Wednesday, February 28, 2007


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


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.

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.

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!


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

This Sounds About Right

The funniest thing is the way I expound all this to my hired servant, because when you're full of a thing, you can't stop talking about it, and you keep looking for some new angle from which to show how wonderful it is.

A quote by Goethe from The Perfect House, a book by the architect Witold Rybczynski on Andrea Palladio's country villas. Good light reading for the bus - I highly recommend it.

I have not read much Goethe. Instead, I have always spent more time with his morose walking companion, Louis van, who was really a Schiller man at heart.

Nevertheless, many of my blogging chums are talking about Goethe, so I thought I'd lazily toss my hat in the ring, given this quote appears to sum up nicely the kind of community I've elected to hang around in, and it appears in a breezily written book about a subject I know nearly nothing about.


A quick note - BBC3's Early Music Show has an hour this week on Pietro Francesco Caletti-Bruni, better known as Franceso Cavalli, and his most famous opera, La Calisto. This has long been a favourite of mine, and it seems to me as though late 17th Centruy italian opera is really the only remaining patch of land unreclaimed by the major opera houses. Is it too much to ask the COC to do a mainstage production of these works?

Cavalli's work shows the fragmentation of form that occured after Monteverdi, setting the stage for the much maligned, little understood, and immensely popular Baroque opera we see before us. Nevertheless, there's a freedom in Cavalli, a playfulness, that I find absent in the later French and Italian works of the period. Cavalli was writing when opera was the big thing, but it was still pretty fresh.

Indeed, I wonder if the resurgence in baroque opera has something to do with its realignment with our own mass tastes - the carving apart of music, action and emotion suits us better than the pre-Freudian psychologizing of Wagner, his development of the musical practice of motivic development to dramatically represent psychological progression simply too much for us to take in all at once these days.

I can't get enough Wagner - I'm odd that way. But I can't get enough Cavalli either. Go check out the Early Music Show this week and let me know what you think of him. If you like him, then let's keep talking about him.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Faust at the Canadian Opera Company

I attended last night’s COC production of Faust by Charles Gounod. The omnipresent JohnTerauds of the Toronto Star, who appears to be the last of the classical music review dinosaurs in a major Canadian newspaper, reviewed it unfavourably.

I too was disappointed by the production, although I disagree with him about the production getting in the way – if anything, Nicholas Muni’s production was the only bright spot in an otherwise mediocre effort by the COC. Moreover, I found the balance, both within the orchestra and between the orchestra and the singers, very poor.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin got some fire out of the orchestra, especially during the use of Gounod’s ballet music for Faust as entr'actes, but even then, much of the punch was lost because the lines were not always clear.

As I mentioned, the production itself was very good, with what I would call a kind of burlesque feel, taking burlesque in its historical sense and not its current incarnation. The singers and chorus were costumed firmly in the 19th Century, but the set itself was spartan and effieciently deployed to support what is a dramatically weak opera.

Can it be that the COC still can’t do two really strong productions at the same time? Seems so, because the reviews for Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk appear to be very positive (I won’t see it until the 15th).

Let's hope I'm wrong.


One of the odd things about seeing Faust is the fact that it was not too long ago when Faust dominated the operatic stage. Why did it fall from favour? Why does something as awful as Tosca or Il Trovatore seem to pack them in but many other fine works are never seen again? Why was Faust so popular to begin with?

These are some of the kinds of questions that preoccupy me, and hopefully you. That is, if I can make reading about them compelling enough. I know I'm not there yet, but I'm looking forward to the task!