Friday, December 29, 2006

The Metropolitan Opera at the Movies

This really has been a wonderful year for the opera lover.

To cap it off, tomorrow, theatres across Canada (and the UK, the USA, Norway, Denmark and Japan) will be presenting a live, Saturday afternoon at the opera (in the theatre!) broadcast of Mozart's The Magic Flute, from the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

According to Alex Ross of the New Yorker, many theatres have already sold out in the US ( tickets are still available at the Paramount in Toronto!). Unfortunately, it seems that the Maritimes and Newfoundland have been completely shut out of this (perhaps owing to their theatres not having the technology), but west of New Brunswick, 28 theatres will be showing Julie Taymor's production of this Mozart masterpiece.

If you read this page often, you'll know that I'm a firm optimist when it comes to believing that there are a whole bunch of people out there who would like to go to an opera, but for a variety of reasons, can't. I can't think of a better opera to go to for the first time than the Magic Flute. This is your chance!

And one could argue that watching it live at a cineplex isn't the same thing as really going to the opera, but who cares? It's the Met Opera in Ste Foy and Victoria all at the same time, a kind of giant touring production. To boot, your seats to the opera come with cup holders!

Snap up those tickets! And remember, there will be five more operas after this one. Next up will be Bellini's I Puritani with Anna Netrebko.

Go ahead gentlemen, click on the link, and wonder why watching hockey is manly and wathcing opera is for sissys. Look what you've been missing! Shameless, I know, but this is opera we're talking about, not hockey or politics.

By the way, would anyone mind looking to see if this has been publicized at all in their area? I've checked a number of Canadian locations and there are still tickets available. Has the media picked up on this at all? I find nothing in the Toronto Star nor the Globe and Mail.

Just curious, so that if they pull the plug in Canada due to low ticket sales, and it's taken as a sign that no one wants to go to the opera, I can point out the fact that the major newspapers couldn't squeeze a Paris Hilton story out of the entertainment section for this.

***

And Richard Bradshaw, take note. Now that the opera house is done, and everyone here in the arts media loves you, why not capitalize on this and do a production next year of Harry Somer's Louis Riel for its 30th anniversary and broadcast it live across Canada via the theatres?

And your excuse that it should be a national co-production doesn't wash, and I have only two words in response to it - Calgary Opera. More on that later.

Happy Holidays and have a wonderful New Year!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Problem of Shostakovich

I decided recently I was going to see what all the fuss was about, and immerse myself in the works of Dmitri Shostakovich.

If you don't already know by now but Shostakovich would have been 100 this year. His music has been everywhere, and most major orchestras, opera companies, radio stations and record companies have done something to commemorate this.

There is a strange quality to all of this. For years, the classical music industry, ever valorizing the glorious past, has taken to commemorating every kind of birth or death anniversary of our pantheon of great composers, usually singling out one in particular for special treatment, usually in the form of a boxed set of recordings with a woodcut or bronze of the composer's visage.

Most of us realise this is kind of absurd - is the 150th anniversary of Schumann's death less important than Shostakovich's 100th birthday, given their both quite dead? Nonetheless, as a way of focussing the mind, and the pocketbook, it's probably not a bad strategy, and it certainly makes the planning of orchestra seasons and recording sessions easier.

***

So, what about Shostakovich? I listened to his symphonies, his string quartets, his jazz suites, is piano concertos and some of his music for solo piano (all courtesy of the Naxos Music Library), so I feel I got a good sense of the man and his work. I had heard much of this before, I'd just never really paid attention.

Truth be told, I don't know what to make of him. I enjoyed the 15th symphony and 1st piano concerto, and I found the jazz suites a delightful surprise. The string quartets seem, to my ear, to be as close to Beethoven's accomplishment as anything can or will be - they are works of intense power.

Here's the problem. I cannot separate Shostakovich from his political environment. Indeed, I'm not sure anyone can.

When I listen to the 7th symphony, and find it wanting, my old musicology teacher whispers "Stalin" into my mind's ear and it acts as a balm for the aesthetic aches Shostakovich arouses in me.

Do we grant Shostakovich his greatness because of Stalin or despite him? It's hard to say, but the incessant repetition of his works, coupled with constant reminders of STALIN, over the past year has dulled my ability to think clearly about him. Indeed, some very skillful and prominent classical music bloggers have felt the same way about this, although they have more of a handle on the aesthetic issues than I do.

That I seemed to enjoy what would be considered some of his lighter works strikes me as telling - is this the real Shostakovich, the one unencumbered by Stalinism. Was his seriousness unnatural?

I just don't know what to think of him now. So that's where I will have to leave it until later. The COC performs Lady Macbeth in a few months, and I'll update my thoughts then.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Shostakovich at 100

Never one to be on top of a trend, I have largely ignored, missed, or marked with disinterest the celebrations surrounding the commemoration of what would have been Dmitri Shostakovich's 100th birthday.

Why? No particular reason.

Classical music is a big pond, and I've never really bonded with him. So to rectify that, I've been listening to all of his symphonies via my good pals at the Naxos Music Library. I listened to 1-6 yesterday, and I'm hoping to polish them off by tonight.

Coincidentally, CBC happens to be putting on a little Shostakovich celebration of their own this month, and have a site up. Check it out.

However, Leningrad awaits. More thoughts to come!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sound Familiar?

Happy Hallowmas!

Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker, has a half-hearted lament for the demise of Tower Records.

Anyone here in Toronto remember Tower Records, which, along with Sam's and HMV, made Toronto one of the best places in the world to buy classical music? Toronto's Tower Records disappeared without fanfare a number of years ago, and although Sam's old flagship store is still around, it appears that HMV won the giant record store wars here in Toronto.

They celebrated this fact a number of years ago by cancelling their annual Boxing Day buy three get one free CD sale. They handed out coupons instead. But that's business.

We're still doing pretty well here in Toronto when it comes to purchasing classical music. Not so much in Calgary. Although there's a great independent classical CD store in Calgary, I'm sure there are many who remember that 15 years ago, Canada's country music mecca managed to support two of them, one of which had more than one location!

Then A&B Sound came along. Their downtown flagship store had the largest classical music section around, and they fairly quickly killed those independent stores. Then, as per their calculus of profitability, once they'd killed off their barely profitable competitors, they gutted their classical CD department.

Now it's A&B Sound that's suffering, the flagship store long gone, their stores in Calgary a pale shadow of their glory days, their business sucked away by the like of Future Shop and Best Buy. Dog eats dog.

Should we be worried about this trend? For many years, I gave the party line about the decline of classical music, etc. Truth be told, this is a big pile of a book written by Harry Frankfurt. Now, more than ever, classical music, in addition to all the other wonderful fruits of the great minds of humanity, be they books, art, cinema, or scientific results, are available to people in more ways than I could have dreamed when my eyes were opened to the vastness of the intellectual world in my teens.

For the cost of one CD a month, you have access to a lifetime of music on the Naxos Music Library. The Canadian Opera Company has affordable rush seating - I couldn't believe how many children there were at the opera, kids who took the subway downtown with a bunch of their friends to see the opera.

So then why does the myth of the demise of classical music persist? It keeps fundraisers on their toes - it's always easier to get money for a desperate cause than an organization filled to the brim with cash.

This myth has also served the recording industry well, pitting listeners against each other, and creating a sense of solidarity amongst the listeners of a particular genre who believe that by buying these records they're somehow keeping the sacred flame alive.

It's sad that Tower Records went out of business here in Toronto and New York, but perhaps all this means is that someone who cares about classical music will decide to open a CD store that pays the bills so that the rest of us can buy an Hans Werner Henze CD on a whim.

Those kinds of stores always seem to get by, and in doing so, say more about the kind of capitalism we should be encouraging, despite their relative inefficiency at creating capital when compared to, for example, Tower Records.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Così fan tutte

was a disappointment. To be fair, the opera is a thicket of dramatic problems, but playing the opera as a farce misunderstands and wastes the depth of Mozart's musical setting.

It seems that the director spent more time reading Da Ponte's libretto than studying Mozart's score. Finding the middle ground between the two is the key to success with Così, and it was not achieved in this production.

***

This was also my first time inside the new opera house. It is, just as the critics note, fairly boring, architecturally speaking. It's nice, very clean looking, kind of Scandinavian in its feel, despite the absence of Scandinavian levels of subsidy. The all-glass staircase is a novelty, but not nearly as visually exciting as it had been made out to be.

As for the hall itself, it too is bright and clean, with great sightlines and an astonishing immediacy to the sound from the pit of the stage - it sounds as though you're listened to the piece through headphones.

Like many others, I was disappointed that this opera house wasn't an of architectural marvel, or the jewel in our city's crown of arts institutions. However, sitting in the house last week, it occurred to me that perhaps this was exactly the right decision for Toronto.

By making the inside of the house, the acoustics, the backstage, the most important part of the house, Richard Bradshaw and the COC have made a commitment to opera in Toronto. Something people neglect to remember when pointing to the Sydney Opera House as what we could have had is that the Sydney Opera House is a lousy place to stage operas!

Yes, that's right. Richard Bradshaw felt it was best to put the horse before the cart here in Toronto, to ensure that if one day, in the glorious future of opera in Toronto, where people stop clapping for everything, including brightly lit sets, and boo an all-nude production of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten for it's lack of dramatic urgency.

Building a nice, but not great, opera house is Bradshaw's greatest gift to the city. Now we have no excuse but to focus on the quality of the productions. We can no longer lament how awful the sound is, or how the stage is too large. There are no excuses anymore. Our opera culture can mature a bit now, in a way that a Gehry-designed opera house on stilts with a roof that opened would have never allowed us.

Dare I say it....it's time to start booing.

The disappointment of Così fan tutte hit this home. The sets were old, the dramatic intent of the opera misunderstood, and the balance between the orchestra and the singers surprisingly bad. What we need now is for the audience to no longer pity the circumstances, and force the COC to improve the overall quality of its productions, as they are wildly inconsistent. (How did they manage to make Carmen boring last year?)

Nonetheless, we opera lovers are very much of the side of the COC. Mr. Bradshaw, you have set the bar very high. Here's to hoping you can vault it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Massey Harris Park


This is Massey Harris Park. It is one of Toronto's newest parks, and it is wonderful.

The site is nestled between a brand new condo development, and what was the Massey-Harris building, now a loft building full of the well-off urban professionals who make up a good number of the locals around here (you may draw your own conclusions about where I lie within that description.)


The park has its own website here, which gives a brief history of the Massey-Harris Company which, in its day, was one of the largest manufacturers of farm equipment around.

The Masseys were a tremendously influential family in their day. Vincent Massey was the first Canadian-born Governor General of Canada, and his brother Raymond was a well-known actor. Indeed, the University of Toronto would lack both Hart House and Massey College, the Commons and the Lords of St. George campus, had it not been for the munificence of this family. Or, to be more precise, my family.

In some strange, roundabout way, I am related to them, by blood or by birth I cannot remember. Long ago, I was told stories of moderately distant relatives being invited to the "Massey Family Reunion". In fact, as a small child, I considered myself a Massey, although this form of self-identification has long since expired.

The park itself is a mélange of outdoor styles, with manicured lawns:

and untamed shrubbery:

wooden walkways (which constitute the east and west edges of the park):

and stairs that lead to nowhere:

It is a cheeky place, where one is expected to wonder why there are stair that lead to nowhere, or why if you put you hand on a pole with a rounded tip (hmmmm....) water starts shooting out of the ground:

It's really quite a show.

For those of you who don't live here, Toronto has become quite the dog city. Reflecting that trend, we find a new style of water fountain, with three separate spouts - one for an adult, one for a marginally shorter adult, and, down at the very bottom, one for your poochy buddy:

And just when you thought things couldn't be any better, it also happens to be a free Wifi spot thanks to the fine folks at Wireless Toronto.

Picture this. A hot, sunny day, accompanied by your faithful dog and a sleeping infant. You find a spot to sit under the trellis, which both blocks and reflects the sun:


You have water, you have wilderness, you have pelouse, and you have internet access. Dare I mention there's a Starbucks just steps from the park?

***

As a Calgarian, I was amused by the generous number of "parkettes" that dot Toronto. They were small, and for the longest time, I didn't get them- what's the point of sitting in a park. Aren't parks for walking, listening to Beethoven's sixth symphony and imagining yourself strolling through Heiligenstadt?

How wrong I was. These small green spaces, these points throughout the city where one can catch their breath, have just as much value as a long walk through Edworthy Park would. They show an entirely different approach to bringing the natural back to the city.

We don't have to cordon off the nature already there - we can make it.

In fact, what makes Massey Harris Park work is that it is very much a product of thought. It is not a few trees surrounded by grass, but a deliberate attempt by some very creative people to create an oasis in the desert that makes up much of the modern urban landscape. The attention to detail is appreciated because it's obvious that they cared about what they were building here.

I would argue that it is how we treat the small spaces around us, the ones that don't get much publicity, and not the giant megaprojects Toronto Star columnists demand the city build, that speak to whether or not our urban landscape is improving or deteriorating.

If Massey Harris park, and the transformation at the Princes' Gates are any indication, and I think they are, then the Cassandras in our local media should find another hobby horse to ride because their discourse serves very little. except perhaps to sell papers.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Lister Sinclair

died this morning.

If I had to name a single Canadian who would comfortably bear the title of Renaissance Man, it would be him. Ideas will run a three-part series, starting today, on Sinclair's life, and I would encourage all and sundry to tune in and enjoy a tribute to a man who seems to have been the embodiment of curiosity.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Hammerklavier Sonata - Schnabel

What does one say about a work of art such as this? Something that feels forged, an analogue of Achilles' Shield, an miniature epic sweeping you away for a short while before depositing you in a grassy field to rest, where a quartet of satyrs plays late Haydn just to bring you back to earth?

My first encounter with this work was through the recording I'm listening to right now - the 1935 recording of Op. 106 by the legendary Artur Schnabel. (The Naxos Music Libary yields its riches so willingly - it almost seems wrong)

What does one say about this recording? The breathtaking speed and stunning virtuosity? The complete disregard for Beethoven's metronome markings?

Schnabel was the first to record the complete cycle of Sonatas, for HMV, to be sold by subscription to the Beethoven Sonata Society. I wonder what people must have thought, the day the latest Schnabel seventy-eight arrived on their front porch, fresh off the press.

You can see the lucky family gathering around the phonograph table, hurriedly tearing the brown paper open to discover which sonata they were to be graced with this evening - the Hammerklavier! Kids, finish your stew because we're in for a long night!

And what a night it would have been. Yes, Schnabel misses notes, but never has missing a few notes mattered less - it's thrilling nonetheless.

If however, you need technical perfection with your piano, I would suggest Maurizio Pollini's fine recording on Deutsche Grammophon, which is the recording I own. Pollini is often accused of an overly cerebral style, but if like cerebral, as I do, this shouldn't be a problem.

Beyond his stunning technique, and despite the reputation, there's a delicacy and sophistication to his playing of the Hammerklavier which complements the breathtaking Schnabel very well.

I would recommend listening to both, over and over again. Make a day, or perhaps a week of it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Bits and Pieces

Why I blog:


I believe that boredom is the result of a lack of personal meaning, and that this is to a great extent is due precisely to the fact that all objects and actions come to us fully coded while we - as the descendants of Romanticism - insist on a personal meaning.

- Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom
For a Baroque affect, please go check this out (via Crooked Timber). The "Behaves So Strangely" segment should inspire, in anyone, a sense of wonder about the world, or more precisely, your brain and the strange work it does on your behalf to make the world something meaningful. Before accusing me of espousing un relativisme with respect to the world, just a friendly reminder about the universality of the effect demonstrated in the above clip. We all hear what happens, don't we? If you don't, I'm sure Dr. Deutsch would be very interested in hearing from you! It's a win-win situation!

***

For my Italian-speaking readers, the inimitable Tyler Brûlé recommended what surely must be the most expensive newspaper per page in the world - Italy's Il Foglio. Coming in at an average of one folded broadsheet, it's loaded with insightful opinion, and as Brûlé says, could point the way of the future for newspapers. I for one, would love something like this in Toronto, a daily morning briefing, crammed with great, intelligent writing.

I dislike big, artery-clogging newspapers, and this slim, elegant approach seems perfect to me. Sure it costs as much as the Corriere Della Sera, but honestly, how many of you make it through the entire Globe, Star or National Post? (I assume none of my readers peruse the Sun dailies, except perhaps for anthropological reasons.)

I'd also be happy to pay a premium to get better content than 24 and Metro, Toronto's free dailies, as they are little more than newswire stories strung together with advertising. A Foglio-like broadsheet would be like your favourite online essayists (or bloggers, if you will), and a spot of the major news stories of the day, in a highly manageable package that one could take on the subway or streetcar, listening to whatever it is people listen to these days on their iPods.

And guess what? They let you download the paper for free later in the day!

Who's up for getting something like this off the ground? Any takers, please? Ken Alexander?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Good Food: Banu

While Valhalla burned, I ate saffron chicken kebobs and drank vodka and pomegranate juice.

I should explain. Through a series of fortunate events, my wife and I managed to slip out after work last night and head over to Banu, a popular new spot on Queen Street West.

I walk in, freshly shorn, with my beautiful wife sitting at an aqua-blue plastic bar stool (you can see them here! Does anyone else think those are teal? Not enough green in them to my eye).

The place is all clean lines, with pale blue mosaic tables, and comfy white bench seating for dinner. Just past the open kitchen, I noticed an upstairs loungish-looking area, perfect for a late evening or a small gathering. My wife had ordered a vodka and cranberry, and I followed her lead with the aforementioned vodka and pomegranate.

We sit at the bar, and, between gazing into each other's ever so gently inebriated eyes, check out their menu, which is both short and interesting.

It's all salads, dips and kebobs. This may sound like a lack of choice, until you start to see what they're willing to put on a skewer and into a flame. Beef heart, lamb, prawns, testicles, it's pretty much all there. Although I had an offal hankering for the delights of organ meat, my wife is disinclined towards cooked testicles, and given it's summer, we went safe, and ordered a a selection of their salads, dips and their saffron chicken breast skewers.

Then one of the waiters mentioned there was a fire outside. We had, somehow, missed all this. We looked outside, and sure enough, there was a fire about half a block down on the same side of the street. There were also fire trucks. And then more fire trucks. And then the Fire Command Truck. And then the Hazardous Materials Unit Truck. And then police cars. I suddenly wished my toddler son were here, as he would have gone mad with all these giant fire-fighting machines!

The centre of the conflagration was a card and gift shop named Valhalla. Seriously. It was impossible to keep the last act of Götterdämmerung from playing in my mind. (Note to COC- this is what Valhalla-burning should look like, not the Macdonald's heat lamp glow your artistic team thought would be an appropriate ending to your current Ring Cycle...)

Then the food came. We had the nan o paneer, which was bread, goat's cheese and walnuts, a salad, the citrus-saffron chicken breast, and, thanks to an error in our favour, the kashkeh bademjan, a delightful eggplant dip that only needed a spritz of lemon to make it perfect. Accompanying all these dishes was copious amounts of flat bread, cut into strips for ideal sharing and scooping.

The chicken was revelatory - moist, succulent, its flavour as bright as its saffron-dyed flesh. The dips and salads were refreshing, and we left the main course full. We finished the meal with some Iranian tea (black tea with cardamom), served with dates and sweet chickpea cookes, and a pomegranate sorbet.

At this point, you’re probably wondering, so what about the hookah? Or, given this was an Iranian restaurant, the ghalyan? They had one, but it was not to be.

We were about to sit outside, which is, in smoke-free Toronto, the last place you can smoke, when a couple, who appeared to be tourists (well, they looked like tourists, shorts and fanny packs and the like), sat down at the lone patio seat and proceeded to smoke it themselves. We were thwarted! But we’ll be back.

I should also mention that the service is gracious and unpretentious, and the prices reasonable. Most of all, despite the location, the place has managed already to show a depth of character in what is arguably the trendiest strip in the city. A great place for dinner and probably an even better one for a night of drinking and talking. I highly recommend it.


Banu’s at 777 Queen Street West. Phone number’s 416 777 2268.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Ring of TFO

If you can believe it, TFO, Ontario's French public television station, will be showing the complete Ring cycle over four weeks!

They're showing the Patrice Chéreau-directed Beyreuth centenary production, with Pierre Boulez conducting. Last night, they showed a documentary on the production and Das Rheingold, and it looks like they will be showing all of them, Sunday nights, beginning at 8pm. (Just a warning - there won't be any intermissions, so you'd best make those little interact pastries before the show starts!)

This production on DVD is at the top of my opera "to buy" list, and I wasn't disappointed by the first installment. I'm also glad I get to watch before buying! It's like some TFO programmer reads my mind, or at least blog.

This is an "updated" production, meaning it's set in the 19th Century, but as far as Rheingold went, it worked beautifully. If, like me, you didn't get to the COC ring now's your chance to watch a great productin of the tetrology!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Idomenono

Opera is big this month. There was Toronto's own staging of the Ring, but the manjor story right now is the recent cancellation of a production of Mozart's Idomeneo at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, which was to feature the severed head of Mohammed, among other severed heads.

The cancellation has, unsurprisingly, provoked howls of outrage from many circles, and indeed, it seems as though the cancellation is entirely due to fears that mobs in middle east will rise up and protest this representation of Mohammed, or that someone will come along and blow up the opera house.

However, Alex Ross, critic for the New Yorker, while standing firmly on the side the Deutsche Oper should have carried on with the production, his makes a point that I had yet to see anywhere else - the production sucks.

I think many would agree that cancelling the production out of fears that Muslims may do something is both idiotic and patronizing, and only reinforces the stereotypes of Muslims as a characteristically violent and reactionary people. Indeed, it appears that this is precisely what the German security officials believed when they recommended the show be cancelled.

It also seems that cancelling the production has brought much more attention to its offensiveness than likely would have occurred if they had staged it - people who think opera is that woman on TV in the afternoons are now going to sit around and urge the production be saved in order to preserve the very freedoms our grandfathers fought to preserve, and stuff like that.

However, I think this misses the most important point - the production was vulgar shite. Let me draw a line in the sand. There are disturbing, thought-provoking productions that force one to look at the world in a new light. And then there's bringing a quartet of decapitated heads at the end of an opera that has no place for them dramatically.

Let's just flesh this out a bit. At the end of this cancelled production, Idomeneo, the King of Crete, comes out on stage carrying the decapitated heads of Neptune, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad. That's right folks, Idomeneo manages to kill three divinely-related humans and a deathless pagan god. It's hard to miss the subtlety here, because there is none - it's incoherent.

I'm surprised Hans Neuenfels, the director of this production, didn't ask the singer playing Idomeno to then vomit all over the heads. Or, why not have him kill his family at the end too? Or hey, why have the heads at all - why not have Idomeneo tearfully masturbate to the closing strains of the opera? Or-

You can see how easy this is. Just come up with something offensive, and drop it in there, somewhere - there's no need for context.

Some directors are better at this kind of crap than others. Canada's own beloved Atom Egoyan, in directing a production of Strauss' Salome, decided to have the Page give Narraboth, Captain of Herod's Guards, a blow job - as though Salome needed to be more controversial. Indeed, this is a common affliction amongst who I take to be the most bored artists in all of Christendom - the opera director.

So what's really depressing about the Deutsche Oper cancellation isn't just the prejudiced fears about the muslim community, but that someone didn't decapitate this production before it got to the stage. Mozart, and the people who love his art, deserve better than this.

UPDATE: If my commenter is right, then it seems that Idomeneo may be back on. He suggests that this was perhaps a publicity stunt, although that's even more horrifying.

To clarify my own point, the people out there demanding this be performed obviously have no clue as to the aesthetic merits of the production themself. In fact, it appears that no one cares about the aesthetic merits. Rather, the craptacular must go on, no matter how incoherent and silly.

This is not about freedom of expression to me. If this were an opera about the life of Mohammed, or Jesus for that matter, that would be another matter entirely. But the controversy here surrounds a bored opera director irresponsibly playing with Mozart and the audience forced to sit through this.

I hate to say it, but the more I think about it, the less concerned I am about the freedom of expression issue here, because that's just the hammer the political class has decided to use to show that muslims are violent savages (let's remember that so far, there have been no direct threats). The real issue here is whether or not this is worth people's time and effort as a performance of musical drama, if it says anything, if it has any dramatic value. This is a fantastic opportunity to discuss the state of opera directors, and instead we've got a tired, unproductive and deeply repetitive series of assertion about "artistic freedom".

That should be the central issue here, but that would mean that we have a culture actively concerned about art and aesthetics. I seems we don't.

Friday, September 22, 2006

On Letter Writing

I was glad to see a new post by Gawain over at Heaven Tree - I was worried, although callous man that I am, I did not write to inquire as to his condition, instead content to believe he was staring at clouds somewhere far away from a computer, which it turns out, he was.

I feel that, for the most part, I could probably restrict myself to discussing the topics he raises on his blog, and be pretty happy about my small contribution to this whole blogging business. As you can see from the date of the last post, it's been a while since I've managed to stop by Le Voir Dit. For some reason, this place doesn't feel like mine quite yet. Don't know why, but here we are.

Anyway, it does feel the appropriate place to touch on a remark of his about letter writing. I know a lot about writing letters, perhaps more than anyone should know about writing letters, and so I know precisely what Gawain wants when he asks, very gently, "I wonder, would any of you would ever like to write me a long-hand letter?" But rather than bore you with all of my letter writing escapades, I'll bore you with one.

***

I was in long-distance relationship with a girl during the twilight of letter writing as a medium in which people commonly set down their thoughts to each other. Although many intrepid souls had e-mail accounts those days, we were still in the dark ages (as we all know technology=progress), and as the telephone companies in Canada were still, for the most part, public monopolies, lingering conversations on our days spent working dead end summer jobs and pining for each other's bodies would have quickly exhausted our "saving for visits" accounts.

So we wrote. We had met in Vienna (Think Before Sunrise - similar in some numerous aspects, although the movie came later - did we bump into Richard Linklater at the Staatsoper?), and each of us began on the plane ride home what turned out to be 6 months of wonderful correspondence between the two of us, before the relationship ran out of gas.

I happened to discover (or rediscover) those letters when I was in Calgary last week. Ignoring the often hyperomantic and fatalistic bits of prose (Was that really me?), I really enjoyed rereaded her letters to me. And I think the main reason why I enjoyed it so was due in large part to having none of my own.

Part of the fun of reading old correspondence is reaching into the memorial archive and attempting to reconstruct what it was that set her off on page 3, or what turned her on on page 7. I remember writing all sorts of passionate and very tortured things to her about myself and my life, things that I'd probably rather not read again, not because I'm afraid to reexperience them, but because I suspect they won't be very well-written or insightful.

There's a good reason why so many great men destroy their youthful works. Not that I'm in their pantheon, but who wouldn't kick a rotting fish off a dock rather than leaving it to the cats?

Most of our written conversations to each other come in strings now, long strings of fragmented conversations. E-mail is not a place for essays or erudition. Letters on the other hand, beg for turns of phrase, cadence, and structure. There is something to the unity, the wholeness of the letter that makes it a wonderfully expressive medium. This wholeness has been lost in e-mail, although perhaps has been partly recovered in blogging.

***

I miss writing letters. Partly because I find writing much more enjoyable than typing - I have much less trouble getting thoughts out through my wrists than than through my fingers.

I also miss the intimacy, the different kinds of paper, the changes in pen colour, the notes on the envelope. I miss all the different ways in which someone can represent themselves to you before a single word has been uttered - The letter in which she told me it was over said it all before I had even opened it.

It is perhaps strange to consider them in this way, but letters are, at their core and in the practices around them, a gift. And now, it seems, a rare gift too. Perhaps this is a good thing, an antidote to the stats-obsessing and monster feeding occupation that is blogging.

I never thought I would find myself saying this again, but I wouldn't mind writing a letter to someone...Gawain?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Music and the Developing Brain

There's an article in the Arts and Entertainment section at cbc.ca (as opposed to the science section) about a study touting the cognitive benefits of music education for small children.

It mentions that even if what kids are doing sounds like "random notes or nonsense, it's likely their children are developing their brains in ways that could enhance their overall thinking".

I am very interested in how the ways in which we talk about things shapes the ways in which we value them. I am not an adherent to the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis, but it isn't implausible to me that the ways in which we talk or think about ourselves has an effect on the ways we behave - if not, how could people be affected by words at all?

I suppose the thing that troubles me about these kinds of articles is how the place of the fine arts appears to be shifting away from a more Romantic notion of these pursuits as the loftiest goals imaginable, to one where it turns out that painting and music will make you a better doctor or lawyer, because you'll do better in school.

In other words, the justification for these pursuits is shifting away from an intrinsic one (they're just worth pursuing), to an extrinsic one (they're worth pursuing because they will enhance what is now intrinsically worth pursuing).

Personally, I find this shift in thinking very troubling indeed, because it orders pursuits that make us happy behind pursuits that make us productive. Am I crazy to think it should be the other way around?

There is the larger issue of the concept of brain development, which I would like to touch on, but am utterly unqualified to, except to say that I think Ian Hacking is right to say that the very concept of the childhood has become inexorably tied to and defined by this notion of development.

I think this cashes out in a variety of ways, such as the fact that for children under 5, almost all toys and entertainment is geared around learning and development, whereas after 5 it all reverts to the largely banal pablum of cartoons too "wink wink nudge nudge" clever for children and not nearly clever enough for adults. In other words, the market has responded to these studies by providing people with ample opportunities to develop their child's brain, but once they're in school, there appears to be a massive cultural shift away from teaching children, to helping them consume products. (I know things aren't as black and white as this, but this is only a sketch, not a canvas).

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I want my kids to love music because it's a great human pursuit, and I want that to continue for as long as possible. Telling me that my kids will be better developed as a result of taking music sounds good, but I certainly don't want it to be everything for all those people who are not as passionately into music or the arts as I am.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities

I mentioned in an earlier post Montréal's celebration of the OSM's new music director, Kent Nagano. And celebration is the right word - it seems that, if no one else, the media and political élite, as well as the Roman Catholic church (are they still part of the élite in Montréal?), were entirely caught up in the fact that there was a new man of the arts in town.

While the Canadian media focuses on the terrible shootings in Montréal, often trying to articulate it as a Québec problem (Did anyone else notice how the "distinct society", rejected in many circles in English Canada, seems to fit very nicely as the basis, the ground, as an explanation for these tragic events in many of the opinion pieces and attempts to come to grips with what happened?) , I'd like to turn things around and again trumpet something that Montréal does quite well - celebrate the arts.

I recall it because there was no greater contrast to Montréal's experience than sitting in the Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary to catch the début of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra's new music director, Roberto Minczuk, as he lead the orchestra in a fine performance of two symphonies: Haydn's 88th and Mahler's 5th. (More on the concert itself in a couple of days.)

The hall wasn't full. There was a new music director, with Mahler on the programme, and the hall wasn't full.

I should point out, hypocrite that I am, that I have been to a total of one Toronto Symphony Orchestra concerts since moving here nearly a decade ago. But I was a regular attendee to CPO concerts back in the day, and it was shocking to see a good chunk of empty seats in the hall. The hall would have been packed 10 years ago.

Moreover, the CPO is a great mid-sized orchestra. They played these works well, with a tight sound, and it was doubly depressing to see how poorly received all this was in the heart of the New West.

I guess what was sad for me was that I moved away from Calgary for precisely these reasons, a kind of hostility to the fine arts amongst the general population. If you're under 18, there are some phenomenal opportunities for classical musicians in Calgary, with the Mount Royal Conservatory program and the Kiwanis Festival providing a pretty strong foundation. After you turn 18 however, things go downhill fairly fast. What happens to all these kids when they leave? Has anyone ever noticed that many artists trained by these fantastic programs in Calgary, never stay there, that there is a serious cultural brain drain out there, to turn another old chestnut on its head?

Perhaps I'm making too much of this, but an editorial in the Calgary Herald while I was there reinforced some of my old prejudices about how people deal with the arts in there, and perhaps why all these talented young musicians either flee or give up. Entitled, "Plumbers have honour, too", it is essentially a plea by the Herald Editorial Board for young people to enter trades.

What I find unsurprising, but tiring still the same, is the focus on arts or humanities degrees as comprising the class of individuals who should put down those books and pick up the monkey wrench.

"Canada needs philosophers, but not a nation full of them." says the editorial board, and I say, my god, what a nation we would have if we were all philosophers! Can you imagine the kind of democracy we'd live in?

Beyond the patronizing silliness of the editorial, especially given the editorial board is probably stacked with Arts grads, there is a blindness here to the large masses of BComm degrees granted by the University of Calgary, which time and time again, has been shown to be one of the least effective degrees for er, success in business.

These, and the other "applied" degrees aren't mentioned, because I suppose, one can make the straight connection between their degree and their job.

I actually would agree with their editorial board that too many degrees are being granted, but the reasons for this isn't due to a massive increase in Arts and Humanities degrees, but as a result of all these applied degrees.

You can get a degree in Philosophy at U of C, and you can also get a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management - which do you think has more majors? Who do you think is more useful? A degree's usefulness is a one-to-one correspondence between what's on your parchment and your job title? It seems so, because arts majors get it on both sides for this.

It's also terribly, terribly wrong, and cuts to the heart of whether or not education is designed to create citizens, or workers. We all know where the Calgary Herald editorial board stands on this divide, and it is a divide, but it saddened me to watch the CPO give a fantastic performance to a house with empty seats, and I can't help but think that, while we're all searching for "cultural" reasons to explain events, that there isn't a relationship between the Herald editorial and CPO attendance.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Moving Right Along

I know at least one of you listened to Das Rheingold last night!

I did too, and I was pretty impressed. The first thing that stood out was the quartet-like transparency of the orchestra. I don't know if it's the hall or the miking of the orchestra, but I'll reserve judgement until I actually see something in the house.

The performance itself was well sung and well-played. I felt conductor Richard Bradshaw's pacing of the score sometimes got away from him, but the overall sense of majesty that I think is appropriate to Das Rheingold came through very clearly. You can read other reviews here and here.

Now, what about Die Walkure if you're new to all this? I would, if you're still awake, tuning in around 10:30 tonight. This is about when Wotan will be putting his daughter Brünnhilde to sleep after disobeying him. It is one of the great moments of the entire cycle. Or, you can just listen to the whole thing on CBC Radio Two, starting at 6:30. (And was it just me, or did last night's presence of retired Toronto Star critic William Littler with Howard Dyck come off strangely like a post-NFL wrap up?)

Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Woolf in Sheep's Clothing

Das Rheigold, the first opera in the Ring Cycle (or, to be pedantic, the Prelude to the three operas) begins tonight at 6:30. Radio Two frequencies across Canada are here, or you can just listen from your computer from here.

Now then, on to a couple of things.

For those of you still wedded to the notion that the CBC only favours the likes of Noam Chomsky and Fidel Castro, you would have been overjoyed to have heard the patrician voice of Theodore Dalrymple (it's a pen name) talking about the decline of British civilization being the result of, wait for it, liberalism.

A quick googling of his name reveals that he's well published in conservative circles, and he's an articulate voice who I, tree-hugging, identity-politics loving prole that I am, actually found enjoyable to listen to and to read.

Did I buy a word he was saying? Well, sort of, until I stumbled on his article blaming Virginia Woolf for the decline of Western Civilization. Yes, you heard that right - those damn Bloomsburians screwed it all up for us.

I think his appeal is that he, like so many conservatives, plies his trade on the myth of the decline, and that we need to recover those old values to save civilization. This is why someone like Woolf could be a target, because she didn't support her man and pop children from her womb like a just-filled Pez. Instead, she made love to women and wrote difficult modernist fiction.

It's not just conservatives who buy into this myth - it has wide appeal across the political spectrum. But I believe the myth of the decline is essential to a particular strain of conservative thought, and it also happens to be the one that, when properly tapped, gets conservatives elected.

The golden era usually called to mind is the 1950's, a time when huge numbers of men had just returned from Europe having seen friends blown to bits, and the reality of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust behind them. Has anyone ever considered what kind of an effect that, in addition to their military training, led to the creation of a highly organized, stratified society in the immediate aftermath of the war? Or that this is what, if nothing else, people wanted projected back to them by their mythmakers in the media?

I know it's an armchair theory, easily refutable, but the notion of decline is so pervasive that it's worth taking a moment to wonder if there are any explanations for this myth. Again though, it's those "elites" according to Dalyrmple who've screwed everything up for the rest of us, and ruined the lives of the common people.

I actually agree with his sentiment that there's something fishy about someone who wants to spend enourmous amounts of tax dollars feeding and clothing the poor yet can't stand to look at them on the street, contempt worn on their faces like a new suit.

However, I would argue that there are a whole vast class of "elites", or which Dalrymple is most certainly one, all with different needs and interests and beliefs about the world and its people, who don't make up any kind of homogenous unit, who frame and dictate the terms of many of our political and intellectual debates. These people are to the right and to the left of us, and the struggle for power is still, to a great extent, their struggle.

****

On a completely different note, while Toronto (and by extension, Canada) waits for the Ring, it seems to have escaped the English media, with the exception of Paul Wells, that Montréal shut down, pealed bells, and generally made a big deal of the fact that their main orchestra, the OSM, had a new conductor. They showed us Torontonians what city pride can be about, celebrating yet another of Canada's myriad "cultures".

Here my friends, is the difference between us Anglos and our Gallic cousins - they don't appear get all hostile and resentful about so-called high culture. Reading Le Devoir on Saturday, with it's unabashed Culture section, as opposed to the mashed up high and low culture sections of most English dailies, was also a treat. Here's to keeping those worlds apart, each with aspects to enjoy and savour, but rarely placed on the same table for comparison.

Yet another thing we can learn from the French...no wonder everyone resents them.

You can listen to the OSM concert performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony here (English CBC take note - please follow the lead of Radio Canada and the BBC and start to leave concert performances up for a little while)

Monday, September 11, 2006

All Wagner, All The Time

A quick note to everyone that the Canadian Opera Company's long-anticipated production of Richard Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelungen begins tomorrow. CBC has gone all out, broadcasting not only the cycle this week live, but packing Radio Two with more Wagner than you can twirl a baton to!

But if the stage drama isn't enough for you, this article in the Star reminds us not only of the sheer pressure of performing the Ring, but also that there's more drama off stage than ever makes it into performance.

I won't be in town for the first performance, but I will try to catch it on the radio, and I hope you do to! And for those of you who don't like Wagner, now's your chance to JOIN US!!! My suggestion to newbies is to tune into the opening of Das Rheingold tomorrow, listen to the first 15 minutes, tune out, come back about two hours later, and listen to the end.

If that music doesn't affect you, then I can only conclude that you're some kind of heartless zombie, or you've learned your lessons from the pop music marketing industry too well. If that's the case, I feel sorry for you.

If not, and you enjoy it, then come back here and I'll suggest some other snippets to catch for Die Walkure, the second opera in the series. And please do leave comments to let me know what you think.

Also on tap this week on JS will be some food reviews and perhaps a photo essay (hopefully).

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

CBC - The Frosted Side: The Nature of Things

Named after Lucretius' Epicurean epic Dē rērum nātūrā, The Nature of Things continues to teach the willing and infuriate the ignorant. going strong at 46 years, it is CBC's longest-running television program, and continues to be an important contribution to our nation's cultural life.

For instance, a recent episode featured Dr. Mark Winston of Simon Fraser University talking about bees, and the intersection of his scientific work with that of an artist, Aganetha Dyck, who used bees in her practice.

It was a busy show. There was plenty of scientific discussion, like how half the honey bees in Canada died last year. (Funny this doesn't make the news, given just how important bees are in pollinating crops and supporting our ecosystem.) However, the spotlight was on Dr. Winston, also known as the Bee Man, and his tremendous work as an apiary advocate.

It was the character study of a man of science exploring how the artistic practice could contribute to scientific inquiry and vice versa. And, at the height of his powers, it turns out he's leaving the lab and pursuing other personal interests. In short, it was positively gripping television.

It sounds strange, perhaps, that a biologist who works with bees would be such powerful stuff, but it was. The Nature of Things is documentary filmaking at its finest, and we are lucky to have it.

The Nature of Things broadcasts during the summer on Sundays and Wednesdays.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Princes' Gates - Thoughts and Pictures

I had wanted to speak a bit about what I think needs to change in the civic debate for Toronto to stop fretting about its greatness and begin to recognize and enjoy that, for the most part, we are already in the promised land.

So I was going show you how a slightly different approach to reviatlizing the city points the way towards beautifying the city. I originally had quite a bit to say on this.

However, it turns out that both Christoper Hume, the architecture columnist for the Toronto Star and the Mayor, David Miller, had already said most of it here. So I'm just going to show you some of what they were taling about. Think of this as a photoblog on the simple and elegant transformation of a well-known Toronto space - here are the new Princes' Gates.

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Hmmm....anyone who lives here will wonder what I'm talking about. They look as they always have, since their Royal Highnesses opened them in 1927.

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All I can say in response is, look down.

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The asphalt is gone, and has been replaced by tiles. There are also these very attractive light sculptures, entwining their way upwards as their halogen bulbs shine downward.

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And then there are these blocks, each for each province and territory. This is the Canadian National Exhibition, after all.
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The provincial mottos are inscribed in the pavement next to the granite towards the gate. The photos I took didn't come out very well, so you'll just have to come and see them for yourself.

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What about the gates themselves? They haven't been changed, and remain their old neo-classical selves:

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A modest homage to Giornale Nuovo (I would have never bothered to look at these if it weren't for the amazing work there!)

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So despite the strange landscaping in the picture below, I don't think it's quite time to put this piece of Toronto's architectural history to rest.

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A Goildbergian final shot, nearly the same as the first, but transformed by one's knowledge of the new space.

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***

The downside of this transformation is that despite the city's attempts to brand it as a piazza, it will never be much more than pavement for people on their way to the Ex or the Home Show. There will be people like me who live close enough to enjoy the new space, but we will always be few and far between, so Piazza San Marco will it never be.

That's too bad, but I'm hopeful that the quiet elegance of the space will be an inspriation to citizens and city planners. This is a subtle yet dramatic transformation of a beloved public space, and a grander solution to the problems of an unattractive city than building or rebuilding galleries and roadways. This kind of solution signifies a change in mindset here, where open spaces needn't be filled with trees or nature, but can instead be home people and commerce. We've begun to realise this kind of approach with Yonge-Dundas Square, but all I can say is, we need more piazzas!

Creating piazzas (or squares if you disdain the pretension) is a way to improve local neighbourhoods cheaply and effectively. More piazzas, encircled by shops and restaurants, with people seeing each other watch each other eating ice cream on a warm summer's eve would go some way toward undermining the constant sense here in Toronto that we've really botched something.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

CBC - The Frosted Side

It occured to me, that when criticizing the CBC, one has to tread carefully, because those of us who love the CBC, or the idea of public media, are in danger of producing enough bile out of frustration (or is it misplaced idealism?) for it to look as though Professor Watson and I are on the same side.

That's a horrifying thought. So, in the interests of distinguishing myself from the CBC Watchers and WASP Financial Post columnists, I'm beginning a regular Tuesday series in this space on great CBC programming. My inaugural selection is And Sometimes Y.

Hosted by Russell Smith, And Sometimes Y is a 10-part summer radio series on language, its uses and its abuses. This week, they discuss translation. From the site:

"Exactly what does get lost in translation? We find out how different languages do the same job -- i.e. allow people to communicate -- and talk about the cultural quirks implied by these differences."

This is good stuff. Funny, smart, unafraid to assume its listeners are either smart or curious about more than what the behind the scenes of a reality starmaker show (sorry, I couldn't help it!).

It's on tonight, and repeats on Saturday (repeats - the upside of being cash-strapped!). Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Prima la liturgia, poi le parole?

Some thoughts of Gawain about the decline in church attendance being the result of a lack of art in the church struck a familiar chord. I was a choir director for a number of years at a Lutheran Church. The Lutherans are a funny lot, liturgically speaking. They have all the liturgical traditions of their closest denominational relatives (Anglicans and Catholics), and yet one would be hard pressed to find this rich liturgical inheritance practiced with any regularity here in Canada.

There is no equivalent movement in Lutheranism to rival Anglo-Catholicism, so the only option for those Lutherans who are more liturgically inclined is to either move to Waterloo, Ontario, where the Lutheran community is large and diverse, and you have great men like Pastor Paul Bosch concerned about liturgy, or, failing that, attempt to bring the liturgical practices that have been there all along, right in pages of the Lutheran Book of Worship they crack open every Sunday, into their own church.

This, my friends, is also known as "pissing into the wind".

For five years, the church pastor and I attempted to bring art and liturgy pack into cold, empty space that was the church. The members of the congregation who were most opposed to these changes also happened to be the most vocal. Support for the reintroduction of weekly communion or the presence of an altar cross would be whispered to us, as though people feared for their lives if their views got out.

The strangest part about the entire exercise was that the main objection to the changes, most of which were very minor, was that we were changing their traditional ways of worship. But here's the thing, and I wonder if others who have been in protestant churches in the past 25 years have noticed the same thing - there are no traditional ways of worship in most churches outside the liturgical orbit of Catholicism. If you asked one group what the liturgical tradition for say, Christmas was, you'd get one answer. You asked another group, you'd get a completely different answer. Many of the immovable "traditions" were things they had only started doing a few years before. Which led us to believe we were working with a blank slate. What a blunder.

So why did they object so much to what amounted to, in effect, a kind of liturgical Counter-Reformation? A return to their own lost traditions.

The only answer we could ever come up with was that they didn't like what they took to be the "Catholicisation" of their church. Most of these people had grown up still firmly under the impression that the Catholics were all going to hell and that a service that resembled theirs would perhaps imply to God that we too were a popish lot, and God might send us to hell too. For celebrating the Eucharist every week. Never mind that in 1997, Lutherans and Catholics signed a document that from a theological perspective, ended the Reformation.

***

How does one explain this kind of thing? I recognize now that, as someone who wasn’t a Lutheran, just how important these things were to them. What was so important to these people, that were they willing to tear the church apart to keep it out? It was art.

Contrast this with all these wonderful posts over at Heaven Tree about Bali, their culture, and how their life is infused with a kind of aesthetic sensibility, where cab drivers become kings and bureaucrats become gods. Here was a group, upper-middle class and quite worldly, for whom the thought of a more dramatic service or a more colourful church was anathema. These people completely lacked the aesthetic sense so palpable in other parts of the world. For them all that mattered was the Word, and even then, a sermon with too much metaphor and cadence was tut-tutted at coffee hour.

The pastor and I worked to change the services precisely because we believed that if anything was going to “save” the church, it wasn’t going to be jacking up the fees for using the parking lot, or changing more for weddings and funerals (this was the church consensus – revenue generation as solution to spiritual ills). Instead, it was going to be by restoring the active participation of the congregation in the church services they attended. The only way to do this was through a return to the magic and mystery of the ancient rites, because they were the only thing that could attract people who didn’t care for God back into the church.

In other words, we wanted to turn the church into the Bali Arts Festival. And how bad would that have been?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Why oh Why

did I do it?

Why did I find myself this morning checking out the National Post?

I haven't been over there since they put up the paywall. I used to enjoy reading Mark Kingwell, and let's be honest, when that paper was born, neo-con zaniness aside, the arts and culture section couldn't be beat by any newspaper in the country.

But....that was so long ago. The paper seems a pale, yet strangely angry, shadow of itself. Funny too, that anger, given they've got Steve Harper in Ottawa now. Corcoran's still peddling his missives that would make the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal blush, but, true to my own form, and this blog, the article I found myself reading was the following screed by William Watson, who happens to be an economics professor at McGill.

The title let me know I was going to be in for a 1990's right-wing anger fest - "Let social activists pay for the CBC". Aaaaah....the old "activists" trope. Boy, I haven't heard that one in years. I thought it kind of died out, what with Steve Harper, of National Citizens Coalition fame, being PM.

One would think a Yale-trained economist who writes for the Post would have received the memo that "activist" is a word that should be used sparingly, what with all those corporatist bagmen, like the PM and his Secretary, Jason Kenny, formerly of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, running the country. (Don't you love those quaint populist names for these tax the poor, free the rich social activist groups?)

But I digress. So, let's get back to what this Yale-trained economist has to say about CBC radio. He poses a nice, clear question: "Why should we be subsidizing what so often amounts to social activist radio?"

Well, let's see - I take it Professor Watson here is going to now answer this question by providing evidence of CBC radio's "social activism" (what a wink wink nudge nudge term "social activism" is - it's akin to a conservative secret handshake, like "special interest" and "the poor" - the latter always said with just a dusting of approbation).

So what does the dear professor take social activism to be? Everything he heard on the CBC that day. It's just that simple. Really.

I won't bore you with rehashing the litany of things he found distasteful about the CBC that day, because it's just one of those things about the right-left divide in politics. I look at the list and go, hey, what a bunch of interesting things to learn about - and he goes, why aren't we discussing what a dream globalization is? Or why aren't there more Hayek and Friedman discussions on the CBC? In other words, why is Professor Watson's kind of social activism not being discussed?

And in it's own way, it's a good question. The CBC should have "free-market supporters" (read here corporatist windbags, these guys wouldn't know a free market if they wound up standing in the middle of one looking for a pair of socks - they all have an all too narrow view of equality) like William Watson on, and let him go head to head with Judy Rebick or someone like that.

I mean, it's not as though Watson and his kind don't have a pulpit (The National Post, and to a lesser extent, the Globe and Mail), but sure, let them, even more often than they already are, on the CBC - because then all the social activists are there, like Professor Watson, free market activist, and no one can use that old, tired phrase, because the social activists are paying for the CBC

Then we can actually get on to a discussion about what's really wrong with the CBC, which isn't much of CBC radio One (Professor Watson doesn't appear to know there are two CBC Radio stations). Oddly enough, the problems stem from the fact that the CBC has adopted a lot of the 1990's neo-con corporatist psychobabble and has essentially refashioned itself into precisely what these guys wanted institutionally, except that in doing so it has lost much of what made it utterly different from private broadcasting.

That Professor Watson couldn't even identify the real problem on CBC Radio, Radio Two, just goes to show how out of touch he is with things here in the public world - perhaps he should climb down from his ivory tower and spend a bit more time checking things out before proclaiming that social activists like him should be paying for the CBC.

And here's the irony - I suspect that Professor Watson and I would agree on something - that the death of an elitist streak at the CBC over the past 15 years has been perhaps the greatest blow to its strengths, and has helped to make foes from friends and deliver it to the very enemies of anything public, like William Watson.

I mean this - I would love nothing more than to find some hard-core institutional economist wipe the floor with Professor Watson's rehashed, tired, one-sided musings about the glories of the free market and competition. (I understand this is hard, seeing as most good economists spend their time doing research instead of penning anti-CBC smears that look like they were written in 1992).

I'd love to see intellectual rigour brought back to every nook and cranny of the CBC - because it's exactly what this country needs to stem the damaging of discourse by smart men peddling shallow ideas.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Naxos Music Library

So I was returning some books to the Music Library at the University of Toronto, and I espied a sign that said "the Naxos Music Libary is now available to students".

My thoughts turned - does that mean what I think it does? After coffee with my chums, I settled down to my work computer, and after finding the proper link (they make it nice and difficult to find), I found myself logged into this.

Good freaking Lord! Holy Mary Mother, Mother of the Sweet, Sweet Baby Jesus!

Since discovering this er, yesterday afternoon, I've listened to Iranian Classical Music, the Ramayana monkey chant, operatic overtures by Franz Schreker, the First book of Madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi, as well as his Ballo Delle Ingrate and Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. Right now, I'm listening to the Preludes of Charles Valentin Alkan.

This is serious. It will change my relationship with my family and friends - there will never be a lack of new, obscure music playing in my head or my house.

Now I know there are some of you out there, lurking, saying, "Naxos is the Wal-Mart of classical music! Your love of this is condoning the very things you despise in other spheres of cultural life!"

The availability of this kind of knowledge, where I can sit my toddler son down and teach him more about classical music aurally than I could have dreamed of doing myself in all my years as a student is exactly the kind of thing I wish there was more of in our capitalist society - this is precisely the place where, if capitalism works, more power to it. If dumping the riches of western civilization onto the Internet is profitable to Naxos, hey, who am I to complain? If classical musicians, some of whom I know, make some money by recording for Naxos, hey, all the better - it's not like they're whipping Indonesians children into finishing up that last batch of porcelain nativity scenes.

This is really all a meandering way of saying that if you have institutional access to this service, use it, and if you don't, the monthly cost is fairly reasonable for what you get in return.

And to completely scare the last of you off, this also means there's going to be a lot more music talk on this site!!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Why the Financial Times is my Weekend Paper; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Liberalism

Does everyone, at some point, realise they've come to a certain place in their life where it's both a social and personal necessity to have the newspaper delivered to their door?

It happened so innocently. This young boy, clever and confident, came to my door last summer with an offer I couldn't refuse - a 7-day subscription to the Toronto Star at a price lower than the cost of weekend paper at the news stand!

This boy, who I'm sure will one day sell air conditioners in Iqualuit (if only that were a description of his future prowess as a merchant), dashed off to an idling mini-van where, I presume, his parents or local paper kingpin (or both) produced the required paperwork to put him one sale closer to a free Schwinn bike (with tassels) or bubble hookah.

And I waited eagerly for that first paper. Then, one morning, a dull thud at the porch. The paperboy! Or, more accurately, the paperguy in his mid-40's with the paisley bellhop's hat. I rushed downstairs, opened the door, and there it lay - my first paper. It wasn't in swaddling or a basket, but for the next few minutes, this paper was my baby.

Unfortunately, unlike the real baby I was home looking after, the daily Toronto Star soon became a pile of unread scrolls left to dessicate at the bottom of our entranceway. Some days we wouldn't even bring the thing inside until the following day. Some baby- some parent.

Then there was the weekend paper. Am I the only one who has trouble reading the Saturday Toronto Star? This enormous beast, a giant prop for the local car manufacturing and real estate industries, and the sheer number of pages devoted to selling you things, or telling you where to buy things, or what kinds of new things there are out there to buy, or where you can go eating while you shop for those new things, or...

Like the previous paragraph, the Saturday newspaper quickly became a burden best abandoned. The only bright spot in all of this was the Sunday Star - Not only could you finish the paper, but there were actually moments when the Star managed to climb out of its intellectually wishy-washy over-earnestness and produce something genuinely interesting.

So I decided, after four short months, to abandon all but the Sunday edition, which is compact, with lots of articles and is overall a decent attempt to raise the intellectual and cultural bar of the paper.

Alas, I needed to fill the newspaper vacuum. I starting buying the Saturday Globe and Mail, but, like any rebound, I enjoyed immensely it for a while but soon found myself bored and looking for something a bit more sophisticated, more exotic. And I found it in the Financial Times.

“Wuzzah?” I hear you saying in your head, “I thought you were some kind of post-structuralist Marxist – what’s a guy who knits his own hemp socks doing buying the Financial Times?”

Well, dear readers, I’ll tell you – it’s a great paper! Despite the title, it bears little resemblance to that corporatist Pravda, the Wall Street Journal. It does have stock prices, but it also has well-written editorials which present a well-thought out, decidedly liberal view of the world. All this on that distinctive salmon-coloured newsprint. Most importantly, and this is who brought me to the paper in the first place, it has Tyler Brûlé.

But that’s for another time.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Joining the Conversation

I'm immensely enjoying the debate between Theo and Gawain and Conrad over at Heaven Tree and the Varieties of Unreligious Experience, although I cannot help but think that they’re not really arguing, in the sense that one is asserting X and the other not-X. Instead, I’m seeing this as the putting in to play of two (of many) competing kinds of philosophical method.

To lay my cards on the table, I have a great sympathy for Conrad’s defence of Plato. Although I’ve never read him in Greek (does that make me illiterate?) I enjoy Plato for the same reasons I suspect many people do – he’s a great writer.

Does he have the occasional straw man? Ion comes to mind, but as Conrad notes, if you can make your way through Parmenides (I found it harder than Wilfrid Sellars), it’s remarkable to watch Plato turn his dialectical guns on his own vaunted Theory of Forms, laying the groundwork for Aristotle’s later criticisms. Plato was a formidable, unrelenting thinker.

My own thoughts about Plato is that had he had the logical tools available to him, perhaps he would have realised that the reason he could not pin down terms like “truth” or “beauty” via definition was because the ways in which these terms can be used exceeds our ability to define them. That is, the fact that the meaning of beauty is to some extent undecideable isn’t a strike against beauty as a useful or important word, but a reflection of the place the word occupies in the logical and conceptual space of human life.

I’m trying to walk a fine line here – I’d like to affirm that Gawain’s (phenomenologically-inclined?) naturalised view of aesthetics has promise, but that this has little bearing on the fact that there are also very likely many unnatural ways for things to be beautiful, and that these unnatural ways can be shaped and guided by the forms of discourse we participate in. There’s a normative element here that I’m not sure Gawain’s approach can, or will ever capture. And my friend, this isn’t a strike against you in my eye, just part of the fun.

So this is where my sympathies with Conrad’s claim about the importance of Plato in talking about beauty lie – Plato set us down a methodological path that, like it or not, has shaped the way in which debates about beauty are conducted, scientific ones included, in much the same way Descartes, in his Meditiations, set the agenda for epistemological debates for hundreds of years. And within these debates, we may find new kinds of beauty, kinds that will never find their way into the realm of experimental psychology.

Moreover, definitions are important, aren’t they? Knowing what beauty is, or perhaps more importantly, what beauty is not, will have a great influence in how one would go about coming up with experiments to determine how people deal with beauty.

Much, no all, of philosophy is wrestling with texts, taking on their histories and their concepts, living them and responding to them in a meaningful kind of way. To my mind, the best part about philosophy is that Plato is still relevant, that we can enjoy him on an intellectual level, watching Socrates in the agora corrupting the young men of Athens, and finding ourselves ensnared by the same thoughts they were.

Although I don’t share Richard Rorty’s relativism, I’m not so bothered by his talk about philosophy as a kind of conversation, an engagement, to which I’d like to add, in the words of A.P. Martinich, can give birth to a science. This is one of the wonders of philosophy, that in the constant churning and working out of thoughts, one can rise from their armchair and make their way out to the world, to the lab, to life.

This has been a fascinating discussion that has forced me to think in new ways. I don't know about all of you, but that's all I really need right now!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Street Archeology: Ossington Avenue, Toronto

This is a departure from the usual fare of well, not much lately, but I hope you'll enjoy this stroll along one of Toronto's most interesting and evocative north/south streets – Ossington Avenue. I suppose you could call this a flâneur, as I do like to fancy myself an acute observer of street and social life. However, there was no one around Ossington today, due to it being a holiday (Victoria Day) here in Canada.

Moreover, instead of stealing from Beaudelaire and Benjamin, I'd prefer steal a concept from Foucault – well, I'm not even really stealing it from him either, I'm really just name dropping - and take you on a kind of archaeological dig through the history of Ossington as I imagine it to be. Our tools will be unequal parts empirical and conjectural, and best of all, there will be photos.

When you come at Ossington, heading south from Dundas Street, you find yourself in the centre of the Rua Açores, one of the Portuguese areas of the city.

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[An aside. Toronto self-identifies itself as a massive agglomeration of “villages”, represented by street signs letting you know what “village” you're in. Could it be that nice-looking street signs are a major reason why Toronto is, for the most part, a decent place to live? I wonder how all the people who live in these areas deal with the kind of village they're a part of. And if you think they don't, consider this – I'm rooting for Portugal in the World Cup this year.]

Here you have some of the elements of what makes an area “ethnic” - the local butcher and fishmonger sell dead things with their heads on them. The peixaria pictured above is a particularly interesting and affordable place to buy fish from. You won't find sushi-grade tuna there, but there are a kinds of fish there that I've never seen anywhere else in the city.

The papelaria in the photo is also a sign of another ethnic influence on Ossington – Vietnamese. Yes, the Papelaria Portugal is run by a Vietnamese family. And so here we find the two communities who make up what I'll call the “ethnic presence” on Ossington – Vietnamese and Portuguese. (yes, that is a strip club above the pool hall).

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The Portuguese presence appears to manifest itself through food and building materials. The Portuguese community is well known in Toronto for helping to supply manual and skilled labour in the building trades for the booming construction industry here, although a good number of Portuguese were recently deported back to Portugal by the Conservative government.

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So there are hardware stores, kitchen and bath stores, bakeries and fishmongers – one could do nearly all their renovating shopping on a single block of Ossington.

The Vietnamese presence is very different. Where the Portuguese community lacks restaurants, the Vietnamese community abounds. I believe there are six Vietnamese restaurants on Ossington Avenue between Queen Street and Dundas Street. Many of these restaurants also have Karaoke, as you can see from the picture below.

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Ossington wasn't always this way. If the information on this site is correct, Ossington's name, like many streets in Toronto, is an homage to a distant British nobleman. In this case, the 1st Viscount Ossington, John Evelyn Denison, whose family owned the area immediately west of Ossington.

Ossington is also home to those seeking refuge from the crowds and rents of Queen Street West. Also known as West Queen West, the area along Queen to the east and west of the foot of Ossington is arguably the hippest place in the city, with shops, art galleries and restaurants galore. One can see how West Queen West is beginning to bleed over onto Ossington, just as the Portuguese influence made its way south along Ossington from Dundas. In between these two influences is a kind of everyman's land, where old and new mix with the hip and ancient.

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Take for instance i deal coffee, at the midpoint between Queen and Dundas on Ossington, between Little Portugal and the Hipsters.

i deal's second location (the first is in Toronto's legendary Kensington Market), has all the shabby couches and stepping-into-someone's-basement-apartment-kitchen feel of the original on Nassau. As usual, the coffee's great, and the crowd lively. This is something that would have been unthinkable five years ago, when the cool part of Queen street petered out before Trinity-Bellwoods park, and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (Ossington ends at its main entrance) still remained a kind of psychological barrier for people in the community, keeping house prices low and shop fronts boarded up. That a great coffee shop and roaster like i deal would open up on Ossington leads one to believe it won't be long before the Vietnamese karaoke bars are replaced with places like this one:

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It's called the Sparrow. Those heavy maroon blinds are always drawn, and when you can peer inthrough the door, you notice something rather unusual for much of Ossington - it's always busy. Always. I've never actually set foot in there, because I cannot imagine I have the icy coolness to survive in a place like this. And the menu speaks for itself:

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This is ahistorical, decontextualized dining at it's best. Not a Vietnamese or Portuguese dish in sight – you could be anywhere in the city with this menu. It's a slice of trendy Queen Street for the people who can't stand Queen Street anymore and felt the need to colonize somewhere new.

And you see, this is the future of Ossington. The people in the Art and Design district who cannot stand people like me, moderately well-off bourgeois dilettantes with a keen eye who simultaneously manage to drain everything authentic out of a community and replace it with Subways and Starbucks (because it's what we know), need somewhere to go too.

Like those ethnic communities along Ossington, these people are fleeing something, in this case the gentrification and homogenization of Queen Street, where every little mom and pop store has a brand manager, and making their way to Ossington for something authentic. And I'm not too worried they'll take over Ossington, and its cigar factory (can anyone say an outdoor staging of Carmen?),

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or its wine grape warehouse,

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and turn them into a Banana Republic and a Quizno's. I want to keep thinking Ossington will defy the very descriptions I am trying to impose upon it.

My little excavation reveals a number of layers, each of which has influenced the later ones. The remaining Victorian homes from the turn of the century, alongside industrial buildings. One then finds the artifacts of the people who lived and live around here, through the ethnic communities. Finally, like much of Toronto when it undergoes gentrification, a kind of well-designed, poorly lit group of shops and restaurants, each trying to help lighten your wallet.

To me though, the most interesting spot on Ossington is this vacant block:

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Why? Because despite all the business that has emerged in the past few years, it remains stubbornly empty. What should be the centre of Ossington's street life sits vacant. Right now this block is a bit of real space that contains a multitude of possibilities. It's been vacant for years now, but what can you imagine it to be? A bookstore? A architect's office? A Burger King?

I have neither the money nor the aptitude to reclaim this property from its empty misery. Someone will come along, and all I can hope is that whoever does reopen those doors appreciates the depth of history and multiple aspects to its character, and adds a new layer to an already complex urban space.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Wozzeck

The other Canadian Opera Comapny production this month was Alban Berg's Wozzeck. I have a special fondness for this work, and for the music of the Second Viennese School in general, so I was looking forward to seeing the full staging of this masterpiece yesterday. Alas, the current production was a disappointment.

The production itself was interesting, and the singing was pretty good, if a bit distant. I think where the production really let me down was in conductor Richard Bradshaw's handling of the score.

I don't know if was that he was conducting for the audience (there was no intermision in this short 3-act opera), but he seemed rushed, and there was little connection between what was going on in the pit and what was going on on stage. There were also some serious balance problems between singers and the orchestra, something I've never seen to this extent before at the COC.

At the end of it however, I think there was a fatal misunderstanding of the context in which Berg wrote the score. We tend to see the early atonal works as representing a break from the past. Although there is something to this from an analytic perspective, Wozzeck is very much a work imbued with a romantic sensibility. Where was the brief pause between the first and second beats of the waltz parts of Wozzeck? Where, if I may say it, was the warmth? It was all too cold, which may work with serialist Boulez works of the 1950's, but doesn't have a place in this piece.

Anyway, for a work that is rarely performed in Canada, this production could have been much more, especially given the COC's usual sensitivity and overall appreciation of other modern works for the stage.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Bellini's Norma

Please indulge while I interrupt my dry attempts at political insight for something closer to my heart!

I'm too tired to attempt anything resembling a proper review, but if you live in Toronto, go see Norma. It's a great show, a tight two-act bel canto masterpiece that shows off Bellini's genius and points towards the paths taken later on by Verdi and Wagner, who both cite Bellini as an influence.

The production doesn't bog down, and the singing is great. It's worth the price of admission just to hear June Anderson skip up and down the scales in some of the coloratura passages with a delicacy and clarity one isn't used to hearing at the Canadian Opera Company.

Torontonians are a clap-happy lot when it comes to the opera, but she and the rest of the cast deserved it in this case. So Torontonians, go support your local big-box cultural institution and see Norma!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Rodney Graham: Sincerity and Delight


This fall, the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal will host an exhibition of works by Vancouver-based artist Rodney Graham.

Two years ago, my daughter and I took our weekly Saturday morning trip to the Art Gallery of Ontario, also known here in Toronto as the AGO. Art galleries are at their best on a Saturday morning. It’s usually quiet, just you and whatever you happen to be looking at, and it’s a good time to take a child, as they can ask questions and linger at the works they enjoy, something I’ve discovered kids are more apt to do than adults.

On the façade (now just a memory) of the AGO was a giant poster of a man in a convict’s outfit playing a piano. It looked goofy, and given my own conception of modern art at the time, led to a bit of an eye roll and I thought to myself, “I suppose we can always go downstairs and look at the Group of Seven paintings” (my daughter loves them).

So we went upstairs to this new exhibition, and found nearly the entire second floor consumed by Rodney Graham's work. As you enter, the main walls were covered in the wallpaper at the top of this post (image from the Donald Young Gallery website). A man kicking another man in the ass. Things were looking up!

As we walked down the hallway, we could see that there were a number of small, dark rooms playing films.

Like many encounters with new works or events, it was the first work I saw that had the largest and most favourable impression on me. It was a short looped film entitled City Self/Country Self. It involved Rodney Graham playing both of the central characters, a bourgeois gentleman and an ambling country bumpkin.

When I walked in, the gentleman was getting his shoes shined, looking at his pocket watch. The bumpkin, walking down the street, looks up at a clock tower. The bumpkin starts to walk up a street, as the gentleman approaches him on the sidewalk. A carriage passes the bumpkin, who walks out into the street directly behind the carriage. The carriage drivers look over their shoulders, to watch the gentleman kick the bumpkin squarely in the behind. The kick is played slowly, over and over and over again, and then normal time resumes, the bumpkin picks up his hat, the carriage drives away, the gentleman walks up the other side of the road, and the bumpkin walks along and looks to a window where he fixes his hat, while the gentleman gets his shoes shined, and looking at his pocket watch. The bumpkin, walking down the street, looks up at a clock tower. The bumpkin starts to walk up a street, as the gentleman approaches him on the sidewalk…you get the picture.

I do not know how to describe this work any better than this. It is something you have to encounter to fully appreciate the richness, the initial humour and ultimately, the power of this film as a work of art. I sat there with my daughter for about 20 minutes, just watching it over and over again. There was no beginning and no end, just endless repetition. The moment you inserted yourself into the work was the moment the narrative started. You laugh the first time he gets kicked, but then the humour begins to fade, and you start to see it all as an elaborate trap, where both the viewer and the characters are locked in a struggle to come to terms with their place in the world.

Am I making too much of this? Perhaps, but his other works bore out a similar message.

It’s easy here to invoke Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence, keeping in mind Graham’s recurrence in his looped films is immediate, adding a kind of ruthlessness to the concept that I don’t know Nietzsche himself envisioned. The gentleman and the bumpkin know what’s going on, they are both players in this drama, and yet they never give you that winking eye, that twist to let you know that this is all bitter irony. I suspect this is because it’s not meant to be ironic.

This is what I believe both separates and lifts Graham’s work above many other contemporary artists. He is sincere. He wants you to laugh because you'll think about the arid, abstract things he wants you to think about more easily. However, he doesn’t wink, and let you know that you don’t have to take any of it seriously, even though his every work nudges you to laugh, to take it all lightly, to chortle in knowing amusement. Graham refuses to let go.

We are bathed in irony these days, and like God, despite rumours of its recent death, it corrodes our ability to judge or to know, and so it refreshes the spirit to see someone, as nonsensical as it may sound, do irony straight.

Nonetheless, his works are a delight to watch, to look at and be a part of. Graham hasn’t fallen for the trap that many contemporary artists do, that in depicting reality, we have to show the seedy or gritty side of things. Instead, works like City Self/Country Self finds its ultimately nihilistic message in a lovely medieval French town.

This is another thing about Graham’s work - it is beautiful. From his upside down trees, to his reading stand for a loop he discovered in Georg Buchner’s Lenz, Graham strives for his works to look beautiful. I wonder how this reconciles with his constant engagement with, broadly speaking, Romantic artists such as Wagner, Buchner and, dare I say it, Freud.

I wonder this because his works strike me as beautiful in a classical way, in the way a period staging of a Baroque opera is. The figures stop, they pose, and in that pose they represent our deepest feelings and thoughts. The realism in Graham’s work is formalized, idealized. (Only when talking about art can one talk about an idealized realism and mean it- logical positivists need not understand my words here, although they’ll get what I’m saying if they see Graham’s work.)

Rodney Graham’s art managed to recode my understanding and appreciation of modern art, and what it can be, how it can reconcile itself and negotiate with earlier periods and yet stay entirely modern in its mode of expression. These days, the Group of Seven or the impressionists no longer intrigue me the way they used to, and I’ve come to instead look forward to the latest works by living artists. I encourage anyone who is in Montreal this fall to visit one an exhibition of one of Canada’s greatest living artists. You may even want to pick up his latest rock CD, but that’s for another post.