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A woman is seen in a parka against an arctic snowy landscape and the sun at the horizon.
Singer-songwriter Looee Arreak performed ‘He shall feed his flock’ in Inuktitut in Against the Grain’s production of ‘Messiah/Complex.’ (Messiah/Complex: Introducing Looee Arreak (NU)/YouTube)

Handel’s ‘Messiah’ today: How classical music is contending with its colonial past and present

No work of western classical music is more closely associated with the Christmas season than German-born composer George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, which premiered in 1742.

In recent years, audiences have been able to choose between performances modelled on those of the composer’s time, performances following the 19th-century tradition of massive choirs and modern instruments and even staged and choreographed renditions of the work. When COVID-19 curtailed live performances, online video presentations emerged as a new medium.

This was in the wake of worldwide protests after George Floyd’s murder and a global invigoration of Black Lives Matter. Among artists in different industries, Black classical artists like baritone Andrew Adridge, in conversation with writer Michael Zarathus-Cook, called for classical music to address systemic issues. He noted: “There is a problem with race in … arts organization(s) because there is a problem in Canada” and “shying away from conversations” won’t help.

In a separate piece, Zarathus-Cook wrote about how “we do have to recognize that the protests we’ve been seeing are spurred both by the urgent need for a radical assessment of police forces and how they interact with [Black, Indigenous and people of colour], and the more subtle, culturally diffused, day-to-day racism that is discharged not by a trigger pulled prematurely, but through words and social indications that remind the racialized peoples of this country that they are irrevocably on the outside looking in.”

Even before the global Black Lives Matter protests, a 2018 report written for the non-profit Orchestras Canada by writer and arts consultant Soraya Peerbaye and violinist and ethnomusicologist Parmela Attariwala documents “systemic inequity and coloniality in Canadian orchestras,” ranging from orchestras’ leadership and governance structures to their repertoire and working methods. Music scholars have also been grappling with the colonial legacy of classical music, including Handel’s investments in the slave trade.

Two interpretations of ‘Messiah’

In December of 2020, Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre (AtG) and Soundstreams produced pre-recorded films based on Handel’s Messiah that streamed for free on YouTube. Both organizations showed creative ingenuity in pivoting quickly in the pandemic to produce digital content and offering employment to artists in the early months of COVID-19 as the precarity of artists’ livelihood was becoming increasingly clear.

How these two Canadian companies chose to respond to our contemporary context of anti-racist calls when interpreting Messiah provides an opportunity to have a conversation about how performers and audiences of western classical music can engage more fully in anti-colonial and anti-racist work.

To these questions, we, two white settler scholars, bring our combined research expertise in music of the 18th century and how indie opera companies in Canada are helping works from the past speak to contemporary issues. One of us (Nina) is involved in a project, “Exploring New Collaborative Models in Indigenous-led Opera in Canada.” This collaboration is with Amplified Opera, a Toronto-based collective that inspires audiences to “embrace diverse and challenging cultural experiences.”

Against the Grain’s ‘Messiah/Complex’

Against the Grain Theatre’s new interpretation of Messiah, Messiah/Complex, hoped to support Indigenous and underrepresented voices within their mandate of presenting familiar pieces “in innovative ways and in unusual venues.” They decided to present Handel’s orchestral music as originally written, to be performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, but they hired all Indigenous, Black or racialized singer soloists, 12 in total.

Joel Ivany, AtG’s founder and artistic director, partnered with Reneltta Arluk, director of Akpik Theatre and of Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity to co-direct the production. Ivany has relayed that artists were invited to choose the interpretive frame and language for their performances. The film features segments in Arabic, Dene, English, Inuktitut, Inuttitut, French and Southern Tutchone.

Features in the New York Times, BBC (endorsed by Margaret Atwood) and other major media outlets garnered the film over 138,000 views in 44 countries. Arts reporter Brad Wheeler, writing in the Globe and Mail, described it as an “awe-inspiring lesson on reconciliation and inclusion,” while a New York Times headline on writer Dan Bilefsky’s story declared Handel’s work “freed from history’s bonds.”

Soundstreams’s ‘Electric Messiah’

Another production based on Handel’s work, Electric Messiah by Soundstreams was billed as “a full-length music video that reimagines Handel’s classic for today’s world” and “brings the past to life in a fresh way that reflects the city we live in.”

In keeping with Soundstreams’s mandate to showcase the work of living composers, the company made minimal changes to the texts. Instead, the artists fit these texts with new music with influences from electronic dance music, pop, and hip hop.

Electric Messiah was also well-received but reached a smaller and predominantly local audience.

Classical music’s colonial legacy

In Peerbaye and Attariwala’s Orchestras Canada report, they call on Canadian orchestras “to create non-hierarchical environments where the artistic inquiries of Indigenous artists and artists of colour can take place.” Engaging in “wider conversations about the experiences of Indigenous people, people of colour, and other equity-seeking communities” will enable orchestras to “cultivate equal and reciprocal relationships that meaningfully support current artistic inquiries.”

These recommendations are echoed in Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies, a recent book by Stó:lō scholar and artist Dylan Robinson. He notes that the problem with including more diverse artists and traditions, without altering existing ways of working, is that even the “best intentions of integration continue to reinforce and maintain the hierarchical dominance of art music as the genre to which other music must conform.”

Equitable collaborations with musicians in other traditions are going to involve working in new ways. Robinson also recommends foregrounding the irreconcilable nature of different musical traditions. Allowing these differences to be heard might foster greater openness to the notion that reconciliation cannot be achieved through Indigenous “inclusion” in existing colonial models.

New interpretive frameworks

In Messiah/Complex, some artists voiced Indigenous resurgence by singing in Indigenous languages or by challenging western classical and colonial tropes. Nêhiyaw-Michif (Cree-Métis) baritone Jonathon Adams described their performance as a “commentary on what it means to be Two-Spirit and Indigenous in Alberta.” The performance juxtaposed shots of an oil refinery with the surrounding lands and waters of their homeland.

Jonathon Adams sings ‘Thus saith the lord’ + ‘But who may abide’ in Against the Grain Theatre’s ‘Messiah/Complex.’

AtG featured singers outside of the western classical tradition, several of whom are also songwriters or composers. However, their compositional skills were not showcased. AtG’s decision to have the Toronto Symphony Orchestra supply the backing tracks may suggest that, in addressing the industry’s prevailing whiteness, nothing about the sound of western classical music need change — that all that is required is to employ more Indigenous, Black and racialized artists. But this approach ignores critiques of how the sounds and values of classical music can “constitute a structural barrier to diversification,” as noted by Chris Jenkins, violist, musicologist and associate dean at Oberlin Conservatory.

Agency to singers and musicians

Soundstreams gave singers and musicians more agency with respect to the music. Adam Scime, composer and music director for the 2020 edition of Electric Messiah, notes that they invite the musicians involved in each iteration to “bring their own voice to sculpt the project” and that they “give everyone equal collaborative footing.”

In keeping with Robinson’s recommendations, individual artists in Electric Messiah maintained sovereignty over their segments. Meanwhile viewers are encouraged to appreciate the differences between, for example, SlowPitchSound’s turntablism, Métis and French-Canadian composer Ian Cusson’s O Death, O Grave, and Scime’s “Hallelujah” chorus reimagined as a beach dance party. In so doing, Soundstreams not only explored new, more equitable ways of working together but the sonic results questioned the hegemony of the western classical tradition.

Messiah/Complex is available for on-demand streaming until January 9, 2022. Soundstreams will be releasing a new version of Electric Messiah in April 2022.

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