No performing artist – any artist, for that matter – can deny that thee past three years have been excruciating… and in many respects, life-changing. Meanwhile, in the realm opposite to the realm of the artist, epidemiologists, virologists and geneticists are frightfully busy. But they are not the only professional engaged in plumbing the depths of human existence. Psychologists will surely be occupied analysing the emotional toll on humanity post pandemic for many decades to come. Oh! How these last three years have changed us as a species…and not necessarily completely for the better…
Certainly as an interplanetary community that has been brutalised by social distancing we seem to have grown further apart from each other. The differences that once attracted us to one another have inhabited the frayed edges of each of our lives. And living on those proverbial edges day in and day out we can no longer agree on anything. The value of medicine and vaccinations, for instance is just one of those issues that have torn us apart. And then there’s what’s good for our children… should they be schooled in-class online?
Perhaps the fact that all these issues – instead of uniting us in discourse – has made us a race of antagonists, incapable of having an intelligent discussion, with a view to bringing us closer as a community. Everything we have to deal with in our post-pandemic lives seems to have become an assault on the senses. As we look inward to re-evaluate our lives we ought to ask: “What kind of humanity have we become? Why were we so divided? As Canadians we once gloried in our differences, yet now, our differences appear to weigh even heavier on our senses.
We no longer celebrate – as we often did here in Canada – our differences. We have always glorified our pluralism in ways that few other countries – even culturally homogenous ones – have glorified theirs. We were once proud of our so-called “multicultural” society. But we the pandemic turned that “otherness” that was once beloved to Canada into a kind of tribalism. Our languages – we spoke so many in Canada – have become weaponised. Verbs have become lethal weapons as we air our views and divide society… and social media has become the battlefield on which we fight our culture wars.
But surely this is abhorrent to all civilised societies. Our diversity itself has made use uniquely homogenous and we celebrate that on every public holiday – despite the surreptitious efforts of the political elite to divide us. No one is more outraged than artists – the performing artists who alone fostered and forged loving communities at every performance. For those of us who have short memories perhaps the strongest reality check may have certainly been in evidence at the final performance of Gord Downie and his beloved ensemble the Tragically Hip.
And then there is Jazz… an artistic style of African American music now adopted by the whole world where the ideals of togetherness and sharing and yielding the stage – every now and then – to the “other”, to experience our “otherness” in the most elemental and pristine for of sharing. This is what, we have found to be the epitomé, the pinnacle of shared humanity. And this only happens because the avowed intention of each musician is to find common ground for human expression. And this is not only true of “jazz” but all music through the ages… and not just between each performing musician – even ones performing solo – but between musicians and their audiences. The very act of playing music, whether on stage or delivering it to an audience via other media is an act of creation designed to make for a tremendous ripple; indeed, a veritable flood that washes away each and every “otherness” en route to creating a deeply emotional kind of “togetherness” in its wake.
This act lies at the very heart of a monumental recording by trombonist William Carn and his wife, the saxophonist Tara Davidson; a recording entitled The History of Us, brimming with music that plumbs the depths of the preternatural and the emotional. It is a recording like few others that we may have listened to with more than our ears – but with our very hearts. On the face of it the recording encompasses two suites – glued together by an elegy to the Carn-Davidson cat, Murphy – both of which are intended to be sonic-biographical in nature.
The first, written by William Carn, leaps off his family’s migration from Hong Kong, via Costa Rica, where he was born, before emigrating to Canada. The second suite is Tara Davidson’s epic love-letter to her family – her mother and father, and to her Gaelic origins. The idea for Mr Carn’s music has everything to do with his sense of wonder at being an immigrant [to] Canada. Miss Davidson’s music, conceived in 2015 examines her own Gaelic heritage in the deeply personal context of love and loss experienced within her family.
It is also no accident that this music has deeper meaning. No accident because it is very likely that the composers may not have intended for listeners to read anything more profound into the music than two family stories that tell nothing more than the [prescient] lives that bloom after immigration. But Carn-Davidson 9 is a nonet comprising of instrumental “voices”: four brass musicians, three woodwinds, a contrabassist and a drummer; no vocalist to tell these stories in lyrical recitatives or songs that would be sung.
But the ensemble also sculpts its own – very singular – eschewing a chordal instrument [such as the piano or the guitar] making for a very unique harmonic language. Moreover, the fact that the music is thematically so very personal and biographical – albeit without a written [and sung] narrative to go with it – lends itself to interpretation with a myriad of layers of meaning.
The musicians are open to the idea that this music may affect listeners in different ways – although the intended meaning will be uniform. However, no matter what the intended effect is on listeners the depth of meaning will almost always be the same. This music plumbs the depths of emotion that almost anyone – anywhere in the northern part of our continent, at any rate – will certainly relate to. This sense of “otherness” is something we all understand in the USA or Canada.
Especially in Canada, that is experiencing a reckoning because the Indigenous Peoples are finally asserting themselves. So while our lives are not at all threatened [only because Indigenous People are, unlike us, by nature, welcoming and accepting]. But because other forces – such as the violent heart of our politics – we must take away much more than simply immigrant stories.
Artists such as William Carn and Tara Davidson – musicians [and poets, dancers, dramatists and painters] – have, since Plato’s Republic, been torch-bearers who hold up a flame with a view to illuminating society – good, bad, and ugly. But as willing participants in their art, every member of their audience must of necessity, give up the right to being a passive observer. On the contrary, being a part of the community that shares in the work of art, we must be provoked into taking a stand one way or another.
We recognise, for instance, a deep emotion – say ‘love’ and ‘acceptance’ – and must be in a position to embrace it or fight against it [if we are so non-empathetically inclined. Moreover, if we are not so [empathetically] inclined and can no longer engage in discourse arising out of art, then the law of force and public violence ensues.
Sadly, because politicians of every stripe seem to be losing control of stemming the onrush of “force” our best allies may seem – happily – to be impassioned artists of the uncommon calibre of William Carn and Tara Davidson. In coming to terms with their own sense of time and place – with The History of Us – Mr Carn and Miss Davidson use their individual intuitive musical geniuses to shape something that has become a kind of vivid cautionary tale [at least for us immigrant Canadians] based on their own very personal experiences of what re-location has meant for each of them.
William Carn’s three-movement composition – entitled the “Finding Home Suite” opens the album, tracing his family’s voyage from Hong Kong during a tumultuous time to arrive on Canada’s shores via Costa Rica – the sub-text of the Costa Rican adventure has its own dramatic diversion as his father’s family has a Chinese-Costa Rican bloodline. Moreover the trombonist was born in San Jose. Tara Davidson’s “Suite 1985” closes the set. The saxophonist and reeds player paints her Gaelic heritage vividly – with characteristic candor, unfolding eloquently – also in three movements – in elliptical and undulating waves as the family – and the music – begins to beat upon Canada’s shore.
Both the works stretch the transitions between solo and ensemble writing, the use of harmonic community between the performers link the melodic [narrative] elements of the action and its employment resulting from the innovatory and idiomatically, improvisatory interpretation by the musicians. In both suites conflict is followed by resolution also naturally resulting from the softest touch of the female characters in the narratives – the composers’ mothers.
Low horns [Srirantha Beddage’s bass clarinet and baritone saxophone, and Christian Overton’s bass trombone] create theatrical growling as life’s disruptions occur. Miss Davidson’s flutes and the softer flugelhorns – together with her also saxophone and wailing trumpets provide the gentle “vocal” lines that mirror recitatives, while Mr Carn’s trombone together with Andrew Downing’s majestic bass playing aid and abet the music’s uncommon gravitas.
The music of Mr Carn’s suite – from its opening movement “A New Life” and its middle movement “A Mother’s Song” to the suite’s dénouement – its third “Home” movement awakens our own sense of migration, of displacement, alienation in a new country that takes it time to accept differences. This is resolved in the familial love of mother [and father], expressed from the second into third movement of the suits. Colour and tone textures are exquisitely used as Mr Carn directs musicians to paint word pictures and evoke imagery in a kind of Richard Strauss-like manner as the music with its thrustful vigour, jagged rhythms and changing moods that [invariably] end with a burst of passion.
Miss Davidson’s work is muted but no less emotional. The hushed close of the con moto first movement “The Epitaph” [to her mother] leads into a deeply reflective adagio with sustained melodic lines leading to kind of Bartókian scherzo which describes the second tumultuous movement “Swept out to Sea”, which, in turn, leads to the final theme and variations featuring Miss Davidson’s commanding resolution of the suite in a burst of lyrical melodic and harmonic fervour as she signs off “Wisely if Sincerely” [the final movement of the suite.
“Goodbye Old Friend” is a soaring, elegiac work written by Mr Carn in memory of the couple’s cat Murphy. Not only does this piece act as the bridge between the suites, but it also unites the music [of both suites] in the depth of its oceanic emotion that it precipitates upon the listeners’ sensibilities. This is a stimulating disc – which even in its more studied and circumspect and softer-grained tones and gentler moments provides us with powerfully emotional music. But it is this very “emotional” aspect of the music that also softens the sense of mortality that we earned courtesy of the pandemic when – thanks to social-distancing we lost all sense of community.
The pandemic spared no one. Artists like Tara Davidson and William Carn also lost everything; gigs dried up because venues closed indefinitely, art shows and music and cultural festivals were cancelled. The news was grim hour after hour, day by day. Social media was worse – with all manner of conspiracy theoreticians who seemed to seize the day. One bright ray of light appeared to be the use of social media – such as Facebook to broadcast live concerts from the living room. Attendance was questionable as was the capacity to earn a decent stipend from these events.
But now that we are back together again we can marvel at the sense of social-consciousness of the artists in our society; artistic with the uncommon genius of Miss Davidson and Mr Carn and their [musicians of the] Carn-Davidson 9 who are back by virtue of this disc [among many other things] to remind us that our humanity must be inclusive because at the end of the day are all “others”, striving to come together in a forward-thinking community deeply respectful of “each other”.