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Mollie Kaye

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  1. Victoria band West My Friend provides a welcome balm for our world-weary souls. “GUILELESS” is defined as “honest, innocent; not able to deceive.” As an American ex-pat who keeps up with all the news down south, guilelessness is a balm for my soul. The three musicians who form Victoria’s fanciful folk band West My Friend seem to embody that word, and their lyrics telegraph it as well. For me, these musicians are ideal examples of top-notch, Canadian-grown youth: intelligent, talented, creative, hard-working—successful and savvy, but without guile. West My Friend (WMF) recently created one of the most ambitious, unusual albums I’ve heard within the well-populated genre of singer-songwriter bands trading in clever, plain-spoken lyrics set against acoustic melodies. Their 2019 CD, In Constellation, plumps those melodies into expansive lushness. In collaboration with local composer and arranger Adrian Dolan of The Bills, they’ve created a collection of inspiring, unexpected orchestral works that flower in fecund elegance from the seeds and soil of the band’s humble, sweet tunes. It’s a mashup of folksy innocence and edgy musical sophistication that leaves me smiling wryly, with my heart a little fuller. Listening to “Build a Bed,” their poignant and powerful song about love, I’m choking up. West My Friend (l-r): Jeff Poynter, Eden Oliver and Alex Rempel (Moss Photography) Jeff Poynter plays piano and accordion, and contributes vocals; Alex Rempel is on mandolin, and offers a versatile baritone voice. Eden Oliver plays guitar, and her lead vocals pour out with effortless clarity and spot-on accuracy, while the band’s multi-instrumental weavings create a velvet box for her jewel-like soprano. Whether she’s enveloped by Dolan’s majestic arrangements or simply flanked by Poynter and Rempel in someone’s living room, Oliver’s pipes don’t disappoint. As primary songwriter and lyricist for the group, Oliver lays out profound, stripped-down truisms that resonate like snatches of conversations about life with a good friend over tea. “Old Song” is her Gershwin-esque composition that Dolan works some whimsical magic on. “An Education” sparkles to life with Rempel’s harp-like mandolin solo behind Oliver’s voice, climaxing in a cornucopia of brass and tympani, and comes to rest again with the mandolin sighing sweetly among the strings. “Salt Water” begins with an ominous roll on the tympani, then contemplatively wallows in a guitar-and-vocal chant, Poynter’s accordion droning a minor chord, then builds into a spinning calliope of grandness with strings and horns, punctuated by cymbal crashes. “All These Things” juxtaposes a list of Grandma’s best recipes with a soaring symphonic score, lifting up the simplest acts of caring and connection to a height somewhere in the heavenly stratosphere. Dolan’s brilliant aural textures evoke surges of emotion, and serve as a reminder to me that the simple stuff of everyday life deserves our attention and reverence. The sophistication of In Constellation reveals that these “folk” musicians have some serious chops and background. All three earned music degrees from UVic, where they formed WMF ten years (and nearly 700 shows) ago. The instruments they play in the band are not the ones they honed in university (saxophone for Poynter, double bass for Rempel, flute for Oliver). The many instruments they’ve picked up since serve them well, and they contribute their classical skills to the orchestra tracks on their ambitious fourth album. “The people who like it really do like it,” Rempel says. “It’s not getting mainstream radio play…but we’re getting lots of college radio in the US and UK, sneakily taking over the world with esoteric, symphonic indie folk,” he chuckles. In the past, WMF has been nominated for a Vancouver Island Music Award and a Canadian Folk Music award; the current awards cycle wasn’t in full gear when I interviewed them this winter, but In Constellation seems likely to get some nods in 2020. With all of this talent and versatility, West My Friend surely could make plenty of strong recordings as a trio (and they have), so my first question for them as we sit down in Poynter and Oliver’s charming Fernwood living room is how in the world did they conjure the chutzpah to record an album with full orchestra, and produce a one-off concert with over 50 paid musicians at Alix Goolden Hall last September? The logistics, financing, and audacious gamble of it all boggle my mind, especially when they’re working full-time and touring internationally, playing an average of 65 shows a year. “We had to have a lot of people in the audience,” Poynter says, with his characteristic directness. He handles all of the bookings for the band, and has a proven track record of building alliances and networks. “We got a couple of grants as well. UVic alumni association provided some funds. It was a very expensive concert, and required a ton of organization; that’s why we don’t do it all the time.” The gamble paid off: lots of people did come to the show, but live concerts on that scale aren’t in the works again “unless an orchestra hired us—which is the goal,” he says. In the meantime, WMF has invited a choir to perform at their April 26 show at Alix Goolden Hall—and it’s not just any choir. Oliver has a K-12 education degree, and much of what WMF does when not performing involves workshops in schools, focused on guided listening and songwriting with students. The Voices in Motion Choir (VIMC) dovetails easily with the band’s mission of building community through music; it is comprised of Alzheimers and dementia patients, their caregivers, friends, and local students aged eight to 25, all rehearsing with a professional director and performing a schedule of public concerts. Launched in 2018, the choir is an interdepartmental research project involving sociology, psychology, and nursing PhDs at UVic, identifying and quantifying the mental and physical health benefits of choral singing, especially for those suffering from dementia, who are “highly susceptible to negative health outcomes brought on by social isolation and a lack of meaningful contribution,” Dr Debra Sheets, a professor at UVic’s School of Nursing, explains. She is a huge WMF fan, and is delighted about the collaborative concert. Erica Phare-Bergh, VIMC’s artistic director, serves as conductor, and says, “What started as one local choir has blossomed into three, and the VIMC model is now being replicated in cities throughout Canada.” Both women say having shared goals between young and old, patient and caregiver—like the upcoming West My Friend concert—enhances health and relationships. When I ask Oliver about WMF and their shared goals, she says the band is still recovering from the enormous effort required by In Constellation, but they will be working on new material in 2020, and intend to create a new recording. “It’s like a twinkle in our eye,” she muses, and the three musicians all smile at this, unified in their determination and vision as they embark on their second decade as a guileless—yet savvy—Canadian band. “A Sunday Afternoon to Remember: Voices in Motion in concert with West My Friend,” Sun, April 26, 4:30pm. Tickets, $25 or $20 student / senior, alixgooldenhall.com or 250-386-5311. Alix Goolden Hall at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, 907 Pandora Ave. Mollie Kaye writes and performs parodies of 40s and 50s songs, sometimes with Jeff Poynter backing her up on keyboards. You might also encounter her wearing comment-worthy vintage outfits and talking to strangers on “Turned-out Tuesdays” (see www.theyearofdressup.com).
  2. Victoria Children’s Choir director and founder Madeleine Humer is passing the baton. DUCKING INTO THE WARM, crowded, Christmas-music-and-conversation cacophony of a Downtown Starbucks on the dreariest of December afternoons, I spot a curly-haired woman seated at a table. I’ve never met her, but I’ve seen that head from the back, conducting some impressively polished performances of the Victoria Children’s Choir (VCC). Madeleine Humer—“Mads” to the kids who have sung for her—and I exchange a wave. I’m here to ask why, after 20 years as VCC’s founder and artistic and concert choir director, she has decided to pass her baton to a successor. As we settle into our conversation, it’s striking how genuinely ebullient she is—about her work with the kids, and about stepping down. Describing her musical passions, VCC’s history, and her hopes for the future, she is ablaze with vision and delight. This is no small feat for anyone, at any age, in any season—and I’m inspired by her energetic positivity on this particular day, damp and dark as it is, talking about the end of her tenure in a valued role. There isn’t an iota of shade coming from Humer (perhaps a fitting name for someone so jolly), and thinking back on all the dour choir directors I’ve had, I can imagine how much the kids will miss her. Madeleine Humer (Photo: Tegan McMartin) Humer grew up in Victoria; singing and blending her voice with others was always a passion. Since classical choral repertoire was a vital part of most kids’ lives here in the 60s, she says, “I sang classical repertoire at school; [church] choral classes were full.” There was, she recalls, no hard line at school between the “three R’s” and the arts; it was all seen “as education—including painting, including music—[the fine arts were] part of that culture.” The 70s, she says, were a time of major shifts and upheaval. Churches all over the world lost their choirs “for all sorts of reasons,” and to this day, she laments, they are still struggling, “even in England.” Humer was studying music in Vienna in the early 70s and remembers the vote at King’s College which “only just scraped through to keep the choir.” The recovery process, she says, “has been very difficult for educators; the idea of singing in the choir is not as appealing for kids.” Classical music, once so prevalent, “is not ‘every day;’ most families have some CDs of classical music, and go to kids’ symphony concerts,” but it’s not woven into life the way it was a generation or two ago. “There was a rich, rich choral background for kids,” she says. “I think I was lucky, that it was something I was fascinated with from a very young age, when music was [more] accessible through records and concerts…I just loved that harmony, whatever it was,” Humer says with a warm smile. One thing that hasn’t changed, she insists, is the sheer enthusiasm young people demonstrate for classical music, once it appears on their radar. “We’re cheating our children if we don’t give them an opportunity to know their choices,” she explains. “They get exposed to so many other types of music, everywhere—but they have to make an effort to find classical music. Kids are really hungry for it when they find it. They’re overjoyed.” She says she’s not passing judgement on other forms and traditions; “all music has value. Classical music is one of our heritages; it’s a shame that it’s gotten lost…in every [children’s] choir that I’ve had, if you ask them what they want to sing, to show off, they choose a classical piece. Why wouldn’t they?” The Victoria Children's Choir (2017) Humer, who adores the Baroque period of music especially, trained and sang as a professional soprano soloist and taught English-language songs to children as an educator in European schools. When she divorced, the single mom and her two young kids relocated to Victoria, and Humer began a new chapter in her life. She took a post at Glenlyon-Norfolk School as an educator and choral director. Her work there was so successful that the Victoria Symphony gave hiring preference to her Glenlyon-Norfolk choirs anytime the repertoire called for a children’s chorus. Eventually, Humer felt it was best to form a not-for-profit community choir to answer those requests, and their inaugural rehearsal was on September 11, 2001 (Humer vividly recalls the exact date; there was a decision made, she says, to carry on, despite the catastrophic events of that morning). Originally called the Victoria Symphony Children’s Choir, Humer and the orchestra soon reached the conclusion that “Victoria Children’s Choir” would, for various reasons, be a more strategically beneficial moniker going forward. Over the past two decades, Humer’s encouragement, insight, and meticulous direction have afforded hundreds of Victoria children the opportunity to grow their vocal abilities and confidence while preparing and performing challenging choral repertoire. Tens of thousands of local audience members have enjoyed their stage appearances with the Victoria Operatic Society, the Victoria Symphony, the Pacific Baroque Festival, and other professional arts organizations, and at high-profile events such as the official welcome ceremony for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and with The Tenors at the Royal Theatre. The choir has also made a name for itself internationally. In 2011, it performed at the Summa cum Laude International Youth Music Festival in Vienna—placing first in the Treble category—and, in 2015, at the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands. The choir celebrated Canada’s 150th Birthday with a Maritime Tour in July, 2017. There are now three Children’s Choirs, two for younger musicians (starting at age 7), with the Concert Choir that Humer directs being for more experienced 12-and-ups. Humer speaks so excitedly about the singers, the repertoire, and the choir camps she’s organized for her young musicians; I ask if she’s sad about leaving it all to someone else. She breaks into a huge smile and says, “Oh, it’s someone absolutely wonderful, and [VCC will] be announcing it sometime in the new year. I’m excited for the future. I said I’d be happy to sit on the board; I could help with fundraising. The person who is taking over has expressed a hope that we can sit down and discuss many aspects of the organization, including repertoire.” Humer feels a sense of responsibility to leave on a high note, as it were, so that the organization she so loves can enjoy a smooth and positive transition. “I’ve seen too many colleagues my age hanging on by their fingernails to things they have started,” she says. “To me, the perfect departure is when everything is doing well; I have a sense with this choir that that’s where they are. I don’t want to be holding on. I want to hand this over with great joy to its new future. I’m very proud.” Humer, who understands the enormous health and social benefits of singing together in groups, says her passion for vocal music will inevitably propel her toward new ventures in that arena. “At my age, I have opportunities to get involved in other things. I’m a passionate environmentalist. I’m feeling very strongly about…music being part of our education system. Maybe I’ve still got something to say, something to add from my experiences, to help kids who might otherwise not get a chance to try out this stuff.” The Victoria Children’s Choir will perform during the Pacific Baroque Festival in early March. See www.pacbaroque.com and www.victoriachildrenschoir.ca. Mollie Kaye is a vocalist and satirist who hopes more Victoria kids will join the Victoria Children’s Choir and enjoy the lifelong benefits of learning to perform classical choral music. This story was edited to correct spelling of Madeleine.
  3. CHINATOWN might still seem a little rough around the edges to some, but back in the ’80s, it was a lot rougher. Montreal-based artist Nicholas Vandergugten was born into that scene; he and his brother spent their early childhood folded into what he remembers as a world of “crazy characters”—a “man’s world. Luis [Merino] and Darcy [Gould] and Harry [Shafer], all these big male personalities vying for their place; it’s problematic. I felt there was a lot of competition as well as love and admiration, a lot of big egos mixed with sensitivity.” Nicholas’ father, Bert Vandergugten, settled there with his wife in the late ’70s, and produced a prolific body of work—yet had a complicated relationship with the exhibition and sale of it. “The Last Picture Show,” an October event in Chinatown showcasing a half-century of prolific output, was Bert’s idea, and he had every intention of being there—in body, not just spirit—“but he wasn’t able to make it,” Nicholas explains. Surrounded by his father’s impressionistic landscapes, figure and still life paintings, and sculptures, he tells me, “It was very important for him to be here, to be present and to say goodbye…but [his death from cancer] didn’t end up being that smooth.” Bert Vandergugten Bert “didn’t want a celebration of life, or funeral,” Nicholas insists. Yet as I sit with him and talk about his father, many friends and associates come up the rickety wooden stairs to do the same. Memories and anecdotes are swirling around us, and Chinatown’s old guard are recounting their ’80s exploits. When Nicholas entered grade school, the family decided to move to Thetis Lake, where the boys could more safely explore. Bert made his living as a welder and fabricator, not as an artist. (He made the red iron gate in Fan Tan Alley.) “Being an artist was more of an ideology than simply a profession. [Bert] wouldn’t like the term ‘profession’ as an artist…showing or not showing didn’t affect whether he made work, but he still needed validation,” Nicholas says. There’s a sizeable volume of work still available for sale, with all proceeds going to the Victoria Youth Clinic art program. Nicholas can be reached via email at nicvandergugten@gmail.com and you can view Bert Vandergugten’s work at www.bertvandergugten.weebly.com. “It’s all a part of history,” Nicholas offers as he gestures around the room. “Even if you don’t know the man, he was an artist in the ’80s. Chinatown is changing so rapidly. To hold on to something from that time is interesting.” Mollie Kaye is a multi-faceted mid-century enthusiast who documents her community connection project, “Turned-out Tuesdays,” at theyearofdressup.com.
  4. The building is for sale; performers and audiences are hoping for an arts-friendly buyer. WHEN HERMANN NIEWELER died in June of 2015, his beloved jazz venue nearly perished along with him. The addresses of 751 and 753 View Street, owned and managed by Nieweler since the 1980s, had housed the iconic street-level Hermann’s Jazz Club, a licensed veteran’s club next door, and a succession of nightclubs upstairs. For a few years after he died, his children couldn’t agree on what to do—with the two-storey building, or the businesses housed there. The jazz club had no secure future. Then one day in July of 2018, the much-loved bar and grill—which had hosted tens of thousands of jazz performances and luminaries such as Winton Marsalis and Michael Bublé—suddenly shut down. The family didn’t want to run it any more. But like the raucous Dixieland bands Nieweler loved, Hermann’s wasn’t about to go quietly. The loss of the unique venue was too horrifying a prospect for devoted fans, musicians, and house management, who rallied around a passionate preservation movement. Working tirelessly, these Victoria vision- and stake-holders are now navigating both the revitalization of the mission and the selloff of the building. A new owner, they say, could either explode the potential of a View Street arts hub—or pave right over Hermann Nieweler’s legacy. Karel Roessingh on the piano at Hermann’s The non-profit Jazz on View Society—now the Arts on View Society (AOVS) —organized, fundraised, and attempted a private purchase of the building in 2017. The Nieweler family’s price was $3 million back then, but though the society raised $100,000, it wasn’t enough to proceed. Instead, last summer, the society struck a hard-won, five-year lease and management deal for both Hermann’s Jazz Club and the neighbouring View Street Social tavern. AOVS executive director Nichola Walkden says a large portion of the funds the society raised have been used to make significant (and much appreciated) improvements to the kitchen, menu, and service. Reviving the club’s original schedule of offerings, and the mentorship and performance opportunities for high school kids, constitutes a large part of booking manager Ashley Wey’s passionate efforts. The current price of the building, listed on the MLS in October of this year, is $4.5 million. Attractive to developers, Walkden says, with zoning that allows a building height in the double-digits, she and the Arts on View Society (AOVS) know their five-year lease can only protect these historic performance and community gathering spaces for so long. Walkden is fervently hoping for a new owner or developer who will share the society’s vision of a View Street performance and visual arts centre, one that would serve the Downtown core in perpetuity. Wey, who grew up “rolling around on the floor” listening to bands at Hermann’s during her childhood, is now a professional musician herself. She serves as a director on the AOVS board, and says nobody expects the old property on View Street to remain at a height of two stories forever. The ideal solution, both women agree, would be the erection of a brand-new, multi-use building, where every cubic metre of current performance space is rebuilt and available for use by a range of disciplines: dance, theatre, music—even visual arts. In October, I had the opportunity to attend an event at the little-known, little-used venue now dubbed “Hermann’s Upstairs,” which consists of two spaces that are still under the Nieweler family’s management (but could be leased to AOVS, if the society can make it work financially). Two beautifully finished rooms are each set up in cabaret style, with comfortable seating for 80 and 260, respectively. Darryl Mar, Victoria Jazz Society’s artistic and executive director, often books Hermann’s for its performers. He said of the recent Astrocolor event held upstairs, “We had a full house. A lot of people had never been up there before, and realized what a great music room it is. It was a wonderful evening. People were dancing, people were coming up to me—local musicians—saying, ‘I never realized this venue was here. How do we get access?’” As Downtown performance spaces rapidly disappear, Mar says, the configuration of Hermann’s Upstairs is especially valuable and unique, with elevated table seating around a stage and dance floor. “It’s a perfect venue that doesn’t take a lot of money or work to become one of the best medium-sized live music venues in Victoria,” he asserts. Wey and Walkend wish the City’s zoning of these properties on View Street required developers to earmark a certain amount of square footage for arts facility rentals, providing a foundation for the kind of diverse entertainment experiences that are an essential ingredient in any thriving and vibrant downtown scene. Shortsightedness, however, is a stubborn visual impairment many politicians—and developers—share. A local industry professional tells me the guiding principles of putting up buildings in Victoria are brutally succinct: “minimize cost and risk; maximize profit.” Since there are no arts-oriented zoning parameters, AOVS is “at the mercy of a developer’s goodwill, and the two words ‘developer’ and ‘goodwill’ don’t carry the same magnetic charge,” he observes. However, if a developer can predict more profit and less cost and risk in “giving a building a ‘cultural’ brand, then that’s another market-based reason for a possible positive outcome. If culture will sell condos,” he says wryly, that’s the basic logic required for “creation or retention of a cultural element.” One can imagine the huge placards announcing “Downtown luxury living with music, theatre, dance and dining, right at your feet.” Perhaps everybody could win, with no “goodwill” required. But real estate development is only one point of focus for the team reviving and expanding Hermann’s View Street offerings. Development of young talent has always been an integral part of the jazz club, says Wey. “It’s an all-ages venue; that’s what’s great. Generations came through [the club’s] open mic: Kelby [MacNair], I did, Nic LaRiviere, Oliver Swain, we all came through that program.” What Hermann’s provided, and what the pianist wants the next crop of young musicians in Victoria to access, is the opportunity “to come up [on stage] and get a chance to work with pros.” “Hermann was like a grandpa to me,” Wey recalls fondly, “which is why I care so much about his legacy and keeping it alive.” Whatever eventually gets built on what was Hermann Nieweler’s property, Walkden and Wey hope some portion of it will embody what the “Mayor of View Street” and patriarch of Victoria’s jazz scene was all about: convening community around good times and enjoying the music he so loved; mentorship and development of new performers; and warm, welcoming gathering spaces where, Walkden says, “you can have a drink, and come as you are.” If you’d like to contribute to the Arts on View Society, see gofundme.com/Hermanns. To get a peek at Hermann’s Upstairs, attend the Jazz Society’s Blue Moon Marquee show on Friday, Dec 6: tickets on sale at 250-386-6121 or www.rmts.bc.ca. Mollie Kaye is a multi-faceted mid-century enthusiast who documents her community connection project, “Turned-out Tuesdays,” at theyearofdressup.com.
  5. Jimbo Insell is grateful for everything, especially his creative life. “WELL, MAYBE IT STARTED THAT WAY. As a dream, but doesn’t everything… Somebody had to dream about it first. And maybe that is what I did. I dreamed about coming here, but then I did it.” ―Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach I PEER IN THROUGH THE DUSTY GLASS of an ancient Chinatown door as Fisgard Street and its red silk lanterns darken against a dusky summer sky. A faint glow at the top of narrow wooden stairs eerily illuminates about 20 mannequin torsos ascending the treads like a faceless, legless chorus rehearsing an Ann Miller production number. I ring James Insell’s bell again. No answer. A few seconds later, he arrives, with a smile and apologies, from his work managing costume design on a film set. “Jimbo,” as he calls himself, is not yet a household name in Victoria, but he’s arguably got one of the city’s most exciting and original creative minds. James Insell I’ve seen his ironic, creepy costumed characters’ improvisational interactions with an audience. The nightmarish qualities of his provocative “clown” spectres with their white-faced, baloney-and-hot-dog hijinks leave some in stitches, some moved to tears, and others sprinting for the doors. “Edgy” artists don’t typically exude the enormous warmth, goodwill and generosity that Insell does, yet my late-night conversation with this wildly innovative designer, drag queen and clown, in his Willy-Wonka-wonderland of a 3,000-square-foot studio (imagine Royal BC Museum’s “Old Town” made over by Pee-wee Herman and RuPaul) reveals a wise and compassionate man, whose creative body of work is all in the service of supporting authentic emotional experience. Insell’s authenticity has truly been hard won. As young children in London, Ontario, he and his brother Jeff (now an actor based in Toronto) secretly dressed in women’s clothes and danced around in their basement, but their father, a successful doctor and scientist, sternly forbid such behaviour. “He didn’t want his sons to be faggots,” Insell relates. Anything that telegraphed as gay “was seen by my dad as totally bad and wrong.” Despite yearning for the arts, an obedient and admiring Insell dutifully acquiesced to his commandeering father’s demands that he study science, earning a BSc in biology from the University of Western Ontario and garnering opportunities abroad with the University of Stockholm and Cambridge University. One of the most profound and transformative experiences of his life, he says, was in a Kenyan forest, communicating with chimpanzees in sign language. Yet he didn’t attend his graduation in 2008, never picked up his diploma, and hasn’t applied his degree to any endeavour since. With a gentle straightforwardness, Insell says of his upbringing, “I fully moved on with my life…I’ve seen how you can live in a really sick and miserable way…so I try to cultivate and create a positive, joyful and creative life.” He packed up and moved west to Victoria, throwing himself into the creative collaborations and community he’d craved since childhood. He’s designed (and sewed) hundreds of costumes for local independent theatre productions, and his stage appearances are “all about what is truthfully happening in the moment…Things you don’t anticipate become gifts. If you’re truly present and listening, you can use everything…The clown is a conduit for emotion and experience and feeling; it sort of plays in those feelings without deep consequence.” And why lunchmeat as a prop? “I ate so much baloney growing up—my dad ate that loaf that had macaroni in it,” Insell says with a laugh. “It never felt like actual food to me…there’s all kinds of things you can do with it; it’s funny and weird.” As much as he still enjoys performing drag or clown occasionally, it’s behind-the-scenes design work that constitutes the bulk of Insell’s creative efforts. At 36, after a decade of proving his resourceful brilliance on shoestring budgets, he is now thriving in a successful career as a costume designer in Victoria’s burgeoning commercial film industry, while continuing to work his magic in the local independent theatre scene (see costumes and sets for Atomic Vaudeville’s annual October staging of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”) Resolutely geared toward achievement, with an iron-clad work ethic, Insell keeps the triumph-to-tragedy ratio solidly in his favour by focusing on gratitude. “It’s amazing what having good energy and putting good energy into the world can bring to you,” the tall, lanky artist quietly asserts, a rainbow of coloured lights flashing in sequence above him, reflecting off scores of disco balls and silver stars hanging from the ceiling. A tribe of mannequins surround us and hundreds of colourful toys float on shelves. “Positive energy and intentions just breed more positive energy and intention in the world…I think that comes from just trying to be aware of what’s happening, and to be grateful.” Insell credits his mother with helping him cultivate this outlook. “She taught me to envision things and be grateful. We talked a lot about dreams: what my dreams were, how to achieve my dreams.” Insell arrived in Victoria with his BSc in biology, but no formal training in design. He eagerly took on large-scale theatre projects that required outrageous physical self-sacrifice and paid him a pittance, but what he got were excellent learning opportunities, the gratification of contributing to successful productions, and the freedom of creative expression. By choosing work carefully, he was able to methodically refine his skills as an independent designer for Blue Bridge, Theatre Skam, and Atomic Vaudeville (his first design project was “Ride the Cyclone,” which launched the successful careers of several locals). “There was not a lot of money in it for me personally, but it was all part of my journey to get where I am.” For this pent-up, long-denied theatre kid, being an integral part of a creative team and getting to see the audience experience the sets and costumes he’d designed “became a form of payment.” Insell then deftly positioned himself to get hired into the film industry, right as local movie and TV series production began its renaissance. Right now, he’s working as costume designer for a three-part series of feature-length mysteries (working title: Martha Vineyard Mysteries) for the Hallmark Channel with Front Street Pictures, a Vancouver-based production company. He marvels at how his working life has transformed, with international audiences of millions viewing his work on The Hallmark Channel. Insell’s favourite book from childhood features a boy who, like him, is named James. James undertakes an epic journey to escape the cruel tragedy of his family circumstances, faces unexpected challenges and, ultimately, enjoys the wonderful life he’s dreamed of. Insell shows me photos and the maquette of his ingenious designs for Kaleidoscope Theatre’s staging of James and the Giant Peach—including the insect costumes and mammoth-fruit centrepiece. He animatedly recounts the press calling to ask about it. “‘Hullo, James? This is the Times Colonist. We hear you’ve got a giant peach!’ I was like, ‘Oh my fucking God, do you know this is exactly what happens in the story?’” The full-circle metaphorical significance of that moment still inspires awe in him. His eyes are alive with joy and wonder as he shakes his head. “I guess life imitates art.” Jimbo Insell’s costume and set designs are featured in Atomic Vaudeville’s October production of “The Rocky Horror Picture show.” See http://atomicvaudeville.wixsite.com. See jimbo.online for a couple of videos and many photos of his work. Mollie Kaye’s year-long social experiment, “Turned-out Tuesdays,” aims to assuage the epidemic of social isolation by promoting the mental-health-boosting powers of talking to strangers. (facebook and instagram “Turned-out Tuesdays” as well as www.theyearofdressup.com.
  6. Pushing towards greater authenticity, Adams is determined to write more of her own songs. JUNE SUNLIGHT FLARES off the white-winged, bobbing butterflies busily pollinating the crops in the front yard of a James Bay heritage house. As I ride up on my bike, Victoria jazz vocalist Susannah Adams emerges from the front door, which features hand-painted doves. She gestures for me to join her at a shaded wooden picnic table set with refreshments. This tiny gem of an urban farm is her husband’s creation; rabbits, ducks, quail, and chickens provide a steady percussive backdrop of clucks, crows, and chirps. “My husband’s vision is to see abundance everywhere,” Adams says as she pours me a glass of rose tea. We’ve found a brief window to meet in between her teaching music, raising two kids, composing, performing, and, of course, helping to nurture the wee farm. Adams is often on CBC Radio’s Hot Air and Saturday Night Jazz, and has graced the stage at various music festivals, including a three-night residency at Victoria Jazz Festival. Her 2018 debut album, As the Morning Light, is a collection of dazzling arrangements of jazz standards and some of her original compositions, featuring Miles Black (piano), Oliver Gannon (guitar), Miguelito Valdes (trumpet), Joey Smith (bass) and Kelby MacNayr (drums). With her cascading red hair, calm demeanour, graceful lines—all framed by tendrils of vegetation in her yard—she resembles the Art Nouveau imagery of Mucha and Klimt. I tell her this, and she appreciates the reference; she’s studied art history. Susannah Adams Adams’ conversational style is genuine, and so are her performances. For me, the irresistible appeal of her recordings blossoms from the warm intimacy she creates by being very close to the microphone, tripping lightly through surprisingly acrobatic stylings, plaintive sustained notes, and phrase accents of shimmering, emotional vibrato. Like Peggy Lee, Nina Simone, or Fiona Apple before her, Adams’ technically deft, conversationally frank timbre evokes the experience of a best friend sharing the unvarnished details of her human experience—or telling you the hard truths you need to hear. Every bit the seasoned pro at age 39, it’s surprising that music wasn’t Adams’ earliest passion. Growing up in Britain, she studied visual arts. At 24, though, going through a rough patch, she heard recordings of Billie Holiday’s “mournful, sorrowful and raw music,” and says, “I really was compelled to sing, and felt so unsure of how to do that.” Her sister was taking voice lessons. “I felt this pang of envy,” she says. “It seemed so unattainable.” Her sister shrugged and said, “Let’s just find you a teacher.” At first, Adams recounts, the lessons were “more of a therapy session than anything. To release your voice is such an intimate and vulnerable place…[The instructor] listened to my woes; then, at the end of the session, I sang along to a recording of a song that was playing.” In subsequent sessions, Adams asked herself, “Can I sing it without the recording?” Bit by bit, she dared to reveal more of her own interpretations and authentic voice. “After six weeks of one-on-one lessons, my teacher said to me, ‘I’ve got gigs for this hotel, why don’t we get you a gig?’ I had no clue what that was about.” But, she says, “There’s only one way to learn, and that was to begin.” With the same open-hearted, trusting quality that later led her to shed most of her belongings and travel, at times by trans-Atlantic freighter, around the globe as a WWOOFer (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms)—and with her voice teacher along for moral support, she showed up at the hotel in a skirt and flip-flops. “I had written my lyrics in a rainbow notepad. I was there with a phenomenal pianist, singing my songs, reading from my notebook. It was my very elementary start. People liked it.” There isn’t a hint of either self-congratulation or self-deprecation in her account, just a quiet awe and matter-of-fact gratitude. She calls what happened to her “luck.” But she hasn’t simply been a passive character in her musical evolution. “Along the way I have learned to refine,” she says, “the conventions and parameters around being a performing musician—understanding what it is—and [stepping] into that role.” She’s reluctant to call herself a “jazz diva,” but says she is “enjoying the stage aspect much more, letting more of my self come forth, freeing up a bit more and more. It’s a never-ending process, really.” After her early successes as a vocalist, she moved to a new city in Britain, and “as much as I wanted to find the musicians and get back into singing again, it didn’t come together for a long time.” She and her Canadian husband Chris got married, intending to “travel indefinitely,” working on organic farms as a couple. “Performing was not part of the footloose life,” Adams says. “The music wasn’t present at all.” In 2008, though, during a rare Christmas visit to Chris’ Victoria parents, the couple saw a coast-to-coast snowstorm as a sign that they should maybe stay on. Adams got pregnant with their first child, and “things presented to us here.” The young family decided that being neighbours with paternal grandparents, and raising kids in a city less dense and intense than London (where Adams’ parents live) had appeal. “I do think it’s a very good quality of life here,” she says. “People are very open-hearted—not quite as cynical and jaded as they are back in Britain.” Life in Victoria has also provided new opportunities for Adams to honour her authentic passion for musical expression. After years of setting it all aside, she says, “I’ve met the right people…people who have taken me under their wings, and been generous with their time and helping me along.” Recalling a particularly important experience at a jazz workshop in Port Townsend, Washington in 2015, she becomes emotional. “That was another pivotal moment in my life. I committed to it.” She wipes away tears as she speaks. “It was a big moment of realization, that this is what I need to be doing in my life. It’s not just a hobby now; this is my path.” Yet in any commitment, whether to path or person, there are times when it’s hard to stay the course. Adams agrees. “You go in this spiral of ‘Am I still wanting to do this?’ I reaffirm, then say, ‘How do I go on to the next level?’” Adams wants to avoid complacency and keep challenging herself; she’s decided that original compositions are the way to do this. “That’s scary. Now I’m committed to sharing my own voice at a deeper level. My aspiration is to wean myself off of singing other people’s songs—other people’s stories—and sing mine.” Susannah Adams performs with Roy Styffe (sax), John Lee (piano), Brock Meades (bass) and Graham Villette (drums) at Hermann’s Jazz Club, July 13 at 8pm. As part of the U-Jam summer music camp, on Wednesday, July 24, 2-3:30pm, Adams leads a masterclass on jazz vocal improvisation, followed by an evening concert at 7pm. See www.susannahadams.com for more information. Mollie Kaye started out studying fine arts and graphic design; Victoria has offered her many gifts, including the opportunity to develop her voice as a writer and singer. She thinks that was great luck.
  7. A Victoria vocalist brings his stylings to the spotlight at JazzFest. ON THIS CHILLY SPRING EVENING in Fairfield, my interview subject and I are scanning for a spot to sit down in a busy coffee shop. There’s a table for two that’s free; I move to claim it. Aaron Scoones pauses and smiles wryly. He observes that my silver-cased MacBook, which I’m about to flip open, will be one of eight, all set on tables, white Apple icons glowing in chorus. I didn’t notice. Makes me wonder what else I don’t notice about what’s going on around me. Scoones and I are both musicians, but clearly, we perceive our environment differently. Depending on how our brain works, we notice and prioritize different things. How does that affect what we do, say, and create? Scoones and I settle at our table, and this twinkly young Berklee-trained wunderkind is ready to reveal to me how he processes sound, and how it inspires him to create, engineer, and perform music. (Besides vocals, Scoones plays bass, keyboards, drums, and guitar.) Aaron Scoones The boyish Scoones looks like he’s accumulated little more than half of his 38 years (“I’ll never get tired of hearing that,” he laughs), but his upbeat impishness is nicely balanced by a thoughtful, grounded vibe. For someone so knowledgeable, he never condescends, happily inviting me to hear through his ears like a pal who giddily gives over their headphones so you can geek out on what they’re listening to. He’s excited about his upcoming JazzFest gig at McPherson Theatre, opening for a headliner—but he’s super-duper-duper excited about hearing the headliner: the US R&B band The Suffers. “If I weren’t opening for the show, I’d buy a ticket and go see them anyway,” he enthuses. It’s a double-edged sword, he says, being inspired by—and utterly deflated by—those who make the music we wish we could make. Spoiler alert: self-acceptance doesn’t always come easily to creative types, but this angst has utility—if harnessed properly. “You have to be a bit neurotic to be a musician and get better,” Scoones observes. “You practice the things that you’re the weakest at. If you’re doing that all the time, it can really get your self-confidence down, so you have to be your own best friend, too.” He credits local vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Brooke Maxwell for giving him a clearer perspective. “Brooke told me there’s always going to be a gap between your current skill level and your musical taste. That made a light bulb go off…so I could be a little bit easier on myself.” From where I sit, there aren’t any discernible deficiencies in Scoones’ vocal performances; he’s won awards, apprenticed with Louise Rose, and the R&B styling he refined and mastered at Boston’s Berklee College of Music dovetails nicely with an easy stage presence. Entering his sonic world is clearly a pleasure for listeners. Still, he keeps his eye trained on his idols, including singers like Kurt Elling, Bobby McFerrin, Tony Bennett and Harry Connick Jr. When I tell him I once lived in Bobby McFerrin’s Minneapolis neighbourhood, Scoones lights up. “Bobby McFerrin is a massive reason why I sing. His live concerts were available in the Berklee library; I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I’d go sit in the library and put on these videos of him that aren’t available anywhere else, and absorb as much as I could.” McFerrin once told me his daily life could be overwhelming sometimes; he couldn’t turn off the acute perceptiveness and sensitivity that made him such a deft and prolific musical force. It was a liability in everyday situations where there was too much stimuli, like big-box stores or parties, and most people couldn’t understand his social reticence. Scoones mentions a young bass phenom, MonoNeon, who creates music from what he hears in people’s speech. “He is famously a person of few words,” Scoones says. “I think it’s because he hears the melody in your voice; that’s what he’s processing, and there’s no stopping it. I relate to that, because there’s no way to turn off my brain from hearing a particular part of music.” I tell him I tend to hear meaning: lyrics and melodies. Scoones strictly hears sounds. “You can tell me what the song is about, and I’ll tell you what the song sounds like. We could be talking about the same song and not even know it.” He’s involved in a lot of projects, often as a sound engineer, the other half of his studies at Berklee. “I love [the immediacy] of live sound engineering…it’s very different from the studio world, where you have to live with your decisions, and they can come back to haunt you.” The collaborative nature of the engineer’s relationship with live musicians means “you become the fifth member of the band, if you really click with their music.” It’s an invisible role, yet “you really feel actively involved in what the audience experiences, and what the band experiences. It’s super rewarding.” Performing with local band The Timebenders, who specialize in a very theatrical approach to pop music from the 50s to the present, is also rewarding for Scoones. He’s definitely got the chops—and animation—that make him ideal for the gig. He says the band itself is like a family, and “it’s really rare that you’d be at a show where you don’t get to connect with the audience, and ride on other people’s songs while you do that.” Riding on those familiar chestnuts is a delight for Scoones, yet he yearns to create original songs as well. His devotion to getting the sound just right in the studio—and having the lyrical meaning be profound instead of trite—makes the prospect a bit daunting for him. “I’ve produced and collaborated, but I’ve finished possibly three songs of my own…one of which I’d share. It makes me so nervous that I couldn’t back the song up in five years, that I’d be embarrassed by it…would I love to have an album that I wrote myself? More than anything. I’m not quite there.” JazzFest organizer Darryl Mar has slated Scoones to “ride” some classic tunes with Adam Dobres on guitar and Thomas Kinzel on keyboards as a 30-minute R&B opener set for The Suffers. “It’s a really big stage that I’ve never played before,” Scoones says of the McPherson. “I’m a little bit terrified, but mostly just excited and thrilled.” He says in addition to The Suffers, this year’s JazzFest will give people a chance to see English singer and multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier again, whom Scoones effusively dubs “the greatest musician in the world right now.” Collier, who won a grammy for Best Vocal Jazz Performance, puts on a great show. “It’s an amazing experience. What he hears and can reproduce at the level that he does is just indescribable.” The 36th TD Victoria International JazzFest runs June 21-30 at various venues. The Suffers, with opening act Aaron Scoones, perform June 23, 7:30pm, McPherson Playhouse. Other artists include Jacob Collier, Trio LSD, Davina & The Vagabonds, Gregory Porter, as well as many local musicians. See www.jazzvictoria.ca for complete lineup, schedule, and ticketing options. Mollie Kaye is a vocalist, lyricist, and writer who definitely sees the gap between what she’s capable of and what her idols achieve; she keeps going anyway.
  8. In Syria, Sari Alesh was a professional violinist. War changed all that. Grace, gratitude, and wise pragmatism permeate every word carefully chosen and softly spoken by 34-year-old Sari Alesh. He’s on the phone with me after walking home from the bus stop in a wild, mid-February snowstorm. The uncharacteristic weather has put our town in a tailspin, but for Alesh, it’s just one minor inconvenience in a life shot through with devastating losses, deadly hazards, and tragic interruptions. Alesh came to Victoria in 2016, one young man among the hundreds of Syrian refugees who fled an impossible situation thousands of miles away. Most of these new arrivals had little or no ability to speak English. After a year of support from self-organized refugee sponsor groups, they were expected to transition to a more independent existence and make their own way here, in whatever ways they could. Sari Alesh For Alesh, this meant a whole new “career”: juggling three low-wage jobs for most hours of the day and night just to keep himself afloat. It’s a far cry from his pre-war life as a professional musician in Syria—playing violin for the symphony, touring with mega-star Lebanese singer Fairouz—but he says he is grateful just to be here, and be safe. His brother, sister, and mother remain in Syria; their daily experience is something Alesh would rather not discuss. He describes growing up in a family where arts were a natural part of life. His father, now deceased, was a fine artist; he and his siblings learned violin as kids. “We all started at the same time,” he says in his quiet, accented, fluent English. “They didn’t study music at university; they just learned music for fun.” Alesh made it his main focus, went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in violin from the High Institute of Music in Damascus, and played with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra for six years. He taught music for nearly a decade in public and private schools. “I used to perform with a lot of bands in Syria and Europe [and] with a lot of orchestras in Germany, Italy, and in the Middle East. I used to play Arabic music as well, but my study was Western classical music.” And then, war. An unfathomable, devastating shift from a life of daily practice, rehearsal, and performance to a daily life of survival. Alesh first ended up in Turkey, where he acquired some basics of the language and found a bit of solace learning Turkish folk music. He eventually applied for refugee status in Canada, and considers himself lucky: he feels that his musical background must have helped him get relatively easier approval. His Victoria sponsor family was well aware of his background, and arranged for him to meet with Ajtony Csaba, music director and conductor of the UVic orchestra. Csaba evaluated Alesh’s playing soon after he arrived, and surmised that the six-year, war-induced hiatus from rigorous orchestral playing had taken its toll on certain foundational physical aspects of his technique, but after a few tune-up coaching sessions, the young Syrian was enthusiastically welcomed to join the violin section of the student orchestra. “He was a fun player to have around,” Csaba reports. “He had a great amount of joy…there was nothing obligatory in his approach to orchestra playing. One could sense the free will and positive relation to everything that is music. His approach to everyday human social contacts was very easygoing and carefree, and that was very helpful for everyone, and also for him, in starting to mingle and build social connections.” During that first year in Victoria, Alesh studied English and played in the orchestra at UVic, and was interviewed on CBC radio. Because he had acquired French during his education in Syria, he was invited to be a substitute music teacher at École Victor-Brodeur. He devoted himself to acquiring the English language so he could speak with much more than basic proficiency. Alesh was encouraged to explore taking a masters degree in violin performance at UVic, but as his first subsidized year in Canada ended, nearly all of his time had to be spent working a conglomeration of low-paying jobs to service the astronomical expenses of living independently in Victoria. Music largely fell by the wayside. Finding a path to financial stability in Canada is now the singular goal for Alesh; he must achieve this before the government will consider allowing his family to reunite with him here. Dave Conway, a retired elementary teacher and member of a local refugee sponsor group, was introduced to Alesh at a party two years ago, where they jammed a bit together and hit it off. Conway, who has played bass and guitar for decades, says he has been working with a pianist on a demo recording featuring Alesh, but it’s not easy to schedule, since Alesh is “very, very busy. It’s hard for him to maintain some of those musical connections. If people aren’t reaching out to him all the time and persisting, it doesn’t happen. A few weeks ago, he got home at midnight [from one job] and got up at four to work at the restaurant.” Both Conway and Csaba would like to see Alesh using his musical training and talents to earn more of the money required to live in Victoria—teaching violin in people’s homes, playing house concerts or restaurant gigs, and introducing people to the beautiful and haunting melodies and culture of the Arabic world. Both agree community networking could make this happen, yet Alesh is too busy rushing from job to job to promote himself or contemplate possibilities. “If he had even one opportunity to play for pay in a week, that would be so much more rewarding than doing prep work in a restaurant for hours and hours,” Conway says. Csaba concurs. “When people move across cultures, very often they have to convert their strengths and weaknesses. Sari may not be a ‘star’ character; he may be an introvert, but it’s true he has knowledge [that] is not possible to pass on without playing. He needs to capitalize on his strength and his knowledge.” Watching Alesh in a video of a concert he gave at the Duncan Showroom brings visions of a lovely gathering in someone’s Victoria home, a small group of music-lovers enjoying the diverse offerings of this young, passionate violinist. “Sari is always so humble and so grateful,” Conway says. “He thanks me for playing with him, and I say, ‘Oh no, it’s really my privilege.’ He’s such a high level musician, higher than I’ll ever play with in any other context.” Csaba thinks Victoria has much to gain from having Sari Alesh woven into Victoria’s social fabric. “It’s a marvellous opportunity for the community to look at Sari, to look in the mirror in some ways…we all came to this country at some point. Some very early, some very late, and such a career reminds us that we all had to find our place in society in some ways, musically and socially. It teaches humbleness, and reflection, and openness.” Mollie Kaye is a writer, musician, communication specialist and community builder. She performs with The Millies. Contact her at molliek@shaw.ca.
  9. Your once-sleepy Tuesday nights may never be the same. AFTER YOU COME THROUGH THE OLD CREAKY DOOR on Broad Street, climb the wide, steep staircase, and exchange your $10 for a green paper drink ticket, you gain entrance to a vibrant, candlelit “Speakeasy.” A small stage with red velvet curtains frames some “hot jazz” musicians: banjo, trumpet, and sousaphone—plus a percussionist playing a washboard affixed with a plethora of Spike Jones-esque noisemakers, including a small pot lid and a rubber chicken. The musicians all wear garb that hails from the days when men changed their collars, not their shirts. The wry banjo player who leads the Capital City Syncopators introduces each Jelly Roll Morton-era number with a patter so dry it crackles. The bouncy, tight arrangements fill the room with giddy energy, and generations of smiling dancers hit the marmoleum floor. Their arms intertwine while their feet kick and fly: balboa, shag, lindy hop, jive. Candles flicker on clustered tables, and underlit faces of listeners and watchers nestle together, conversing and sipping hand-crafted cocktails. The Capital City Syncopators play Prohibition-era hits at Speakeasy (Photo by Mollie Kaye) Every Tuesday night at the Victoria Event Centre (VEC), this joyful, warm, wholesome scene plays out—like the antique silent films the organizers project on the walls. Speakeasy is the only place in town where ten bucks buys you a fabulous traditional jazz band, a fascinating drink poured by bartenders in bow-ties (they even use blowtorches to create some of the menu items), fun inspiration from gleeful dancers, and a fast trip through time to Chicago or New Orleans, circa 1923—but without any of the cigarette smoke, thank heaven. I’m curious how it all got started, and how come more people don’t know about it. Eric Nordal, program coordinator for the VEC, says local swing dancers and musicians alerted him last year that a venue gap had opened up after Swan’s Brewpub stopped hosting live music. A passionate organizer who appreciates live performance and theatre, Nordal saw an easy fit for the VEC. “Speakeasy is the first thing we started as a weekly event. It came to be out of the need of the swing jazz musicians looking for a home, bartenders looking for work, dancers who wanted to be dancing…it magically synergized, to have a cocktail event where you can enjoy a drink, and enjoy the music.” I ask him why Tuesday nights. “Throughout the week, there are various dancing events scheduled, and we didn’t want to step on any toes—no pun intended.” Leading the collaborative effort to create Speakeasy on the musicians’ side was Victoria traditional jazz, klezmer and gypsy-swing multi-instrumentalist Avram McCagherty (he has performed with the Capital City Syncopators, Stomp Club, Yiddish Columbia State Orchestra, and Avram McCagherty Trio, among others). I sit down with McCagherty at the bustling Spiral Cafe in Vic West on a chilly December morning—he’s managed to squeeze me in betwixt the preschool drop-off and his weekly gig facilitating musical stage performances for the special-needs community. His family, faith observance, teaching, and professional therapeutic work all come before performing, he tells me. Somehow, though, I’ve seen him breathe a whole lot of life into our local music scene over the years. I ask him how he ended up anchoring the live music aspect of VEC’s Speakeasy offerings. “The people at the Event Centre are some of the best people I’ve ever worked with,” McCagherty enthuses. “Their main focus is justice, and doing what’s right. They’re great people; they saw…that [Speakeasy] could be a soft landing for some of those musicians.” The VEC reached out to McCagherty to take on the role of music director for that night. It was an easy “yes” for him. “Traditional jazz is my thing,” he says: “pre-bebop, pre-concert-hall jazz. Dancing jazz, drinking jazz.” He says the VEC got inspired to make some welcome functional and aesthetic improvements to the space, which for many years has been home to both performance art and social activism. “They made the stage bigger, and put up the beautiful curtains,” he says. I mention I’ve noticed that the grand bar in the space is also being renovated. “[Speakeasy] has been a catalyst for a lot of things around there,” he confirms. The VEC can now provide what McCagherty considers a perfect container for an art form that was meant to be offered in a space that allows for free movement and socializing. “With classical [music], you have to sit in a chair,” he says. “With jazz, you can dance. I think the way it’s supposed to be enjoyed is with dancing, and celebrating with your friends. I don’t think the best place for jazz is in the concert hall. [At Speakeasy] you can sit around the table and have a few drinks, and tell a joke to your friend on the side.” A question many will ask is whether non-dancers can still have fun and feel welcome at Speakeasy. The answer is an enthusiastic yes. While most who attend are the town’s in-the-know dancers, both McCagherty and Nordal say they welcome all comers. Diversity, McCagherty says, is an important part of creating the traditional jazz vibe in the room. At the Speakeasy the band is performing—“We play exactly what we want.” Unless the dance community hires a band for one of their own events, they don’t get to call the tune. “We want to play our arrangements—they’re danceable, but they’re also for the drinkers, too.” So while Speakeasy is not intended to be an event solely for the lindy-hopping crowd, “at the same time, they love it and come out for it. I owe them a debt of gratitude…they’re very supportive.” I’ve experienced VEC’s Speakeasy from three angles now. I’ve been a guest performer filling the Capital City Syncopators’ set break (McCagherty’s band plays every other week, and he books the acts for alternate Tuesdays; he is wonderfully generous this way, offering myriad opportunities for musicians to contribute on stage). I’ve been a social dancer on the floor. And I’ve sat at a table with friends to have a couple of drinks, joyfully taking it all in. My conclusion is that if you can manage the stairs (there’s no other way to get up there), prefer live music to live streaming, and crave those face-to-face, convivial social experiences of days gone by, Speakeasy is most definitely for you. “Speakeasy,” featuring bi-weekly performances by the Capital City Syncopators, every Tuesday night 8pm–1am, $10, Victoria Event Centre, 1415 Broad Street. Mollie Kaye celebrates Victoria’s creative people and passion projects. Contact her at molliek@shaw.ca if there is a performance you’d like to see featured (three months’ advance notice required).
  10. Modern day minstrels, the Banquo Folk Ensemble is about to release another CD. BASKING IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST’S balmy insistence that October is still summer, I’m on the patio of the Steamship Grill on Belleville Street, anticipating my lunch meeting with Amy Reiswig. You know her as a veteran writer for Focus who adroitly covers local literature (alas, you’ll find her farewell contribution in this month’s edition), but did you know this multi-talented woman’s musical sideline has her wearing Elizabethan gowns and rockin’ out on potato slicers as a professional percussionist in an ancient music band? Personally, I need to know a lot more about all of these hijinks, so with the glorious, sunbathed Inner Harbour as a backdrop, I impose on Amy to reveal the behind-the-scenes info on Banquo, Victoria (and Mayne Island)’s very own folk ensemble specializing in collaborative, creative riffs on ancient tunes. Their latest CD, Whither Are They Vanished, is set to be released at their November concerts, and though only one member has been there from the start, this tight band’s joyful devotion to making ancient music a living, breathing thing through their playful, toe-tapping shows hasn’t wavered in 20 years. Banquo, l-r, back: Eric Reiswig, Lael Whitehead, Bill Jamieson. Front: Gwendolyn Jamieson, Amy Reiswig Amy is one of many musicians who have been part of the Banquo family over the years. Keeping the band alive has been easy; the group’s passionate founder, sibling Eric Reiswig, is a skilled multi-instrumentalist and seasoned performer who attracts a steady parade of top talent to the group. Eric grew up in Montreal (as did Amy), and moved to Victoria in 1996, then founded Banquo in 1998. The deft and handy musician plays (and builds) a smorgasbord of sound-makers, including bagpipes, cittern, mandolin, dulcimer, recorders, whistles, flute, hurdy-gurdy, vocals, and percussion. I recall encountering Eric at Irish music sessions when I first moved to Victoria in 2004— it was always a delight to have the plaintive notes of a skilled Uilleann piper lending some much-needed texture to that vast sea of fiddles. A veteran performer of Irish traditional music, Eric’s “jam session” sensibilities are a large part of Banquo’s creative process in making their music. The arrangements are not assiduously historic; neither are their instruments (or costumes, for that matter). Their process is organic, Amy says, “melding the Irish session with the classical…historical interest and quirky weird instruments, playing everything by ear and seeing what bubbles up in that soup.” It’s a savoury soup indeed. Listening to Banquo’s latest recordings elicit several types of giddiness in me, from revelling in a thick, lush wood, surrounded by nymphs singing in a forgotten tongue, to laughing with a bunch of tipsy troubadours at a 13th-century watering hole. This ease of musical escape can only be facilitated by great chops. Banquo’s five musicians are so skilled, one can go along with whatever visions, pranks or diversions they offer. And let’s face it, by virtue of their timbre alone, some of these medieval—and found—instruments Banquo throws into their Macbethian cauldron are simply hilarious. “I’ve played a kitchen slicer,” Amy confesses. I ask her if the slicer happened to be a mandolin. We laugh. “No, it’s kind of like a knife, like a wavy potato chip. I’d hold it by its handle, and it made a sound like a wooden fish or frog, but ping-ier because it’s metal. A lot of what we do is serious, but we have a playful side…we’ve used bird whistles, [a “moo can”], other things. It’s always an adventure.” This amalgam of playful spirit and stellar musicianship is what attracted Bill Jamieson to the group four years ago. Bill founded the Ancient Music Society of Victoria, and is, Amy says, “our most historically inclined member.” A scholar and French horn player with a classical background who also plays in A Great Noyse, a group of symphony woodwind players performing ancient music on historically accurate instruments, Bill had to shuck off some of the rigour of those other idioms to join in with the fun and frolic of Banquo. Is the looser, interpretive approach sometimes just too much for him? “We’ve informed each other’s approaches and languages; it’s a great collaboration that way. Bill did get concerned at first about historical accuracy, but it brought us up in our level. Ultimately, it wasn’t about what was appropriate. It’s about what sounds good…we like to put percussion on it, and a bottom end, and rock out sometimes.” Banquo’s costumes on stage follow a similar spirit. “We have the tickle closet at Eric’s house,” Amy reveals with a smile. “Shirts, skirts, bodices, vests, coats, circlets, belts—there’s quite an array, with lots of mixing and matching going on.” This melange of elements can conjure regal lady and nobleman, troubadour and fool. “[It’s] not historically accurate, it’s just a way to participate in that time. Sometimes I love wearing a beautiful gown, sometimes I just want to wear something multicoloured and a little bit crazy, like a joker.” “One of the things we love to do is remind people that old music is not stodgy music,” she says. “People are constantly reinterpreting it, making it relevant, and having fun. When we played at the Folk Club recently, watching people dancing in their seats was such a thrill.” When the group convenes, either on Mayne Island or in Victoria, it’s always in a room full of instruments. “We joke that we all have a bad case of GAS: Gear Acquisition Syndrome…if you play something on a different instrument, it has such a different mood.” All five in the group contribute vocals, but Lael Whitehead and Gwen Jamieson are featured. “Gwen studied at the conservatory with Nancy Argenta, and Lael is endlessly writing countermelodies. The tunes come out in a new line, never before heard…but sounds for all the world completely right for it. Lael and Gwen bring very different vocal traditions; when they sing together, it’s so beautiful.” These two ethereal, pure sopranos weave many beguiling textures on the CD, evoking ancient scenes. “We try to take people out of time,” Amy explains. The Banquo mission is to transport their audiences to “a time when music was more important, when gathering around music was what people did…it was part of life. We want to remind people that music is a community builder. It’s brought us together—that’s what we want to create for those two hours.” The bells of the carillon tower suddenly burst through the air as we wind up our lunch on the deck. I shiver with delight, knowing I’m sharing that moment with all the other people in town who happen to hear it. Yes, Amy is right. Music is a community builder, and it’s so worth gathering for. Banquo Folk Ensemble’s 20th anniversary concerts and CD release: Sat, Nov 17, 3pm, St Andrew’s Anglican Church, Sidney; Sun, Nov 18, 3pm, Oak Bay United Church; Sat, Nov 24, 2pm, St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church, Mayne Island. Tickets at Munro’s, Ivy’s Bookshop, Tanner’s and at brownpapertickets.com. Also see www.banquo.ca. Mollie Kaye is a writer, musician, communication specialist and community builder who also tries to embrace the joy—and hilarity—in all things.
  11. Performance venues are desperately needed—what about your place? IN NOVEMBER 2004, I was new in town, and needed a favour. I approached a couple I’d recently befriended at a James Bay Irish music jam and asked if they could provide overnight accommodation—and host a concert—for international Irish music stars John Doyle and Liz Carroll. Their lovely home had a spacious living/dining area, under-utilized in-law suite, and close proximity to acres of free parking. I knew it would be the ideal venue for a house concert, but I had to talk them into it. Fourteen years, dozens of concerts, and many a snack tray later, they’re still hosting shows and developing personal connections with some of the best folk and roots musicians in the world. Because they now have far more requests from musicians than they can accommodate, I’ve changed their names for this piece; I’ll call them Stu and Claudette. It wasn’t just their house that made them ideal hosts: sociable, upbeat, generous community-builders, they were avid music fans who were eager to connect their own young, aspiring roots musicians with world-class players (it was fortuitous, Stu says, that my initial “ask” was to host Liz Carroll, who just happened to be one of their kid’s major idols; Carroll also provided some free lessons). Claudette’s altruism, though, is the main reason she and Stu open their home for house concert parties—up to a dozen a year—while making zero money from the effort. “I think about the costs for musicians to do any kind of live touring. It’s nuts. We all take vacations; we know what that costs. Accommodation, food, travel, ferries, cars…if I can give a little back, that’s why we’re doing it.” She enjoys having musicians stay overnight, and finds the whole experience, on balance, quite fulfilling. “Once the concerts are in process, it’s pretty magical, to have live music like that in our house. People do talk about how it’s imbued these walls with warmth.” She looks back on the years of connections and friendships made, the music they’ve enjoyed, and is glad I “spotted” them as a venue. “We are so fortunate to have a big house that we can do this in, with parking nearby. We had never even thought of it; we didn’t know these things happened.” They happen, but they need to happen more. Acoustic musicians are suffering from a desperate lack of places to play. Victoria bassist, vocalist, and songwriter Oliver Swain, who performs throughout Canada, confirms this. Are there enough venues? “God no. It’s devastating. It’s so bad in Victoria. It’s crisis times. House concerts aren’t necessarily going to fill the void…but it could definitely be part of a solution,” he says, and tells me that house concerts now make up a full 30 percent of his live performing schedule. “I think there are a lot of people who would love to do this, but it’s just getting the word out.” Oliver Swain A 2016 Music Canada report warned, “No one can predict how long BC’s pipeline of young talent will persist when it is so hard for them to earn a living.” Just google “live music venues disappearing” and you’ll see that cities in BC, across Canada, and throughout other countries are all sounding the alarm. In their heyday, live music clubs were the hotspots here; even a small city like Victoria supported dozens of them. Now Hermann’s, the last club of its kind here, teeters on the brink of extinction. In this era of Netflix and youtube, high rents and restrictive licensing, the numbers just aren’t crunching in their favour. Enter house concerts. “They’re some of my favourite environments,” enthuses Swain. “My music naturally lends itself to that intimacy. I bring my own small PA…I set it up, and I’ll have impeccable sound, beautiful sound, in a small place.” The fact that the musicians get 100 percent of the proceeds means the income generated by a 30-seat house concert at $20 a head is sometimes more than playing a larger venue where there are rental, sound, and promotion costs. Victoria-based guitarist and songwriter Stephen Fearing relies on touring for the bulk of his income, now that streaming music sites have eradicated the predictable income CD sales once generated. House concerts, he says, account for maybe a fifth of his shows. “It’s a gig, CD sales, they feed you, and they put you to bed. Win, win, win, all around,” he says. Early-week fill-in house concerts are lucrative for him. “The net is greater than you would have made at a club, which is bizarre. It’s a very old tradition that’s coming back into vogue: performing for the gentry. It’s been there for generations.” Like Swain, Fearing enjoys the intimacy of these shows, but acknowledges drawbacks for performers too, especially those accustomed to the professional distance created by a brightly lit stage. “You can make a really strong connection with the [hosts]…because you’re literally in their house—with all the good and bad that goes along with that,” he says. “The connection with the audience can be intimate, or it can be awkward. There’s no smoke and mirrors. It’s stark as stark can be…sometimes it’s negative, with annoying distractions to overcome. It can be a very positive or a very tiring experience.” To mitigate the awkwardness, Winnipeg-based Home Routes offers house concert touring support services for both musicians and hosts across Canada. Tim Osmond is artistic director and a co-founder. “There’s so much talent in this country, and hardly any places to play,” he explains. “We started this non-profit to represent artists and try to get them more work. We line up 12 living rooms or community spaces over a two-week period; we offer artists a block of work, not just one show.” Hosts are vetted, and sign up for a season of six concerts over eight months. “You invite your friends, your crowd, your neighbours; it’s all people you know in your house,” Osmond explains. Now that I have a larger place again, I could experiment with offering my living room as a venue for musicians—take a little overflow from Stu and Claudette, perhaps. I grew up as the daughter of a cellist, and our house thrummed with live, professional music; I realize I’ve been longing to have that conviviality, community, and culture in my own home again. And although they will always maintain a certain aura of privacy, house concerts are coming out of the closet, as evidenced by this item on a January 2018 Vancouver Sun “things to do this week” list: House Concert—VSO musicians performing a wonderful evening of violin and piano music in a cozy living room at UBC, location to be revealed after ticket purchase. Or in Focus last November, when Karel Roessingh was promoting his latest CD, Birdsong in the Parkade, via house concerts. Writer and musician Mollie Kaye encourages others to consider hosting. To connect with musicians, contact Oliver Swain at oliverswain.com or visit homeroutes.ca.
  12. Aerialist Kaelyn Schmitt plans to ignite the circus arts scene in Victoria. I PLUG THE METER ON HERALD STREET and head into the Union Pacific. Winding my way past the people and pastries I spot a young blonde woman who must be Kaelyn Schmitt, sitting quietly with her latte. The only giveaway of her profession—aerialist, acrobat, and founder of Ignio Circus Company—is her unusually strong-looking shoulders. I wonder if anyone else in the cafe realizes she’s capable of amazing feats—flipping, contorting, and suspending herself by one foot from a trapeze, flying through the air. Like Elastigirl from The Incredibles, Schmitt looks like a regular person, but has hidden superpowers. She spends six months of each year in Europe, performing at hundreds of shows for rapt audiences. But her goal is to base her personal and creative life in her beloved hometown, and help establish Victoria as a centre for circus arts. Kaelyn Schmitt (Photo by Warren Zelman) Growing up, Schmitt didn’t dream of running away and joining the circus, but that’s how it turned out. All four kids in her family were extremely athletic; she started competing as a gymnast at age 10, training exhaustively and travelling far and wide. “Like any kid, I wanted to go to the Olympics,” she recalls. “At 14, I started to realize I wouldn’t be going.” The repetitive requirements to perfect the same moves wore her out. “I loved gymnastics,” she says, “but I just wanted to keep learning acrobatics, new tricks. That’s not the way it works—you do your routine.” When Schmitt “retired” in grade 11, she went from “25 hours a week of training, to ‘what do I do with myself now?’” Like most teens, she partied on the weekends and got into trouble here and there. To stay active, she played rugby, and started working as a gymnastics coach. She found out about circus school in grade 12, and something clicked. She would train, audition, and get accepted into a class of 30 students at the intensive, three-year circus college École Nationale de Cirque (ENC) in Montreal. Since graduating from ENC, Schmitt has performed as a professional trapeze artist for 10 years in 27 countries. Though it’s been exciting and rewarding, she yearns to put down roots and be closer to her family here. At 29, she also knows she’s got about five years left of doing daily shows on a trapeze for months on end “or I won’t be able to walk when I’m 50.” To make her living here, though, she must create a professional context for herself. Not a lot exists in Victoria, as far as contemporary circus goes. “There’s Cirque du Soleil every year or two years, but not a lot of professional shows for people to see,” Schmitt observes. Contemporary circus, in her view, is a mix of dance, acting, and acrobatics, offering opportunities for myriad artistic collaborations and thought-provoking social commentary. “I think it’s extraordinary, and I want to share it and make it more accessible on Vancouver Island.” Schmitt was behind the scenes of the launching of two brand-new circus schools here. Island Circus Space (ICS) at 625 Hillside, which she co-founded with performers Jake West, Lisa Eckert, and Coral Crawford, offers classes for students aged 6 through adult, and aims “to build a contemporary circus infrastructure for Victoria.” Because of her overseas commitments, Schmitt advises and teaches at ICS, but can’t be consistently present for all the practical aspects of running the business. She is grateful to Eckert and Crawford, “talented, hardworking women, who did incredible job of setting up a beautiful space.” Then there’s the Victoria Centre for Circus Arts (“The Rising”) at 1047 Langford Parkway, offering classes for everyone from toddler to adult. It was founded by Sarah Scheunhage, who shares Schmitt’s passion to bring circus arts to her hometown after performing worldwide. “It’s super exciting,” Schmitt enthuses. “Now there’s two places in town for people to learn…and we can grow that community. Both are excellent schools, with excellent teachers. They’re really well-set-up, safe environments, very professional.” Last winter in Berlin, stationed as a performer and artistic supervisor of a long-running show, Schmitt saw a performance at a theatre she’d once performed in. “I wasn’t impressed,” she says, “but before I can talk down someone else’s work, I should try it myself—do a whole show. So I thought, ‘Let’s bring circus to Victoria, let’s build a circus community here in Victoria. I can perform, and also build the [production, direction and management] skills at the same time, to be ready for when I can’t perform anymore.” Schmitt founded her brand-new production company, Ignio Circus, to create cutting-edge, contemporary local circus shows. In early July, Ignio (Latin for “ignite”) is offering their first production, “Eyes Up,” examining smart-phone culture and how we connect with each other. International performers are being brought in to join Schmitt and other local artists and musicians. “Often we use technology as a vehicle for communication, but when we take it away…there is awkwardness and beauty,” she explains. “Each of us has an inner desire to connect…it’s becoming a lost art, face-to-face interactions. ‘Eyes Up’ is exploring what it is to be human, what it is to communicate with technology, and without it.” Working with youth, Schmitt has found that circus arts provide powerful healing for many emotional issues. “Circus is physically denying what you think is possible,” she says. “Everyone has similar potential from birth to do something physically extraordinary. Circus is a neat little reminder to push the limits of what you’re capable of.” Some of the troubled or disabled kids she’s coached “couldn’t catch a beanbag, and had been written off by society.” Soon, though, they learned to juggle, even though “they thought they were never going to accomplish anything physically.” While they had a slower learning curve, it was “profoundly humbling to witness them progress, to see how much confidence and enjoyment they had learning. Circus is a powerful tool.” On Saturday, August 11 at 7:30pm, Ignio Circus is staging “The Open Hearts Gala” at the Metro Theatre to support NEED2, a Victoria nonprofit providing live online chat and in-person suicide prevention support every day through counselling, workshops, and education to youth in grades 8-12. The evening will showcase international circus professionals along with new local talent, offering an “awe-inspiring evening” of acrobatics, magic, comedy, music, and dance. All proceeds benefit NEED2 Suicide Prevention Education and Support. All-ages tickets are $25 and available at www.ticketrocket.com beginning July 3. In 2004, performance artist Mollie Kaye relocated to Victoria. As the then-mother of two young children, she was disappointed there wasn’t a circus school here. She is delighted this is now being remedied.
  13. A BC biologist and artist wants his work to draw attention to what is here…and what is missing. SOMETIMES ABSENCE can give us a clearer vision of the truth than what is present. Scientists extrapolate from what is missing as much as from what is there; artists create impressions of life that supersede reality by choosing to omit certain details. Sculptor Guthrie Gloag is both an artist and a scientist, and in 10 full-scale wildlife pieces he’s offering at his second solo show at Madrona Gallery, he uses descriptive and narrative aspects of absence to create his imagery and telegraph his message. If we encounter an animal in the wild, we don’t need to see every individual hair or claw to fully experience its energy and character; when we see an array of driftwood shapes on a beach, we know that it’s wood without seeing the entire tree it came from. To create his sculptures, Gloag carefully selects beach-sanded fragments of cedar and fir, which are inventoried and assembled in a months-long, improvisational process. Using decking screws and drills to affix the unaltered wood fragments to each other, his works gradually come to life as solutions to his self-created, organic visions, resembling three-dimensional “puzzles.” There is no set plan or armature, only layers upon layers of evocative shapes that begin to describe an animal’s presence. His sculptures are a dance of abundant detail and lack of information, forcing the viewer’s brain to create the impression of surfaces, details, and aliveness. "Coastal Wolf" by Guthrie Gloag “I have learned as I’ve built my process that sometimes the absence of a piece of wood is beneficial; to create negative spaces is just as important,” says Gloag. “The hollow is there, and the shadow creates an animal’s eye for the viewer.” The realistic size of his work is also an integral part of the experience. “I try to stay true to scale; I find that it creates a presence…for the viewer. There may be some exaggerations, like extending legs to enhance a sense of movement, but I try to stick to scale.” The relative size of each animal, as compared to a human viewer, is a visceral experience for Gloag, who depicts only subjects he has observed directly, sometimes during his field work as a biologist. Guthrie Gloag The allegiance to realistic scale means that when he depicts a subject like a grizzly bear (and yes, he’s been near enough to one in the wild to say it made him “feel small”), there are certain logistical issues, like door widths, transportation vessels, and sheer weight—Gloag is up for all of it. “It’s a challenge I love…the process of conceiving something in my mind and then setting forth to make it in three dimensions, I find immense joy in it.” He learned the hard way with his first Grizzly piece, which couldn’t be removed from his Vancouver apartment without being disassembled. Now on Bowen Island, Gloag and his young family live in a home that includes a 600-square-foot studio he uses for sculpting; he’s enjoying that it has double French doors. The largest sculpture Gloag created isn’t in a gallery, or part of someone’s private collection; it’s in the woods, “somewhere in BC,” far off the beaten track, where the artist intends for people to come across it incidentally. The 14-foot-tall mastodon is, for Gloag, a message about extinction and preservation, and a labour of love. He completed it “under cover of winter” a year and a half ago, the seasonal rains ensuring he would be largely undetected as he backpacked 100-pound loads of thousands of driftwood pieces to the site, assembling a massive, one-ton sculpture that has gotten coverage on CBC and become a destination site for the adventurous. I ask whether the sculpture has been disturbed by those who manage to find it. “It has been a test of humanity, and so far, humanity has passed,” Gloag reports. “People have been very protective of it. They love the sentiment of it; it’s a message of conservation. People are interacting with it, and leaving it as it is.” "Black Bear" by Guthrie Gloag As a child growing up in North Vancouver’s Deep Cove, Gloag says the ethic of conservation got woven deep. “I was always in nature, in the wilderness, identifying birds with my mom, going out in the boat with my dad. The intrinsic importance of nature was instilled in me from a young age.” While he didn’t identify himself as an artist, “Art has always been a necessity; to build, to create.” The young Gloag made fantasy figures out of clay and built forts in the woods. As a UVic student earning his degree in biology and environmental studies, he was “looking for a creative outlet. I tried stone sculpture, but was not very good at it. I tried painting as well.” During a vacation with his wife on Galiano Island in 2011, he assembled a life-sized driftwood sculpture of a deer on the beach, and “it kind of clicked. Sometimes people say, ‘I’m not good at art,’ but you just need to find your medium.” Gloag started out sculpting with only a passion to please himself, and a self-assigned mission to comment on both the majesty and fragility of wild creatures. He left his sculptures right where he made them, letting others anonymously encounter them on the beaches or hiking trails. He started to notice, though, that his efforts were getting “collected,” and when Madrona Gallery owner Michael Warren ended up at Gloag’s home for a casual dinner party, conversation immediately turned to finding him a wider audience and developing his career as a professional sculptor. “He wasn’t even at a point where he was considering there would be a market for his work,” Warren says of the fortuitous meeting. “As soon as I saw it, I was blown away, as far as the impact of it and how it’s constructed. For me, it immediately connected all the dots of this place—the material that he’s using is of this land; the subject matter he’s creating are all animals he has experience with in his biology and conservation work; and the aesthetic, his own personal style, connects with the roughness and the feel of this place so well.” Gloag’s work has indeed found a wider audience, and his pieces are now part of collections all over the globe. Response has been so positive that many are waiting their turn to have “right of first refusal” on his sculptures as he completes them. The ten pieces in the Madrona Gallery show will no doubt be snapped up, but it’s worth taking some time to be in the presence of these “animals,” created by an artist who is reverently conjuring the majesty of a particular animal’s presence—while starkly commenting on the increasing absence of wild things in our region. “Instinct,” works by sculptor Guthrie Gloag, June 2-16, opening reception 1pm–4pm Saturday, June 2, Madrona Gallery, 606 View St. More info at madronagallery.com or 250-380-4660. Mollie Kaye is a visual artist who grew up with a biochemist mom and a biophysicist dad. She appreciates the creative and scientific sensibilities that Gloag brings to his work. CBC Arts' 2017 video about Guthrie Gloag:
  14. Local artists’ studios rarely seen by the public offer a glimpse into a disappearing world. IT MAY NOT OCCUR TO THE TOURISTS and locals walking among Chinatown’s storefronts, but there’s a whole community of people living above the grocery stores, furniture shops, and restaurants. Many have called this quirky neighbourhood home for decades; a disproportionate number of them are artists. What originally drew them was cheap rent and a charming, decayed-around-the-edges aesthetic; what’s held them is the sense of solidarity and survival as rapid gentrification prices them out. On a rainy April afternoon, I visit the 700-square-foot, brick-walled studio space shared by husband-and-wife artists Denise Nicholls and GJ Pearson. Their tiny home floats above the Herald Street shops like a lucid dream someone had about a Tim Burton movie starring Alexander Calder. “It’s the opposite of minimalist,” quips Nicholls, a graphic designer who creates jewellery and paintings under the name Firehorse Designs. A floor-to-ceiling collection of their friends’ art on the walls is lit by two enormous windows. Pearson’s intricate wire, fabric, and found-object sculptures—some with motors—which he refers to as “toys,” perch atop most surfaces, float suspended from the ceiling, or are mounted to the walls and shelving that hold books, tools, and boxes of materials. “This space is what I’ve always wanted to live in,” says Pearson, as we drink home-brewed kombucha and cozy up with the studio’s two cats on an intimate grouping of upholstered furniture. The historic building, originally used as meat lockers, feels secure to him as a rental; it was re-done in the late ’90s. “We’re not in any danger of being renovicted, because it’s new-ish,” he says. Before choosing the space “on a whim,” the couple lived on the family farm in Central Saanich; Pearson had a separate studio—a barn—that was twice the size of their current home. He doesn’t miss anything about it. “I’m much happier in this space. I love being next door to Opus [art supplies], we’re across the street from great coffee shops, we have a community of artists, and I don’t have to have a car anymore.” I ask Nicholls what visitors’ general reaction is when they see the place. “They don’t know where to look first,” she says. “It’s a series of vignettes; there’s probably 100 places you could look and see something.” As Pearson works on what resembles a small Viking ship at his desk, I try to take it all in, and fantasize about the artist’s life I might have had. “We live like children,” Pearson admits. Nicholls concurs. “I’d always wanted to live in Chinatown since I was a little kid. I love living surrounded by the things that we make, and the things we’ve collected from other artists.” The couple considers themselves fortunate to have gotten into the rental market when they did, but Nicholls says, “We’re trapped here. I mean it’s great, because I love the space,” but she does find the size limitations restrictive at times. She says they could never afford a larger unit at today’s rates. “More and more gentrification is starting to happen in the neighbourhood; it’s kind of like a switch went off, as soon as the Union Building went up, and now all the buildings are falling to developers.” The units that are currently being developed are truly tiny, Pearson says. “If this place had been renovated now instead of 20 years ago, it would be half the size,” he says. “Basically, you’d have one window, and that would be it. The new standard is 250-400 square feet, just enough room for your laptop and a fold-down bed.” “Or,” says Nicholls quietly, “to run an airbnb.” A few minutes later, she slips away to do just that—to supplement their income and remain, for now, in the hidden, eroding artists’ colony of Chinatown. To see more of Pearson’s drawings and kinetic sculptures, see gjpearson.com; Nicholls’ work can be purchased at firehorsedesigns.bigcartel.com. Mollie Kaye is Focus’ arts editor.
  15. Four musicians are Canada’s—and Mexico’s—first graduate-level string quartet. IN THE BOWELS OF THE BUILDING that houses UVic’s music department, I traverse corridors where scores of students rehearse in tiny, individual practice rooms. A muted cacophony of discordant trumpet, piano, and flute is punctuated by a soprano trilling through a Handel aria. They’re all making music—in different keys—within a few feet of each other, but they’re not playing together. Each privately hones their own skills, achieving individual excellence on their chosen instrument, hoping to earn a degree in performance. I’m here to meet two violinists, a cellist, and a violist—all from Mexico—currently enrolled in the University’s graduate music program. They’re practicing together, in one room, as a group. Instead of working toward individual degrees as soloists, they are earning their masters in performance as a string quartet. When Cuarteto Chroma (Chroma Quartet) began their studies here last fall with UVic’s resident string quartet, The Lafayette, it was the first time in Canadian history that a group of players entered a graduate music program to earn a collaborative performance degree. Cuarteto Chroma (l-r): , Ilya Gotchev, Manuel Cruz, Felix Alanis, Carlos Quijano I find the four men of Chroma playing together in a quartet-sized room, instruments in hand, going over new repertoire. Each of them has uprooted his personal and professional life in Mexico to come to UVic and earn this degree as an ensemble. They’ve now successfully completed their first year, will head back to Mexico for the summer, and return for their final year of study in the fall. Already, they have had a vital and positive impact on the school community and the local music scene, playing at Hermann’s with the Ryan Oliver jazz quartet performing chamber music concerts in unexpected places. Their graduate journey is requiring equal parts sacrifice, hard work, shared vision, and conflict resolution skills. “I got married in 2015, and the quartet started in 2015,” says Chroma cellist Manuel Cruz. “So, I got married twice.” The group chuckles. “Being in a string quartet is like being married— except instead of having sex, we have music,” quips violist Felix Alanis, and an uproar of hearty laughter fills the room. Someone mutters that music can be better than sex, and there’s more laughter. Clearly these guys have excellent rapport, but it’s not all fun and harmony in every moment, Alanis admits. “You travel together, you eat together, you rehearse together—you fight together. It’s hard, because even though you want to play music with these other people, it doesn’t mean that we really think the same. All the kinds of fights you can have about little things—or big things—always happen.” Just like any marriage, I say. “But with three people,” quips violinist Carlos Quijano. More laughter. Music history is littered with the corpses of bands, projects, and quartets that fizzle out, amicably part ways, or violently implode. “What happens to our quartet happens to every quartet,” Alanis says. “We are friends, but it’s always tricky to keep that friendship after the rehearsal.” Surfing the tides of conflict, the group agrees, is perhaps more important even than musicianship, and they couldn’t have asked for better advisors and mentors than the Lafayette string quartet, who have weathered it all—and are still playing together after 31 years. Alanis says Chroma members are awed by, and grateful for, the four women advisors’ wisdom, perspective and counsel. “It really helps us when we can ask them, ‘What do you do? How do you manage that?’” Ann Elliott-Goldschmid, Lafayette violinist, thinks Chroma has all of what it takes to become a world-class string quartet; that’s why the group was accepted into the program. As solo string players, she says, “They are really, really good.” As a quartet, they have “a real ‘sympatico’ quality about them…they’re really remarkable—wonderful, generous people, extremely empathetic. They listen really carefully, are respectful to each other and everyone around them, and they have embodied a beautiful way of communicating with each other.” What a quartet needs in order to truly gel and achieve the highest level of excellence, she says, is time together, “to hone their skills, to learn each other’s strengths and idiosyncrasies, to read all of that nonverbal communication that goes on in a string quartet.” “They have really given up a lot to come here,” she continues. “Two of them are fathers; the amount of dedication that they have to each other, to go through what they’ve gone through to make this a priority in their lives...I’ve learned enormous amounts from working with them, in terms of the discipline they have. I’m humbled by them.” These particular men are “the archetype of who we want for the program. They’re each individually strong; they are wonderful role models for the other graduate students and undergraduates; they work hard…I can’t say enough about how great that has been for everybody at the school.” Chroma plays a couple of short pieces for me: an intense, dark movement from a Schubert quartet, and a lush, heart-rending arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The small, carpeted room gives nothing back acoustically, yet their renditions sparkle and snap with complex, technical beauty—and a whole lot of soul. I say I’ve never heard a string quartet play a show tune. Alanis says they are always eager to experiment and explore. “We try to be as open as possible,” he says. Violinist Quijano adds, “In Mexico, people like classical music, but they haven’t had a lot of contact with quartets,” and by offering many different genres, including Latin American and familiar melodies, more listeners can connect with their music. The sense of inclusion goes both ways, and all the musicians of Chroma report that Victorians have been welcoming and enthusiastic. Violinist Ilya Gotchev, who was born in Bulgaria, then studied and worked in Mexico—and also Brussels—finds British Columbia delightful, but the high cost of living is a challenge. “Fortunately,” he says, “we have a scholarship through the University. It helps.” Elliott-Goldschmid says the greater community reaps many benefits from having Chroma in town, but unfortunately, their scholarship is not as generous as she would like. “We need donors…and more funding for our music students; UVic is not a wealthy school.” She says Chroma’s long-term professional sustainability hinges on their versatility as performers. “They are fabulous, because they can do it all—they can play late Beethoven, Brahms, tango—and pull it off. They really are the ‘real thing.’ We’re trying to attract those kinds of students, who have the talent and open-mindedness to do it all.” She says she regrets that as a young player she didn’t have that same kind of broad spectrum of repertoire. “I feel like [The Lafayette string quartet has] learned so much from them.” As Chroma shape-shifts into an orquestra tipica and plays an Astor Piazzolla tango for me, I can hear all of their individual passion, technical prowess, and expert give-and-take. I can just see the dancers punctuating the musical phrases with precise feet and romantic flourish. After the penultimate bar, the shared effort, rhythmic pulse, and pleading voices of the strings is released. Four smiles of satisfaction now greet each other over four bows poised in unison as the last chord fades. Cuarteto Chroma will perform in a free public recital on September 28 at 8pm in the Philip T. Young Hall at University of Victoria. They’re also looking for some music-loving Victoria homeowners who would like to host chamber music performances. To contact them, and for a list of their upcoming performances, see cuartetochroma.com. Mollie Kaye spent some time in solo practice rooms as an undergraduate soprano, but is happiest, like the members of Chroma, performing in a group. She sings with The Millies, a vocal trio.
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