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.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Salome in Low Land

Via Parterre, a rather odd adaptation of Richard Strauss' Salome.

Is this Kitsch? I really don't know. The recording is great, and there's something cute about it, but brilliant? I don't know. What do you think?

Monday, October 06, 2008

German Literature as Vocational Training

To all of you naysayers who have contested the economic value of my getting an MA in German Languages and Literatures, I submit for your consideration this story.

What qualifies her to run this gallery? Isn't it obvious? With one fell press release, Ryerson redeems us all, not with a sacrifice, but with an ascension...

Doina Popescu, Herzlichen Glückwunsch!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Caleb Burhans

There's a great profile in today's NY Times about Caleb Burhans, one of these guys who makes me look like one who is hopelessly backwards and stuck in the past...maybe I just need to get out more.

Mr. Burhans proves that the future of music seems to be eclecticism. Orchestras, you've been warned!

I'm singing now again, but this guy does everything. He makes me want to take up the cello again, and dust off my lute:

Saturday, October 04, 2008


Three months ago, I took up running again. When I say "again", I had done it off and on for a few months about eight years ago, but never seriously, and once I stopped, that was it. Until three months ago.

The metaphors around running and self-improvement are tired, especially since the late 90's, when running essentially became all about self-improvement. However, and I simply cannot avoid this aspect, for me, running has had a transformative aspect to my life and how I think about things, and the reason for that is that I am not training to finish, I am training to win.

You see, nearly 20 years ago, I was a long distance runner. I was one of these kids who was encouraged to go out there and run, because I could, because I was good at it. Well, like everything else I was good at, being good was a license to stop trying. Who needs to try when they're good? Who needs to strive when the work that really matters (social validation) has been accomplished before you've even run your first 10k?

So I ran my first one, and I had to walk part of it, because I had not run at all. But I finished it, in under 50 minutes, so I felt that my label of "good", still stuck, especially because the doughy masses who followed me, you know, the ones who had trained for months just to stagger across the finish line in under an hour, they weren't as good as me.

And so it went. I ran four more races in a one year period, and never trained, and perhaps unsurprisingly, never beat my first running time. Not knowing my limitations was probably what got me to run that first one, and so I realised that if I just avoided pushing myself, I could always clock in a respectable time, people would be impressed, and I could be good at something.

So even when I stopped, I held up "good at running" as a label that suited me just fine. And I did that for 15 years. And then, for reasons which will not be divulged here, I came to a point where I needed to find an outlet for a particular kind of existential rage, you know, perhaps the kind that had been the result of 15 years of not pushing.

So I bought a pair of shoes, and the next morning, went and ran five kilometres. And I started to tell people I did this, and they started to say, "wow, that's really good", and I started to feel that this could very easily wind up getting me right back to where I started, right where I no longer wanted to be.

So instead, I set a lofty goal for myself. I would find a 10k to run three months from starting up, and try to beat myself at it. That is, I will try to beat the lazy 17 year old, the one who dropped running because his then girlfriend trained competitively and he realised that in competing with her, he might lose his status as being "good at running".

So that means running 10k in under 45 minutes.

When I started, this seemed ridiculous. The application to the 10k asked me when I expected to finish the run, so I put an hour, realising that I too am one of those doughy folks struggling to finish.

Except I am not. Right now, I am three minutes off my goal, and today, I ran 11 kilometres, which is the longest distance I have ever run. Not only that, but I ran it while pushing my son in his stroller.

Like many people, I have had this vague goal to run a marathon, and I had set it as a goal to accomplish before I hit 35. That doesn't look realistic, but I think I will make 30k in Hamilton days before my birthday, and it will be enough.

I'm kind of glad, because I have realised that the goal for me is no longer to finish these races, or "accomplish" something, which seems to be the great motto of our society, to buy the gear and strive for the minimum, in our lives, in our cultural consuption, in pretty much every aspect of our lives.

I want to compete again, to get in there, get dirty, and outrun everyone else. This is no longer about being good, it's about being better than anyone else. In other words, I'm not running a marathon next March because I don't want to run a bad marathon, even though I don't quite know what that means yet.

The dialectic of my body and the bodies of all these other runners has just begun. But the desire to compete has already started to infect the ways I think about other things, like my music, my work, and even this lowly blog.

To be honest, I don't know what any of this means for this blog, except that it will either get better, or it won't be here at all.