Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The drama of modern living

The Search for the Canadian Identity
or, Sketches for a Doctoral Dissertation in Sociology

Dramatis personae:
Vir Americanus, a tourist
Femina Americana, his wife
A Passer-by
Osbert Parsley, an off-duty blogger

Scene: An intersection in downtown Toronto

Vir Americanus: Hey, you! Are you a Canadian?
Passer-by: Errr, yes.
Vir Americanus: We were told there were Victorian homes around here. Do you know where the Victorian homes are?
Passer-by: Ummm, I'm not exactly sure.
Vir Americanus: We're trying to find the Victorian homes.
Femina Americana: Yes, that's right.
Vir Americanus: Have you seen any? Do you know what a Victorian home is? Are you a Canadian?
Passer-by: Yes, I am a Canadian!

(Exit Osbert into a waiting streetcar, with some haste.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

L'histoire de l'Igor

If you hurry, you might still have time to catch the tribute to Igor Stravinsky on Google's front page. (Today is the composer's 127th birthday.) For a novice iconographer such as myself, it's difficult to figure out what's supposed to be going on in this image. I get the firebird in the left side of the picture, but what on earth is the caterpillar doing there? And, because I would hate to miss the opportunity for gratuitous pedantry, I must point out that the slurs on the floating semiquavers are upside down - they should be below the note heads. As it stands, the slur could be mistaken for a third beam, causing the unwary reader to execute the four-note groupings twice as fast as notated. (See Deceptively Simple for a slightly less snarky analysis.)

Despite my uncharitable remarks, it's a pleasure to see a modernist composer make an appearance in the mainstream media at all. If any twentieth-century composer could break out of the academic ghetto and achieve some popular success, it's Stravinsky; his Sacre de printemps left an indelible impression on me from the first time I heard it, and likely led to my subsequent interest in contemporary music. (As a child, I first heard the complete ballet on CBC Radio Two, on the way home from a trip to the dentist; with Radio Two's recent descent into insipid unlistenability, that opportunity will now never be available to anyone else.) I've since found other favourites in Stravinsky's output than the popular ones - the Octet, Oedipus Rex, Agon, the two symphonies of the 1940s - but I still have a nostalgic attachment to the Rite. For most of the world, Stravinsky's ballet is the piece of modern music: sufficiently alien to confound our usual expectations, but still grounded in a style that we recognize from innumerable film scores. Long may it continue to inspire young musicians.

The coincidence of today's birthday with yesterday's Bloomsday celebrations (how did I never notice this before?) suggests some interesting parallels between these two modernist artists. With Picasso, Joyce and Stravinsky are probably the best-loved and most recognized artists of the modernist movement. The two men were approximate contemporaries (Joyce had his own 127th birthday this past February) and had a similar genius for combining the most abtruse modernist techniques with references to popular culture: think of Stravinsky's use of folk music, or Joyce's "map of Dublin on a garbage can lid". Despite their enormous fame, both figures are in some ways rather marginalized, loved for their early work (Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, the Rite) while their more mature creations are treated with indifference. (Ulysses, despite its awesomeness, is still more talked about than read, and the Wake is even more forbidding - and how many people have even heard of A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer, or the Aldous Huxley Variations?)

Joyce and Stravinsky don't seem to have had any significant contact, but they certainly knew of each other's work - Joyce attended the Paris premiere of Le sacre du printemps. A recent book treated a 1922 dinner party that was attended by both artists, but it doesn't seem that the two spent much time together. This was probably Joyce's fault; he showed up and spent most of the evening arguing with Proust.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Incalculable eons of peregrination

Would the departed never nowhere nohow reappear?

Ever he would wander, selfcompelled, to the extreme limit of his cometary orbit, beyond the fixed stars and variable suns and telescopic planets, astronomical waifs and strays, to the extreme boundary of space, passing from land to land, among peoples, amid events. Somewhere imperceptibly he would hear and somehow reluctantly, suncompelled, obey the summons of recall. Whence, disappearing from the constellation of the Northern Crown he would somehow reappear reborn above delta in the constellation of Cassiopeia and after incalculable eons of peregrination return an estranged avenger, a wreaker of justice on malefactors, a dark crusader, a sleeper awakened, with financial resources (by supposition) surpassing those of Rothschild or the silver king.
Happy Bloomsday!

Monday, June 15, 2009


The Queen's birthday honours list this year includes the superb pianist Mitsuko Uchida (h/t Alex Ross), as well as two noteworthy organists and church musicians: concert organist Simon Preston, formerly of Westminster Abbey, and the redoubtable Stephen Cleobury, director of music at King's College, Cambridge. The complete list of honorees is here.

Regular posting is likely to resume after I complete a bloody ritual known as "moving". How on earth did I accumulate so many books?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Bratsche baiting

Sign in the Toronto Coach Terminal:

For Security reasons the following items only are acceptable for temporary storage in our Customer Service office:

Skis, hockey sticks, fishing tackle, tools, large instruments (e.g. guitars, synthesizers, violas), carriages and strollers, wheelchairs, crutches, artwork, posters, portfolios and bicycles.

Fig. 1: Lionel Tertis with his Large Instrument.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The lost art of pre-concert patter

I've been thinking about a recent poll over on Tim Mangan's blog, asking how people feel about performers talking to the audience at concerts. You'll hear a wide variety of opinions if you ask classical musicians about this particular topic. Greg Sandow famously advocates it as a method of establishing a personal rapport with the audience. Others are bored to tears during pre-concert lectures, and wish the performers would shut up and play their kazoo or whatever.

Now, I sympathize with those who groan when performers start to talk at concerts; indeed, some of my most squirm-inducing concert experiences have been listening to musicians talk instead of perform. The choral conductor who rambles for twenty minutes about why a Presbyterian church choir will be performing this Requiem Mass in Latin instead of English, the pianist who recounts insipid personal anecdotes before setting into a Beethoven sonata, the innumerable composers who gabber in mind-numbing detail about the technical features of their new work: I've heard them all. I feel your pain.

Yet I myself have often been guilty of talking before pieces at my own recitals, particularly when introducing a contemporary piece, and have twice been invited to give commentary at other people's concerts. People often comment that they enjoy these talks before concerts; unless they are simply being polite, which is quite possible, I've hit upon a formula which seems to work. I generally try to adhere to the following seven rules:

1) Never, under any circumstances, talk for more than five minutes at a musical performance.
2) Never extemporize, neither read off a prepared sheet, but have a prospectus of your talk in point form. This allows you to maintain a sense of spontaneity while preventing you from going completely off the rails.
3) Never use technical vocabulary.
4) Never duplicate the programme notes. This is good manners, but also a matter of hedging one's bets; the audience may be bored by your speaking, your performance, or your notes, but it's statistically unlikely that they will be bored by all three at once.
5) Never take yourself too seriously.
6) Never talk about yourself for more than ten seconds.
7) Never use a pre-concert talk to apologize for your performance decisions.

There are about fifty-seven thousand exceptions to any set of rules such as this, but if everyone followed them we would, at the very least, be spared listening to the worst pre-concert offenders at any great length.

I provide the following example from Hilaire Belloc as an example of what I mean. Very few people today could pull off Belloc's inimitable style, but this introduction is a perfect example of the craft: brief, concise, and humorous. Observe:
I am here to take the chair in the debate between two men whom you desire to hear more than you could possibly desire to hear me. They will debate whether they agree or do not agree. From what I know of attempts at agreement between human beings there is a prospect of a very pretty fight. When men debate agreement between nations then you may be certain a disastrous war is on the horizon. I make an exception for the League of Nations, of which I know nothing. If the League of Nations could make a war it would be the only thing it ever has made.

I do not know what Mr. Chesterton is going to say. I do not know what Mr. Shaw is going to say. If I did I would not say it for them. I vaguely gather from what I have heard that they are going to try to discover a principle: whether men should be free to possess private means, as is Mr. Shaw, as is Mr. Chesterton; or should be, like myself, an embarrassed person, a publishers' hack. I could tell them; but my mouth is shut. I am not allowed to say what I think. At any rate, they are going to debate this sort of thing. I know not what more to say. They are about to debate. You are about to listen. I am about to sneer.
from a debate between G. K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw, 1926.