Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Richard Stursberg was Right!

According to the NY Times, lots more people say they listen to classical music than actually listen to classical music. Turns out most of them are listening to soft rock.

I am certain that the folks at CBC Radio 2 feel vindicated in their programming change, although these trends haven't helped their ratings.

And we in the classical blogosphere now wait with baited breath for Greg Sandow's comments about how this relates to THE FUTURE OF CLASSICAL MUSIC, and how it MUST CHANGE.

Pre-posting update! Turns out Mr. Sandow blogged about this yesterday.

Go figure.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Long Time

I'm slowly trying to listen to all kinds of symphonies, as per my last post, and in doing so, have finally found a piece I have been trying to recall for nearly 20 years - Alan Hovhaness' Symphony no. 2.

This little project is already paying off!

Friday, November 20, 2009

An Evening with Philip Glass - in Your Own Home!

Chris Foley at the Collaborative Piano blog links to a video that claims to show people how to play like Philip Glass.

He also asks a question: " the ease with which one can imitate Glass' piano style a symptom of cliché-ridden gimmickry or a genuinely populist style that can be a springboard for young pianist/composers to explore in the hope of eventually finding their own voice?"

Although his commenters seem to react harshly to the video, finding it offensive or silly and nowhere near Glass' own work, Chris' question betrayed my own feelings as I watched the video - his noodlings do sound like Philip Glass!!

And the guy goes to some lengths to distance what he's doing from the authentic Philip Glass - it's an improvisation, and he makes it clear that he's not trying to poke fun at Glass. Rather, he's pointing out the obvious, namely that Glass' style lends itself pretty readily to improvisation.

One has to ask - why is this a bad thing? Isn't one of the things that the "classical" music world (with the exception of organists) has lost over the years is a high regard for improvisation?

My own feelings about Glass' music are mixed, but not because his techniques are somehow deficient, but because his stuff doesn't speak to me the way other composers have. I would prefer to listen to Webern or Beethoven, or his former colleague Steve Reich if we're to draw a closer cultural comparison.

So to more closely answer Chris' question, I would say no, Glass' music isn't symptomatic of a problem, and yes, it's probably a nice way for people to be able to emulate a serious composer. Indeed, after spending years wedded to the score, I'm learning to improvise.

If you were expecting something more insightful than that, my apologies.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Adorno on Highbrow/Lowbrow

A passage from a 1959 essay by Adorno on Schreker that problematizes the commonly held view that Adorno hated jazz, or hated for the reasons people think he did, namely, that he was a stuffy old German. From page 136 of my copy of Quasi una Fantasia (I've broken up the paragraph for ease of online reading):

The analogy with the 'mixed drink' which is sometimes applied rather blusteringly to jazz, fits Schreker's elixir exactly. They shimmer: the individual detail lights up for an instant and then subsides into the mass where it can no longer be distinguished, and barely even felt - the dripping of the harp, solo violins in a high register, a clarinet doubled by a celeste or horns dispossessed of their own weightiness. The association with jazz may give us a clue to the otherwise scarcely comprehensible fact that a famous composer should have been able to disappear in so short a time, not just from public consciousness, but that he should be buried by oblivion as if beneath a heavy stone.

The fermentations of the Schreker sound have been entirely absorbed by light music, whether because its matadors learned a thing or two from Schreker, or because his manner of simply sampling sounds is one which was itself moving in the direction of popular music and the latter spontaneously produced effects of the kind which had very different intentions in him.

But in the meantime the sharp dichotomy between highbrow and lowbrow music has been erected by the administrators of musical culture into a fetish which neither side may question. In consequence the guardians of highbrow music are shy of sounds that have found a home in lowbrow music and might discredit the lucrative sanctity of the highbrow variety, while the fanatical supporters of lowbrow music wax indignant at the mere suggestion that their music could have claims as art.

Yet Schreker cherished lofty ambitions for his confections. The intoxication they induce conjures up the vision of some lukewarm, chaotic effusion, like something from the age of courtesans. It is music without firm definition of any sort. It resists as if it were reification itself. It is art which resents its own purely musical materials, as if they were amusical, alien to art as such. It is this unruliness and nothing else that links Schreker with the avant-garde of modernism.

Does this sound like an Adorno who hated jazz? Is it just me or is he attempting to make a kind of aesthetic connection between Schreker's music and jazz?

That being said, his comment about the highbrow/lowbrow distinction as being one that has been "erected by the administrators of music culture" seems right in line with what I've been getting in recently, as well as why Joshua Glenn has made Adorno a "hilo hero" over at his site. The other great thing about this Schreker essay, as well as many of the others in Quasi una Fantasia, is that they are generally positive, which goes against the grain of Adorno as curmudgeon.

(My own pet theory for the darkness of his and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Englightenment - Benjamin was dead and the war raged on. What more does one need?)

The easiest way to put it is that Adorno didn't like industry. Unless one just admits that most jazz is industrial (his second essay in Quasi una Fantasia analyses "commodity music", and it's mostly what one would call "classical" music.

I am beginning to wonder if much of the criticism of Adorno's stance really just comes down to different post-war reactions to the war. Wouldn't be the first time...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Symphonic Completism

Like books, I think most of us have more music than we have time to listen to. So I'm going to leverage the benefits of the blogosphere and ask it the following:

If I were to listen to a complete series of symphonies, whose should I listen to? I've listened to Beethoven's and Brahms' many times, as well as Mahler's and Shostakovich's, but any suggestions as to whom might be worth taking a stab at their entire symphonic oeuvre? Thanks!


That being said, I'm wondering if it might be possible to organize the musical equivalent of a book event, where we pick a composer and/or some works, find some scholars/musicians who might be willing to contribute, and let it unfold over a number of blogs?

If any of these questions prompts you to answer, please do so in the comments!

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Rise of the Ampelmännchen: Thoughts on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall was a teenager when I was born, and I was a teenager when it fell. When the thing was up, it sat there, carving Berlin into two, immutable, eternal. And then it was gone.

The Berlin Wall, known to most Germans simply as “die Mauer” opened 20 years ago today, allowing East Germans to cross freely into West Berlin for the first time in 27 years without being shot. It is difficult to successfully articulate today how strange and exhilarating it was to watch this event unfold - watching all the programming that reflects on it 20 years later, many of the people who were there are still baffled by why it happened.

But perhaps more shocking still, is the fact that, 20 years on, East Germany simply disappeared. The Wall fell and took an entire nation with it. And East Germany did not just disappear politically – its very existence has disappeared from the minds of most people in the English-speaking world. To many, a unified Germany signifies an expanded West Germany, and not the coming together of two nations with very different paths, ideologically and existentially opposed to each other, and yet now one.

There are many reasons for this mass forgetting, but part of it has to do with, surprisingly, commodities.

The recent film Das Leben der Anderen rekindled popular interest in the former East Germany. Highly acclaimed, it was praised for its authenticity as an accurate representation of the Ministry of State Security, or the Stasi. However, in the film, the moment the Wall falls is more reflective of the current view of the former East Germany than the euphoric days and months following November 9, 1989.

Das Leben der Anderen captures the fall simply and brilliantly – when the principal character discovers the Wall has come down, he, who had been consigned to steaming open East German mail after helping a well-known playwright subvert the state, gets up from his chair and walks out the door.

This silently taking leave of his work implies to the viewer that the principal character knows more than he possibly could have at the time. It signals that the entire promise of East Germany is no more. The socialist mission, the way of life, is gone, forever. This moment identifies less with the jubilation of 1989 and more with German unification, the absorption of communist East Germany into capitalist West Germany, and the nearly 20 years of high unemployment in the former East Germany.

That East Germany is no more is further evinced by Ostalgie, the nostalgia for East Germany – what is nostalgia but a longing for something irretrievable? And yet, even the symbol of the Ostalgie movement, Ampelmännchen, the old East German crossing signal figure, is ultimately more representative of the new reality of a unified Germany than an expression of the concrete past of the East.

Signalling his own transformation from a symbolic point of difference between East and West into a commodity that unites them, Ampelmännchen is now available on a wide variety of consumer products. There is even an Ampelmann Restaurant in Berlin.

The figure still occupies a role in traffic control, yet this has been superseded by his role as a design icon who can hold a pencil or adorn a mug. As the website devoted to his products notes:

“Now they (Ampelmännchen) can be found again, mainly in the new federal states on secondary roads and municipal streets. Only the west or euro traffic light man is allowed to glow on main roads, in accordance with the Traffic Signals Directive. In the meantime there are selected crossings in a few West German towns where pedestrians are directed by the East ampel men. But this should be viewed as no more than an act of solidarity, because despite the advantages, a general change over in the other direction has never entered the discussion."

In other words, Ampelmännchen is an anachronism, no longer the standard; the figure is no longer a functional representative of the country that birthed him. His meaning has changed, and with him the meaning of what it is to be East German. Through the power of capitalism, Ampelmännchen, with his restaurant and fashion shows, has never been less East German.

And yet, perhaps this was all to be expected. If one watches 1950's DDR films like Meine Frau Macht Musik, or peruses Taschen's DDR design, it quickly becomes apparent that part of what killed East Germany, beyond its truly lousy government, was that it attempted to offer West Germany to its citizens while rejecting the economic system that West Germany was founded upon.

The fall of the Berlin Wall took East Germany away. But tearing down a wall does not build a country, nor does celebrating the Ampelmännchen. Throughout all the celebrations, there are deep fissures which have yet to be filled, in part because the discourse in which people operate in Germany can contain only one side.

The long and painful process of cultural and spiritual reintegration between the Germanys continues, 20 years on, and will likely still be going on when my own son becomes a teenager.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Composition Studies

A.C Douglas has responded to my posts about classical music over on his blog. I will address his concerns in the near future, but please go and read his post and let me know what you think of it.


On a recent visit, my father gave me a digital SLR camera. He is a photographer, (his pictures have long graced the top of this site) and so I grew up around nice camera equipment. However, like many, I have long used a point and shoot digital for regular use. My point and shoot died (while I was in Newfoundland!) and so my father graciously gave me one of his cameras to use.

The funny thing about using an SLR again is it showed me just how much I have forgotten about taking pictures. I grew up taking photos on a Nikon F1, where the metering was automatic, but that was about it. Getting an SLR, even a fully automatic one, has been a real eyeopener for me, and how much different forms of technology can radically transform our skills, and not always for the better.

In that light, I decided to go out today, an unseasonably warm day here in Toronto, and take some photographs. Here they are. I should note that they are untouched and uncropped, the only change being that I had to rotate some of them!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Wiping my Brows

Looking at yesterday's post, with fresh eyes, I realise now that there are aspects of it that are pretty unclear. Rambling is an occupational hazard in blogging and I see that I'm pretty guilty of it.

I should also point out that this analysis works a lot better in North America than it does in Europe, and given much of what I'm getting at is North American, I'm not even going to begin transposing it to a European context.

I feel I'm carrying the "brow" heuristic too far, but it seems to be working and it's kind of fun, so (again, my apologies to Joshua Glenn, any errors in my analysis that refer to "brows" are mine and neither his, nor Russell Lynes', nor Hazlitt's...

So, what was I trying to get at yesterday? Some theses (feel free to disagree).

1) The idea of "classical music", as popularly conceived by both classical music lovers and those uninterested in classical music, is premised today on the idea that classical music is a form of highbrow culture. This is false. It is, with some exceptions, a predominantly middlebrow preoccupation, as much as indie rock, techno or jazz are today.

2) For all kinds of reasons, such as the development of recording technologies and the ensuing commodification of musical tastes, a bifurcation emerged which posited classical music as "highbrow" and popular music as "lowbrow", and while these on some levels reflected social and economic stata, they were also tied heavily into the marketing of music in the early 20th Century (for see Caruso).

3) At some point during this time, a cognitive dissonance emerged in people who enjoyed classical music. On the one hand, they enjoyed classical music, which, from a broad cultural perspective, was seen as elitist and highbrow for marketing reasons (I believe this in part to be because classical music was, generally more expensive to produce and lent itself less readily to the recording technologies of the time - a jazz standard could be made to fit on a single side of an LP- a Beethoven sonata, was not so forgiving), and so classical music lovers identified themselves as "highbrow".

However, given the middlebrow weight of interest in classical music, the middlebrow desire to impose their values on the highbrow and lowbrow populations led to the emergence of the desire to proselytise classical music to the lowbrow, chastising them for their lack of self-improvement. At the same time, the "highbrow" were chastised for not listening to popular music, a situation which sounds strangely familiar, doesn't it?

4) This has led us to where we are today, which is that we have a false dichotomy between high and middle in the bulk of North American classical music culture, where people identify themselves as highbrow but, for the most part, behave like middlebrows.

OK, I think that's clearer than yesterday. I suppose the question remains as to whether or not this is a good or a bad thing. I instinctively want to say it's a bad thing, but I'm not fully there yet, because I do enjoy the idea of exposing people to Beethoven and Bach even though they may not think they'll like it. Why?

Because that's how it happened with me. But then maybe I was destined to be a highbrow...I kid.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

On the Extinction of the Lowbrow in Musical Taste

The Transcontinental was intended to be primarily an arts and culture blog, but truth be told, dear readers, I have always been too lazy too keep up with the latest goings-on in the music/arts blogosphere.

Although this has likely cursed me to never make any of those top 50 classical music blog lists, it does offer me one advantage - the benefit of hindsight. I can read stuff, stew about it, forget it, remember again, forget again, and then, when I feel like it, trot it out to fill up some time during a slow afternoon.

So it is with the whole recent classical blogosophere dust-up about What got me thinking about this again was this post by Daniel Stephen Johnston, which linked to this post by Matthew Guerrieri.

Now back in July, when this came up initially, I had read the pieces by prominent critics and bloggers about, which denounced's "mandate" and explaining why is so problematic and perhaps threatens classical music itself. For reasons that will become clearer later, this rhetorical strategy is a clear representation of the classical blogosphere middlebrow consensus.

This is the same "consensus" that CBC used to market their changes over at CBC Radio 2, which was to stereotype classical music lovers as a small cabal of ignorant fools who have been denying others the opportunity to listen to Leonard Cohen at 8 in the morning. Moreover, in denying others, they have denied themselves of the wonderful richness that is music outside of the Pachelbel-to-Elliott Carter classical stranglehold.

When you think about this, the reaction to is rather curious - the very people whose professional lives are devoted to writing about classical music are those who are also first to denounce musoc's mandate. To them I ask - why are you so scared of Is it that it plays to some kind to horrible stereotype of the classical music snob, the straw men and women used all these years by the music industry as a trope to help define popular music as mass entertainment?

I admit there is some truth to this fear. I am often frustrated by the fact that, often, when I have a conversation with someone about music, and it invariably comes up that I listen/play to classical music, the immediate reaction is to look at me suspiciously and get somewhat defensive. Maybe this is really just a Canadian thing, but I suspect that this happens quite a lot to other classical music musicians/lovers, and as such, we have all taken on a kind of defense mechanism to reduce the inherent social conflict that comes with being someone who enjoys the music of Brahms.

But you scratch this surface just a little and you start to see that the issue for classical music critics and bloggers isn't merely one of taste, but also one of class. Someone who enjoys caviar simply must also enjoy a ham and cheese on white bread. Someone who enjoys Schubert Lieder simply must also enjoy Def Leppard, not because these things are any good (on either side of the equation) but because it's very impolite to portray mass culture as something less than high culture.

And what is even more remarkable about all of this is that there is now a website that it actually devoted to the analysis of this very strong pull towards the middle: Joshua Glenn's hilobrow. This website, which is part of the reason I have returned to blogging, helps to provide the kind of critique the classical music blogosphere needs right now, perhaps more than ever.

To be clear - I am not saying high culture is better than mass culture. What I am saying is that people on the high culture side of things feel a very great tendency to say out loud, and often, that they think mass culture is just as good as high culture. Indeed, Greg Sandow has pretty much sewn up a corner of the blogosphere by constantly proclaiming that the problem with classical music isn't just that it's the aesthetic equivalent of popular music, but that classical music must learn from popular music in order to survive.

I have wanted to critique Sandow's entire approach without the sneering condescension that most attacks on him constitute, in part because I believe his work is more representative of a theme as much as the sneering attacks how. Moreover, Sandow makes certain aesthetic assumptions in his work where he equates aesthetic value with economic value, but what has been lacking is a way of unpacking some of that in a way that avoids a purely economic reduction.

Hilobrow has given me the vocabulary to begin that critique (thank you again, Joshua Glenn!). So taking a page from Glenn's site, I would argue that Greg Sandow is the biggest representative of middlebrow attitudes in the classical blogosphere. Indeed, his telos is to assert the middlebrow consensus. And if the classical blogosphere is any kind of indication, he is winning.

What makes musoc.ord so unsettling to everyone is that musoc doesn't give a crap about popular music or mass taste. This desire to drag the highbrow people down into the middlebrow is, as Glenn makes manifest on his site, a defining characteristic of middlebrow culture.

There are two interesting observations from this. Firstly, this pull is a one-way street: I can't recall the last time I saw a classical music critic or blogger denounce a popular musician for saying that they thought classical music sucked. Secondly, given where these kinds of criticisms of classical music are coming from, is it safe to say that classical music itself, culturally speaking, is far more middlebrow than it ever was, or than Sandow and allied critics argue it to be?

Indeed, if Alex Ross' central thesis in The Rest is Noise is that classical music has somehow lost its central place in the cultural life of the West, isn't that in part because the economic and social elites no longer consider most classical music to be a highbrow activity, and not because the highbrow musicians lost the public, a public they likely never really had to begin with?

This kind of analysis, and I know I am using Joshua Glenn's terminology rather roughly here, seems, at least to me, to make a lot of sense. So let's take a look at some examples.

Take John Lennon. I think he wrote some great songs, but I think he was completely off base and ignorant about classical music. In fact, his disliking of classical music seems the obverse of the straw-man classical music snob. However, culturally speaking, Lennon gets a free pass from everyone because Lennon is on the right side of that one-way street.

What's even more interesting about this is that the classical music middlebrow consensus is constantly wanting to reassure the (putative) lowbrow music listener that they too have taste, even though the vast majority of people don't listen to classical music. What they are really doing is making it clear that the middlebrows are still the arbiters of taste, even though most people's complete indifference to classical music, and the classical music community's intense, nearly overwhelming desire to proselytize, to convert, the lowbrows over to the fold suggests the complete opposite. (Perhaps it is the middlebrow's guilt towards not listening to enough classical music that also contributes to this kind of attack - but maybe that's psychologizing a bit too much!)

It seems that, culturally speaking, the goalposts with respect to music have shifted completely, and that who has been lost in all this is the lowbrow. (I think Carl Wilson's book on Celine Dion is perhaps the clearest argument for this fact).

With the lowbrow effectively extinct as a cultural force in this triad of brows, what we have here is a hegemonic middlebrow community enforcing norms, on the few remaining holdouts (and let's be honest, there are very few) of all that's left, namely highbrow music. is fighting a rear-guard action to bring classical music back into the cultural highbrow, which is likely a hopeless task. In part this is because its status there has long been open to question (think of many of Beethoven's piano sonatas, who did he write them for?). At the same time, the classical music writers and bloggers who loathe are trying to keep the classical music-as-elitist-strawman alive because it keeps them in business, it is an enemy that allows them to continue to fight.

At best, my hope is that is something like The Chap, utopian and more related to the tenets of Surrealism than anything else. What it certainly isn't is a threat to classical music or its role in the cultural life of the world.

This also explains why figures like Boulez and Adorno figure so largely as villains in Ross' book, because they are both committed to finding a way to preserve highbrow music after the war. What I am beginning to suspect is that the flaw I felt in Ross' book, as much as I enjoyed it, was that the highbrow/middlebrow disctinction he sets up so well in the book is a false dichotomy, because classical music to nearly everyone means "Bach and Beethoven" and not "Boulez and Stockhausen", and that this is what classical music meant to people long before Schoenberg came along. (Nikil Saval actually argues this much better than I do around Ross' book at the n+1 site)

So where do we go from here? I am not sure, except that I am feeling more confident than ever that the answer to that question is nowhere.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


I live in a neighbourhood of churches. In either direction, in order for me to catch a streetcar, I have to pass by at least one church.

Every day, at least three out of seven times a week, there is a funeral at one of the churches. So many mornings, I walk past a hearse, sometimes laden, sometimes empty. I pass by people in black, local people, who must have black clothes just for this occasion, because they wear the same thing. I see flowers, and people crying, holding each others hands.

This morning there was no funeral, so as I made my way to my local convenience store, the church sat there empty. When I got to the store, it was closed, which is odd. However, there was a sign on the door, which told patrons that the man who ran the store had died and that the store would be closed until further notice.

I had seen him only a few days ago, tending to his store. He has a nice man, a bit taciturn as I find many people in my neighbourhood, but helpful and generous. In healthy communities I think one can say that local businesspeople have the air of a local figure, someone of some importance to our lives even if we never think about them outside of their business.

But I think of him now, and my last encounter. I had gone in there to buy dog food, and they were out of food, so I left without buying anything. Context is everything - the triviality of buying dog food becomes that last encounter with someone, the last smile, the last good bye.

Soon, there will be another morning funeral, and I will know the body that lies in the casket, in the hearse that parks half on the sidewalk,and half on Grace Street.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Worst Pop/Classical Analogy Ever?

There's a piece in Torontoist today about the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. It's a great piece with one exception - the writer compares Gustavo Dudamel to Mick Jagger.

Mick Jagger? Really? Of all the musical celebrities that come to mind when you see Dudamel on stage, and an 65-year old British rocker comes to mind? I'm all for poetic license,

So how about...Justin Timberlake? He's young and talented, like Dudamel, and more importantly, all the Mick Jagger fans at the big SARS concert here years ago booed him when he came on stage!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Underground Supper Clubs?

I do fret for my generation and, dare I say it, my class...

I do so especially when I see something like this piece on "underground" supper clubs. It seems that the latest score in culinary adventure is to go to a dinner party.

Except it's a dinner party which has, through the magic of capitalism and advertising, been turned into a commodity. No longer will you have to have drinks and dinner with an assemblage of friends and acquaintances who've slaved all day to prepare your meal, no, you can now pay to sit in a room full of strangers vetted by a guy who called his "club", I suspect without a trace of irony, the "anti-restaurant".

Hey, Chris's Burgers, I have another name for the "anti-restaurant" - eating at home. Bravo for finding a clever way to make money while circumventing local public health and alcohol rules at the same time.

Seriously, is that what passes for dissent amongst our chattering classes? A dinner party you have to pay for and bring your own alcohol to strikes me as hopelessly déclassé.

Look, I know that one isn't supposed to snark anymore on the Internet, but these supper clubs are a nothing more than a bait-and-switch where someone takes something utterly ordinary, dresses it up in some "exclusive" or "elitist" way, and people flock to them.

This isn't exclusivity, it's kitsch. And that's a word you'll be seeing a lot more of around here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Slap Chop

Is it just me, of does the guy in those Slap Chop ads on TV and everywhere else look a lot like Willem Dafoe? When I see these ads, which seem to play incessantly right now, I'm reminded of Orson Welles, who, in trying to fund his projects, would shill for frozen peas.

Nevertheless, one can imagine that if Dafoe needs some extra scratch to help fund the next Lars von Trier film, standing in for the Slap Chop guy looks like it would be an easy fit.

Before you all run away thinking I've sold my blog out, I haven't linked to the aforementioned Slap Chop, nor do I have any knowledge of its quality aside from the Dafoeganger's assertions. Just some random musings, which are better than never posting at all, right? Right?

Thursday, October 22, 2009


I cannot honestly say that my lack of posting has to do with being busy. I am very busy, but that has rarely stopped me before. Rather, I think that part of the reason why I'm not posting is the blogging for me is a kind of therapy, although I cannot put my finger on it, and I haven't really needed the therapy it provides me lately.

There is a very good reason for this - in the past two months, my skills as a piano player have increased dramatically. I have been practising and playing away pretty consistently now for 2 1/2 years, and I'm at the point that if I see an F# on the page, my hand just reaches over and plays it. I'm not longer "thinking" about finding the note - my hand is just there.

Do I always get it? No, but anyone who plays the piano who reads this blog, and I suspect those of you who do are far better keyboardists than I, will get what I'm saying - the mind concentrates more on nuance, while the body concentrates on execution. There is a kind of division happening, although the division reconciles itself in the outcome. I feel I am on the cusp of mastery.

So when I have a choice between writing on this blog, and playing Beethoven, I think you can appreciate that playing Beethoven wins. What is perhaps a little sad about this is that I feel that my mastery of writing, which has always been on the line, is slipping away from me.

I also feel I should clarify my use of "mastery". Am I claiming to be Schnabel or Pollini? No! I mean it more that if one takes learning something as the equivalent of climbing a hill, I feel I am on the other side. Now one always has to be careful about the other side of that hill - it can be treacherous, there is a risk of falling, but the practice of getting down the hill is a fundamentally different one from that of climbing.

Mastery, to me, is being on the descent. It's why I have finally started to look at the late Beethoven sonatas.


Now some of you may ask, why the alpine metaphors? I've been climbing. In fact, when I was in Alberta, I hiked up Mount Fairview. I had never done anything like this before, but the experience has the feeling of a wound that will never heal, and that is only stanched by climbing again. So next year I hope to scramble Mount Temple.

(This isn't a photo of Mount Temple, it's actually on the other side)

What does all of this mean for this blog? A few things have lately conspired to get me wondering what I'm up to here. There has been my desire to comment on stuff with vague political ramblings and linking. (It's interesting to consider the relationship between

However, perhaps most crucially, there has been this site: hilobrow, which I discovered via Crooked Timber.

I have to say, I absolutely love this site, not least for it's unrepentant defense of Theodor Adorno, perhaps the driest straw man in the entire blogosphere! (I mean, check out that Crooked Timber post, and pretty much every North American classical music blogger's post on Adorno. As much as I like him, I kind of blame Alex Ross for this. But that's not really an argument, so I will have to actually engage with that statement, as he is the big man on the virtual campus.

But not today (That will be on my tombstone...) Suffice to say that the anti-Adorno animus found on Crooked Timber is premised on the fact that he hated jazz and Disney. So many people say this to me that I no longer even find it funny, especially given many of those who say this to me never listen to jazz, in fact, I would go so far to say that they have no time for it. It's more a kind of shorthand to say "Adorno doesn't like kitsch and we do."

What exactly was Adorno wrong about?

I think that if I can faintly see a kind of vision for this blog, it is one that spends a lot of time defending Adorno. I think what the classical music blogopshere needs, more than anything, is someone willing to defend Adorno. I think that someone is going to be me. Unless I'm too late!

Really, just take a look at my blog title. Maybe writing about wine and talking about goulash and kitsch and Adorno would make this place just a bit more interesting, a bit more combative, and a bit more me.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Left - In our Heads

They argue too much. With each other. Too much arguing, not enough lefting. I kid, sort of...but bear with me.

After a while, arguing feels an awful lot like doing stuff, but it's not, except when arguing is doing something. I mean, it sure feels like doing something - you get all hot and bothered, you have trouble sleeping because someone wrote a mean blog response to your blog post, and it goes on and on.

Blogging is an activity, isn't it? Changing people's minds, one hit at a time, right? Arguing is even engaging, right?

I love critiques. If someone could write a critique like Kant did, back in the day, when people just sort of up and stopped doing entire swaths of philosophy, because Kant came up and closed the door on it, and then padlocked it, these problems wouldn't happen, would they?

But we know that's not going to happen again because Kant, the conditions that made his critique possible and the ways in which we know things have changed so much that one can safely say that the door is no longer there to be closed. Got a problem with someone, no matter how outrageous? You've got a platform.

And so I, like many before and after me, hung out our shingles and tried to talk politics, and I really feel I tried. I joined the conversation.

But those blog commenters! What stamina! Who has the time to engage them? To incessantly be at them, to play bugbear to their troll?

How long did I last? Seven months? And now, the tepidity of my political entries, the thin gruel of my iconoclasm, are a point of shame for me.

So where is this strange rambling post going? It's going to the old saw of doing vs. thinking, of writing vs. building stuff. One sees, in the light of the economic colapse, the twilight of the left around the world. What gives? Was it really only a year ago that many of us thought that the moment would be siezed and we would be looking at a very different world?

But, and this is the kicker, was the problem really that everyone was too busy blogging about the collapse of capitalism to actually try to build something new? Remember people, comment patrolling is work! Blogging is work!

Back to the question though - I feel the answer is no. Most of us, in our own ways, are both in the online world and, perhaps unsurprisingly, eat and sleep and go to art museums and church and defecate like real people too, you know, like in Ulysses.

And I suspect a lot of those people, and a lot of bloggers, participate in the world. And we participate in the world by allowing governments and corporations to be who they are, because it's too much work to do things any other way. I think sometimes why I walk away from the online world is that there continues to be something strangely shameful about it, in that it reveals me for someone bourgeois enough to talk about my life and things I think about it in public, but never about the things I do in my life that affect actual people.

Maybe the issue then, and the issue in the post I linked to way up above is that somehow all this talk among the left, all these critiques, all these posts and forums, is that they all feel like statistics, as in statistical reports. We are all sitting around reading statistics everyday. And helping out in a soup kitchen doesn't help, because after a while the people you help also start to become statistics.

To sum up, blogs lack the taste of the real.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Blowing our Minds

When one reads this article, it's hard not to smack your head and think "of course, why didn't anyone really think about this before?"

Could this be the final copernican turn, that we are not the end of the evolutionary path? I hope so.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Question to the Classical Blogosphere

Why is it that a disproportionate number of classical music bloggers have elected to truncate their posts for RSS feeds? Is it some kind of desperate desire to know how many people are reading them? Maybe the siren call of google ads tempts them too much to allow people access to their free content?

Really, I'm just curious.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


There is a great essay right now in the New Republic on Ayn Rand. There is some wonderful writing in it, and the final paragraph is fantastic.

I think it's safe to say to my readers that I'm not fan of Ayn Rand, so the essay offered little to me in the way of contrary opinions. However, I have one concern with the essay.

It argues that Objectivism is the obverse of Marxism. However, Marx wrote a critique of capitalism. Communism is the outcomes of this massive analysis, and whether one likes it or not, has a lot of intellectual merit.

Rand, on the other hand, appears to have been simply, a deeply narcissistic person, and wrote a few books that allowed other narcissists to feel they had a moral basis for their own narcissism. I don't detect analysis in her work so much as a deep desire for the world to be as it was in her own mind.

Analysis of the world vs. Desire for world to be just like me doesn't strike me as terribly obversive.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

An Observation

The linguistic philosophy of Jacques Derrida is quite similar to that of Wilfid Sellars. The fact that one is derided as a charlatan and the other as an important, if perhaps obscure, philosopher reminds that that, even in philosophy, it seems that sociology is the true Queen of the Sciences.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A Quick Question

Why is this news?

Before I opened the link I was pretty sure that the Globe would post a photo Julie Couillard in that dress. And the Globe delivered.

A, uh, nice snapshot of the mainstream media at this time.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

(no title)

I step onto the streetcar last night, black clouds again threatening downtown. I sit, and watch a man sit in the seat ahead and across from mine.

He was immaculately dressed. He wore a grey flannel pinstripe suit, brown oxfords and grey socks, with a white shirt and pale blue tie with orange diagonal stripes. He was deeply tanned, and looked as though he had just had his hair cut, and I suspected that he looked this way every day.

He carried a small brown briefcase made of calfskin, and from it he pulled paper from it talking about opening an account.

Then the real fun began - what did he do? Was he a banker? Seemed a little north for that...a bureaucrat? Maybe, sometimes political staffers dress this way, but there was something just not quite right about that, an ease with which he carried himself that made me suspect that he didn't spend his days being barked at by the former real estate agent from wherever who is now the Minister of Whatever.

It occured to me that he might work selling clothes, at Holt Renfrew or Harry Rosen, but there is often an undertone to people who work there, the scent of people who spend all their time catering to the rich, and indeed are outfitted like the rich, and yet none of it is theirs. He lacked this quality.

So imagine my surprise when I find myself at the Royal Ontario Museum, having lunch with my mom and my son, and this very man walks past me, in the same suit, and walks back into "employees only" part of the cafeteria at the ROM, which they call the Food Studio, as I suppose it allows them to charge more for juice boxes.

He works at a museum, in food services...the mind strains, maybe he's a curator I wonder, even though any ROM curators I've met so far would have trouble tying a clip-on, let alone master the sartorial depths of this gentleman.

No, let's just let this one play out. He works in a big, beautiful museum, running the food services department (food services - could there be a less gustatory term for providing people with nourishment?).

Never in a million years would I have imagined that.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Back to Paper

Last week, after again reading some news article online and then rubbernecking at some of the moronic comments left at its footer, I decided that I would avoid reading newspapers online, save for the New York Times, which doesn't allow comments beneath its articles.

Why? Regular readers know I don't like a lot of online commenting (maybe that's why no one ever comments here....hmmmm....uh oh), and I've decided that maybe I should do something about it.

So far, going back to reading things in print has been a pretty pleasant experience. One's tastes tend to be more catholic - I find myself reading a lot of articles that I wouldn't bother with online, and, frankly, as an aesthetic experience, reading a paper is vastly more satisfying than reading on a desktop.

I still believe there's too much heft to most papers, especially on weekends. I do believe that there's a market in Toronto for a small "daily briefing" kind of paper, something cosmopolitan, that situates local news in a broader context alongside thoughtful, mixed commentary. In other words, something along the line of the Financial Times (still bar none my favourite paper), but closer to the size of the local free papers.

I believe that people starving for this kind of thing would pay well for it, just to avoid the ads. All that remains is for someone to start this paper!

By the way, if all this sounds familiar, it's because I've written on the same thing before. Think of it as online recycling.

Friday, August 07, 2009

No More Promises

I just finished reading Genesis. A few thoughts:

1) Joseph is the most pious character in Genesis, and therefore the least likable, when taking Genesis as a literary whole.

2) Much of Genesis concerns God favouring someone, and that someone screwing up, usually pretty badly, leaving God with egg on his his face, because, being God, he doesn't feel as though he can renege. But he always keeps trying, until he just kind of absents himself from the second half of the book, with lots of "God of your father" stuff, and not a lot of God actually being around. Compare and contrast this with Jesus' feelings about his apostles, which often borders on exasperation.

3) My favourite character in Genesis is Esau, in part because his name shows up in a disproportionate number of crossword puzzles.

4) If there is anything to be learned from Genesis, it's to never trust your siblings.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Internet and Shame

One man posts a video of his child driving a car, and suddenly this is some great no-no, an act of unbridled stupidity?

Isn't going out onto a backcountry road and getting a taste of adulthood one of the great joys of childhood? I would like to know how people haven't had this experience as children. Would a video of a child toasting and sipping some wine at Christmas meet with the same approbation? After all, drinking under age is illegal, isn't it?

It seems here that what's really wrong is posting the video. In this way the Internet seems far, far less like a democratic forum, where people vote and deliberate, and more like a courtroom, where people judge and sentence others. This distinction seems be and large to have been lost on people.

So as one fixes their lives online, those lives get fixed to the law, and out the window are all the informal and subtle rules and pleasures of a culture.

I promise soon to post more optimistic things! I am just getting the hang of things after a long absence.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Some Notes Around West Queen West

I took a walk along Ossington yesterday. During the day, the strip retains it's pre-hip entertainment area feel, which is to say, relatively quiet and rather charming.

At the foot of Ossington, I turned west along Queen and walked all the way to Gladstone. Along my way, I was stopped by a young man on a bike, who told me he had just gotten out of jail, and that he didn't want to do anything stupid to get some money, and was wondering if I could help him out. I said I was sorry, that I had no money (which was true, I rarely have money on me), and he biked off down Queen Street.

I've been asked for money many, many times here in Toronto, but this was the first time someone had actually implied to me that a) he was going to "do something", as in go rob a store, if I didn't give him some money, the implication then being that I would be somehow responsible for his bad action, and/or b) that I might in fact become the victim of his inability to acquire money. Maybe even right now.

Either choice put the onus on me to prevent harm, to myself or to others. In other words, he feared his own incontinence, or more precisely, he felt that conveying this as his de facto marketing strategy was a way of standing out amongst the local begging community, most of whom are mentally ill and therefore, at least to me, have become a kind of secular mendicant class in our post-institutional society.

I am genuinely curious to know if it works for him, although I am little desire to encounter him again.


Moments after this experience, I strolled into the Drake General Store. The Drake Hotel, credited with "revitalizing" this part of Queen Street, has expanded this revitalization to include pornographic colouring books and vintage Mickey Mouse trapeze toys.

Yes, there really are pornographic colouring books. I don't really see the fun in colouring this kind of stuff, really, wouldn't it be more fun to draw, but there you have it. As for the Mickey Mouse trapeze toy, I mention it because a) I had one as a child, and b) they are selling them for $20. A quick search on the Internet reveals the average price of this toy to be around $5. If mine still exists, I would be happy to kind of split the difference and sell it to one of my readers for $10. If there are any takers you know how to get in touch with me.

It might come as a surprise to you that despite it's name, the Drake General Store has little in the way of things that one might associate with general stores of yore, you know, things like food and blankets. I suspect this is some kind of ironic ploy on their part, a wink in the direction of their clientele that what is general about the store is its diffuse range of kitschy objects.

Nevertheless, I can imagine some hapless tourist, in need of band-aids, finding their way into the Drake General Store and being slightly disappointed and somewhat confused. Especially with the neon purple Swiss cross hanging outside the door.

Oh, and another thing, the guy in the store said nothing and looked at no one. This may come as a surprise to you, but my Drake hotel experiences have been generally good, and the staff friendly and courteous, so I was a little bit surprised by this. Perhaps he'd just coloured outside the lines of the "Behind the Green Door" page of his colouring book and was sulking.


Once I hit Gladstone, I decided to walk north, off Queen street and into the residential neighbourhood. It was only then that it hit me - I do not like this strip of Queen street anymore. It was visceral actually, a kind of revulsion at the fact that there is a brand new poutine...(store? restaurant? poutinerie? (I think the last one is correct) poutinerie, run by a pair of very nice guys who have built a very nice place that sells...just poutine. Poutine. It's good poutine, by the way, but that's not the point.

Have I mentioned before how many local places around here have a house poutine? Many. And yet most of them fail to be as good as what one can get at a Harvey's in Montreal. Not that I eat much poutine, mind you, but I have yet to convinced of its ascension into the pantheon of dishes worthy of extensive culinary experimentation, its value as an aesthetic object. This is mostly because of bad gravy.

Toronto, just as you've only begun to wake to the possibilities of very fine coffee, you seem to be years away from gravy that doesn't taste like it was once powder contained in a foil-lined pouch. And yet, we can already see that poutine's brief star is waning, to be soon replaced by the grilled cheese sandwich.

If the hipster Pravda that is Blogto is right, and they usually are, there will be many nice establishments selling $16 grilled cheese sandwiches using only 16 kinds artisinal cheese from Ancaster Bros Farm pre-blended exclusively for the local grillé-fromagerie. And nothing else.


If one detects a certain malaise coming out as a kind of inchoate rage here, I apologize. If it is not to your liking, I would direct you to many of the fine blogs I link to on my sidebar. I just feel the need to say, kind of publicly, that West Queen West is not going to be a very nice place to live or visit in about 4 years. I could be wrong, but I suspect I won't be.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Why the Internet reminds me of Analytic Philosophy

This isn't really meant as a dig, but it's going to come across this way, for exactly the reasons I'm about to explain.

Why do I hate most blog comments? Why does so much e-mail come across the wrong way? Conversational Implicature, my friends! For all the great things that the Internet can do, like distribute free pornography and cures to erectile dysfunction to the huddled masses, one thing it appears to be lousy at, as a medium, is revealing a writer's intention. Beats me why, especially when the same words in a newspaper or a magazine seem to be more charitably taken than on the net.

And when I say I'm reminded of analytic philosophy, I simply mean that there is a kind of correlation here between what we focus on, like prepositions and what we leave out, like hand and facial gestures. The Internet seems to be a really horrible for the gesture.

Case in point is Russell Smith's column in the Globe and Mail yesterday, where he proposes a writing contest that parodies canlit. Now generally Smith gets slagged in the comments because he's too high-brow for the donut munching proletarians who troll the Globe site. Of course, this is because they miss the point of his writing, they miss his style.

So I find it especially amusing that when Smith asserts that he has a style, people are quick to point out that he really doesn't, because they completely miss his style, which is in full view in this very column - his sardonic wit tempered by a certain gentility, his aesthetic curiosity tempered by a strong sense of taste.

That everyone misses this isn't really Smith's fault, it's theirs, isn't it? I mean, do we really all have to write in such a way as the analytic philosophers believed language worked at the turn of the century, in declarative sentences which leave no content out for the reader to infer? Isn't this also what garbage like the plain language movement is about?

Could it be that the Internet effaces style? I have long wondered this myself, looking at my own prose on this site and often finding it wanting. Anyway, if you have an opinion on this matter, feel free to share it!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Apotheosis

Friends, I don't know why I write here anymore. Perhaps it's boredom, ennui, malaise, meloncholoy, or any of the other emotional by-products of Romanticism.

Anyway, I write now because I just attended a meeting so devoid of content, so empty of meaning, that I believe it important that its existence be preserved. So let this blog post be this meetings memorial fromaldahyde....

How do I justify this? As I watched my colleagues grope around trying to fill the hour's space with sufficient words, I detected the outline of every single meeting I have ever been to. Indeed, I believe now that virtually every meeting any of us attend takes this shape. This meeting, far from being a mere moment of my time, is a moment of every single one of our lives.

In this meeting's emptiness lay its sublimnity.

The meeting proceeded as follows:

1) Food and beverage between the main parties, supplemented by fawning courtesy from both sides.

2) The heads of each party explain their role, no, their telos, within the organization followed by an expression of shared interests and mutual solidarity, followed by examples of "that time we worked together and things went well".

3) This is followed by someone's (there is always someone) expression of existential despair by recounting the time something "didn't work". Although the reasons for something failing to work properly are usually the result of fate and not the actions of the agents involved, nevertheless, pointless questions have been raised and must be addressed.

4) Now to the heart of the matter - the reification of the individual's existential despair into a formal problem which must be solved by the introduction of a process. Usually some kind of collaboration is suggested, people are teamed up, partnered, accountability is affirmed and the meeting is adjourned.

5) Missives, both electronic and paper, are issued, thakning everyone for their mandatory participation and looking to the future, which is about three weeks, as the "formal" outcomes of the meeting are forgotten and the intial procedural gaits are recovered.

If this does not seem familiar to you, please feel free to let me know.

Also, there's a delightful article in today's New York Times about the hipster love of taxidermy. Had I been on top of things I could have beat this story to the punch with my own short film on taxidermy, but alas, I will have to be a trendsetter by stipulation'll have to take my word for it. All that being said, the blog of one of those featured in the article is very nice.


Friday, June 05, 2009

Some Thoughts on Persian Rugs

I have been recently enjoying a new blog, چهارباغ.

The author has been displaying some beautiful rugs on his site, and it puts in mind of my own encounter with a rug so powerful that I sought out a similar kind of rug for years, never to find one, and ultimately forgetting about it until his recent series of posts.

My only visit to New York City was in February of 1996. Through chance and pluck, the person I was staying with was a professional conductor who had led, among other groups, the New York Philharmonic. He had a beautiful Upper West Side apartment, with a view overlooking the Hudson River.

Here I was, a conducting student, hanging out with a guy who had not only made it, but he had made it in New York. I could brag about all the great things that happened those 5 days I was there, but none of that is really important anymore.

What I remember better than anything on that trip is the feel of a small silk orange and red patterned rug he had next to his piano. I would stand there for literally hours, barefoot, just feeling the rug with my feet, never touching it with my hands. It was unbelievably soft, cool, but not cold, yet never seemed to warm to my touch.

I cannot recall its provenance - he had been given it by someone a long time ago, and he would exercise on it. (Just so none of you think I was being cheeky about walking barefoot on it, it was he who had suggested it in the first place!)

When I returned to Calgary, I set out to find a rug just like it, or enough like it that my feet, would be able to experience perhaps the only true joy they have ever known.

I have long forgotten about that rug, but I am in sore need of a new one now, and perhaps it's time to take up the search again.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Why Haven't I Been Writing?

It's a good question. One which I have no answer for!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Tautological Aphorism VI

Taxpayers demand accountability when it comes to their tax dollars, and they expect governments to spare no expense ensuring every tax dollar is properly accounted for.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Maybe Marlowe painted it with the help of Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere

I know that I ususually have nothing but contempt for online story commenters, but CBC has a story about the authentic portrait of Shakespeare where I encourage you to read the comments, because they're hilarious.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Anton Kuerti on....Cars

The Globe and Mail has found yet another way to talk to classical musicians about anything except boring old stuffy classical music. Boooring!

Today, there's a profile of Kuerti and his car. Turns out he's very practical and doesn't like to drive. Also, he's rather left-wing (good lord!).

Come to think of it, this is actually a pretty damn brave article to slap in the middle of the Globe's Car section...if I owned a car, I would listen to his recording of the Beethoven piano sonatas on my CD player every day. I love them that much.

Sorry things have been quiet around here. They will be for a while longer, probably until May. Carry on!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Statues of Queen's Park II: Al Purdy

I snapped these at a rather different time of year, as a follow up to a series of posts I started nearly two years ago!

They are of the statue of the poet Al Purdy. Here's hoping that Chris Miller makes his way over here again to let us know what he thinks of both the statue and the photos...

Who would have thought that a forarm vein could be so compelling? Does anyone else remember how, in our youth, these veins were a sure sign of physical strength?

To be honest, I'm not quite sure of the pose - contemplative? But why? Or, why like this? Beats me.

I think this is a better angle...although you wouldn't know it because of the sun...

This one is also nice:

I do believe he is not only the first poet to be honoured with a statue at Queen's Park, he's the first artist.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Big Sale at the Monkey's Paw!

Toronto's Best Bookstore, The Monkey's Paw, is having a very big sale for the month of February. I cannot really describe the place, although some nice folks at BlogTO have tried, so I encourage you just to visit both their site and the store itself, across from the LCBO at Dundas and Dovercourt.

Now although I have already been to the sale, and bought all the interesting and incredibly inexpensive books, I am willing to broach the possibility that you, the five basement-dwelling individuals who read this blog outside of my family (he there!), may have different tastes from mine.

So just go and visit. You will not be disappointed. And if you tell him you read about the sale on the Transcontinental, he won't give you a discount, so don't even bother, or bother, but don't blame me if he says no.

On Memory

Perhaps it is the impending milestone, but my thoughts have lately been turning to how much I have forgotten over my lifetime.

What triggered this today? I was browsing through the archives of the Varieties of Unreligious Experience, and I realised that I do not remember most of what was written here in May of 2005. And I don't mean that I don't remember the arguments, I mean that I do not remember them at all.

This is rather unsettling. In 2006, when I started blogging, the Varieties, along with a few other blogs, were pretty much the essence of my online existence. I read everything that came out, and I've gone back and read them again. And pretty much everything Conrad writes is excellent, and more importantly, it's memorable.

At least I think it is, when I reread it there, for the first time.


Beyond my own forgetting, and my long struggle to improve my memorization skills (I have what appears often to be an excellent memory, but a terrible ability to memorize), I am also watching my 4 year son going through what I call the Great Forgetting.

What do I mean by this? As a toddler, he had a fantastic memory, not only of his things, but of places he had been, and things he had done. Over the past 6 months, as he has become more of a little boy, he has forgotten a lot things which he remembered even a few weeks ago.

His brain seems to be going through a process where much of his young childhood is disappearing - he has forgotten some very significant things. Yet he still has the fantastic nearly photographic memory of a child - he just no longer remembers himself at a point in time where it would be wonderful if he did.

And then the worry becomes, given my own memory, who will remember him as a little boy? How much do we lose? And yet I've never really understood the desire to videotape or photograph everything, to capture each moment in time, so one ends up living the great moments of one's life behind some device that will allow one to watch it, perhaps, some time later.


And so I read the Varieties from 2006, and I think of my own blogging since then, and how much of my intellectual disengagement has to do with my inability to remember all these facts and strands of thought which, not so long ago, came so easily. This blog has taken the turns it has, in part, because I cannot remember why I write in the first place.

So this blog has been a depiction of a life as anti-bildung, of a desire for progress that never comes. Progress as something I expect to show up, in a big white Cadillac with horns on the front, to deliver me from the work that has always needed to be done. That it is memory, and not process, that allows one to grow.

However, one thing I can say - I remember all of my own work. At least for now.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Hipster as an Artifact of Late Capitalism, Part I: The Black Hoof

It was our honeymoon. We were freshly off the plane, jet lagged, and I was hungry. However, as we were in Milan, and it was about 3 in the afternoon, not much was open.

So we wandered in search of food, happening upon a grocery store. We ambled in, and I grabbed a plastic-wrapped prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich.

And that was it. The prosciutto was sweet and succulent, with just enough saltiness to enhance the flavours present without it. It was beautiful.

I spent the rest of my honeymoon eating as much prosciutto as possible. Returning to Toronto, I was dismayed to discover the truth that many of us discover upon our returns - the good stuff doesn't travel.

For years, I sought out decent prosciutto, which, at the very least, would compare to the inexpensive sandwich-grade prosciutto I found at that Milanese grocery store. Occasionally I would happen upon some good stuff, usually at St. Lawrence Market, but it was never consistent - fine prosciutto one week became the salty-dried porcine husk you were sliced and handed two weeks later.

As reliability is the cornerstone of consumer choice, I flailed wildly about in my pursuit, hoping that one day, I would find a deli that delivered the prosciutto I had savoured Italy, all the time. But to no avail.

Local restaurants were not much better, and vastly more expensive. The much vaunted Terroni, purveyor of traditional southern Italian food, generally served disappointing Canadian prosciutto.

Here I must make a confession - I have never understood Toronto's love of Terroni's, and with it the long line ups that snake out the door of the Queen Street location. I have been there a number of times, in part because so many people love the place, rave about it, would throw themselves into the lake if it closed down.

Yet each time I found it lacking, especially when the bill came - how much for pizza and water? Really? So I remain unconvinced, but I haven't been there in 5 years now, so what good is my opinion at this stage?

Anyway, one evening, we visited a lonely restaurant on Stracahan, just off the Queen West strip. It was called Bollicine. And it was there that I tasted what I had longed for, that Proustian moment of biting into a soft mound of cured ham and being transported instantaneously to Verona - the dislocation of time and space through ham.

Each time we returned to Bollicine I encountered the same delicious prosciutto. Bollicine's prosciutto, as well as their other food, came as close to real Italian food as anything I had experienced here in Toronto. And remarkably, Bollicine was the nearest restaurant (at the time) to our place in Liberty Village.

So it should come as no surprise to any of you that Bollicine went out of business.


That was 3 years ago. A lot has changed since then. Back when I wrote this piece on Ossington, the piece that is, far and away, the most read piece on The Transcontinental, my one true "hit", which, in the greatest irony, has a mistake in it so egregious that I am surprised that no one has ever called me on it, a mistake which I have now corrected having noticed it but which a trace remains for those who bother to look for it.

I now live on Grace Street. So I am actually much closer to Ossington than I was back when first found myself interested in what was happening in the area, the area which feels most like my neighbourhood in Toronto for reasons which I cannot entirely fathom.

And like all the other failed projects the choke this blog, that entry to be part of a series of pieces on what I'll name the Trinity-Bellwoods district, which is, without a doubt, the epicentre of Toronto's cultural consciousness.

One of those pieces was going to be on Dundas Street, which, like Ossington at the time, was undergoing a similar kind of transformation. It would have been nice to be able to show you what has changed over the years, but I can't, because I never got around to it, just as so many things cannot be resumed simply because time has passed, and what once seemed necessary now seems irrelevant.

All I can show you is now. And are fewer places that are more now than the Black Hoof, which, like Bollicine, now has the distinction of being the restaurant nearest to my current home.

They themselves lack a website, although given the near unanimous praise, the Black Hoof, whose name is an Anglicisation of a Spanish ham and not the 19th Century Chief of the Shawnee, is pretty much the hottest thing going.

It is always busy. I know this because I walk by it all the time. Because it is right next to where I live. And as you know from my own story, I have a special love for cured meats, which, supposedly, is a "craze" in Toronto these days.

So it should come as no surprise to any of you that I went there one night with a friend. This is what we had:

The prosciutto was, frankly, underwhelming. But the Serrano ham was a revelation, a soft little mountain of piggy heaven that nearly brought me to tears of delight. More astounding, through some kind of gustatory alchemy, it made all the other meats on the slab taste really, really good.

Now the evening wasn't entirely without its problems. Firstly, they forgot our order. This was especially despairing as we sat directly across from the guy who sliced all the meat. So we sat there, watching him slice meat, delicious meat, none of it intended for us. Eventually, we asked what was going on, and apologies were made, and we were brought a variety of free cocktails.

Unfortunately, what would have been ever nicer than the wonderful free cocktails would have been more meat. If you bother to read the review I've linked to, you may notice that people talk of the place's affordability. It's true - the place isn't that expensive, but a plate of sliced meat, perhaps surprisingly, doesn't actually leave someone terribly sated, especially if they've been plied with apologetic cocktails.

Nevertheless, we left the place astounded, the heaped upon praise fully justified, and we were happy to part with our money for the experience.

The next day, I reflected on our meal, and I wondered why The Grizzly House kept leaping to mind.

I had (have) long entertained the idea of opening a fondue and hot rock restaurant here in Toronto, a place where you slice meat and vegetables and then charge people to cook it themselves. Moreover, elements of the Grizzly House aesthetic (tacky, thrown together, everyday things at exclusive prices) constitute a core part of the Queen West/Dundas West/Ossington aesthetic, wherein the hipster culture that fuels these places finds increasingly sophisticated and expensive ways to fuel their love of the grubby.

The Black Hoof, like other recent additions to the area, embodies the area's hipness, which is to unabashedly charge its patrons a lot of money for something deliberately unremarkable.

"Hypocrisy! Andrew, you enjoyed the place, you loved it, you obsessed over sliced meat for months after going there, you thought of taking your son, as he too has a weakness for cured meats. How can you castigate them?"

Please do not misunderstand me, but let's be clear. They slice meat and mix drinks. And people can't get enough of it. They do stuff with marrow and pork belly too, which is also delicious, but what it isn't is remarkable. What's remarkable is that people have never encountered any of this before, what's remarkable is that sliced meat and cocktails is something new and astounding.

How strangely provincial this amazement over the Black Hoof is. Here we are, in a big, cosmopolitan city, and yet here in the heart of Little Portugal, right next to Little Italy, a block from a butcher, and people speak of the Black Hoof as though they had just seen that man had upon the moon strode.

I ask you - Do they slice their meat in a special way? Does the love they make their drinks with make them more alcoholic? Does the white enamel stove they have with the electric burners cook pork belly more consistently? Is it horrifying to simply say no, they don't?

What is truly remarkable is that my neighbourhood is chock a block with restaurants and furniture stores and art galleries that are premised on the improvement of the mass market everyday, a revolution in culinary and aesthetic experience of the everyday the likes of which no one has ever encountered.

Their aesthetic program, and it is both aesthetic and a program (indeed, one restaurant advertises their ideology on their website) is to elevate the industrial, mass-market goods that we all grew up with, grew out of and grew to despise, and convert them into art. The slavish care once reserved for coq au vin is now lavished on the hamburger.

There is a word for all this, my friends- it's KITSCH.

The dark heart of the latte-slurping vintage hipster elite West Queen Dundas West Ossington denizens is nothing more and nothing less than than a conception of taste that is the deliberate, cultivated, self-conscious absence of taste.

Closer to home, the Black Hoof now looks like an ill fit for this grand thèse. And this is probably why I would still recommend the Black Hoof - it is not their fault that cured meats were somehow non-existent to Torontonians (of a certain socio-economic class) until they (that class) "discovered" them.

Although the Black Hoof is the cause of these renewed reflections on my world, it is not, by any stretch, a neat example of the thesis which knits them together. Much better is the fact that most restaurants in the area have a house poutine. Just say those words together - house poutine.

"Yes, waiter, I'll have the house poutine. No, I'll eat it here, and tell the cook not to scrimp or char the carmelized onions!"

But that's to come. Or, if this blog is to be at all consistent, this will be the only post ever.

Or, the first stop will be Burger Shoppe Quality Meats.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

General Strikes are Awesome

France is having one right now.

That, my friends, is social and civil solidarity. Could we ever have one here in Canada? Could we have had one this week if the government had tabled a lousy budget and the Liberals supported it out of their own political expdiency?

Oh right....Tant pis.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Et tu, Harpe?

Watching the Federal Budget, it was hard not think that Stephen Harper has produced a budget that both manages to rehabilitate Bob Rae's 1991 Ontario Budget, you know, the legendary one where he went all Keynesian on Ontario and everyone freaked out (the beginning of the conservative "turn" in Canadian politics), and also repeat Conservative history. He is miming Mulroney's government which, when faced with cutting or spending, chose the latter.

Now all that remains is for the Liberals to step in and restore financial order to the federal government, while conservatives demand tax cuts "more responsible spending" from those "tax-and-spend" liberals. With the cycle complete, Canadians can rest assured that their cherished myths of the Canadian political landscape are still intact.

But what's also interesting is that the Conservatives really do seem believe in their own cardboard cut-out version of "the left". "We'll give them the budget they want, which will be all about huge deficits and all that other crazy crap they like, and they'll love it." Tilt at those windmills, Tories!

I guess we'll see.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


For no good reason at all, beyond that I am impetuous and find my blogging here increasingly distracted by bits and pieces, I have created a new blog just for those bits and pieces over here.

My hope is that it will be the Modernist component to my overall intellectual project.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


It seems that tenor Jon Villars, who was meant to have sung Florestan in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Fidelio, has walked off because "he hasn't mastered the role".

Yikes.....what does one say to that?

The COC remains a source of drama, both on and off stage!

A Community Service

With the demise of the Queen West Home Depot, the Torontoist, among others, would have you believe that the Queen West area is bereft of a steady supply of lumber.

For you see friends, despite the fact that the main readers of Torontoist and other Internet broadsheets are downtowners, their sensibility vis a vis many kinds of consumer goods is clearly suburban.

Some time ago, I documented Leah McLaren's lamentable ignorance of lumber and hardware stores in her area.

However, we expect ignorance from Ms. McLaren.

But to hear the Torontoist say:

Too bad that this latest bit of news means that the only victory for the locals is a hollow one: instead of ma and pa hardware stores getting pushed out of the community, some other ma and pa stores will instead; and instead of having a cheap and expansive hardware shop around the corner to buy lumber and paint from, they'll continue to have to mold things they find in the trash into other things with their bare hands, because that is what everyone on Queen West does when they need to make stuff.

Although it is apparent that the author's tongue is slightly against his cheek, nevertheless, I can no longer live with a misconception that hurts our local businesspeople!

Someone needs to take action.

So, in the public interest of those at Queen and Bathurst and its environs, here are the names of two, count them TWO, hardware/lumber stores within walking distance of said intersection!

1. There's Downtown Lumber at 172 Ossington Avenue, (416) 532-2813. I have purchased lumber from them, and they will even cut it to measure, for free.

2. Even closer is ML Lumber at 856 Dundas Street West, (416) 603-7878. Although I have never purchased lumber from them, they have an excellent hardware selection as well as a tool rental service.

Here's hoping to never again hearing an online hipster lament the lack of hardware and lumber in this area.

Thank you.

A Conversation about Biodiversity

Charlie Rose recently hosted a panel on his show talking about biodiversity. It's great stuff. Not much else to say except that you should watch it, and yes, this blog is well on its way to becoming a video link aggregator.

But it's an intelligent video link aggregator...Right?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

National Film Board Now Online

The NFB has digitized their collection, so now I can do stuff like this:

This is Arthur Lipsett's 21-87, a very well-known experimental film, and also the inspiration for the Force. Seriously.

If Canadians were just a little bit more myopic, our identity "problems" would be over. Oh yes, and if we all also spoke French and English and Cree (at least).

Or better yet, Finnish. Seriously. (Some other time)

Anyway, what the NFB has done is really tremendous. It also shows, contra Philip Marchand's ridiculous article in the National Post musing about why Canadians can't name many national authors, shows that both greatness and government funding can go hand in hand.

I will take a stab at mocking Marchand's article next week - but today, I will watch, what is, for many Canadian boys my age, the greatest NFB film - the Hockey Sweater!!!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Happy America Day

The overwhelming response to my suggestion that we open up this whole playlist idea to Canadians themselves was unsurprising. Indeed, one could infer that this says something about Canadians! Or no one reads this blog....but who needs empiricism when one can idly speculate?

It seems that the only thing that Canadians are less passionate about than say, Canadian politics, is, uh, Canadian identity. Unless it's trying to tell Americans what Canada is all about, and then we're really interested. Indeed, most of our soul searching revolves around trying to tell Americans what we're all about, because they're the audience that matters, they matter far more than we do.

So everyone around me, and indeed the world it seems, will gather to observe and celebrate the inauguration of the President of the United States, all kind of wishing we were Americans today after eight years of thanking God that we weren't. Which is odd. Really odd.

I really don't get any of it. Call me a curmudgeon, but I'd like to think my indifference is more a growing sense of cosmopolitanism than good old fashioned Canadian parochialism and resentment toward those "exciting" Americans.

Only time will tell.