ethical listening; or, quartets for the end of time

I went to a fabulous talk last night: Memorial’s own Canada Research Chair in ethnomusicology, Bev Diamond, sharing with her audience her research into the role of the arts within aboriginal resistance (and currently, as part of the Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission). One of the things I found fascinating was the role of sound in the experience of residential schooling. Dr. Diamond demonstrated, through excerpts from numerous published memoirs, the ways in which the harshness of clanging bells, the hymn singing and prayers, and the foreign sound of the English language all served to actively oppress aboriginal people. [For a revelatory look at how non-aboriginal Canadians might have viewed the residential school system in the 1950s, check out this CBC piece)

I don’t know why I hadn’t considered this before. I have, of course, considerable knowledge about the use of music to sustain absolutist ideologies: the opéra-ballets of Lully, for instance, were expressly designed to glorify not only Louis XIV, but also the French nation (here, for example, the opening to the 1653 Ballet de la nuit, with Louis XIV  – Le Roi Soleil – as imagined in the film Le Roi danse). We know, too, of the role that music has played, both in support of and in opposition to, repressive regimes – for example, the Stalinist regime. Thanks to a former doctoral flute student,  Dr. Suzanne Snizek, I even know of the role that music has played in fostering hope, community, and identity in otherwise desperate situations: the expanding area of suppressed music is bringing back to life the music composed, produced and performed in work camps and concentration camps. Within the category of suppressed music, we might consider Olivier Messiaen’s famous Quartet for the End of Time, composed while he was a prisoner of war in 1941, but also pieces that are almost unknown to us today, such as Hans Gál’s Huyton Suite, and What a Life! , both written during his time in a British internment camp (and the focus of Suzanne’s research). Music, too, is that which bonded slaves together, a shared tradition on which they were able to draw on in times of need.

Is it then, so surprising, that aboriginal peoples, too, have drawn on music in the service of healing, resistance, and revival? Is it then, so surprising, that music is not just a bonbon we savour on a Sunday afternoon (though, indeed, it might be), but a form of creative activity – and activism – that helps us to make sense of the political world that has shaped (and continues to shape) us as individuals, as communities, as citizens?

Dr Diamond shared with us some work by an incredible group of musicians. I don’t remember all of their names, but I won’t forget the Residential School Song, which begins with the clanging bell, and I won’t soon forget Lucie Idlout’s E5-770: My Mother’s Name, an angry critique on the Canadian government’s practice of reducing aboriginal and Inuit children to mere numbers: E5-770. Music, for these musicians, is a political practice, not only a way of working through the horrific legacy of the residential schools, but of making those scars publicly visible. Music – sound – transforms the clanging bell from oppression into resistance. Music – sound – challenges the harsh reality of the number – E5-770 – in the process, reclaiming the name in a new voice, with a new sound, in a new interpretation. What struck me most about these works is the way that the musicians brought different musical traditions, different practices into conversation with one another – pastiche, collage, play, commentary, critique, all embedded in the fabric of single songs and brought to life through performance for both aboriginal and non-aboriginal audiences.

Music, for these singers, lies at the heart of questions of citizenship, belonging, and story. Music tells the story of lives lived, it tells of belonging, it tells of struggle. It tells of community. It promises hope, even as it expresses anger. It is intricately – and integrally – woven into narratives of resistance.

As I listened to Dr. Diamond last night, my mind strayed over to a written work  that some of my students will begin working on this week – Lorena Gale’s dramatic monologue Je me souviens: memoirs of an expatriate anglophone montréalaise québécoise exiled in Canada. Lorena’s is a tale of growing up black and English speaking in Montréal during the time of Charles de Gaulle’s now infamous 1967 speech and of her struggle over the intervening decades to claim her right to speak to her love – her national identity – as  québécoise. It’s a beautiful lament to the nation, and the role that language plays in the construction of national identity. It is a work filled with longing and desperate desire – it is, indeed, as stated in the introduction, a “love poem” to Québec (13).

Why do I mention Lorena Gale’s work here, of all places? Here, where the discussion’s been about music, about resistance and about questions of citizenship?

Two reasons.

The first is related to performance: Gale notes that she started out wanting to write a strongly worded rebuttal to Jacques Parizeau’s exclusionary and divisive politics of Quebec nationalism (12). What emerged from the tip of her pen was something quite different: a haunting, intimate portrait of personal experience, an evocation of home, as troubled as it was. And this portrait is not static. No. Like the aboriginal singers whose songs come to life in and through performance, so too, does Lorena Gale’s narrative come to life, too, through performance. It lives for us on the stage. It was meant to be spoken, to be shared out loud, in communion.

The second reason is more directly related to questions of music, citizenship and oppression. Gale’s stage directions reference the work of Gilles Vigneault, that quintessential québécois chansonnier. More specifically, she references Vigneault’s signature song, Mon pays, a 1964 song originally commissioned for a National Film Board production but quickly assimilated into the québécois sovereigntist movement.

“Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver
Mon jardin ce n’est pas un jardin, c’est la plaine
Mon chemin ce n’est pas un chemin, c’est la neige
Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver….”

According to The Canadian Encyclopedia:

“The weather of northern Quebec can be viewed as a metaphor for its cultural isolation. But “in this land of snowstorms” the author still vows to remain faithful and hospitable like his father before him, who built a home there: “the guestroom will be such that people from the other seasons will come and build next door to it.” He also evokes in the second verse the solitude of wide open spaces and the ideal of brotherhood. Vigneault then ends with these words: “My country is not a country, it’s the reverse of a country that was neither country nor homeland. My song is not a song, it’s my life. It is for you that I want to possess my winters.””

Lorena Gale was 6 years old when the song was penned, and 9 when de Gaulle made his speech. In 1995, at the time of the second Québec Referendum, she was in her mid-30s, exiled in Canada. Gale grew up under the shadow of Québec nationalism. For Gale, Vigneault’s song takes on a double meaning. Snow represents not only her own cultural isolation in the midst of this identity space marked as francophone, but it also represents the whiteness of the québécois pure laine, a whiteness to which she can never aspire, a whiteness that marks her as irrevocably other, and foreign. A whiteness that denies her the right to speak to her love for her nation.

Gale works through her linguistic and racial alterity in a series of tableaux delivered in French, the French of an anglophone montréalaise québécoise exiled in Canada. These tableaux draw directly on Vigneault’s anthem:

“Je me souviens d’un rêve que j’avais souvent depuis mon enfance. Dans le rêve c’est l’hiver. Et je suis toute seule dans une plaine. Une grande plaine de neige … Je veux rentrer chez moi, mais je ne sais pas où je suis….Je suis perdue.” (24)

“Je commence à croire que je vais mourir llà. Mon coeur et mon corps – complètement congelés …. Non. Je ne veux pas mourir comme ça. Il faut que je trouve un moyen de sortir d’ici. Il faut que je bouge.” (52)

“Au loin, très loin, il y a quelques chose à peine perceptible. Un tout petit point noir ou le ciel et la neige s’embrassent à l’horizon….Pas à pas je marche vers ce point ….Il me semble que plus je marche, plus loin est la destination. Que je ne vais jamais y arriver….” 70

“Je retrouve l’espoir. … Et je trouve que ce point à l’horizon blanc n’est pas une roche ni un tronc d’arbre. Mais une femme, noire et toute nue dans la neige …. Elle a l’air complètement chez elle, indifférent à cet environnement hostile. Qui est cette femme…. Je m’approche lentement et pose la main sur son épaule. Ma main tremble. J’ai peur. Elle s’est tourné vers moi et je réalise alors qu’elle est moi.” (92-93)

[All excerpts from Lorena Gale, Je me souviens (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2001)]

Ultimately, it is through this blinding snow – the whiteness of québécois nationalism – that Gale finds her way. In the process, she changes the meanings of Vigneault’s song. She transforms the sounds of her nation, and finds her voice within it.

All of this sound – all of this music – all of these melodies, noises, scratchings, hummings, and chants –  tell stories of belonging differently. They say: “We are here.” And they say: “Listen.” And they say: “if you can’t hear us, you need open your ears… listen differently, hear our thinking.”  And they say: “We are citizens. We always were. We’ve been singing to you, with you, for you. It is you who weren’t listening.”

Dr. Diamond ended her talk with a call to ethical listening, to a new way of engaging our hearts, our minds and our ears in the service of reconciliation. Are we able to talk up the call?


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