The National Post, 29 February, 2000

Pianist Gene DiNovi writing notes on his music at the piano

Pianist Gene DiNovi seems to know every song ever written, and most of the people who wrote them.

By Stewart Hoffman

The year 1948 was a big one for pianist Gene DiNovi. He went on the road with singer Anita O’Day, and recorded with saxophone giant Lester Young. He recorded for Artie Shaw too, but – not satisfied with his bass player – the cocky, 20-year old pianist turned down Shaw’s offer to join the band. “Like a jerk!” adds DiNovi, still scolding himself half a century later.

He didn’t repeat the mistake when, that same year, Benny Goodman was left stranded at a recording session, having exchanged a few choice words with pianist Mary Lou Williams. An eleventh-hour call to DiNovi’s Brooklyn home sent him dashing immediately to the Manhattan recording studio. He would play with Goodman, on and off, over the next two decades, and in spite of the clarinetist’s oft reported shabby treatment of musicians, the 71-year old DiNovi prefers to reflect on the more idyllic moments spent in Goodman’s Connecticut home. “We’d sit in his studio and play all day, just clarinet and piano,” adding wistfully: “I loved playing for him.”

It was the Goodman connection that indirectly led to DiNovi’s collaboration with Canadian clarinetist James Campbell. Though not the musician you would immediately associate with DiNovi – the internationally renowned soloist built his reputation interpreting Brahms sonatas rather than Irving Berlin songs – the two hit it off when they met in Toronto in the mid-’80s. Campbell subsequently recorded Divertimento, a piece DiNovi wrote for Benny Goodman, and they’ve been playing their brand of light classics and jazz ever since. They paid further homage to Goodman, Shaw and other clarinetist greats at the end of February when they performed and recorded Heritage at Indiana University, where Campbell has been teaching since 1988. David Baker, head of the university’s jazz department, wrote the work specifically with DiNovi and Campbell in mind. “We’ll be playing,” says Campbell, “and Gene will say ‘Benny used to do this’ or ‘Artie did that. Why don’t you try that?'” Not surprisingly, Campbell refers to DiNovi as “a walking history of jazz,” and the Smithsonian Institute seems to agree: in 1997 representatives spent two days in Toronto, culling hours of stories from DiNovi for the Institute’s Oral Jazz History Program.

To anyone who heard Gene DiNovi discuss the great song writers on CBC Radio’s Morningside, or to those who watched him chat with Hollywood’s legendary composers on TVOntario’s The Music Room in the early ’80s, the Smithsonian’s interest comes as no surprise. DiNovi is a born raconteur, who seems to know every song ever written, and most of the people who wrote them. When, on one Music Room broadcast, DiNovi sings an impromptu 42nd Street with its then 86-year old composer, Harry Warren, the scene plays like an intimate moment between family members captured on home video. Which is not far off the mark, considering DiNovi used to affectionately refer to Warren as “Uncle Harry”. In a career that took him from New York’s 52nd Street to Hollywood, it seems he just may have played with everybody in the business. “I’m on Zappa’s first two albums,” he says, then adds with a laugh, “I’m an auxiliary Mother of Invention.”

DiNovi played his first gigs while in his early teens, in Brooklyn where he grew up; by 1944, still only 15-years-old, he was sitting in at the jazz clubs that lined 52nd Street. His baptism of fire took place at the Spotlight, where Dizzy Gillespie, who kept tabs on the hot, young players in town, called DiNovi onto the stage one night. He set a blistering tempo for All the Things You Are, but the voltage metre soared still higher when Charlie Parker burst into the room from the back kitchen, ripping into the kind of solo that drove crowds into a frenzy. The music, says DiNovi, confounded him completely. “I knew something great was happening, but I didn’t know what the hell it was.”

But DiNovi wasn’t the only youngster on stage that night; he recalls a still reverential Miles Davis down on his hands and knees fixing a loose bass drum pedal for Max Roach. “Ten years later,” says DiNovi, “he wouldn’t have paid a dime to see the Statue of Liberty dance.”

Gene DiNovi’s association with singers started with Anita O’Day, and he would go on to work with Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett. But the singer to whom he owes the greatest debt is Lena Horne. She introduced Have a Heart, a song DiNovi wrote with the great lyricist Johnny Mercer, and it was from Horne that he learned the fine points of dealing with singers and actors, “how to make them use what they have and get through a musical event they would find difficult.” Not that his efforts always met with success. “If Raquel Welch had to sing in London, they’d bring me over to make her sing. I used to fail – but I’d get nice trips out of it.”

Moving to Los Angeles around 1960 drew DiNovi still further into the world of songwriting. In fact, the scenes he describes seem as clichéd as an old Hollywood movie: DiNovi getting a call to drop by a party at Danny Thomas’s house “just in case Barbra (Streisand) wants to sing”; or Sunday nights in the living room of Dick van Dyke Show producer Lou Edelman, where the greatest songwriters of the day swapped stories while listening to DiNovi play their tunes.

He worked mostly for Desi-Lu, producers of the van Dyke, Thomas and Andy Griffith shows, but also recorded everything from cartoons to the score for Dr. Zhivago. Then suddenly, after about ten years, the work dried up. “If you were over thirty,” says DiNovi, “you were persona non grata in Los Angeles.” Playing a week at Toronto’s old Colonial Tavern with singer Carmen McRae in 1971 convinced DiNovi of where his next move should be. “Toronto reminded me of New York in the ’40s and ’50s,” he says. “It was sophisticated, and I just liked the feel of it.”

Today, DiNovi picks and chooses what he wants to play, leaving him more time for his wife and 15-year old son. His two daughters from a previous marriage live in Los Angeles. He practises a lot of Bach and Ravel, and plays the odd jazz club. A solo recording of the music of Benny Carter was recently released. But it’s mostly his work with Campbell that keeps him busy; aside from the trip to Indiana, there’s a concert with the Windsor Symphony on March 11 and 12, then trips to Holland and Japan, where he’ll likely be the only jazz pianist at the otherwise classical music festivals. “The way he plays jazz is so colourful,” says Campbell, “that when the classical players hear him, they go nuts. Some pretty snobby chamber music audiences have come closer to jazz because of Gene’s playing.”

He’s also looking forward to two weeks at Quebec’s Orford Arts Centre toward the end of June, where he’ll teach jazz and, of course, the popular song.

And just how does the state of songwriting today compare to that of the golden years? “There’s no contest,” says DiNovi, without any hesitation. “A really good writer, like Paul Simon, would have been like Irving Berlin if he were born twenty years earlier. He’s done some wonderful things. He didn’t write 800 songs like Irving Berlin though – Irving used to spill three or four before breakfast.”

The National Post, 5 February 2000
By Stewart Hoffman

When workers hacked their way into a sealed room in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw in the early 1990s, they must have felt like archeologists stumbling upon the treasure of an Egyptian tomb.

Conductor Riccardo Chailly on the podium.

The Royal Concertgebouw’s conductor, Riccardo Chailly.

Behind the walls of the venerable concert hall, home of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, lay a lost kettledrum. The enormous instrument had been ordered built in the early 1900s by conductor Willem Mengelberg – a legendary figure who molded the orchestra into one of the world’s greatest – specifically to sound the lowest notes in Gustav Mahler’s sprawling Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.

This link to the past highlights the orchestra’s century-long relationship with the composer. The Concertgebouw championed Mahler’s music 50 years before it became fashionable, and Mahler frequently conducted his music in Amsterdam. A Mahler Festival was mounted as far back as 1920.

On the phone from Amsterdam, Riccardo Chailly, the Concertgebouw’s Chief Conductor, says that an oral tradition spanning the generations has provided today’s orchestra members with a unique link to that musical past, creating a kind of collective memory.

“Daily talking between musicians – and there is a great deal of communication between the old ones leaving the orchestra and the new ones coming in – is one of the
secrets, said Chailly. “Not only the knowledge of the past through written and recorded documents, but also memory.

“Long lasting memory is one of the secrets of a great orchestra.”

That the Concertgebouw Orchestra remains among the handful of great orchestras will be evident when they perform Mahler’s 4th Symphony, with soprano Ruth Ziesak, at Roy Thomson Hall on Tuesday. The current tour coincides with a glorious new Decca recording of the work.

Chailly regularly thumbs through orchestral history when studying the Concertgebouw’s scores, documents which often bear the markings of musical luminaries such as Richard Strauss, Ravel or Mahler. Though he says studying them can be an “emotional” experience, they remain a point of departure. “Then you should be free to choose your own direction, without being influenced. he says “because history and tradition is one thing; the development of your own ideas is another.”

The Concertgebouw Orchestra may have become too preoccupied with history; by 1988, when Chailly was appointed, it had evolved into the most conservative of the great orchestras. Chailly attacked the situation with singular determination, adding hundreds of new works to their repertoire, recording works by such contemporary composers as Messiaen, Varèse and Berio. At first, many in the orchestra and audience balked, fearing that a headlong rush into the 21st century would imperil priceless traditions of the 20th.

But time has proven their fears groundless – and Chailly more of a traditionalist than anyone imagined. He has returned the orchestra to its historic role as fierce champion of the music of its time.

Album cover of Tony Bennett sings Ellington CD

Bennett Sings Ellington: Hot and Cool, arrived in record stores in 1999, the centenary of Ellington’s birth.

The National Post, 15 January 2000
By Stewart Hoffman

Tony Bennett’s watercolour portrait of Duke Ellington speaks volumes about the relationship the two men had. Ellington, staring straight at you, his head slightly cocked, is practically consumed by the bouquet of pink roses that covers the background. It seems every time Ellington wrote a new song, he sent Bennett a dozen of them.

That painting is only one of the singer’s numerous tributes to his friend. The latest, a CD entitled Bennett Sings Ellington: Hot and Cool, arrived in record stores toward the end of 1999, the year the world was celebrating the centenary of Ellington’s birth. This Monday night, Bennett extends the celebration when, along with the Ralph Sharon Quartet, he brings Bennett Sings Ellington to Roy Thomson Hall.

Bennett first heard Ellington’s band live when still a teenager in the early 1940s. About a decade later, he was singing with Ellington on the other side of the footlights.

“His family and my family were very close, and I had the privilege of being the sorcerer’s apprentice,” he says with a laugh over the telephone from his New York City apartment. “He was so full of creativity, and completely impassioned about the next thing he was doing. Right ’til the end he was just creating and creating.”

Once, at one of the lowest points in Bennett’s life, Ellington was performing a concert of his sacred music in a New York church. It was Christmas ’65. Bennett was across the street in a hotel. He was separated from his children after recently splitting up with his first wife, and was spending the holiday alone and miserable. Ellington sent the church choir over to the hotel just to cheer him up. “He was a dream to be around,” says Bennett. “When he died, I just didn’t believe it.”

Bennett is thrilled that Hot and Cool is up for a Grammy award. He already has eight of the statuettes crowding his mantle, often for recordings the Academy categorizes as Traditional Popular Vocal.

“They put me in that category all the time, and I really love it because it simply means that the music will carry on, it won’t become a fad, it will never sound dated.” Perhaps. But to say that Tony Bennett is a “traditional pop” singer is like saying a piano is a percussion instrument; it’s true, but there’s a whole lot missing.

Bennett honed his skills listening to Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Billie Holiday et al during the 1940s heyday of New York’s 52nd Street. Rather than fashion himself after other singers, he developed his sound studying the phrasing of saxophone giants Stan Getz and Lester Young. And he has always surrounded himself with the best musicians in jazz. So when Bennett sings the great American standards – always a cornerstone of his repertoire but songs that he seems be giving an even higher profile today – it’s with the spontaneity, phrasing and infectious swing of a jazzman.

“[These songs are] America’s classical music,” says Bennett. “They will go on for thousands of years because they never get dated. As young as the United States is, there was a golden era, just like the French impressionists at the turn of the century and the impressionistic music of Ravel and Debussy. In our country we had Gershwin and Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen and Cole Porter.”

And, of course, Duke Ellington.

When Bennett was just starting out, a vocal coach told him to never compromise his art, and to always sing good music. When he launches into the great Ellington classics Monday night, Bennett, at age 73, will have been doing just that for over fifty years.

 Photograph of Glenn Gould at the piano.On the book cover of "The Art of Glenn Gould".The National Post, 18 December 1999
By Stewart Hoffman

“Gould is no doubt best thought of as a musical experimenter and a popular educator,” writes editor John P. L. Roberts in his introduction to The Art of Glenn Gould: Reflections of a Musical Genius.

So that’s it? It seems like faint praise for the pianist whose sensational 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations revolutionized the way people played and thought about Bach. For the legions of fans who believe Gould to be one of the towering pianists of the century, Roberts’ low voltage profile reads more than a little flat.

But Roberts’ words are not intended to be a definitive statement. Rather, they’re an invitation to Gould’s detractors – of which there remain many – to appreciate Gould’s work from a different perspective, to more clearly understand, and perhaps be more forgiving of the great man’s less successful musical efforts. He might also be addressing those who question whether Gould’s controversial offerings were presented in the spirit of sincere musical inquiry or as a result of some sort of perverse ego trip.

The Art of Glenn Gould is a collection of 45 interviews, scripts, liner notes, essays and lectures by Gould. Roberts serves as narrator throughout, contextualizing each piece and preparing the reader for Gould’s more rarefied offerings. They were friends for more than 25 years, and worked together professionally through Roberts’ varied career at the CBC, which included four years as head of radio music in the ‘70s. In spite of the close relationship, Roberts wins your trust early on, pointing out Gould’s musical misfires along with the successes.

As one might expect, the collected texts range from the casual to the intellectually demanding. The interviews generally occupy the lighter end of the rhetorical spectrum, where the breezy (“I am not fond of going to concerts – except my own, of course, which I attend religiously”) mingles with the theoretical (“I don’t think Stravinsky was a pioneer, except in certain rather limited ways.”)

There are some choice essays about Bach, the man Gould deems, not surprisingly “the greatest musician who ever lived,” along with Gould’s thoughts on composers and artists ranging from Beethoven to Schoenberg, from Karajan to Sviatoslav Richter, who was still unknown in the West at the time Gould met him in Russia.

Glenn Gould at his best is compelling reading. His lecture, “Forgery and Imitation in the Creative Process”, in particular, stands out, leaving readers to ponder the methods by which our society arrives at a measure of artistic worth. Of far less interest, however, are Gould’s views on the demise of the concert experience, along with the misguided notion that the listener, through technological advances in home audio equipment, will begin to function as a composer.

Especially mystifying about Gould was the peculiar satisfaction he got from performing music with which he had no particular affinity – and doing it his way with a vengeance. What could he have been thinking when, in the script prepared for a national CBC radio broadcast of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, he likens the work to “an harmonically enriched Hanon exercise,” labels the music “unapproachable” and for a closer, adds: “This performance . . . marks my first attempt at the Hammerklavier – and it may well be my last.” That it was forever retired from Gould’s repertoire may have seemed, to many listeners, an act of mercy. Furthermore, in a 1981 interview for Britain’s Performance Magazine, he says that ten or twelve years earlier, “I did a broadcast of the Chopin B Minor Sonata. I did it just for the hell of it, turning it – just to annoy all my friends – into a total Teutonic experience.”

So what’s the point? Moreover – where’s the integrity? Plenty of grist for the anti-Gould mill here. It’s certainly a stark contrast to his CBC radio presentation on Orlando Gibbons. Gould claimed the16th century composer to be his favourite, and, as Roberts notes, the statement is baffling. Wouldn’t you expect Bach, the composer with whom Gould’s name is inextricably linked, to be the prime object of his affection? But the explanation Gould provides is disarming in its simplicity: “For about twenty-five years now,” he writes, “I’ve found more real happiness listening to the music of Gibbons than to that of any other composer.” Now that’s a compelling reason for an audience to stay in their seats – certainly preferable to being treated as guinea pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of musical experiment.

Yes, Gould was perplexing, and we will never really know what motivated the man. Clearly, some of his endeavours were performed with a nudge and a wink. Others are harder to explain. But what astonishes on reading these texts is that, as a “popular educator”, he was able to demand so much from his audience. Surely many of his ideas and allusions, as well as the musical terminology with which he peppered his broadcasts, must have left all but the most musically informed choking in the intellectual dust. You wonder how he got away with it, but get away with it he did, and in doing so he was able to raise musical discourse to a level that we have not seen since his death in 1982.

And isn’t this achievement – along with a recorded legacy that often thrills, occasionally fails, but always, like his essays, invites the listener to think – what Glenn Gould’s detractors should remember him for?

Keith Jarrett in Tokyo Japan before contracting chronic fatigue syndrome

Keith Jarrett in performance.

The National Post, 20 November 1999
By Stewart Hoffman

Though Keith Jarrett has performed thousands of concerts during his 35 years as one of the most influential pianists in jazz, stepping onto the stage of Roy Thomson Hall tomorrow evening will not be an act he takes for granted.

For a long while after the mysterious illness known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) first laid waste to his system during a fall ’96 tour of Italy, Jarrett didn’t know if he would ever perform again. He was virtually housebound for two years, struggling with the stultifying fatigue – chief among several symptoms he didn’t particularly want to discuss – and the dizziness that still prevents him from reading music.

At one point he put on a video of his Tokyo ’96 concert. It must have seemed like an out of body experience as he saw a Keith Jarrett at the height of his creative powers, a pianist who could barely contain the rushes of energy coursing through his body that literally lifted him to his feet and pitched his head back and forth to the music.

“I sat there on the sofa like a vegetable,” said Jarrett, speaking from his rural New Jersey home, “and I was watching myself play and I thought ‘This isn’t going to happen again unless I’m really lucky.'”

Not much is known about CFS, and once you’re diagnosed with it, says Jarrett, no one knows what to do about it. So about two-and-a-half years ago, he embarked on an experimental treatment.

“I got in on a program that was aggressive and medically based and scary to a lot of other patients because it involves antibiotics for a long period of time,” he says. “I’ve known people who have had the disease for 25 years who haven’t tried this method.”

The intensive treatment seems well suited to Jarrett, who is fond of an old Bulgarian proverb: If you wish to drown, don’t torture yourself with shallow water.

Shallow is not a word you would ever associate with Jarrett.

If he were only known as an inspired improviser and an innovator on his instrument, his place alongside Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and a handful of other jazz pianists would be secure. But his achievements as a classical pianist – not a crossover dabbler but a true artist who provides genuine insight in performance – are also formidable.

He has performed classical recitals at Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Centre, and at Bonn’s Beethovenhaus, and has recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations on harpsichord, as well as a number of Mozart piano concertos, among other works. His release of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues was selected Classical Recording of 1992 by CD Review.

Jarrett, 54, began studying classical piano in his hometown of Allentown, Pa., his prodigious talent leading to recitals at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia and Madison Square Garden. It wasn’t until he was in his teens that he started playing jazz, turning down an opportunity to study with Nadia Boulanger, one of the most renowned pedagogues of the century, to study jazz at Boston’s Berklee School of Music.

He went on to New York, eventually playing with the Charles Lloyd Quartet, a group that was a jazz phenomenon in the ’60s, sharing bills with the likes of Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane, and packing them in at San Francisco’s rock palace, Fillmore West. He joined Miles Davis’ band for two years before heading out to lead his own groups, the most famous of which is the Standards Trio, appearing in Toronto tomorrow night.

Born out of a 1983 recording session with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette – jazz legends in their own right – the trio derived its name from the music it draws from, the “great American songbook” of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. But to this day the band doesn’t rehearse, there are no arrangements, and no one, including Jarrett, knows what they’re going to play until they’re onstage. It’s essentially a jam session, with all the spontaneity that that implies, and the combination of invention, subtle communication and joyous, swinging abandon among kindred spirits has made it, simply, the most celebrated jazz ensemble of the decade.

But parallel to his work with the Trio were the series of extraordinary solo piano concerts that Jarrett began in the early ’70s and continued to perform until 1996: improvisations, often epic in scope, such as the first part of his 1995 concert at La Scala. A 45 minute tour de force running the gamut of emotions and musical techniques, it – like all the other solo efforts – is constructed upon nothing more than the inspiration summoned at the moment of performance, without the terra firma of a melody or set of chord changes to fall back on. Jarrett is sure that it was the stress of performances such as this that contributed to his illness. As he told the LA Times, “I think there is an essential insanity – physical and emotional insanity – to the solo thing. In the way I approach my work, I was asking for it.”

But if solo marathons such as these contributed to Jarrett’s illness, then there is some justice in the fact that his weakened state provided the context for a very different musical endeavour.

In December, 1997, Jarrett walked into the small recording studio next to his house, set up microphones around his newly refurbished Hamburg Steinway and, working a half-hour at a time to conserve his energy, recorded a Christmas present for his wife, Rose Anne. Just released on CD, The Melody at Night, With You is unlike any other solo recording Jarrett has produced. There is almost no improvisation on the disc; the standards and traditional songs played are stripped to their essence. It is melody at its most haunting, with a core emotional thread of wistful, magical reflection. Jarrett refers to the CD as his treasure. “There was this illness,” he says, “and the illness was vast, and somehow I was able to make it talk.”

Things have been looking up for Jarrett since then. He played his first comeback concert with the Trio last November, and has played a few, very carefully scheduled concerts since then. And while his health is still not one-hundred percent, the glowing reviews suggest that his playing has not diminished one iota.

When the Standards Trio comes to town, it’s always a major musical event. Seeing Keith Jarrett back on stage and in control brings to this particular event the added dimension of celebration.

The National Post, 4 September 1999
By Stewart Hoffman

Mychael Danna accepting an Academy Award for Best Film Score, The Life of Pi, in 2013.

Mychael Danna accepting an Academy Award for Best Film Score, The Life of Pi, in 2013.

Film composer Mychael Danna’s condo, like much of his music, is drenched with the exotic. The film composer’s home overflows with Indian carpets, Moroccan lanterns, Thai pillows, Cambodian bells, hand painted silks and an assortment of instruments with names like gopichand and tanpura. The condo peers off the edge of Toronto from twenty-seven floors above a seemingly infinite Lake Ontario.

His books, too, point to other places; mixed in with those on film theory are titles such as Balinese Character and India. And Lawrence of Arabia. “I enjoy reading about misplaced people,” Danna says, “people that are uncomfortable with the world and want to change it, go somewhere else, learn a new way of life.”

Like that misplaced Englishman charging through the desert to Aqaba, Danna’s music – a minimalist blend of east and west, ancient instruments and electronics – at first seems at odds with its environment.

For Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, the Iranian ney flute, as well as lutes, viols and recorders, evokes nothing of the northern British Columbian community where the action is placed. And in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, the Native American flute, and the Indonesian gamelan orchestra, are about as harmonious with the trendy families living in the 1970s Connecticut countryside as a honky-tonk piano with a string quartet.

But there’s a method to Danna’s madness that makes the seemingly incongruous juxtapositions work. He rejects the film scoring tradition whereby the music reflects the action on the screen, an approach that, in a Film Score Monthly interview, Danna called “patronizing” in it’s assumption “that people are so stupid that they don’t know what’s going on.” So you won’t find him “Mickeymousing”, a tired technique which might fuse the image of a train leaving the station to accelerating musical “chugs”, or a look of surprise to a blast of brass. He also doesn’t write love themes that tip you off to that imminent first kiss. Which is not to snub the often magical scores of Hollwood’s Golden Age: the Robin Hood of Erich Korngold, say, or Bernard Herrmann’s Citizen Kane. But Danna approaches film from a more oblique perspective, delving deep to find a subtext that illuminates the film’s theme from an unexpected angle. Danna’s Charles Foster Kane might be attended by music for a Roman Emperor.

The ney flute and ancient instruments of Hereafter underscore the film’s parallel story, that of the Pied Piper and the medieval town in which that fable took place. And though the originally planned Moog score for Ice Storm would have contributed to the film’s ’70s feel, the Native flute and gamelan convey the sounds of nature, to provide a timelessness that serves as a foil for the superficiality, aberrant behaviour, and disconnectedness of the central characters. “Sometimes,” says Danna, “the film isn’t about what you’re seeing on screen.”

What is extraordinary about Mychael Danna, says Atom Egoyan, the filmmaker with whom he is most closely associated, is his “ability to deal with a degree of emotional consequence through the music which may not have always been immediately apparent.”

It’s a talent that has served him well, placing him among the most acclaimed and sought after film composers today. His recent credits include scores for Kama Sutra, the unfortunately neglected Regeneration, and an as yet unreleased The Confession, starring Ben Kingsley and Alec Baldwin. Even amidst the critical lambasting given Joel Schumacher’s 8MM, Danna’s score was singled out for praise. (“About the only thing 8MM has going for it,” wrote one critic, “is an exotic east/west score by . . . Mychael Danna.”) His ongoing partnership with Egoyan has resulted in two Genie Awards for Best Film Score (Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter), and one of seven other Genie nominations, for Egoyan’s 1988 film, Family Viewing. You can find Danna’s latest work at the Toronto International Film Festival; his most recent collaboration with Egoyan, Felicia’s Journey, is set for the opening night Gala on September 9, with Ride With the Devil, his second Ang Lee film, also slated for the gala series.

Danna already seemed to know his game plan at eight years old when, at his first piano lesson, he told his teacher he wanted to learn composition. As a teenager, he played the organ in church and the keyboards in experimental bands in Burlington, Ontario, where the family had moved from Winnipeg. He studied composition at the University of Toronto, wrote music for student theatrical productions, and continued his exploration of electronic music, then went on to work as composer-in-residence at Toronto’s McLaughlin Planetarium.

He met Egoyan in 1986. It was a meeting the now 40-year old composer refers to as the “accident” that got him into film making. “If I’d never worked with him,” says Danna, “I never would have found an appealing reason to work in this business.” As for Egoyan’s first impression of Danna’s work: “His music just floored me.”

When the two got together soon afterward to make Egoyan’s first feature, Family Viewing, neither of them, says Danna, had much background in film. “He came from a theatre background and I came from a purely music background. We just applied what we knew about those arts to making film and film music. We came fresh.”

But not even their 13-year old friendship, or their five films together, guarantees smooth artistic sailing. The process of arguing and challenging each other, says Egoyan, is one “that we both really enjoy and need.” The source of their biggest dispute, he adds, was Felicia’s Journey.

Egoyan’s concept of a Mantovani-like sound, but “something a bit more skewed” to reflect the central character’s psychosis, caused Danna some discomfort. “He doesn’t like that sound,” says Egoyan, “for all the right reasons I guess.” Danna’s approach, which finally won out, was inspired by the music of Arnold Schoenberg – not melodic in the traditional sense, and about as far removed from Mantovani as you can get. An initial “row” of twelve notes is stretched, compressed, turned upside down, and transfigured every which way following strict rules.

“The male lead,” Danna says, “is this puzzle that has many different permutations to his character. But deep below there is a code to what he is about. This technique is about him.” Ultimately, Egoyan says, it all “worked brilliantly,” providing a tonal portrait “that informs the character’s gradual slipping into a psychosis. I think Mychael and I both need structural reasons to justify what we’re doing. These are the arguments we have. We really need to define our themes, and what we’re trying to express with those themes.”

But Danna doesn’t always get things his way. The request by Ang Lee and the Ride With the Devil producers that Danna go the more traditional route and create a grand, propulsive, score paralleling the sweep of the film’s Civil War setting, resulted in an effort with which Danna is still not entirely at ease. “This was a case where I went against what I wanted,” says Danna. “But I really trust Ang as a filmmaker; I think he’s one of the greater filmmakers on earth.”

He can’t restrain a smile, though, listening to a track of battle music from the score. But it’s a smile touched with incredulity, like that of a man staring into a mirror who doesn’t quite recognize the features in the reflected image. For a composer still convinced that he’s “unable to write Romantic music,” the heroic heights scaled by the battery of Civil War era instruments and the thundering symphony orchestra collected on a London soundstage still surprises him. “It has it’s moments,” says Danna, “where I couldn’t believe I wrote it.” His final verdict? “I don’t know the answer yet. I’m still too close to it.”

Is there a theme running through Mychael Danna’s own life? “There’s that sense of dislocation,” he admits, “and dissatisfaction with this time and place that maybe led me to do some exploring. But through the exploring, I’ve also learned that I don’t belong anywhere else either. In that way I think Toronto is the best city for me.” Because with its “mixture of people”, and its own dynamic blend of east and west, says Danna, “It feels like it’s not really anywhere. Maybe that’s where I feel most comfortable.”

And when you look out from Danna’s studio, over and beyond the Lake, you can easily imagine yourself wherever you want to be.

A child playing with maracas at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto

An early childhood education class at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.

Homemaker’s magazine, May 1999
By Stewart Hoffman

It’s early Saturday morning at the Hugh Mappin Children’s Learning Centre at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, and the strollers are lined up along the hallways like taxis at an airport. Inside one of the classrooms, parents walk, gallop and tiptoe to a variety of music, holding their babies in their arms so they can feel the rhythm. Over the next half hour they sing nursery rhymes, bounce their children on their knees, play finger- and toe-tickling games. They even rattle homemade shakers and rhythm sticks.

All of these parents are probably familiar with the widely known benefits of childhood music education: that it enhances motor skills, social skills, creativity and, lest we forget, that it gives pleasure. What they may not know is that the early study of music could play a significant role in the development of their child’s brain.

Experiments by Dr. Frances Rauscher and physicist Gordon Shaw at the University of California, Irvine, link the study of music to increased spacial intelligence — the ability to manipulate mental images of physical objects and perform the kind of mental gymnastics so important to geometry or physics, engineering or architecture. When undergraduates at the university listened to Mozart as a prelude to a spatial IQ test, they scored higher than students who went in cold. Although this “Mozart effect” lasted only 10 minutes, a more recent experiment, published in the February ’97 issue of Neurological Research, showed that pre-schoolers who studied piano scored 34 per cent higher in spatial-temporal reasoning tests. “Music lessons,” concludes Rauscher, “seem to promote the neural development required for spatial-temporal reasoning.” In other words, studying music early on might permanently wire the brain for success in math and science. But how early is too early?

“Singing to your baby before its born is one way to start,” says Katherine Smithrim, a professor in the faculty of education at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and the first to introduce music and baby classes in Toronto in the early 1980s. “Children recognize the songs that were sung to them in the womb.” It may be the ultimate surround-sound experience. And singing to your child — both pre- and post-birth — helps develop a “disposition” to music that can’t be taught.

Once children reach the advanced age of three, there’s a much broader — sometimes bewilderingly so — musical landscape from which to choose. Music schools and conservatories, community centres and local Y’s offer a variety of music education classes: eurythmics classes, with a focus on movement; Kodaly classes, which are vocally based; and Orff classes, which incorporate the playing of percussion instruments (a collection of user-friendly xylophones, metallophones, shakers and drums) to accompany singing and movement. Or parents may prefer a generic “music for your child” class that incorporates elements of all three. What all of the classes have in common is the fundamental belief than anyone can learn music, and that children can learn it as naturally as they absorb the nuances of their native tongues.

It shouldn’t take parents long to decide if a childhood music education class is effective, says Wendy Taxis, a eurythmics teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Music. “Kids start singing and moving around.” As Taxis plays “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the piano, her class of four-year-olds begin gliding around the room, illustrating her point. Arms stretched high above their heads, they transform themselves into stars, fingers opening and closing — twinkling. When the music descends to a lower register, the children respond, becoming starfish, lying on the floor, submerged in the ocean. As the children develop, says Taxi, the activities will demand greater concentration and quicker response. “And in three months their listening skills will be much more acute.”

For parents who want to give their children a jump start on the study of an instrument, Suzuki classes, which teach kids the violin, piano, viola and cello (and to a lesser extent the flute and guitar) as early as age three, may be the answer. Shinichi Suzuki also believed that children could learn music as naturally as they learn a language; thus, they’re provided with music tapes to take home, listen to and imitate. The reading of music, as with a language, comes later. Parental involvement is key; parents are expected to work with the children at home, and be present for both private and group lessons. “Suzuki emphasizes the family environment — what the child listens to at home, the interrelationship between parents and children, and what values there are in terms of music,” says Margot Jewell, director of the Etobicoke Suzuki School in Toronto. “He believed that we need to surround our children with music in the home, and that the parent needs to be a partner with the teacher.”

If the Suzuki method seems like a far cry from your childhood experience with the neighborhood piano teacher, it probably is. But that doesn’t mean that going to a private teacher can’t be the springboard to a lifetime of musical involvement and enjoyment. The key is finding the right instructor. Margaret Halliwell is a Royal Conservatory of Music piano teacher who is renowned for her work with children. “The personality of the teacher plays a huge role,” she says. “A good teacher has to be nurturing if the child is going to continue.” Nurturing, well-trained and musical. Halliwell recommends getting recommendations from friends or calling a reputable school or conservatory or a university music faculty. And don’t be afraid to ask for credentials. Those first music lessons will have a tremendous impact on your child’s musical life.

Cynthia Dan Beardsley, chair of the Toronto Coalition for Music Education, says we should heed the lessons learned in California, when the state eliminated their music programs in order to cut costs. “Kids started performing lower on tests, and as much as you don’t want to say this is all about test scores, it proves what many of us have known all along.”

Music matters.