New Works Magazine: Music In Halifax 1985

6: "Things are not locked in;
                  Things interact."

The need for musicians to seek opportunities outside the established industry is not limited to Black players.

Although Symphony Nova Scotia is the only wholly professional classical group performing in Halifax, Walter Kemp, head of the Dalhousie Music Department, says classical music Is "very busy and fast blossoming".

Priestly says if someone is interested in running a successful coffee house in Halifax, "They'd have to make sure the overhead was pretty low."

Halifax musicians are performing in almost every field of classical music. There are, in addition to the .chamber groups, choirs and orchestras, a number of specialized groups such as the Early Music Society of Nova Scotia, inNOVAva-tions in Music, an experimental music society, and BWV, a recently formed society for the presentation of the music of Bach and his era. Opera is the only form of "serious music" that isn't performed in Halifax.

"None of us gets as big an audience as we want," says Kemp, director of two choirs, "but its growing."

Most classical groups are managed by the musicians themselves. ^Few are set up to make money. Unlike the Symphony, these groups, by playing in small auditoriums or in free spaces such as churches, and by relying on volunteers, can meet expenses with only a small audience.

Kemp attributes the growth In classical music in part to the high price of the Symphony. By offering seats for half the price of a Symphony ticket, the smaller performance groups have been able to build greater audience support. Kemp also gives credit to the Halifax school system and the youth choirs and orchestras for developing greater appreciation of classical music in the general public and in young musicians.

Kemp says interaction between the university, the schools, the military and the rest of the community has also been beneficial - "The thing that interests me about Halifax more than any other city I've worked in is things are not locked in. Things interact."

Organist Graham Steed, currently on a European tour that will include performances at St. Paul's Cathedral and the King's College Chapel in Cambridge, doesn't speak favourably of the caliber of many of the local musicians. Steed plays organ at Saint Mary's Basilica but no longer plays public performances. The audience is so small, he says it "Just isn't worth the trouble." Going to classical performances is also often not worth the trouble. Stead has recordings of expert performances which he'd often rather listen to.

Nonetheless, he says he would "infinitely prefer" to listen to some of the chamber groups than to hear the Symphony. The-chamber groups at least are local musicians.

Trumpet player Robin Shier came to Halifax last year to play with the Symphony. Shier has played once at Pope's and a few times at other bars in town. This summer Shier put together a youth band on a grant from the Department of Culture, Recreation and Fitness. "I don't really do many Junk gigs," Shier says. "I've been lucky." But Shier also says, "I feel a little stifled that I haven't played any kind of Jazz for a year."

"Jazz can't make money... Good jazz is too challenging."

Shier says his gig at Pope's with Skip Beckwith, Don Palmer, Scott MacMillan and others was "the most energetic music that's ever been played in there as far as being progressive, but it was certainly not the place to play it."

Shier is concerned that young musicians in Halifax don't have enough opportunity to hear good, progressive Jazz. "When a jazz musician is performing he has to have the whole history of Jazz within him.. He must know where it's coming from and respond in the correct way." Shier says any musician who has "the message" has an obligation to pass it along.

Shier is thinking about forming a progressive jazz group this fall. He hasn't looked for places to play yet but expects he would have to play at a coffee house or in some other venue where the music wouldn't be expected to make money. "Jazz can't make money," he says. "Good jazz is too challenging."

A coffee house might be hard to find. There is only one coffee house operating in Halifax at the moment and it might not be around long. Veith House, a transition house for the mentally ill, has held a coffee house every Tuesday night since April. A house band, Revival, plays every second week.

The coffee house was opened to raise money for Veith House, but the response from musicians and the general public has been poor. The most the house has raised in a single night is 54 dollars.

Coffee house manager Dennis Brown, who ran a coffee house with some high school friends ten years ago, describes the Veith House coffee house as "an absolute waste of time." Brown says he volunteered against his better judgment.

Brown says musicians are tired of playing free gigs and Veith House, a block on the north side of the MacDonald Bridge, is in a poor location to attract an audience. Due to poor wiring in the old house, only a few electrical instruments can be used a time, dictating an acoustic format.

Brown says the traditional coffee house with its emphasis on acoustic folk music is out of place in the contemporary music market. The coffee house is founded on idealism, on the hope that good music alone will attract patrons, Brown says. But the coffee house can't compete with the alcohol, high technology and glamour of commercial music establishments, he says. Brown says coffee houses as a businesses are invariably poorly run and will always fold after a year or two.

Nonetheless, Brown says he would like to run a coffee house in a better location and with a more flexible format. "I'd love to try and make it work," he says.

Folk singer Sandy Greenberg has made three cross country-coffee house tours. "I enjoy the coffee house and folk club atmosphere enormously," she says.

Greenberg says there are numerous coffee houses and folk clubs across the country that have run successfully for several years. The Calgary Folk Club has operated for at least a decade, serving alcohol while maintaining a "concert atmosphere."

"You can get 300 people in there and you can hear a pin drop," she says.

In 1980, after returning from her third tour, Greenberg became one of the founding members of the Harbour Folk Society. The goal of the society was to give local performers a venue, and to become part of a national circuit. The last goal hasn't been realized.

The audience is so small, he says, it "Just isn't worth the trouble."

Each month, the Society holds a pub night with an open mike and often a host musician. The pub nights are usually able to bring in a large enough crowd to cover the cost of renting the performance space. The Society's twice monthly coffee house Is another story. Last month the coffee house was suspended. This month the Society will be meeting to decide what went wrong. Greenberg thinks the lack of alcohol may have something to do with it, but she isn't sure.

One of the most successful and talked about coffee houses in recent years was the Grafton Street Cafe. The Cafe gave nightly performance time to folk, blues, jazz, rock and roll, new music and punk.

Singer Marion Priestly took over the location from Odin's Eye, a coffee house and community drop-in centre that had a busy year in 1977. "When they decided they'd had enough of it because it got kind of crazy, I decided to run it myself, but just the entertainment part."

Priestly ran it herself, gave it over to a manager, took it over again, and eventually, with seven months left on the lease and the building up for sale, sold the Cafe for $50.

"I burned out," she explains. When the landlord saw the Cafe start to pick up, "he slapped on the heat and lights" driving the overhead above the projected budget. Priestly laid off the cooking and cleaning staff and took on their work herself. Eventually, "I decided I didn't want to go on."

Looking back at the Cafe, Priestly says, "It certainly had its moments and I had my fun at times, but for the most part it was a lot of trouble." Priestly says if someone is interested in running a successful coffee house in Halifax, "They'd have to make sure the overhead was pretty low."

But beyond operating expenses, persons wanting to open an alternative performance space may face another obstacle: the Atlantic Federation of Musicians.

Next: The Union