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ON THE RADAR | Two Biographies Bring The Lives Of Unsung Canadian Musical Heroes To Life

By Robin Roger on November 19, 2019

‘The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood and a Fragile Mind’ (Mark Abley) and ‘Jan in 35 Pieces’ (Ian Hampton) illuminate the lives and struggles of working Canadian musicians.

The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood and a Fragile Mind (Mark Abley) and Jan in 35 Pieces (Ian Hampton)
The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood and a Fragile Mind (Mark Abley) and Jan in 35 Pieces (Ian Hampton)

The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood and a Fragile Mind by Mark Abley; University of Regina Press, $24.95 hardcover

Jan in 35 Pieces: A Memoir in Music by Ian Hampton; Porcupine’s Quill Press; $24.95 paperback

When you’re busy purchasing the gifts you’re planning to give at Christmas, it’s understandable that you probably aren’t pausing to appreciate some of the priceless gifts you’ve already received. Some of those are items bestowed on you personally, but there are others that are intangible, yet major gestures that were made towards all of us collectively. Two books about musicians who devoted their careers as performers and teachers to Canadian audiences and students help us appreciate how much we’ve been enriched by these valiant artists.

The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood and a Fragile Mind is Mark Abley’s account of his father Henry Thomas Abley’s unswerving dedication to his work playing the pipe organ for congregations in Lethbridge, Saskatoon, Sault Ste Marie and Montreal, a calling that attracts less appreciation than other musical vocations because the player is usually sitting out of sight of the audience.

Jan in 35 Pieces is cellist Ian Hampton’s memoir of a musical career, jam-packed with adventures and misadventures ranging from heart-stopping musical euphoria to slapstick mishaps. Both books depict the early life and musical training of men who began life and learned their craft in England before crossing the pond.

Though the two men were born 18 years apart, (1917 and 1935 respectively), their common British experience living through the War and post-War austerity, and their formative musical training, coloured the mid-century Canadian experience of education in the British musical tradition after these teachers arrived in the Colonies. If you know a Baby Boomer like me, who was exhorted to count the “quavers and crochets”, rather than eighth notes and quarter notes, these books will evoke memories for them.

Drastically different in mood and style, with The Organist being a bitterly dark account of the defeats and struggles of Harry Abley, and Jan in 35 Pieces a far more triumphant narrative of a life blessed with rewards, these books each make us aware of how arduous, insecure and physically risky was the life of a Canadian musician. Harrowing journeys under life-threatening conditions occur for both Abley and Hampton, who crossed cracked ice on Bombardiers to reach Arctic gigs, and waited on wharfs in the rain for float planes to transport him to other concerts. In a compact car regardless of weather, Harry Abley drove an hour each way from Saskatoon to teach in small prairie towns each week.

We think of improvisation as jazz’s defining mode, but both these books make it nail-bitingly clear how often it is necessary to appear to follow a score while playing by the seat of the pants. When the complex moving parts of an orchestra — including partial scores, conflicting travel schedules, adverse weather conditions, dysfunctional heating and cooling systems, artists’ fluctuating health and moods, and intricate political machinations — are in play, mayhem is just a breath away. The importance of plumbing — indoor or out — is not to be underestimated. Sewage and outhouses in the wrong place at the wrong time occur far more often than you would think.

Music is so emotionally transporting that while we are swept away, we seldom pause to think about the reality behind the magic. Reading about these men’s commitment to music in general, and Canadian musical culture in particular, makes us aware of the debt we owe to these two performers and pedagogues, and so many others like them.

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Robin Roger

Robin Roger is a psychotherapist who emphasizes the importance of learning new things as part of developing and maintaining mental wellness.She is a committed amateur pianist as well as a writer, book reviewer and frequent contributor to Ludwig Van.

Robin Roger

Robin Roger is a psychotherapist who emphasizes the importance of learning new things as part of developing and maintaining mental wellness.She is a committed amateur pianist as well as a writer, book reviewer and frequent contributor to Ludwig Van.
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GUIDE | Live Streaming Tips And How To Play Together Online For Musicians

By Anya Wassenberg on March 25, 2020

With performing stages shut down worldwide, here's a look at how musicians can use streaming to play for an audience, and perform with each other, online.
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