Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Taking Stock

I took the always crowded King Streetcar to work this morning, just as I did this day last year.

Except a lot of things are different, one of those things being that I don't live near the King streetcar anymore. If only that were all that was different.

The Transcontinental is both a pale reflection of my "real" life, and an all-too accurate representation of my inner life. It is full of certain hopes and desires, of ambitions, some realised, most not at all, and it tells a particular story about me, but one that seems not very familiar to my self-conception.

I am happy that so many more people have visited the Transcontinental this year than in previous years, but I am discouraged by the fact that despite the visits, fewer people comment. When one starts to think about this, they start to think about how they can "attract" people here, and I too think often of that.

One of the things I think I need to do is write better. The writing here seems more laboured and yet also lazy, although not because I have posted more. Something is missing.

There is a part of me that wants to do some kind of list, set some kinds of goals here for the next year, but I look at the goals I've set here, like my January 1st, 2007 goal to post every day, and how it, like all the other goals, was not achieved.

So maybe my new year's resolution for the blog is that I'm not going to set any goals, or make any more promises here. I am just going to keep going, and see where things take me, because that approach in other aspects of my life, where I take up those lines of flight, has been enormously productive.

And, as you can see, the site looks completely different. I hope you like that too.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tautological Aphorism V

Mockery is the sincerest form of criticism.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Well what do you know?

I suppose there's hope for me yet!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Small World - Tabling Heine

Earlier today, I was reading Raminagrobis, a wonderful blog that I first encountered via the Varieties. Having read the latest post, I was going to add the blog to my roll. However, I'm working on a paper on Heine, and so wasn't going to do it today.

In Die Harzreise, Heine mentions schoolboys declining "mensa" in the genitive. I was curious to see if he was in any way referring to the ecclesiastical use of the term, as my paper concerns secularization.

So I googled "mensa latin grammar" - and Raminagrobis was the first hit! Turns out he posted on the various cultural differences between latin grammars. Heine's reference made me wonder if mensa isn't also common as an early paradigm in German Latin grammars, and sure enough, page 21 of the Lateinische Grammatik here at google books, the first declension is "mensa" , although this 1837 grammar uses "via" on page 38...

Anyway, and this is certainly no strong counterexample to the cultural differences in noun declensions Raminagrobis cites, but it seems that the shift from "mensa" to "agricola" in German grammars of Latin appears to be a more recent one, as I am pretty sure that Heine here is playing with what would have been common knowledge at the time.

And with that, perhaps the most esoteric blog post I've ever written.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Smoking Bishop

The thing I most enjoy about Christmas is the sheer variety of traditions that magically appear around this time, most of which either never existed until a few years ago or were long dead until someone with a web page and a 19th Century cookbook resurrected them. So maybe it's not the variety of traditions appeals to me, but the receptiveness to the new through the back door of tradition.

And there's an always fruitful and pleasurable avenue of exploration of the eternal recurrence of holiday traditions - the myriad ways in which one can get soused with warm drinks!

To wit, via the Valve, a link to a holiday drink I had never heard of, but solely on account of the name desperately want to try - the Smoking Bishop.

It sounds like a nice mulled wine, but if this NPR program on the beverage is any indication, the recipe at the Valve may not be the one you want to be going with...Instead, I would suggest you trust the Irishman towards the end of the broadcast segment who modifies it slightly for our modern, naïve tastes, and makes it "taste good"!


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Elliott Carter! Daniel Barenboim! James Levine!

All in one studio - together at last.

What else would prompt me to post three times in one day?

A Transcontinental exclusive!

Elliott Carter, 100 years and still alive despite the fact that he killed classical music for the People

The best part about Eliott Carter's centenary is that, for perhaps the first time ever in modern classical music marketing, the composer we are lionizing today with concerts, retrospectives, symposia, ephemera, salutary compositions, and sombre critical inquiry over the very fate and nature of classical/modern/serious music is the following:


It's nice to think that he's around to get some kind of bemused enjoyment out of all of this.

And the entire classical blogosphere has typed lauds into their blogs as well, a veritable youtube symphony of praise.

That's pretty much it. Oh yes, and this:

Serialism forever! Tonalität ist tot!

Nuts to you, Sandow and Gann, with your zany post-classical future of classical music wickedness!

Schönberg! Schönberg! Schönberg! (although he too, is dead)

Der Vorleser: The Movie: The Discussion

As a budding germanist, I should probably have some kind of quota for posts which relate to my field of study...barring this, here's an interesting conversation from WNYC between actor Ralph Fiennes and Leonard Lopate about the upcoming movie adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's novel The Reader.

That reminds me - I'm very critical of Canadian media and society what I don't think works, but I rarely, if ever, attempt to offer any solutions.

Listening to WNYC reminds me that I need to address that. To that, I think exactly what Canadian society lacks from a media perspective is, um, WNYC...the big question is how to make that happen...but more on that some other time.

UPDATE: The player isn't working, so here's the direct link!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Utopian Argumentation

This Ads Without Products post reminded me of a something I often see in magazine articles or newspaper profiles about a group with idealistic aims (note how I avoided that other word [see above]).

The trope is as follows: these idealistic people are striving for utopia. But wait - "utopia" means "no place" in the Greek, so therefore, clearly, the ideals of this group or person will never come to pass. Because "utopia" means "no place".

Or maybe you've seen this one: Group X's utopian ideals are misplaced, because there is no such thing as a utopia, because "utopia" means "no place".

There is some interesting interplay between use and definition. Prior to the defining moment, "utopia" or "utopian" is employed as a pejorative, used to mean "pie in the sky", or "fanciful". But inevitably, these pie in the sky ideas, like helping the poor or opposing torture, are refuted via etymology.

So implicit in the common use of the word "utopia" is to make explicit one's belief that a word's etymology governs reality, that etymology functions as a natural law to which we all must submit.

Which is nonsense, isn't it? Maybe I'm being utopian...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Gustav Szathmáry - An Update

(photo from myspace page dedicated to Szathmáry)

It seems that my post on Gustav Szathmáry last May has compelled the Internet to disclose another fragment of this man's life.

When I had done my initial research on his life, I was dismayed to discover that there was no scholarly (or unscholarly) work done on him. It turns out the the little-known firm Cupere Verlag had published a 71-page monograph on our friend and his remarkable life.

Astoundingly, it is available here on the Internet Archive, and no where else on earth.

Written by Dietmar Heinisch, the book is a treasure trove of information about his life, his work, and his affair with the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker.

It also contains reproductions of Szathmáry's stunning images of his friends, including a remarkable photograph of Rainer Maria Rilke (the painting is by Moderson-Becker):

I mentioned in my previous post that someone has created a myspace page in his honour. It has now been updated to include some more of his music. I encourage you to listen!

If only his complete works were available - given all the musicological attention devoted to the schlock of the day, it seems surprising that no work has been done to unearth his music. A tragedy.

I would like to think that my own meagre contribution to disseminating his work was a factor in prompting whomever had a copy of that biography to make it available.

One wonders why there are no copies available in any libraries - perhaps the publisher went bankrupt before it went to press, and poor Herr Heinisch perished in a fiery wreck the very next day.

Perhaps the book sat lost, forgotten in a mouldy box, until the day a young woman in Bremen was sorting through the papers of her recently deceased grandfather, and found this monograph, which he'd purchased at a used bookshop in Erfurt when he was a visiting lecturer there.

Perhaps she, like me, was entranced by his story and the beauty and ingenuity of his work, and so she did what we all do when we find something new and interesting, and googled "Szathmáry".

What did she find? Me! A lone outpost on the Internet, a buoy for our nearly lost Hungarian friend. She was much too shy to contact me, and I do not blame her for this, perhaps her English is not so good.

But I am grateful that she has made this book available so that we may all enjoy it, or at least those of us who speak German. For English speakers, please enjoy the photographs.

I sincerely hope that this latest post will encourage the dialectic of discovery amongst my readership and those out there who know who he is, so that Szathmáry can take his place in the Parthenon of Great Composers.

Friday, December 05, 2008

No Portrait Gallery until you've paid off your credit card!

Further to yesterday's post, with the recent cancellation of the National Portrait Gallery, it seems as though the Harper government has shown its hand with respect to "the arts".

Or not. The irony of this boondoggle is that it is entirely of the Conservative government's making. They cancelled the Ottawa gallery as it was set to open, and tried to move it at the last minute to Calgary for purely partisan reasons.

To be honest, I actually like the idea of housing national cultural institutions across the country instead of concentrating them in the national capital, but doing this at the last minute was an act of political stupidity. Stephen Marche actually argues here that this is the worst thing the feds have done to Alberta since the NEP. (Don't worry Stephen, after this week, I suspect everyone in Alberta has forgotten they've pulled the plug on this as well as the Commons)

They pulled the trigger on Portrait Gallery because they were wasting money, and governmental pride, universal to government of all political stripes, eliminated the possibility of letting the Ottawa gallery open under its original mandate.

The government's PR explanation, that it's the economic downturn is of course a smokescreen. But this smokescreen will be successful because, like the brass at CBC, Conservatives know that Canadians, philistines that they are, will be more than happy to sacrifice art for the economy.

English Canada's capacity for cultural self-loathing has few limits: "Everyone, gather your paintings, your books and your records, and use them to stoke the flames of your furnaces, for we must sacrifice art in this time of need!"

English Canadians embody the paradox of our age when it comes to art. We are, on the one hand, obsessed with a work of art's economic or exchange value. We bristle at the fact that they, as taxpayers, own something we do not like or "enjoy", (or understand) as though the mass media we consume is something we enjoy, acting as though mass entertainment is the product of a monthly census sent to every household, as though people get to choose from a wide range of aesthetic styles and dramatic genres.

On the other hand, we are remarkably quick to toss any works exchange value in the trash and sacrifice it like a fatted calf to the Economy. In times of need, who can we even talk about funding the arts? Let's close down the galleries and orchestras until the economy improves!

Does anyone else see where this takes us? The money has already been spent on the art, on the facilities, but we shouldn't ever see them a) because no one wants to and b) it is an insult to the people who are suffering in this economic downturn.

Except Canadians haven't really been affected by it yet. But if there's one thing that unites the left and the right in Canada, it's a resolute opposition to "circuses".

It seems, at least to me, that we are in a virtually intractable situation with respect to art and culture here in Canada.

We function as though the public/private distinction is hard and fast, that one is noble while the other is degrading. One would think that if the recent financial troubles had taught us anything, it's that governments are as much a part, indeed they are the foundation, of a functioning market, and not in some kind of brute opposition to them. English Canadians do not appear to have understood this, and we continue to live in the culture wars rhetoric of the mid-1990's.

Most striking are all the self-professed "art lovers" come out of the woodwork with their false piety to proclaim that we need to close all the galleries and opera companies until the economy improves, we must all do our part, like in war time, except that we don't appear to sacrifice anything in war time, (What's Afghanistan? A skirmish?).

Of course, also have the free-market types who are always quick to talk about "my tax dollars" (never ours) going to things "I don't see" (makes one wonder why they they don't mind paying for wars they don't see either), a classic reductionist argument which nonetheless has remarkable traction, due to the near universal self-loathing of the English Canadian bourgeois "art lover".

The crux of all this is just how much both types desire cuts to arts funding, to culture, because deep down inside, the culture industry has taught them that to enjoy government supported art is to sin, that public art has the taint of blood money. The conservative free-marketer just sits back on his or her ideology, laughing at the easy success of their cruelty, while the art lover is consumed with liberal guilt for watching precious tax dollars find their way to something that doesn't directly materially benefit them in some way.

In other words, they are all part of the same rhetorical game about the arts in Canada, and it's not a game that sees art as a winner, but as a parasite to efficiency and moreover, a threat to the quality of life of most Canadians.

That even the art lover believes this deep down inside is perhaps the most demoralizing aspect of our discourse right now.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Once a Colony, always a Colony...

There's a nutty political crisis happening up here in Canada, and I really don't know who reads my blog, but if any of you non-Canadians want a good look into the Canadian psyche, this poll does a pretty good job.

For those of you who don't know, Canada's political/constitutional/moral/federal/provincial/regional crisis began last Thursday when the man 59 per cent of Canadians believe would "best be able to manage Canada's economy during these troubling times" and his Finance minister presented an economic statement just over a month after their re-election as a minority government.

Here's the problem. Everyone agrees (except perhaps a majority of Canadians) that the economic statement completely sucked, given the current economic situation.

Oh, and it was incredibly partisan.

And before any of you trolls come out, I feel pretty secure in saying that the Conservative economic statement completely sucked and was partisan because even the Conservative government has completely backed down from it.

And what's this? Since the economic statement and the political intrigues support for the Tories might have actually increased?

Despite my somewhat baffled countenance, I am not here to talk politics, but to wonder aloud why it is my country is the way it is.

I have had my suspicions over the years, but think it is safe to say that alot of Canadians don't really care for democracy. I say that because all the polling that has happened since the crisis started gives one a good sense of the level of political disengagement Canadians are engaged in right now.

This active, studied disengagement leads many Canadians to be quite bent out of shape about having to think about politics or civics.

You hear people talking about it on the street all the time right now, and what I've heard, even here in "liberal" Toronto is "Harper was just made PM" and "I don't want another expensive election" and "how can anyone work with those separatists?" and "they all just need to grow up".
I have friends who support the coalition that the other 3 political parties have proposed, but when I listen to people I don't know, the hearsay is clear - we do not want to think about this. Government, why are you bothering us? We elected you to some kind of chamber in Ottawa, and now you go and do stuff and we get to complain about all the stuff you do. This is how it works here.

I remember sitting on a streetcar during the 2005-06 election, the one which elected the current government to power. Behind me sat a Canadian and a Finn who, if I recall said he had been here for 5-10 years.

They spoke about the upcoming election. The conversation went something as follows:

"Yeah, I'm not sure who to vote for, they're all crooked. The current PM wants to tax us more."

"I do not think so. I read their platform and they have pledged to cut income taxes by 2 per cent next year."

"Huh, well yeah, but it's better than the socialists, they just want to tax everything."

"Not so. I read their platform and they said that they intend to not raise income taxes, although they have pledged to raise taxes on large corporations."

"Really? Is that what it says? Well, you can't trust those politicians to do what they will say, can you?" (chuckles)

I will be honest with you. I cannot remember what it is they actually said, but what was truly striking was that the Canadian sounded resolutely so - he spouted vaguely right-wing talking points, although on further reflection was probably more moderate, meaning, he was probably a Liberal, while the Finn actually knew what every party had pledged.

Again, I know this is anecdotal, but look again at the statistics - does this look like a country that has any idea as to what's going on right now? Or is all of this stuff in Ottawa just kind of a kink in the Christmas shopping season? But more importantly - what do the Americans think??

It seems a good time to mention that the government which 3 out of 5 Canadians believe is best able to manage Canada's economy, only released their economic plan to Canadian voters on October 7. Election day was on October 14. The election was called on September 7. So with a week left in the election, they let Canadians know how they would manage the economy.

I guess Canadians just knew that, "in their hearts", like the guy on the streetcar, they were best. After all, they're Conservatives, right, and Conservatives are good with the economy, right?

I can only imagine how that poor Finn felt, on October 6, sitting there with all the other political party policy platforms, wondering what he was going to do come election day if the governing party doesn't release a platform...

Looking at the data, Canadians do not care about government. Not only do they not care, they begin to get downright hostile at the possibility that the going's on in government might actually be serious enough that they have to pay attention. That's what government's are for, so the people don't have to worry.

My countrymen and countrywomen are fine and friendly people. And yet, the statistics seem to show that for all our strengths, one of them isn't engaging in a democracy.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Dum vixi tacui, mortua dulce cano

A long time ago, I had this whole crazy plan to do a multi-part series around tuning, and weigh in on the debates around equal vs. just temperament and the whole debate that took place a few years ago about how some squiggles on the title page of the Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier were in fact Bach's tuning system.

Like all my other crazy plans, I never got to it.

However, this music review got me thinking about it again. I would love to hear what these tunings sound like...wait! Bradley Lehman, the discoverer of this tuning system has a myspace page (who doesn't these days!).

You can listen to the F# Minor Fugue from the 1st Book! Or at his home page, you can hear streaming audio of a whole selection of his performances.

To be honest, I don't know what to say. The NY Times reviewer seems to hear things as everyone else does, although, to be honest, I don't really believe him.

To me, it's more like citrus in water than some kind of massive revolutionary transformation of everything we've ever thought and understood about Bach.

But what really got me was the painting and on the inside of the lid of the harpsichord. I just love the idea of the instrument, to be fondled, is also an object of aural and visual beauty as well. It also reminds me that I must learn Latin.

And I just found the papers I was going to use to write those old tungin posts....the eternal return returns. What's next? A Heimito von Doderer post? A chapter of Friedemann Bach? More narcissistic overly self-conscious self-referential musings?

Actually, what's really missing are more train references. That's something I really need to work on.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Blogging the Bach Cantatas: Advent I

One of my formative experiences as a musician was heading to the Calgary Public Library in the summer of 1990 and taking out the Karl Richter cycle of the Bach Cantatas. I listened to them all that summer, back when I had the kind of time a teenager passionate about, uh, Bach, has.

So when I started blogging, I wondered how to recapture that magic of 18 years ago, except in blog form.

So here's what I'm going to do, beyond hoping that doing this will qualify me for all the classical music blog rankings - I'm going to write a blog post on every Bach cantata in the cycle. I can't listen to them all in the space of 2 months, but over a year?

Do I know what form these posts will take? Nope. I guess we will see what happens. So here goes. I also know this post is a few days late, but better a few days than using it as an excuse to stall for another year...I also hope they get better. I suspect you will too.


The Richter cycle begins with BWV 61. Advent does not begin with heads bowed, nor in quiet contemplation. From his Weimar years, the opening movement instead proclaims the arrival

der Heiden Heiland
Der Jungfrauen Kind erkannt
Des sich wundert alle Welt
Gott solch Geburt ihm bestellt.

The beauty of the tenor aria is only matched by the banality of its text

Komm, Jesu, komm zu deiner
Und gib ein selig neues Jahr!
Befördre deines Namens Ehre
Erhalte die gesunde Lehre
Und segne Kanzel und Altar!

There's nothing like the German imperative...Jesus, get in here! How many times have I heard that before?

The soprano aria, however, although also beautiful, also fails to really get us anywhere. The final chorus, however, well, it just kicks, well, you know (these are church cantatas....)

Anyway, I know this probably isn't what you were expecting, but, it's my blog, and I can assure you that this series will rise above the usual banalities, unlike this cantata, which just bookends them.

I hope.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Kein Mampf

So I was at the World's Biggest Bookstore a few weeks ago, and I noticed this:

So just to be clear- you can't buy Mein Kampf at Indigo or the World's Biggest Bookstore or Chapters, but you can buy a book on how to read it.

I almost feel bad pointing this out, actually. Perhaps it's a sobering reflection on staff turnover in the warehouse bookstore industry. Or, and I'd put my money on this, perhaps someone is playing a dark joke on their boss, Heather Reisman.

I mean, look who they've stuck next to Hitler! His old school chum! And right below him lurks Heidegger!

Anyway, if it was a joke, here's to you, anonymous Indigo book buyer!

And if it wasn't, well, God help us all.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Not Consuming

About a week ago, a thought occurred to me - what does it mean to stop consuming?

We are asked, as citizens, to keep spending to keep everything afloat, even though we also know that it is this very drive, the drive to keep everything afloat, which is the cause of all pretty much all our problems.

So how do we get off this treadmill? I understand the Adbusters mentality of culture jamming, but I also understand that they are pretty much an established brand who would really like you to consume their magazine and t-shirts, and so on and so forth. In other words, they are not even hypocrites, but the G.E. Moore of the sustainability set, who think that by raising their hands in the air that they can prove they are more virtuous than bad producers.

But what is a more righteous path? What constitutes a reduction in consumption? Is it where every individual, er produces more than they take? But produces more what? If say, I wanted to try to stop consuming next year, what would that look like? How would that take shape?

I am not just talking about frugality here. And perhaps this is the stupidest blog post in the history of blogdom, but I am asking these questions in as naive a way as possible because I honestly have very little idea as to what being a non-consumer would look like.

Being a non-consumer. That's sounds really stupid, does it not? I have to eat, find shelter, but beyond that, what? What about consuming second hand things? Does that count?

In some strange way, I feel as though no one I know or have encountered has ever asked these questions. We all seem preoccupied with how corporations and governments ask us to consume, yet there's also lots of public pressure not to consume, but how does one actually not consume?

There doesn't seem to be much of a grey area here.

Because here's the thing, if I'm not consuming, I am still producing, right? And if people are taking my "produce", so to speak, am I not obliging someone to consume what it is that I produce?

It seems as though the only solution is to become a Buddhist subsistence farmer-hermit.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Economic Possibilities

There is a lot of talk about how the financial crisis is awakening the possibility of "alternative" modes of economic organization (look how timid that is when you write it out like that).

One of the easier points to score off Karl Marx is to note that his observation that capitalism carried within its bosom the seeds of its own destruction is flat-out wrong.

I mean, we still laugh at this conjecture, don't we? Even now, when the structure of capitalism appears to be collapsing as he predicted, ideology steps in and keeps it going until we've all forgotten that it had collapsed in the first place, and we can again point mockingly at the "socialists" whose experiments went disastrously wrong?

Could it be that what Marx failed to account for was the robustness of capitalist ideology? Its normative flavour?

Is this why even stauch, incessant critics of capital all over the media and the blogosphere can only muster "possibilities", because they too cannot really see the alternatives they themselves so deeply desire?

The current solution to the financial crisis does not point to 1917, or to the future, but 1944. We appear to be resetting the clock. Perhaps this is the true secret to capitalism's endurance - its timelessness.

and if many of us seem conceptually comfortable with abandonning even the idea of progress in order to save capitalism from its own destruction, what hope is there for any other "possibility"?

Just some thoughts.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


My son and I take the Dundas streetcar regularly.

We had grown accustomed to the construction site that was the Art Gallery of Ontario. The gallery closed late last year to finish the Frank Gehry designed renovations.

We would pass by it on the way in and out of town, watching them install the canopy at the front, watching the glass front get installed, watching the rain drench what is now the sculpture gallery. As we passed by, I told my son we would visit the gallery when it re-opened.

To be honest, I would have preferred check out the new space during the member preview earlier this week, but I couldn't, and as I told my son that the gallery was open, and he insisted we go this weekend.

This is where the lineup started.

The entrance is on Dundas street, right in the middle of the block. This is what the back of the lineup looked like:

Oh, also, it was raining, heavily. Like in Salzburg. It took us about 40 minutes to get inside.

The inside? It's really very beautiful, but it was waaaay too busy to look at much with a three year old, who, once inside, wanted to leave. I spent most of my time looking to see if the gallery had installed any Rodney Graham, to no avail...


The AGO refurbishment represents the ironic end of the Mike Harris legacy to Toronto's arts community - we now have all these great buildings, but guess what? No one in Canada appears to be interested in subsidizing these galleries and museums and opera companies so they can a) charge lower admission fees and b) ensure public institutions like the AGO and the ROM remain exactly that.

Instead we have these institutions which are elitist in part because there is no public will to fund them so they they aren't elitist. More on this later.


I did snap a few shots inside the AGO. I got a few of my son in the gallery, and only stopped because a guard, who was obviously talking to me but felt the need to extend his authority to the entire gallery, yelled, "there is no photography allowed in the AGO. No one is allowed to take photographs inside the AGO"

No one, that is, except every major and minor media organization in the city.
One thing I had forgotten about since the gallery closed last year was the militaristic security mindset at the AGO.

Thank you, faceless, angry security guard, for reminding me how the staff vibe at the AGO is closest to security at the Vienna State Opera (those who have been there know what I mean) than anything else.

And yes, AGO, this is a shout out to say that your no photographs policy has nothing to do with protecting the art and everything to do with protecting property, which is why your security is so dedicated to enforcing it.

The modern art gallery is a sacred secular space - you cannot touch anything, you must be reverent, and there are lots of people to police your behaviour while you are there.

It is a deeply paradoxical experience. On the fourth floor, I stumbled upon the AGO's (lone?) painting by Mark Rothko. It was a surprise I felt elated and suddenly the world slowed down and the work began to absorb me. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a security guard watching me, or more accurately, my son, for fear that he might stab at the Rothko - that was that. This was the only moment I actually had in the gallery - my only moment of Erfahrung and it dissolved into anger.

This one photo rather sums up today's experience. I look forward to going back when things die down a bit, and I can stand in front of that Rothko, and all the other works waiting to be rediscovered by my eyes.

Alas, there will be no pictures...well, we'll see, I mean, I've done it before....

Friday, November 14, 2008

First Lines - Der Rabbi von Bacherach by Heinrich Heine

In the Rhineland’s downstream, where the laughing face of the riverbank disappears, mountains and cliffs, with their adventuresome castle ruins, gaze defiantly and ascend with a grave and serious grandeur – there lies, like an eerie myth of antiquity, the gloomy, ancient city of Bacherach.

Unterhalb des Rheingaus, wo die Ufer des Stromes ihre lachende Miene verlieren, Berg und Felsen, mit ihren abenteuerlichen Burgruinen, sich trotziger gebärden, und eine wildere, ernstere Herrlichkeit emporsteigt, dort liegt, wie eine schaurige Sage der Vorzeit, die finstre, uralte Stadt Bacherach.

The translation is mine.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

TVO and Progressive Conservatism vs. the Market as Bildung

Watching CBC transform itself from a public broadcaster into just another platform devoted solely to mass entertainment (yes, I did just go there), one forgets just how lucky we are to have at least two other public broadcasters here in Ontario - PBS and TVO(actually, 3 if you count TFO, TVO's Gallic sister station) - that don't condescend "to give the people what they want", as in the worst of Hollywood, but with beavers.

Although PBS is American, they have an affiliate here in Toronto because Canadians are huge supporters. We canucks love to mock our hillbilly neighbours, but the reality is that you stand a far better chance of catching an opera on PBS than you do on CBC.

The great thing about American culture is its catholicity. Canadians still haven't really left the 1960's in this regard.

In fact, PBS would completely shame public broadcasting here in Canada if it weren't for TVO and TFO. What's even more fascinating is that TVO and TFO were created by a Conservative government. The minister at the time was Bill Davis, who went on to become Premier, and he was feted yesterday by TVO for his contribution. We who would never vote conservative should applaud him for his pragmatism and vision.

I suspect the only reason that they have survived all these years is that they have been framed as educational stations - they are, in some sense, useful. Putting an opera on TFO, or a lecture series on TVO has a pedagogical value, if not an economic one, and this somehow insulates TVO from the criticisms CBC receives about its value vs. the ever sacred "taxpayer dollar" (I am not being facetious, tax money in Canada is culturally sacred here).

Anyway, however it has worked out, I'm just glad they are there.

Honestly though, can anyone imagine Conservatives making a positive contribution like this to Canadian cultural life anymore? I can't, and to wit, the federal Conservative government's cancellation of the National Portrait Gallery yseterday.

But the establishment of TVO back in the 1960's does point to another way of looking at culture, education, and government, where governments of all stripes believed that they had a role in ensuring that everyone had access to all the meats of our cultural stew (pace Homer Simpson).

The government of the day saw where the market was lacking, and sought to fill it. We assume now that the market satisfies all our needs, and anything that gets government money isn't valuable.

We are almost 180 degrees from the 1960's. How things have changed...

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Brian Leiter on the US election

Brian Leiter has a really great analysis of the US election results over here. It was really this kind of stuff, and not his philosophy side, that kept me going back to his blog.

Not that I disagree with his philosophical's more that his willingness to go on the offensive, and to be offensive when it came to politics, was always a breath of fresh air. He hasn't been doing as much of that lately, and I suspect an Obama presidency will further reduce these kinds of posts from him.

I suppose the loss of cheeky blog posts is rather outweighed by the massive increase in sanity in US politics, however....ah well, the give and tike of life...

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Class Resentment is Alive and Well

The Toronto Star, which I pretty much despise now, has an article today on Toronto's Auditor General's report around civil servants and sick days.

As always, one is subjected to the predictable troll reaction to this - Outrage! Anger! Hatred for civil servants and their good working conditions and living wages! Curse those unions for delivering on their promise to improve the lives of workers!

By the way, who are these hard-working people who have nothing else to do but sit in their cubicle and post comments at the Star? Aren't they all being whipped by the man while the bureaucrat sips his latte on their dime?

It's strange that everyone is quick to talk of abuse, but no one appears to look at the actual data in the article, such as the "outrageous" difference between public and private sector workers being a mere 3 days.

The entire reaction is premised on the idea that private sector workers aren't allowed to abuse the system as much as their public sector counterparts. Bravo trolls for revealing your implicit assumptions.

But the strangest thing is that the article is premised on the idea of abuse, but the City's own statistics place absenteeism below the national average, and a 1/2 day above the morally pure "private sector worker".

So this is really a tempest in a teapot, premised on a false "public/private" dichotomy, which, if the fincianial crisis should have taught us anything, it's that governments and the private sphere are pretty tightly bound up.

The recipe for this brew is as follows - take an extreme example, find all the people who are outraged about it, and add the statistics at the bottom that invalidate the narrative just so when someone says "where's the balance" you can point out that all the facts are there, even though your aim has been to reinforce prejudice.

If only facts were all that ever mattered. There is so much resentment buried in here, and this is perhaps the most remarkable and depressing legacy of the right over the years - why is it that people with shitty jobs complain about and rail against those with less shitty jobs before they ask why they themselves can't have a less shitty job?

I really don't get it. But if workers ever want to get it, they might want to stop smacking around their fellow workers and realise that maybe organized labour could do the same for them, as in, ensure they can be sick 3 extra days a year.

Oh boy.

Aristotle wasn't an Aristotelean Essentialist

About three weeks ago, Brian Leiter linked to a tribute by Timothy Williamson for Ruth Barcan Marcus.

Anyone who has studied modal logic will be well appraised of her work, least of which the formula which bears her name. However, that's not why I'm linking to it. Rather, I have a bit of a bone to pick.

And it's not about Professor Leiter's beef with the entire notion of "analytic philosophy", my concern with Professor Williamson's talk centres around the fact that he, like many uh, analytic philosophers before him, propagate the myth of "aristotelean essentialism".

Williamson writes:

"Quine’s original criticisms were technically unsound, and he was forced over the years into a series of revisions that eventually reduced the charge to one of a commitment to Aristotelian essentialism. Even there, technical results vindicated Professor Marcus’s later reply that the commitment was to the intelligibility, not the truth, of essentialism, and that in any case there may well be a scientific basis for some form of essentialism. Philosophy has gone Marcus’s way, not Quine’s, but the vindication of her paper was a gradual process: it was years ahead of its time."

Do you see it? He doesn't even scare quote it! So what's up with it then? Why do these non-existent analytic philosophers constantly refer to essentialism as "aristotelean"?

To be sure, labeling one's opponent an “Aristotelean” has been a fairly common rhetorical move in philosophical circles since Descartes, but the recent instance was born with Quine, dean of those analytic philosophers.

In his essay Reference and Modality, he claimed that accepting modal quantified logic entailed “an invidious attitude towards certain ways of necessarily specifying x, and favoring other somehow revealing the “essence” of the object... evidently this reversion to Aristotelean essentialism is required if quantification into modal contexts is to be insisted on”. (Quine, Willard Van Orman “Reference and Modality”, From a Logical Point of View, p.155)

Given the history of the epithetical use of the “Aristotelean” adjective, it could be taken for granted that Quine's comment is there to sting rather than to bite. However, does Quine do Aristotle justice in associating him with the doctrine he describes? I would argue that he does not, and that Quine's notion of “Aristotelean” essentialism was not something Aristotle propounded.

In fact, the doctrine of "Aristotelean essentialism" Quine describes bears only a tangential relationship to Aristotle's own metaphysical views, although there is enough of a connection to guess at where Quine could have associated Aristotle with essentialism.

To be clear, I'm not defending nor rejecting the philosophical views presented by either Quine or Aristotle. Nor am I attempting to discuss Aristotle's views in the wider context of “modern” essentialism to be found in the views of philosophers such as Hilary Putnam. Rather, the narrow aim of this paper will be to see if what Quine describes as Aristotelean essentialism has a discernible analogue in Aristotle's writings.

(Part of the problem is that David Charles' 2002 book Aristotle on Meaning and Essence (Oxford University Press) deals with the contrast between modern and Aristotelean views on essence to an extent it would make my comments irrelevant save for the fact that there appears to be a more straightforward line of argument against Quine's Aristotelean essentialism)

In Reference and Modality there is a note at the mention of Aristotelean essentialism points to another essay in the same collection, Quine's very famous Two Dogmas of Empiricism, which, presumably, is meant to serve to elucidate Quine's views on Aristotle.

Quine writes:

The Aristotelian notion of essence was the forerunner, no doubt, of the modern notion of intension or meaning. For Aristotle it was essential in men to be rational, accidental to be two-legged. But there is an important difference between this attitude and the doctrine of meaning. From the latter point of view it may indeed be conceded (if only for the sake of argument) that rationality is involved in the meaning of the word 'man' while two-leggedness is not; but two-leggedness may at the same time be viewed as involved in the meaning of 'biped' while rationality is not. Thus from the point of view of the doctrine of meaning it makes no sense to say of the actual individual, who is at once a man and a biped, that his rationality is essential and his two-leggedness accidental or vice versa. Things had essences, for Aristotle, but only linguistic forms have meanings. Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word.

(Quine, Willard Van Orman “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”, From a Logical Point of View, p.22)

Although the quote appears within the context of a discussion about meaning, the comments on meaning are not really relevant to the present discussion. What is clear is that Quine takes Aristotle's “notion” of essence to be a metaphysical view. However, this not much to go on.

Thankfully, Quine offers a clearer and fuller discussion of what he believes to be the erroneous metaphysical commitments of the modal logician on account of their “Aristoteleanism”.

In his book Word and Object, Quine writes:

Mathematicians may conceivably be said to be necessarily rational and not necessarily two-legged; and cyclists necessarily two-legged and not necessarily rational. But what of an individual who counts among his eccentricities both mathematics and cycling? Is this concrete individual necessarily rational and contingently two-legged or vice versa? Just insofar as we are talking referentially of the object, with no special bias toward a background grouping of mathematicians as against cyclists or vice versa, there is no semblance of sense in rating some of his attributes as necessary and others as contingent.

(Quine, Willard Van Orman, Word and object, p.199)

Quine then links this view to Aristotle, and although he concedes that this view isn't necessarily Aristotle's, he makes this concession in a backhanded way. He writes: “Curiously, a philosophical tradition does exist for just such a distinction between necessary and contingent attributes. It lives on in the terms 'essence' and 'accident', is a distinction that one attributes to Aristotle (subject to contradiction by scholars, such being the penalty for attributions to Aristotle).”

(Quine, Willard Van Orman, Word and object, p. 199)

Nonetheless, and despite Quine's penchant for humour, his views on what Aristotle held, or more charitably, what an Aristotelean would hold, are quite clear. For Quine, to be an Aristotelean essentialist is to propound a metaphysical doctrine which presumes a firm distinction between necessary and contingent attributes, that is, between attributes which are logically necessary and attributes which are not. The remainder of this essay will be devoted to arguing that this is not a view Aristotle actually held, although how Quine arrived at this view is not without cause.

So what is essence for Aristotle? (Although essence is the main term that gets used by Quine, it, like many philosophical words, has both a technical and vernacular use, and it should be noted that “essence” is the medieval term for Aristotle's more technical “what-it-was-to-be-that-thing”) Well, it was one of the four possible candidates for substancehood.

Aristotle equated essence with substance, and a good part of Aristotle's Metaphysics is given over to arguing this point, as well as showing that the other three possible candidates for substancehood, “the substrate, the universal under which the thing falls, and the genus or kind to which the thing belongs” (Penguin Classics Aristotle, Metaphysics, p. xxix), are not substances.

In Book Zeta of the Metaphysics, Aristotle, through his translator Hugh Lawson-Tancred, writes, “Well, the what-it-was-to-be-that-thing is, for each thing, what it is taken to be per se. For example, it is not the case that being for, say, you just is being for the musical man, since it is not per se that you are musical” (ibid p.178) Put more straightforwardly, Aristotle is arguing here that being musical is a quality, or in this case, an ability, one has, not something one is.

Anticipating Quine, Aristotle further refines this distinction. He writes,

Now an immediate objection would be that the mere assignation of a term does not make something one of the things that are taken to be per se...Suppose for example, that I had to define being white, and, to do so, I stated the account of a white man. The other case [the white man] involves rather the addition of something else to the thing to be accounted for [being white]. Staying with our [previous] use of anorak to be the term for a white man, one would illustrate the second case by just giving a definition of anorak as a white thing, but to be a white man is not just to be white.”

But then the question is whether being an anorak is a case of a what-it-was-to-be-that-thing at all. A reason for denying that it is is that a what-it-was-to-be-that-thing is the same sort of thing as a thing with thisness...So, for example, a white man is not something with thisness, assuming that thisness is a exclusive feature of substances.

Now this gives a nice clear conclusion: a what-it-was-to-be-that-thing only belongs to those things for whom an account just is a definition.
(ibid p.179)

Despite the length of the quote, what Aristotle is trying to argue in this passage is that a white man is not an essence. So then, what is an essence for Aristotle? He writes, “so the only things that will have a what-it-was-to-be-that thing will be the species of a genus, species and nothing else whatever.” (ibid p.180)

In other words, For Aristotle, only species turn out to be essences, or substances.

It will help at this point to take a slightly closer look at substances. What is substance? In the Metaphysics, Aristotle writes, “Also, some things are called things that are because they are substances other things are called things that are because they are affections of a substance” (ibid p.181)

This is not quite enough to tell one what substance is, but it is enough to indicate that Aristotle has an idea as to what it is not, which is an affection, or in more common terminology, a quality.

As Hugh Lawson-Tancred writes, “Aristotle holds that substances are things that have qualities or, conversely qualities are things that belong to substance” (ibid. p xxiv) Furthermore, “Aristotle's answer [to the difference between substances and qualities] is that the being of the quality depends on that of the substance but the being of the substance does not depend on that of the quality.” (ibid p. xxv) In other words, Aristotle holds that substances are the bearers of qualities.

Taking all this into account, a look back at Quine's story about the mathematical cyclist should help to understand Quine's error. On the issue “of an individual who counts among his eccentricities both mathematics and cycling”, it seems that Aristotle would point out to Quine that the enjoyment of mathematics and the pursuit of physical fitness through bicycling are both qualities, that is, both are dependent on there being a substance, in this case a human.

In Aristotle's view, both would be contingent to being a person, and that in specifying someone as a mathematician, the notion of necessity in not an issue, because being a mathematician would not qualify as a substance, the only place where the notion of necessity could plausibly be invoked with respect to modernizing Aristotle's philosophical position.

There is a further point which serves to demonstrate both Quine's error and also where perhaps why he described his essentialism as “Aristotelean”. With respect to substances, Aristotle argued that substances are ontologically prior to qualities. However, nothing Quine's writes about Aristotelean essentialism discusses necessary attributes as ontologically distinct from contingent attributes, something Aristotle would have insisted upon.

What Quine appears to have done in calling his essentialism “Aristotelean” is conflate substance/essence and quality with necessary and contingent attributes. Indeed, Quine's argument against “Aristotelean essentialism” relies on the fact that some supposedly necessary attributes of humans, such as two-leggedness and rationality, may also be necessary yet mutually exclusive attributes of properties contingent to humans, such as cycling and mathematics.

However, what this neglects is that even if Aristotle had said that people are essentially rational and two-legged, he would not be committed to the contradiction Quine notes, because cycling and doing math occupy different ontological positions from any essential properties. Again, describing math or cycling never invokes the concept of substance. Aristotle appears to be aiming towards something more subtle than the numerous different ways in which one can specify the attributes of an object, and there appears to be a fundamental, and perhaps incommensurable, difference between Quine's and Aristotle's ontologies.

So what, if anything, can one draw from this philosophically slight, quote laden essay? Perhaps just a cautionary note, that when one attributes a philosophical doctrine to a historical figure both loved and despised, it is best to be sure that the reference is accurate. In other words, it's not the essentialism that's important in this, it's the Aristotelean.

To that, perhaps Quine would have been more accurate calling modal logicians Lockean essentialists, but whether or not that is a fair summation of Locke's metaphysical views, a compliment or an epithet, will have to wait for another day.

I do however, think it's a bit funny that philosophers who pride themselves culturally on a particular kind of "clarity" and "rigour" would propagate this kind of canard. But I suppose making fun of people you don't agree with is just part of being human, if not the essence of being human.

Which reminds me - perhaps the only thing worse than aristotelean essentialism is the whole "for Aristotle, the essence of man is rationality" line, but let's save that for later.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Nous ne souvenons pas

Probably every blogger in Christendom is writing about the US election, and far be it from me to buck a trend.

As one of my recent posts indictates, I am ambivalent about the idea of the whole world celebrating the election of a president in a country where the vast majority of us have any standing. But it seems I am the only one. And here I was, not even trying to take an iconoclastic position.

So here in Toronto, there will be parties, lots of them, more than for our own recent election. It's as though the real government is being elected today, which I suppose is what bothers me about all this.

The Toronto Star, perhaps because the Conservatives won again, have pretty much given over their paper to Obamania, running headlines which, in the US, would have raised eyebrows, if not outrage. Over the past few weeks, we have seen headlines like "Black Canadians Cheer as Obama Edges Closer" and "Is this Canada's Obama?", the Star is seemingly desperate to capitalize on the Obama campaign and somehow make it relevant to us.

However, transposing American racial politics to Canada trivializes the enormity of Obama's election as US President, doesn't it? It also rather ignores Canada's own history and racial politics -where are the articles asking who a First Nations Prime Minister might be?

In fact, I believe the clearest analogy to Obama for Canadians is, no surprise, Trudeaumania. In 1968, Trudeau swept to power as a kind of messiah, and ran a policy wonkish government (I'm glossing over the FLQ crisis, I know) for 4 years which, according to Cabinet Ministers at the time, felt more like a grad seminar than a political environment. Trudeau almost lost the next election, and I would argue that, on some levels, he never fully recovered that potential.

So my concern is that around all this fervor, there will be disappointment. And I am almost certain that people will be deeply, deeply disappointed in Obama as President. Not because of his policies, or his actions, but because that's not what people are looking for. They are looking for the messiah.

All those atheists cheering for Obama are looking for the same thing as those who just come out and say he's the Messiah. And this isn't an epistemological point, it's a reflection of the fact that the impulse isn't theological, it's cultural.

Anyway, I'm out of steam here. Not sure if I have said anything interesting, but this is a blog, so in a week no one will ever read this again, until I embark on my political career or something like that!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Speaking of which...recognizable virtuousity

In my previous post, I wrote about harbouring a secret desire to be able to play crazy music at parties for fun and pleasure. Thinking about it, this is something I really need to do!

I am definitely going to get a bunch of Christmas songs under my belt, perhaps even some of the Charlie Brown Christmas, although I can "purge" myself of its jazziness another Charlie Brown favourite, the Op. 31 No. 3 Scherzo...God bless that Schröder!

Anyway, I have a few other pieces I have been working on in this regard, works that a purist would call "popular classics". I can play the "minute" waltz by Chopin and between a few other bits and pieces and this Christmas music, I'll have a nice little repertoire....but something's missing.

Really, what's the biggest piece someone could learn to belt out that everyone would know and love? A hit that really lets you show off? I'm sure you can all think of others, but the one which springs most immediately to mind is Liszt's 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody. (Feel free to suggest alternatives!)

But if it's good enough for Bugs Bunny, well, what more is there to say?

And just to hold myself to it, in some abstract way, I'm going to set up a counter on my sidebar to let everyone know how far I am along on learning, because it's 420 bars long, and I'm going to learn it Richter Style .

That means note by note, perfecting each bar and phrase (as well as I can, I don't mean to say that I can play like Richter!!!) before moving on. I'm going to learn it slowly, and savour it like a good book.

To be honest, I need to unlearn years of bad practise habits, including playing over the bits I can't pay and never really working through them, as well as never memorizing my music.

I'm thinking it will be ready next Halloween. The big question is whether or not I will get bored before I've learned it!

Better yet, feel free to harass me if it seems as though I'm giving up!!

Links oder Rechts

Perhaps the clearest indication that I'm a bad blogger is that I never do the whole linking thing. I read a lot of blogs, but I never let them, or you, dear reader, know what I've enjoyed! So here goes...

1) Chris Foley at the The Collaborative Piano Blog has a great post on the virtues of learning Christmas Music for the piano.

I am perhaps the most isolated musician on earth (self-imposed), but I've long harboured a dream where someone asks me if I play the piano, and I reply, oh, I know a couple of things, and proceed to do my best Brahms in a brothel bar (actually, I should learn some Brahms for this very reason...)

That being said, I usually sit down and play Beethoven, not always the most social of music.. Christmas music on the other hand, is an easy score. Chris, I'm going to go pick up some of the music you've mentioned this weekend! And watch out friends!

2) Adam Kotsko at The Weblog has a wonderful analysis of something I was all too familiar with growing up in Alberta- the young, hard-core evangelical Christian who doesn't appear to come out of a fire and brimstone family. It's a thoroughly argued post, and I have nothing to add to it except a link.

3) Waste, one of those blogs that I only recently subscribed to, and yet I had read often simply through googling some philosophical concept. And it turns out the author, Ben Wolfson, is a germanist as well, which, given my own graduate studies, makes it a must read for me.

Anyway, he has a great post around whether or not Hegel's Phänomenologie des Geistes as Shaggy-dog story, putting it against Kafka's Ein Hungerkünstler. The post's brilliance lies in the fact that he seems to have found the hermeneutic key to one of the most intractable works of German Idealism, and that's saying something...

4) Last but not least, Conrad Roth at the Varieties of Unreligious Experience takes the Benjaminian turn and starts to talk politics, but through the lens of aesthetics. My suspicion, which he has pretty much confirmed, that within that analytical breast beats the heart of a Romantic is pretty much sewn up by this post.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Don Giovanni

The Canadian Opera Company's production of Don Giovanni was a strange disaster.

Overall the singing was pretty good. Actually, it was excellent, although Gordon Gietz's Don Ottavio struggled to be heard in the ensemble pieces. He has a fine voice, but size matters, even in Mozart...I felt for him, as he's from my hometown!

The production, on the other hand...I do not know if I've ever seen so many interesting moments, so many possible dramatic avenues of exploration, totally thwarted by a hamfisted execution.

Take Julie Makerov's Donna Elvira. A warm, expressive voice, and a stone countenance. Donna Elvira is perhaps the most clearly conflicted character in the opera, and Ms. Makerov's performance communicated none of that. But perhaps that was the direction, and direction here trumped pretty much everything, included whole swaths of unavoidable conflicts with the libretto.

I have written about this before. "Regietheater" isn't a bad word to me, provided it makes some kind of sense, it hangs together. The problem with this production, and this is giving the director some credit, is that she seemed to be fighting against the tremendous weight of this opera's production history, but in those attempts, she failed, especially in the baffling ending (more on that later).

Everyone falls down before The Score. And yet, much of what we know about the opera, and it's characterizations, comes not through the score but through its performances.

And so returning to Mozart, I have a pet theory (perfect for blogs), mentioned before about the Mozart/Da Ponte operas. Having seen Don Giovanni on stage for the 6th time last night, it is clear to me that Don Giovanni is a far more problematic work than thought, but that many of these problems are "hidden" by a production history that highlights the farcical elements of the work, pulling it more in the direction of Le nozze di Figaro and away from the opera I believe it to be much closer to, namely, the much more explicitly problematic Così Fan Tutte.

The COC production teased out some of these bits, some of the darker elements that are right there in the work, but it failed because of two main flaws - making Don Giovanni a really sleazy asshole and, wait for this, making the entire stone statue scene a trick played on Don Giovanni by Leoporello, Don Ottavio and Masetto. In doing so, they flattened out the moral ambiguity in Don Giovanni to "Don Giovanni is bad and deserves to die", completely robbing the sextet, and therefore the audience, of any sense of irony in the conclusion (this piece over at Sounds and Fury does a great job of getting at the sextet's importance).

Instead, the COC production verges on nihilism. People walk out either feeling really good that the bad, bad Don got his, those same people who need to feel that way as AC Douglas mentions in his piece, or, like me, really deflated after watching some of the principals essentially torture Don Giovanni to death and then sing about his comeuppance. There's irony there, but it's in entirely the wrong direction.

So what to do? Well, one thing is that maybe this blog is a good place for me to start writing about how I think a production of Don Giovanni could go. This series will be called "Production Notes to a Don Giovanni that will never be produced."

I can't guarantee this won't run out of steam any more than any of the other failed projects here, but I've been blogging fairly regularly lately, so who knows?

And please, friends, if you've seen this production, or have any ideas, by all means, share - this is a blog, after all.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I, For One, Welcome Our New Overlords

Maybe I'm just a jackass, but this Welcome Back America celebration strikes me as kind of submissive.

I will breathe a certain sigh of relief when (if) Barack Obama is elected US President. However, celebrating an Obama victory around the world seems to miss the point - especially if he loses.

With America's standing in the world at an all-time low, this is a perfect opportunity for the world community to start the difficult and painful process of making America more like the UK and France.

How about we let America know that we like it as a country and not an empire? The idea of America, as a shining beacon of freedom, instead of the reality of its fingers in all sorts of pies?

I mean, would we celebrate any other nation's change of government like this? Isn't it their long, national nightmare that's drawing to a close?

Celebrating in this way tacitly acknowledges that the Americans rule the world, and that we're really happy that the sensible younger brother will be donning the purple instead of the crazy uncle.

How about instead we just say, "Hey, you guys are awesome, but we're not going to let you pull that Pax Americana stuff again only to screw all of us royally. How about you just play by the same rules everyone else does?"

It's one thing for the US to believe in American Exceptionalism, but it's another thing for the rest of the world to validate it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

City Life

Every Wednesday, I pick my son up from daycare and cart him off to his violin lesson.

About a year ago, he asked to learn the double bass. Unfortunately, the double bass poses certain logistical problems for a 2-year old, and so I asked him if he mightn't want to play the cello, or perhaps the violin. He chose the violin.

We eventually found our way to a music store, and I rented him a 1/16 size violin. And yes, if you think that is adorable, it is. And he knows it, to the extent that it bothered him at first to hold it because he felt objectified. He felt as though I had put him in a bunny suit and asked him to dance a jig, which, in some sense, I had.

Anyway, with the violin in hand, I arranged lessons for him through my old cello teacher - her husband is a violinist, and I had long heard that he has great with kids. And what luck! The lessons are just up the street from his daycare. All good in theory.

The execution however...the lessons are Wednesday nights, after daycare but before dinner, and we are both tired and hungry by the time we arrive. Moreover, the lessons, to him, are partly an attempt to see what he can get away with.

It has occurred to me, watching my son, that the social world of classical music is very strange when set against the backdrop of "normal" Canadian society. He seems to be interested, but even as a three year old, he sees it as a lot of work, as resolutely unfun. He just wants to have fun.

But things are not always fun, are they? The great thing about classical music, or whatever you would like to call it, is that its emotional range is vast and unconstrained by fashion. We all like to be hedonistic sometimes, but the Lenten mind has its place as well.

So my son struggles with this. And last night, he was really tired, and he really wanted to play cars, and he refused to play his violin. And I sat there, trying to be out of the way, and the violin teacher pointed out to me that I nearly always tell my son what not to do. And he is right, of course.

So we leave, exhausted, crabby, and we do what we always do, which is wait at the corner of Ossington and Davenport for the bus. And although the bus schedule says "Frequent Service" its frequency is usually stuck in the ledger lines below the bass clef.

So we wait, and my son continues to push my already worn buttons. And then he does what many three year olds do after waiting 15 minutes for a frequent service bus, which is to inform me that he has to go to the bathroom.

I'm incredulous. So we walk back over to Davenport Road, and just as we enter the Portuguese Bakery where he can relieve himself (in the bathroom of course), we see two buses pass by, one behind the other.

We return to the bus stop, now deserted, and wait for another bus. It is now nearly his bedtime, and I am, at this point, irrationally angry at my son and his urinary tract.

Then it begins to rain. The bustop is in front of some houses and next to an alleyway, and as such, has no shelter. So we stand there.

I am pretty much at my wit's end at this point, when a noise from the alley turns me around.

It is a dove, struggling to walk, its wing broken and covered in blood. Behind it is a cat, quite young, the obvious perpetrator of the dove's injury. He moves in for the kill, but the cat, predator that he is, sees me and wonders if I might come at him, or try to snatch the dove.

He backs off. I wonder what to do. The dove is struggling, and I wonder if it mightn't be a bad idea to put it out of its misery, just in case the cat decides the food at home is less trouble.

Then my son asks me "What is the cat doing?"

I reply, "He's trying to kill the bird."


"Because that's what cats do. They kill their food. Just like people do."

He looks at me, and then looks at the bird, and I think it occurs to him, for the first time, that this is something that happens a hell of a lot.

The dove begins to recover, and so the cat decides that it's time to resume pouncing. The dove manages to get away again, and I am seriously considering either killing the dove because it's in really bad shape or shooing the cat away so the dove can suffer its last moments with some kind of dignity.

I begin to walk towards the dove. Our bus arrives.

I feel the rain again and realise I should probably let nature take its course, whatever that means when watching a cat try to eat a dove on a sidewalk in midtown Toronto.

We get on the bus.

What a cruel man I have become.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Jesus Christ Supercrap

Thanks to the Ubuweb podcast, I have been alerted to the existence of visual artist Robin Kahn singing all of Jesus Christ Superstar, solo and by memory. It's really something, by which I mean, it's something really horrible.

If you can get past "What's the buzz" without wincing or just turning it off, bravo. This is kitsch of the highest order, and not in that strange transcendent way that Florence Foster Jenkins was.

It's more like someone miked a bored 8-year old in her room. And it may ruin Jesus Christ Superstar for you, which is sad, because it's an awesome work.

Anyway, it's horrible, but not nearly as horrible as oh say, the political culture in North America, so maybe it's worth something then. You've been warned.


Now I know that we here at the Transcontinental , by which I mean me, have been, shall we say, inconsistent in our approach to blogging.

Sometimes things are serious, sometimes things are about classical music. Worse, often things are vaguely, lamely political maybebecauseicantreallytalkaboutpoliticsallthatmuchbecauseofcircumstancesbutwantto....

I think that at the bottom, I want some kind of conversation. But that doesn't seem to be happening. Maybe that's because I don't have anything interesting to say. I'll accept that.

Anyway, my apologies for not sparking those conversations, especially to those five of you, and that robot in BC who visits this site like 80 times a day, who don't come here to read my post about Ossington street.

I find my writing dull right now, lacking in the vim and vigour that I occasionally managed to achieve back in the day. Maybe it will return, but until it does, I hope you will bear with me!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The New York Times Doesn't Care About Canada

So the Paper of Record has not said a word about the Canadian election since it was called.

However, CBC's retraction of Heather Mallick's column about Sarah Palin did make it into the paper.

Is it wrong to find that really depressing? And let's forget the old "Canada is boring" schtick..

I suppose we can take heart that Mexico fares even worse. Very odd.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Nuit Blanche


Stereoscope. This was actually the last thing we saw. More about it later.

This is my third Nuit Blanche festival, and this year I decided to wander a little further from home and check out what was going on downtown. Ironically, it turns out the the best stuff, unlike previous years, was all close to home. At least that's what I heard.

So Zone A, curated by Gordon Hatt, "includes 15 installations that explore feelings of belonging and alienation in an ephemeral and playful manner." And with that in mind, I bring you:

Waterfall! A giant waterall next to a building! But wait, let's look a little, is it really...plastic water bottles and lighting?

There was a nice alchemy to this piece. It did indeed look like a waterfall from a distance. But as you got closer, and you did something like, deliberately use your flash while snapping a photo, the conceit is revealed:

For many, the alchemy was too much. There were steps leading down to the waterfall, and one could have even gone behind it. I wondered why no one had thought of this. This is conceptual art, and intention is everything, nicht war?

Anyway, my son thought about it. He went down, and he started to kick the crushed plastic water bottles around. Some people on the other side of the waterfall began to freak out. They began to freak out because the massive pile of crushed water bottles meant to represent the plunge pool, you know, the frothy mass at the bottom of a waterfall, was being disturbed. They screamed at him to stop touching the exhibit. Perhaps they feared he would drown.

I laughed and let him do it a little while longer, and I thought to myself "People think that this is art".


I am not a nominalist when it comes to what is or isn't art. Calling something art and going from there is easier than consigning everything that doesn't have an elaborate gilded frame around it to the "not art" flames. However, something I began to notice at Nuit Blanche this year was the effect of people's long relationship with art as a feature of institutions, that is, art as a specific mode of presentation.

We have a lot of public art in Toronto, and usually, no one seems to have an issue with touching it. My suspicion about is that this is because no one looks or cares about public art. However, at Nuit Blanche, the sacredness of art reigns.

As many noted, downtown Toronto was turned into an art gallery. Yet, as most know from the ominous and omnipresent security guards at most public art galleries, this means that the art is, in some sense, off limits. It is to be looked at, to be admired, to be honoured.

What my son experienced in kicking those crushed water bottles was the conflict between an aestheticized existence and a bureaucratic approach to the experience of art.

I suspect the artist wouldn't have minded what my son was doing, indeed, if they didn't want people touching it, why let them near it like that? And yet, as we were leaving the exhibit, a small child passed us with her dad, and asked, can I touch the waterfall?

The father said, "I don't think so, honey."

I replied, "Yes you can."


Just up the street, near my office, was this:

My son loved this, mainly because his favourite word in the world is "la Lune". It is, I am rather sad to say, one of the only French words he knows, but it's something, right? This was Time-Piece.

It was kind of hypnotic, and pretty to boot. The photos actually make it look much more space-like, the projector becoming a star that doesn't exist, peeking out from behind the nearly disappeared moon.

My favourite piece that night was this:

It was a video of someone driving along the Toronto's hated Gardiner Expressway. It confirms my own prejudices about the road, which is that it provides a stunning view of the city, and is a kind of sacrificial lamb in our city's civic culture.

If we kill this road, then the decision to erect a gazillion condos along the waterfront will be expiated, and even better, when the waterfront still sucks we can mourn those lazy summer afternoon drives along the Gardiner, where Toronto felt a piece with the Metropolis. It was art in the Marxist tradition. Benjamin would have been proud.


In the middle of Eaton Centre, one found a giant balloon.

From below, it reminds one of a lit colon...


After all this, oh, and the alley of Massey hall outfitted with an office roof, we headed toward City Hall for what was the most spectacular work of Nuit Blanche - Stereoscope.

My son was tired, and hungry, so we sat down for a hot dog in front of city call to watch Stereoscope. Again with the scrims, this time with lights behind them, set up to do the public's bidding through the magic of interactivity. So here people were allowed to "touch" , that is, manipulate the lights, albeit in a very controlled fashion. You could play pong, on City Hall.

So as we drew near, I began to look (long?) for the most infamous work of art in the city's history, The Archer by Henry Moore. Of course, no one was paying any attention to it, what with the light show and dance music.

It sat there, lonely, unlit, forgotten. I'm not kidding when I say that no one remembered it, on this night, the all-night art happening. Thousands of people around, and no one noticed the work that divided this city, toppled a mayor, and was erected only through the work of a private fundraising campaign.

This work changed Toronto's relationship with modern art, and seeing Moore's forlorn sculpture, next to the light show, it occurred to me that the light show behind me was not art.

Oh my God.

The thought appeared rather suddenly, but there it was. In the presence of Art, this elemental force, Moore's studied work, the Pong dance show was pure entertainment, pure event without the corollary of experience.

Stereoscope and so much of what saw last night was art as a teenager, wanting desperately to be liked instead of respected, and willing to do anything to get that attention. It struck me that Stereoscope would be the perfect vehicle for advertising. (Let's see how that plays out)

Stereoscope is the complete triumph of postmodernism over modernism. It's a work that allows our remarkably self-absorbed culture remain just so.

You can be a star for 15 seconds while everyone watches you play space invaders. You can decry Stehpen Harper's arts cuts because you were at Nuit Blanche and were overwhelmed by technology and spectacle. It fulfills all the fantasies that art can also be entertaining.

As art, however, it was utterly sterile.

The Archer ruined Nuit Blanche for me, because it reminded me that there's a history of art, and that Stereoscope, and a lot of other modern art, has no place in it. I wonder if it hasn't pretty much ruined Queen Street and so much of the other art we're all supposedly fighting for right now.

Context is everything, and I wonder now if I am ready to kick at the waterfall.