August Murphy-King on “On Davenport Road”?
Why Davenport Road? Of all the things in Toronto that one could choose to base a piece of music on, Davenport Road seems like one of the more innocuous choices. It’s not particularly urban, nor is it totally residential. Aside from being at the bottom of Casa Loma, it lacks almost any single defining landmark and on the surface. Davenport Road seems to lack a narrative – but as I began my research about Toronto’s history, I found this not to be the case.
Did you know that Davenport Road was originally the shoreline of Lake Iroquois, which was essentially the first incarnation of Lake Ontario? Once the area’s geography settled into its current form, the path grew into an overland route between the Humber and Don rivers. In this function, it grew to become one of the longest and busiest trails in the province, serving both First Nations, French fur traders, as well as the earliest European settlers of the area. Ensign John McGill was one of these settlers and the property he built was known as Davenport House, and it was from here that the road acquired its name in 1797. Davenport still has a trail-like feel, refusing to conform to Toronto’s general X-Y grid as it curves its way up past Dupont Street, then turning west and snaking it way up and over to Old Weston Road, just south of St. Clair.
The street was paved for the first time in 1838 – an improvement that was paid for by road tolls – something that our current generation of political leaders could take a cue from. This also explains the well-known Tollkeeper’s Cottage that occupies the northwest corner of Davenport and Bathurst. At one point Davenport even had its own railway, which was eventually integrated into the TTC streetcar network. A more detailed history of the railways in West Toronto can be found online, so I’ll spare you the details here. Suffice to say, Davenport has undergone a lot of growth and development in its day. The most significant markers of this growth are almost all from before 1945.
Davenport is a street that feels like it is still stuck in the 1950s – Dupont being another example of this – and thankfully most of the road has been overlooked by Toronto’s recent obsession with destruction, reconstruction, and gentrification. Davenport always feels like its genuine self – practical, easy and full of history. There is a subtle growth pattern that you can feel if you travel along the whole road – the almost sleepy suburban sensibility around Davenport and Weston, to where Davenport meets Yonge, which features the Masonic Temple, the Toronto Reference Library, and has the feeling of real Toronto urbanity. This progression struck me as a sort of microcosm of Toronto’s history and formed the basic kernel for ‘On Davenport Road.’
I wanted to write a piece that reflected the notion of growth, but where the growth occurred without necessarily the adding of elements, but merely changing the way the elements are presented – a reflection of the fact that Davenport’s basic shape (and, in a sense, function) remains almost unchanged from its origins. I also wanted the basic material itself to reflect the seemingly simple nature and appearance of the road. The first section of the piece gradually introduces the piece’s pitch material in an almost chorale like texture, but this quickly gives way to a rhythmic ostinato that drives the second section of the work. No new pitch material is introduced through this section, but things are arranged and re-arranged in new ways that reflect the increasing activity that one experiences as a result of moving from a pseudo-suburban setting to an urban one.
On a final note, I’d like to thank Ben, Matt, and the rest of Spectrum Music for affording me to opportunity to write this piece and the chance to work with such capable, committed, and passionate musicians. It has truly been an honour and a pleasure.