Bluegrass night at Barfly, Montreal

Barfly, Montreal logoWhen I lived in Montreal six years ago, bluegrass night had already been a decade-old Sunday night tradition at Barfly. Last weekend I had the chance to visit this favorite haunt of mine after a wretchedly long absence, and was happy to see that this landmark of the Montreal music scene is still going strong and about to celebrate its 15th anniversary on November 11th.

Though a legendary dive, Barfly can be hard to find with its tiny front on St. Laurent boulevard in the heart of Montreal’s trendy Plateau district. Decorated with Montreal Canadiens hockey memorabilia, dents in the walls, and a bust of Elvis, the bar with its cheap beer, excellent live music and free pool draws a crowd of university students, music lovers and whiskey-sodden barflies in varying proportions.

The musicians that show up to play old time country and bluegrass music on Sunday nights are equally varied in age, style, and musical experience. With a typical turnout of about ten, the group usually includes a couple of guitars and banjos, a mandolin and a lap steel guitar, a stand-up bass and a fiddle. The players rotate in fronting the band for three songs, in a lineup randomly generated by chalking their names on a blackboard as each arrives. This spontaneous arrangement results in a new show every week, the style, feel and quality of which often varies immensely depending on who shows up and at what time of night.

A group of musicians on stage at Barfly

A typical bluegrass night lineup with fiddle, mandolins, upright bass, guitar and Dobro

If you think you don’t like country music because you associate it with the mainstream acts in oversized cowboy hats and glittering outfits singing about keying their ex’s car to the overly engineered sound of electric guitars, you are in good company. That’s how most patrons of bluegrass night feel the first time they are reluctantly dragged to Barfly by their enthusiastic friends who have been there before. The raw, acoustic, alive, complex bluegrass sound you will hear there is as far from what you think of as country as you can get. The intricacy of Flatt & Scruggs breakdowns will knock your socks off, the multi-part vocal harmonies of Stanley Brothers‘ gospel songs will give you goose bumps, and the dexterity of the banjo pickers will blow your mind. Inevitably, the extensive oeuvre of Johnny Cash will also be featured.

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Favourite books series: The Master & Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a richly multilayered novel that includes elements of fantasy, historical fiction and social satire in one gorgeously wrought whole. A favorite of mine since early adolescence, it is a book I keep re-reading every few years in its original Russian, and recommend and often gift to all new friends who haven’t yet read it.

The Devil, with a retinue of imps and demons, visits 1930’s Moscow. He leaves mayhem, bureaucratic confusion, terror and comedy in his wake. He takes over a centrally located apartment by variously dispersing with its occupants via internment in a mental institution, instantaneous transport to a seaside resort, or death. He holds a magic show in a prestigious concert hall from which the distinguished audience members emerge shaken, ridiculed and mostly undressed. He is cruelly honest with the hypocrites, serious with the philosophers, he is playful, powerful, profound and complex, and so is the novel as a whole.

In parallel with the Devil’s story, runs the plotline of the Master – a talented and tormented writer working on a historical novel about Pontius Pilate and Christ. He meets and falls in love with Margarita, a beautiful and deeply unhappy wife of a wealthy official, and their affair enriches them both with happiness in the midst of a gray and dismal Soviet existence until the day the Master despairs, burns his manuscript and disappears from Margarita’s life.

For the sake of finding him again, and restoring his masterpiece from the ashes, Margarita accepts the Devil’s invitation to act the Queen at his side during the annual Satan’s gala ball of murderers, ghosts, witches, and all manner of tormented evil souls.

Margarita’s flight to this gathering is one of the most vivid scenes in the book. Alone in her large Moscow apartment, she is melancholy, apprehensive, and worn down by life when she begins to apply the ointment given to her by the Devil. As its magic infuses her skin, the worries of the everyday world start to fade away and a lightness and a feeling of freedom take over. Rejuvenated, awakened, nude, giddy and reckless, she flies on a floor brush out of the window of her building and into the warm spring night.

Mosaic in blue, black and gold of a nude witch's back flying up towards the moon on a broom.

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In progress: Flight

Flight, the mosaic inspired by The Master and Margarita, and the first in my new Favourite Books series is almost complete! The tiling is done and only grouting remains.

Of course grouting is the part that is most likely to mess things up. As usual, I am deciding on colours and then second-guessing myself. Light brown, I think. Unless cold blue would be better? What sense does warm brown make sense amid the black smalti of the night sky? I might attempt multiple grout colours or I might not bother.

While I’m deciding, here’s a progress slideshow for your amusement. As you can see towards the end, some dark tiles in the background around the hair had the be scraped off and replaced with gold. Looks much better this way. Thanks to my husband for frowning at it so intensely that I realized just how serious the need to fix that section was!

Starting a new mosaic series

Over the past couple of weeks I have been sketching an rejecting ideas for the first few mosaics in the new series I’ve been planning for a while – one inspired by my favourite books.

I was antsy to start making a new piece, and have known for a while which books and which scenes in those books I wanted to do, but it was taking a long while to figure out the style and the feel that this series would take.

Everything that I sketched at first was turning out to be too literal, realistic, full of figures. I would consider these sketches and feel not at all excited about the prospect of tiling them.

It all came down to the fact that I don’t really like tiling figures. I feel no joy in trying to create realistic representations of things. And I get bored tiling straight lines. What I really really like tiling are curves. Lavish, aesthetic, art nouveau-ish curves. So I had to figure out a way of illustrating my favourite books in a semi-abstract, curvaceous way.

Yesterday I finally hit upon the right combination of abstract-curvilinear and illustrative-representative, and completed two sketches that I actually liked. Which makes me very happy, because it means I can get started!

Here’s one for Flight, inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita:

Pencil sketch of stylized nude flying

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