Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Nutcracker

Merry Christmas!

NPR in the States has a nice article on the ETA Hoffmann's creation of the Nutcracker story and its, transformation into the ubiquitous ballet.  It's a nicely researched piece, and even quotes a German professor!


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Charles Rosen

has died.  So I know that it does look like this blog is becoming an obit page for classical artists, but I had just started rereading The Classical Style a few weeks ago, and was looking to actually get through his books on sonatas and romantic music.  Moreover, his book on the Beethoven piano sonatas has been my main source of interpretive commentary for years when it comes to actually playing them, and I'm not sure if we will ever see someone like him again.

I guess this is maybe my point in highlighting these deaths, because it seems to me that, far more than when Karajan, or Solti, or Bernstein passed on, these deaths are signalling the end of an era.

I find it almost ironic that the New Inquiry, in a recent issue of their magazine on Music and failure, failed to contain even a mention of classical (or whatever you wish to call 1000+ years of a certain kind of) music.  I am sure that this is kind of a generational thing, by which I mean that while people of my age (around 40) still vaguely recall classical music meaning something culturally.  Rather, they can cite Adorno and Horkheimer pissing on pop music, and fail to note the fact that Adorno spent far more time discussing and dissecting Schoenberg and Webern than he ever did hating jazz.

Does anyone even read Adorno's work on music anymore?  No, and it's mainly because no one really listens to the composers he spent so much time dealing with.  To paraphrase Boulez, Adorno is Dead. 

And you know what, just to be perfectly clear?  I'm not saying that popular music sucks or any of the "gotcha" crap myself, and most classical musicians, have had to endure for years because the culture industry is built around a false dichotomy of high vs. low.  That's not my point.  My point is that the high is not even taken intellectually seriously by ostensibly intellectually serious people. 

It's especially poignant when you see that while everyone still cites Adorno, no one speaks about Henze or Nono, who were very much part of the same cultural space and who actually wrote music that engaged in the very aesthetic debates Adorno was engaging in. 

I'm not really slagging the writers of that journal either. I'm just pointing out that, no one there thought for a moment that a high theory journal, when producing an issue about music, should deal with anything other than popular music.  One can be ridiculously well read in philosophy, theory, literature and art, and know nothing about Schoenberg.  I think that sucks but that is most definitely The Way Things Are. They are a product of their time as much as Rosen is a product of his.

To sum up, Charles Rosen occupied a cultural space where this music, which I (perhaps quixotically) believe is still relevant, was, in fact, culturally relevant.  Beyond all this, his books are really great - rigourous and opinionated introductions to some very important moments in western musical history, and I hope they remain relevant (or at least available) for a long time after his death.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Elliott Carter

has died.  No, this blog has not become an obituary site for 20th Century composers, but between the loss of Henze and Carter, the last threads of a generation that did not seem so old to me have been snipped into eternity.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Hans Werner Henze

died today.  Very sad news, although at 86, it is safe to say he lived a full and wonderful life.  His autobiography Bohemian Fifths is one of the best musical biographies of the 20th Century, and very much worth reading.  The Internet is full of his music, and listening to some of it would be a wonderful way to commemorate a man with an unbridled talent and great political convictions.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I'll be back in a jiffy

I promise! In other news, if you can identify the film this still is from, I'll give you a cookie.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Kids These Days

I know it's ironic to write about why it's difficult to write. I know this is narcissistic self-indulgence at its worst, but most of what I've written on this blog comes from the "I" before slouching toward the "We" or the "They".

Maybe it was because I was a hack writer for the government for a long time, but the style seems to suit me, and so if you're reading this, and most of you who will have been reading for a long time, you won't really mind. But I nevertheless feel the need to point this out in part because missing the point of one's online writing is the force that drives online writing.


I recall a time, years ago, when I would discover some publication that would open me to thinking about the world in a new way. Harper's, perhaps more than any other, comes to mind, as well as periodicals like N+1. These magazines became a crucial part of my intellectual engagement with the world, in large part because the arguments and insight they brought to various issues forced me to improve and adjust my own perspective.

And so, over the years, I have had pretensions to start my own periodical, my own publication that would add to these voices in a new and interesting way. But I never got around to it (which, given the rate of successful things on this blog is not particularly surprising) and so this blog has remained my one small outpost in this world.

There are all sorts of reasons for this, mainly that I was in a government job that, shall we say, limited, if not in law at least in spirit, the kinds of things I could write about on this blog, especially as I have not written anonymously for a long time.

I was never really worried about being fired because of what I wrote, rather I was worried that what I wrote would become a justification by some petty manager to screw me over in some way. (The irony that things wound up being a lot worse over things that had nothing to do with this blog is not lost on me....). The reality was that in government, as in much of the world, one's soft power is often more real than the hard power of the either the law or the collective agreement.

I've been out of the government for over a year now, and I've finally tied off some loose ends around my old job, so I'm more open to speak freely about myself and the world so it is perhaps funny that my own desire to reengage comes at a time when political engagement, especially on the left, has become a hot topic.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, new publications have emerged, like Jacobin and The New Inquiry, that reflect this new engagement, and I was hopeful that these magazines, like the one in my head and the ones that I've been reading for years, would spur me into writing and thinking in new ways again.

But they haven't really. And this is something that has surprised me, because they are generally really well-written, and populated by the very kinds of people I wanted to leave the government to engage with - smart people who want the world to be a better place than it is.

And yet...it doesn't feel like there's anything new here. There's a kind of writing in them, especially in the New Inquiry, that is difficult not to characterize as anything but deeply steeped in the culture of North American English departments.

It goes like this - take a current political issue, and analyze it under the perspective of a well-known method taken from the humanities to find a conclusion that both affirms the political feelings of both the reader and the writer while leaving them also with a sense of having accomplished something, in the way that anyone who has spent any time in a graduate program would find comfortable.

In other words, all these critiques wind up being a form of entertainment for a particular class of people.

Now some of the writers execute this method much better than others, but there's still a feeling that we have reached a kind of limit here, some kind of an impasse, that will not be addressed by the mainly young, mainly white, mainly reasonably affluent people who desperately wish to change the world, but not the way they are already doing so, because they are affluent, but in some new way, some way that overrides their affluent whiteness.

I want to say there's something Kantian about all of it, but then I am revealing myself as totally one of these people, which only adds to my own desire not to write, but to remain in silence, in a peculiar kind of silence.

The only difference between myself and many of the writers of these publications is a generation gap. When they focus on exploding student debt, I can completely relate, not because I have student debt, but because I went to university at a time when tuition costs tripled between my first year and my last.

But there is a problem when they talk about student debt as something that puts them into a position of an underclass. And I say this because of a much more recent event, namely the near-strike by the graduate students union at the University of Toronto. As the union steward in the German Department, a position I took only recently, I was rather surprised by the ways in which many of the graduates students spoke of themselves as education workers, as though for many of them this was a permanent state, when in fact it would not be, that very few of them would see themselves, when tenured professors, as workers.

I mean, it is true one doesn't get rich by being a graduate student, and that there are, as in many places, horror stories about how people are treated. And I'm pretty happy that there's a good strong union at the U of T - having spent nearly my entire working life in a union, it's nice to be in an organization where people are genuinely invested in making their workplace a better one.

That being said, this most recent round of bargaining struck me as caught in a strange place between the theoretical desires of the people who write in these magazines, and the practical aims of a trade union.

Again, I know I'm being needlessly vague here, but maybe the easiest way to put it is that a lot of people saw striking as an opportunity to address a range of institutional wrongs at the U of T that are, at best, tangentially labour issues. This desire culminated in a strange and very exciting meeting last month where about 1000 CUPE members gathered to debate whether or not to send the latest collective agreement to ratification.

Personally, I had large misgivings about the fact that we were planning to go out on strike over a lot of things that seemed more like political goals than labour issues. So I was greatly relieved when the bargaining committee at this meeting admitted this very fact. However, there was a sizable contingent of union members, including two people who had resigned from the bargaining committee in protest of the agreement being brought forward, who felt that the agreement was insufficient because it failed to address everything they had asked for, and that striking would somehow magically put all these things on the table.

Where am I going with this? I suppose I resented the fact that a lot of people in the union really wanted to go out on strike. Like they wanted that moment in their lives, and this struck them as a perfect moment to have that moment, in part because they would be paid while on strike, they could be paid to be part of something larger, even if that something larger was costing the very union they were so passionate about a ton of money.

So there was this line between protest and striking that I felt was being violated, amplified by the fact that the rhetoric of those who wanted to go on strike was roundly the same as what one finds on these new periodicals.

Here we have a bunch of people who, for the most part, because they are getting a grad degree from the University of Toronto, will wind up doing pretty well in life. And yet they, just like the angry white men who made up a lot of the public service while I was there, struck me as people who desperately want to identify with the victims and not the rulers. But this is the problem - they are part of the ruling class. We are part of the ruling class.

And maybe I sound like a concern troll in pointing this out, but having lived through some pretty wretched strikes in the government, I'd also like to think that I'm coming at this from the perspective of experience and not some nearly middle-aged desire for order and stability.

But I cannot help but wonder why I liked N+1 so much when it started except that the people who founded it are of my generation, and that why these newer publications leave me cold is because the people who run these newer publications are rather younger than I am. Maybe it's also because they seem to have a fair bit of money behind them (especially The New Inquiry) that kind of troubles me. But then I wonder if it's just that I'm getting older, because all these publications come from the same place, namely, Ivy League schools and Brooklyn...

So maybe why so many people start these publications and want to go on strike to fight the Man is because they know, they know, that by the time they get to my age they will be tenured professionals professing those same beliefs without having had much more to show for those beliefs than some strike, or some other brief moment like writing in a publication that gets profiled in the New York Times to point to where they really tried to do something about the world.


Which leads me to another reason as to why I never really tried to start my own magazine - I realised that, as a Canadian, it seemed that no one would take anything I/we put together seriously because it was coming out of Toronto. And this is a problem, not just for me, but for the "left" as it's broadly construed in North America. That the left, just like the right, is basically the purview of the same people, with the same status markers, that ultimately, what makes anything serious and important in writing these days is still not really who writes, but where the writer is from and how they got to know about the things they are writing.

Perhaps I am wrong, but the eternal recurrence of new literary journals, and the ones that somehow achieve some kind of seriousness, or authority, are invariably the ones who are staffed by the same people who staffed the older authoritative journals. They exist as a peculiar form of intellectual entertainment for a specific section of the ruling class.

And I have no idea where to go from there.

Monday, February 27, 2012

An Advisory

Things will probably continue to be slow around here until at least May, unless I, out of a sense of self-destructiveness, decide that regular blogging is more important than the other things I should be doing.

Alternatively, it might start again because I actually desperately need to be writing something.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Toronto's Best Mexican Food!

Is supposedly in Parkdale, at a restaurant run by someone who spent a year cooking Mexican food at a really good Mexican restaurant in Chicago, and also worked at the Black Hoof, where they slice meat better than anyone else in the city.

Now maybe I'm just cynical, but it seems odd that in a city as big and diverse as Toronto, that the best Mexican restaurant here really means "best Mexican restaurant owned and operated by white people for white people to not feel like they are at an "ethnic" restaurant".

The charitable person should be asking me why I think someone from Mexico has to be better at cooking Mexican food, but that's not really my point, rather that this restaurant is designed for a group of people who fail to see what a ridiculously overblown statement that is.