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. 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 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: