To strike a chord

Tuning in to music's shared resonances in Montreal

By Drea Garcia Avila, Design Editor

As far back as I can recall, music has been capable of evoking incredible emotion and overwhelming comfort unlike anything else. It has protected me from tough-to-swallow, unnamable feelings, and even made me aware of ones I didn’t know were possible to experience.

My parents were my earliest introduction to music. I would watch my mother dance and clean while she played salsa and Mexican baladas on the speaker, and catch my father falling asleep at the end of a long workday to nueva trova cubana and the occasional alternative rock seeping through his headphones. As I progressed through my early childhood, my taste diverged from their individual influences. I gravitated to bubbly pop and electronic dance music (EDM), always noting how starkly its electric, neon brightness contrasted with my mother’s warm, swaying, romantic melodies, and my father’s soft, political folk favourites.

During my adolescence, I found solace in vastly different genres. The emotional edge of 2000s emo and late 20th-century rock helped soothe the flurry of anger and distress I felt during this period. As I grew older, I wished to step out of the narrow genre I had enclosed myself in to determine which style of music felt most authentic to me. It would turn out that I still loved the early 2000s’ head-banging hits, but I discovered many more of its different flavours and families: Midwest emo, pop-punk, new wave, experimental, and so many others.

All these different genres, despite their diverse array of affect, pacing, and melody, shared something else in common: They allowed me to close my eyes, tune out to the melodies, each with a different vibe, and envision I could be somewhere else, past or future. Across beats, music revealed sentiments that couldn’t be surfaced by anything else. Whether it reminded me of years gone by and people I would never see again, or held the promise of memories to come and experiences not yet lived, I found music to be a tether to the nostalgic past, ever-moving present, and dreamy future. Music could articulate what words were unable to, process experiences and move forward, whilst simultaneously being an anchor to return to the past through different lenses.

Jess Rosa, lead singer and ukulele player for their New York-based punk band, JessX, can relate to the complex affective response that music evokes.

“Even without lyrics […] being able to express a feeling through […] a chord and even just strumming is so beautiful,” Jess told me. “You hear a song, and even without lyrics you can already feel things […] and I think that’s […] the beautiful thing about music.”

During the most difficult days, I found that the experiences most worth living for were simple, mundane even, but always involved music in one way or another: A sunset walk with headphones on, a sunrise car ride with music on the AUX, or even the drunk walks home from friends’ places, during which I would hear a different rhythm emanating from each passing nightlife venue.

While language attempts to reduce emotions to singular notes, music can capture their full nuance and complexity. I have tried to identify obscure synonyms for the feelings that arise when listening to certain songs. Sonder, melancholy, nostalgia? But no matter how much I search in any language, I can never seem to find the right word to describe what I’m experiencing.

It’s the feeling under your left rib and in the middle of your sternum when you hear road trip music, the stereo playing songs that feel like fleece and firewood smoke with campfire warmth against your blankets. Akin to taking photos of your friends, you click the shutter button and come to recognize that good things are finite. Like a fleeting memory or a photograph, a song engulfs you wholly and completely for an instant in an enigma of potent, bursting emotion. But, unlike viewing a photograph from a distance, listening to music is more of an embodied means of reaching through to the past. I’d venture that music is perhaps the nearest embodiment of memory that exists.

My experience in Montreal mirrors the feeling of listening to music. These years coming of age in university feel both eternal yet transient, like both an era and an instant. The endless Canadian winter and the monotonous daily ritual of university encapsulate the majority of the time I’ve had, but I realize I’ll see this time differently upon reflection. The scattered, sparkling moments of seeing magic in mundanity, the ephemeral hours spent with friends, and the exhilarating headrush of running past loud venues: These are the moments that will prevail in my recollection.

I found I was not alone in being drawn to the city. I felt a tug to the art, the culture, self-discovery, along with the promise of new experiences. I yearned to acquaint myself with my own individuality, while making space to discover my own community.

Drawn by the siren song of open door bar concerts and music-lovers moshing, alt-indie rock band, NERiMA from Toronto, also followed this creative calling to Montreal. Last year in July, they played a show at Blue Dog, a bar on St. Laurent that frequently hosts local musicians.

“[It’s] the type of scene where people just walk in to listen to live music,”

said Vee Nicole, drummer for NERiMA.

They found the process of booking venues and playing shows to be more accessible here than in Toronto, where the music scene can be next to impenetrable for newer artists.

“It’s hard to break your way in,” NERiMA’s singer and guitarist Lexi Oriaf said. “The Toronto music scene is already so established and has so many expectations. But Montreal is very welcoming to emerging acts.”

Iconic Montreal-born acts like Arcade Fire, The 222s, and The Normals have seen their lineage continue in the city’s bustling punk scene. Last April, Jess drove in on tour from New York along with Television Overdose, another heavy punk rock band, to perform at Bar L’Escogriffe. They too felt called upon by Montreal’s creative spirit and enthusiastic crowds.

“Montreal [was] the best show out of the whole tour because those fucking kids […] don’t fuck around,” Jess said. “They came for fucking punk music. The crowds they pulled [were] insane.”

Montreal’s music-lovers’ enthusiastic energy has inspired them to return to tour their future music, which follows a more mature, but still “baby-faced” petty sound authentic to the band.

“That one show we had in Montreal [...] made me immediately want to go back,” Jess said.

The art, community, history, and spirit that are at the heart of Montreal’s creative presence allows emerging artists and independent creatives to flourish. Indie concert venues such as Turbo Haüs, Bar L’Escogriffe, and L'Hémisphère Gauche nourish the city’s artistic scene by offering musicians and creatives their own, individual spaces to build and captivate an audience. In recent years, though, such venues have struggled to survive under pandemic losses and forced closures. Even as the pandemic individualized our practices of consuming music, we can’t forget the necessity of the collective and community music scenes we forge and share in together. But as I’ve learned, nothing in life is permanent, and as we did with the pandemic, the collective music scene will continue to change and evolve as time progresses.

The universal lyric

Though my time in Montreal is fleeting, I know that I’ll always be able to return to these transient moments by using music as a tool to map out the city. Various artists bring different seasons to mind. Hearing Sløtface’s punk-rock, political sound in my headphones transports me back to spring-time walks in the Plateau, the smell of sidewalk cherry blossoms and cool spring breeze encompassing my senses. Playing Willow Smith in Mont-Royal reminds me of the precarious time it took to find myself during my first semester at McGill. Lorde brings flashbacks of B.C. mountains and ancient trees that have witnessed (and will continue to witness) more life than I will ever experience.

But music brings more than reminders—it makes tangible the inexplicable complexities of our emotions. I feel the sharp stab of hurt when I listen to heavy metal, and find euphoric excitement in EDM. Laying in bed, I draw my heart out to alternative-indie, and dwell in the dull ache of midwest emo nostalgia. I love words, but they so often fail me when it comes to naming emotions: Where I fall short, music rises to the occasion.

As a songwriter, Jess relates to using music as a timeless, personal language. They are continually inspired by songs they’ve written about the past, and how their perspective on it evolves over time.

“When I listen to that song, it still brings me a present feeling,” Jess said. “It might not necessarily be about the person I wrote it about, but it’s definitely a recurring feeling and I think that’s the beautiful part of it, too. You write for what it is at that time but you hear it a year or two later and you’re like, ‘Whoa, I resonate this to [my] present self.’”

“Music has made me so much more comfortable with who I am becoming…[it] changed everything [....]

Music is so infinite.”

Lexi from NERiMA shared how music has shaped her, not only as an individual, but as an active creative in sonic communities. “I would not be the same person, and I already know who I would be,” Lexi said. “[I] would be so lame without music.”

In the end, there is no definitive conclusion to the argument I make, nor can there be. Music itself is and will always be bigger than any words I have, and the collective emotions it draws from a crowd are greater than my individual feelings.

But my hope is that you, the reader, walk away from this piece looking at seemingly quotidian things a little differently, knowing that music can bring ordinary moments, such as chores or homework, to life. And perhaps you might discover music to be more than what you originally thought it to be, or find comfort in knowing that others share in this feeling—the pleasure of hearing music as more than mere sound, but as a compendium of emotion and the embodiment of experience. Maybe the only language we might ever have in common is the feeling of music.

Illustrations by Drea Garcia Avila, Design Editor