Photo Credit: Farhad Ghaderi
On a beautiful sunny day in Vancouver, my classmates and I, along with a dozen other improvisational jazz enthusiasts, sat in a small, stuffy, beige, basement conference room devoid of natural light. We gathered together to see some incredible offerings, and although the aesthetic of the room itself was less than ideal, the kindness and hospitality extended as well as the food shared, was warm, inviting and more than made up for the hum of fluorescent lights. The magic that filled that room by the end of the day, was nothing less than remarkable.
As part of an Education Master's program with Simon Fraser University studying Art for Social Change, our professor Patti Fraser invited us to attend the Colloquium Lines of Flight; Improvisation, Hope and Refuge - UBC Robson Campus, as part of Vancouver’s International Jazz Festival and UBC Critical Studies. Having entered late and ducked into one of the two remaining seats, I did my best to enter in with as little disturbance as possible, and settle into the at first seemingly uncomfortable surroundings. Although there were many other wonderful musicians who spoke and shared their music on this day, the highlight of my day was my experience of dálava, a Maruvian duet made up of Aram Bajakian and Julia Úlehla specifically.
As a framework for reflection, I have used the “Eleven Aesthetic Perspectives” outlined by Animating Democracy, as a lens with which to focus my review. Because these eleven perspectives are “Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change” they offer “a framework to enhance understanding and evaluation of creative work at the intersection of arts and civic engagement, community development, and justice.”
Julia and Aram arrived into the space with a presence that commanded a quiet and subtle yet solid energy in the room. Even as they made their way to the front of the space and settled into a good spot, they took on a seemingly improvisational flow and great read of the room from the get-go. They did not conform to the more prescribed places to situate themselves at the table as others had and headed down to the end of the table where they had more room to roam if needed.
Before they even began to address us, I was struck by their openness, which only deepened as the time went on. Julia began very informally and organically asking us if we had seen their recent show in town and quickly started sharing about their relationship. After a moment or so she checked in with him to make sure it was ok that she was leading the flow to which he replied it was and she continued on. They met in high school, she vulnerably explained how he had loved her then and how she was dating his best friend. Classic seeming story of unrequited love that took a beautiful twist eventually though when years later they just so happened to attend a Steve Reich retrospective in May of 2001 at the Miller Theatre in NYC. (Úlehla 2017). The rest was history and they have been together ever since.
We all were witness to their relationship expressed in front of us as so loving, kind, and respectful. They appear to be a shining example of graciousness in relating to another, checking in with each other continuously, sharing time and space in expressing and supporting each other whole heartedly in the process. A shining example of relationship goals.
Julia studied music in Italy in a program that focused on exploring song in a purely improvisational way. This was shocking to me in that I was not even aware that programs like this existed and I was intrigued. She spoke of her work as ‘collecting songs’ which is super intriguing to me. Never have I heard a musician describe their work in that way and it blew the roof off what I thought was possible in terms of thought about songs.
Somewhere along the way she discovered an incredible book her great grandfather Vladimír Úlehla wrote. His book was called Živá píseň (the Living Song, 1949 [reprinted in 2008]). In this book, Julia shared that Vladimír outlines that songs are living organisms and that when we sing one we are “Meeting the song”. In one email exchange, Julia says “that idea encourages me to look at every encounter in which the songs come up (performances, the talk at jazz fest, while I'm cooking dinner, singing in heritage sharing ceremony, etc.) as a chance to reexamine this notion.” (Úlehla 2017) This concept, that songs are living organisms that differ based on where they are sung, is an idea that disrupts traditional ideas of music, “challenges what is by exposing what has been hidden, posing new ways of being, and modeling new forms of action.” (Dwyer, M. Et al 2017)
Now their work focuses on recreating the songs from her great-grandfathers collection, and they aim to make sure their interactions with the songs, their meetings with the songs, are as genuine and authentic as possible given what they are capable of knowing through their experience in their current time and place. They spend each summer in Czech Republic ensuring they take time and effort to maintain cultural integrity.
Given my lifelong interest in the wrongful persecution of people for their beliefs, I find Julia fascinating. Even as I have been thinking about and writing this for a long time, words fail me as to express Julia’s effect on me. Something about her openness and vulnerability that was so captivating. Maybe it was the embodiment of her conviction, the physical result of the ongoing commitment to her cause and creative processes and the results espoused through the work. In terms of communal meaning, their “creative work facilitates collective meaning that transcends individual perspective and experience.” (Dwyer, M. Et al 2017)
The way she shared her thoughts so openly in the way she did, so unabashedly herself despite having been called a “witch” multiple times (which I personally think is awesome by the way). Her commitment to her work involves a serious amount of “Risk-taking – The creative work assumes risk by subverting dominant norms, values, narratives, standards, or aesthetics.” (Dwyer, M. Et al 2017)
She captivated us with her visit to Palava, “where a gorgeous vineyard terraced down the side of the Palava hills.” (Ulehla 2017) Talk of her feeling nature so intensely from the inside out that she wanted to pinch her skin open like a grape so she could more fully be a part of it. Sensory Experience - Vivid sensations deepen the experience of the creative work and heighten the power of its messages and intentions for change. (Dwyer, M. Et al 2017)
All of this experience captivated me, and then… they played a song! Emotional Experience – The creative work facilitates a productive movement between “heart space”—the emotional experience that art evokes—and the “head space” of civic or social issues. (Dwyer, M. Et al 2017)
She bared herself to us.
With the loving support and artistry of Aram helping to guide.
Photo Credit: Farhad Ghaderi
“What is ethnomusicology” http://www.ethnomusicology.org/?page=whatisethnomusicol
“What is song” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fdYjFirMwA
Úlehla, Vladimír. Živá píseň (the Living Song), 1949 [reprinted in 2008])
Kozinn, Allan. "MUSIC REVIEW; Reich Evokes a Nuclear Holocaust." The New York Times, 28 May 2001, https://mobile.nytimes.com/2001/05/28/arts/music-review-reich-evokes-a-nuclear-holocaust.html?referer=. Accessed 8 July 2017.
Lieberman, Fredric. "Should Ethnomusicology Be Abolished?: Position Papers for the Ethnomusicology Interest Group at the 19th Annual Meeting of the College Music Society." College Music Symposium, vol. 17, no. 2, Fall 1997, pp. 198-206. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/stable/40373902
Stuckey, Johanna H. Ancient Mother Goddesses and Fertility Cults https://jarm.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/jarmarticle/download/4952/4146
Dwyer, J. Et al. “Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change A framework to enhance understanding and evaluation of creative work at the intersection of arts and civic engagement, community development, and justice.” May 2017, pp. 1 – 56. www.americansforthearts.org/sites/default/files/Aesthetic%20Perspectives%20Full%20Framework.pdf