In the early 1970s, Toronto was home to the beginning of one of Canada's most vital periods of artistic growth. It may not have seemed like much compared to larger countries with a more distinct cultural identity, but for the first time, a native theatre community was born. George Luscomb's Toronto Workshop Productions led the way, and hard on his heels was Theatre Passe Muraille, The Toronto Free Theatre, and The Factory Theatre.
While the Living Theatre of New York City had long been working with the idea of collective creation, this was a new concept for theatre in Canada. Theatre Passe Muraille, especially, had established itself as the home of this artist-run creative process. Instead of the actors being presented with a script at the beginning of the rehearsal process, they would gather to develop and work scenes that built around a central theme. The playwright would develop the script out of this process, which would then be rehearsed for performance.
As money dried up and budgets tightened, it has become less and less common for artistic companies to attempt the commitment required for a collective creation. It's far easier and safer for companies to present their casts with the fait accompli of a script than have to worry about them coming up with something marketable. Further out on the fringes of artistic creation, collective works are still being attempted – perhaps not for theatrical presentations, but with a performance still in mind as the final result.
Poem de Terre was formed in the summer of 1993 in Kingston Ontario as a musical collective. Over the years its membership has fluctuated as performers moved on and others rose up to take their places in a continual evolution of sound and style. No matter the composition, it continues to focus on the bringing together of diverse interests, talents, and artistic sensibilities to achieve the goal of presenting compelling stories and ideas through words and music via live performances.
Under the leadership and direction of Canadian poet, broadcaster, writer, and photographer Bob MacKenzie, Poem de Terre entered the studio for the first time in February 2006. War And Love is not their first release, but first deliberate studio album as opposed to recordings of live performances. The move into the studio environment seems to have been an attempt to further enhance the experience they offer during a live performance by using technology that can't be accessed or utilized readily on stage.
The almost 80 minutes of music performed on the 18 tracks of War And Love has been drawn from Mr. MacKenzie's own creations over the years and combined with covers of two classic tunes from the sixties, "Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream" by Ed McCurdy and "Lay Down" by Melanie Safka (Who was better known simply by her first name Melanie).
I have to admit my first reaction on seeing the total amount of music being presented on this one disc was that it was too much, especially for an album that's going to be dealing with the themes of "War" and "Love." Nobody is going to be able to sit through this and not feel like they've been hammered in the head, I thought. But I hadn't counted on the subtlety of the minds at work behind this disc.
War And Love is not just some pop album with a theme or the simplistic message of War being bad and Love being good. It is a carefully crafted collection of contemporary music and words that explores the irrevocable interrelationship between war and love in our personal lives as well as on a global scale.
War can be between two people as easily as it can be between two nations. Love is not limited to the affections we show the people we care for. The people of Poem de Terre know that. Like real life, ambiguity abounds on this disc as each track represents a different facet of the diamond that is humankind's struggle to find a means to co-exist, if not in harmony, at least without tearing each other's throats out.
From the innocent naivety and hope of "Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream" to the searing indictment of the way we deny any possibility of culpability on our part in "Innocent (I Wasn't There)," Bob MacKenzie and Poem de Terre explore the dichotomy of human behaviour with regard to our reactions to war. How can the same race that dreams of ending war also be the one to shirk its responsibility to the people we share the planet with by simply shrugging its shoulders?
Is love really the flipside of war or is it just another battlefield itself? Emotions run as high in times of love as they do in times of war, leaving us as drained and spent as a full-scale fight in armour. Is it any safer to have your heart pierced by an arrow of love than by one shot at you by an archer? You will probably survive the first attack, while it’s a foregone conclusion the second will result in your death.
Any time passions are elevated, humans are at risk of loss of some kind or another. Whether the death of a dear friend or family member, betrayal of the trust that is so important to love, or even unrequited love, all can leave scars upon your heart and psyche.
On War And Love, pieces like "Rain," " Barb, Because You Were," "A Man Came By Today," and "North," speak of what we will do to achieve love and what it can do to us. No one song, poem, or probably anything made can do complete justice to the complexity of love and our reactions to it.
The conventional love song is blind to that reality and relies more often than not on cheap sentiment over emotion to grab a listener's attention. Everything is reduced down to either getting the other person in the sack or having your heart broken with none of the middle ground of reality entering into the picture.
War And Love is an example of the whole being the sum of its parts. While each song has something to say individually, what the whole makes you feel at the end is equally important. It doesn't paint a particularly rosy picture of the world we live in and stirred up a strong emotional reaction within me when I had finished listening.
It wasn't anything particular like sadness, anger, or hope that was triggered. It felt more like I had gone on a journey that traveled through the current state of the human psyche and that's not a happy place to be. In spite of that, this is not a disc without hope or one that induces despair.
The musicianship, singing, and arrangements are so exuberant it offsets some of the intensity of the message. How can one despair when you listen to the efforts of so many people working together to accomplish a project. There is an energy captured on War And Love that, in spite of its thematic heaviness, manages to convey spirit and hope.
The music is alive and vibrant, the skill level is simply astonishing without a weak link anywhere, and the production has been designed to ensure the listener gets as much of an impact from each note as possible. On some songs, like their version of Melanie's "Lay Down," there is a close to gospel feel that brings a celebratory note to the proceedings.
War And Love by Poem de Terre is not going to be to everybody's taste. It's difficult and confusing in places and brings up emotions and thoughts you might not want to experience. Those who are not afraid to look into the mirror every so often, however, will be rewarded with an intelligent, provocative and inspired creation. As of now, you can purchase the CD for download by track or complete disc at ClickBands and it will soon be available at most major download sites including C.D. Baby, iTunes, and Amazon.