Bernie Sanders and The Samiotics of the Carolina Dog

Sam the dog seems to be getting better. Her bloodwork shows that the antibiotics have worked. Her recovery is the main message I wanted to convey for anyone who had been worried by my previous messages.

As you probably know, there’s no such word as “Samiotics”. The title is a mashup, a crude imitation of something academic, perhaps echoing Fareed Zacharia while messing around as in a Frank Zappa song. Sam makes lots of yellow snow in the backyard, and Zappa has a song about that.

“Samiotics” is a word I just invented, combining “Sam” (our dog’s name) with “semiotics”, the study of signs. I’m interested in Sam’s communication. Semiotics has the same root as semaphore, that old signal system used between ships, communicating silently using flags.

Did you know for instance that the peace symbol comes from the semaphore for the initials “ND” for nuclear disarmament?

Semaphore for “N”
Semaphore for “D”

Combine the flag positions of those two initials, and you get Bertrand Russsell’s ironic repurposing of a system used between naval ships during wartime to make a statement about peace.

So let’s turn to the study of samiotics, Sam’s communication. Don’t worry, while her vocabulary is pretty remarkable for a dog, it’s still pretty small.

1. “Good girl” means pretty much what it means to any other dog, largely communicated by our vocal tone and either pats or a treat: although we’ve been carefully avoiding treats lately while she’s unwell.

2. Any command must be prefaced by “Sam”, reinforcing her name but also making it clear that we’re asking her to do something, such as “Sam, come”. Her ears prick up when we say her name, so clearly she recognizes the word.

When I talk to her by name, Sam’s ears go up

3.“Come” means stop what you’re doing and come to the person calling you. I was never prouder than the time I had just released her off her leash, and noticed a big adult skunk lurking in a bush in our yard. The skunk was 60 feet away, Sam was 30 feet away. I said a stern “Sam come!” …. And she came. Talk about dodging a bullet! Thank goodness, I immediately leashed her and took her inside. The wind fortunately was in our favour, otherwise the story wouldn’t have been nearly so happy.

4.”Hurry up” means do your business. I learned this one from Irene & John Kirec who we knew back in the 1990s, through the Vizsla club here in Ontario. If you say this phrase every time your dog pees or poops, it will come to associate the phrase with the function. It’s Pavlovian I guess, and come to think of it, that whole concept of Pavlov began with a dog.

5.”sit”…. sometimes it works, sometimes it requires a few utterances.

6.”go home”, ah I love this one. Erika really taught it first. I’ve been using it and am astonished at what I see. We’ll be walking in the back yard, and I say this. She’ll sort of look at me, knowing what I mean. And if I come closer to her and say it again, she bolts for the house full tilt, sometimes crashing right into me. She may stop partway, so I’ll do it again: and she will again start galloping for the house.

7.“backdoor” is something I’ve been trying to teach her, when she runs to the side-door (our usual place of egress) and we used the backdoor instead. Sometimes she gets it…Let’s just say that we’re working on this one.

This list calls attention to the arbitrariness of signs. I could just as easily say “pee pee” as “hurry up” to encourage the bodily function. It doesn’t matter what word we assign so long as it’s unambiguous for the dog. What’s bad is when the word is confusing to the dog. Short words seem to be best, just as we see with humans come to think of it. I recall seeing something back when I was studying information theory (relevant to composition), that the possibility of error increases as the square of the number of items (a bad paraphrase of something I read back in the 1980s). “Samantha” might be her name but we stick to “Sam” when we command or call her, in the interest of intelligibility.

And speaking of vocal tone, I remember reading that baby-talk is actually useful. So we use it. When I say “good girl” and pat Sam, it’s accompanied by enough enthusiastic goo-goo baby-talk sounds to make you nauseous. Yes, we’re just normal dog owners, meaning that we love Sam, adoring her like crazy.

But wait, you probably noticed that the title is “The Samiotics of the Carolina Dog”….and I mentioned Bernie Sanders.

So yes…. While we were googling to find out what might be wrong with Sam –who is getting better after scaring us around Christmas & New Years—we found a few things.

Adjusting her diet might have been the single biggest game-changer. I am a bit obsessive about this, having gone head to head with a couple of doctors back when I was struggling to figure out what was wrong with me. One of the vets shrugged off my question (“what about her diet?” which is pardon my French ridiculously obvious when the animal has a liver problem) offering instead an expensive exploratory surgery. Diet can be the problem, and seems to have gone a long way towards making her healthy: along with the antibiotics that we were able to coax down her throat, with the helpful suggestion of another vet as I mentioned a little while ago.

The big surprise, though is Sam’s breed. Erika saw something about a dog that had died. The picture caught her attention. The original story earlier in the year led to Tuna the dog becoming famous as her video went viral as she was attentive to Bernie Sanders, yet slept when Pete Buttigieg spoke. Tuna the dog reminded Erika of Sam. We had assumed that Sam, a rescue who has had multiple owners, must be a mutt, a mysterious mix of different breeds: and that’s okay of course.

We were in the dark because we figured we were Sam’s 4th owner, an assumption based on the original story we were told. As owner #4, we got Sam in March 2019 from owner #3, who had her for a year or two, getting her from owner #2 who had her for roughly a decade after finding her in a park without a collar, at an apparent age of less than a year. And btw, owner #2 gave her up because of allergies that developed, sad to have to say goodbye to their beloved family pet Sam.

Sam had been found in a park, so it was assumed that there was an owner #1 before them who had lost the dog, as they tried (placing ads, putting up posters) for over two weeks in search of that original owner before giving up and deciding to keep Sam as their own.

Ah but there’s another possible scenario that came to us with a little help from Bernie Sanders, Tuna and writer Chris Stedman aka @ChrisDStedman on Twitter. The combination of Sanders and Tuna was magic. All that traffic made it possible for Erika to spot Tuna’s picture.

Chris Stedman’s Twitter photo

The first sentence of Stedman’s piece says ”for six years I shared my life, on- and offline, with a 38-pound Carolina Dog named Tuna.“ The “Carolina Dog” is now a recognized breed, although until Erika saw that article, I had never heard of them before. They are an American version of the dingo, a kind of wild dog known to live in places such as South Carolina, Georgia, and as far away as Texas.

Sam was found loose wandering without any collar in a park in Florida. We wonder now if instead of thinking of her as a mutt rescue dog with another owner, maybe she was in fact a Carolina dog who had been born in the wild. It’s especially intriguing when you look at the characteristics of this breed.

We can start with the appearance. Sam looks a lot like Tuna, especially the way she sometimes holds her ears straight up, at other times dropping them down in response to people.

Sam is a lot bigger than Tuna. Does that mean she can’t be the same breed? I think that’s an interesting question. I recall the notions of what is “standard” from my previous dog Monty, an American & Canadian champion Vizsla stud. Monty died in 1993.

Monty aka Comynara Deacon’s Barat (photo: Alex Richard)

At shows or meetings one might hear comments about how this dog’s colour isn’t right, that that one is too tall to be a real Vizsla. Note though that there was a great deal of insecurity about the validity of the stock, because the communists in Hungary almost killed off the breed, given its associations with the aristocracy: a dog rich men took out on the hunt. I heard a story that at one time the worldwide population of ALL Vizslas was as low as 10 dogs: because of the Soviet-Hungarian purge. Now transfer that to a dog that is essentially wild. Can there even be such a thing as a “standard”? I wonder. Perhaps Sam is too big, perhaps Sam is a child of an inter-breeding between a genuine Carolina dog and something larger? Or is the idea of a standard simply impossible under the circumstances. The American Kennel Club says they’re 30 -55 pounds, and Sam is in that range.

Carolina Dog image from AKC. No this isn’t Sam but she looks a lot like this

Normally females are smaller than males but in fact we’ve allowed Sam to get chubby on the assumption that she’s old & sick (she has a huge lump in one side that we were told could be cancer). Yes we spoiled her but since the change to her diet and her infection in late December, she’s lost weight on her new food.

AKC says “Hesitant with strangers, they will sound the alarm when unaware of who’s at the door, but once they see their people, they are ecstatic.” That is exactly what Sam does. She is the ideal guard dog, barking at us until she can see that’s it’s one of us and not an intruder. She is a hunter once she gets into the yard. I know of at least a couple of times she killed smaller creatures outside. They’re known to self-groom almost like a cat, with nails that grow faster than other dog breeds. And that’s what we’ve seen with Sam, who will trim her own nails if we don’t do it for her.

As we had been doing a bit of painting in the room with the piano, furniture had been moved about a bit. Sam lay beside my bench rather than underneath while I played. The dropsheet was now off the piano, but my music was all still downstairs, so I had to play everything from memory.

Erika observed that I play better when I play from memory. I think Erika & Sam are my two best teachers, each making me play better & in new ways. So the repertoire included the thoughtful middle movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata, the Moonlight Sonata’s first 2 movements (while I know the third it’s hard to play such a thing softly), the 2nd Scherzo of Chopin, (again omitting the loud stuff that ends the piece, instead ending in the soft middle section) and Debussy’s 1st Arabesque. The room has been emptied a bit for painting and so it’s no wonder we noticed that the piano seems louder, the upper octaves carrying an extra ping no matter how softly I play. Yes the clarity of the sound is inevitable with bare floor space and bare walls to bounce the sound, even to human ears, let alone the canine ones.

Sam’s colour reflects her age.
Posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Music and musicology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Zappa

2020 ended with a pair of Z’s that could just as easily be seen as the start of 2021. After Fareed Zakaria’s book, it’s Zappa, a documentary released late in 2020. Where Fareed is analyzing historical trends with an eye to our possible futures, the Zappa doc is entirely about the past. But Zappa is possibly the most inspiring film I could suggest for a creative spirit, especially musicians or composers. Its subjects are vitally important any year, let alone now in the midst of a pandemic that has disrupted artistic activity. If you’ve been looking inward, asking yourself who you are and what you should be doing, you’ll find Zappa a great way to begin the year.


We’re watching a biography full of analysis, probing the Zappa phenomenon and his creations, while exploring the cultural context. The structure is not especially original but that makes it easily intelligible, that we’re on a familiar path. We begin near the end of Frank Zappa’s short life, not in America but in Czechoslovakia, one of the places where Zappa was recognized & adored, at a kind of zenith in the early 1990s just before his untimely death in 1993 at the age of 52. We then flash back to the beginning of his life, tracking through in step by step fashion until we get to the final years.

If you want to know who Zappa really is there’s no better place to start than this film. I say start because there are numerous ways to answer that question. Some of us have been listening to his music for decades yet still haven’t decided who he really is, at least in sum because there’s so much to him. He was a composer, a guitarist, a comedian, a political satirist: often in the context of the same 3 minute song. And the way he is embraced by different groups speaks to the diversity of his output, resistant to pigeonholing.

He can come across as a comedian.

But he was a serious artist. There’s no contradiction.

I see his unmistakeable influence in some of my favorite composers. Sometimes his music resembles “pop music”, but in quotes given that he was pushing back heavily against the mainstream. He also had another life composing in a variety of styles that are recognizably modernist in their approach.

Some of the credit for the film belongs to director Alex Winter. Although you probably know him for the three Bill & Ted movies, he has fewer acting credits (28) than directing credits (37) according to IMDB.

Here’s Winter’s ambitious directorial statement, which is totally borne out by the resulting film.

It seemed striking to me and producer Glen Zipper that there had yet to be a definitive, all-access documentary on the life and times of Frank Zappa. We set out to make that film, to tell a story that is not a music doc, or a conventional biopic, but the dramatic saga of a great American artist and thinker; a film that would set out to convey the scope of Zappa’s prodigious and varied creative output, and the breadth of his extraordinary personal and political life. First and foremost, I wanted to make a very human, universal cinematic experience about an extraordinary individual. What helped make this vision possible was Gail Zappa granting us exclusive access to Zappa’s vault; a vast collection of his unreleased music, movies, incomplete projects, unseen interviews and unheard concert recordings. With this wealth of material, and the minimal addition of present-day interviews with Frank’s closest friends and musical collaborators, we built a narrative that is both intimate and epic in scope. But before we could set about making the film, we needed to preserve a great deal of material from the vault that was deteriorating and in great danger of being lost forever. So we created a crowdfunding campaign, and were lucky to break funding records for a documentary related project. And thus began an exhaustive, two year mission to preserve and archive the vault materials. When this was completed, we set about making the film. Frank Zappa was not only a creative genius, but also a great and eloquent thinker who articulated the madness of his times with extraordinary clarity and wit. A legitimate maverick who lived and worked amongst other extraordinary people in historic times. Ultimately, ZAPPA is not a retro trip into the past, but a thoroughly modern exploration of a man whose worldview, art and politics were far ahead of their time, and profoundly relevant in our challenging times.

While I’m grateful to Winter & his team of collaborators (including son Ahmet Zappa) the real lucidity on display is from the brain of Frank Zappa, a self-taught composer & musician who has a lot to teach us.

Full disclosure (and this may take a bit…): my admiration for Frank Zappa is enormous, unreasonable, bordering on a kind of madness. He appeared in my life at a time when I was very impressionable, grabbing me as firmly as any of the opera composers I came to love, and with added credibility as a critic of the very society I saw myself loathing, meaning the plastic American war machine of the 1960s. My own self-sabotaging self-critical self saw a kindred spirit in Zappa.

Nobody even attempted to do what he did.

I was blown away by my first encounter back in 1969 on a compilation album titled Mothermania, when I was young. I had loved Sergeant Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour in 1967 (and the first 45 RPM single I acquired in 1967, namely the unsurpassable Strawberry Fields / Penny Lane), yet they didn’t move me nearly so much.

My older sister (who bought Mothermania) showed it to me, amused & intrigued.

We didn’t listen the same way, of course. I was overwhelmed, trying to figure out how they did it, counting the odd time-signatures, the complex harmonies that I tried to reproduce at the piano, where I confronted bitonality (although it would be much later via Stravinsky that I would learn what to call it).

I see him as a genius, the single biggest influence on me. He defies classification. He was self-taught and for that alone is an avatar to anyone who had doubts about the value of academic study, particularly in music. I put him alongside figures such as Claude Debussy (also famous for his fights with academic conservatory thinking), Bernard Herrmann (similarly conflicted, torn between the music that made his money and the music he wanted to write) and both George Gershwin & Leonard Bernstein (both with a similar divide between a popular sound and compositions that were more palatable in the halls of classical music). While I admire the aforementioned composers a great deal, none of them except Debussy took on the additional task and hazard of articulating a critique of the cultural industry.

While there are appearances by a great many famous faces–stars flashing across the Laurel Canyon firmament such as Jean-Luc Ponty, Lenny Bruce, John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Zubin Mehta, Alice Cooper– you will be disappointed if you want a concert film, a film full of rock and roll. This is not that film.

And for that alone I am deeply thankful to Alex Winter & the team that assembled Zappa. How do you honour such a complex personality? Surely not by caving in to commercial demands, especially in the case of a composer who continuously mocked that dynamic. Exhibit A would be the parody of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band called We’re Only in it for the Money. Or right in the trailer I posted earlier, you see him suggest that when the audience screams for more, he’d have the band play a dark modern Varese piece guaranteed to clear the joint. Yes he understood music as a business and at least part of him loathed the necessity of making money.

You may be aware of the four surviving Zappa children, famous at least for the names that Gail & Frank gave them. In order they’re Moon (1967), Dweezil (1969), Ahmet (1974) and Diva (1979). Gail outlived Frank (Born Dec 21st 1940, died December 4, 1993), dying in 2015. If you google “zappa family” you’ll see pictures and various stories about the conflicts between the siblings, although I’m hopeful that this film signals reconciliation and a new co-operation.

The basement of the Zappa home in Laurel Canyon, California, is practically a character in the film. We see an enormous archive of scores & tapes that resembles that last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It becomes clear that you can’t believe all the legends about Zappa. The man we meet in this film is a workaholic, a perfectionist, compulsive in his pursuit of his compositions. Gail speaks of him not as a rock star but as a composer, endlessly writing, revising, creating.

You may wonder: did he use drugs or condone their use? Not according to what he has always said, including a few quotes in this film. But then again much of his adult life was split between home in Laurel Canyon with the wife & kids, notwithstanding visits from fans & groupies and the time on the road with his band: when he tells us explicitly that he screwed around. And Gail tells us how she coped (which may remind you of a certain river in Egypt). I only mention this in context with the drug question; if he lived a double life between home & the road, perhaps he indulged in more than groupies when he was away from Laurel Canyon, and was never caught nor prosecuted.

But the man was a workaholic, writing incessantly, pushing his band to levels of performance that you would never expect from a cursory look at the pictures on the album covers. The level of musicianship in his band is simply the highest I have ever experienced in anything we might want to call pop or jazz.


In live performances they (whether the original “Mothers” or later incarnations of the band with other players) work between multiple idioms within the same song, sometimes seeming to improvise, (that is, playing something that is scored in such a way as to seem improvisatory), sometimes playing very slow & cool, sometimes conducted by Zappa, especially when executing difficult rhythms in perfect unison.


But Zappa was also a composer pushing towards something modernist, a bit of a synthesis of influences including Varese, Stravinsky, and all the popular idioms he encountered as a child growing up in the 40s and ‘50s.

There are aspects of the Zappa aesthetic that will forever be mysterious. In the film he speaks of growing up in Maryland near a factory where his dad was employed manufacturing poison gases, likely a factor in his frequent use of gasmasks as a concert prop. One of the biggest differences between Zappa and Bernstein or Gershwin is in his love of grotesquerie, his embrace of freaks and his self—image as a purveyor of freak culture. In this respect he reminds me of a counter-culture version of Gustav Mahler, whose famous story from his session with Sigmund Freud, running outside to escape a traumatic fight between his parents to hear a barrel organ’s melodies, serves to explain his tormented music of ambivalence. Zappa had his own epiphany, when his studio was raided by puritanical police and he was thrown in jail. The imprinted message was a different flavor combination than that of Mahler, this one comprised of absurdly stupid authority figures imposing upon an innocent populace. I wonder if I’m projecting in calling Zappa’s genius troubled, reading ugliness implicit in brute force & arbitrary power.

While there are beautiful moments in his songs, they’re a very different sort of beauty.

This film is in some respects like a new beginning, given how many have been influenced by Zappa. While I watched that basement in Zappa’s house full of tapes & scores in respectful awe, the next step must be for someone to explore, study, catalogue and perhaps share. Just as there are libraries with old scores by JS Bach or Claude Debussy in Europe, so too with the Laurel Canyon treasure trove. In that sense it is a beginning.

Zappa tells us that he disbanded the Mothers in 1969, reminding me of another beloved ensemble of the time Blood Sweat & Tears, and Canadian David Clayton Thomas who (as I recall) explained how touring was the only way some members could make money.

Zappa said “we were going on tour so I took $400 out of the bank for money to eat, and ended up $10,000 in the hole…” One of the musicians at the time said “We didn’t even get a 2 week notice.” It was rough, one of them mentioned having just bought a car….

But the point is, as we’ve seen with opera, touring a big band is at best a shaky financial proposition.

Zappa would start his own label.

Later there was to be a London Symphony Orchestra concert of Zappa music. He was asked if the concert and/ or its recording will make money.

“No” comes his blunt reply.

“Why then do you do it?”

“Well I think any artistic decision you make on whether you’ll make any money is not really an artistic decision , it’s a business decision. And there are a lot of things I can do to earn a living. “

Letterman asks (on TV) “how do you get the London Symphony to play your stuff”?

Zappa: “you pay them”.

Zappa also said “get a real estate license if you expect to be a composer in the United States.”

Alice Cooper said “I think Frank was afraid to have a hit record. I mean he could have written hit records all day. I think he sabotaged a lot of his records. It was interesting because everyone was going for the hit record and he never did”.

Zappa also said “This is the dawning of the dark ages again. Never have the arts been in such bad shape in the United States… The business of music is all about this fake list of who sold what. The whole idea of selling large numbers of items in order to determine quality is what’s really repulsive about it”.

He never sold out. And he worked very hard.

If you can see the documentary, currently offered for example via Rogers and likely on other PPV services I recommend it with only one caution. His music is still swirling in my head.

I always figure, if you’re going to have an ear-worm, let it be brilliant.

Posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Politics, Popular music & culture, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Fareed Zakaria’s Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World

The title grabs you, doesn’t it? Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World portends something well-informed, if not brilliant. As 2021 begins I wonder what’s to come, and wish i could turn to someone knowledgeable to tell me what’s to come.

If you watch CNN you would recognize Fareed Zakaria, host of a weekly magazine of international affairs GPS: “the Global Public Square”. It’s on Sunday, and I never miss an episode, just about the best thing on that network. He also writes for the Washington Post. Zakaria was educated at Yale and Harvard, where he received his PhD, having been editor Foreign Affairs and Newsweek International, among other professional gigs.

I wonder if his influence extends as far as conceptual templates in the literary world. I saw an Atlantic piece today. New York Magazine had a piece just a few days ago. Are they copying Fareed? I’m tempted to join the club. For months now I’ve been thinking of doing a piece with a title like “five lessons from Sam” meaning the lessons my dog (Sam) has taught me.

1-be nice
2-show gratitude
3-be gentle
4-feed me! (if Sam could talk, much of the time she would either say “feed me” or “let me go outside I need to pee / poo”)
5-when in doubt play the piano pianissimo. (recalling that Sam lives under the piano)

But I don’t mean to mock Fareed whose erudition & learning come across in every sentence, whether I’m listening to his wisdom on GPS or reading his book.

Even so, I’m conflicted. You see, there’s a small detail that I can’t ignore. It’s January 2021 as I continue to read Fareed Zakaria’s excellent book, and in case you didn’t notice, the pandemic isn’t over. Even if the title does dare to give us a name for the promised land, we are a long way from a post-pandemic world.

In the meantime I suppose his book is a fascinating study, perhaps a bit of futurism, pondering possible changes. What will life be like?

I’m not going to do the cheesy thing and tell you the ten lessons. I hate spoilers in movies (where someone spills the plot details spoiling the surprise), and won’t do that here even if it’s non-fiction. It’s fascinating reading with or without the surprises one gets turning the page.

The title is less an indication of the book’s objectives than an organizing principle, a way to structure the conversation, and helpful as a guide to the topics being covered. Fareed pulls in lots of sources while offering a discussion on a series of topics such as urbanization, the impact of computers & AI, or comparing different approaches to political economy. The prose flows (and I giggle to think that my assonant phrasing may have stopped you, pondering what I mean when I say that…How ironic that my comment on how his prose flows, might stop you, because mine: doesn’t. So it’s a terrible illustration actually). But just as it’s a great pleasure listening to Fareed on GPS, so too reading his thoughts & how nicely he segues from one to the next. I’m in awe of his writing & his thinking.

It seems especially poignant with recent events in Washington DC. I recall the disdain with which many received Kelly Ann Conway’s construct of “alternative facts”, a euphemism for the messages originating with her former boss. But as of 2021 one can’t deny that there is an enormous amount of information out there, including a great deal that is totally unreliable. Authority is a compass to orient us. The red light or green light is what we look for before we press the gas pedal. We will not know where we are nor who we are if we can’t rely on the location of the North Star, if all the alternative sources confuse us and problematize truth. Our ability to think clearly is clouded when everything becomes a matter for controversy, subject to doubt. Perhaps it should go without saying, but in a trustworthy book, you know where it’s coming from, its sources properly documented, the author’s objectives clear. We’re in a troubled time when experts are questioned merely for being experts when our leaders have to have body-guards to protect them from those who question the legitimacy of the electoral process.

It’s a pleasure reading Fareed. I only wish that whenever I emerge from the book & turn on the TV, that the world were as trustworthy, as civilized, as uplifting, as the discourse I enjoy in Fareed’s book.

Posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Books & Literature, Personal ruminations & essays, Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Wohin: where do we go from here? now what?

As we come to the end of 2020, we may wonder. Where do we go from here? Now what?

It’s in that spirit that I invoke a Schubert song, “Wohin” from his cycle Die Schöne Müllerin.

First there was a poem written by Wilhelm Müller. Schubert makes a cycle of songs from some of Müller’s poems, including this one.

Ich hört’ ein Bächlein rauschen
Wohl aus dem Felsenquell,
Hinab zum Tale rauschen
So frisch und wunderhell
.

I hear a creek rustling, from its source, descending into the valley so fresh & clear.

Ich weiss nicht, wie mir wurde,
Nicht, wer den Rat mir gab,
Ich musste auch hinunter
Mit meinem Wanderstab.

I don’t know what made me follow with my walking-stick

Hinunter und immer weiter
Und immer dem Bache nach,
Und immer heller rauschte,
Und immer heller der Bach
.

Downwards and ever further, and always beside the brooklet, clearer, fresher…

Ist das denn meine Strasse?
O Bächlein, sprich, wohin?
Du hast mit deinem Rauschen
Mir ganz berauscht den Sinn
.

Is this then my path? Speak to me little brook, which way? Your sounds intoxicate my senses.

Was sag’ ich denn vom Rauschen?
Das kann kein Rauschen sein:
Es singen wohl die Nixen
Tief unten ihren Reihn
.

What do I say to the murmurs, that are the singing of the water-nymphs.

Lass singen, Gesell, lass rauschen,
Und wandre fröhlich nach!
Es gehn ja Mühlenräder
In jedem klaren Bach
.

Let them sing, friend, and wander near. The millwheel goes in every clear stream…. And one may wonder where one can still find a clear unpolluted brook with a millwheel. Sigh….

So let’s listen to a version of Schubert’s song “Wohin”.

When baritone Thomas Quasthoff sings, it’s 2:14 in length.

Or there’s Mattias Goerne, much longer at 2:44. I prefer the more reflective pace, the river still intoxicating but the observer lost in thought.

When I was young I usually accompanied baritones (beginning with Peter Barcza) so it feels natural that baritone performances were and remain a starting point on the journey.

It’s not just because I’m a tenor that I prefer tenor versions, but this has come to feel more natural to me, perhaps because I emerged from the “cocoon” of my early role as an accompanist, to sing the songs myself (although with Schubert attempting to sing & play at once can be as slippery as the rocks in his little stream). But listen for example to Fritz Wunderlich who does it in 2:26….. Was there ever a prettier voice singing this?

Like Schubert, he died young.

Or Peter Schreier, 2.22 who recently left us.

Now of course Schubert lives on in other forms. There’s the inevitable piano transcription from Franz Liszt. Notice that Liszt seems to have the piano sing the song, so we have both the brook and the singing voice as though it were an observer of the cascades of notes: that originally flow through Schubert’s score, albeit with more subtlety.

Liszt regularly edits the songs in his transcriptions. For instance he chooses to repeat the line “O Bächlein, sprich, wohin?”…It is a stunning idea, really. The observer is paralyzed, wondering which way to go. Why not repeat it? And he’ll do the same thing at the last line of this middle section (“Du hast mit deinem Rauschen /Mir ganz berauscht den Sinn.”). Why not repeat that affirmation of the intoxicating powers of the stream? Liszt will add a bit extra towards the end as well. Part of me marvels at the new creation, its beauty & self-assurance: while the fundamentalist inside me proclaims that the original is still best…Schubert’s subtlety matching Müller.

How wonderful that we don’t have to choose. We have both.

And then later we’d get Rachmaninoff literally at piano. This is a piano roll of Rachmaninoff himself. It’s 2:06, much faster than the actual song. I doubt whether Rachmaninoff would play it this way in a live performance, with no space for reflection. There’s little romance when you’re showing off. But it’s a piano roll after all, the audience to applaud you is virtual.

Shades of 2020.

Let me find a more reflective reading of Rachmaninoff. I love this piece, and have even played it as a postlude in church a couple of times. The first time was at new years, aware that the song is really a meditation on the future & the possible paths we might follow.

Whatever paths you follow, whether you become intoxicated by beauty or keep a safe distance, I wish you a happy New Year.

multiple versions
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Wagner, Mendelssohn, Korngold & beyond with Sam

Sam appears to be feeling a lot better.

Last week began with her staggering weakly, doing a scary impersonation of a carcass (lying on her side so forlorn in appearance that a couple of times I was asked to check whether she was still breathing!), and rarely even barking at the window.

That last tendency –barking at everyone including me & Erika—earned her the nickname “Cujo” from a neighbour who would hear her curious welcome. That’s in both senses of the word “curious”, given that she was both an object of interest and also expressing her own curiosity.

In the last week she’s become stronger every day, walking faster, then moving to a canter and lately, sometimes galloping full-tilt, especially when she scents another dog. And yes that leads to lots of ‘bark bark bark’.

On the day after I published the review of Alex Ross’s big Wagner book, I had the composer still on the brain, and so inevitably played something of his for Sam today. I sat down with my Tristan und Isolde score to play the last pages, as I often do (at least once a week). In the spirit of the serenade I spoke of in a previous blog, I undertook the piece a bit more deliberately, ignoring the usual tempi & most dynamics. Everything was slower, more careful, and almost entirely piano or pianissimo. The exception is the section where the accompaniment seems to burst forth in waves of sound, going from fortissimo to pianissimo; for this section I preserved the contrast although on a much smaller scale, ie mf to ppp rather than ff to pp.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover how moved Erika was by the performance. It’s a familiar piece after all (given that I inflict it on her so often) but played in a different way.

She liked it.

I then pulled out the Songs without Words, perhaps still mindful of Ross’s book and wanting to offer something tranquil from the other side of the conversation, namely that colleague & rival whom Wagner attacked for being Jewish, even though—like Meyerbeer—he was also an influence and a composer from whom he got some of his ideas. Yes I’m speaking of Felix Mendelssohn, a man with whom I identify very strongly. I mean there I am in church, playing the organ or singing, yet someone comes up to me to wish me a Happy Chanukkah. OR Hanukkah? Don’t ask me to spell it, I’m not Jewish even though I have enough of a sschnozzz on my face that by Hitler’s way of thinking (whereby “Juden” signifies a race not a religion)… I’d be sent to the showers. I identify with Mendelssohn, who gave us the stirring Reformation Symphony employing the melody from A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (a hymn I have trouble singing, because my voice tends to break over some of the words…. i never make it through the last verse, which always brings me to tears). Yet his contemporaries treated him with disdain, and that’s without thinking of a passionate anti-semite such as Wagner. Oh well…

I was again selective in what I played, as Sam had come over to the piano during the Wagner & was still lying quietly under the instrument.

First, #4 of the first book, Op 19.

Does it add an additional layer, that Barenboim is the pianist? you be the judge.

As you can see it has the additional advantage of brevity, all on a single page. I didn’t do any of the FFs as anything much beyond a mezzo-piano. One can still shape a piece softly, especially when the audience is so close as to practically be INSIDE instrument.

Then I played the previous one, perhaps because I was peering at its last page. Op 19 #3 finishes on the page opposite #4 in my copy, another treasure brought home from a used book store for all of $15.

Beautiful: and it sits perfectly on the piano

There are some pieces that are almost irresistible, the pleasure verging on something sexual. This one, Op 19 #3 is such a piece, the pianist enacting a kind of hunt with horns & horses, exhilarating, ESPECIALLY if you manage to play it right.

Not so much if you and your horses stumble.

Again, I was mindful of the doggie who isn’t supposed to be bark bark barking as part of the chase, no matter how loudly her master might want to holler “Tally HO!!”

While I do usually play it quickly & loudly, today was different, like a sleeping person recalling a hunt. Indeed we sometimes see Sam’s paws twitch in her sleep as though she were chasing squirrels in her dreams. This was like a hunt seen from afar through gauze or in an old black & white movie.

I’m mindful of black & white movies when I play from this book because I’m certain that Erich Korngold played these pieces in his preparation for collaboration with Max Reinhardt on Midsummernight’s Dream, first as a live performance and then in the Warner Brothers Film of 1935.

“Certain(?)” you may well ask.

I played two of the three piano pieces that Korngold repurposed & then orchestrated in his film-score.

The Venetianisches Gondellied (Venetian gondola song) that is #6 and last in book 1 (op 19), becomes a lullaby sung by Titania to Bottom.


She intones “sleep thou” solemnly (as in the melody in the piano), while he harmonizes with the occasional solemn “hee – haw” in reply. All by itself it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard, simultaneously gorgeous and funny at the same time.
Faeries prepare Titania spiders spin a gossamer veil accompanied by that ideal sort of music, a spinning song (the last thing I played today for Sam).

Korngold orchestrates it of course.

And later there’s another tune –that I didn’t play today—that Korngold uses to get the faeries to lead Titania & Bottom to bed, Op 67 #6, and right there in the same book with the spinning song Korngold used earlier in the same scene of the play. I’m intrigued that it’s a Wiegenlied (cradle song), which is stunningly apt: because it’s a cradle song and yes, because it’s pretty energetic. But hey, if you’re the queen of the faeries going to bed with a donkey perhaps it’s not likely to be a problem.

They weren’t going to bed merely to sleep, right?

The way Barenboim plays this, it isn’t bad as a cradle song, nowhere near as wild or libidinous as Korngold makes it.

That would be how I’d have to play it for Sam…. Next time I suppose.

Posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Books & Literature, Cinema, video & DVDs, Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Looking back, aka Alex Ross’s Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music

I’m ending 2020 with a pair of complementary book reviews. No they’re not in any way similar in their topics, yet they frame the transition to a new year rather well. Fareed Zakaria’s Ten Lessons for a Post-pandemic World, (the next review you’ll see in this blog) would dare to predict the path ahead, while Alex Ross’s book about Wagner & Wagnerism offers the look in the rear-view mirror, in its massive summary of cultural influences.

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music is a big book, 784 pages in the hardcover edition. But in a study of the phenomenon of Richard Wagner how could it be otherwise? “Wagnerian” is an adjective that connotes weight and massive size.

Yet the pages flew by. I will read it again soon.

I won’t subject you to a long preamble before saying that I think Ross’s book is worth reading. Trust me, it’s important if you can find time to read it.

I’m fascinated thinking about who should be reading this book and why.

There are those for instance who think opera is dead, irrelevant, a museum piece in the 21st century that has long outlived its importance. They probably represent the vast majority, readers who won’t even give Ross’s book a second thought, and so might wonder why I would insist on its importance. They may have trouble imagining why one would bother reading about something (opera?) so peripheral and insignificant.

But that’s not really what Ross’s book is about. Such a reader would be in for a colossal surprise, at the unexpected connections, the influences. Because Wagner matters far beyond the realm of opera. Indeed it doesn’t feel like musicology.

Are you a student of film? While I am fascinated by film music and its connections to Wagner, I did not expect to be reading about DW Griffith or Eisenstein in Wagner’s shadow.

Or are you simply interested in the history of Western Europe in the 20th century? Wagner is the bedrock upon which the culture has been built, long before Hitler reared his head.

And then there are the opera-lovers, especially the Wagnerians. The latter represent a curious subset that I mention with a fraught mixture encompassing love & hatred: because in other words I’m looking into a mirror. Yes I’m also one of them. For Wagnerians reading Ross’s book, they will not only get the connections Ross makes between operas and the operatic allusions by poets & painters & novelists & film-makers, but will not need persuading.

We’ve already swallowed the Kool-ade. But wait a minute… that metaphor is just a modern version of a magic potion plot-twist in the first acts of Tristan und Isolde and in Götterdämmerung.

I need to revisit an allusion I made at the beginning of my review of Sky Gilbert’s Shakespeare book last month.

I recall hearing that there were more books about Jesus, Napoleon Bonaparte & Richard Wagner than anyone else: a factoid likely composed by a musicologist. But when I googled the question I see that it’s now 1-Jesus, 2-Napoleon and, 3- (you guessed it): William Shakespeare.

I remember the shock of seeing Jacques Barzun’s title Darwin, Marx and Wagner (1941) a study that I first read way back around 1970, when I was in high-school. I never dreamed that a composer could be important. At one time Wagner was understood to be much more than just an opera composer. I remember that feeling now all over again in coming to Ross’s study. As messy as the topic can be (given Wagner’s anti-semitism & his association with Nazism), as disgusting as I sometimes find Wagner the man & his beliefs, it’s a surprisingly positive experience, to once again see the affirmation of the centrality of Wagner, important both for sublime beauty & disgusting horrors.

I recall too the shock of my classsmates in my modern drama seminar back in the 1990s, when Professor Domenico Pietropaolo had Richard Wagner on our reading list. Yes he was a composer. But he was also a dramaturg in the original sense of the word, namely a theatre theorist & scholar.

That is just a small part of what Ross is after in his book.

I don’t think it’s an accident that I’ve come to the end of the year with these two books before me, like the two heads of Janus, the god from whom January takes its name. Ross might suggest that Wagner’s influence is universal, as pervasive as COVID-19; I’m perversely remembering Thomas Adès suggestion in his analysis of Parsifal that Wagner is “a disease”.

There’s a word Ross keeps using. Everyone thinks that they know what they mean when they say “modern”; “modernist” is not so well-known. One of the great joys of reading Wagnerism has been the chance to see Ross confirm suspicions I’ve long held. If I were to reduce Ross’s huge book to a single sentence –which may sound crazy—it would be that “Wagner is the most influential artist of the last 200 years”, a viewpoint that I share.

The chapters of such a big book vary greatly. At times I was reading something that more or less confirmed my beliefs, while I nodded along. So while Ross writes about Nietzsche or Baudelaire, yes it’s right, although at times I was surprised. And sometimes the chapter takes me entirely into new territory. I now have a desire to explore the novels of Willa Cather, not having suspected that she reframes Wagnerian materials in an American context. I want to look again at Bunûel & Eisenstein, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf & Thomas Mann just to name a few.

William Blissett

I need to explore what William Blissett wrote, seeing that Ross has quoted him multiple times, a Toronto Wagnerian (and former professor at U of T) whose presence I’ve enjoyed seeing regularly at opera performances in town (I’m just another former student, nodding to him in the lobby). Ross makes me want to re-read and think again about what I’ve seen and heard. And Ross echoes my own suspicion, that for Brecht the dramaturgy of Wagner was the elephant in the room that everyone in his time knew & loved or loathed: now missing from the education of those who might want to understand the context when Brecht felt he needed to wake up a sleeping audience.

I thought I would be doing a disservice to readers if I didn’t somehow capture the breadth of the book: but I can’t possibly do so, not when my word count (somewhere between 800 & 1000) barely exceeds the number of pages in Ross’s book… The size of the volume reflects Ross’s enthusiasm for the subject, an unmistakable passion.

I must re-read it.

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Schirmer Serenade: a cure for Sam’s insomnia

Last night Sam the dog went to bed but didn’t close her eyes. It’s disturbing. As you may have read in other recent posts, she’s sick. The liver isn’t working right, an incurable malady whether you’re a human or a dog. No she isn’t an alcoholic, and we’re not sure what might have caused the problem. She’s only come into our lives recently, late in Sam’s life, given that she’s a rescue and we (me & Erika) are Sam’s third home, after two previous owners.

Yes she was awake in the night. I am not sleeping terribly well to begin with, but also I have to check in on her when I wake up. She lies on the floor right beside my bed. And so while lately we are glad not to see any of the nastier symptoms from before (vomiting or peeing on the floor…at least not very much), every time I looked at her (at 1 am, at 2 am, at 3 am, at 5 am and again at 6:30): her eyes were wide open.

So it was an unexpected relief when I saw her eyes finally closed today in the afternoon, under the piano. I played a series of pieces out of an old anthology of modern piano pieces.

It’s a wonderful chestnut this Schirmer book. Speaking of things I miss during the pandemic, I miss browsing in bookstores, especially used bookstores, where I found this anthology selling for all of $3.00. There are several major works in it such as Ravel’s Jeux d’eau or his Pavane that in new 2020 editions would easily set me back $3.00 all by themselves.

On this occasion I didn’t play the big loud pieces (fast pieces from Percy Grainger, Igor Stravinsky or Bela Bartok). And I softened the dynamics to mezzo-piano or softer in everything I played. In effect the interlude was curated by Schirmer.

1 Serenata Andaluza by Manuel de Falla

2 Träumerei op 9 #4 by Richard Strauss… I really love this enigmatic little piece.

3 Romance op 24 #9 by Jean Sibelius: but always as softly as possible even when the piece calls for big effects. Yes I omitted the big powerful passages near the end, going for something softer instead. While Sibelius might have been offended, Sam seemed to like it.

4 Spring Night op22#8 by Selim Palmgren. One of the great things about anthologies is how you can encounter a composer you’ve never heard of.

5 Étude op4 #3 by Karol Szymanowski

6 Mazurka op25 #4 by Alexander Scriabin, played very softly.

7 Gavotte op12 # 2 by Serge Prokofieff, also very softly.

8 Prelude in E flat op23 #6 by Sergei Rachmaninoff… Rachmaninoff is “Sergei” when Prokofieff is “Serge” and that they say “Prokofieff” not “Prokofiev”. The title page of the book says “1940”, when there likely would be more inconsistency in the transliteration than what you’d see in 2020. But aha the accuracy comes at a price, right? much more than $3.00….In this lovely collection there are supposedly thirteen nationalities represented in 51 compositions. But I suspect it’s all the same to Sam.

9 Élégie op3 no 1 by S Rachmaninoff

To be honest I wasn’t watching her, I was playing. She lies underneath, and I was told her eyes were closed.

Oh but I did hear her loudly snoring, which is the ultimate compliment.

I think it’s a really useful pedagogical exercise to play as though you’re trying not to wake the old dog lying under your piano. Sam is a great teacher.

Sam in her bed under the piano
Posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

How to get your dog to swallow that pill

I’m sharing this little tidbit because when I googled there was no sign of this idea. It came from our veterinarian. Perhaps it will be universally known someday but for the moment would seem to be a well-kept secret.

Let’s go back in time, to last weekend.

Sam threw up and stopped eating. She was obviously sick.

We took her to the emergency veterinarian hospital. While we were freaking out at her condition, concerned that at her advanced age, she might be close to death, we were confronted with the signage at the hospital that states their priorities.

The sign helped us adjust our expectations, recognizing that while our vomiting dog might be scary to us, it’s not as hazardous as some things one can imagine.

That was at the beginning of the week.

We talked to the vet on the telephone without ever meeting him. I suppose this is normal life in the pandemic, although Sam our dog did get to meet him in the examination room.

Over the telephone and through email, we saw a preliminary diagnosis, the results of the bloodwork, leading to a series of options.

The question we’re always asking ourselves is: who is this for? Are we genuinely seeking to make the dog feel better? or are we torturing her because we can’t part with her, and insist on prolonging her life? While we might ask similar questions with our human loved ones, what’s different is that the animal doesn’t understand the rationale. Where I could submit to the agonies of chemo or radiation or any sort of treatment, why put a dog through such torments, if they don’t know why? it will seem like torture.

For a dog who might be 13 or 14 (we’re not sure, as she’s a rescue, and we’re the third owner) it would have been torture (for example) to undertake the most elaborate option of tests, which require 4 to 5 days of confinement, and separation from us.

What would she understand except something terrifying, painful?

And so after an x-ray and bloodwork, we had a diagnosis and a prescription. Sam has liver problems that we’re treating with a series of different medications.

And then we came to the next big issue. While we had purchased the meds, we couldn’t get Sam to swallow anything. While a human might understand why the doctor instructs them to swallow a big goofy pill, it’s a different matter persuading a dog.

We tried some of the things we saw suggested online, the pill-in-food trick, the stroking of the throat that we’d done with our cat.

No luck.

And so it was a dark week. At one point we were facing the necessity of euthanasia, the fear that if Sam wouldn’t take her meds and her disease progressed, that she would have to be put down. We consulted with someone from Midtown Mobile Veterinary Hospice Services (website: mmvhs.ca ) who helped reduce some of our stress in contemplating the end of Sam’s life. Someday we expect to be calling upon them for help: but not yet…

Dec 22nd is the anniversary of the day we put down another dog back in 2002 with cancer. 2020 was looking every bit as dark as we shed tears, fearing that she would be taken from us.

A conversation with our local vet at Morningside Animal Hospital in Scarborough led to a suggestion, another pathway. He told us to use a syringe (the kind that doesn’t have a needle at the end), filled with water. We’d inject water into her throat as she was swallowing the pill (which means pill first, water second). Morningside Animal Hospital gave us some syringes.

So far it has worked every time, although on occasion we had to refill the syringe and spray again. Each time it’s a few cc’s of water, done just as the pill is going down.

While Sam will still pass away at some point (she’s old after all), at least she’s come back from the lethargy we saw on the weekend. Her energy level is much better today than before when she was dizzy & unable to do more than stagger about. Now she’s aware of her surroundings and eager to go outside. And her appetite seems to have come back.

It’s the best Christmas gift we could imagine. We’re grateful for the help from the vet, and cautiously optimistic.

Sam in the snow on Christmas Morning

We are relieved that at least we’re not stuck, no longer despairing, as we were a couple of days ago. I wanted to share the idea for anyone who’s having trouble getting their dog to swallow a pill.

Please make sure you consult with your own veterinarian, to see what might be best for your animal.

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Messiah / Complex

There’s nothing simple about Messiah/Complex, a new film that’s currently available for streaming from the Against the Grain Theatre website until January 7th.

Complex? It’s an adaptation of Handel’s popular oratorio, a co-production of Against the Grain Theatre and Against the Grain Theatre TV in partnership with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. I’m not sure I understand that sentence, let alone the legalities or the logistics. Directed by Joel Ivany & Renellta Arluk, conducted by Johannes Debus, this is not your usual Handel’s Messiah. Not by a long shot.

Joel Ivany, Artistic Director of Against the Grain Theatre

The credits tell a very Canadian story, listing units in every province except Saskatchewan, and even including one each for Yukon, Nunavut & NWT. I suspect the omission of the one province irks or irritates the creative team, who seem to have gone to great pains to be inclusive in every sense of the word, giving almost every number in the oratorio a bit of a twist. Sometimes it’s linguistic, venturing into French, Arabic, Dene, Inuktitut, (and more), sometimes it’s political, when the text is changed, tweaked ever so slightly. And of course politics comes into the filming.

While the phrase “Messiah Complex” is a pathology, I am not sure that’s what this title means even if the producers are taking advantage of its currency, the meaning being largely opaque. And if it is a bit of a shot at contemporary Christianity? I think they can defend that choice, because Christianity can’t claim the moral high ground, not after errors such as the Residential Schools, and that’s only the most obvious instance. Messiah / Complex feels refreshingly positive and new, considering that Handel’s text comes from the King James Bible of 1611. But the film often gives us a renewed reading in a new language, an opportunity to shed some of the abusive associations in new phrasing.

The best example I can give happens a little over 20 minutes into the film, when we get our first radical revision, from Diyet in Yukon, singing not in English but Southern Tutchone (a language as I discovered with a little googling & reading).

Who is Diyet? I found Diyet & the Love Soldiers. This is not your usual classical music persona.

And her brave face? right there in the film, singing a changed version of Handel & the Biblical text.

“Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son” becomes “This is our land and our people too”.

“And shall call his son Emmanuel, God With Us” becomes “Creator has made all of this land (for us all)”

No it’s not the usual voice you’d hear in a Handel oratorio, one of several inspired choices. The team behind Messiah / Complex were curators assembling something different from the usual, something (dare I say it) against the grain.

Not “Oh thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” but “Who brings this good news to us?”

Not “get thee up into the high mountain” but “share the news from the top of the mountain”: as we see huge mountains in the images before us, a singer walking before them. It’s breath-taking in every sense.

Usually one gets the classically trained singing voice needed to fill the big concert hall and to be heard over the orchestra. Unavoidably, that comes with the added tendency to seem like a show-off. Indeed that was a tendency in the baroque, to embellish, to impress us. But instead we get a gentle voice intimately close –like the singer’s face who we see in a close-up. As a result that gives us a totally different sort of authenticity.

Diyet’s picture from the Facebook group for Diyet & The Love Soldiers

Up to this point watching the film, I had been conflicted, resisting. Perhaps that’s my tight-ass old-fashioned love of the Handel Messiah? resisting the way AtG’s press release came at me with the hype about all the collaborators. Yes it’s a complex project and wow I doubt they could pull this off in any other country. Yes it’s so quintessentially Canadian. There’s some irony in my resistance, as I recognize that wait a minute,…. hey isn’t this precisely what I’ve been demanding almost like a mantra?

A Canadian product from Canadian artists? And here it is.

And suddenly watching this solo I’m all in, completely won over by the legitimacy of this segment (baptized with a flood of tears). Diyet is shown walking by a road on a snowy day in the Yukon with magnificent mountains in the distance.

When I think of the many live performed Messiahs I have seen, not unlike most of the operas I’ve seen, one always has to admit “ymmv”, or “your mileage may vary”. Rarely does one get a perfect chorus AND a perfect orchestra AND thoughtful leadership from the conductor(s) AND the right voice from the tenor ….AND the bass AND the alto AND the soprano all clicking in all the numbers. Instead of drama (meaning mine as I wonder how they will manage the challenges, how they will respect tradition or boldly try something new), we’ve got a different soloist –and often a different language & culture—for each solo. Most of the drama is gone, indeed the tension is mostly absent. A purist might quibble with choristers smiling sweetly as they sing “and he shall purify”, a very dark scary text. But it’s a fun performance by UPEI Chamber Choir, joy evident in this as in every choral segment of the film. And most of the solos also bubble over with joy, even if some are solemnly mysterious, spiritual without being religious.

There is so much more I could say, so many more soloists to mention…. While YMMV implies failures, I merely meant that sometimes we’re honoring Handel and the King James text, other times boldly going into new territory: which I welcomed. While some may prefer a more conservative approach, I believe that the generations who are happy in the realm of Zoom & spotify & the download will see nothing objectionable, while seeing much to applaud & admire.

I can imagine the challenging choices the creative team faced, between sometimes honouring a conventional & recognizable approach to Handel vs sometimes giving us something with an edge. In the end I welcomed all the transgressions, the moments that for me are the most genuine & spiritual.

I’m going to invoke a technical term from the film-music realm. We speak of music that is “diegetic” and “non—diegetic”. Woody Allen gave a classic illustration in Bananas (1971), in fact sending it all up. As his character gets the good news that he’s invited to dinner with the President we hear harp music: as though wow this were the feelings in his head. That’s the usual way film music works, where invisible musicians underscore the events on the screen. And so the music seems to be non-diegetic, emotions inspired by events in the story.

Ah but we discover that the music is coming from a harpist practicing in his closet.

So while at a few select moments in the film we do get to see the Toronto Symphony led by conductor Johannes Debus in the opening Sinfonia and again in the Hallelujah Chorus (which seems apt given that we also see the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir singing on King St in front of Roy Thomson Hall, the usual home base for the TSO & TMC), for most of the proceedings they are invisible, the non-diegetic score, for their participation in this film.

When we watch the UPEI Chamber Choir (“And He shall purify”), or Le Cheour Louisbourg in Moncton (“For Unto Us a Child is Born”) or Halifax Camerata Singers (“Worthy is the Lamb” & the final Amen), we see the ensemble’s conductor leading a choir. But no, we don’t see the TSO. The music invisibly accompanies, presumably from a recording session accomplished with the choir. At times the choir poses rather than singing, at times they are lip synching, although it’s pretty clear that the singing was done elsewhere given the absence of microphones, especially in that shot on King St West.

So it’s a film that doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It makes an intriguing comparison with Rituaels, the new “film-concert” from collectif9 that I reviewed recently, the genre in quotes because I’ve never seen it before. Collectif9 made it crystal clear through their camerawork that we were watching the players play a concert, even though there were lots of filmed moments interspersed: just as in Messiah/Complex. Clearly we’ve come to a different performance realm with new rules. But I am reserving judgment for now as to whether this is temporary, brought on by the pandemic, or perhaps the new normal.

Fareed Zacharia whom you may know from “GPS”, his Sunday program on CNN, has a new book that I’m reading called Ten Lessons for a Post-pandemic World. Fareed points to Kodak’s failure to adapt to a digital world, filing for bankruptcy, and citing the huge share of the entertainment industry spending that goes to gaming, exceeding that of Hollywood & the music business put together. As you’ve likely noticed, some companies are getting rich right now while others fall by the wayside. Those who have an online presence –such as the TSO & Against the Grain—likely will have a future. As I lament that the Canadian Opera Company, who presented many brilliant productions over the past decade that I wish I could see again in a digital/virtual format, I’ve been enjoying the free online offerings from the Metropolitan Opera. Whether the in-person concerts & operas manage to fully come back or not surely the virtual presentations and their associated revenue stream are here to stay.

Messiah/Complex is a beautiful film from AtG & the TSO, with all these collaborators working in so many provinces & territories. Especially given the current challenges artists & companies face, this film is a healthy omen, perhaps an indication of great things to come.

Posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Politics, Popular music & culture, Reviews, Spirituality & Religion | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beethoven 250: 2020 vision

It’s an oxymoron of a year, this 2020 that is a little over two weeks from its conclusion.

Social butterflies (those of us who self-identify as extroverts & are therefore energized by other people) have no choice but to go back into our chrysalis, or do our socializing with our pets (we make baby-talk to our dogs?).

But I digress. The introverts meanwhile smile quietly at the irony, at this great excuse to avoid gathering. “The meek shall inherit the Earth”, someone said. And so in this bizarre year we discover the anti-performance, the virtual rather than the real.

Perhaps 2020 is a tiny bit of what it must have been like to be Beethoven, which is apt considering that it was a deaf man who taught us how to hear. Isn’t it perfect that the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birthday should fall in this upside down year, when live performance isn’t permitted, when the celebration of this anniversary is confined to the virtual realm of online concerts..?

It reminds me of nothing so much as Beethoven himself.

What must it be like to be composing music entirely using your inner ear? Yes it can be done. Of course composers have a few options.

1-They can draw or write something entirely using music software. SPOILER ALERT: this wasn’t an option for Beethoven.

2-They can go back and forth between writing and testing their experiment. You think of something that might sound good and then like a cook, tasting their creation, they test it on the instrument to see how it sounds. Needless to say, if you’re becoming deaf this becomes difficult or impossible.

3- …OR as I mentioned above, one can compose entirely in one’s head. I have done this before. I am not saying the result was immortal, or even good. But I was working on the score for an adaptation of Pericles in the early 1980s while I was working in a small bookstore. I had a bit of a struggle shutting the mall’s Muzak out while trying to hear what was scored on the page.

(hm do they still have Muzak nowadays? Do millennials know the meaning of the word? do they even have malls? But do large places play music on the sound system anymore?)

But wow it’s distracting when you’re trying to compose something, to hear other music blaring at you. I only mention this because that last option –composing entirely in his head—became the only option available for Beethoven, who might try to sing a tune aloud, perhaps to hear it inside his head, but couldn’t simply plunk out a tune on his piano.

I am reminded of that scene in Immortal Beloved when we see him playing a piano, unaware of someone behind him, as he explores the sounds. He is testing a new instrument.

Did he perhaps begin to understand the piano as a sonorous wonderland, with amazing potential? His writing took the instrument far beyond what anyone else had done.

Or that famous story of the premiere of his 9th symphony, supposedly unaware of the riotous applause from the audience behind him until a soloist turned him around. He was like an exile from the world, progressively further & further away from society as his hearing loss grew more complete.

I am also reminded of someone entirely different. I just finished reading Alex Ross’s huge book about Richard Wagner, which is why he’s on my mind. Because Wagner was involved in a failed revolt, he fled capture by the police, going into exile with his wife and probably with a dog as well. For the next several years he would be a pamphlet writer, railing against the conventions of the world while in exile, living with generous friends such as Franz Liszt and later Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, both of whom took him in and helped facilitate premieres of his works. No Wagner wasn’t deaf: but he also didn’t have access to a theatre, and so no wonder he reinvented opera in this period, while writing radical essays about “the art of the future”. He noticed what was wrong with opera while unable to make any opera, and wrote the single most insightful essay on the subject, “Opera and Drama”: making the simple critique that a form meant to use music to make drama, instead tended to use drama as a form to make music. Distance offers perspective, a chance to learn, and there is no distance like exile.

Like Wagner, Beethoven was separated from his music, something like what we have all lived during the pandemic. No we didn’t go anywhere (nor did Beethoven). But the concerts and operas went away, except on our computers. For Beethoven the music receded away from him like water in a lake that was drying up. The result of such profound changes as what we’re living through in 2020 is a kind of alienation, leaving some people confused, depressed, traumatized, and worse. If you are sad living through 2020 imagine what Beethoven lived through, and consider what one can learn from this experience.

It may be difficult yet it is also an opportunity.

Remember how wonderful the music sounded in a concert hall: that is when you could actually go into a concert hall..? I am grateful even recalling the banality of lining up to pee at Roy Thomson Hall, or Four Seasons Centre. In December 2020 one walks the streets, the restaurants & stores mostly locked down. We are often masked, unable to even see a smile. Beethoven was perceived to be grouchy, miserable. I can relate. Under a mask no one can see your smile (or lack thereof).

Beethoven sometimes composed counter-intuitively, against our expectation. Listen for instance to the first movement of his violin concerto, where the two main ideas are a melody on the fiddle plus a repeated idea for the drum. It’s almost like an abstract exercise. Can you make something so beautiful out of the repeated pounding of a drum as to let it be a motif, a significant musical idea? The drama of the opening mvmt of his violin concerto could be a self-portrait in those two opposing ideas: a melody for violin, soft pounding of the drum. Is this something that one dreams up when far away, estranged, exiled?

Beethoven was the first to write a song cycle. Its title sounds like an apt subject for 2020, this year of estrangement & physical distancing. “An die ferne Geliebte” or “to the distant beloved”, is a series of songs for male voice, addressing a love who is far away.

I am thinking too of the letters to his Immortal Beloved (that I mentioned recently in context with the film), who was in a sense distant from him. He is again in a kind of alienated place, trying to get to someone. No wonder, then that his song cycle celebrates love from afar.

Do we listen differently alone? I suspect we do. But do we make music differently as performers and composers, making music without an audience? I know I make music differently when I know someone will hear. I wonder when the dog is under the piano (channeling Gerald Moore) “am I playing too loudly”?

The face reflected in the piano

When my wife is in the house I prefer to make a sound that is pleasant rather than noisy. If I am playing something that’s too difficult she can hear a struggle, picks up on the drama. I’ve re-thought and re-learned how to play and/or sing from hearing her feedback, coming to understand some compositions differently as a result. Some pieces must be dramatic (Erlkönig!?), while some should aim to be free of drama (Satie’s Gymnopédies?). Maybe that is what we understand by a genre, both in the implications for the artist and the implicit signals to audiences. But what if one has no such feedback? What if one is truly deaf? Usually at that point, music-making isn’t even an option let alone an interest and a passion. It is forever amazing to reflect on what Beethoven accomplished.

Of course composition changed under his influence, but perhaps too it changes with what his deafness implies, with the implications of sounds inside the head as the ideal, not the ones we hear. So the first glimmering of the “modern” might be with him, in the willingness to make music without any pressure to be “beautiful”. His beauty is at times radical, pointing the way to the Wagner-Mahler-Berg modernism, composers who push music away from the usual path into new ones of ever more daring. Any bold composer in 2020 can think of Beethoven as the avatar of bold exploration.

And naturally in 2020 we speak of things with precision, such as the percentage efficacy of a vaccine. But when we speak of Beethoven’s birthday we don’t know it. We know that he was baptized on December 17th 1770, which is 250 years ago this Thursday. Was he born that day? It seems unlikely although I have seen that date put forth. I often see Dec 16th or 15th which are conjecture. I am guessing that in 1770, December 17th fell on a Sunday. But perhaps not. My mom tells me that at least one of my sibs was baptized in the hospital automatically, and not via church. Perhaps something like that was possible in the 18th century.

But I merely finish by pointing out that it’s not a beginning that can be ascertained with scientific accuracy. But even if it were possible, that’s not what matters.

It’s the music.

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