Toronto lost a genuine hero-artist a few days ago, and with all the chaos nowadays in the news, many barely noticed his passing.
There are so many different things one can say about Michael Snow (born Dec 10 1928 right here in Toronto – died Jan 05 2023, still in this city he loved) that I’ve been trying to write about him for years, without ever even being able to decide on an ideal angle of approach. Since duty now compels my timing, I find what I would most like to say is first a bit about the man, and then also a bit about what his life as an artist says to all of us.
It is kind of funny to say this, but even in the art world things have become so divided and hyper-specialized, that when someone makes an impact in many different fields of art, it is now easy to forget their full range of expression, and even easier, to forget the way they first found their way into creative discovery.
Snow began his life as a working artist as a jazz pianist – and for a fellow who was twenty in 1948 – it is hard not to feel a glow of excitement about that timing. Bebop grew almost in secret during the war and more or less exploded right afterward, so new technique, artistry, excitement (and also a popular market) was growing everywhere.
Toronto of that time had a superb jazz scene, anchored by local talents like Oscar Peterson, with packed clubs which were regular stops for the best performers in the world. Louis Armstrong played the Colonial Tavern at least twice a year for decades, and that place of sublime musical pilgrimage was only the crown jewel of dozens of busy and well booked clubs and concert venues. Players were WORKING.*
I still think of Snow most as a musician myself – though by the time I first met the man (mid 1980s), he was playing synthesizer in the spectacular long running free improvisation ensemble CCMC – Canadian Creative Music Collective – who were the driving force behind the creation of Toronto’s extraordinary “Music Gallery” – a home for outsider and non commercial music (especially avant garde) since 1976, and an artist directed institution which has enriched our city greatly. Snow remained the one constant member in the CCMC’s lineup over its many years, and what surprised me most about his playing (always truly improvising, never working off patterns and previous ground) was how playful and open he was, every single time (it really is much harder to be consistently cheerfully curious in your fifties, than it is in your twenties – because you know so much more about how many hopeful guesses absolutely won’t work out!)
But I’ll come back to the Music Gallery – first I should note some of his other work. He was working obsessively on illustration in the 1960s, when a good friend first insisted he should consider trying his hand at film. The result of this jump in media was his 1967 film “Wavelength” which singlehandedly created a whole new genre in experimental moviemaking. He followed that up with “La Region Centrale” in 1971, to prove it was no fluke, and then got interested in other media again, until he made “Corpus Collosum” in 2002 – which arrived in a far less heated cultural moment, but was still regarded as groundbreaking all over again.
So like – who does that? Has a breakout artistic critical hit which makes an international splash, and then doesn’t get seduced into spending the rest of their life chasing after that first exquisite high? Michael Snow, that’s who.
Words have funny properties, and I think our modern habit of using the word artist for popular musicians and actors who owe their success more to image and marketing than inspiration and mastery, has weakened what used to be a more clearly spiritual word.
Any person who thinks of their creative arc as a job in a business is a different thing. Talent isn’t even the dividing line here – the important distinction we’ve lost has to do with intention.
Some people want people to love them and give them money, some people want to say something they feel inside themselves, but some lovely people want to discover something they haven’t seen heard or felt before, and then come back and share that discovery with the rest of us.
The fact is, Snow got into sculpture and visual art for a long period. He followed where his ideas and interests went – and the fact that he didn’t make another film for thirty years – not until he had another great reason to – perfectly explains how he managed to be just as radical and interesting at the age of 74 as he was when he first made an artistic splash at 39. Just three movies, all masterpieces – COOL.
I grew up around a lot of artists who were involved in that creative tumult of the sixties and seventies, and I was later mentored by a lovely Saxophonist who, like Snow, grew through Bebop into free improvisational music. A huge part of my heart lives in that spartan and courageous terrain. But as a writer with a sense of humour, I have never been able to ignore the fact that this challenging art has long struggled to find a large audience, or even a steady source of sustenance.
So one might think a guy like Snow who made a mark in Avant Garde film, and played Avant Garde ensemble music relentlessly and joyously for many years, would be semi hidden from the public eye – elite – the proverbial artist’s artist.
Nope – you could only think that if you haven’t seen his sculpture!
Long before I met the man himself, I fell in love with one of his best sculptures – depicted in my header photograph – Flight Stop – which has been installed in the Toronto Eaton Centre (our most important downtown shopping mall) since 1979 (when my wonderstruck eyes were only fourteen).
To stand by the railing in a building so modern (by Eberhard Zeidler, of Ontario Place fame) and yet so crassly commercial in purpose, and see a whole flock of sixty Canadian Geese approaching the exact spot where you’re standing for a landing, really hits you – you can’t not hear “We were here first.”
In 1981, the Eaton Centre tied red velvet Christmas bows around the necks of the geese – Snow sued them to protect the artistic integrity of his work – and won that very important artist-rights case. Of course the desecration of powerful meanings for marketing purposes remains woefully common, but that doesn’t ever make it right (and it’s always nice to know the little guy with a point can still beat the corporations sometimes).
But of course, Flight Stop was a later work – his earliest famous sculpture was his Walking Woman series, which were famously exhibited at Expo ’67 in Montreal, and have been part of the Canadian pavilion of world’s fairs ever since. Though these are much reduced in detail, again we see his fascination with repeating form and variation – almost a personal typography. These particular walking women currently live in the entrance of the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario).
Even though they are more simplified still, I rather like this piece outside the Provincial Courthouse on University Avenue. Not only has he given us the edifice itself, held up by the upstanding nature of the twelve jurors, he has, even in simplicity, avoided any symmetry (even differently asymmetrical on each side) giving us no less clear an indication of our difference and variation in view being key to our strength.
But for Catherine – and for many sports fans in the city – Snow’s most beloved works are the cluster of sculptures collectively known as “The Audience” which adorn our downtown Skydome (later renamed “The Rogers Centre” even though taxpayers footed most of the bill, and already gave it a perfectly good name).
These gigantic exaggerated and humorous sports fans are a great example of kid facing art (something I mentioned in connection with another sculptor who made great contributions to our local landscape, William MacElcheran). It is one thing to be dragged to a museum, and be told a whole bunch of dates and facts – but art that makes you giggle at the scale and tone, does entirely different things to our imagination! Absurdly FUN.
Finally, I want to return to the CCMC at the Music Gallery again – back in the eighties when they had a lovely performance and recording space on Richmond (then semi-derelict light industrial – now pricey condo central). As I mentioned, I was playing a lot with my own improvising mentor Maury Coles in those days, and we both came to hear the CCMC many times. To this day I have never attended any musical performances in the city which had such a consistently high proportion of culturally interested European Tourists (as in so many fields, many Toronto musicians are far better appreciated elsewhere, than they are by the home crowd).
I remember one particular night when a dear friend of mine – a gifted multi instrumentalist with a unique musical voice – announced excitedly that he was going to bring his vibraphone along to one of their shows, and see if they’d let him sit-in with the group.
But I was also friends with another (much later joining) member of the ensemble, and when I mentioned this idea to him, he responded with great hostility, insisting that this work they did was rarefied stuff, and they didn’t need anyone without what he called “Extended Technique”.
I felt heart-sick about it, honestly. My vibraphonist friend was so excited about playing with these creative heavyweights, but my other grumpy friend made it sound as if his ambition would be taken as an insult, by the entire ensemble.
Come the night itself, Michael Snow not only greeted my vibraphonist friend like an old pal and immediately had him set up on stage, front and centre, my grumpier (late joiner) friend pouted! Revealing instantly that his so-called ‘artistic concerns’ were actually a whole lot more like sibling jealousy!
The performance was outright delicious, and my friend absolutely SANG (he’s a bit Glenn Gould, that way) ;o) I swear, while I was watching this middle aged man with decades of professional gigging behind him play I saw the years absolutely melt off of him in an almost psychedelic way, until he was standing there as a lanky twelve year old kid, who had found wondrous entry to a whole different plane of existence at the end of two (and sometimes four) cloth wrapped mallets.
I had to work early the next morning, so I couldn’t go for drinks to celebrate the great show with my vibraphonist pal and a few of the original band members, but I was overjoyed that he’d had such a warm reception, and that the performance had been such a success, fully justifying their easy open faith in his unexpected contribution.
And then Michael Snow asked me if I had a ride home, and I said I did not, so he said he’d drive me to the Subway at least – a very nice gesture considering the heavy rain outside. My sax mentor Maury was another guy in his mid fifties whose eyes had the kind of sparkle we are more used to seeing in babies. So I was delighted to find this same active life-sparkle in Snow. Just as excited and interested in the world up close, as his music made me sure he’d be – but I was even more surprised by his mind.
He didn’t want to talk about himself or any of his work, he was completely unlike that sort of an artist who works mostly to chase praise. We did talk a bit about recording and synthesizers, since we both shared an active interest there, and I was actually studying the latest technology, on my way to becoming a professional audio technician.
But what he really wanted to know most was what kind of creative stuff I was working on – and at the time (my early twenties) that included drawing, comics, improvised music, poetry essays and fiction, tons of meditation, architectural models, philosophizing and computer programming.
All powered largely by macaroni and cheese for many years, natch.
He responded with intelligence and encouragement on every point, like he was genuinely rooting for me to learn and grow in every direction I could – which, for a confused young person especially, is an attitude so powerful helpful and rare, that I get a little teary to this day, just thinking about the generosity and the quality of his attention.
He lived ninety four years like that. Not to be adored, not to put anyone else down or to compete. To discover, play with and in the world, and then ‘show his work’ (as they used to say in school) to prove to us all that even in all this chaos, we can still create meaning for ourselves, still dance, and no matter what they say – we can always play.
- Toronto still has some of the finest jazz musicians in the world (David Woodhead, Neil Swainson and Kieran Overs can go up against anyone, and Daniel Barnes and Brian Barlow never fail to bring me heart-lift and joy) – but we no longer do their talents justice with anything like the amount of work (and pay) they deserve.