Celebrate eccentricity and other lessons from Björk

A circle of screens showing constellations hang above the instruments on stage at the Craneway Pavillion
Seeing Björk perform live in San Francisco with this swirl of screens and instruments around her was a treat for the ears and the soul.

Last week, I got to see one of my idols in action in San Francisco, and every splash of electricity, every heart-thumping wail, helped affirm the creative and spiritual path I’ve been drawing up for myself. Many people have asked what it was like seeing Icelandic singer Björk perform live for the first time, so I’ve tried to distill some of the lessons I learned here. First, let me set the scene for you.

Björk has always had murmurs of volcanoes and snow-goddesses in her music, but her latest project, Biophilia, explicitly invites you to think about our place in nature as sort of a midway point between the cosmic and the microscopic. I’ve written before about the iPad/iPhone apps she created for Biophilia. It was something different entirely to see her perform the songs beside a harbour, with the almost-full moon rising behind her.

Man in swan dress stands outside with friends smoking
The obligatory fan wearing a swan dress outside.

It seemed right for my boyfriend and I to dress up a bit whimsically, considering she’s performed in a swan dress and an outfit made of tinkly red fingers of glass. We didn’t realize we’d be so out of place in the city where she was performing, though. Across the Bay from San Francisco itself, she’d set up camp in an old wartime assembly plant in Richmond, refurbished into a glassed-in pavillion overlooking the harbour. I’m glad we wandered around, because it helped us put the evening in context. Richmond is palpably poorer, more latino, and more black, than San Francisco. And while the pavillion was breath-taking to be inside, wandering drew my attention to the more sinister side-effects of the refineries and factories in today’s Richmond.

Meanwhile, we stood in line with digital artists, punk kids from Sacramento, and yuppie parents from Oakland. Once inside, we found a spot standing ten metres away from a small stage surrounded on all sides by fellow eccentrics, creators, and dreamers. The lights dimmed, a ring of screens lit up with videos introduced by nature documentarian David Attenborough, and a cage of tesla coils descended from the ceiling to join the enormous pendulum harps, drums, and pipe organ on stage. That’s when Björk herself came out with ruby platform shoes, a frizzed-out blue and orange wig, and a choir in tow to teach us this:

  • Celebrate eccentricity
    Songs about lunar cycles, and videos of starfish embracing each other, are not for everyone. Björk’s work kind of embraces her fearless, outlandish tendencies, though. As a consequence, she accomplishes things that a less daring artist would never get close to. What could I accomplish if I was less afraid of what people would say, or how they’d react?
  • Don’t give up on the impossible
    Like a giant child’s legs dangling under a desk, the pendulum harp she played was an invention from her own mind. It is literally four enormous wooden pendulums, and when before each one falls she can rotate a circular harp wrapped around its base to pluck a different note. It perfectly suits a song about gravity and Earth’s place in the solar system. She dreamed it up this incredibly complex thing,approached robotics experts and programmers, and gave the world something that never existed before. What else could we make if we looked at our audacious dreams and said, “Yes please, let’s create that”?
  • Comfort is an illusion
    Björk is almost 50* now, but she’s still creatively peaking. Sometimes her experiments don’t work, but she’s not afraid to skip most of the hits and habits that made her famous, to make space to try something new. I think a lot of artists get into a rut of continually reproducing their old stuff to make their fans happy. All the songs about viruses, DNA, and cosmic origins on Biophilia showed me that it’s often safer to let go of what feels comfortable though, because the meaningful and relevant ideas change a lot throughout our lives.
  • Go beyond aesthetics
    Frizzy wigs and tesla coils playing bass synths with lightning are cool, of course, but they’re only worth seeing if they add up to a message. Throughout Björk’s music, there are messages about the need to forgive yourself, to stand up and fight against injustice, to embrace where you fit into a landscape. M.I.A. and K’naan are two other incredible musicians who get that it’s fine to lure people in with sick beats and catchy melodies, but what keeps people coming back are layers of real meaning behind them.
  • Giving matters more than getting
    Generosity comes up a lot in songs like Undo and Generous Palmstroke. This was a theme we felt many times in San Francisco: the only way to create lasting, fruitful bonds in this world, between people, with the rest of our environment, everywhere, is to offer more than you expect to get back.

On top of all of these experiences, it was such a joy to be in that tightly knit little crowd. We serendipitously stood beside a thoughtful quantum physicist from New Mexico and his hilarious wife, an optical engineer who works with lasers, photographs reflections, and sings Björk’s Cosmogony with her daughter as a lullaby.

What was seeing Björk like? It was like being raised up by a sea of people not afraid of their passion.

*Oops! I accidentally aged her and said she was over 50 originally. My apologies for awarding un-earned years.

House full of eccentrics

rutherford fundraiser

You there, with the computer. I want to give you a chance to look swanky and meet some truly wild personalities. Just because I like you. All you have to do is answer a question. Are you in?

I’m on the board of Punctuate! Theatre, right? We’re pretty new, but we’re trying to create heart-palpitating, brainwave-inducing, challenging work. And next Friday, we’re taking over Edmonton’s Rutherford House for our first annual fundraiser to let you have a peek into the process and meet the minds behind the performances. You’ll get to see excerpts from the plays, costumes, the scripts we’ve worked through, and partake in some wining and dining. I want you to come. And lucky you, even if you can’t afford a ticket, I happen to have one to give away. You see, my lovely mother has asked me to purchase one on her behalf and find a good home for it. So in her honour (today is her birthday!), I am giving it away to the first person who can answer this skill-testing question, which will mostly test your skills of research:

Who was in the cast of the first show that Punctuate! produced? No hints which show it was. The first person to name at least two of the cast members in the comments below wins!

Find out more about our takeover of Rutherford House on January 11, from 7 pm – 10 pm.

Edit: We have a winner! Congrats to Steve Andersen.

There’s plenty to love about Being Queer

Vivek Shraya will be in town to lead a discussion after the screening of What I LOVE About Being QUEER

For a community with so much to celebrate, queer folks sure don’t spend enough time talking about what makes our identity and sexuality great. I have story in The Wanderer this week about a documentary that tries to cover some of the joy of the fluid gender roles and “the doin’ it.”

You can read my story on Vivek Shraya’s What I LOVE About Being QUEER here, or meet him in person at the film screening tonight. It’s at 6:30 at Edmonton’s Idylwylde Library.

Streetcars, Satan, and other successes

This has been a bit of an action-packed week, so I just wanted to reflect on some recent successes and thank the people who’ve contributed to them.

First is that thanks to you guys, we reached our fundraising goal on indiegogo to send An Evening With Satan on tour! On behalf of everyone at Punctuate! Theatre, thank you to everyone who chipped in. For a new, small theatre company, $1000 is a great boon to our performers, and will definitely make life easier this week as they bring the show to the Vancouver Fringe Festival.

Second, last weekend’s Shareable Neighbourhood walk on Streetcars had far and away the best turnout so far. It was really inspiring to see so many people with such zeal for learning more about Old Strathcona, especially on a chilly Saturday morning. This time it was led by Earl Grotzki, a local history buff who’s been volunteering with the Edmonton Radial Railway Society for about a decade. You can check out the pictures on the Facebook group.

One of the Shareable Neighbourhood walkers takes a picture of me taking a picture of him on the streetcar
We had some comedians in the crowd for the streetcar ride with last weekend’s Shareable Neighbourhood.

Did you know that when the North Saskatchewan River flooded in 1915, they put a train on the Low Level Bridge to keep it from being torn away by the current? I do now.

Third, Terra Informa has just been picked up on a new station in BC: Kootenay Co-op Radio on CJLY 93.5 FM in Nelson. Sure, it’s just one more slot on one community radio station, but I take it as a big vote of confidence for the show. Not only is Kootenay Co-op Radio the station that produced the highly listenable Deconstructing Dinner, Terra Informa has gone through some dramatic transitions lately.

Relentlessly positive long-time producer Steve Andersen left this summer, as did a bevy of other great interviewers, so Kathryn Lennon, Matt Hirji and I have stepped in to take on some of his work in cultivating new voices for the show. Every week, I go back and listen to stories from the old team to understand how they made thoughtful, engaging radio out of everything from garbage sorting to the worst coal plants in the world. It’s a testament to the hard work of the new contributors like Annie Banks, Morgana Folkmann and Hamdi Assawi that a station like Kootenay Co-op has added us to their lineup.

Last but not least, I’ve been scooped up as the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s new communications officer. I’ve been a fan of ACGC for many years (and were a fan of mine earlier this year with the Top 30 Under 30 profile). Starting at the office today, I was even more excited to see that they take international development and cooperation as seriously and critically as Trent University does.

So from a rich new intellectual environment to the efforts of my colleagues being recognized, this has been a pretty good week. Thanks to everyone who’s made these things possible.

Satanic Circulation and 1000 Tiny Gestures

Today I come to you to make a humble request on behalf of Old Scratch himself, Satan. Or rather, on behalf of Punctuate! Theatre‘s great new play An Evening With Satan, on now at Edmonton’s Fringe. And two things have got me really excited to make this pitch to you.

Elliott James' Satan looks into a mirror, darkly
You’ll be close enough to bump horns with Satan at the show. (Photo credit: Killin’ Photography – April Killins)

First though, here’s the pitch. I’m a new board member at Punctuate!, and I am so so pleased that this is the first of our plays I’ve seen. An Evening With Satan is a dark, funny, and very rude show written and starring Elliott James (whose face just seems to hold an improbably number of disturbing expressions). The dark lord is summoned for an intimate evening to ask us why we live our lives in fear and regret, rather than embracing the joy of being alive. Along the way he shows a little of his vulnerable side, and you’ll probably show some of yours when he asks how many folks revel in bath salts, murder, and sodomy.

The Edmonton Journal’s Jason Markusoff called Elliott’s Satan a “seductive” and “charming, goateed high priest,” and we’re gearing up to take his dark delights on the road. After the Edmonton Fringe, Elliott and the (equally scandalous) director Elizabeth Hobbs will be heading to Vancouver’s Fringe Festival. As with all good endeavours, that’s going to cost money. So we’re in the middle of an Indiegogo campaign to make it happen.

Indiegogo, in case you’re not familiar with it, is an indie funding website like Kickstarter. You pitch in a little bit to make a big idea grow. In this case, you can get cool perks like complimentary tickets and signed posters. We’re aiming to raise $1000 to pay for these guys’ travel costs and hey, maybe eating along the way. We’re halfway there so far.

The first reason I’m so excited about this is I saw it last night at the Fringe, and it’s great. Elliott and Elizabeth share some genuinely outrageous moments, and made me think about my own ideas of pleasure, pain and vengeance. This is why I signed up to support Punctuate!: it’s a little theatre company with a big mission to create bold, intriguing original work that will grab you by the tie and make you sit up and pay attention to your life. And bonus, the play’s on tonight for half-price at 11:15 PM at the Daily Discount booth, too.

The second reason I’m so excited is because these kind of indie campaigns are warming the cockles of my heart lately. Roman Mars made a gigantic ask for his podcast 99% Invisible this month. He was raising money to pay a producer and get some videos made, and once he passed his first target he wondered if he could do something ground-breaking, and get 5000 supporters for his tiny show.

It didn’t matter how much you donated, he just wanted people to feel like they were part of creating something exciting, and it reminded me of something Stuart Mclean did. A couple of years ago Stuart Mclean was in Edmonton doing a Vinyl Cafe Christmas performance, and he was raising money for one his listeners, for medical expenses or something. I don’t remember what the money was for but I remember he asked folks not to donate too much, because he wanted the outcome to be the product of many small gestures, many people making a small choice to help each other out, to add up to something inspiring.

An Evening With Satan made me smile and cringe in all the right ways, and I think it’s worth a bucketload of support. If you can chip in anything, $5, $10, $25, head to Indiegogo before August 30th, you’ll be helping make something magic happen. The perks are nice, too. But that’s my pitch.

The 99% Invisible gang did it, by the way. I know we can, too.

Finally some good news for CBC: Kate Adach the music writer

You may have heard that it’s been a pretty awful week for CBC. The federal budget cut their funding by about $115 million, and it’s been trickling down in cuts like closing the Halifax studio where This Hour Has 22 Minutes is filmed with a live audience, and shutting down Radio One’s essays-from-abroad show Dispatches.

It’s a shame this is happening now, at a time when the network has been trying ambitious things with its music channels (the new CBC Music app is pretty fly) and trying to deepen its local relevance with expanded news coverage in Calgary and BC. Of course this affects me too, having worked with CBC and having so many colleagues still there.

5 Reasons Why Flying Down Thunder & Rise Ashen Will Get You Moving
Photo Design by Ghassene Jerandi/CBC Music

One tiny glimmer of good news, though: they’ve got a worthy new music writer in Kate Adach. My bias is bare, of course: she’s a friend and intellectual muse. But she’s off to a good start with this piece on 5 reasons you should listen to recent Juno nominees Flying Down Thunder and Rise Ashen. I only wish she’d included more of their personal history; the story behind their mix of electronic and traditional Anishinaabe music demands retelling.

Kate’s a great storyteller, incidentally. Just check out this article she wrote: Happy people live longer, just ask a 104-year-old. It soothes another one of my biases: stories that show what people have to offer, rather than just what they need.

More to the point though, how reasonable do you think the federal budget cuts to CBC were? What do you think about the plan to make back some revenue by adding commercials to Radio 2 and Espace Musique?