Where do you go when you sleepwalk? – Part 1

IMG_3456Ou tu vas quand tu dors en marchant? is a spectacle/multidisciplinary artistic installation produced as part of the Carrefour International Theatre Festival held each year in Quebec City. For 2015 there are five “exhibits” – four at Artillery Park and one just down the hill at Les Palais.

The photos included below are from a walk-through theatrical experience created by Le Théâtre Rude Ingénierie, a “multidisciplinary creation company that focuses on the interrelation of sound, image, object, engineering and life, exploiting the potential of unexpected encounters,” in partnership with L’Orchestre d’hommes-orchestres, a collective of artists who mix visual arts, music and theater.

Created at Ilot des Palais it was the most elaborate of the five pieces showcased in this year’s Festival. The piece included 14 musician environments, each its own set with detailed dressing, and the musicians in attire fitting to that particular place.  The orchestra wore headsets so they could stay in sync with each other as they were spread far apart on a parking lot and facing all directions. In addition, all were also under the microscopic focus of a video camera feed that was projected on the walls of nearby buildings like a Wes Anderson version of The Brady Bunch.

Was it a successful project? The production values (scenic elements, costumes, and lighting) were well conceived and executed. The musician actors all played their parts well – staying in character in the face of thousands of voyeur audience members invading their respective “homes.”  Connecting the environment with the instrument each played was also a fun exercise – from a banjo player in a buffalo check flannel on the back of old rusted red truck to a dolled up bassoonist in a hairdresser’s shop. We’re used to seeing musicians on a stage, separate, away.  This created a sense of place, of belonging, and each audience member became part of that “home.”

Listening to the sound check with each musician warming up with whatever they felt like, I had high hopes for the musical aspects of the performance.  I chose not to incorporate video in this post as I’d rather you imagine your own soundtrack than listen to the unison dirge that was composed as part of the project and failed to capitalize on the musical talent of the orchestra members.

Quebec City – Day 5

I started the morning with a walk to Marché du Vieux-Port, the farmer’s market in Quebec City. It’s reminiscent of the Essex Market in NYC – compact but with plenty of interesting vendors. As it’s located at a port, there were several seafood stands, including two tanks full of lobsters. My favorite was an Italian food stand that was selling balls of homemade pasta wrapped like skeins of delicious yarn. If you visit, I’d recommend visiting the market on your first day and stocking up on groceries to sustain you during your visit. With all of the FAA rules, the chances of getting to bring anything home are slim to none.

A stop at Boutique Gourmand in Place Royale in La Petit Champlain proved to be a nice window perch for people watching. One last chocolate chaud and a few macarons to accompany the entertainment. I witnessed a previously unknown phenomenon of tourists sitting at empty cafe tables just to take a photo pretending like they are actually “at” the establishment …and then leaving. Maybe it’s just the Midwesterner in me but this seemed a bit strange.

From the exterior Notre Dame des Victoires (1688) looks like most other churches in the city, walking through the doors revealed a refreshing simplicity. Open and airy the sanctuary glowed from sunlight and the warm wood of pews, carved in shapes that echoed carriages and sleighs of a bygone era. White walls hung with white oval frames of the stations of the cross. The altar flanked with fluted Corinthian columns, is accented with golden Grecian molding. Suspended from the ceiling are six simple chandeliers, that once held candles and now channel electricity, and a large model of the Brézé, a wooden ship that arrived in Québec City in 1664 transporting the Carignan Regiment and the Marquis de Tracy. Two local musicians provided vocals with pipe organ accompaniment, ending the mass with their own jazz rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

From there I headed back “up the hill” to the Museum of French America (Musee de l’Amerique Francaise). It’s a bit of an oddity as you enter off of St. Anne’s Street and then walk through a small chapel which is used for music and theatre performances in addition to services. I shared a few discoveries in my photo album – let’s just say a good rule of thumb when visiting any Catholic church is “You really don’t want a closer look.” From the Chapel it’s through an underground tunnel to the main entrance to the actual museum. Following a recent renovation the museum is incredibly interactive, luckily they have headsets with English translations for practically everything. The collection placed emphasis on early settlement and also on exploring the role of missionaries in the history of Quebec and the disbursement of French-speaking people across North America.

One final stroll down Terrasse Dufferin in front of Chateau Frontenac, overlooking the St. Lawrence River ..a mixture of historic and contemporary buildings and ships in the harbor, with the old paper mill and the Laurentian Mountains in the distance. A little bear of a man was busking, singing “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” with a jagged Quebecois English accent. Coupled with small picnic of rillette, cheese, and wine, it was a fitting send-off before my journey back to Madison.

Quebec City – Day 4

Until this trip I hadn’t spent much time looking into my French ancestry. It turns out Raymond Legris (my maternal grandfather) was the 10th generation descended from Guillame Legris of Brittany. Three of his sons, including our ancestor Adrien, emigrated to New France (Quebec) in 1680. Quebec City was founded by Samuel de Champlaign in 1608 and reached a population of 500 by 1663. When the Legris brothers arrived it had grown to 1300, partially due to the promise of wealth from the fur trade …and partially due to the fact that the government, in an effort to increase population, awarded a sum equal to the value of six cows for every child in a family. (That subsidy only lasted ten years as French Catholic families exceeded government estimates and it could no longer fulfill the contracts).

I spent three hours at the Musée de la civilisation on Saturday. Half of the first floor is taken up by an exhibit on the history of animation in film in Canada. Following the history of projections from the early 1800s through computer animation was fascinating – highly recommend a visit. “The Peoples of Quebec City” exhibit was a study in curation and museum design, what could have been boring and dry actually kept an entire tour of middle school students engaged.

While visiting the “Magic in Ancient Egypt” exhibit at Musee de la civilisation I was struck by how many parallels there are between Christianity and the traditions of ancient Egypt. Rather than a god for a particular concern, Catholic traditions have saints. Mummification and death rituals are echoed in our own Western funeral traditions. Temples have been replaced by cathedrals but the aspect of community ritual remains.

From there it was on to Musee de la Place Royal. It’s in the heart of Quartier Petit Champlain and is a strange little museum focused on the history of that neighborhood. Artifacts are from the homes, warehouses, and businesses that once stood in the surrounding blocks.

My evening field trip included a visit to Ecole de Cirque, the Quebec City school of circus arts, to see their spring youth performance. Housed in a decommissioned church, the school transformed the main floor into a highly flexible practice/performance space. Many of the pieces featured performers of mixed ages, body types, and abilities. Both boys and girls were trained in every aspect from juggling to the silks. Young girls served as bases while boys “flew” and vice versa. The crew who set up and rigged the equipment and also provided comic relief between each piece was comprised of both students and coaches. The emphasis was on community, artistry, and athleticism. Stars were given showcase pieces but they also performed with younger athletes and those who may not have had their level of skill. It was the embodiment of what most youth organizations tout as their mission …and a far cry from what most of them actually do.

Quebec City – Day 3

Yesterday I walked down Grand Allee en route to Avenue Cartier (named after one of the founders of the city, not the jeweler). It’s more a nightlife street but there were several beautiful historic homes. Avenue Cartier is a shopping district that, like many of the shops in the Old City, features locally owned businesses which sell Quebec-made or Canadian goods.

I wandered for an hour or two in the Plains of Abraham Park. I’m so glad I did a city walking tour on my first day so I understood the history behind the area. The park is on top of a cliff that the English managed to surmount. They camped out, backs to the river, and taunted the French into battle. A battle that started with onlookers cheering for what they thought would be the end of the English. After less than 20 minutes of fighting the English won and claimed Quebec City as part of the British empire. After exploring the park I’d recommend finding the staircase down to the boardwalk and walking back along Boulevard Champlain.

The Citadel is well worth the price of admission. Your ticket includes admission to a wonderful museum with many artifacts that help tell the story of French Canadian involvement in World War I and World War II, and every war since then. There is a wonderful photography exhibit that draws parallels between military service in World War I and Afghanistan. The walking tour of the grounds includes some of the best views of the city, the St. Lawrence River, and Levis. Also, there’s a goat named Batisse.

The Morrin Centre is a small but incredibly interesting place to visit. It was the first city jail, housed an Anglophone college for English-speaking Protestants from 1862-1902, and is home to the Morrin Library. The tour lasts about an hour and the tour guide did an incredible job providing insights into the history of the building, from visiting jail cells to college classrooms. Afterwards you’re welcome to visit the library and read to your heart’s content.

Many locals have commented on the fact that government is the main employer in Quebec City. Judging from what I’ve seen during my wanderings, road repairs and construction must rank at the top in terms of employment.

As when I visit New York City, I am reminded, yet again, that we have it so good in Madison. A pint is $8-$9.50 here and you can’t walk out of a cafe without dropping $20 for a typical lunch.

I’m not sure if this is because Canadians actually like musical theatre, or because the standard expectation is that American tourists will, but I’ve witnessed the following performances by street musicians: a woman on the terrace in front of Chateau Frontenac singing “All I Ask of You” to a karaoke track; a classical guitarist playing a fancy version of “Don’t Cry for me Argentina;” a pianist playing “I Dreamed a Dream,” and a harpist playing “I Have Dreamed.”

It’s raining. Again. I hate flip flops but am now bowing to the weather gods and wearing them in public.

Quebec City – Day 2

Starbucks has infiltrated Quebec and, much like the English when they kicked out French rule, has situated itself at Chateau Frontenac. As a matter of principle, I avoid Starbucks and try to support local businesses but this morning was a desperate exception. Coffee shops are rare in the old city and time was limited.

Poutine at Chez Ashton. Whatever it is that they serve at Coopers Tavern pales in comparison to the real thing, both in flavor and caloric haul. It’s like comparing the Green County Fair cheese curds to the awful frozen ones that they serve at State Street Brats.

Ile d’Orleans is best explored by bicycle as the roads and seven villages are tiny. If you come to Quebec City, take advantage of this opportunity:http://www.ecolocyclo.net/servicesus.html

The weather is very changeable. Layers are necessary for survival as one minute it will be hot and humid and the next you’ll be chilled by a cold breeze and lack of sun. Also, three pairs of shoes, all soaked from being caught in a storm, three storms in three days.

Today’s French word: somnambulisme. Its means sleepwalking and is applicable to the past 24 hours in two ways. 1) I haven’t sleepwalked in many years but apparently last night was an exception. Luckily I didn’t fall out of one of the open windows. 2) I went to a theatrical spectacle this evening which, when translated roughly, means “Where are you going while you are sleepwalking?”

Sometimes contemporary art is exhilarating. Sometimes it’s exhausting. Tonight was a little bit of both. Evening #1 of the Carrefour International Theatre Festival – Location #1: five experiences staged in various sites outdoors at Artillery Park in Old Quebec City. An interesting mix of an historic setting and an exploration of what it means to be human. Separate blog posts coming up.

Quebec City – Day 1

Day 1 – Random thoughts from Wednesday in Quebec City:

Quebec City is built on a cliff and is very hilly. It reminds me quite a bit of Montmartre in terms of terrain. The only flat streets are in Quartier Petit Champlain which is the district along the docks and outside the walls of the old city. Good thing I brought Converse and wedges.

Main food groups: meat, cream, beer. Don’t worry we’ll include a small side salad so you get some vegetables. Wine counts as fruit. Would you like some more?

Coffee sizes are normal here (unlike Starbucks and most American shops). Small is 8 ounces, medium is 12 ounces, and large is 16 ounces. This does not apply to beer or ice cream/gelato/sorbet.

At the Anglican Church the tour guide told me that I was sitting in Queen Elizabeth’s pew. I didn’t really hear anything else he said after that as I started wondering what color suit she wore and what her hat and matching handbag looked like.

Everyone is really polite but not in a “I work in a tourist area so my boss makes me kind of way” – in a “I’m a genuinely nice person, let me smile while I help you” ..and maybe “I’ll crack a joke about your bad French but I’m not being mean” kind of way. This does not extend to driving (see below).

Curbs are only a suggestion. They might be seven inches high but, really, you can feel free to drive over the curb and on to the sidewalk because you don’t want to wait for the car in front of you to move. Pedestrians? They can move out of your way.

On playing an instrument

The Menagerie editedThe Menagerie includes several instruments – as a former music major and band teacher I’ve worked to at least somewhat master a number of them.  As someone of Swiss Heritage, accordions have been part of my family for generations.  I’ve played piano since age 6 and still practice on a daily basis – from Bach preludes to Chopin waltzes.  Flute entered the picture in grade 5 – my aunt had a flute, it was portable and fit in my school bag. Done.  In high school I dabbled with oboe and saxophone and then in college took a series of “Fundies” courses where we learned the basics of how to play each instrument in the woodwind, brass, and string families.

Just like people, no two instruments are exactly the same.  Musicians don’t really talk about it as, when we do, others give us that vacant stare. The one where it’s clear they think you’re a little off and they’d rather watch paint dry than listen to you ramble on about the intricacies of a certain tuning or the depth of a fingerboard.  Glazed eyes, slack jawed, clearly in their own happy place, which does not include you or whatever you are talking about.

Given the chance to play multiple instruments of the same exact year, make, and model, a musician will notice subtle differences in the feel and the response of each one. They each have their own personality. One piano may have a lighter action with a bell-like right hand and quickness that allows the player to flit across the keys while another may be stiffer and more suited to more bombastic playing.  A saxophone may have a brighter tone that cuts above the rest of the band, no blend in sight. Certain notes may sing more than others, some keys require a bit more pressure for closure.

Playing is personal, intimate.  There’s an emotional connection, a visceral relationship.   As you play you lose a part of yourself, from the breath needed to produce sound in a wind instrument to the skin cells you leave behind. Guitar players and string players build callouses. Violinists and violists sport bruises on their necks. Pianists hunch over their keyboards like T-rex dinosaurs, permanently changing the curvature of their necks and upper backs.

Each time you play, you contribute to the death of the object. Your fingers press into the fingerboard or stroke the piano keys, wearing against them.  Just as you deface certain letters on your laptop keyboard, your habits can have the same effect on an instrument.  Have you ever seen Willie Nelson and his guitar Trigger? He’s worn an actual hole in the face of the instrument.

BBC WW2 Accounts

Photo from BBC World Service digital collection of 50+ firsthand accounts of moments during World War II.

Music-making is a shared language, a part of one’s cultural identity, integral to the sense of self and of belonging to more. How many times have you seen a vintage photograph where you notice an instrument in an unusual setting, something outside the norm of a concert, a tavern, or a family gathering?  Soldiers around a campfire or, as pictured here, celebrating.  Where and how did that instrument travel through the countryside?  Immigrants at Ellis Island with a carpet bag in one hand, children in tow, and a violin case in the other.  Facing an unpleasant journey of thousands of miles by ship they’ve included an instrument as one of the cherished belongings that would accompany them on the voyage.

Grandma Ruth, age 19.

Grandma Ruth, age 19.

My Grandmother’s parents immigrated from Switzerland. Her father, a cheesemaker, played button accordion, yodeled, and sang songs.  Steeped in musical traditions, she learned keyboard accordion at a young age, having studied with Wisconsin legend Rudy Burkhalter.  As a young girl she traveled the state with his youth accordion orchestra, crisscrossing the countryside in an airstream bus.

We started lessons when I was five years old. As I became more proficient we moved from the Seldon Accordion Method to learning actual charts, many of which were copies of her original sheet music from the Burkhalter Band. Every family holiday was a chance for music-making from my Great-Grandmother’s harmonica playing and singing to singalongs and dancing to Grandma Ruth’s accordion music.  Each year included multiple visits to “The Old Folks’ Home” in New Glarus and Labor Day Weekend parties at The Big Farm as part of the annual Wilhelm Tell Celebration where 20+ friends would congregate to make Swiss music, polka, and share stories for one glorious weekend each year.

My continued obsession with accordions stems partly from the fact that with each passing year they become more rare, closer to extinct.  The manufacturers who boomed in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s have long since faded away.  The knowledge of how to build and how to repair dwindles as the skills of the master craftsman pass away undocumented for future generations.

Inside Accordion Diagram

Here’s a detailed article on how accordions are made.

It’s an incredibly complex instrument, a portable organ with reeds, mechanical keys, bellows and more.  Banks of tiny reeds are activated by moving the bellows and forcing air through the chambers.  By mechanically pressing the keys and buttons, you manipulate the pitch.  Beyond that, you can use air speed to change dynamic level and overall tone.

It’s a feat of engineering – I might have actually enjoyed science class if we’d been able to learn how a machine like this operates.  Check out this “What’s inside your accordion?” video by Lou Jachlich to see the inner workings.

Though much maligned, the accordion is the rare instrument that brings together multiple cultures and is appreciated and enjoyed by generations. In 2003 I had the pleasure, a top the highest “mountain” in County Kerry in Ireland, to sing “Red River Valley” with an Irishman who happened to be seated at the feet of a statue of the Virgin Mary.  Later in 2005 in Italy it was a version of “Musetta’s Waltz” with a street musician in Florence.  A visit to the Museum of Carnival Arts in Paris was that much brighter due to the band that was playing in the courtyard.

Meeting fellow accordion player Stephan in Washington DC this past February was a musical convergence of sorts – A musician from Bulgaria who was in the US to visit his daughter, Stephan was traveling with a backpack of clothing and small duffel with his trusty Orfeo accordion. On a whim he set up outside the Eastern Market, drawing the attention of a young fan while playing his own version of the classic Broadway tune, “Hello Dolly.”