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FEATURE | Toronto Ravel Focus On Creativity During The Lockdown

By Robin Roger on May 11, 2020

Composer Ron Jones (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Composer Ron Jones (Photo courtesy of the artist)

For the past seven years the study group known as Toronto Ravel has been getting together at Hugh’s Room several times a year to take a deep dive into great orchestral scores. Led by John Herberman, the gathering of composers, performers, and music enthusiasts also share updates on their pursuits and present work-in-progress.

This collective is a spin-off of the original study group launched in 2008 by Ron Jones, the composer who scored several seasons of Star-Trek: The Next Generation and Family Guy. It was conceived as a solution to the professional hazard of spending too much time alone in the recording booth or in front of a computer in a home studio. Long before the novel coronavirus forced us all into our separate spaces these music professionals were encountering the challenges of isolating at home.

So, when the Ravel participants found themselves back in isolation it didn’t take them long to organize Zoom meetings, even though the acoustic limitations of the platform don’t allow them to study a score together. Instead, the segment of the meeting that used to be called Adventures in Listening has become the main focus of their gatherings, renamed Adventures in Isolation. The composers submit short clips of their compositions, which are played with or without visuals, and then receive feedback from each other.

Before COVID-19, these clips tended to come from commercial projects, often works-in-progress. But in the first two cyberspace meetings, many participants spoke of the pleasure they are experiencing as a result of the slower pace of work and life, which has allowed them to focus on their personal musical passions, and shared some of those endeavours with the group. Award-winning composer John Welsman played an arrangement he called, “a reimagining during COVID” of Heart Like a Wheel, sung by his life partner Cherie Camp. The lyrics, “Oh I can’t understand, oh God please hold my hand; why it had to happen to me” seemed to have a new meaning for 55 on-screen listeners.

Composer, orchestrator, and conductor Jamie Hopkings sent in a video clip of time-lapsed clouds assembling over Toronto accompanied by music. As technology would have it, the audio didn’t work during the first rendition so it was played silently first and then again with the music, which was actually a lucky glitch, as Doug Wilde pointed out. “We got to see just how much the music brought to the picture.” Hopkings, who had been inspired because the time-lapse video showed, as he described it, “what couldn’t be seen in real time”, added the haunting score to highlight the ominous creep of swirling light patterns.

That Toronto Ravel is finding these cyberspace meetings an essential boost during the lockdown is clear from the enthusiastic participation during the discussions on screen, and the even more enthusiastic choice to increase the meeting frequency from their once a month schedule in the pre-COVID past, to every two weeks on-line for the time being. But much as they want to gather, they also recognize that the lockdown has given them a serendipitous opportunity to refresh themselves musically and creatively in a way that they wouldn’t have had time for during a normal commercial schedule.

Their special guest at Ravel’s last meeting, Ron Jones, beamed in expressly to communicate the importance of embracing the opportunity offered by this solitude, and stepping back from hired-composing in order to cultivate your inner music. Speaking from his home and studio near Seattle Washington, where he relocated after resigning from Family Guy in 2014, Jones shared his observations about the creative benefits of voluntary self-isolation.

While sipping a drink from his Alfred E Newman mug, he explained to his fellow-composers that the transition from composing for hire to writing for yourself is neither simple nor quick. After meeting the musical demands of supporting the film or show’s story, creating tiny sound bites, and writing within tight deadlines, “the brain has been doing the tasks it was given to do. To write your own inner music, you have to create your own movie,” he said. “What keeps me going is fear that I am not going to do what I want to do.” This has been a gradual adjustment for Jones. It takes time to let the mind expand again, and discipline to explore the wide-open world without an external structure being provided by commercial realities.

The many questions posed by the composers made it clear how stirring they found Jones’ comments and how much they valued his quirky take on creativity and composition. The essence of Jones’ advice boiled down to two things: the need to persevere and the importance of changing work habits to avoid ruts.

“Just write without judging yourself,” he told the group. “It will start to click. But we are all victims of the same old thing; our habits are wrinkles in our brains. Try something different. Use Folger Coffee Cans and pencils instead of a keyboard. You’d come up with a different score because your muscles are grooved differently to a keyboard than to a coffee can with pencils. For my new compositions I’m working at the piano with a graphite pencil on composition paper. I’m not using my gear.”

When Jones detached himself from the hurly-burly of Hollywood and built himself a far-removed base, he joined the ranks of other great advocates of solitude, including Michel de Montaigne, who said, “A man must keep a little back shop where he can be himself without reserve. In solitude alone can he know true freedom.”

British psychoanalyst Anthony Storr’s book, Solitude: A Return to the Self, supports Jones’ stance, describing the link between solitude and creativity for such diverse titans as humourist P.G. Wodehouse and historian Edward Gibbons, who referred to solitude as “the school of genius”.

Of course, there is a vast difference between voluntary solitude and the compulsory isolation COVID-19 is imposing on the world. Still, this may be a time for many of us to reflect on how to put this prolonged state of separation from hustle bustle to good use. It’s pretty clear to me that some beautiful music will emerge from the collective efforts of the Toronto Ravel.

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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

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
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