Sunday, August 31, 2008

Farewell to Radio Two

We lost. For the past five months, the Canadian classical music community has been united in denouncing the ill-planned and foolish decision to remake CBC Radio Two as an "adult contemporary" station. We signed petitions, staged protests, and wrote letters to newspapers, politicians, and members of the CBC administration. The CBC's response was to stop its ears and to send out infuriating form letters ("Thank you for your interest in CBC Radio Two. Enclosed please find a brochure detailing the exciting new changes to our programming next September!")

The old programming had been watered down over the course of several years, and was severely flawed. But I kept listening, because it was the best option available on commercial radio, and because so many of the hosts displayed such immense knowledge and enthusiasm about the music they played. Often, the CBC hosts came out with interesting music I would otherwise never have listened to - a symphony by Edgar Bainton, or a concerto by C. P. E. Bach. Starting Tuesday, that era is over, and the CBC will have lost me as a listener.

The CBC, as an independent broadcaster, is of course free to play whatever they want on their airwaves. And my musical life will go on - I can listen to my own recordings, to Internet radio, or attend live performances. But the affair has left a bad taste in my mouth because of the bull-headed, ideological stance of the CBC administration. They seem to have ignored every opportunity for public consultation on their programming change, while taking every possible chance to portray its classical audience as a bunch of aging, conservative reactionaries. As exhibit A, compare these blurbs for the CBC's new Internet radio channels - one dedicated to classical music, another to Canadian singer-songwriters, and a third to contemporary compositions:
Classical: CBC Classical is the online home of all the great classical music from across the centuries uninterrupted 24 hours a day. You'll hear the music of the great classical composers performed by the best Canadian and international orchestras, chamber ensembles and soloists. CBC Classical is the perfect at home or in the office companion for those who love wall to wall classical music.

Canadian Songwriters: CBC Canadian Songwriters is a celebration of the Canadian Song. From Gordon Lightfoot, to Bruce Cockburn to Alex Cuba, to Feist to Basia Bulat to Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor. CBC Canadian Songwriters - Canadian songs and songwriters at their best 24 hours a day.

Canadian Composers: CBC Canadian Composers features the entire range of music composed by Canada's great composers and performed by our premiere ensembles. From John Weinzweig to Christos Hatzis, CBC Canadian Composers presents the best from Canada’s rich homegrown music community.
The "Canadian Songwriters" blurb informs the reader concisely what sort of music one can expect to hear on the channel. The "Classical" blurb compensates for its total vagueness about the actual content of the new channel (orchestral? opera? chamber music? Messiaen organ works?) with appeals to our snobbery ("the great classical composers", "the best . . . orchestras. . .and soloists") and potshots at our supposed conservatism and intolerance of other musical styles ("uninterrupted . . . wall to wall classical music").

Meanwhile, the ghettoization of all contemporary composition into a separate channel confirms my worst fears: the CBC's "classical" programming is to consist entirely of the sort of vapid eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music you hear in hotel lobbies. The previews for Julie Nesrallah's new classical show confirm this impression - she seems like a nice enough person, but the choice of music for her preview is hardly encouraging (one of the Brandenburg concerti, a bit of the exposition of Beethoven's Fifth, and "Nessun Dorma"). To me, the whole point of listening to radio is to hear the host make those unexpected connections between different pieces: familiar and unknown, ancient and contemporary. If the CBC's classical programming is to stick to repertoire we know backwards and forwards, why not just put on a CD?

At the end of the day, it seems obvious that CBC has no interest in maintaining classical music programming. Between its unencouraging choices of programming (does Richard Stursberg really think that I would like to hear Tom Allen play Jully Black first thing in the morning?) and its obvious disdain for its listeners, I will no longer be listening to CBC Radio Two. It remains to be seen whether the CBC will have any success in attracting new audiences, but it has certainly succeeded in driving away its old one.


Boy, that was depressing.

Saturday, August 30, 2008


Every time I write a blog post, I feel a twinge of guilt as I look over the list of labels. Does Bairstow really deserve his own label? Why do I label Auden and Eliot with their first initials, Robertson Davies and Elliott Carter with their full names, and everyone else with their last name only? Why on earth do I have labels for "journalism", "mysteries", and "miscellanea"? One day, perhaps, I will spend a few hours developing a logical system for my blog labels, which will enable anyone to find any post I've ever written on any topic quickly and easily. Except then I realize that I can't actually think of any task that could possibly be more boring, and so instead I go retag my Itunes library, or get a head start on income tax.

This week's Silly Church Music Conceit (previously: 20th-century German neoclassicism week, Composers whose last names begin with "V" week, and 20th-century Veni Creator settings by composers whose last names begin with "L" week) is "Composers That Your Wind Player Friends Will Be Surprised To Find Out Wrote for Organ". Namely, Jacques Ibert (the Piece solennelle) and Gabriel Pierne (the Cantilene). Both composers are best known for wind chamber music these days. Unfortunately, this week also has a second theme, which is "Music That Osbert Thought Sounded Nice When He Sight-Read It, But That Turned Out Not To Be Very Good And Now It's Too Late To Learn Something Else Or Change The Music List." The Ibert is fun, I suppose - but the organ writing is really very unidiomatic, and I'm pretty sure there are some harmony mistakes in the score. The Pierne, on the other hand, is quite well-written for the organ, and there are no mistakes in the score - it's just that the music is utter treacle.

I didn't have much of interest to say in this post, I'm afraid, but you seem to have read it anyway. As a reward, here's a mugshot of Igor Stravinsky.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Twelve-tone Commercial

Some light entertainment for a summer evening:

Is it a bad thing that I would totally buy this compilation?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Almost profound

For having such a brief lifespan, Nichol produced a highly prolific volume of work. However, it was often ephemeral, such as performance.
Wikipedia on Canadian poet bpNichol

Osbert's Miscellany

From Saul Bellow, a bon mot on relationships that sounds like it belongs in Private Lives:
There is much to be said for exotic marriages. If your husband is a bore, it takes years longer to discover it, in French.
Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler's Planet, 218.

For the two people who follow classical music blogs but somehow haven't got around to Soho the Dog: a fascinating post on the reception history of modernist music, aesthetics, and Marshall McLuhan. I'm pretty sure he didn't write the post solely for my personal interest, but it certainly seems awfully suspicious.

And, to make the post look longer on the page, disguising my obvious lack of enthusiasm for blogging at the moment: a picture of an iguana.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why musicians should run the world

Searching for information on the Scottish composer James MacMillan, one of my favourite living composers, I came across an article by the man himself, printed in the Spectator earlier this year. In it, MacMillan defends himself against the label of "liberal, left-wing composer", and describes his fundamental disenchantment with the New Left. Having grown up among ardent socialists and even briefly been a member of the Young Communist League, he finds that today's progressive elites "lack intellectual rigour and ethical integrity, their politics are bland and sentimental, [and] their hatred of Christianity is fundamentalist."

MacMillan's reputation as a left-wing composer comes, perhaps, from his interest in Soviet composers like Gubaidulina and Schnittke, a major influence, or from the subjects of his compositions (The Confession of Isabel Gowdie commemorates the life of a woman falsely executed for witchcraft in the 19th century, while the recent Cantos Sagrados are influenced by South American liberation theology). He would certainly not be comfortable in the company of economic conservatives like Milton Friedman or Margaret Thatcher. Yet the left wing he remembers would be unrecognizable today:
[M]ost of the politically active working class in places like Ayrshire throughout the 20th century, were old-style socialists. They tended, also, to be moral and cultural conservatives. There was a tradition among Irish descendants, but also in other communities throughout the country, of Roman and high-Anglo-Catholic orthodoxy that was also politically radical, favouring social justice through economic distribution. The Labour movement was their vehicle to build the just society that was promised in the gospels; the welfare state and greater access to education were seen as fruits of moral Christian activism in society.
Today, by contrast, Christian activism has been hijacked by a right wing which is corrupt, economically regressive, and has a disturbing enthusiasm for carrying on expensive wars in other countries. The left wing continues to advocate for "social justice through economic distribution", but with a side order of cultural nihilism, anti-religious rhetoric, and moral relativism. This is exactly why I find it difficult to wholeheartedly support any political party, and I find it depressing that none of the Church's other public intellectuals have caught on to this dilemma.

In the following comment, posted as a comment to MacMillan's article, lies the paradox of modern Christianity:
That a bloke who believes Jesus rose from the dead can accuse, without irony, 'progressive elites' of lacking 'intellectual rigour' just takes the breath away. You couldn't make it up.
This person represents an ideology not sympathetic to Christianity by any stretch of the imagination; a hateful, knee-jerk anti-religiosity. Yet, as a Christian who believes that we have a duty to alleviate poverty through economic means, when I go to the ballot box, I must either vote along with this guy or else vote for a government that is almost inconceivably corrupt, and which is in favour of torturing and killing strangers in foreign countries.

On a lighter note, yesterday was the (presumably well-founded) Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Christian calendar. Outside of the Catholic Church, this is a little-known Marian Feast. Better-known, perhaps, is the Annunciation of the BVM, which was remarkable; you could hear every single word that she said.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Chesterton anticipates airport security

". . . Otto now insisted, as governments very seldom insist, on an absolute and literal disarmament. It was carried out, with extraordinary thoroughness and severity, by very well-organized officials over a small and familiar area, and, so far as human strength and science can be absolutely certain of anything, Prince Otto was absolutely certain that nobody could introduce so much as a toy pistol into Heiligwaldenstein.

"Human science can never be quite certain of things like that," said Father Brown, still looking at the red budding of the branches over his head, "if only because of the difficulty about definition and connotation. What is a weapon? People have been murdered with the mildest domestic comforts; certainly with tea-kettles, probably with tea-cosies. . ."
G. K. Chesterton: "The Fairy Tale of Father Brown", 1913.

Previously: Schafer predicts the ringtone.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

On hiatus

The staff of TBWCTW is leaving for England this weekend to tour with a choir. Our usual clockwork posting schedule will resume when we return.

Friday, August 1, 2008

CBC turf wars

Greg Sandow links to an article on the ongoing CBC debacle by Robert Everett-Green, music critic at the Globe and Mail. Those familiar with Sandow's writing will feel right at home in Everett-Green's article: classical music is a minority taste! It's not relevant to popular culture! It uses elitism to claim a portion of public funding greater than its actual importance! And so on.

My main problem with the Sandow post is that he seems to be presenting the CBC decision as Exhibit A in his ongoing battle with the classical music establishment. (His previous commentary on the CBC decision is here.) Accept popular music as an equal form of expression, he seems to say, and alter your performance style to appeal to pop music fans - or you'll be fired, just like those CBC announcers! As a non-CBC listener, I think Sandow accepts CBC propaganda too readily, assuming that the Corporation is trying to liven up a dull rotation of nineteenth-century warhorses with a little variety, and a bunch of old ladies are complaining about it because they hate change. In fact, the CBC's programming has historically been quite eclectic and, as I've pointed out in a comment to his blog, was quite similar to the genre-busting programming that he advocates.

Obviously I disagree strongly with the recent CBC decisions, and my incoherent ranting is here, if you can bear to read it. (The bad writing blog entry at Dial M for Musicology is worth a nod here; some of the turns of phrase in this post make me wince, even though it's barely a month old. But changing anything now would be a waste of time.) I would add, however, that opponents of classical music programming seem to carry two contradictory ideas in their head about the genre: on the one hand, classical music is the territory of an unimportant minority, and thus no more worthy of special respect than some subgenre of death metal, but on the other hand, classical music is the domain of Powerful, Elite Groups of Old, White People, which makes it practically a patriotic duty to get rid of it. They can't decide whether getting rid of classical music is a logical marketing decision, or a crusade to bring down the aristocracy. It's very curious. If classical music was a totally marginal genre with no special value, one would assume these writers would have better things to do than writing newspaper articles to tell us so.

The one thing that did shock me in the Globe and Mail piece was an anecdote about the hundreds of CBC listeners who supposedly wrote in to protest the inclusion of a Gavin Bryars piece in the regular CBC lineup. It's not just the philistinism of the listeners that surprised me (Gavin Bryars is a really interesting, talented composer), but the fact that they would bother to write letters of complaint just because they heard a piece they didn't like. Don't these people have jobs?