Tom Allen

CBC broadcaster & trombone player Tom Allen

The title, all in caps, is meant to invoke the voice of Tom Allen from CBC, as he used to say it on a program, that, alas is no longer part of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)’s schedule.

CBC keep changing and re-tooling their programming.  A few years ago some big changes led to the departures of some much-loved hosts, to be replaced by a new younger cohort.  Ironically I am now going to celebrate one of those “new” shows that was in turn swept aside in another subsequent re-tooling.

Once I got over the frustration of the changes –which as always seemed to lead to more popular music, less classical, and in general, the dumbing down of CBC—I started to notice some things I liked.  Please note: this is past tense.  I am remembering what was, not what is.

Tom Allen hosted a morning show (damn I can’t recall what it was called!!).  I listened to it regularly.  I was going to say “Disc Drive” but no, that was one of the cancelled shows, hosted by Jurgen Goth (hope i spelled that right).  The chief thing I recall about it was a most post-modern idea in the midst of this classical music show.  Allen would have a weekly feature called “Cage Match”, presented complete with smack-down intro music and a nasty macho voice.  This was all parody of course, which means you do it with a straight face.   Allen would say “CAGE MATCH” as if we were about to hear a wrestling competition on the radio.  Two pieces of music would in effect have a cage match: a kind of fight to the death.  Monday we’d hear the two pieces, and then we’d be invited to comment via email or telephone, phoning in our preferences (i once or twice sent comments and heard my name on air at least once).  Friday we’d find out who won.  In so doing, Allen would deconstruct some of the pomposity that is usual in classical music discourse, mocking the seriousness of the pieces & their performers.

Of course Allen’s a trombone player so this is natural.  I sat beside the trombone players (euphonium & tuba here, in the UTS band of yore… George Stock, wherever you are, you were the funniest trombonist i ever met God rest your soul), the vaudeville comedians of any band.  Same with double bass I think. When you’re far from the boss at the front you can heckle quietly, while you’re counting the zillions of bars of rests until your next entrance.

And so…. I’d like to imagine a few possible cage matches of my own.  Yes I am vicarious, wishing I had been able to do such a show of my own.  Well done Mr Allen, I know I am not presumptuous in saying that we miss Cage Match (although please note, the CBC had the good sense when re-tooling to keep their best tools: such as Mr Allen).  I can’t be alone in missing this wonderfully unpretentious breath of fresh air.

And so, without further ado, here are Cage Matches we might have seen, which I will call Virtual Cage Matches: because we’re going to have to imagine them without any voters.

Virtual Cage Match #1: big vs small

One of the big questions for me is the matter of big vs small.  Has anyone ever really shown which is “better”?  Sometimes an unaccompanied little tune is better than hours of grand opera.  Some people might say that this is ALWAYS true.

Leonard Meyer in his wonderful –if self-important—book Music, the Arts & Ideas wanted to argue that Beethoven’s Ninth is a better piece than Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun (and i think his reasoning is pompous nonsense… to fasten to a dart board alongside Joseph Kerman’s nonsensical dismissal of Tosca).  I would have liked to have heard such a cage match, taken to its extreme, perhaps pitting something short & tiny against something long and massive & pompous.  Is Mahler’s 8th Symphony really better than one of Satie’s Gymnopédies?  I suppose some might say, that’s why we need Cage Match, to get CBC listeners to call in and vote.  Then again, –like my hero Claude Debussy—I mistrust the voice of the people.  Does that make me an elitist jerk?  I worry sometimes that market forces are not to be mistaken for truth.  I prefer water to cola (or heavens diet cola), and drink carrot juice whether or not the majority like it.  Of course I am a bit leery of the taste of the majority: because I am an opera lover after all.

Virtual Cage Match #2: funeral music

I grew up hearing Chopin’s  funeral march in its cartoon parody version.  But it’s a splendid tune when you finally hear it (or play it!… but that’s rather hard to do if it’s your funeral, right?). 

And then there’s the music for Amenhotep III (I hope I have the right Pharaoh….) in Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten

Which music would YOU rather have at your send-off to the after-life?

Virtual Cage Match #3: morning

Another piece I grew up with is Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt (and boy was I amazed when years later, I finally encountered the play…but that is another story entirely).  “Morning” is a sunny pastorale that never fails to make me smile.  In the other corner? Let’s spin between any of the three acts of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, each of which gives us an evocation of something like the morning.

Virtual Cage Match #4: The meaning of life

Okay, why not let cage match answer some really deep questions? No wait.  If we put it to a vote, I might find myself against my will in a faith group I don’t recognize.  But even so, it’s rather intriguing to imagine pieces of music as advocates for a position or doctrine.  Come to think of it, that’s one of the brilliant implications of the original Cage Match: the recognition that music exists in context, and is never just music.

So imagine the following ways of determining the meaning of life.

  • John Lennon singing “Imagine” 
    vs the soprano of your choice, singing Handel’s “I know that my redeemer liveth” 
    What do you believe?  I love the simplicity of both compositions.
  • Does either of these compositions work for you
    “Stairway to heaven” via Led Zeppelin
    vs Mahler’s 4th last movement: Bernstein and the radiant Edith Mathis…(sigh)
  • And finally (a slightly different way of asking the question posed by John Lennon), do you accept Queen’s assertion that “nothing really matters” as we hear it in “Bohemian Rhapsody”? 
    or do you accept Handel’s glorious statement “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain”?  

Thanks CBC for a wonderful idea, thanks Tom Allen for a terrific program, gone but not forgotten.

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3 Responses to CAGE MATCH (!)

  1. Marlena says:


    I just discovered this article, and I’d like to leave a comment. I remember Tom Allen’s show as well; it was called Music and Company. And I loved the cage match as well. It was a fun way to start off a morning. My favourite cage match was the one about overplayed music. Tom Allen picked two pieces that are overplayed (Bolero by Ravel and Canon in D by Pachelbel) and told us to vote for the one we least want to hear again. The winner was Bolero.

    Anyways, for the first cage match that you posted in this article, I’m going to analyze both pieces and then make my decision. Chopin’s funeral march is for me, a masterpiece. For me, a funeral march should evoke sadness and desolation, but it should also have a sense of restfulness and hope, since you hope that the person rests in peace and is in a better place. Chopin’s funeral March has all these emotions. Also, I think a major section in this piece is a nice touch, since it’s like you are recalling the happy memories of that person and the life he lived. In addition, the dark opening of the march is instantly memorable; the first time I heard the piece, the darkness and strong passion of the opening hit me and never went away. I could easily picture that music playing over a coffin in the pouring rain.

    Now, the Philip Glass piece is a different kind of piece, so comparing it to the funeral march is like comparing apples to oranges. However, while I do realize that both pieces have different styles, I think I do have to choose Chopin’s Funeral March. The Philip Glass piece does feel cinematic; I could definitely watch a funeral in a film about a Pharaoh and here this music playing in the background. However, I think that Chopin’s Funeral March feels more personal, and it gives me a more emotional reaction, which is an effect that I never got with the Philip Glass piece. It just feels a little hollow that way. Of course, I could be a little biased, since I find some minimalist music a bit hollow, but that’s probably just me.

    So, the winner is Chopin’s Funeral March.

  2. Pingback: Pisani vs Mate: a battle for the heart | barczablog

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