Community Conversations and Libraries

Earlier this week I attended a music night at my local public library.  The night featured a couple of local musicians as well as Tenpenny Bit a traditional music group from out of town.  The evening was free to attend (but a number of people did give small donations), included a couple of hours of good music, conversation, and snacks.  The event was well attended and made me think about the relationship between libraries, art, and communities.

When I first moved to Northern Ontario I remember being baffled by the fact that the library wasn’t open all the time.  The town I grew up in wasn’t huge but it had enough people and funding to support a large library with great hours.  The library in the community I live in now is only open 29 hours a week but still manages to offer a range of programming.

In the past year the library has hosted a handful of small art shows and music nights.  The art shows and displays have featured works by local artists and the music nights have highlighted both local and visiting talent. The events bring people into the library that might not normally visit and provide a needed creative venue within the community.

The most recent music night also highlighted the idea of libraries as community spaces and places of conversation.  Most businesses in our small town close at 6pm.  But the library is open from 7-9pm four nights a week. The library also has a visible presence in the local paper, community nights, and local events. This presence might be as simple as offering hot chocolate and cookies during the winter ‘midnight madness’ event to encourage people to step into library.  The local library is an integral part of the community and actively works to engage locals outside of traditional library programming. 

I like the idea of libraries as being flexible spaces of engagement where patrons can engage with knowledge, arts, and community.  Books bring people together.  But so do free cookies, music nights, and children’s programming.

Archives Music

When you think of music you probably don’t instantly think of archive themed songs. Yet, there are a surprising number of lyrics that mention archives.  For your listening pleasure on this snowy Monday:

John K. Sampson‘s “When I Write My Master’s Thesis“contains a great reference to archives: “Oh the hours I spent in the archives wearing cotton gloves, shuffling photos from the night at Sanatorium…”  The image of white gloves tends to draw to mind the idea of dusty papers and rooms filled with boxes, but it is definitely an archives reference in an alternative rock song.

There is actually a London, England based band named Archive.  They are well worth a listen, even if the only reference to archives is their name.

Though more of a library reference than an archives shout out,the Arkells song Book Club contains the amusing line “You’re my library, always open for business.” Additionally, many of the Arkells songs mention well known (and at times historic) Hamilton landmarks.  Some of the more well known references include the Snooty Fox, Jackson Square, Frank McCourt, and McMaster.

The “Little Boxes (In the Archives)” parody  is about as archive oriented as a song can get.  There are mentions of Hollinger boxes, grey boxes, folders, flattening, material types, reference, and genealogy.  Check out the full song:

Cultural Heritage and Traditional Ukrainian Dance

Last weekend I had the privilege of attending a Ukrainian dance recital put on by the Zorya Ukrainian Dance Association in Thunder Bay, Ontario.  The recital depicted history from numerous distinct regions of the Ukraine.  The dances, costumes, and music all reflected particular events in Ukrainian culture from various different regions.

Until attending this recital the only exposure I had to Ukrainian dance was at a wedding.  The dancing at the wedding was done by a dance trope and was fantastic, however I had no idea of the historical roots and context that the dancing embodied. 

The repertoire of the Zorya dance group focuses on the 19th century Ukraine.  Bits of history that were readily apparent through the dances included traditional farming techniques, marriage ceremonies, hospitality protocol, and gender roles. 

Dance steps and costumes in Ukrainian dance are extremely gender oriented.  Certain types of dance are reserved explicitly for males, eg. using swords as props.  Other dance steps such as lifts, shawl dances, ribbon and flower props are used only by females.  At first I was a bit taken by how strictly gendered everything was, however considering Zorya’s emphasis on the 19th Century Ukraine, the gender roles are reflective of the period.

Watching this dance trope was a great experience and brought aspects of Ukrainian heritage alive in an interesting, engaging, and lively way.  If you ever have the chance to see Zorya or another Ukrainian dance group I highly recommend it.

What other types of traditional dance embody cultural history in a similar way?

Canadian History via Ian Tamblyn

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Canadian folk musician Ian Tamblyn in concert.  Ian’s music has a distinctly Canadian feel to it and a number of his songs recount moments in Canadian history.  Some of the historical topics he touched on last night were the CPR, the Franklin expedition, First Nation/Settler tensions, and exploration of the North. 

Earlier this year Tom Peace wrote a great post for Active History on the relationship of music and historical understanding.  The ability to learn about the past is definitely present when listening to Tamblyn.

Since it’s Friday, here is a bit of Ian’s music to celebrate the weekend.

Emily Howell: A Digital Composer


A recent Spark program on CBC radio focused on David Cope and his exploration of the role of artificial intelligence in the creation of music. Cope began working on a similar program Experiments in Music Intelligence(EMI) in the 1980s. This program took existing styles of music and created music based on those styles. For example, the EMI software could ‘listen’ to a number of works by Beethoven and then creates a unique piece of music based on the musical styles of Beethoven. The use of artificial intelligence to create music based on the style of famous composers in my mind seems like taking historical reproduction to the next level. Instead of merely reproducing existing work EMI rearranges and builds upon existing works. It is not merely repoducing but re-framing and reinterpreting past works. Not exactly a look into the past, but maybe a look into a kind of alternate version of the past.

More recently Cope created an AI program called Emily Howell, which has the ability to ‘independently’ compose new music. This machine created music has been met with mixed results (here, here, here). Some have criticized Cope with destroying the last human element of music composition, while others have praised his ingenuity. The music created by Emily Howell has its own unique style. Additionally, Emily can take instructions and modify ‘her’ music based on the preference of the user. The software breaks music down into mathematical and scientific formulas and creates music based on assigned algorithms. The moral merit of the music created by Emily Howell aside, the use of AI based software to create classical music is pretty both creative and an interesting step towards a new branch of music.