Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Canadian Music: Colonial or Post-Colonial?

Reading  a book of essays on Sibelius I ran into one on colonial and post-colonial, two terms that describe first the cultural domination of one people by another and second, the emancipation of such. Normally I take that sort of thing with a grain of salt, but it started resonating with my experiences in Canada. Canada was, until quite recently, a colony of Great Britain. By quite recently I mean that Canada as a nation didn't exist until 1867 and even though we had been an independent nation since 1931, officially (though with Queen Elizabeth as our sovereign), we didn't actually have our own constitution until 1982 as before then the constitution of Canada resided in England as an Act of the British Parliament. Canada has been remarkably restrained about achieving its independence.

So what are the corollaries or consequences of this from a cultural point of view? The popular musicians seem to have their own identity. We have distinctive Canadian musicians like Don Messer from the Maritimes:

Then there is the inimitable Stompin' Tom Connors:

From Francophone Québec we have Beau Dommage:

That word that you hear that you think is a bad word is actually the word "phoque", French for "seal" and the song is the complaint of a seal in Alaska.

Then from Jewish Montréal we have the truly great Leonard Cohen:

And from Winnipeg, those rockers, The Guess Who:

You want someone more recent? How about Shania Twain?

That is exactly like a gender-reversed version of Robert Palmer:

My god, I think they are even using some of the same prop guitars! And the costumes are remarkably similar except instead of mini-skirts the male models are wearing fishnet tops. Thank goodness... or ... wait ... I mean, thank goodness the men aren't wearing mini-skirts. I think...

And finally, and very reluctantly, Justin Bieber:

The odd thing is that, while the Canadian pop stars (and more folk-oriented ones as well) tended to have their own identity from the beginning (based on traditional music), the closer we move to the present, the more Canadian pop stars sound exactly like American ones. It is as if we moved from being a colony of Great Britain, through a brief window of post-colonialism, to being a cultural colony of the US.

So what about classical music? I'm afraid that is no less dismal. Right through the 19th century and well into the 20th century Canada was simply a minor offshoot of British musical culture. The further west you went, the more there was American and Asian influence as well. The first genuinely remarkable Canadian classical musician was probably Glenn Gould, who was very likely the most important piano interpreter of the music of J. S. Bach in the 20th century.

As for composers, the one that has tried the hardest to be a uniquely Canadian modernist is R. Murray Schafer:

Points for effort, I guess. But I just don't think he quite carves out a space for himself. As for contemporary Québec composers, one (English Canadian) composer of my acquaintance, who I will not name, characterizes their music as "Messiaen plays hockey". Shockingly unfair, I know, but it is just a more pithy way to say what I would have said: Québec composers are, mostly, paler copies of whatever is going on in Paris. One exception might be Claude Vivier:

Compared to the extraordinary music composed by Russian, Finnish, Danish and even Swedish and Norwegian composers in the 20th century, it is tempting to call Canada, as England used to be called, the "land without music".

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