncommon magic finds its modern equivalent in an artist like Lepage, who, French-Canadian, gay, internationally-sought, multi-lingual, multi-disciplined, and perpetually costumed (he wears wigs after a childhood case of alopecia), has that same embrace of transformation and changeability. His sizable body of work has taken him between continents and cultures for over three decades; from Canada to the U.S. to Europe to the Far East and back, the Quebec-based Lepage is a man in demand. He's recently directed opera - the Metropolitan Opera Company's production of Wagner's massive Ring cycle (Das Rheingold opened the Met's season earlier this autumn), the COC's The Nightingale -and created lauded works like the sprawling, nine-hour Lipsynch (part of last year's Luminato Festival) as well as The Andersen Project (recently produced by the Canadian Stage Company), among many, many more. I've always loved the sense of imagination that is so strikingly present in all of his work; you may not come out of a Lepage production completely soothed, but you will certainly come out stimulated, your eyes full of intriguing images, your head swimming with words, your heart bursting with the moving energy of live performance.

Performing isn't something Lepage has done a lot of recently. With Eonnagata, he's returning to the stage, attempting to get away from the yoke of verbal expression he feels has dominated his work. "When I started my work twenty, thirty-some years ago, I was much more physical than verbal, but in time I became way too talkative. Blahblahblah. A lot of physical explorations (were) pushed aside. (Eonnagata) was a good opportunity for me to shut up! I do speak a little bit, but it was good to go back to something I wasn’t necessarily trained. It's more organic." I think he hit the nail on the head on why I've returned to drawing and painting. There' something much more raw and primal about movement, pure sound, pure light, and pure... experience.

Russell Maliphant echoed Lepage's sense of liberation in terms of working on something outside his area of expertise. "Sometimes those things demand something of you, "he explained, "something you haven’t practiced before, and it's a new challenge as a performer. I haven't worked with props before, and there's a variety of props in this. I haven’t done any singing before. I haven't spoken onstage for twenty-something years, so in all those things, they're very… challenging and interesting to go to as a performer. They demand you go to a place you wouldn’t go to if you were working in your comfort zone. That’s inspiring."

Sylvie, looking like a Parisienne version of Anna Wintour sans the sunglasses and frowning, agreed with this sentiment. She was interested in what she called the "theatrical" possibilities inherent in combining the life of a fascinating figure with Japanese theatrical tradition; that sense of exploration extended to the costumes in the show, done by the late, great Alexander McQueen. "I didn’t know (him)," she said wistfully, "but I knew his work, and I could see his crazy poetic imagination. I felt he was the right kind of person to do it."

Over the course of their first meeting with the British designer, the team introduced the project and their vision of integrating dance, music, and live performance with kabuki theatre. By the second meeting, Guillem say "he understood completely what it was, but he said one thing: 'If I do it, I want my costumes to be part of the show. I don’t want to be just dressing, I want to be part of the story, part of what you do, part of the character and who he is.'"

Commenting on the finished product, Sylvie's delicate features lit up. "(McQueen) had poetry, refinement... it's just what we needed." If only he had lived to see it!, I wanted to shriek. There's something about the fluidity of d'Eon's life, his easy movement between the world of the high court and the streets, his courting of controversy, his dedication to living his life according to his own mores and the price he paid for his choices that I suspect the British designer liked. This, combined with the strong poetic theatricality of three supreme artists like LePage, Guillem, and Maliphant, and ... well, McQueen would (does) fit right in. And yet, his untimely end implies he never gave a thought to any kind of legacy. Again, there's a parallel with Lepage.

"I’ve never considered myself a master," he said carefully. "I've always been very thirsty for learning new things. Certainly this experience with amazing artists is part of my learning process, I’m not somebody who looks back at the past too much... I'm always interested in what's the next challenge,where I can go, what can push me off track to find a new path. If there's no putting yourself in danger, it’s not worth it."

Bravo. Brava? Whatever.

Nov 15, 2010

Roar

It was predicted, and it came true: I'm in definite withdrawl from the amazing experience of seeing Grinderman last week. A mad mix of shrieking guitars, creaky violin, ear-splitting feedback, thudding bass, crashing drums & scratchy cymbals (oh, and one very booming baritone) has invaded my aural -and spiritual -space. It's been perfect in terms of creative inspiration, but has totally stymied the more mundane aspects of Good And Proper Adult Responsibility. Oh dear.

Along with getting retweeted by the band's amazing Twitter team and looking up every single live clip I can find online, I've been thinking a lot about women in rock and roll. It's no accident that this fascination coincides with my diving head-first into the work of Patti Smith. Years ago I remember music-mad broadcaster George Stroumboulopoulos wisely observating that if Patti had been born male, she'd be as well-known as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen (and, I might add, just as comfortably rich too). I think about all the crap (some deserved) Courtney Love has endured, despite the fact she's put out some incredibly good stuff. I remember the great shows L7 used to give back in the early 90s, and how people I knew sneered and thought they were vulgar. I remember bopping along to Joan Jett and the Blackhearts as a kid and being accused of being "butch." I enjoy all these artists as much as I enjoy Soundgarden, Led Zeppelin, and yep, Grinderman. Seeing them last week, I really have been wondering: where are the women doing this? why aren't they being promoted? Why aren't little girls who rock out being encouraged to... well, rock out? Somehow it feels like it goes against the image of what everyone thinks girls should do. Wear pink, like Barbies, wear makeup, and eventually, don heels. Why can't we do all that AND rock out? (Or not do any of it but still like boys, drinks, and the rock music?) What's the role of aggression and creativity -especially when you happen to have boobs?

It's always been my opinion (based on direct experience) that the world doesn't take very well to aggressive women: "butch", "dyke", "trashy", "nuts", even the eponymous "bitch" all get thrown at those women. Toronto's urbanvessel theatre company wanted to take a closer look at this idea of women and aggression. Their show, Voice Box, was produced this past weekend in association with the city's Harbourfront Centre (a big arts complex on the edge of Lake Ontario), and it integrates boxing with theatre and music. From the very first notice I got of this show, I was curious about the hows and whys. I interviewed Voice Box's whip-smart writer, Anna Chatterton, at CIUT just before the show's opening to get her insights into popular perceptions around female aggression, and how they relate to the art of getting in the ring.


Voice Box with Anna Chatterton by CateKusti

Alas, I'm no closer to solving the riddle of why women aren't making the kind of balls-out, kick-ass music that puts my stomach in knots and makes my blood do aerobics in my veins. But then, I suppose, there's another argument that, if I enjoy it (like so many women do), that's enough. But is it? Hmmm. Pop music has its fair share of male-female ratios in terms of performers (their presentation and marketing is a whole separate argument); why not rock and roll?

Dear Grinderman, please think about having Patti sing a number with you. I can hardly wait for her version of "No Pussy Blues".


Photo credits:
Top photo by Adam Coish.
Bottom photo by Giulio Muratori.

Nov 13, 2010

And Back Again

Twelve years on and here I am, I thought as I stood outside the Phoenix Concert Theatre Thursday night, shivering and thirsty and impatient. Here I am again to see this man and his noisy band. Well.

It was at the exact same location that I experienced the wonder of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in September 1998. That was a different time, and a vastly different place for me emotionally and spiritually, but experiencing the wonder of Grinderman live was a beautiful kind of awakening and embrace -of age, maturity, confidence, and the keen understand that rock and roll is not, in fact, a young man's game. The raucous four-piece band started their North American tour here in Toronto, and what a holy noise they made. There was a mix of dread at my own sentimentality coupled with an intense curiosity, mainly because I am a new convert to Cave's "side" project (I write it that way because the band feels more and more like a main event, musically and creatively) and I haven't been following Cave's work as keenly as at the ass-end of the 90s. In fact, the last time I saw Nick Cave perform live was in 1999 as part of his own programmed Meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre in 1999. Lives change, tastes shift, other experiences come and go. And yet and yet.

In seeing this same group of men perform together in the past, comparisons are inevitable. Cave, along with percussionist Sclavunos, violinist/guitarist Ellis, and bassist Martyn Casey, formed Grinderman in 2006. Now touring their second album, the band's sound conjures a surreal if wholly intoxicating combination of old-soul confidence, middle-aged angst and youthful musicality: turn it up, balls out, blindfold on, 100 miles an hour, wear something smart, don't do anything stupid. And if you don't like it, get out hell of the car. The ride Grinderman provides -as listeners, though moreso, in a live setting -is thrilling, and utterly enveloping in its monstrous magic. It's one ride I was horribly overdue in taking, and all nerves aside at going to a rock show solo, I'm so very, very glad I did. Huzzah for inspiring friends and the kindness of strangers.

Still, I was reminded more than once I'm not that young girl from 1998. Some of us folk at the front had been standing about four or five hours by the time Grinderman took to the stage. Ouch. I can relate to the frustrated disgust in Grinderman's "No Pussy Blues": "I must above all things... love myself!" Ha. There's something about Cave's wry observations on aging and attraction to (and of) the opposite sex I find comforting to hear, especially amidst the sonic cacophony that howls over having "no pussy blues." Semantics aside, it's a sentiment many -especially those in the mid-30s-and-up crowd Thursday -could relate to.

Thankfully, the physical discomfort melted away, slowly but surely, over the course of the show. With stage crew flashlights providing tiny points of light, Sclavunos, Casey, Ellis and Cave, all stylishly attired in beautiful, tailored suits, came on to thunderous cheers and clamour. "Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man" was a blistering, brutal opening. "And he sucked her /and he sucked her /and he sucked her dry..." That nasty, repeated refrain spat out with aplomb by Cave and crew was possibly the best revenge on a world where cinematic vampires are sugary-safe and vamps are princessy teens with raccoon eyes. Cave slung his guitar like he was born to do it, and any sentimentality over his Seed-y times playing a grand piano was quickly erased by the look of determined, comfortable confidence he wore as easily as his natty dark suit. Dressed in black, with silver strands of charmed necklaces dangling from his neck, his left hand adorned with jeweled rings, Cave (now 53, and handsome as hell) was the picture of supreme rock and rollery, by turns theatrical, boyish, leering, scary, and always, always utterly magnetic.

Watching him work the room, mere feet (sometimes inches) away from me, I had a moment of questioning whether this was an act, this scenery-chewing, Artaud-like rioting. Real? Not-real? All the lines get so blurry in live performances, and over the course of ten years, those lines have shifted and moved in sometimes thrilling, sometimes bewildering ways for me. I know this much: Cave is a supremely good frontman. His exchanges with the audience were both sincere and enigmatic. Like the good rock and roll man he is, he likes to keep a bit of mystery intact, but there's no denying the push-pull of fear and attraction within that onstage persona. Like in 1998, the audience noticeably leaned back whenever Cave came a-clomping, in shiny black patent-leather shoes, to proclaim his Grinderman gospel. Hot damn, we couldn't take our eyes off him, and he definitely fed off us; venturing onto a side speaker to shriek the spoken-word intro to "Get It On" was like a profane pirate mass, with a chorus of voices all shrieking the same words, or playing call and response to his every gesture. During "Heathen Child", Cave prowled along the edge of the stage, pointing, grabbing hands, shaking hips. At one point he took the hand of a very short girl who was behind a very tall man and dragged her up to the front. She looked up and, blushing, smiled in gratitude, but Cave kept on going, not looking down to meet her blissed-out gaze. Lesson? Do the right thing and get the hell on with it.

That mystery-man persona cracked somewhat in Cave's onstage chemistry with his bandmates. There was something undeniably beguiling about the tiny smiles that would come bubbling up or bursting out, whether it was playing the keyboard, or (usually) guitar, or (most often) exchanged between he and Ellis. This came to the fore during "Get It On", the third number played live, when Cave, lost in the song's aggro-sexy groove, literally shoved Ellis to the ground, mosh-style. It was a weirdly comic moment, and totally indicative of the good-natured fellowship between the band members. I don't think I've ever seen Cave smile so much, so naturally, onstage, ever. Dark Lord, my ass. The words to the songs might be dark, but they're one aspect of a very complex, deeply curious mind. The mind that produced the gory fairytale of "Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man" and the restless drama of "Love Bomb" (not to mention the depraved surrealism of "The Death Of Bunny Munro", a book I liked a lot) also produced "The Palaces of Montezuma", with beautiful lines like "a Java princess of Hindu Birth / a woman of flesh / a child of earth / I give to you". This was easily one of my favorite songs live - the marriage of noise, melody, words and beats was perfect. It felt like a melodic, gentle grace amidst the yowling feedback and aggressive stomping.

What?, you're saying, grace? Grinderman?! Never the twain would've met within the world of the first album (from 2007) but, as the band's members grow and change, so does the music. This is good. It's not all thudding boom-boom-boom and static-like feedback, though those still play hugely important roles sonically, and I'd argue, spiritually. It was the kind of booming thud you felt within the depth of your spinal column, going straight to that strange, intangible thing called "soul." Again, this is good. The stage featured an extensive array of percussive equipment which Jim Sclavunos and Warren Ellis whacked with great enthusiasm and skilled showmanship, but it's notable how much the other instruments contributed to the percussive sound of the band too: guitars, pianos, even sequenced loops were all used to great percussive -and, it must be noted, theatrical -effect to create a sound I can only describe as raw, primal rock and roll. (Sidenote: CIUT's Chris Berube did an interview with Big Jim, which you can listen to/download here. They talk about how that primal sound got created -and it sounds like fun.) This clearly isn't meant to be a band of high art or instrumental virtuosos (not that they all aren't a hugely, ridiculously talented bunch -they are) -but perfection and tidiness aren't the point at all. Noise is. And sometimes, subtlety makes it in there too. It's all about balance.

Which is why I couldn't help but think of Blixa Bargeld, who sits in my head as the godfather of the noisy feedback-meets-percussive-ear-bleeding chaos-meets-creepy-subtlety sound that emanated from the stage of the Phoenix Thursday night. Blixa was the longtime guitarist for the Bad Seeds until his departure in 2003, and is now touring with his original band, the hugely influential Einsturzende Neubaten (they'll be in Toronto next month; yes, I'm seeing them). So does this audible influence take away from Grinderman's originality? Not one bit. What separates this band from its Teutonic forebears is the blood-and-guts emotionalism its members put into every moment, combined with a palpable sense of theatre and a wrenching forward-sweeping sonic momentum that combines deep dread and high exuberance in one thrilling ride. Warren Ellis is one seriously talented (and prolific) man. I've seen him play many times with renowned band The Dirty Three, and while his musical forays into crazyman-land may seem loopy half-cocked, they're all carefully, meticulously considered, and executed with a maximum of compelling kick-ass mayhem. Really, there's nothing quite like the brilliant cacophony Grinderman creates live. No wonder their North American shows have sold out. This is rock and roll at its best. I'm so glad I was there. It was a return, and a new beginning, all at once. My ears are still ringing, and my heart's in knots. Hail hail, the Grinderman. I thought you'd never come.

Photo credits:
Band photo (top) by Deirdre O'Callaghan.
Live Toronto photos by Henry Faber.

Nov 10, 2010

(Re)Birth


Oh dear, oh dear... several concerts, three openings, two books, a TV appearance, and one surgery (not mine) later, and I find I'm getting guilt-pangs. Dear blog, I've ignored you, and I am sorry. There will be a lot more posts in the coming days and weeks, including a review of the last North American stop on Hugh Masekela's recent tour, an audio interview with the playwright behind a new opera about boxing and women, a preview of an upcoming Robert LePage show involving gender-bending, and my own musing on tattoo artist Kat Von D's latest book.

In the meantime, a celebration of sorts is in order. Artist Louis le Brocquy turned 94 today. To say his work was a big reason I picked up a paintbrush sounds too trite, too twee, too completely earnest. But it's true. I remember being introduced to his work by an art professor many years ago in Dublin; the way I look at art -and the world -hasn't been the same since. Le Brocquy's fierce sensuality combined with his meticulous skill have cast such a powerful spell that I've literally lost hours staring silently at his work. And it isn't just a technical admiration; there's a real sense of love that pours forth from his works -for the works themselves, the act, the subject, the materials, the very spirit of art and artistry and poetry, the whole chaotic mass of creation, of birth, of death, of living, of knowing, of being ...for the sake of it.

It's not unusual for me to get emotional looking at his work, either; the magical combination of paint and brushstrokes, light and shadow, shape and form, work a kind of alchemical magic that bounces straight from head into heart, threading the two together until there's no distinction between me, subject, and canvas. This Irish painter's vision is so singularly unique as to make words very, very limiting in trying to describe its power. That's the mark of good art in my books. And I try surround and immerse myself in that kind of awesome beauty as much as I can -or at least tote around the compact version, which isn't always successful.

Only recently have I returned in a big way to my own art-making, and while it's been a kind of homecoming, it's also provided an alarming awakening (more on that in a future post). Every carefully-applied brushstroke whispers a primal, messy truth -one I'm coming to recognize and embrace in every aspect of my ever-expanding world. Le Brocquy's work feels both soothing and a call for authenticity -in art, in love, in life. I hope I can heed it.

For now, I send my heartfelt thanks, joy, and good wishes to Mr. Brocquy. Love and gratitude, always.


Top painting: Fantail, 1989
Middle painting: Back, 1997
Bottom painting: Study for Children in a Wood, 1988