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Music Helps me Imagine a Better World

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After a week of watching images of Ahmedinejad being interviewed by Piers Morgan -- surreal at best -- Netanyahu offering the UN a scarily cartoonish version of his worldview, and Romney spouting war-mongering malaprops, I took refuge in music.

Thank God for Vancouver's Music on Main (cited by Gramaphone magazine as "one of the finest windows into the post-classical scene") whose annual Modulus Festival -- now in its third year -- came along just as it seemed the sky was falling.

Not only was its vaguely 18th century feeling -- a return to an intimate musical salon vibe -- sweet relief from our oversaturated and increasingly digitized culture, the opening night's program actually gave me some hope for humanity.

A rather tall order, restoring hope, for a little festival that could, but the opening night of the four-day festival alone made me think that music could still soothe the savage beast -- or even several beasts.

The beast of tweeting, bleeping, creeping pop culture was kept at bay by the acoustic serenity of Heritage Hall and the surprisingly retro pleasure of assembling in a small group to sit and celebrate the joy of listening to live music -- albeit the edgy and inventive "post-classical" kind.

Indeed, perhaps it should be a recommended activity for the lost generation of texting, iPhoning 20-somethings, many of whom seem to have come of age without having had the experience of sitting still for an hour listening to live cello reverberate through their being. (Please forgive me any hipster, post-classical 20-somethings reading this. I do acknowledge that some of you have rebelled against your peers' cultural programming.)

The entire opening evening offered a program that spanned the range of human experience -- from love, to rage, to grief and eventually a kind of peace and acceptance -- quite an emotional and musical work out.

The first hour opened and closed with performances of Montreal-based composer Richard Reed Parry's works (of Arcade Fire fame) based on the rhythm of the musicians' own heart beats and the simple inhaling and exhaling of breath, performed admirably by the L.A.-based Calder Quartet.

In between, the world premiere of Mercy and Mankind and Sesto Libro di Gesualdo by Michael Finnissy- (featuring Mark McGregor on flute and Muge Buyukcelen on violin) evoked murder, temptation, jealousy and forgiveness. (A post-intermission performance of Oliver Messiaen's Visions de l'Amen by the Bergmann Piano Duo was a masterful reminder of the power of human creativity.) And Tom Cone Songs -- two new works by Music on Main's composer-in-residence, Jocelyn Morolock, sung by mezzo-soprano Melanie Adams -- proved moving odes to the late great Cone, a champion of independent cutting edge arts and cross-cultural projects, and a generous friend and patron to many in Vancouver.

I found myself, sitting in the front row where I could literally feel the vibration of the music in my chest, weeping at the sound of Somewhere Along the Line, a song Cone wrote with Morlock a few months before his death earlier this year. Magically, and in keeping with the community-based feeling of Music on Main, some mutual friends of Cone's sitting beside me offered a tissue.

Happily, I was restored to a more peaceful state by the performance of Parry's Sextet for Heart and Breath. With musicians wearing stethoscopes so they could hear their own heartbeats, the piece unfolded like a concerto for humanity, a powerful but minimalist journey into the soul of man. A series of sliding, suspended notes played on strings, recalled air raid sirens -- or perhaps a post-apocalyptic wail for peace -- and suddenly I was reminded of the news on Iran.

But it was not images of Netanyhu and Ahmedinejad, or grimacing commentators that flashed in my mind. Rather I thought of a film maker friend, an Iranian-American named Nezam Manouchehri whose film Letters from America has taken him back and forth between his home in California and his house in Tehran for a gruelling seven years. He still doesn't know how the film will end.

I suddenly wanted him to hear this gorgeous, moving ode to the power of shared humanity, of heart and breath and possibilities, composed by a Canadian, and played by a young quartet from L.A.

In fact, a crazy idea was hatched. If the New York Philharmonic could visit North Korea, why couldn't Parry and the Calder Quartet fly to Tehran and perform this piece on Iranian national television? After all, there's a strong classical music presence in Tehran, and the spirit of Parry's piece naturally transcends borders.

Visas for hostile nations and closed embassies notwithstanding, I knew that friends like Nezam in Tehran, would love and greatly appreciate the gesture. As the young American musicians played to the rhythms of their own heartbeats, I felt my own breath rise and fall. I thought of other cellists in other war zones, and remembered my friends in the Iraqi National Orchestra.

For a few transcendent moments, the Modulus Festival drowned out the drum beats of war with the sweet sound of strings, and I dreamed of a return to a truly human culture.