After a two-year hiatus, I recently rejoined the Hart House Singers, a non-audition but nevertheless quite sound-worthy SATB choir in Toroto. The planned programme for our November concert is "This Land; Folk Songs and Soundscapes of Canada".
Canadian folk songs being among my favourite vocal music (after Renaissance and Baroque, that is), I was eager to begin working on the repertoire.
Our conductor, however, decided to evolve the program.
From traditional Ojibwe pieces like "Chekah bay tebick ondandeyan" and "Wichita du ya" (Water song), to Derek Healey's Salish Song and Donald Patriquin's arrangement of Innoria, our Monday evenings are filled with sounds quite different from Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, or Orlando Gibbons' The Silver Swan that I am so familiar with and love, or even the more recent "Canadian" folk songs I came to sing.
We are singing some "easier"/ more familiar pieces (She's like the Swallow and the Quebecoise Danse, mon moin', danse, among others), but the vast majority of our time has been focused on trying to wrap our heads (and our voices!) around the less familiar tones, harmonies and rhythms of the likes of Salish Song, from Southern BC, and Keewaydin by Harry Freedman. And it's hard!
I suddenly realise how tuned my ear is to the stuff I'm used to, the music I was raised with, from earliest childhood, in my mother's home. Part of me is eager to learn a new sound, even if it takes considerable effort, but another part of me just frustrated and overwhelmed and wants to rebel.
The irony is not lost on me.
Our conductor told us he's learning a lot, and has come to realise how ignorant he is. The other night he confessed that he increasingly feels like the whole program should be comprised of first nations music (I saw some of the older, more "traditional" folks in the choir cringing when he said that!)
Me, I'm not sure how I feel about it.
Quite apart from the fact that I'm a little lazy and want to sing but not work too hard at it, I don't know if it's right for a bunch of mainly non-indigenous folks to sing a bunch of arrangements of Métis, Huron and other indigenous Canadian traditional songs collected and arranged by a bunch of white, male composers and arrangers in the 1960s and 70s who did their best to capture in western notation the "unusual" music they heard in the field for the sake of... what? Entertaining the English and French Canadians? Capturing and immortalizing some exotic novelty?
Is this an opportunity to stretch ourselves beyond our musical (and perhaps cultural) comfort zones and learn something new, not just about the music, but about our history?
Or are we making a mockery of something so ingrained for some Canadians that they don't need to write it down, having for centuries beforehand passed it from one generation to the next through means not requiring a pen and paper?
(The notes one the back of one arrangement speak of "nonsense syllables" ringing in the night air, "inciting the revellers to a long night of dancing", revealing a complete outsider's perspective on an often-sacred part of indigenous culture. And the text for Keewaydin was taken, by Freedman's own admission, from a map of Ontario, Ojibwe and Cree names, interesting for their sounds alone, and without any regard to the words' original meaning or context!)
I'm pleased our conductor was moved to expand his musical interpretation of "our land", and I'm intrigued to learn some "new" (old) pieces of music from Canadians who called this land home long before I was born. But I'm ever cognizant of how little I really know and understand of the complexities of the cultural genocide my European-Canadian forefathers embarked on as they were establishing their version of "Kanata"here. And I believe that ensuring a successful participation -- as groups and as individuals -- in reconciliation requires ongoing caution and care. (Should we not at the very least have invited a co-conductor or consultant from the indigenous community to participate in this endeavour, and to teach us?)
I hope our conductor's honest attempts to do the right thing are not overridden with bias and ignorance (his own and ours) as we continue to learn the music he's selected for us this semester.