Only Connect!  And how was Day Two?

On the second, final day of the Gould birthday festival, I hit a wall.  Suddenly, almost gradually, but inexorably, more of the presenters seemed too clever by half, i.e. innovators only in their own estimation.  Renegades whose big ideas worked well, say, as premises (when presented to a conference-organizer), but who seemed frail and human to me, pedestrian and ambitious, once they got up on the big stage, standing tall there on the big screen.

And there were a great many reminders of how very difficult it actually is to deliver the real message, to get a work of art urgently created, performed and sent home with the observer(s), whether they’re at a conference, in a concert hall, or – as Gould figured out earlier than most people – in their own living rooms, already at home, self-delivering the culture meal they really want, to themselves and their own chosen family.  Is the table set?  And ... is it time for supper.

We will have to work with what’s left in the fridge, unfortunately.  Yes, it’s possible to make a meal, so let’s get busy.

Let’s eat.  So ... open the fridge door.  What’s inside there?

Big fridge, made of shiny stainless steel.  And it opens side by side on top with the freezer conveniently down there by the bottom.  But it’s groaning and growling a bit, no?  Do you think it’s actually gonna last?  Do we need a new one, already?

By comparison with my imaginary refrigerator, the Glenn Gould conference package is even more glitzy, but it may not be keeping things as cold as would be healthy.  And I’m not sure what’s actually IN there, nor whether it’s enough “culture” to keep me going.  Is any of this stuff fresh, and tasty, or even wholesome enough to barely nourish a person, let alone a culture?

Which do you choose as your definition: whimsy or nihilism

The contrast between what’s promised and what’s delivered was still there, when I returned Sunday morning, right at the entrance: two displays, one of them a cow-patterned, working organ, with wooden pipes playing a light-hearted cover of the Goldberg Variations (Garnet Willis and Max Streicher collaborating), and the other, called Macrophone, a display of tin-can phones, with nice, long strings, under a tree on the green of King’s College Circle (Camellia Koo, installation artist and Atom Egoyan, conception).

It couldn’t be clearer which to choose, and how to listen, with the one message cloaked in whimsy, but substantial, effective, and a multi-valent work that delivered, if I may say it, both sound and light.  It was a cheerful, backward-looking message, appropriate to an 80th birthday for a bygone hero, with his own crotchetiness aplenty.  The tin cans on the lawn sent their message too, but here’s what I heard: nothing.  The cans aren’t connected.  It ain’t under any of ’em.  The phone’s free, but you don’t have an unlimited plan; either you can’t afford it, or things’re organized to keep you out or something.  It’s a message that’s a fair and dystopian reflection of our society, but pretty discouraging to hear. Or to not hear: “Operator, give me Nihilism 6-5000.”  But without the swing, OR the horn section, and kind of like a half-hearted Laurie Anderson message machine: no one’s home right now.  The security guard couldn’t even figure out whether to confront me or not, for picking up one of the cans.

By the Rivers of Babylon, there we sat down ... in our highrise apartment

By way of contrast, the most ambitious and the thorniest project of all was presented in a calm, clear, yet polyphonic way.  Katerina Cisek, Daffyd Hughes and Joshua van Tassell started slowly, with an unnecessary justification for connections with Glenn Gould, who did not live in a highrise by any stretch of the imagination.  Certainly not a soulless, suburban one.  I bike past it on purpose all the time, as well as stopping in to commune with the Peter Pan statue in Glenn Gould Park across the street.

But ... the presentation about highrises, Out My Window which is a sprawling, world-wide, interactive documentary from the NFB, is really something else.  Just go clicking for yourself, eh?

In a very short intro, Cisek, the documentary’s director, told us what we’d see and hear.  Then somehow, while she stood calm and still at centre stage, the other two guys, one at the piano and one at the computer controls – sorry, I could not tell from anyone’s intro/bio which of them was the sideman with the active solo career, and which was the “pianist who makes music art and computer programs” – took us on an improvised-seeming virtual tour, to Amsterdam, São Paulo and Prague.

Boney M’s daughter – a rapper, who survives her dancer/frontman dad (died in 2010) – lives in an apartment near the airport in Amsterdam, surrounded by religious icons of various sorts; and there’s a little homeless baby, named Community, adopted by highrise-living neighbours in São Paulo; plus a grandfather who takes thousands of pictures of the suburban landscape in Prague.  Oh, and a dreamily dissident poet in Havana.  That’s what I learned in school, today, that’s what I learned in school. 

On the basis of what I saw, and where I later clicked on my own, I’m a believer.  Out My Window is the realest, finest illustration you can think of – even if the connection is accidental – for Gould’s way of imagining audio-visual art works, which the consumer/listener would construct, instead of – or even, supplanting – the live concert.  Plus there’s something morally noble in fabricating a gigantic vision that aggregates a broad, handsome heft and substance from so many little, ordinary life moments.  And it’s cheaper than me travelling around the world for myself.

Universe ends with a whimper, not a bang

Unfortunately though, the latter parts of Sunday were misconceived, or ill-fitting or ... they seemed to me just plain wrong-headed.  And I became restless and impatient. The most egregious mistake of all lay in programming the appearance of the superstar pianist Lang Lang – as a poster-child for music in the schools, taught by an army of volunteers – though his Chopin Etude was arguably the most beautiful thing all day, despite being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The day after the conference I saw just such a poster child, Orlando Bloom, a figurehead movie star on a library poster, clutching a book to his bosom.  It wasn’t a cheap thriller, though, or a self-help book, but a handsome classic, with the JRRT emblem of Tolkien.  Lang Lang’s fingers were perfectly lovely, his Opus 10, No 3 just the right kind of Chopin –; but Chopin was exactly the kind of popular voluptuousness that Gould so firmly rejected.  Still, I could have gone for it, with purple light on the video fingers and all, had the pianist not favoured us with his exceedingly pedestrian sermon on volunteerism in music education.  What WERE they thinking when they invited him?  It surely does no favours to a great artist to be so badly misplaced as a guest.  Nor to the other guests and listeners.

“It is essential that art leave the temple ...”

I suppose to understand exactly why some of the Sunday folks disappointed me so deeply, I’ll have to go looking into my ideals, and rustle around a bit.  The truth is that I have been co-opted by the vision of Franz Liszt (from 1834) for more than 20 years, and I don’t see any other way for it, than to make art big and widely available, rather than narrowly construed and respectable.  Liszt apparently believed that publicly funded music education – – would lead to a beautiful anarchic, chaos of committed voices in vigorous polyphonies.  Rather than a stilted parade of Toronto children who know what’s a do re mi, but cannot sing to save their souls, at bottom.  Rock and Roll is where I’d go, and village song, rather than universal, compulsory music literacy, as they believe they are teaching in the Toronto School Board, but are NOT in fact teaching.

The biggest problem with the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus – besides how hard the name was for the Gould impersonator to figure out – is this: someone tried to honour their youthful vigour by giving them too much work to do, of a kind that they were neither well prepared for nor good at.  I looked and listened in vain for signs of life, and found only a glimmer of it, in their “encore” piece, Purcell’s song “When I Am Laid in Earth.”  Yes, I will continue to “remember” compassion for each and every one of those beautiful (and doubtless, talented) child singers, whenever I’m asked, but heaven help me, I hope to forget their fates on this luckless day.

On the other hand, there were rockin’ elders out for a ramble, to air their historical views in a sympathetic forum, who could almost have succeeded.  Eddie Schwartz was engaging in dialogue with a free-the-culture fanatic (Cory Doctorow); his idea that music creation – especially his own metier of song-writing – might benefit from a fair-trade, shade-grown marketing campaign, was more palatable than Cory’s vision of a rosy future, including some kind of magical licensing mojo that would miraculously confer fairness upon the “music industry,” so that performers and writers would begin to profit, by and large, rather than only the Goulds and Gagas and Dead Addicts.

And Sandy Pearlman, the pleasant Blue Oyster Cult lyricist, with the overloaded plate of culture, was way more like a retirement-age professor than you’d imagine.  Just so deep into his visions of the Grateful Dead that he couldn’t look up, nor recognize the holy time limit. (I had begun having heretical thoughts about the democratic 20 minutes, and its unsuitability, myself.)  He reminds me of myself, right now, trying to account for something way too vast and illimitable to contain, though he also reminds me that I might wanna listen, and actually pay attention to (my Sunday seatmate) John Oswald’s Grayfolded (, which was the ostensible subject of Pearlman’s tragically lengthy talk.

The Frame, and the Picture in it ...

The Twins, The Twins, no!  This time, even the dancers, the Lombard Twins, seemed more like weary child labourers, than like free-standing noble artists, in control of their own destinies.  Keep your eyes open and watch them for yourself, just in case.  They suffered a bit, by comparison to the pair of rockin’ cellists, mentored by Bob Ezrin, who lives in the Toronto house where Gould carried on the love affair of his wife.  To me, the pile-up of coincidences, and the name-dropping of Elton John, didn’t help me to love the 2 Cellists, but to place them in a certain stream of the music business.  They sure tried hard, but did not seem to exemplify the deepest values of Gould’s life-quest for authentic, formal order, with all the human passion still inside it.  There were, however, bright, cheerful, ambitious and youthful.

Nor, to be honest, did the rap artists work out very well.  Not that I could understand what they were on about.  Made me feel all cranky and old, but ... I surely would have tried, if the sound system had given their voices any clarity.  Or the video monitors had showed anything coherent.

I am also told that Chili Gonzalez framed his questions elegantly enough to be taken seriously, but I had trouble figuring that out – because of my late arrival, I caught him somewhat in mid-stream – and when he sang “Glenn Gould was a shitty composer,” over and over again, it seemed much less a cogent commentary, than a thoughtless, sophomoric ploy.

The Banality of Ego:

The “banalizing” influence of the impersonator, (an idea originating from, and shared on Sean Morley Dixon’s FB page

I kept right on loving the appearances of Rick Miller, though, popping up from his Gould chair to do the most astonishing bits of theatre – just imagine, a theatrical work, where you have little cameo appearances of various sorts, for 6 hours a day, two days in a row.  And in between, you have to listen to a wacky parade of experts, while sitting on a chair with no cushion, all hunched up.

I was forced to do a bit of defensive re-thinking though, when my Facebook friend Sean used a really great verb on me, claiming that “impersonators banalize.”  Don’t know how to pronounce it, but I love the idea that you could make a verb where most people only use an adjective form.  And I hadda think it through, pretty thoroughly.  Sparing all the details, here’s what I figure: the whole event was banal already, mostly because of the nature of Gould’s image in the public eye, especially the Canadian social and cultural scene.  So the impersonator, who was almost endlessly inventive, by my reckoning, shouldn’t be blamed, really.  It’s like shooting the messenger.  I could be wrong: perhaps it’s easier for me to analyze and judge music things for their music flaws, and for Sean to judge theatrical things for their theatrical flaws. Or vice versa.

All those experts, competing in a short-form boxing ring, egos flaming up and ideas bursting out, more and less ready for public display.  When the generosity of the presentation was overshadowed by the neediness of the ego on display, well ... it was a bit tricky to digest it all.  Perhaps it wasn’t the fault of the people who each tried to squeeze their best self into a too-tight pair of 20-minute jeans.

Best of show – Bow-WOW! – were Damiano and Brent

Because maybe I was distracted by puzzling whether the fantastic philosphical lecture, of an academic justification of religious ecstasy, was real or parody, in Jordan Peterson’s feverish presentation ... or trying to follow the curves of Jeff Warren’s meditation on technological tools and our connections to them ... or simply lost in appreciating Jean Stilwell’s fiery best, recreating a notorious artistic disagreement (the Bernstein/Gould on Brahms) ... or baffled and amazed by the magician, Brian Brushwood, who brought on the most bizarre tribute to Gould you’d’ve thought possible: Mr. Happy Pants, an explosion of id and evil.  Yes, a magician.

But how could I have forgotten Brent Carver, who did not explain what he was doing, nor over-explain, nor impersonate, but created a brilliant cover song on Petula Clarke, with homo-eroticism, honest artistic and cultural passion, everything really that you’d want in a 15 minute set piece.  Covering both the radio piece, about radio –

 – and the song itself, was a brilliant piece of musical theatre, especially with Rick Miller joining in to the song, while miming a lonely Northern Ontario car ride.

Damiano Pietropaolo, reliving and referencing the Gould and Glory days of the CBC, gave us a respectable bit of live radio remix, again, using the lively impersonator.  Plus some other presentations about which I’ll exercise compassion, rather than full-on critical attention.

Compassion – before you’re gonna preach to a man, make sure he’s got a belly full of food

I just cannot go on, cannot fit all this stuff into a coherent report.  But I do have a stray question: if Glenn Gould donated much of his estate to Sally Ann, then how did there get to be so much wanking around money?

You’d have to conclude that Gould’s compassion was legendary: from his response to Petula Clark’s cry of the heart; to the encounter with his cousin Jessie and the vacuum cleaner; never mind the lady he helped onto the streetcar, while he left his Lincoln a runnin’ ...

It’s even possible to argue that Gould’s love affair with recorded performance was a genius’s attempt to live within the strictures of necessary generosity and compassion, giving it all away to the audience, despite an inability to bear the anxieties and the scrutiny of public performance.

PS Happy Actual Birthday, Glenn: at the University Art Centre

No pens, only pencils.  And beautiful quiet darkness.  Plus frogs. And Bach. (Closed Sundays and Mondays)

After the frenzy of the two days in Con Hall, it was lovely healing balm to walk among Robert Wilson’s frogs: video portraits in Warholian bright neon colour, with the soothing parts of the Goldberg Variations playing in a loop.  Two different frogs, one with a concave gullet and one convex, processed into pairs and symmetrical odds, with contrasting colours.  And a jarringly unexpected truncation of the Goldberg Variations, with all the excitement taken out.  Frankly, I didn’t have the patience to let it be what Wilson made of it.  I kept missing, over and over, the big banger, the 2nd movement, like a hunger.

Still.  It was pleasure.  And Gould’s been sufficiently celebrated now, for at least another 10 years.

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