Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Oui, Let's Scat": Listening to Multi-Vocality in George Elliott Clarke's Jazz Opera Quebecite

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Oui, Let's Scat": Listening to Multi-Vocality in George Elliott Clarke's Jazz Opera Quebecite

Article excerpt

Listening, as a critical practice, fundamentally alters the interaction between audience and text from passive to participatory, but the question remains as to what enables this listening to be political. In George Elliott Clarke's jazz opera Quebecite, listening happens on and off the page, among performers, musicians, librettist, composer, director, and audiences. Premiered at the Guelph Jazz Festival in 2003, Quebecite performs a combination of texts: Clarke's libretto, published as Quebecite: A Jazz Fantasia in Three Cantos, and the musical score, composed by D.D. Jackson, whose collaboration with Clarke continues with the scoring of Clarke's subsequent libretto, Trudeau. A second production of Quebecite took place in Vancouver alongside the conference "Transcultural Improvisations: Performing Hybridity," organized by Sneja Gunew and held at the University of British Columbia in October 2003; thus, from this performance history, a dialogue has already begun between the terminology of "transcultural improvisations" (Gunew 125) and Quebecite itself, a dialogue that I continue in this paper by asking how sound offers a particular medium through which to theorize the cultural crossings of these improvisations. Set on the apple-blossomed streets of Quebec City, with the iconic Chateau Frontenac in the backdrop, Clarke's libretto Quebecite sings the story of two multicultural couples--Laxmi Bharati and Ovide Rimbaud, and Malcolm States and Colette Chan--whose loves are thwarted and recovered as they negotiate familial, personal, and cultural prejudices. Colette, a University of Laval law student, must decide whether to abide by her Chinese parents' disapproval of her love for Malcolm, an Africadian saxophonist. Laxmi, a Hindu architecture student from Montreal, questions the fidelity of her lover, Haitian-Quebecois architect Ovide, and refuses to allow him to cast her as what she calls "une lascivite proprement asiatique" (Clarke 80). Through Clarke's libretto and Jackson's score, these characters negotiate cultural identifications within visual and acoustic spaces that simultaneously reify and unfix differences. While difference need not necessarily connote dissonance, the reception of Quebecite frames the cultural differences between characters in terms of whether or not they sound alike. The female characters--Laxmi Bharati as sung by Kiran Ahluwalia and Colette Chan as sung by Yoon Choi--sparked extensive debate among critics regarding issues of dissonance, and therefore I ask how these characters, in particular, embody political action through sound. Situating this question amid current debates on performing multiculturalism (Bannerji; Kamboureli; Gunew), I argue that Quebecite exemplifies the ways in which sound offers a medium through which to redefine understandings of multicultural and multivocal improvisations.

The work of jazz and literary critic Ajay Heble (artistic director of the Guelph Jazz Festival who commissioned the production of Quebecite' for the festival's tenth anniversary) outlines the theoretical background to the approach to listening that I apply to Quebecite in this paper. Although his writing on jazz provides the most relevant connection, I argue that this writing needs to be contextualized by his essay "New Contexts for Canadian Criticism: Democracy, Counterpoint, Responsibility." Here, Heble makes the compelling claim that Glenn Gould's radio documentary The Idea of North necessitates a responsible, contrapuntal listening. Since Gould's editing techniques allow for all voices to speak simultaneously, Heble contends that this simultaneity not only democratizes the voice but also implicates audiences in the production of meaning out of this dissonance--requiring a participation that Quebecite's characters are themselves conscious of, for example when Laxmi sings to Ovide in the opening scene, "You've invited me to savour jazz" (19). Furthermore, Gould's technique of polyphonic counterpoint highlights the interstitial space of what Heble calls " cultural listening" (86), which permits cross-cultural listening to take place along the lines of Edward Said's notion of "a simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and that of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts" (qtd. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.