Thursday, June 26, 2008

Radio Two - Moving On

Russell Smith has again devoted his precious column space to the fight to keep CBC Radio Two overtly classical.

Smith's polemic is great reading, in addition to being absolutely right. What follows are merely some footnotes to what he's written, as well as my own meagre contributions to this "debate".

One of the amazing things about this whole debacle is the success of CBC's communications strategy. Whether we like it or not, there is a deep dislike of anything that smacks of elitism in this country, no matter how padded with straw, and the CBC has very successfully manipulated this feature of Canadian life to their advantage.

Moreover, the Canadian capacity for tolerance is being well abused by the CBC. No matter what anyone writes, the one thing people really seem to pick up on is this whole bit about "diversity". As Smith writes:

Perhaps the most irritating of the propaganda lines put out by the CBC is that such a limiting of available culture is done in the name of musical "diversity." If we do anything at all, we must at least loudly denounce this fraudulent line of argument. Let's be clear: Nobody is against a diversity of music on the radio. It is precisely because we desire a mix of freely available music that we want there to be one - just one! - national radio station that broadcasts music composed before the 20th century, and music from an intellectual tradition from that century and this. Without such a station, there will be no mix. Without a public broadcaster supporting this crucial but unpopular art form, there will be no choice.

Pretty solid counterargument, right? (If you don't think so, feel free to supply another) And yet, right there in the comments after his column, there are the parrots, squawking about how great it is that there's finally some "diversity" on CBC.

Why do people take the bait? I suspect there are a few reasons, some of which are partly the fault of the keeping Radio Two Classical side.

There has always been a diversity of music on CBC Radios One and Two, AM and FM. Does anyone remember the first wave of changes a few years ago, when CBC killed Brave New Waves or the Radio 3 website?

Actually, does anyone actually remember why Radio 3 existed at all? Back in the 80s CBC was going to have an entire Radio station devoted to all the other music out there in Canada - and even more importantly, and this is the real secret to CBC's past success, they were going to talk about it.

There's a question we should be asking - if this music is so pressing, if CBC needs to get it out there so badly, how about an entire radio station devoted to it?

Our collective memories are woefully short. If we want to look at the day things went south, it was the day CBC Radio 3 died.

So what about "diversity", then? There's a great book out there that talks about the trouble with diversity - it's called, er, The Trouble With Diversity. (I'm linking to a discussion on a literary blog so people can check out the discussion around it)

Walter Benn Michael's point is this - while the left has focused on "diversity", they've neglected inequality. And we can see here that in speaking about musical "diversity", the CBC is pulling the same kind of seemingly well-intentioned scam.

No one, and I mean no one, wants to be seen as somehow "repressing" voices, especially in a forum where public money is involved. But that's exactly what's happening here, and it's happening because classical music is seen as some kind of white male upper crust bastion. In other words, getting rid of classical music is about getting rid of "The Man".

What's the cost of "diversity", CBC style? It's taking the CBC and making it more and more like a private broadcaster. The diversity here is to create more inequality, fewer opportunities for classical musicians, hardly a wealthy class.

No, behind the diversity scam is the real "ity" - profitability. The Man is back, except it's not Beethoven, it's a music industry executive.

That is why no one at CBC talks about the real victim in all this, the whole idea that we can have conversations about music and the arts in a public forum.

No, Radio Two is now about the music, about listening to music, not about participating, it's about listening, passively, to the sea of "great" music out there, no discussion, just getting it all out there, and hey, maybe at some point, when you're used to listening to lots of popular music on CBC, you'll get used to something else - commercials. Or you'll buy CDs, celebrating CBC's "diversity".

So I ask all those angry classical music lovers, maybe our rallying cry shouldn't be "save CBC Radio 2", but instead start asking, "What happened to CBC Radio 3?"

That's the question I doubt they've got an answer for.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Important Insights About The Canadian Opera Company's New General Manager

Canada's Opera Company has a new Intendant.

I thought I had written this out on the blog, but after Richard Bradshaw died, I had hoped that the COC would come hire someone young, who would be willing to stick around for a while, as Bradshaw had done, and build on the late man's work.

Not only do they appeared to have followed my advice (did they intercept my e-mails? One wonders), but they've scored a guy who's really connected to some big names - his talk about more co-productions can only mean that we will be sharing with Neef's close colleague, Gerard Mortier, who's taking over at the New York City Opera.

As for those of you who will talk about the fact that they couldn't (or didn't) find a Canadian, here's the thing - that's a ridiculous question, actually, although I expect to see it asked by someone, somewhere, need some space to fill.

And yes, he's young. Although it's ludicrous to think that this will somehow translate into expanding the coveted younger audience (what is this, MTV?), his youth could mean that if he really likes it here he'll stick around. Or exactly the opposite.

Now if only we could deal with the matter of the Four Seasons Opera House and the number of performances it can handle...but that, my friends, is another, much more serious, and much more complicated story.

What I can say is that I wish Alexander Neef all the best!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Cinquecento: Phillippe De Monte: Miss Ultimi miei sospiri

Today I'm going to get around to doing something I had planned to do when I began to blog - review CDs! Here's to hoping, unlike all my other "regular" features on this blog, this one sticks!


It is a fact of musicological life here in North America that in music survey courses, the Renaissance is represented by a triumvirate of composers. For the Early Renaissance you get Dufay, in the middle finds Josquin, and one finishes the Renaissance with Palestrina, pace Monteverdi, who lived too long to stay a Renaissance composer.

Really though, in sheer popularity, Palestrina appears to have cornered the market on the whole Renaissance. People know of some of his late-Renaissance contemporaries, like Lassus, Byrd, and of course, everyone's favourite dissonance-loving wife-killing prince , but it's Palestrina who usually gets the most play.

Given the lock Palestrina has, it was a real pleasure to discover the work of his Vienna-based contemporary Philippe De Monte on a recent Hyperion CD by the Vienna-based Cinquecento.

Their third CD for Hyperion (my first encounter with them), Cinquecento is the house choir for St. Rochus in Vienna, which means you can listen to them singing live on a weekly basis, provided you don't mind sitting through a church service. (Not now though - it's summer break!)

I will refrain from giving you background on the CD, because the magic of the Internet and the kindness of Hyperion let me link to the CD's full liner notes.

The CD is a treat. Their vocal texture is wonderful, alternatively molten and granite, and it is hard not to think of the Hilliard Ensemble while listening to them. This is a blessing and a curse - they are wonderfully balanced and in tune, and although every opening unfolds sumptuously, I felt they often lacked drive towards the cadence that would have made some of this music thrilling to the end, something I have grown very accustomed to in listening to the Hilliard Ensemble over the years.

The Credo, for instance, just walks to its finish, despite the forward momentum right there in the music. However, you forget this quickly because the opening of the Sanctus which follows is so gossamery.

Indeed, this is a beautiful and delicate recording, one that bears repeated listening. I intend to pick up their earlier recordings, and I look forward to their exploration of more music from this era of the Hapsburg court- did those Viennese ever have to contend with mediocre music?

Ah Vienna...why must you be so far from Toronto?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Pigs is Pigs

I remember little of my childhood. I listen to people speak of their lives as children and I long wistfully for the memories that so many around me can invoke without the slightest difficulty.

This goes doubly for my childhood entertainments. I remember very little of the cartoons and TV shows of my childhood. One thing I do remember - really liking Three's Company. And just to be clear if you were here yesterday, I don't like it anymore, or, should I say, I don't feel any need to return to my roots when it comes to sitcoms.

I also remember this cartoon. And who wouldn't? It's insane.

I had not watched this cartoon in 20 years, and it had changed quite a bit in my mind. I recalled the moral of the cartoon to be that you shouldn't overeat, the moral I believe most children took away from it.

However, it turns out that the moral is in fact that you shouldn't dream about overeating. Overeating outside of the dreamscape is fine.

But what does one make of the ending? For that matter, what does one make of the cartoon? I am sure Deleuzians or Žižekians could do a better job, but there is something about it that feels terribly relevant.

That pig, he just can't stop eating. Despite the constant scolding of his German or Polish mother (the accent seems to vary, perhaps they are Kashubians), he cheats his siblings out of food, unrepentant.

Then he has this dream. Now this is his dream, and it is a dream where our Piggy purges his sins, by being mechanically force fed by a drunk yellow-skinned scientist (another in-joke?) who enjoys feeding him as much as Piggy enjoys eating. And even when he's finished, and about to leave, he can't help himself, and, grabbing a turkey leg, he finally explodes.

But the dream explosion wakes him back into the real world, where, in the final seconds of the short, Piggy realises that it was all a dream, and that he is good to go on his program of incessant binge eating.

So my reading? Oh, how about this looks a lot like what's going on in our world right now? A sense that the end is nigh, but not quite nigh enough, so we can think that the past was merely a dream, and that the future will solve the problems we created in our past.

In other words, Pigs is Pigs.


I misremembered something else about the cartoon. My mind's version of the cartoon included the very famous Powerhouse B piece from many other Warner Brothers cartoons. Somewhere along the way I remembered Pigs is Pigs as having this Raymond Scott tune while Piggy is being force fed by the mad scientist.

Indeed, while you watch it, it makes sense that this assembly line music would be part of the cartoon. Perhaps a later iteration of the cartoon had the powerhouse tune, but I don't know, because I don't remember. And thankfully, that's also the message of the cartoon.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


For some reason, I read Leah McLaren in the Globe and Mail today. (I encourage you to read her wikipedia entry before proceeding, that's why I linked to it)

Anyway, there is a lot of resentment toward Ms. McLaren around these parts. Her mother was an editor at the Globe and Mail and it is alleged that the reason she has a nice column and a book deal etc. is because of connections, and not writing ability.

I don't read her often, but when I do, she's infuriating.

Based on the evidence of her columns, history appears to be on the side of her detractors, but really, who knows? My own take on her success is that she speaks to a particular constituency, and she does it well. It just so happens that this constituency is at the forefront of ruining the world.

She had a column a while back complaining about how there were no hardware stores in her super-trendy Toronto neighbourhood. I found her frustration interesting, as I happen to live in the same neighbourhood, and know of at least three hardware stores, two of which sell lumber for crying out loud, within a 10 minute walk of the area.

However, what's worse, she uses this "problem" to craft a bizarre paean to suburbia, where every Home Depot is just an SUV ride away. Her conclusion was that it is in fact the suburbs(?) where things are really accessible and convenient.


Well, she's at it again. This time, in a column perhaps ironically, perhaps not, entitled A contrarian yuppie snob - moi - returns to her roots: A Lament for Junk.

Friends around the world, if you want a glimpse into bleakest corner of the North American condition, here's a flashlight.

After discussing her friends' praise of the Angus beef burger at McDonald's, she writes,

I miss the days when bad things could just simply be bad. Why is it these days we must dress everything up as new, improved, upgraded or purified? I'm all for fresh white asparagus and imported Italian bathroom faucets, but sometimes you just want a crappy burger from a low-end burger joint. What ever happened to shameless crummy convenience?

Now, sure, this could all be a clever ruse, and Ms. McLaren could be putting us on. However, I'm willing to bet that she's not. Indeed, I'm willing to bet that any irony in her work is what I would like to term "hazzardian", in honour of the weekly festival of unintentional irony that was the Dukes of Hazzard.

Ms. McLaren's hazzardian irony knows nearly no bounds. After regaling us with stories of her crap-filled childhood in Cobourg Ontario, she tells us why she returned to her "roots":

How was I to know my own taste revelation would coincide with the turn of the century and the decrappification of the English-speaking world? First came Starbucks, then came H&M and the next thing I knew real-estate agents in Ajax, Ont., were sipping green-tea lattes in Stella McCartney frocks.

I did the only thing any self-respecting born-again contrarian aesthetic yuppie snob would do: I returned to my roots and learned to love crap all over again.

I went to Wal-Mart and bought plastic patio furniture. I served KD and frozen peas to dinner guests. I filled my iPod with Kylie, Britney and late Elton John.

She admits this turn is hard to defend, but the final lines of her column are where her real argument lies, and it's a stab at the philosophical:

Because here's the thing: Without the bad, there is no good. Cast the KD out of your life and pretty soon the beef carpaccio tastes about as special as a Happy Meal. McDonald's might be trying to sell me an Angus burger, but that doesn't mean I have to buy one.

Let other people have their fancy white slipcovers and $50 chardonnays this summer. I'm quite happy as a born-again crap-lover.

So you see, we wouldn't know what was good without the bad. We wouldn't know the beauty of a Bach Fugue without J-Lo (yes, I'm going out on that limb). We would be lost in the aesthetic wilderness without the shit on our boots to keep us "grounded". She is as happy as a pig in shit, because, finally, she's back in the brown stuff after years of soap and water.

Ms. McLaren reminds me of a university student who sat next to me, on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq. She informed her friends that she was in support of the Iraq War. Why on earth would you support it, they asked? Well, she replied, she is just so tired of how cool it is to oppose the war, so she's going to be for it, because someone has to be.

Hannah Arendt, anyone?

The problem with Leah McLaren's "contrarianism" is that buried under its liberalish urban veneer, is a kind of hazzardian banality that chills me to the core.

I mean, from the two columns I speak of, what does she appear to long for? The days of car-filled suburbs filled with cheap mass produced crap.

Seriously, who longs for this? Who longs for mediocrity of the worst kind?

Her mediocrity isn't even the anonymous middle-classness most Canadians strive for, it's actually a longing for the days when Canadians had no taste, and to boot, didn't even know they had none.

Leah, those days you long for are dead, and they are dead because that life you long for is killing everyone. And what's worse, the life you mock in your column is even worse. We aren't going down either of these roads.

While we're at it, let's turn her "argument" about needing the bad with the good on its head - Did the crap lovers of yore ever feel the need to read Joyce? Or listen to Beethoven? Don't they need some good with their bad? Has anyone spotted McLaren reading Proust to Cobourg schoolchildren lately?

This argument only ever seems to work one way, the way that apologizes for what's bad at the expense of what's good. If there's anything I am nostalgic for, it is for the day of What's Opera, Doc?, when popular culture and high culture observed a kind of detente. This kind of fluidity seems very foreign now.

And I realise now that those of uswho know we're smarter than her, who maybe even resent her success, or perhaps the ease of her success, are missing the bigger problem -
what she advocates isn't banal, it's incredibly destructive.

So Leah, if you are indeed being ironic, let us know.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Making Language a Two-Way Street

Three pieces which recently crossed my path have me picking up an old saw.

Actually, this is really in response to Timothy Burke's post. And I'm not even going to really disagree with him. So you can see that this post is going to be a powerhouse of controversy.

Anyway, while reading Timothy Burke's post, his tone struck me as all too familiar - Burke appears to be implying that it is up to the educated to cross that cultural divide between blue and white collars, to hold our champagne glasses (note reflexive use of "us" here - hmmmm) out in the hopes that they will be clinked with the domestic beer cans of the less literate. (Sorry, I have to be a little cheeky, this is a blog.)

But what about looking at things in the other direction? What about say, ensuring that people who don't go to university have a smattering of knowledge about the arts and culture? (This, of course, betrays another assumption, that the plumber in the sports cap knows nothing about arts and culture. hmmmm...)

Actually, I don't want to go down that road today. So how about this - Why don't we, as er, a society (of english-speakers), try to ensure that people of all walks of life can speak (standard?)english well. More accurately, how about we ensure that they can converse well. (I'm not diminishing dialects here. Dialects are fine, perhaps it's time we took a page from the Germans and accepted a high-low version of language instead of trying to squish things into the oozy egalitarian-but-not-really mess we English speakers appear so culturally inclined toward.)

Now I know many of you will balk at this, but I submit for you a people who support my idealistic assertion: The Irish.

Has anyone ever noticed that nearly every man and woman raised on the Emerald Isle is well able to converse on a variety of subjects? That they, by and large, and irrspective of class, speak English better than everyone else on the planet?

I suspect the reason for this is obvious - they really beat English into them. Ask an Irishman or woman how much they read in school, and it will blow your mind. Ask them what they were expected to know, and, if you are a North American, your mind will be blown.

So I suppose what I am getting at is that it can be done, it being getting everyone to be able to speak well, or at least commensurably. However, this wasn't entirely Mr. Burke's point, was it?

Not really, his point was really about class, that one class, the educated one, needs to be even more educated, this time in speaking to the less educated. But wouldn't it be better, for all of us, and here I'm repeating myself, if we could turn this on its head?

One can even point to a time where North Americans still believed it possible to educate and cultivate the average citizen - Does anyone know of the Little Blue Books? So why not? What stops us (North Americans) from simply trying to educate everyone to an extent that renders the kind of issues Mr. Burke raises irrelevant?

Again, I think the issue is Culture, and I think it's the same reasons why high culture is disparaged with such ease while the well-educated are worried about how "normal" they are when it comes to speaking with the masses.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Those Opera Snobs

are at it again.

As this blog descends into the virtual hell of pointing to newspaper clippings and other ephemera, a fate that has befallen many a great blogger, I don my rubber devil suit and provide for your edification:

Wimpy elitist opera lovers chicken out over possibility of rubbing shoulder to shoulder with riff raff.

Now maybe I'm just paranoid about media bias when it comes to classical music (you who read me may chuckle - NOW) but seriously, does anyone want to be in downtown Vienna right now, soccer fans included? Am I the only one who finds the tone of the piece patronizing?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Embrace Change

The news that the CBC intends to ditch the long-running theme song to Hockey Night in Canada has this page wondering what the media reaction will be.

Will they, as during the Radio Two debacle, wag their fingers at the hockey fans and encourage them to embrace change?

Or will they attack the CBC for breaking with tradition and rally people to support the good old days?

My money's on the latter. Let's see how this plays out, and I hope to be proven wrong.

UPDATE: Looks like I was wrong, but for reasons that had nothing to do with my post! Look like good ol' lucre was the deciding factor here, and not CBC's willingness to dispense with tradition.