Sunday, May 25, 2008

Gustav Szathmáry

I don't know why I remembered the Hungarian composer Gustav Szathmáry last week.

Sometime ago, I encountered his work at an exhibition in Bremen, Germany. Four years ago? Five? Something like that.

I remember at the time being fascinated by his work, and reminded myself constantly that I would look into his life and work at some later date. For some reason, when the thought occurred to me to examine his work, I was never at a computer or a library. Szathmáry would wander into my thoughts at the least convenient times.

But last week, after years of forgetting Gustav Szathmáry, I remembered him while at a computer. So I looked him up. I found this - please let it play while you read this:


I recall there being a video at the exhibition, and I remember how moved I was the first time I heard the work that plays throughout the video. The clear homage to Bach's C major Prelude, simultaneously haunting and yet, in its own way, reflecting both his time and presaging the work of minimalists like Glass, Reich, and Peter Machajdík.

Beautiful, simple music, yet still of his native land. Does anyone else think of Kurtág's Játékok when they hear this music?

However, I have found virtually nothing else. How does someone like this, who writes music of such simple beauty, become so easily forgotten?

No blogger seems to have written about him. Not A.C. Douglas, not Chris Foley, not Jessica Duchen, Jeremy Denk, not not even Alex Ross. Sequenza21 has nothing, nothing, and not even the master of exhuming forgotten composers, On An Overgrown Path, has a single word on him.

So you few who come here, you are in a special place, because you are on virtually the only site that knows of Gustav Szathmáry's existence.

So what do I know? He was the lover of the German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, and he was friends with Rainer Maria Rilke. How do I know this? That bloody exhibition. I remember it. And this is pretty much all I remember.

Oh yes, and I remember his perfectly preserved corpse. It was on display at the exhibition.

I have seen the man's body, but his body of work is nowhere to be found. Except for this PDF of one set of piano pieces of his, on some German site of no other importance whatsoever to my investigations, there is nothing left of his music.

So I turn it out to you - do any of you remember him? Or in German, Erinnern Sie sich an ihn?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

I Hear Music

I Hear Music, the last truly intelligent and creative show on CBC Radio 2, the one show that actually pulled together popular and classical music convincingly and sincerely, goes off the air forever in about 15 minutes.

Robert Harris, along with all the other casualties in CBCs relentless drive towards mediocrity, will be sorely missed. Each of his shows was a beautiful argument for the relevance of all kinds of music in our world.

As I speak, he is playing Feist, and somehow, he makes it seem as though she belongs on CBC Radio 2, not because focus groups say so, but because she speaks to us in some meaningful way.

Feist has taken a lot of flack in the changes at Radio Two as an example of the lowering of the bar, but the problem, to me, has never been that there will be more popular music on CBC, but that popular music, or classical music, or any music, will not be presented intelligently, and that the CBC is no longer a place where music lovers can cut their teeth.

Thanks Robert Harris, and here's to hoping we will hear from you again.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Tim Hortons - Why God Why?

You know what this blog has been missing, besides regular posting? A good spleen-venting screed....

Canada's beloved Tim Hortons doughnut shop and coffee emporium has been in the news lately, and not for good reasons. The latest bit of bad press was reported in the Star today, and as of right now, is the most e-mailed and most read item online.

And it’s one of quite a few bit of bad press recently, detailing how Tim Hortons employees have been fired for ridiculous reasons, or, as in the above, employees themselves have demonstrated less than stellar behaviour.

For those of you outside of Canada, it is difficult to describe the bizarre love affair Canadians have with Tim Hortons. People here endure long line ups, all day and every day, for a cup of Tim Horton’s coffee, and indeed, many who drink it believe it has mystical properties and curative powers.

And the advent of Tim Hortons annual Roll up the Rim contest, where patrons, uh, roll up the rim of their coffee cup to see if they've won a prize, verges on a national holiday, and is greeted with more anticipation than children waiting for St. Nick.

I don't get it. I don't get any of it.

I went to Tim Hortons for coffee once. It was after a choir rehearsal. I noticed on the menu that they sold "cappuccinos" and, rube that I was, I thought, hey, a cappuccino, how bad could it be?

What did the geniuses in product development come up with? A machine that says "cappuccino" on it. So to make my "cappuccino", the Tim Horton's employee poured Tim Hortons coffee into a cup, and then sat it under the "cappuccino" machine. Then, with great skill, she pushed a large green button in the centre of the machine, and a beige froth gurgled and spat out onto the coffee she had poured. Once the machine had stopped working its magic, she handed the cup to me.

What can I say? The cappuccino was disgusting. Not because it wasn't really a cappuccino, but because it was just awful.

And this is my point. The coffee isn't very good, the doughnuts are sweet and fatty, but slap enough butter and sugar into anything and people will like it. So why is Tim Horton's a quasi-religious institution here?

The answer, my friends, is marketing. Tim Hortons is the puppet master of perhaps one of the most insidious and successful marketing campaigns in human history, where my nation, desperate for some kind of identity, finds its soul not in our vast expanse of sea and land, our great natural beauty and spirit of cultural accommodation, our prosperity or our valour, but in a dollop of sweetened fried dough and coffee most Europeans would deem as shit.

How? Well, no one has been more successful than Tim Horton's at evoking this kind of small town feel most Canadians believes is at the heart of our strength.

Except it's a delusion. Most Canadians live in cities, and behave accordingly. Somehow, Tim Hortons, a giant corporate entity, has made itself the place where Canadians can feel parochial and "at home", a place where they can be small and think small. They feed and water the lie that is at the heart of perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the Canadian identity – our provincialism.

And now, horror of horrors, the brand is under threat, not from dissidents like myself, but from within. But note the Toronto Star's "analysis" of the problem:

The Lee incident Wednesday and the Timbit controversy two weeks earlier illustrates the challenges companies like Tim Hortons face in protecting their brand images from negative publicity created by the decisions of their franchises.

You see, it's not Tim Hortons fault, it's their unruly franchisees!! Except...the franchisees that make up 95% of all Tim Horton stores.

You don't have to be Theseus' Ship to know that this the Star's anaylsis is just a bit of Tim Hortons spin.

Why is no one thinking the obvious - that the whole franchisee system allows for Tim Horton's to be seen as the benevolent parent, while their unruly children sometimes get in trouble. Why has the Star swallowed this line so completely? I suspect it has something to do with the fact that most Star journalists and editors are Timmy patrons too.

I mean, who do you think is profiting from the franchisees? Is Tim Horton’s a non-profit run by benevolent French-Canadian nuns?

Does anyone think that a franchisee could run a Tim Horton's where they pay their staff really well and offer them benefits? Do you think Timmy's would be OK with that?

No, everyone has sales targets and profit margins, and firing people for giving away a 16 cent Timbit to a child may not be company policy, but you can be sure that if that franchisee doesn't make certain sales targets there will be repercussions, and everyone has to tighten their belts in these kinds of situations, right?

And yet, despite the obviousness of all this, people here continue to eat and drink there in droves. Worse, despite the bad press, they continue to believe in Tim Horton’s, and ignore the mediocrity it embodies, from its marketing and the quality of what it produces to its labour practices.

God knows why, no wait, I do – because Tim Horton’s, God help this land, is us.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Tautological Aphorism II

This one is not actually a tautology...

Man cannot make a crap sandwich without squishing shit.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Teresa Stratas at 70

One of the great actresses of the operatic stage turns 70 in a couple of weeks.

Of course, CBC is going to pump the hell out of this milestone, as they should, bumping live opera to play, on the radio, the Salome film recording she did with Böhm. Wouldn't it be nice to broadcast it on CBC TV too?

One can dream...

Anyway, in a cheap attempt to divert attention away from all the bad news Austria is getting in the papers these days, I should note that ORF1, the Austrian public radio station has beaten we canucks to the punch with an entire program devoted to Teresa Stratas on their Apropos Oper program.

I would have loved to tell you this before it came on, but unfortunately, I'm liveblogging this one. So tune in if you can, right now, and if not, listen to CBC on the 24th.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Over the past couple of years, I have begun to practice coin and card tricks to amaze my friends and thwart my enemies. Alas, like Dunstan Ramsay in Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy, it is slow and clumsy going for me, and I daresay that at this stage I don't know how far I will ever get.

Like many, I enjoyed magic as a child, and actually knowing how many tricks work hasn't diminished my admiration. Indeed, the difficulty and work it takes to be a bad magician is now so apparent to me that watching a simple card or coin trick is a source of genuine pleasure, a kind of pleasure that vastly more exotic looking things, like CGI animated movies, never achieve.

I take my enjoyment of magic, as a sign, a sign of maturity, when one can embrace the artifice and the con for what they are - a glimpse into mystery. Now we all know that modern stage magic is very much a science, indeed a virtually positivist affair, but is there anything so rigorous so devoting to hiding it's trial and error origins?

I like the following card trick for a few reasons. It's relatively simple and it's all out in the open, there's no automata here, it's just legerdemain.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Problem With Possibility and Evidence

So much for posting once a day this year! However, I would at least beg your indulgence for this most recent drought - my home computer has crashed, and with it, a lot of the posts in preparation!

I must admit that I have been pretty lucky over the years with digital storage, but you only need one crash, and 8 years of thoughts and memories - poof!

Anyway, I had mentioned in a comment on the Varieties of Unreligious Experience the following:

In reading your post, I couldn’t help but think of the “anybody but Shakespeare” movement – Christ, even Derek Jabobi doesn’t think Shakespeare wrote his plays! So your point about intelligent people falling for these kinds of things is both well-taken and well-founded.

But when it comes down to it, doesn’t this all revolve around the fact that one can say, without contradiction, that the 2nd Earl of Essex really wrote Shakespeare’s plays, despite his 1601 beheading, that the evidence is there, you just have to look at it so, with a little charity in your thoughts as you read my outlandish thoughts? That nothing rules out the possibility of this logically?

I had prepared a post on this, but it's gone, so I am instead going to present something that, in what I hope is a nice Wittgensteinian vein, shows what I mean here instead of argue for it!

A Break in the Garden

Two philosophers (A and B) have just finished a conversation about a nearby tree. Two non-philosophers (A and B), walking nearby, decide to join the philosophers.

Instead of continuing their discussion about the tree the philosophers had been so interested in, the pairs embark on a conversation about the possibility of rain tomorrow.

Each conversation begins with a sentence A, “It is possible that it will rain tomorrow,” and is answered with a reply B, “How do you know?”

So Non-philosopher A’s reply is likely something along the lines of “I checked the weather,” or, “I saw a forecast on television.” One could also expect talk using folk knowledge, like the appearance of a clear sky at dusk. Possibility here is founded in some kind of sensual evidence.

Moreover, Non-philosopher B would likely accept this explanation, and perhaps try to remember not to leave home without an umbrella tomorrow. In other words, Non-philosopher B would probably act on philosopher A’s knowledge of tomorrow’s weather conditions.

Now contrast this with what happens when the philosophers and non-philosophers next meet.

The following day, the philosophers are again sitting near the same tree, and the non-philosophers again sit down next to them. This time, Non-philosopher B turns to philosopher A, and smiles. Philosopher A says , “It is possible that it will rain tomorrow.” Non-philosopher B says “How do you know?” Philosopher A replies, “because it is possible for it to rain tomorrow.”

Non-philosopher B is somewhat perplexed here. He says “what do you mean?” The philosopher replies, “you accept that it rains here, right? Then rain is possible tomorrow, isn't it? On cannot rule out it raining tomorrow.” Non-philosopher B, feeling perhaps a bit misunderstood, nevertheless accepts the philosopher’s answer.

I hope the distinction between the two conversations is clear, as it is very hard to express this difference in any way except by reminding oneself of the times one has said or was confronted with this kind of use of the word “possible”, and perhaps imagining the philosopher probably stressing the word "possible" as he says it.

For the non-philosophers, “because it is possible for it to rain tomorrow” expresses a kind of empirical possibility, whereas the philosopher is concerned with something I would call conceptual possibility.

The philosopher has no need to check the weather, and there is nothing that lends credence to this assertion except that one can say that rain is possible tomorrow, because it rains on earth, which is an empirical fact, but there's no empiricism in the philosopher's observation, is there?

The big problem, howevr, is that what the philosopher is saying isn't nonsense. This is a perfectly reasonable way to use “It is possible that it will rain tomorrow.”, isn't it?

Many people, smart people, speak of things in this conceptual way all the time when speculating about how things might have been or might be. Worse yet, in the instance of the Shakespeare-as-Bacon camp, they appear to have evidence for their arguments!

But isn't what makes the arguments possible in these kinds of cases, not the evidence, but the possibility of evidence, the possibility of being wrong, the possibility of there being no certain knowledge, the possibility that the Templars never disbanded, etc?

See how I have to use that philosophical possibility here to try to dispel the conceptual possibility both cranks and fine scholars use to justify their claims?