A Canadian Music Ensemble

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ February 2nd, 2013. Filed under: Teaching.

UBC is blessed with some first rate ethnic music ensembles that perform music from Sub-Saharan Africa, Korea, Bali and China, all directed by stellar music directors that are at the top of their game. These ensembles allow Western Art Music students (and non-music students) to see how “the other musical half live” (more properly, the other 90 per cent) by experiencing performance practices, technical demands and the roller-coaster ride of new emotional responses from other music worlds. There seems to be an additional benefit for visiting or recently immigrated students who want to explore, or even discover, their ethnic musical roots.

But what would a Canadian Music ensemble look like? And sound like?

Before answering those questions, another one demands an answer right now. Who would be interested in such an ensemble? You would think that young Canadians, newly arrived in Canada, and visiting foreign students would be first in line for such an opportunity. I know that my appreciation of Japan and England was deepened beyond measure when I participated in their music and dance culture. Canadianists and ethnomusicologists from around the world and even within Canada would be equally intrigued by such a resident ensemble, perhaps even arranging for Monbukagakusho 文部科学省奨学金, Fulbright and SSHRC scholarships to research and report in the same manner as ethnomusicologists. And then there are the home-grown students who feel the need to explore what it means to be Canadian.


But there’s a problem.

Any discussion of a Canadian anything must first of all confront the fact that Canada is now multicultural. Therefore, in the domain of music, for example, there are no historical or recently arrived music ensembles that can lodge a claim to be Canada’s musical Intangible Cultural Heritage.  Further, the music of Canada’s founding immigrant communities will never again serve the agenda of the Vertical Mosaic, where Anglo and Francophone Canada once sat at the top. The short of it is that Canada now has no single cultural identity beyond its Bill of Rights, only multiple identities that comprise the Canadian cultural landscape. Further, some ethnic groups in Canada (and other diasporan locations) are so devoted to the music of their homelands that they maintain it in a more traditional frame, un-blemished by modern cultural events (i.e., hybridisation) and even neglect, back home.

This artistic and cultural conundrum did not exist several decades ago. The answer to the question, “what is a Canadian ensemble?” was simple. It was comprised of the fiddle, singularly and in groups like the string band and the Quadrille ensemble. This was the quintessential sound of Anglo and Francophone Canadian pioneers, inherited from the Old World and shared with the US.  And yes, they are now the sound of the voices of the top of the vertical mosaic, now destined to become equal members of Canada’s ethnic groups in a more equitable, horizontal configuration. Some day.

The Canadian Fiddle

There are some twists and turns that put the Canadian stamp on the fiddle. It was enthusiastically picked up by Metis and First Nations people in the boreal forest. There are First Nations fiddle masters from James Bay to the Yukon.

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Francophone-Canada introduced crooked music (la croche) with its bar lengths of unequal length and the chair dance, known as podorhythm  (les tapements de pieds).

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Cape Breton became known as a far-flung outpost of Scottish fiddle style that even the Scots used as resource to re-discover their homeland musical heritage. There was a time when the most popular radio and then television in Canada was directed by Maritimes-native Don Messer, a household name that is still revered by the dozens of fiddle clubs from BC to Nova Scotia. As you watch the video below, you will marvel at the simple, some would say, corny side of old Canada. Welcome to the roots.

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All of this activity has been pushed to the back of the room. If you are an ethnomusicologist from say, Japan, you would be hard-pressed to make contact. But with persistence, you would find yourself in a kitchen or a dance-hall filled with multi-generation families in the midst of a party. It’s more likely that the researcher would mistake a Suzuki violin class for a fiddle club because Suzuki violin instructors have enthusiastically picked up the fiddle and added it to their Western Art Music repertoire as a kind of popular music division.  The most telling manifestation of this activity is the set of fiddle books introduced into the pedagogy of the violin program of Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music.

Where there is the fiddle, there is dance. But song tends to take a back seat. Canada has an equally rich history, some of it unique, in Anglo and Francophone folk song. It was (not “is”) a major feature in the music programs of grade schools across Canada. Edith Fowke was the most prominent compiler but there are many others going all the way back to Marius Barbeau, Canada’s star ethnomusicologist, and even before him. Many of these songs made their way into Canada’s busy Kodaly program of early childhood music education. All of this activity has faded to grey as Canada embraces multiculturalism.

Among the many voices that would protest the creation of a Canadian music ensemble in a university school or department of music, I can hear one clarion criticism. Its folk music, now re-named vernacular music. The West moved on from that shibboleth long ago when Dylan stepped out on the stage with an electric guitar and Pete Seeger tried to cut the electrical cable to the stage. That protest is easy to accommodate because essentially, folk music is the Early Music of times long since passed among “the people” and nicely folds into all the interests and concerns of the multitude of Popular Music Scholars who populated organisations like the International Study of Popular Music, including the Canadian division.

The Vision

So, would you like to imagine what it would be like to enroll in the Canadian Music Ensemble? What would you do each Monday and Wednesday afternoon from 3 to 4:30 pm, each semester?

You would be issued a violin and begin a series of group lessons. Now I hear a new howl of protest from the violin division of the School of Music. The fiddle does not embrace virtuosity (although some professional players go there.) All their music is in First position. They may or may not hold their fiddles under their chins. No one will use a chin rest or a shoulder rest.  Detachable frets allowed! Like training wheels, they may come off later, but not necessarily.

In addition to playing jigs, reels and country dance tunes, the students will learn how to dance them. More important, students would be introduced to step-dancing, the aural percussion accompaniment par excellence of fiddle music.

Students would also learn some songs that would open the door to falderal – one singer providing the verses, the class chiming in on the chorus.  The instructor would have a box of percussion as well – spoons(!), tambourine, bones…stuff like that. Would the piano be introduced to the class? Perhaps, but solo and group fiddles (i.e., string band) are the norm so they might not be a fixture, only an occasional luxury providing rhythmic accompaniment. Accordion and melodeons might sneak in the door as well. Perhaps even penny whistles, although they were not found in Canada. The end-of-semester concerts would be dances held in a community room, not the stage of the recital hall.

So how do I make this ensemble “multicultural”?

The fiddle is found around the world as a crucial piece of luggage carried by the colonisers that followed in the wake of the imperialists, and sometimes adopted by the colonists, around the world. For example, there is an amazing world of violin in India.

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Even China dabbled in adapting the violin for their own ethnic use (in sizhu ensembles, along with the saxophone!) at the same moment they were falling head over heels into love with Western Art Music.  It would seem that the sizhu violin is now completely overshadowed by the “Chinese violin”, the er-hu which borrowed many of the Western Art Music techniques like vibrato and playing high up the neck.

My “vision” of the violin in a World Music context is 180 degrees opposite to the usual potpourri where ethnomusicology music directors look for ethnic equivalents, such as the Chinese er-hu in place of the violin, and the South Asian sarangi as a stand-in for the cello.

My excursions into World Violin would be brief tangents before the class would get right back to developing the skills for that well -known Canadian historical past-time, the fire in the kitchen.  Graduates of the program will always have a secret smile on their lips when they hear Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat and see the Faust spin-off, The Devil and Daniel Webster. Not to mention concerts of klezmer, Taraf de Hoidouks and Muzsikas.

I doubt my vision of a Canadian Music ensemble will occur any time soon, so UBC music and non-music students will have to be content with my lecture on the fiddle in my World Music course, M328. Yes, fiddle as “ethnic instrument”.


Pauline Greenhill (1994) Ethnicity in the Mainstream: Three Studies of English Canadian Culture in Ontario

Peter Burke (1978/1994) Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe

Christopher Marsh (2010) Music and Society in Early Modern England (the successor to the above)

Jacqueline Cogdell Djedje (2008) Fiddling in West Africa

Drew Beisswenger (2011) North American Fiddle Music: A Research and Information Guide

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