"Ideas of North": Canadian violinist Andrew Forde explores and updates the universe of Glenn Gould
"Ideas of North": Canadian violinist Andrew Forde explores and updates the universe of Glenn Gould
Canadian violinist and composer Andrew Forde has set himself a bold challenge: to remix the creative and intellectual universe of the iconic pianist Glenn Gould, one of the most brilliant musicians of the 20th century, with the aim of exploring the rich identity of Canada. He did it following the spirit that drove Gould himself to direct in 1967 the historic CBC documentary The Idea of North, in which he superimposed diverse voices to create a unique sound space located between conversation and music. That space reflected the diverse identities that coexisted in the Canadian society of the time.
Following the same experimental pattern, Forde has created fifty years later Ideas of North, which was presented in Toronto last Friday at Koerner Hall. Koerner Hall. The talented Canadian musician and entrepreneur has incorporated into the project Iskew, an indigenous singer and songwriter, the trumpeter and teenage pianist William Leathers, who has been performing with the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra since he was 13; and the Canadian hip hop singer Shad, with whom he has already recorded the piece Branches. The show opens the "Black History Month" in Toronto.
The Torontonian violinist is a musician with great international projection, who has performed with artists such as Justin Bieber, Sting, Mary J. Blige and Pitbull. Driven by the same spirit that led Gould 50 years ago to reflect on the loneliness and plural identity of Canadians, Forde wanted to show a broader view that responds to the social reality of the country in the 21st century. Also in response to a need for internal exploration: "Like most people, I struggle with the notion of identity; I struggle with the idea of my identity." Ideas of North is a tribute to Gould but at the same time an updated claim of Canadian diversity.
Why did you decide to make this modern interpretation or remix of one of the most worlwide celebrated pianist, Glenn Gould?
As a young child my father introduced me to Glenn Gould the pianist. Now, at 29, I am discovering his genius as an alchemist, as a futurist, as a man. His passion for translating the assumed esoteric into art has inspired within me a desire to investigate how my own art is sculpted and performed.
This is an interpretation in the truest sense, we are not remixing any of his music, in fact this project does not use any of Glenn’s recordings at all. Instead we focus on his philosophies and writings to explore identity, solitude and what it meants to be Canadian.
When the Glenn Gould estate first approached me to create new music a knot formed in my stomach. How should I, someone unknown to the public, interact with a body of work that is so perfect? I knew I did not want to be corny; too often we hear classical music sampled and looped into a repetitive four bar segment. This is uninspired and uninspiring, it would, in my opinion, diminish the perfection of Glenn’s recorded works. Instead, early on, I decided to focus on Glenn’s philosophies and worldviews. I engage with his disdain for audiences, his futuristic vision of technology as the demise of live performance, what his compositions might sound like if he wrote counter point to Bach solo violin, and other explorations and musings in this vein. Of the various philosophies of Gould that I engage, his take on identity remains the most central. His focus was of course the Canadian identity. His ideas on the Canadian identity can be seen in his original CBC broadcast The Idea of North. I extended this narrow and Anglo-centric view by creating The Ideas of North, a broader look at identity, a consideration of a more diverse envisioning of Canadian life and identity.
Like most people, I struggle with the notion of identity; I grapple with the idea of my identity. I was born in Toronto to parents who arrived from the Caribbean, I grew up with a Chinese best friend, I learned from an Armenian violin teacher. I had to think about how and as whom I saw myself, and about how and as whom society saw me. The process of reconciling these two perspectives is ongoing; there are at times overlaps and gaps, but distortions are ever-present.
Why do you think this new glance or this new approach to that Canadian landscape that Glen Gould showed 50 years ago is necessary?
At its core this project is about embracing something classic and wrapping it in a modern quilt of voices and instrumentation, both the music and the people– from a unique and distinctive point of view.
I’m here to serve as an update, to re imagine the north from a 21st century pan-cultural Canada, to take the lead from our Aboriginal sisters and brothers, to share our stories around the world.
By using Gould's legendary radio documentary, The Idea of North as the backdrop I want to extend my search of self, of community, of us to all who’s perspectives have been untold. My version is Ideas of North, plural without the authoritative “the”. Instead my ‘s’ captures the erasure of so many people with stories. Through this journey I hope to open dialogue and the minds of everyone who partakes. Canada offers diverse stories and tapestries that deserve to be shared. The idea of a Canadian has moved beyond the idea of a “white north”, the north is a mosaic and it is about time we celebrate it as such.
Beyond the substance this project captures is also my hope to revive music as a performance art. Unfortunately, so much of popular music has transformed musicians into static life forms, requiring them to repeat their recordings live. People expect to hear the songs they enjoy the same way every time across every medium; radio, YouTube, streaming services, digital downloads. When they finally get to the concert, they expect to hear it the same way they have been consuming it.
We have voided musicians of the dynamisms to create music as art, as an expression that reflects a single point in time. Music was never meant to be a manufactured product; it is meant to grow or express the relative moment of its performance.
To allow the musician to be an artist, to feel what is happening around them, to channel it into their music for the audience, we must bring the live performance art of music back.
We want you to think of this work as an installation. One where the audience and musician share creative energies.
This work will present harmonic thoughts that instantly pulls at humanities essence. No matter what generation you are from, there will be something that speaks to you, there will be something that makes you ponder about your idea of north.
Did you feel fear, respect or enthusiasm when reviewing the work of a genius like Glen Gould?
All three, starting with respect and ending with fear. Gould remains a towering figure in my mind and the minds of many around the world. He also had many opinions on various aspects of music creation, performance, and consumption. I played with alot of these ideologies in the creation of this work, but also stood against some of his beliefs where they did not line with my own. Ultimately, Gould was a human being, someone who carried many fears himself.
Glenn died an early death because of prescription drug abuse, he was a severe hypochondriac whose obsessive personality traits (he wore an overcoat and gloves no matter the temperature, and insisted on playing on the same ancient, battered chair) were exacerbated in his final years by cocktails of antidepressants and anxiety-suppressing pills that were, ironically, more harmful to him than helpful. He died shortly after his 50th birthday, on 4 October 1982.
In the end, the fear I felt had nothing to do with the daunting task of creating from Gould’s mind, it was more human fears. Will I be accepted, will my work touch people, is this experience that I am creating at Koerner Hall Feb 9th going to be good enough?
By taking Gould to the field of Hip Hop, the musical language that best explains the 21st century, do you think that purists - on both sides - can be offended?
I hope so. Offense means that I was successful in challenging your inner most beliefs. When you have to confront things you have held as true, offense is a natural reaction, it is the feeling that occurs after the immediate offense that I am interested in. Was my project so experientially human that it opened you look beyond your confirmation biases? Beyond Hip Hop, I touch a lot of genres to tell my story, sort of like gumbo, I call this Nu Classical.
I want to show the world that as diverse as Canada is, regardless of race, one's beliefs, sexual orientation, gender or abilities, that we all struggle with the same things and have no idea what we are doing. We are all just trying to figure it out and we need to be cohesive to ensure that we thrive as a society.
If I can get through to the purists, it would mean that art, when done thoughtfully can have be transformative and bring people together, irregardless of how far apart they appear to be.
When I set and think about it, TD a bank was the sponsor largely responsible for allowing me to manifest my vision, if bankers were moved by my creation, I am confident that everyone will feel something in some capacity too.
What was the experience like of composing the song "Branches”, along with rapper Shad?
Shad is one of the most thoughtful lyricists of all time. When I began composing the music, I knew in my mind that it would be for him. So it forced me to ensure that I created something good.
Once the music was done and recorded I sent it to Shad. He must have gotten annoyed by me because every two or three days I would send an updated version. Ultimately, I think that it is important for whoever is being featured on my music to feel uncomfortable, and stay on their toes.
I think it's quite clear that the Shad we hear on this song is nothing like the Shad of past. We get a very unique performance from him and it is due to the uniqueness of the music itself.
I told him I saw it being a story told in three parts, like a concerto. The first movement is a treatise of the world around us; it is delivered as if a violin was performing the allegro moderato. The second is an intimate reflection of self, and where self fits in to the broader world. Here Shad goes off and traps. I had no idea it would end up working as well as it did.
The final movement is delivered as an allegro vivacissimo. His tone is pointed and fierce, but ends again as an allegro moderato, where we started off.
We discussed the philosophy of the track extensively, and what it was meant to conjure, what message we wanted to get across. Like Gould, Shad created a performance like we have never experienced from something so familiar as rap. It was unreal.
The song, Branches, was inspired by Erlkönig, a German poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put to music by Franz Schubert. It depicts the death of a child who was assailed by a supernatural being, the Erlking or "Erlkönig." The poem was originally composed by Goethe as part of a 1782 Singspiel entitled Die Fischerin.
“An anxious young boy is being carried at night by his father on horseback. To where is not spelled out; German Hof has a rather broad meaning of "yard", "courtyard", "farm", or (royal) "court". The lack of specificity of the father's social position, beyond owning a horse, allows the reader to imagine the details. The opening line tells that the time is unusually late and the weather unusually inclement for travel. As it becomes apparent that the boy is delirious, a possibility is that the father is rushing him to medical aid.
As the poem unfolds, the son seems to see and hear beings his father does not; the reader cannot know if the father is indeed aware of their presence, but he chooses to comfort his son, asserting reassuringly naturalistic explanations for what the child sees – a wisp of fog, rustling leaves, shimmering willows. Finally, the child shrieks that he has been attacked. The father rides faster to the Hof. There, he recognizes that the boy is dead."
This speaks to the demons and the elements of ourselves that we believe to be true, that affect us, that may not be real, it speaks to how we see and feel things that people around us do not understand or see. It is these very things that can sometimes lead to our demise. Yet, even through these situations we are comforted by loved ones though they may not understand our inner landscape. It speaks to all the things we as people experience that no one else understands, that we feel we experience alone.
What will the audience experience when they attend the premiere of "Ideas of North this February 9th?
It is funny, I have never thought about this as a world premiere until reading this question. Audiences will experiences art, music as it ought to be experienced in a way that Glenn would be proud of.
It is a 2 hour journey that through the music and visualizations created by Very Good Studios (Inception) will have you thinking, laughing and reflecting on your identity, love, and solitude.
You have had access to the entire Glenn Gould catalog to develop this project. What have you discovered that you did not know? Has your vision over Gould and his work changed in someway?
Glenn was an innovator and in some instances bound by the limitations of his time. I truley believe that the greatest discovery made during this process was how forward thinking he was, and the fact that good art is always relevent because they touch at the core of what it means to be human. It really imposed in me with a desire to be a great artist, to not only create music that causes transformation, but to build instillations that provide an all incompesing experience. No matter how much of a genius you are, we all want to feel as though we fit in someplace.