Sounds of a province come to light

Quebecois music, and its underwhelming presence outside of ‘La Belle Province,’ has largely remained untouched.

However, the McCord Museum’s exciting showcase of this genre has shone a light on the sociopolitical relevance and the impressive artistic output of the surprising powerhouse that is the Quebec music industry. Flaws in its layout and English audio availability notwithstanding, MusicQuebec: From Charlebois to Arcade Fire is an impactful trip through over six decades of popular music in the province. 

Visitors are greeted with the vibrancy and colour of the baby boom era, evoked by an array of album covers, outfits, and antique portable record players. A heavy stream of video footage completes the room’s immersive experience. Passing into the next section of the exhibit—clearly marked by its shift in colour composition—there is a similar multimedia presentation of ideas. The black-and-white colour scheme is clean and simplistic in the second section, which is highlighted by a glass case of various Quebec artists’ guitars. Stationed off to the side is a dark room with video footage and beautifully intricate artifacts paying homage to the great influence of aboriginal cultures on the music industry. The real visual stunner, though, is the timeline of costumes, ranging from over-the-top, voluptuous Victorian gowns to out-of-this-world capes adorned with alien heads. The final section greets the viewer with a lofty ceiling and curving walls strewn with political dates, events, and videos of significant Quebecois performances over the years.

The exhibit’s layout, while visually pleasing, is slightly confusing. At the start, I expected a chronological and thematic ordering, yet as I travelled through, many dates overlapped or repeated. In this way, the exhibit felt unorganized, but not unbearably so. The technological component of the exhibit also affects its configuration, as the numbered videos and displays correspond to the audio players that are distributed to visitors and connected to headphones. This engaging use of technology adds another dimension to the exhibit, though unfortunately it is almost completely in French, with no English alternative.

The textual content, however, is thankfully provided in both French and English. Even though I was able to read it, most of its topics were completely foreign to me. Raised with a solid understanding of the popular musical movements of my parents’ generation, I expected to be familiar with more of the ‘influential’ and ‘world-renowned’ artists. While someone like Leonard Cohen brings back nostalgic memories, the exhibition introduced to me the prolific writings of Robert Charlebois, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and so many other new Quebecois figures. I welcomed the cultural education—and perhaps the poignancy of the exhibit is owed in part to its ability to present an unknown world of music, opening the public’s eyes to its influence.

The most powerful and compelling aspect of the entire exhibit is its representation of the sociopolitical context accompanying the province’s musical development. The significant changes in the rights of both aboriginal women and the people as a whole, as well as important civilian movements of the times, are central to the exhibit. It encompasses the rebellious and pro-peace movements of the ’60s, reflected in folk, rock, and psychedelic music, the anti-globalization protests of the late ’80s, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the emergence of grunge. We get to see firsthand how these events manifested themselves in the province’s distinct music scene.

Overall, the McCord Museum has put on an extremely successful and crowd pleasing exhibit, which can largely be attributed to the subject matter itself. Everybody loves music, and an immersive exhibit filled with music videos and iconic soulful ballads is sure to appeal to the masses. As its showcasing of sociopolitical history pulls closer and closer to our reality, its educational nature is complemented by its pulsing relevance. The exhibit is both mesmerizing and memorable, a defnitie must-see.

Music—Quebec: From Charlebois to Arcade Fire is at the McCord Museum (690 Sherbrooke) and runs Tuesday to Sunday. Student tickets are $14.

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