Tuesday, December 25, 2007

O Soave Fanciulla

There is that time, when one is in their 20's, still drunk in the freshness of adulthood, when every thought seems hard like a diamond, and every passion seems inexhaustable and timeless...listen to this:




The first time I went to see La Boheme was in 1995. I was still a music student in Calgary, and utterly devoted to German opera. Wagner and Strauss and Mozart (I know) represented to me what opera was for, with most italian opera being high on style and low on substance.

So I walked out of the first act, and I ran into one of my music professors. He asked me what I thought, and I said something to the effect that Boheme was beautifully set but the story obvious and not terribly interesting.

My professor, a man whose walls in his home were covered in books and CDs and records, a man, to say the least, of great learning, a consumate scholar, a man with a reputation at the University for being too academic for those in music performance, you know, the real musicians, who just wanted to play, turns to me and says, "Some day you will watch that first act without the eyes of youth, and when you do, you will see what it is you cannot, a sentiment which only comes with age."

Nothing worse can be said to a 20 year old than that they are to young to understand something. To paraphrase Robert Lowell, this comment stuck like a fishbone in my consciouness. My age? How dare he? Me age? I was an adult for crying out loud! It said so on my driver's licence. I could buy beer.

But I forgot. Until 3 months ago, as I sat watching Bravo and the clip above came on. And I sat there, in my home, my kids upstairs, my wife sitting there next to me, and suddenly what he had said made sense. The question I then ask those of you who happen upon this is - do you?

Or if not that one, how about this one?



Perhaps it is that I had not loved like that before, or that I could not love like that yet, but I completely understand what my professor was telling me, and I now understand why Puccini, despite the dramatic flaccidity of his work, still beats out nearly everyone else. I understand why, to many, he is opera.

It is because no one before him ensnared so completely that first moment of true love.

Merry Christmas.



Friday, November 16, 2007

Mailer vs. McLuhan

I know I'm not really doing much here, but I thought I would offer up this bit of counterpoint to Conrad Roth's post on Norman Mailer. To keep things provincial, the video I'm offering up is from the CBC.

To be honest, I've never really known much about Mailer, and although I'm looking at my battered copy of The Guttenberg Galaxy, its dereliction is an artefact of its past before it got to me, protected now from ever again being touched by human hands. Nevertheless, when I found this a number of months ago, I quite enjoyed it, although I don'treally know why.

This video strikes me as a kind of Catchter in the Rye for one's intellectual development. I suspect if I'd seen this 10 years ago, I would have been astounded by their profundity. Now, well....look, it's two guys talking like this on CBC Television. That alone, given CBC television's mandate is now to become a low-budget NBC makes it worth the half hour it will forever steal from you.

So, please enjoy two of the 20th Century's Greatest Minds, or two posturing public pseudo-intellectuals whose hot air and obfuscation managed to float down from the ivory tower and into the mass culture of their day.

UPDATE: Phil Ford at Dial "M" for Musicology has a very nice piece on Mailer, and also nicely tears apart Roger Kimball's Mailer article in the New Criterion. Read it here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Floating World
























One of the funny things about new technology is that often there's far more to do with a gadget than its "purpose". Take the cell phone for instance. I suppose we could argue that the phone component constitutes the essence of the, uh, phone, but think of all the other things we've got cell phones doing now, like taking pictures.

I discovered this feature on my new phone while at this Royal Ontario Museum exhibition during the summer. So I was snapping away, when, unsurprisingly, I was informed I could not take pictures in this gallery, it being the Garfield Weston gallery, and therefore, like most spaces in the ROM, off limits to photography.

However, what's unusual about this encounter is that I was not asked to smash the phone with a hammer, or delete the photos. So here they are, at least until William Thorsell or some ROM staffer asks me to take them down.

I should also mention that this ROM post is an appetizer to my food review of their new high-end restaurant, C5, an amouse-bouche of my growing ambivalence to what is, and will remain, a wonderful museum. However, I have to do a few things before that review appears, like stop calling myself Otto van Karajanstein, because I just don't think it's fair to knock people down when they can't see you.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Umami

I know I should be putting more up here, but life....life! Please, one day.

In the interim, I post this youtube video of a monkey throwing poop at an old lady. No seriously, the exact opposite of that.

This is a kind of response to Gawain's post yesterday about the mysteriousness of singing. Watching Fischer-Dieskau puts this performance over the top. Between enjoyment and chills, a sickening sense of doom....simply unbelievable.

And Gerald Moore's hands! My God!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sadness

Learning that he has died.

So I will listen to him today and enjoy the sheer beauty of the voice, a voice that forced me to stop the car when Bella figlia dell'amore once came on the radio and then head to the local CD store and buy the recording of Rigoletto he performed in along with Sherrill Milnes and Joan Sutherland.

One thing I must ask - why all the incessant comparisons to Domingo in his obituary? Their necessity strikes me as odd, despite the obviousness of the comparison.

But no matter.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Friday Night Videos - Ballerina on a Boat

Here's a delightful piece of Russian animation, with music by Alfred Schnittke. Enjoy! And I promise there will be more next week.

And I'm off to the cottage, to enjoy the rural splendour and take in three musical theatre productions!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Cavalli's Ipermestra

I managed to catch the Utrecht Early Music Festival’s production of Cavalli’s Ipermestra on Norwegian Radio (Thanks again to Operacast for making the world of opera so easily accessible).

Did any of my readers hear this marvelous work?

It was a beautiful performance, and one hopes that it was not only captured in audio, but in video as well - you can take a look at some performance stills over at Wim Trompert's site, the prduction's director.

Interestingly, one of the reviewer's on that site mentions that the Florentines would have expected something much larger, but it seems that Cavalli himself used an uncharacteristically small orchestra and singing cast for this performance.

According to Jan Glover (Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, Vol. 102. (1975 - 1976), pp. 67-82) this period of Italian opera was characterized by a certain economy, and it was interesting to listen to the production, noting how little there was in the way of aria, and how they would simply emerge from the recitative, only to fall back into them, without much of the sharp division one is used to.

Can I make a bold claim that we don't see this kind of musical drama again until Wagner? As I've written before, Cavalli stands on the edge of the full separation of drama and music that was to occur in Baroque opera, that sharp division between recitative and aria. Ipermestra, to my ear, stands very much in between, and in contrast to some of Cavalli's other work, seems less fragmented, and more fluid in its handling of the dramatic and emotional material.

Need I mention also that Cavalli wrote wonderfully for the voice? It is always so easy to understand what the singers are on about with Cavalli, but he doesn't spare any beauty for the sake of clarity.

Again, I hope that someone will fully wake up to Cavalli's rich and varied musical dramas, and we'll see more regular stagings of his work.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Go West, Young Divi

How is that that Calgary is the New Opera capital of Canada?

An anecdote. I was in Fidelio's (one of Calgary's lost departed classical music stores) in Mount Royal Village, rooting through their selection of 18th Century Romanian operas when I overheard the shop's owner speaking to this woman about the upcoming opera season.

She was outraged at the upcoming season, and had cancelled her subscription. The reason? Calgary Opera was staging Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring. She had heard that Britten had been born in the 20th Century, and was deeply offended by this point, fearing that her ears and her nerves would perhaps never recover from the dissonance should would have to squirm through during a performance of 20th Century opera!

Just so she lived up to the stereotype I was quickly constructing in my head, she leaned over the counter, and, looking side to side, mentioned quietly, but not too quietly, that Britten was a homosexual.

Yes Virginia, Benjamin Britten was a homosexual. Now I wondered at the time, feeling as she did about homosexual composers, what she did whenever Tchaikovsky ever made it onto the radio? Did she shun Schubert too, fearing his melodies would draw her into a life of all-night partying and snappy dressing?

I digress. But there was a larger point. She had said her other friends had also cancelled their subscriptions in vile, ignorant protest, a work that, had they bothered to investigate, has all the drama and controversy of Gilbert and Sullivan.

But to my youngish music school ears, this was horrifying. These people really do exist, people who hold a gun to the heads of arts organizations and demand they perform the same three songs on their organ grinder or else the monkey gets what's coming to him, and it ain't a banana.

It was one of the many things that stuck in my mind about Calgary, about the kind of people who went to concerts, and my prospects when it came to being a musician in this kind of environment. So I left, for the vastly better developed artistic shores of Toronto.

Cue the present. Boy am I glad that people like me don't live in Calgary anymore. There's a ton going on out there, and many of the people I went to school with are gainfully employed as musicians in Calgary. I made a terrible mistake thinking the woman above represented Calgarians and culture.

In fact, being into opera or classical music is like being a liberal in Alberta - there are lots out there, you just can't bring it up in polite conversation, rather like being a conservative in Toronto.

Which brings me to my main point - why is Calgary Opera Canada's largest producer and developer of new Canadian opera? From the early 1990's, where staging Albert Herring was a risky decision, to staging Frobisher, Calgary Opera’s third new opera commission in the last five years?

If I were a journalist, I would interview Calgary Opera's current General Director, the delightfully named W.R. (Bob) McPhee - could his there be a more apt name for a Calgary impresario? The man and his team are doing something right.

But I'm not, so we'll just have to wonder why Toronto's own COC has done little in the way of new opera over the years, or why our own new opera company here in Toronto, Tapestry New Opera Works, has done some phenomenal work, but have struggled financially? And despite the fact that this supposed to be a big theatre town.

Perhaps, had he lived, this is something Richard Bradshaw was going to explore. One can only hope that his successor will take up the next challenge in building opera in Canada - the creation of an indigenous opera repertoire, similar to what's going on in Finland.

What's going on in Finland? Well, it's really hard to say, because all the stuff about the finnish opera boom is in....Finnish.

But new opera there is big. Perhaps all we need here in Canada is a Janacek-like figure, a highly gifted composer with a theatrical bent who speaks powerfully to the Canadian condition.

Well, I think we already have him. But he will likely never work with the COC again, after they produced one of his other works from the Partia cycle. Or perhaps people will awake to him and we'll stage his entire Patria cycle on a regular basis here in Canada.

Perhaps, Calgary's the perfect place for the real start of this boom. Indeed, "Calgary" and "boom" go hand in hand, and so again, Toronto will catch play catch up, and we'll then pretend that it started here all along. Plus ça change...

But you, faithful reader, you will know who really got things going, when people sit on the subway here and argue about the latest production of Barney's Version...you get the picture.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Richard Bradshaw has Died

The man who made opera something here in Toronto, has died unexpectedly.

With the COC's season just about to begin, I don't know what they will do. He was, to a great extent, the Canadian Opera Company, and the legacy he has left the city will be difficult to top.

As an aspiring conductor (at the time), I met him on a number of occasions, and he was always warm and charitable with me, letting me come into rehearsals, and offering advice.

He was an amazing man.

Sweet Narcissism

It's as though I have never been blogging.

Why did I think this thing would be about anyone but me?

How did I never recognize this before? Why now?

I am not the most prolific blogger. I tend to vanish. I usually have a good reason at the time I stop - work and life and all that.

But there's also these nagging question - who's my audience? What am I looking for?

And sometimes I stop and ask myself - what am I doing with this blog? Why?

I know these are stupid questions. But I cannot stop asking them.

But now I believe I have the answer to what I'm doing here. It's the answer I have been dreading to accept since I began writing - I want to be known.

What's that you say? How can an anonymous writer want to be known? Well, that will change.

I would also like to distinguish wanting to be known for wanting to be famous, or wanting to be an authority. I want this to be another way to talk about things that interest me, the upshot being that what interests me interests others, and I get to hear from them.

The one thing I've always like about blogging is the communities that form, and the ideas that get exchanged in those communities, and how what you write helps to determine the communities that emerge.

This is absolutely nothing new to anyone, but for a long time, I have been at cross-purposes at this blog, trying to deny the personal side of blogging for something more, shall we say, objective.

But then I went back and read what I've written here. And I realised something. They're all personal. Even the ones that weren't meant to be.

And I suddenly feel myself inside that little box, looking for the way out. And then I remember what Rorty and Wittgenstein told me once in a really, really boring dream, and I give up looking, and I go back to reading Either/Or (you know which part I'm referring to).

So this is me giving up.

***

We bought a piano in January. I had not played the piano in nearly two years. This was due to the fact that the piano I used to practice on, one at a local church, was no longer local.

So the first time I sat down to play, I was quite good. Indeed, I felt as though I had never stopped playing.

You know, the body has this wonderful way of picking you up and letting you play well when you haven't played for a while, as though it doesn't quite know what's going on.

And then it remembers.

The next day, I was horrible. I remained that way for months.

But I got better, and I got to point where I could say I was better than I have ever been, and I stayed that way. My diet consists mainly of Bach and Beethoven, and I have one of those foolish plans to learn both books of Das wohltemperirte Clavier and all 32 of Beethoven's piano Sonatas.

***

Despite the fact that I have a music degree, and I have been paid to be a musician, I am really an amateur.

The instrument that got me in, the tuba, has long been abandoned, although it was the only instrument which I could say, until perhaps a few months ago, that I had some kind of control over.

On the tuba, there was a certain freedom, a bit of facility, like the point where you're learning a foreign language and you stop translating - you just respond in the language, and you don't think about what you're saying. This was nice back in the day, but I don't play the tuba anymore.

However, sometimes, this happens to me while I'm playing the piano. I'll be playing something like the 19th Fugue from the first book of Das wohltemperirte Clavier, and suddenly, I can play the damn thing. I can make one voice sound a bit heavier, and I can phrase.

Do you know how nice it is to hear something in your head, and then begin to hear it on the outside? It is everything.

Indeed, it happened today. After I wrote everything above this sentence.

So perhaps, as an amateur, if I can't have an audience to hear me play, perhaps the audience who reads my writing will help me become a better musician. I think that's what I meant about being known. Being held accountable, and being accounted for.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Imperfect Wagnerite

Sounds and Fury, a culture blog which I read with some regularity, linked to an article in the City Journal by one Heather Mac Donald. In it, she decries the Regietheater, or director's theatre, phenomenon that supposedly pervades operatic culture in Europe.

In a more recent post, AC Douglas at Sounds and Fury mentions that much of the negative reaction he received about linking to the article had to do with the fact that Heather Mac Donald is a conservative.

Anyone who has read anything I've posted here over the past couple of years would know that I am not what one would call a political conservative. Indeed, my views are nearer to the socialist straw man many conservatives enjoy setting fire to than I would care to admit.

But does it matter to Ms. Mac Donald's report on the state of opera that she's a conservative? No, and indeed, who cares what her political views are? She's talking about opera, for crying out loud!

Nevertheless, it seems to me that she exaggerates how many of these kinds of productions exist in Europe, using "Europe" as a kind of bogey man, relying on American attitudes towards Europe instead of really examining what kinds of productions are taking place beyond the ones that we hear about over here, such as the Berlin Idomeneo of last year.

And I really got a chuckle out of her comment about "Chéreau’s injection of anticapitalist, environmental politics into the story" of Wagner's Ring, referring to the famous (or infamous) Beyreuth Centenary production directed by Patrice Chéreau.

I know this production is held up as a model of european Regietheater and the horrors that entails. It shouldn't be.

If Ms. Mac Donald had done just a bit more research, she would have discovered that George Bernard Shaw, in The Perfect Wagnerite, had injected the Ring with "anticapitalist politics" before the turn of the 19th Century.

Indeed, he makes a rather strong case for reading the Ring the way Chéreau does. Wagner wrote the Ring poem around the time he was active as a liberal revolutionary, "liberal" meaning whatever you'd like it to here.

Many of Wagner's writings at the time of the Ring's composition as a poem are political, and indeed, the Ring itself, with its talk of contracts and laws, has something to it that one could, in a flight of fancy, construe as an overtly political dimension.

Maybe I'm just nuts, but I think it's safe to say that the Ring is a political work, as well as many other glorious and profound things, and that it is political in a way many other operas are not. If Ms. Mac Donald wants to fault Chéreau for something, it should be for a lack of imagination, or borrowing from Shaw without crediting him.

Using this as a pretext for a theory, how about, instead of hating Regietheatre tout court, one take these opera productions on a case by case basis?

So the recent Berlin Idomeneo production, with the decapitated Poseidon, Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha, could be making a political statement, I suppose, in the same way putting a bag of dog poo on your high school principal's porch and setting fire to it is, but question this begs is whether or not Idomeneo was missing this particular political dimension in the first place? Does it make sense to include these severed heads? Knowing the work, it doesn't seem so, just from judging from the internal incoherence of the four "gods" chosen, perhaps by lot, by the bored director.

I think the question "Does it make sense?" is the central one. The funny thing about art, at least to me, is that it's very difficult to predict how something as complex as a fully-staged opera production will come off, aesthetically speaking.

This is important, because I've seen productions at the Canadian Opera Company that one would call "conservative", like Carmen, that were lifeless and, given the costs associated with producing opera, a waste of money. If nothing else, it could have been well sung and entertaining.

Do I really have to fear Regietheater when productions like that Carmen are so much more pervasive? Or that most Bohèmes I have seen over the years appear to share the same drab Paris apartment set, you know, the one with the full moon shining through the cracked window?
Honestly, can anyone tell me the last time they saw an incredibly powerful, insightful performance of Tosca?

In other words, what about all the mediocre productions out there that don't even court controversy?

Does it make sense to champion this kind of status quo, where truth and beauty are phoned in just to fill seats?

Equally, what sense did it make to set Salome in a drug dealer's mansion, as the COC did a decade ago, where John the Baptist was, I suppose, an unfortunate Jehovah's Witness who went door knocking on the wrong day?

At least the Ring is allegorical - how do you set Salome outside of its historical context when the historical circumstances of one character's role is everything? It made no sense to me.

Sometimes we can move things around, sometimes, not so much.

If this sounds like a lazy approach to judging a work, it is, but it's also makes room for the new, and indeed, appears to be what we all do anyway when someone, like Wagner, comes along out of the blue and sets the world on fire. We judge the new on its own terms as much as we do in relation to what has come before it.

So coming back to Mac Donald's essay, I think her biggest problem isn't that she's a conservative, but that she doesn't devote enough time to the serious problem of lazy, uninspired stock opera productions here in North America and Europe.

Sometimes the greatest dangers are right here, in our own backyard!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Schlagobers

Have I told you how often my thoughts turn to opening a Viennese café?

There is something so distinctive about it. You can see glimpses of that culture here, in the fact that people are never asked to leave, that one can sit for hours. But here, there is a lack of sophistication, and an emphasis on the product, the volume of coffee, the size of the scone.

More importantly, no one ever brings you water. No one should ever drink an espresso without water to chase it.

Here, no one seems to care that, all too often, the espresso is too hot, and with a thin crema. And they don't care because they don't know. And then you go to Europe, and it's nearly impossible to be given a bad coffee, and North Americans travel there, and they think to themselves, "Wow, this coffee is fantastic, I wish we could have something like that over in Canada."

And they stop. They stop thinking right there.

I think most North Americans think to themselves that what happens in Europe stays in Europe, even though our consumer culture, and especially our politicians, tell them otherwise. They tell them that the world is their oyster, ready to be shucked.

But bafflingly, instead of asking for a nice rich crema, where, when you gently place sugar upon it, it holds the sweetness there, just for a few seconds, before yielding to let the sugar sink into the darkness, they are handed bitter brown water in a paper cup, and told that this is their coffee, their national heritage, their patrimoine.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, did I mention I would only serve Viennese-style coffee in the Viennese café, which means no giant paper cups filled with nice-smelling yet foul-tasting coffee? Have you ever noticed that this is the big thing here? That they make the coffee smell like heaven and taste like shit? A clever bit of misdirection.

Look, I can do the straight talk, the vulgarity which people confuse for honesty here, as I've grown up with it, but I don't want it, and I don't care for it, and I would rather tell people I won't serve them something in my Viennese café because that's the way they like it. Instead, they can learn to like it the way I do, because the way I like things happens is to found inside a tradition (the European one and also in many ways the Asian one) where cultivating the ability to make a nice coffee or arrange flowers, or tie and tie, are all seen as primary, and second to how much one paid to do, or the quantity of things they’ve bought. But these are just tired old points about the vulgarity of North American culture, utterly unscientific and needlessly pompous.

So I would like to open that Viennese café.

My café will have a selection of newspapers and good magazines on racks, and people will be encouraged to linger, although the real money will be made from all those people who don't, god bless them. But they will only be accommodated as an economic necessity, and nothing more.

So I would serve coffee only in the Viennese styles. Especially the one, which, for me and me alone, defines Viennese coffee culture — the Kaisermelange. It's coffee and a raw egg and brandy.

I would feature the Kaisermelange as the house specialty, and most would be grossed out, but those intrepid few who know a good strange thing when they see it, would embrace it. And I would rue the fact that one cannot serve liquor here in Ontario before 11, meaning no one could start their day here in Toronto with a Kaisermelange.

Again, why do we think ourselves to be so civilized?

By the way, when you’re in Vienna, you should try to check out Café Hawelka on Dorotheergasse 6, just off the Graben and behind the road of the hotel where I stayed in Vienna back in1994. The owner, Leopold Hawelka, opened it in 1939, and he's still there, supposedly!

You should have a coffee there if you can.

Many of the cafés in Vienna are expansive, cathedrals to the bitter elixir, but Hawelka is more intimate, darker, perhaps less inviting to tourists, but a refuge to locals. I would like that kind of quality, although I suspect the more open ones would be more popular here in Toronto.

What I don't want is the forced down-to-earth feeling of a Starbucks or Second Cup. I want a place that feels lived in despite being so young.

We would also have real classical musicians playing music there. No jazz. You can go anywhere to listen to jazz. You cannot go many places to listen to live performances of Haydn string quartets while sipping an Einspänner. However, this is completely inauthentic, and just something I'd like to have there.

And maybe I'll learn the cello again, and learn it well enough to play a part in those quartets myself!

It is hard to describe to you how real doing something like this seems to me now. But I'm just thinking out loud here, and have made no commitments to starting this venture.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Antoine Brumel

Tonight, while listening to my latest favourite radio station, the third starion of Hrvatska radiotelevizija, I discovered Antoine Brumel.

I consider myself an early music lover. Perhaps I would even call myself somewhat of an aficionado of this music. I have read Music in the Renaissance by Gustav Reese, as well as the more recent Renaissance Music: Music in Western Europe, 1400-1600 by Allan Atlas, and yet, despite this, when this stunning music poured through my speakers, I was at a loss. As best as I could tell, I thought it was Thomas Tallis. It just had that kind of sound to it.

So I try to silence my toddler son who is jumping on a bed behind me, in the hopes that my rudimentary knowledge of Croatian will allow to find out who wrote this stunning piece. The fates smiled upon me, and I pierced the veil of unintelligibility long enough to determine that the piece I was listening to was an Agnus Dei by Antoine Brumel.

I've never heard of him.

So much for my self-proclaimed knowledge of the field. I suppose someone's going to want to confiscate my lute now...

Well, as any of us do these days when we know nothing but a rigid designator, or for your continental philosophy types, a name, I typed "Antoine Brumel" into google, and it delivered me right to his wikipedia entry.

Now, the big question - was what I was listening to in the Naxos Music Library? Could I pump this sweet, sweet aural liquor back into my system, to again bathe my senses in its rich broth?

Yes. It was there, in fact, it was the very recording I had been listening to on HRT, by the Tallis Scholars.

The mass I am listening to right now, the glorious, life giving bit of music, music everyone in the world should listen to, is the Missa Et ecce terrae motus, or Earthquake Mass.

Wikipedia also quickly reveals why I thought it was Tallis - the Earthquake Mass is for 12 voices, which was highly unusual for the time Brumel wrote it, if not outright unheard of. The richness reminded me of Tallis' famous Spem in alium, although the Tallis is 70 years younger, and as I listen now, it seems clearer, with the strangeness of the cadences, that we are not quite yet at the fulcrum that is Josquin, when things begin (I mean begin in the lightest possible way here) to turn towards the great aesthetic paradigm that emerged alongside probability, calculus and gravitational theory - western tonality, or the major/minor tonal system, or whatever you want to call it.

One day I will attempt to articulate in much greater detail what I mean by that, perhaps in an academic thesis, or perhaps here. Who knows.

But who cares about that. Enjoy the Brumel.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

All Aboard!

Friends, I apologize for the lack of posting - a perfect storm of duties professional and personal has prevented me from doing much of anything. However, the clouds are gone and so there will something to read (I hestitate to say any of it will be worth reading) very soon!

In the meantime, as a finale to those Richter videos, take a look at this early short by - Orson Welles. And the Richter won't look so odd after this.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Friday Night Videos: Race Symphony

Another Richter - to those few regular readers, life....and the piano intrude. Things will be sporadic for a few more weeks, but hang tight, because there's plenty to come!

Friday, March 23, 2007

Thursday, March 22, 2007

van Karajanstein reads von Doderer III - On The Outskirts of the City

Our narrator, Georg von Geyrenhoff disappears in this chapter. Or maybe it's him - he's not nearly so interested in talking about himself.

Well...it seems like him, as he tells us the story of the beautiful young Emma Drobil and her suitor Dwight Williams. Except he seems to be in love with another woman, an older woman, a woman who has recently lost her leg.

Indeed, it's why he's in Vienna. Alas, the object of his desire is in Munich, so Ms. Drobil will have to do.

Mr. Williams is a lepidopterist. Emma is good with languages. And Mary, "the broken-open fruit", the object of Dwight's desires?

Dwight and Anna sit on a rock in the middle of a brook. They talk about things that aren't important, and they wonder what will happen. So do I.

***

"Morpho Menelaus" was the name of the creature; this Latin, or rather Greek name, together with the date and place of the find, was qwritten on a small label pasted on the bottom of the case...
Dwight took occasion to remark that to his mind not only this indescribably luxurious creature but all of creation in general was pure art pour l'art (a fact which lent it such nobility), at which statement Emma Drobil, a sensible hardheaded girl, looked at him with some amazement.
This is all about Emma and Dwight, and yet it's all really about Dwight and Mary. The Overture, which seemed so clear, so preperatory, has been follwed by an this trio movement, a scherzo fragment.

One begins to get a feel for Doderer's Vienna. Not the narrator's Vienna, but the author's. At least I think this is what's starting to come through. There is a pedantry to the narrator which leads one to believe it's our friend
von Geyrenhoff, but it's too early to say much more, and so this entry, much like this chapter, must remain a an nfinished thought.

What do we do about these kinds of things? What do we do when we leave feeling as though no meaning has been conveyed?

We shall have to cross our fingers.

Monday, March 19, 2007

What To Do With Radio Two

When I started this new blog, I intended to explicitly avoid commenting on cultural matters as I had in the past.

However, as this blog takes its name from a well-known CBC radio program, the recent transformation of CBC Radio Two into something very different from the radio station I grew up listening to deserves some token comments.

Do not get me wrong- this is not going to be a wistful recollection of how wonderful it was to have a radio station that appeared to have been fashioned solely for my own personal enjoyment. This was a wonderful thing, but I’m happy to accept that things change.

Indeed, many of the comments to the change (mine included) can be boiled down to something along these lines – CBC Radio Two (or CBC FM as is used to be called) – “The music Radio Two had on was the music I liked, and now there’s less of it, so this is a bad decision.”

Well, no. That’s not really fair, because the usual, and in this case, plausible counter argument appears: “Well, why should we taxpayers be supporting just your tastes – shouldn’t a publicly funded broadcaster try to reach out to as many people as possible?” (Indeed, you can see this very conversation occurring over on the Globe and Mail’s website, where comments are being posted to their article on the CBC’s change.)

Well……yes. I really hate to admit this, because it goes against my own patently elitist, snobby, stuffy interests (all these descriptions are predicated of classical music) but this argument has some teeth. It isn’t plausible to argue that in its role as a public broadcaster, the CBC should cater to the tastes of only a particular category of music listener.

So in this sense, CBC Radio Two’s shift away from a primarily classical repertoire isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, if one looks at just how fundamental the genre is to the dissemination of music, it’s downright revolutionary, a vast extension of a program they have been toying with for years now. As a public broadcaster, they have little choice but to reflect the tastes of as many Canadians as possible.

My primary concern is that have almost entirely given up on leading or directing musical tastes. The problem with this is that it appears to follow from how we see music as an art form.

By way of contrast, consider the case of CBC's mainly talk radio station, Radio One. while I've endured more debates around the elitism of classical music than I care to admit, I've never heard anyone argues that this station, Radio One, is elitist or snobbish. A show like Ideas has no problem exploring a variety of intellectual pursuits and topics. Indeed, many would hold Radio One as the only thing CBC does right.

Why? Well, when people go and listen to Radio One, they expect to learn something, or to be informed. There are no genres on Radio One, just information to be communicated.

So why does CBC Radio Two with its emphasis on classical music come under fire? Or put more generally, why is our common discourse around classical music framed in this way, around stuffiness and snobbiness, around elitism and dry intellectualism?

Perhaps it has something to do with the notion that genres are the aesthetic counterpart to Aristotle’s declaration of substance as species and that moreover, musical genres are not something one likes or dislikes, but instead pledge an aesthetic allegiance to, and classical music listeners are the ultimate chummy old boys club.

***

Perhaps looking at classical music this way helps to explain why CBC Radio Two is doing what is does and also explains why classical musicians and classical music lovers make fairly baffling comments around the state of classical music.

Alex Ross in a recent post links to an interview with Joshua Roman, who heads up the Seattle Symphony's cello section.

He says, in response to the question "Classical music was marketed for snob appeal for decades, but now it's keeping people away."

"I would love to see the classical-music industry crumble, just absolutely fall to bits. Because I think then we'd have to start over. We'd have to say, well, what is it? What is classical music? Is it this concert hall, is it these tuxedos? No, it's this music."

Sure, but....firstly was classical music really marketed for snobs? And is it really keeping away? Oh, and haven't people been saying exactly the same thing since the 1960s?

Is this really the problem with Classical Music?

This is what baffles me. We classical musicians secretly wish that the industry would die around us. But then, why haven't we killed it - most classical musicians I know are either self-employed, or could quite easily, along with their colleagues, get up and kill every symphony orchestra and opera house in the country, and start their own organizations.

Is it really the tuxedos and rich people keeping everyone from dropping their pop albums and buying tickets to the opera? If only people listened to the music?

Let me suggest that the hostility towards classical music isn't really grounded in the snobbishness or elitism, nor is it an anti-intellectual stance, (an aside - has anyone ever noticed how many prominent writers, the most common class of “intellectual”, don't like classical music?).

So what's it grounded in? Uh, I don't know, and I've staggered far from home.

***

So after all this rambling, am I any closer to understanding what's going on with CBC Radio Two, beyond the simple economics of having only two radio stations? If we had three stations, it would be much easier to have a solid block of cultural programming a la BBC3, but we don't, so we're stuck with a dyad that often alienates more than it inspires.

While I appreciate their motivations, I am still saddened by the sheer lack of talk about culture on CBC anymore. When I grew up, you could actually learn something about classical music and other arts on CBC, every day. And it wasn't restricted to classical music - I fondly recall a Saturday evening spent learning all about the metal power ballad, its origins and development.

That seems much less likely these days. There are fewer musicologists, fewer composers, yet unsurprisingly enough, more performer interviews.

For example, with the cancellation of Two New Hours, contemporary classical no longer has a dedicated home, and although I know Laurie Brown will do a great job with her new show, I simply can't imagine she'll have the breadth and depth of knowledge Larry Lake had. They folks there are there to spin records, not to teach, nor to raise.

This is what CBC has slowly been strapping from the branches of its cultural mandate. It's not the music, it's the conversation. Like their TV station, instead of offering a place where people could go and regularly expect to learn something, it has become a place for Canadians to watch sitcoms and curling.

So there are a number of disparate threads - the categorization of music, and how we as individuals come to identify with the "ideal listener" of the genre we happen to subscribe to, and Canada's unique cultural conditions.

Here's the rub. I'm listening to the Early Music Show on BBC, on the Internet - Bach Cello Suites! This show is an exemplar of what the kind of intellectually serious and accessible work the CBC used to do.

So given the cultural delicacies out there and available on my computer, as much as I'd like to keep things local, there just doesn't seem to be room for people like me on a radio station I once considered an essential part of Canada's cultural life.

At least I feel I appreciate the predicament they're in, despite the fact that it also means that I will listen to it even less than I do now.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Friday Night Videos - Ghosts Before Breakfast

It can't be all music here! Well...maybe it can. Watch for composers Paul Hindemith and Darius Milhaud in this early short by Hans Richter.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Unbabbling Bach















The painting says so much about the man, doesn’t it? A character, perhaps a bit of a dandy, and prone to moments of humour taken a fraction too far? A clever twinkle in his eye - and yet…the way the shadow from the brim of his hat obscures his other eye…perhaps it’s just the painter’s story…no…is there more to him?

Of course there is – he’s the eldest son of Bach.

***

According to Eugene Helm in the New Grove Bach Family, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach “was a greatly gifted composer who did not fully set aside his background of contrapuntal training in favour of the new style of the mid-18th Century.”

But – “He led an unstable life and never quite developed his full creative potential.”

I do not know about the latter beyond the biographical details, however, the smattering of his work I have been able to get my hands on demonstrates his remarkable compositional skills. Indeed, of the four sons of J.S. Bach who composed music, I like him the best. If that isn’t a sure sign of genius, I’m not sure what is.

Seriously, his music is quite compelling. So why is there so little of it available? Why does every reference about him talk about him failing to live to his potential, or point to his lack of success?

He has a biography, a thin 31-page work by Martin Falck, a German musicologist who died at 28 years of age, and one of the few scholars to have had access to the recently rediscovered Notenarchiv of the Berlin Sing-Akademie. (This tidbit from the great modern Bach scholar Christoph Wolff in Notes, 58.2 pgs. 259-271)

This little tome by Falck also includes a catalogue of W.F. Bach’s work, securing Falck a sliver of immortality – when citing Bach’s work, his catalogue numbers are used, along with the first initial of his last name, a time-honoured convention in the annals of musicology, rather like naming an axiom or theorem after the mathematician who discovered (or for you constructivists, invented) it.

But why does this massive talent, and J.S. Bach’s son no less, have a short bio and only a handful of journal articles to show for, in a scholarly discipline known for the resurrection and championing of truly mediocre composers?

Put another way, has no one else seen this portrait of him? Can there not be more to the man who sat for this wonderful portrait?

(a sidebar - this was about the best photo I could get of it-

***

I have a pet theory as to why there is so little out there around his life and work.

Despite the quality of his compositions, the history of classical music, which supplies the narratives the thing we call "classical music" relies so heavily upon, disallow W.F. Bach a place in the canon because he didn’t look after his father’s manuscripts.

I recall a story where he supposedly sold sheets of oh say, that missing St. Mark passion, to fishmongers for wrapping the day’s catch! I'm not sure I need convey the anger with which this story was retold.

How can we, we musicians and historians bound to the cult of Bach, or, to the worship of this most Hegelian of histories, perhaps the most consistently Hegelian in all of the fine arts, where music progresses and tonality develops and not despise the man, the son who didn’t look after his father’s treasures?

That smile...is it really a bit of a smirk?

I imply no pettiness on the part of musicologists here, merely the possibility that he’s been overlooked not because of his music, but on account of his actions, actions we can neither explain nor justify.

Or….is there another reason? Something that has nothing to do with his father, and indeed resides in his work? Is it that he was outside the musical styles that emerged in his time? Perhaps, just perhaps, is his style a lost path, a curious synthesis of galant style and classical forms which nonetheless retains counterpoint as an central part of music making?

Was Wilhelm Bach the Beethoven born 60 years too early, at a point in history and the development of musical styles where W.F Bach’s works just don’t make any sense?

I hear some chime in – “Maybe he wasn’t good enough. Are you just trying to pawn some supposedly underrated composer off on us?”

Well, as someone who endures hour after hour of flaccid baroque concerti performed on period instruments on the local commercial classical radio station, the classical marketplace is rarely effective in determining artistic works on their merit. So why not have a listen to him?

Better yet, would it be possible to write a biography of the man? Should I?

***

Or perhaps I’m just really smitten with that painting, that lovely painting, by far the best painting in the Bach family, by the non-existent Wilhelm Weitch (see note for page 134).

Or maybe it’s that we share a name, Wilhelm Friedemann and I….

You see where all this psychologizing gets you? Maybe that’s why we leave these forays into the lives of interesting people up to the Cristoph Wolffs and Maynard Solomons of the world.

Or maybe not. Hell, why not?

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Dark Arts: Piano Tuning I















Yes my friends, that is a Yamaha U1.

It is not new. But, anyone who knows Yamahas knows that one is best advised to buy a slightly weathered model - not too old, of course. There is a sweet spot of 15-35 years, of which mine approaches the upper bound.

Why? Quite simply, it guarantees that your piano is made in Japan. I'd elaborate on why this is a very good thing, but this could get me into trouble. Just note the Japanese are known for what can only be described as an exquisite attention to detail.

But no matter. On to more important things.

Firstly, I have gathered enough information about it to know that it was made the year of my birth.

I espied this ebony beauty just before Christmas. I'd gone in to take a look at a shop run by this friendly fellow. It was out of tune, and there was no weight to the keys. But the tone showed promise, and for many of my old teachers, the U1 was the piano of choice.

So we bought it.

***

Tuning is one of the many ways in which we organize sound to create music. But tuning is not merely designating certain frequencies as pitches in one's system, it's also accepting the great mass of frequencies outside of that system as "out of tune".

Westerners are exceedingly familiar with the division of the octave into 12 (now typically equal) pitches. But there's no need to limit pitch organization to this division. Indeed, there is a fantastic podcast devoted to microtonal music, where works are composed using alternative divisions of the octave (or alternate tunings of the 12-note octave).

The latest podcast, on "neo-medieval music" has an historical bent, imagining the ways in which western music could have been organized differently.

The music will sound strange at first. It will sound out of tune. But that will change.

***

Some background on tuning will probably make what will unfold here less painful.

As a primer, the composer and scholar Kyle Gann has a wonderfully informative and opinionated website in which he does a great job of explaining microtonal music. He also provides a helpful precis of the current debate raging amongst musicologists and performers around how composers tuned their keyboard instruments before equal temperament came along and extinguished other temperaments, or divisions of the octave.

***

We waited a month before having the tuner come along. A middle-aged Russian appeared at the door - Yuri. Laying his large fur hat on my couch, he set to work. He didn't labour long before asking for the phone, and calling the people we'd sold the piano to - also Russian. They conversed, and I wondered what was going on.

"Mice", Yuri sighed. (In a thick Russian accent)"They could have been there 20 years ago, but the action's a mess - I need to remove it and take it to my shop."

He attempted to show me what was wrong, and I could see nothing. It was like a doctor asking me to evaluate an ultrasound - I had no criteria for knowing what mice through a piano looked like!

And then I realised something- why didn't I know? Why had I been playing the piano all these years, and yet knew nothing about how it worked? I'd never peered inside?

This man, with his hammer, and his wrench, who stretches octaves, who tempers, who forges, why was his work such a mystery to me? And was it just me? How many pianists know their pianos, know how to tune one?

Why do we no longer think about tuning?

As this blizzard of queries blew around my mind, I carried the soul of my piano out through the snow and placed it gently into Yuri's car.

For a week, I waited. As will you, hopefully, for the next installment of the Dark Arts.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Royal Ontario Museum I



















I was at the ROM for a short visit on the weekend, and took a few shots. The ROM is distinctly unfriendly to photographers - no flash, no tripod, everything's behind glass and for the most part, dimly lit.

However, the ROM has the largest collection of Asian art (Asian being the continent, not the cultures) and as it's the only section open right now, it's going to have to do. I also happen to know that a full third of the blogs who link to me are deeply interested in the art of the Orient...

To them all I can say is: There will be many more shots - eventually! And I will make it to the recently renovated and expanded Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Arts one day soon.

And I do have some essays in the works, the problem being that as I dive further into the subject matter, I find myself getting lost in a sea of journal articles and books. But it's a pleasure anyway, and I hope they'll be as pleasure to you once I'm done. But without further ado, here are some pictures. I leave it up to my readers to tell me what these are.

First, of course, the tableware. This was my second favourite piece - my favourite piece didn't photograph so well.
















I just really like the simply, modern feel to this 19th Century chinese tea set. I'll get more info next time I'm there. I know I keep apologizing, but another reason why these shots didn't work out was because I was chasing my son around, trying to keep him from toppling statues of inestimable value.
















From a better angle - you see the point:
















Now some plates - these weren't the best there, but they're the best of what turned out:
















I quite liked this one:

















The detail in the illustration on this bowl is quite remarkable:

















And a beautiful little teapot:





















How about some statues? The current exhibition in the asian collections concerns heaven and hell- the guy up top and this fellow both have quite a bit of character in this regard, although I wish I understood the significance of the body language:





















A buddha - it is the Chinese collection, after all:




















Some more:
















The final pieces here are actually two enormous wall paintings- I will get details! Perhaps a post on these alone would be nice. Focus the mind, linger over details...yes, yes!




























Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this brief look at our local hoard. Dear readers, feel free to tell me what it is I've shown you - I profess total and utter ignorance.

But I look forward to the knowing.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Richter at the Transcontinental - Finale

For those of you who couldn't spend a mere three hours watching the documentary I've featured here, here's all you need to see:

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Idling



















What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whaever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.
Kenko, you speak to my condition.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Theatre of Life
















Listen.

FIRST, EXALTATION. Let us speak of that. The change that occurs when we are lifted out of the tight little cages of our daily realities. To be hurled beyond our limits into the cosmos of magnificent forces, to fly into the beams of these forces and if we blink, to have our eyes and ears and senses tripped open against the mind's will to the sensational and miraculous. To feel these forces explode in our faces, against our bodies, breaking all encrustations and releasing us with a wild fluttering of freedom. Let us first speak of that. How everything becomes new. And if we return to our daily routines, they are no longer routines, but scintillate and have become magnificent by our sensing them with fresh eyes and noses and minds and bodies. Let us speak of this exaltation which has driven us out of ourselves to experience the life we have missed or only vaguely sensed, even resisted.

This must be the first purpose of art.

-R. Murray Schafer, The Theatre of Confluence II, Patria: The Complete Cycle.

There was a Christmas in the air today. The air was crisp, and the street was quiet, except for the third part of Steve Reich's Drumming, turned on at just the right moment, the moment that took music and my senses and transformed it into theatre.

I imagine the bells, the sleigh bells, the glockenspiels in the middle of the park, where the trash can is. And then I consider the banality of the image and I realise that I don't need to imagine a situation, an artifice, because this music, in this place, at this moment, has turned the world into a stage without actors, yet here runs the show.

That feeling remains with me until I arrive at work.

***

I am not a fatalist. I used to be, and the traces of that desperate state linger into my thoughts when I pick a book off the shelf which weaves what some disparate thoughts into a kind of unity.

R. Murray Schafer is, they say, Canada's greatest living composer. He is also a phenomenal writer, as his book about his Patria cycle demonstrates. This is a man who should have an opinion column, or a pulpit where people can hear him. He speaks as though he knows something. He speaks like Wagner, a man I suspect he dislikes because he understands him too well. He is a musician, and a writer, and I will leave things at that.

His book, which sat on my shelf, untouched, was picked up again when I discovered that I will be very near Haliburton when he stages the Princess of the Stars at the end of August. I will attend the performance, which is on a par with Der Ring, or Stockhausen's Licht, except that as a Canadian composer, no one in Canada cares about what he's doing, and certainly not, as he describes in harrowing detail in his book, the Canadian Opera Company.

But what I am interested in now, right now, is how moments of theatre, like the moment I descibe above, happen. Music plays a large role in these experience, not as a kind of movie soundtrack, but as something greater, something that beings about a fullness of experience, ritualizing and theatricalizing our space.

More importantly, how and where do we bring them about? How do we reengage a bored, ritual-hating society?

What in the nexus between perception, concsiousness and ritual makes for art, and what makes a moment a dramatic one as opposed to a mere duration of unmarked time?

But! There is much work to be done, and Reich's American gamelan calls me to sleep.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Statues of Queen's Park: Edward VII

With this post, I surpass the total number of posts on Le Voir Dit. The Transcontinental presses on, full steam ahead. As Chris Miller commented in my initial, this must be the right place.

Evoking Mr. Miller however, is merely a segway to the first of a series of posts (Yes, I like series, they keep me grounded. The question is whether or not I finish any of them!) on statues of Queen's Park here in Toronto. I know nothing about sculpture, but I hope to learn more via the reactions of my readers.

So without further ado...




















I probably could have edited the above, but what's a photo essay without a bit of bad photography?















Here's the statue itself. The low number of photos are mainly due to the fact that my batteries died after snapping the final shot.















There's a lightness to this work, isn't there? I especially like the horse in the show below.




















Really, this sculpture is about the horse, and not the rider, isn't it? Well, we'll have to wait for the ice to melt for me to get close enough to the Edward VII.

My favourite view:

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Night Thoughts on Techne

I am a big fan of the Weekend Financial Times. Last week, I had a rare opportunity to read nearly the entire paper at one siting, while in the waiting room of a hospital.

One of the most enjoyable pieces last week was the headline article in the FT Weekend section by the first violinist of the Takács String Quartet, Edward Dusinberre. Yes, you read that right - a full two pages of a major newspaper devoted to a violinist writing about the arrival and integration of their newest member, Geraldine 'Geri' Walther. There's hope for humanity yet, right?

Well, perusing the Letters section of this weekend's FT, I discovered a letter from a certain Felix A.H. Allender of Switzerland, who took rather large exception to Dusinberre's piece. He writes,

With a few exceptions (Richard Wagner comes to mind) musicians (and painters), no matter how excellent, should not write or certainly not be published, whatever rubbish they write. Let them stick to the art in which they excel.


Well then. Although it seems the main source of his umbrage was the fact that the article fails to mention the founder of the quartet, Gabor Takács-Nagy, who also happens to live in Switzerland, his categorical salvo urging musicians to stay in the kitchen, where they belong, struck me to the quick, for you see...

I am a musician.

So what now? Is Felix an old coot, or is he onto something? Does God hand out artistic gifts by the category? Why on earth would he single out Wagner as both a great musician and a great writer?

I cannot draw, and so it's doubtful that my stick figure Der Ring Des Nibelungen will ever find its way to a publisher, but I am a writer by trade and a musician by training, so despite the facility in which his comment could be summarily dismissed, it stuck.

Why? Well, to be more charitable to Mr.Allender, I wonder if his point is this: An artist is there to create art. When he (or she, but let's just assume I talking about myself in the 3rd person) is in public, and isn't creating art, he should remain perfectly silent.

Furthermore, by publishing a piece of journalism, he's doing a disservice to his art, and so, for everyone's benefit, he should refrain from doing anything public not related to his art, like writing articles, recommending stock purchases to friends and participating in politics.

Seen this way, his view begins to resemble some far more commonplace views about the role of the artist in society, that the artist simply should avoid these things, that it is not their place. I am not saying this is a bad view, merely that it's one that has a certain resonance.

I wonder what Mr. Allender would think of say, an engineer or banker penning a column for the FT? Would he have been so indignant, and if not, why? What makes our crafts so special as to make it dangerous for us to do things outside of them?

To be honest, I think he's got a point here, but I struggle to articulate what it is. Can you help?

Friday, February 23, 2007

Richter At The Transcontinental II

Friday's isn't really a night for essays long or short, so let's watch a movie together instead - Part II of Sviatoslav Richter: The Enigma.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

van Karajanstein reads von Doderer II - Overture

Overture is von Doderer's name for the opening chapter of The Demons. Wait, let me back up a bit.

There's an inscription under the title, a line of Tacitus, from his Histories, I, i:

Malvolence wears the false face of honesty.

You could almost miss it, tucked down there on a page most of us flip past without thinking. Indeed, I had just read the Overture when I remembered it was there. But perhaps we're better off forgetting about it right now.

The translators, Richard and Clara Winston, provide a helpful note for our journey. They indicate that many regard the book before us as the most important Austrian novel of the twentieth century. And if that isn't enough for you, there's a promotional page at the back which tells us that Alfred Knopf himself addressed the American public in a letter extolling the virtues of The Demons. The Americans didn't bite.

So, unlike, Joyce, Kafka, Mann, and Faulkner, von Doderer remains a mystery to we English speakers. You won't find him on all those academic literary blogs, or the blogs that talk about being in academic literary studies. But at least we have a translation of him, unlike poor
Teodor Parnicki, who sits there, untranslated, into the world's second language.

So we are alone with von Doderer, here, and only here.

***
For a good long while now I have been living in what used to be Schlaggenberg's room.

Our narrator is called Georg von Geyrenhoff. He is a retired civil servant. He was clever enough to get some money into American stocks so that when the Great War came and went, while the great and glorious Austro-Hungarian Empire vanished from the face of the earth, and along with it everyone's money, he managed to hang onto a tidy sum, and is, according to himself, now retired from the civil service for an excellent reason - moral shame.

As things were, I preferred not to stay on in a post which offered little in the way of meaningful work and contribution to society, and merely provided a dull livelihood, for I was beginning to feel in an increasingly oppressive fashion that this livelihood was won at the expense of my toiling fellow-citizens.

Amen,
von Geyrenhoff. From the depths of my soul, amen.

He tells us that he is writing the chronicle of his "crowd". We know nothing yet of this crowd, but we encounter one member, perhaps, a Financial Counselor Levielle. He is French, easily angered, and quite patronizing toward von Geyrenhoff. I suspect he is the other side of the coin of resentment von Geyrenhoff speaks of. Leveille toils as well, and yet clearly feels none of the shame our narrator does. Our narrator is a likeable man.

And yet - in fact you need only draw a single thread at any point you choose out of the fabric of life and the run will make a pathway across the whole, and down that wider pathway each of the other threads will become successively visible, one by one. For the whole is contained in the smallest segment of anyone's life-story...
There we have in a tight analogy a good chunk of the Monadology of Leibniz.

The Overture is von Geyrenhoff on narration. He tells us how he writes things, how he fixes dates, how he is not involved in the events of the book, and yet he is intimately involved with the crowd. He's interested in trivial details, details that have much more meaning to him than the big story.

But really, the Overture is about
von Geyrenhoff's view. From his studio, to the Romanesque church. And perhaps a bit further.

And this hand points for me beyond the ridiculous boundaries of an individual life, and above all these husks and boundaries, points like the outstretched hand of a gigantic clock whose extension in space is like a shot and rolls like the boom of a cannon through all my chambers.
Tacetus.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Shostakovich Redeemed (In my mind)

I attended the COC's production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk last Thursday. The performance was excellent, although the low brass were too loud. And I say that as a tuba player! I know the parts are awesome, but no one could hear anything but you!

The tuba is the orchestra's brassiere - there to support, but never to get in the way! But this is a minor complaint, nay, or if you prefer, an act of heresy.

So if you live in or around Toronto, go see it, because it seems to be some of his finest music in the service of some excellent dramatic material. Indeed, between this and his piano quintet, I'm beginning to be convinced that Shostakovich deserves at least some of the accolades he received last year on the occasion of his centenary. Or at least I feel safe to say that he is not, as Boulez said (via some folks at Sequenza21), a fourth pressing of Mahler.

But I don't really want to review Lady Macbeth. I'm much more interested in how important boredom was in the opera as a dramatic device, and how the audience reaction to the operas more raunchy moments spoke volumes about the conceptual space we inhabit when it comes to sex. But that essay's still in the shop, so you'll have to settle for this. And yes, I am going to get to my Doderer posts, beginning tomorrow.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Irrelevance of Ritual in the Daily Life of The People of Toronto

While waiting for a bus on the corner of Dundas and Ossington, I was witness to a horrible moment. Indeed, I was perhaps the only witness.

As I stood there, a funeral procession turned north onto Ossington from Dundas, snaking its way north up Ossington to wherever this funeral procession was going. So the funerary limousine turned, followed by the hearse, the casket within in a dark reddish wood, brushed metal along the sides.

I remember the casket well because I knew someone lay there.

***

I have been reading, and enjoying, the three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire by John Julius Norwich. Like the eminent Mr. Roth, I do not much enjoy the act of reading. However, and perhaps it's the fact-loving little boy in me, I can down a 500-page history with ease and delight while my copy of Watt sits there, unopened and unthought.

Now for those of you unschooled in the history of Eastern Roman Empire, it is as blood-soaked as any. The richness of humanity's capacity for unbridled butchery is well represented in these chronicles.

However, the sweetness of the 2nd Viscount Norwich's prose makes even the tale of Krum the Bulgar turning Nikephoros I's skull into a drinking cup an altogether charming thing to do.

Shining through the gore is this wonderfully complex sense the Byzantians had that they were civilized. Indeed, they were civilization.

And this fact is part of our (you know what I mean here) common mythology about the past - when darkness set upon the Western Roman Empire, it was Byzantium who held up the cause of western civilization by just being there, waiting for the Italians to take it back 1000 years later.

***

So there I stood, in this most civilized city, almost unbearably civilized, Peter Ustinov's accursed scrap weighing heavily on nearly every utterance by our city fathers, when around five cars into the funeral procession comes a taxicab.

Unlike most major centres, Toronto still has a vibrant streetcar system throughout our downtown core. A streetcar stood there, motionless, and, having just let its passengers off, closed its doors. Sensing an opportunity in the way cabbies do, one of Toronto's many delightfully horrible cab drivers decided he simply could not wait any longer and slipped around the streetcar, and in front of the procession.

The light to cross Ossington now red, the funeral procession, who would in other circumstances be allowed to turn unimpeded (oh you poor deceased - where was your police detail?), are now stuck behind the cab stuck at a red light.

Green light. The cab barrels straight through, continuing on Dundas. Then, and this, my friends, is the point of the story, so does the first car of the funeral procession. So does the next one, each car crossing the threshold of the intersection, looking north up Ossington and quite obviously thinking to themselves "I think the cemetery's up that way".

I am watching all of this, and I am utterly powerless to stop it. I wave to some of them, attempting to get them to turn, but they look at me, waving to them in downtown Toronto, and they think I'm some nut waving to a death train like the circus is in town.

So I stop, and I think about the dead man and woman for whom this is all for, whose funeral procession has been ruined by a cab driver before my very eyes, and I wonder what has happened.

Is this blind necessity, or is it a manifestation of the civilized world of which I am a part, a world where people's lives are valued, but people's rituals are not? And then I realise that rituals often mean more to me than people, and I wonder for a moment if my spirit might not have been better off in Byzantium than here.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Richter at the Transcontinental

I'm working on some other posts, (hint - I saw Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk last night) but while I'm doing that, spend an hour and some watching this - I'll add part two later. Thanks to Google video and the downloader for providing this - it's not available on DVD in North America.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Thoughts for a Gouldian Morning

There is something magical, on a cold winter morning, to sit and pass Queen's Park listening to Glenn Gould play from the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. When it warms up, at least above freezing, I think I'll take a tour of Gould's old haunts and spots for this blog.

Gould loomed large in my turning away from popular music in my teens towards becoming a hard core classical musician and classical music lover. Feeling a touch nostalgic, I don my sword and helmet, and defend for our dear departed Glenn from, who else, but rapacious capitalists. (ooooohhhhh....)

***

A while back, Glenn Glould performed at his namesake studio here in Toronto.

He's dead you say? Not anymore, thanks to technology. And to those of you offended by the sight of Audrey Hepburn selling pants at the Gap, this should really get your goat.

For those of you perhaps unfamiliar with him, Glenn Gould was arguably one of the best pianists of the second half of the 20th Century, and certainly one of the most eccentric. He was also someone who thought about music - claiming him for mylsef, I'd happily call him a philosopher of music - and the ways in which performers and audience interact with each other, and how technology would transform the conditions under which music was performed and listened to.

He practiced what he preached, and, dissatisfied with what he could produce live, retired from the concert hall in 1964. That is, until a month ago.

The Star's music critic struggled to make this strange story into something interesting (I can no longer find the story on their site). I think he fails, but not for lack of trying. Rather, perhaps out of a fear of incurring the wrath of the Gould estate, he is unwilling to take on cult that has formed around Gould's music and writings since his death in 1982.

***

Full disclosure - I attended both Glenn Gould conferences, in 1992 and 1999. As I mentioned earlier, I was a big fan as a teenager, listening to the 1955 Goldberg Variations most mornings on the way to school, in a passive homage to Ralph Kirkpatrick's playing the Well-Tempered Clavier in its entirety every day - my pianistic skills at that point weren't up to the task!

Through providence, I was able to attend the first conference for the cost of my plane ticket, finding myself staying for free in the Annex with a wealthy lawyer and a patron of the arts. It was my first time in Toronto as an adult, and my impression of the city that week laid the foundation for my eventual relocation.

During my time here, I realised that, in the hierarchy of fandom, I was a pale shadow to some of the fascinating and sometimes creepy Gouldians out there.

These people were hardcore.

What I had half-consciously thought of as a pilgrimage became a revaluation of my own thoughts about Gould, a splash of water to my own marginally obsessive nature. This was a fan base whose devotion and intensity can only compared to that of Elvis Presley fans.

On the other side of the fans, you have Glenn Gould's estate, which aggressively goes after anything and anyone who dares whisper his name. Indeed, their FAQs inform you that if you draw a picture of him and attempt to make it public, you will need their permission, by which I take it that if you don't get their permission, they will sue you. These are the same people who felt it appropriate to his reclusive personality to plop a sculpture of him in front of the CBC building in Toronto. One wonders what will happen if I go and do some photoblogging...

The 1999 conference was even stranger. The 1992 one had the pretence of being about Gould's thinking on music and technology. The 1999 conference was hero worship.

The fans at this conference were vastly more disturbing than the first one. In one session, John Roberts, Gould's closest friend, spoke of Gould's torment and increasing paranoia as he aged. For this, he was assaulted verbally by "fans" who would brook no criticism of their Glenn. People who never knew him challenged the man who knew him better than anyone.

***

This brings me to this bizarre concert. That they used Gould as a model is unsurprising to me. Rather, what I found strange was that everyone compared it was a live performance.

Programming a piano to play a recording is much closer to pressing "play" on a CD player than it is to watching someone play the piece. Moreover, it appears to have escaped most people writing on the concert that the original recording was never live in any sense. Gould certainly recorded the variations in their entirety, but sections would have been spliced and variations re-recorded until things sounded right.

But given Gould's reputation as an extreme perfectionist, who's to say that the 1955 version played on that piano would have met his requirements? Who's to say he would have liked the sound? What are we saying here about the death of the performer? In other words, how can we say this was Glenn Gould performing live in a concert hall?

Indeed, it only makes sense to someone like Sony Classical and Zenph Studios, which John Terauds says is "a North Carolina firm devoted to improving on old piano recordings with the latest computer wizardry". This isn't an improvement though, it's an entirely new recording, but the really important thing is that it gives Sony Classical a way to sell another permutation of what is probably one of the most profitable classical recordings of all time.

Since the 1992 conference, Sony has re-released the Goldberg Variations umpteen times, each with some new bit to ensure that the real fans feel compelled to buy the latest version. This enterprise is about making money, and not about Gould, beyond the fact that the Gould brand is a very profitable one. (Just to note, I have a single copy of the 1955 recording, which I bought in 1990.)

I guess as someone who would claim Gould as a formative influence in my own musical thinking, his crass commercialization by the various entities who own his legacy bothers me, especially because it seems so very opposite to anything I've ever heard about the man.

But what do I know, really? I am just a fan.

***

From the get go, Gawain's dislike of Beethoven unnerved me.

I know he has a nice, tidy, some would even say scientific, explanation for this dislike, but it still bothers me, mainly because I can't stop listening to Beethoven. And now that I have the piano, I can't stop playing him.

And I feel I owe Gawain for having brought me towards a greater appreciation of Shostakovich, via his string quartets. So I'd like to return the favour.

Is there an essence of Beethoven that precludes one's enjoyment? Beethoven's compositional range was vast - his manipulation of motive and structure was so masterful that my jaw still drops at his inventiveness, especially within the restricted (by our standards) tonal language and forms he used. His music really still sounds modern, in a way that Mozart's or Chopin's does not.

The guy wrote so much music in so many different ways, indeed, it's part of his greatness - how does one not like any of it?

I wonder if Gawain takes Beethoven too seriously. Or, like the cult of Glenn Gould out there, the much older and insidious cult of Beethoven has coloured his thoughts. We know the story - Beethoven was serious, deaf and deeply unhappy. Yes he was, but more importantly, he was a man, a man full of spirit and humour. He is someone worth going out of one's way to get to know.

How do we cure poor Gawain of his Beethovenitis? What work of his could mark the entry point to Elysium for our tired knight?

My suggestion, after careful deliberation, is Beethoven's 18th piano sonata, Op. 31 No. 3. Gawain, get yourself a good recording of this work - try the Richter, although the light heartedness of the work should come through on any decent recording.

Or better yet, try to get a hold of Viennese-Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti's magnificent recording. His Beethoven Sonata cycle is the best modern one out there. Beethoven is a slippery creature to Kuerti, and we are richer for it. No pigeon holes here!

I think this might do the trick - and I'd stick to this period of piano sonatas until you're ready for the next step!

Enjoy!