Here’s another selection from the extraordinary collection of Canadian news photography recently acquired by the Ryerson Image Centre – the best new free gallery in Toronto in many years, already the vital centre of photo art for the city, as well as an amazing source of history (also a great venue for the talented students in their excellent photography program). GO!
Today – Canadian musicians with truly unique and wonderful voices – some vocal, some entirely instrumental (but no less distinct and important).
Neil Young (top photo)
Neil Young has been a presence in music internationally for roughly a half a century now, and several of his songs are undeniable masterpieces of modern folk and rock. Rarer by far though is his character, which seems to have resisted every commercial pressure, and remained true to his own curiosity and spirit of serious play throughout (serious in intention, but also insistent in self respect for his own artistic growth, exploration and heart-centred motivation, market be damned).
Some of his work has gone to places where it’s hard to follow him, but I’ve never felt he was doing anything but whatever he most wanted to try and say next – and this is a very useful model in an age of desperately seeking the approval of others, and twisting ourselves into insincere and unhappy pretzels, trying to win it.
When I look back on my own songs for signs of quality, I ask myself first – could I still sing this, and mean it just as much as I did then? Very few musicians pass this test better than Young. His best endures perfectly, without loss.
If Neil Young is a determined individualist, Glenn Gould may well represent the unique in character and temperament taken to it’s most extreme limit – but the fresh magic he found in classical music long thought completely understood (and to some, exhausted) absolutely was a product of his obsessive and uncompromisingly rigorous self-demanding approach.
He paid a great price to get there and share the view with us – and not only was he able to take masterworks from Bach, and brand them anew with levels of intelligence and insight that excited audiences around the world, like a true artist, he did not regard this as conquered territory, but came back to his very best work (the Goldberg variations) again later in life, and did a second complete study of the masterwork which is every bit as brilliant and revelatory – and yet completely distinct once again from the youthful interpretation which made him famous.
When I’m sitting as a model for an art class, and see a teacher confronting the universal student habits of lazy observation and symbol-substitution, trying to make them understand that the clever shortcuts that always worked and won them praise before, now limit their capacity terribly, I sometimes add my own weight to the point on my break, by relating an anecdote about a friend of mine, who is among the most skilled bass players working in Toronto.
As a young man, Uli decided that he wanted to learn from the greatest living master of the instrument at the time, Jaco Pastorius – who first invented and perfected fretless-bass technique (you may not recognize the name – but you probably do know his wonderful sound from his work with Joni Mitchell and Weather Report).
Without question, Uli learned a great deal in his quest – and forged himself into a sought-after player in the local scene. But years later, he heard some music which was on a whole different level. A bass player who could do things that he’d never heard before from anyone.
Did Uli say – I know enough to make a good living, people like what I do, that’s just fine for me? No – as a true artist, he delved into the work of Gary Willis, and then completely deconstructed his own highly successful technique and rebuilt it from the ground up, so that he could reach that one step higher, and extend his skills to demanding and exciting new areas.
Functional modesty? Serious self discipline? Will to keep rising without fear of any limit or new challenge? Perhaps some of all of those – but I think that we must also remember the joy underlying. None of these commitments and sacrifices would be worthwhile just for back-pats and thumbs. What we’re into here is the good stuff we can only find by overcoming petty self – connection to the universe – contact with the divine.
Buffy St Marie
You want to see a hero? I have one for you right here – and while her musical achievements are not parsed by scholars quite the same way as Gould’s, she has made an even greater impact on the world at large. For the rights of the indigenous peoples of North America, their awareness and awakening, most especially.
Buffy belongs in the great tradition of folk music with both political and deep spiritual purpose – and as a teller of stories and representer of passions she is very hard to beat. Always filled with passion and conviction – but without ever losing her essential warmth and humour.
I think I probably saw her first on Sesame Street – but she has been involved with the anti-war movement, the native rights movement across North America, and many working class events, demonstrations and fights over the years. Same sorts of times and places where (my also beloved) Pete Seeger might show up to raise the spirits, Buffy has done great dedicated service.
Also not to be minimized – she was the first sincere articulate contemporary voice speaking from a native perspective that millions of non-native North Americans heard. That she was able to find such principle and positivity with which to speak? Again – absolutely heroic demonstration of character!
Catherine and I have been lucky enough to see her perform live three times (so far). Not only is she captivating, energizing, inspiring and fun to listen to, she also felt like everyone’s friend, right away. Remarkable warmth and ease.
One of those rare famous people who we always thought would be great to have over for a home cooked dinner, plenty of laughs, stories and great new ideas. No raised eyebrows for the chipped dishes, either. ;o)
When they say “REPRESENT”. Buffy is what they’re talking about.
For most arts and artists, there is a funny balancing act between motif and technique, which ultimately reveals their statement. Some people have such amazing things to tell us, it doesn’t matter if they’re only half-literate – just as some are such great prose stylists, they can write about thinking about opening a door for twenty pages and we stay with them (advisable or not).
For me, guys like Monk and Mingus are at the very top rank when it comes to motif and expression – they contributed whole new approaches to melody, progression and groove which have become indispensable since – no mean feat. But Oscar Peterson was the reigning technique-monster of the piano for decades – mostly because he demanded that of himself, relentlessly.
A great intellect (like many jazz stars) Peterson also had fantastic loyalty. He returned every year to play a week at “The Paddock” (Queen and Bathurst) where he got his first regular gig, even after the place had gone from a little bit sketchy, to a downright scary hardcore dive.
He also re-taught himself to play, after arthritis threatened to steal his greatest skill and joy. As a tech, I worked at the next bench over from the guy who used to repair his keyboards – and neither one of us had ever seen any instrument deformed in the same way before. His force of playing (to play through the enourmous pain) was so great, he actually distorted the metal frame of the keyboard (and I am not talking about a cheapie here, either). We wondered at first – but no it wasn’t dropped, his assistant soon brought in another even sturdier one, twisted up identically by hammer-blow finger force, and another.
Would not be stopped by anything – no matter what. Required it of himself.
I just can’t resist adding this last curious link (for the truth is stranger-than file). The excellent keyboard tech in question had travelled here all the way from beautiful St Petersburg in Russia, where he left behind an ex, who for years had driven him half-crazy by playing piano constantly, day and night – because she was doing her thesis on the music of – drumroll please – Oscar Peterson!
Can’t escape your fate, clearly.
On the other hand – you can run straight at it – and make the absolute most of it!
One pass only, folks – no refunds!