Why Queer Songbook Orchestra Rules by Geordie Gordon
I always cry when I watch the Queer Songbook Orchestra. I am always affirmed and overwhelmed by all the beauty, all the strength, all the celebration and all the reflection that fills the room at a QSO performance. My seat in the audience is a safe place to let my tears flow, to let my queer heart glow and to set my musical mind free.
Although often manifesting as a 12-piece chamber orchestra, the QSO is also a community-building project, an archive of unheard voices and an amorphous force of creative energy. Founded by Shaun Brodie in 2014, the idea behind the Queer Songbook Orchestra is this: individuals from all parts of the Canadian LGBTQ world write a true, personal story describing how a song has impacted their queer identity. The song selection is then re-imagined by one of the many incredible arrangers in the QSO stable who create a new, often radically different musical interpretation while still connecting us to the essential parts we are familiar with. In concert we get to hear each story before the song is performed. The QSO not only rewrites pop favourites but also strives to bring forgotten queer figures back into the spotlight, such as Billy Strayhorn, the genius jazz composer who has remained hidden too long in the shadow of Duke Ellington.
Shaun Brodie has a talent for bringing all of the best people together. I am lucky to get a lot of powerful hugs at a QSO concert. I can’t get enough of seeing Alex Samaras sing. His performance is buoyant, the joy in his face lifts him high above the stage. I always get star struck around Alanna Stuart, the way that music radiates out of all parts of her being. Thom Gill and Lief Mosbaugh are masterful as band members but then each come forward to stun the room with their next-level vocals. If I’m lucky, Stef Schneider will be in town from Montreal to demonstrate why he is one of the best drummers in Canada. And then there is Stephen Jackman-Torkoff. Sometimes billed as the QSO’s poet laureate, they show up mid-set with a literal bag of tricks, pulling out hand drawn masks and unicorn hats while captivating the room with mystical story telling. They are a magician of words, taking me to giddy heights and then abruptly exposing the rawness of tragedy, kind of like how life does it.
At each show, a new selection of storytellers introduces each song, reading either their own words or those of an absent author. I like to close my eyes as I am drawn into these personal histories. Whether they are stories of strength or of vulnerability, I am always inspired by the bravery shown by these writers and speakers… or maybe I am feeling all the bravery in all of queer history, gathering behind us and making this little orchestra possible?
I feel very grateful to have grown up in the cradle of the Ontario music scene, but I have so often left my queerness at home when going out to a rock show. Only recently have I strived to place the importance and beauty of my queerness on an equal level with the power that music has had in my life. That is why I love the Queer Songbook Orchestra. What they have created brings me life in a way I can’t begin to explain, but for now I will make do by squeezing into one of their shows, feeling the warmth of community surrounding me and by welcoming the tears I know will soon be streaming down my face.
Geordie Gordon is a musician who, in addition to performing under his own name and The Magic, plays/has played with U.S. Girls, Ian Daniel Kehoe, Islands, The Barmitzvah Brothers, Richard Laviolette and the Oils Spills, James Gordon and countless others.
Queer Songbook Orchestra plays Kazoo! Fest 2019 on Saturday April 13th at Royal City Church [Mitchell Hall] (50 Quebec St).
Advance tickets for this show are available HERE.