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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

PRIMER | Why Seven Deadly Sins Just Might Be One Of The Most Innovative Concerts Of The Season

By Hye Won Cecilia Lee on April 2, 2019

Chloe Charles, Seven Deadly Sins (Photo: Jen Squires)
What does sin mean in 21st-century? Soundstreams have created a program of seven works threaded together to answer that very question. (Photo: Jen Squires)

Sins and virtues always provoke stories: stories of peril, danger, salvation and dilemma.  The majority of human civilizations, including the Christianity of the Western world, focused their populations on the idea of betterment, to seek salvation from these sins (and away from eternal damnation); and even today, these cardinal sins still manage to inspire us.  And in a few days, there will be a brand new cycle, from our very own homegrown perspective: Soundstreams: Seven Deadly Sins.

“I have been thinking about this project for about four or five years: nothing happens overnight,” says Lawrence Cherney, Artistic Director of Soundstreams.  Always on the lookout for opportunities for fresh thematic synthesis involving living composers, the first seed of this particular inspiration for Cherney was Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins. Cherney initially mused about commissioning the new work, then presenting it in parallel with the Weill’s work, but looking at the length of the program, he decided to present the new cycle as a stand-alone presentation.  “This idea of vices — essentially social taboos, is interesting for me, as every society has its practical and cultural taboos, which keeps the societies cohesive, to help it function better — it’s a cross-cultural thing.  Seven very interesting things to talk about — and how wonderful would it be to have new works from seven different perspectives! It took a while for the concept to crystalize, and to figure out the creative team and a performance team.”

Approaching seven very talented and individualistic creators — most of them have worked intimately with Soundstreams, or with Cherney directly in the past — Cherney discussed the sins with them: “Some expressed personal preference for a particular sin, and others were happy to be ‘assigned’ a sin.”  And the inspiration for calling in Singer-Songwriters? “…these are first-class artists with such varied backgrounds — global, jazz, soul, R&B, just to name a few. They represent a broad spectrum of personal style, and it’s quite eccentric; so to take potential from each, this makes such cross-boundary so interesting.”

Four of the creators, Chloe Charles, Elizabeth Shepherd, Aviva Chernick and Robin Dann, will be presenting their songs with the eclectic ensemble team put together by Soundstreams, and Chris Mayo and Analia Llugdar’s works will be sung by the mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig.  John Kameel Farah’s work, Pride, is for solo piano.  Interestingly, each creator worked without any group interference, and the final order of the work is still yet to come.  “It’s exciting having essentially seven different musical directors, as each work is an individual synthesis,” Cherney said. “Rob Kempson will be helping us to create transitions between the works, and it will be a great presentation!”


Robin Dann
Robin Dann (photo courtesy of the artist)

Robin Dann took a wild extrapolation from her subject, Sloth: “I normally write songs for my own band, so this was a daunting an exciting challenge for me.  I decided to base my composition process completely on a mood I was trying to achieve – a completely inner world, inner dialogue, the psychedelic bliss of a sleeping and walking sloth surrounded by the thick sonic world of the surrounding forest.” Working blind from others, Robin spent much time sitting on her apartment floor, eyes closed: “I was trying to get into the body of an animal that lives upside down, hosts colonies of moths on its back, and uses the sun to regulate its body temperature like a reptile — wild!”


John Kameel Farah
John Kameel Farah (Photo: Leonie Hochrein)

John Kameel Farah, initially, was game for any sins, with one exception: Pride.  “Pride felt too daunting and complex to untangle in a meaningful way.  The other sins, ideas of how to capture them in music came to me quickly — but I took too long deciding, and they stuck me with pride.” John took some time away from the piano, thinking and thinking some more: What is pride, really?

“The more I thought about it, pride is so far-reaching,” Farah said.  “To me, it’s anything related to self-worth; too much of it, or much too little.  Many of us struggle with both extremes.  Self-importance, humility, arrogance, shame, your status in society, and voices within yourself — inflating your head, or crushing your psyche.”

Instead of making specific cultural references, John chose a few symbols for his work: “Part of my piece contains a kind of ironic fanfare inspired by Wendy Carlos and majestic baroque overtures, which was for me, symbolic of both national anthems, and also self-aggrandizement.”  He also went onto ask his friends for a few thoughts on pride: “It is the only solo piece, and will enjoy a brief spotlight on stage, befitting for the I in pride. There’s no real text, other than the brief voices of two people, speaking of their completely opposite experiences around pride- and I built my piece around it, like a musical peak and valley.  The piece is orchestrated for piano and electronics.  The synthesizers function like an orchestral accompaniment, as if the pianist is playing with an imaginary baroque ensemble.”

Being the only creator who is also part of the performing team, Farah was also directly impacted by others creations: “The advantage is that I had no deadline to finish my piece, other than the concert, but as the ensemble pianist, I could see the other composers’ pieces coming in, and get an idea of the contrast in the program.  This gave me a better sense of the context of my piece and how it would fit into the overall evening.”


Christopher Mayo
Christopher Mayo (Photo: Carmen Cheung)

Chris Mayo was happy to tackle Greed: “I never really considered any of the other sins.” Rather than looking at the wider concept of greed, Chris decided to focus on a specific story:

“I was particularly struck by the history of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors, as represented through the sensationalized press coverage of their protests in the media from the first half of the 20th-century.  The Sons of Freedom were most well-known in the press for their practice of burning their own homes as a protest against greed and materialism… the text is an excerpt from Joan MacLeod’s 1992 play, The Hope Slide, which itself tells the story of three Doukhobor martyrs from the perspective of an actor exploring her memories.”

Extending their collaboration from 2014 through an Esprit Orchestra project, Under Dark Water, Chris wrote Greed with Andrea Ludwig in mind: “[this work] is for mezzo, percussion — lots of homemade and found metal instruments — tuned copper pipes, steel rebar, etc., electric guitar, piano, accordion, violin, double bass and electronics.”  And Chris is now looking forward to seeing how it will all fit together:

“I have no idea what to expect from the others! It’s great that there is a thematic thread that connects everything, and it will be interesting to see what commonalities emerge… I think it’s baked into the way this concert has been put together that the themes will pull together all these diverse composers and songwriters into a unified narrative.”


Aviva Chernick
Aviva Chernick (Photo courtesy of the artist)

“I chose Wrath because I’ve never known what it is, in my own experience, in my own body and voice.  My understanding of wrath is as a force that is explosive and destructive. This is its outcome, but what is its genesis?”  Aviva Chernick muses.  A familiar voice in Toronto as a musician, and a well-recognized prayer leader, Aviva often finds herself against many things: “…Against gender, cultural legacy, rules and fears and fixed ways of being, when all I’m seeking is the liberation that might come with unleashing.  It is as true here as elsewhere that the only way out is through.”

“How did I know what to write? What I knew about Wrath was that I needed to know more about it in my own voice and that the text had to be in Yiddish.  What?! I have never written text in Yiddish. I have never done my own concert in Yiddish. I am a World Music artist usually singing in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and Hebrew and some English. I have been a guest on many Yiddish projects but always feel like I am a guest in a foreign land. It turns out that Yiddish was my Zayde’s first language. Yiddish holds all kinds of information for me about who came before me and about myself. My voice is different in this language, strong, sharp so different than the lushness and sensuality of Ladino, than the prayerful nature I drop into with Hebrew. Creating in Yiddish has been a kind of homecoming.”

She looked back into the text she found in a retreat in December, a letter written by Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, known as Nachmanides (1194-1270): “…it triggered me sufficiently to become the foundation text of this piece. I was so enraged that I knew it must be a sign… Nachmanides wrote a letter to his son on his wedding night. In it, he instructs him on how to control anger. In the world of Kabbalah that Nachmanides embodied there was no greater sin, no greater human frailty than unbridled anger. Two excerpts from this text have become the fodder for the music, and the piece ends with a letter in a response written by me to my fictional daughter.”

Aviva then collaborated with James Rolfe to bring out her ideas onto the score: “[he] has been what we are calling my creative process midwife. I had very clear ideas about which instruments would accompany the voice where, but when it came to the full ensemble, James was the expert. James transcribed the piece so that it could be conveyed to the instrumentalists in a clear way for a short rehearsal process. James made the perfect score.”


The project is still being created. These seven works are now being threaded together, as the creators speak to the Soundstreams team, of what they are, and how they are.  It’s exciting to see new perspectives, and even more so, when seven new things are allowed to develop, arrange and rearrange themselves.  After all, good always involves bad as its companion, and, as old as this subject is, it still stands true and demanding.  Do mark your calendar and come to see what it means to today’s Toronto. What is sin and what do we really think?

Soundstreams present: Seven Deadly Sins, 09-11 April 2019, 8 pm at the Great Hall, 1087 Queen St. West. Details here.


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