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REMOTE | Lawrence Cherney: ‘COVID Has Left Many Of Us With Spiritual Questions’

By Michael Zarathus-Cook on June 1, 2020

Lawrence Cherney
Lawrence Cherney (Image courtesy of the artist)

I’m particularly curious about how and what artistic directors in the performing arts are thinking at this precarious moment in the industry. On one hand they have to preach and plan for an abundant amount of caution in regard to when audiences can safely congregate, while navigating the administrative and financial manoeuvres needed to keep their companies afloat while the doors to performance are shuttered. All this and more while simultaneously planning for the best case scenario 2020/2021 season.

We are joined by Lawrence Cherney, the Artistic Director of Soundstreams, for this special episode of REMOTE. Cherney appears to be a bit less perturbed than most about how permanent COVID-19-related changes to the performing arts will be. While the organization has been at the forefront of digital content, Cherney isn’t buying the projection that digital content will be enough to satisfy audiences for the foreseeable future. He joins us to discuss a number of the topics he’s been thinking of recently, including the 2020/2021 season, ASMR, Claude Vivier and more.

How’s life at home been for you during this lockdown?

I terribly miss personal contact with my colleagues at Soundstreams, with artists of all kinds, with our audiences, and with our supporters. My professional life is so deeply dependent upon the chemistry of those relationships that it’s impossible to replace it. The greatest challenge is around controlling expectations — we can, of course, continue to communicate with each other through other means — outside of meeting in person, my favourite before, during and after COVID continues to be the telephone, which is so much richer for the life of the spirit than “zooming”. But we do what we need to do to keep it all going!

Since the lockdown, I’ve been in a farm house on a rural property that is just teeming with wildlife. Watching the spring unfold in slow motion because of the uncharacteristically cool weather has been a real treat for me. It’s hardly an upside to COVID, but I’ve been very fortunate to have that experience at this most extraordinary of times.

How is Soundstreams adjusting its 20/21 season in response to the lockdown? How has it changed your digital strategy in the long run?

It’s way too early to be talking about the long run for any aspects of the arts. It’s become fashionable to talk about what will be “changed forever” in the arts, as if the world has had no experience with pandemics. The Black Plague wiped out half the population of Europe, and horrible as that was, in the long run it still didn’t stop people from congregating again in large/larger groups. We’re hardwired to congregate — we need it as a species — so it will come back sooner or later to our world too.

Digital strategies have always been important to Soundstreams, including the streaming of past shows. In fact, when streaming became technically possible, we were the first music organization in Canada to stream a whole season, and we’re looking forward to discovering innovative ways of presenting, and disseminating, our shows in the future beyond mere streaming.

Our 2020/21 season will need to reflect health concerns around the possible size of any cast in a live presentation as well as the size of audience needed to make that live production viable from the viewpoint of anticipated ticket sales. Again, there has been a good deal of talk about how art forms will change, which I don’t buy. I think Glenn Gould got it right: he felt that recording was simply a different medium from live performance — it didn’t replace it — nor was it a substitute for it.

Next season will have a combination of formats: some performances may only be available digitally; some will hopefully present the option to attend virtually or in person; and there may be events that can only be experienced “live” without a digital offering.

When do you anticipate Claude Vivier’s Musik für das Ende to be back? And why is Vivier special to you?

Claude Vivier has a very special place in the development of Canadian music. He was an outsider in so many ways; he was an orphan, taken early into the Jesuits and then expelled because he was openly gay, treated with contempt by the press in Canada, and refused as a student by Stockhausen. Stockhausen did take him finally, and he became widely recognized before and after his murder in 1983 as one of the most original and imaginative composers of his generation. It has been said that Claude was pre-occupied with Death, Sex and Eternity, and sensational as that may sound, underneath it all is the fact he searched for his identity throughout his whole life. It was a spiritual search — he did live a dangerous personal life — but he could only create when he ventured well beyond the range of normal human experience. In some important way, he risked all to bring back something of Eternity from those dangerous experiences, and that ritual journey to Eternity (and back!) is so evident in every note that he wrote.

Before this season’s Musik für das Ende tour to Germany, Netherlands and Belgium had to be cancelled because of COVID, we already had a second European tour planned for May 2021 which includes major appearances in a Claude Vivier Festival hosted by London’s prestigious Southbank Centre. That tour will include engagements postponed from this season as well as others. In May 2021 we are hoping our Toronto season will include a second program called Shiraz of Vivier concert works that will tour with Musik für das Ende: Love Songs, Shiraz, Cinq chansons pour percussion, and the world premiere of a new work by Toronto composer Chris Mayo.

Are there underlying themes to the eclectic roster of 20/21 productions?

Our seasons always have underlying themes, and 2020/21 is no exception. Our aim remains to curate cultural conversations through our programming, i.e., to stimulate conversations among Canadians that explore themes relevant to our society’s time and place. For example, our planned opening show next season is called Quiet Time and features two new works by Robin Dann and Allison Cameron that were inspired by Arctic Expeditions that each of them took at different times in recent years to Spitsbergen and Svalbard on the Arctic Archipelago. Soundstreams has been probing Northern Identity for 25 years through extensive exchange with the Nordic countries. The show will also explore how we find quiet in this day and age, exploring the ASMR phenomenon. I’ve mentioned our continuing interest in Vivier, who has extraordinary relevance for our time in his preoccupations with spiritual life. COVID has left many of us with spiritual questions — what is our purpose on earth, did our lives have meaning before the pandemic, and/or do we need to search for new meaning during and afterwards?

What do you think some arts organizations are doing right at this moment? Any shining examples?

Many organizations are finding creative ways to engage with audiences while staying true to who and what they are, which is harder to do in some disciplines than others. When people look back on the COVID period, it won’t be the number of digital offerings that an organization floods the market with that will be remembered, but rather the impact that was made. I’m not the best person who should be asked that question. Because I have limited access to high speed internet in the rural area where I currently am, I have to save most of the broadband available to me for Zoom meetings — unfortunate — but true.

What are you watching/listening to/reading at the moment?

I may not have unlimited broadband access, but I have been able to watch some great DVD’s if I can get my hands on the physical product. I highly recommend: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 13 Conversations About One Thing, Syriana, Citizen Four and Moonlighting.

I’m a subscriber to the New Yorker, and I’m enjoying it now more than ever. The “Shouts and Murmurs” section has had some wonderful spoofs on COVID, a welcome relief from the seriousness of it all. Try Quarantine Stew in the May 11, 2020 issue. It’s a recipe that will make your heart sing!

For more chats with artists in social isolation, read on HERE.


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Michael Zarathus-Cook
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