marika bournakiDistilled from 140 hours that included the family archives, I Am Not a Rock Star is a revealing portrait of a talented young pianist committed to serving her mistress, which just happens to be music.

A remarkable chronicle of a young woman as she matures both personally and professionally, I Am Not a Rock Star premiered at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema November 16 followed by a short Q & A with the director, Bobbi Jo Hart, and her subject, 21-year-old pianist Marika Bournaki. The high-energy event concluded with a brief three-piece recital, excerpts from Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Ravel’s Sonatine and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 23, No. 7, all performed with a deceptively easy self-assurance and captured on the Bloor’s big screen by a live camera, just as if she were a rock star.

Rich in musical and personal detail, I Am Not a Rock Star is no melodrama, even though there are many tempestuous moments including one of two snippets that recur later – a Skype conversation with her father over what repertoire to include in a 15-minute audition for Young Concert Artists. (The other is a sublime piece of editing that brings back footage of Bournaki at five bowing at the end of a recital immediately juxtaposed after her 20-year-old self bows to conclude the last performance we see in the film.)

Ever since childhood she’s been noticed. In fact, it was a newspaper article about her off to pre-college studies at Juilliard at age 12 that caught the eye of director Hart. In Hart’s previous film She Got Game the filmmaker trailed Canadian Sonya Jeyaseelan around the women’s pro tennis circuit and became “fascinated by women who started at four or five and followed their passion.”

Bournaki has a big personality and her ease with the film’s director allows the documentary’s naturalism to flourish. It’s rare for a film to capture this kind of personal and artistic growth over such an extended period of time (from 12 to 20). In his 7 Upseries, Michael Apted gave us snapshots of a group of British children, following them every seven years for decades. But I Am Not a Rock Star is quite different, with its dozen or so significant telescopic scenes from Montreal to Juilliard, London and Wigmore Hall to Seoul and Moscow, finishing off in Manhattan’s Central Park.

Bournaki is a confident musician growing more polished each year, grounded principally by a fervent belief in a Platonic ideal of music. She calls it her religion. “I love music,” she says near the end of the film.  “I’m serving something higher, I really believe it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.” Her ongoing relationship with her father is another constant, even though his “stage mother” monitoring over the years contributed to the breakup of his marriage by the time his daughter was 18. (Both parents were people whose early dreams of a performing life never bore fruit and her mother felt too much was sacrificed for the piano.) A third anchor is the support of her New York City companion, fellow Juilliard piano student and boyfriend of four years, David Aladashvili.

I Am Not a Rock Star will be shown on the Documentary Channel sometime in February.

Please click on photos for a larger image.

quartet-pauline-collins-and-maggie-smithNow that a few weeks have passed since the final screening of the 2012 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), TIFF’s impact is really just beginning.  Several of its almost 300 feature films have already opened in theatres with many more to follow in the months ahead. It’s the gift that keeps on giving with a half-life of at least a year. With a number of pre-screenings in addition to the festival itself and post-TIFF openings, I’ve managed to see more than 75 of TIFF’s offerings. What follows is a snapshot of a score of movies in which music plays an intriguing role.

Quartet (set to open January 11, 2013 and sure to be a crowd pleaser) is a rarity. Ronald Harwood’s screen adaptation of his 1997 play manages to fuse the acting talents of some of the UK’s finest (and the directorial debut of 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman) with a cornucopia of musical excerpts from Verdi’s La Traviata and Rigoletto, Puccini’s  Tosca, G&S’s The Mikado, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Haydn’s “Sunrise” quartet and “Military” symphony, a Boccherini string quintet and the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Bach. Harwood was inspired by Tosca’s Kiss, Daniel Schmid’s loving documentary depiction of the residents of the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, which Verdi founded in Milan as a residence for elderly singers who needed material help.

Music percolates everywhere in Beecham House (named after Sir Thomas) with Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Michael Gambon playing out Bette Davis’ maxim “Old age is not for sissies.” As a group of opera singers preparing for a house fundraiser, their love of life is infectious. And with many of the home’s residents played by musicians, from soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones (unforgettable in “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca) to former BBC Symphony principal clarinetist Colin Bradbury and versatile trumpet player Ronnie Hughes (his resume even includes the Beatles’ “Martha, My Dear”), the quality of the musical content is guaranteed. Be sure to stay through the beginning of the credits where many of the musicians are pictured in their youth.

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Even though none of the characters in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (his follow-up to the Palme D’Or-winning Tree of Life) are musicians, the film’s musical component rivals that of Quartet. This exploration of love (both sacred and profane) by the masterful collagist of image and sound revolves around a taciturn strong male played by Ben Affleck and two women he loves. One (Olga Kurylenko, whose occasional voiceover chronicles the course of her passion), a foreigner, is drawn to him while holidaying at Mont Saint-Michel (“The Wonder”) in Normandy. The other (Rachel McAdams), an old flame whose prime animus is religion, reconnects with him when he moves back to Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

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But to the soundtrack: It’s not only the extraordinary use of Wagner’s “Prelude to Act One” from Parsifal which elevates the Mont Saint-Michel episode – in fact, only Lars von Trier’s alchemy with the prelude from Tristan und Isolde in Melancholia can compare among recent Wagnerian film moments – it’s the way Malick piles on phrase upon phrase with (often) unrecognizable bits of many works, from Haydn’s The Seasons to Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite no. 2, from the second and third movements of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 to the third movement of Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus and Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 to Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead. The music gives what we see onscreen depth and purpose.  

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How music can keep one’s spirit alive is the subject of the delicately told Serbian film When Day Breaks (Serbia’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award), in which the Holocaust unexpectedly enters the life of a retired music professor, warmly played by Mustafa Nadarevic. “As long as this music exists, so shall we,” his father wrote in his last message to his son. The letter was found along with a family photograph and some sheet music in a box in the ruins of the Belgrade fairgrounds more than 60 years after they were buried. The site had been a concentration camp for Jews and Gypsies. As the professor unearths his biological roots he also works on finishing the sheet music, playing it first on the piano, then with his violin student. It’s a bittersweet tune in a minor key with an indelible Hasidic hook. As he investigates his origins on the banks of the Danube where his father had been an exceptional musician who played several instruments, it becomes the film’s theme, literally and figuratively; music not only expresses our deepest feelings, it enables us to overcome suffering.

Recently in Toronto we were fortunate to hear Anne-Sophie Mutter’s vigorous performance of Sofia Gubaidulina’s In tempus presens (“For the present time”) with the TSO. The program notes contained this fascinating quote from the 81-year-old composer: “Just like many 20th century creators, the problem of time concerns me to the greatest extent possible. I am concerned with how time changes in connection with the changing psychological conditions of man, how it elapses in nature, in the world, in society, in dreams, in art.”

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In The End of Time (opening December 12), Toronto filmmaker Peter Mettler shifts from concepts of time to an experience of it, which he likens to listening to music. In his mesmerizing documentary he uses images and sound -- the tools he’s most comfortable with – to observe time and make our experience of it palpable (in a good way). Moving from the CERN particle accelerator which creates subatomic particles that haven’t existed since seconds after the Big Bang to filming lava flowing on the Big Island of Hawaii and nature reclaiming the city of Detroit, Mettler fills the screen with thoughts that set us pondering: “In the beginning there was no time, or, time was all there was;” ”In many languages ‘time’ and ‘weather’ are the same word;” “Does Nature have a consciousness or is it a set of circumstances?;” “Technologies don’t save time, they spend it.”

As an ice cream truck ambles the urban ruins of Detroit, Nichols Electronics’ version of Turkey in the Straw turns the image into a yo-yo of time future and past. Mettler uses music by Autechre, Robert Henke and Thomas Koner to animate his images while techno DJ Richie Hawtin (“Plastikman”) distills time down to its basic rhythm. Christos Hatzis’ and Bruno DeGazio’s audio-visual immersive sound and light show, Harmonia, their beautiful Mandala-like depiction of harmonic overtones, concludes the proceedings before Mettler brings his investigation back home on Mother’s Day with an unexpected but timely personal moment.

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One of the many things Beethoven did was distill time down to its basic rhythm. In A Late Quartet (opening November 23) writer-director Yaron Zilberman wanted to combine his feelings about family with his love of string quartet music. He thought a string quartet would provide the ideal vehicle to explore the rhythms of parental relationships with those of siblings and married couples. And he also incorporated many aspects of the Guarneri, the Italian and the Emerson quartets into his script. The musical elements of A Late Quartet work well, the melodrama of the metaphorical relationships less so.

Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131 dominates the film from beginning to end, in performance and as a teaching aid. The Brentano Quartet supplies the soundtrack and the Attacca Quartet appears as Juilliard students. The actors are led by an avuncular Christopher Walken as the cellist who founded the group but whose Parkinson’s diagnosis puts their future in doubt. Philip Seymour Hoffman (2nd violin) and Catherine Keener (viola) have a talented Curtis-trained violinist of their own as a product of their marriage. Mark Ivanir plays the driven 1st violinist who teaches their daughter to get into the mind of Beethoven and buy the proper horsehair to get the right timbre out of a bow, but finds it hard to resist her ardour. Philip Seymour Hoffman talks about Schubert’s last request (to hear the Op. 131 quartet) and how he imagines their quartet playing the last music Schubert would hear on earth. But he has issues of his own that threaten the quartet’s existence.

Curiously, the Brentano Quartet visited Toronto during TIFF for a Music Toronto concert. Two weeks later the youthful Attacca Quartet performed in the same series.

Professionals for only five years, they gave us an upfront insight into the formative years of what may become a lifelong commitment. (In this instance, their enthusiasm occasionally outshone their balance.) Ironically, their name “attacca” refers to the practice of playing musical movements without a break, as Beethoven himself called for in his Op. 131 quartet.

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Imagine my surprise when, early in Night Across the Street, the last completed film of the great surrealist filmmaker Raoul Ruiz, his protagonist, Don Celso, looks back on his life and Ludwig van Beethoven appears as a child saying, “I’d like to be a musician. We musicians were put on earth to suffer.” Next we see him conducting his 5th symphony. He goes to the cinema (a Western is showing) with the now youthful Celso while the third movement of his 7th symphony is heard on the soundtrack. Beethoven was Don Celso’s favourite hero so naturally he would be a major part of his life experience.

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Christopher Walken convincingly plays against type in A Late Quartet, but in Seven Psychopaths (now in theatres), he pushes his own familiar envelope clear out of its zip code. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh of In Bruges fame, Seven Psychopaths is an entertaining meta-movie where the fourth wall is made of sawdust and much of the action is boosted by a smartly chosen soundtrack by the likes of Townes van Zandt, Hank Williams and Joe Strummer. The plot about scriptwriting, dog-napping and insouciant murder will undoubtedly bring pleasure to many.  I would just add this curious note: There are two scenes with a particularly high body count; during the first, in addition to gunshots, the air is filled with Berlioz’s sublime “Strophes” from Romeo et Juliette; the second is muted by a choral excerpt from Orff’s Der Mond (The Moon).

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Alexandre Tharaud makes a cameo appearance and plays Schubert and Bach in Michael Haneke’s Amour (opening January 11), which won the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Tharaud plays the star pupil of a pair of now-retired piano teachers whose lives are transformed when the wife suffers a series of small strokes. Elegantly acted by French legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva (81 and 85, respectively), the way their characters deal with this change in their lives is difficult and provocative yet sublimely conveyed.

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In his comedy that centres on a rocky father-son relationship, Mika Kaurismaki’s Road North begins with a performance of Sibelius’ Piano Quintet and ends with one of Schubert’s Sonata for Piano, D894. Finland’s leading film and music icons, Vesa-Matti Loir and Samuli Edelmann play the estranged father and son, the former an old rock ‘n roller, the latter a proper concert pianist. When Loir sings “Autumn Leaves” (in Finnish, while driving), his commanding physical presence totally given over to his sensitive musicality and rich baritone, it’s clear why he’s a star.

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Little did I know when I took my son Simon Ennis to the Kennedy Space Center during a trip to Florida to take in some MLB spring training games that 20 years later he would make a zany and poignant documentary, Lunarcy! (opening February 2013), about people obsessed with the moon. It includes a fully realized portrait of one of the most eccentric, driven characters you will ever see on screen -- Christopher Carson, who wants to be the first person to leave the earth to live on the moon without ever coming back. It also includes an inventive score by Toronto-based composer Christopher Sandes, inspired in part by the early 70s synthesizer stylings of Wendy Carlos.

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Lovers of the analog process and Italian horror films of the 1970s known as “giallo” will be pleasantly transfixed by Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (opening February 2013). Toby Jones plays a mild-mannered sound engineer whose mind starts playing tricks on him as he edits shrieks and the blood-curdling sounds of vegetables being chopped for a low budget Italian movie studio. All to a spooky soundtrack composed by James Cargill of Broadcast which captures the tone(s) of that bygone era.  “I’ve been listening to giallo soundtracks for years and it only just hit me how beautiful and ethereal and spacey they are,” says Strickland. “The composers were involved in musique concrete, free jazz, avant-garde music, so in their work they had this weird parallel between this kind of academia high art and this completely sleazy, b-grade exploitation low art. They did some of their most advanced work for these ?lms.”

Unfortunately, neither Paul Andrew Williams’ Song for Marion nor Ben Drew’s iLL Manors lived up to expectations. Even with the presence of the magnificent Vanessa Redgrave, the former’s conceit of having a group of rowdy seniors sing Sex Pistols’ songs and the like whenever the treacly script flagged was not enough to keep me glued to my seat. And despite the inventive use of Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals in the opening montage that sets up this rap tale of a drug centric world, the latter film rarely rose to that level again.

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And now to a handful of films where familiar music was pointedly used to place the action or in the case of Noah Baumbach’s emotional moving Frances Ha subliminally work in its favour. Frances, which Baumbach co-wrote with his paramour and star, the luminous Greta Gerwig, is a modern fable of a young woman pursuing her artistic dreams in New York City. The soundtrack, filled with snippets of Georges Delerue music from such films as Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and The 400 Blows, Godard’s Le Mepris (“Contempt”) and Philippe de Broca’s arthouse cult classic King of Hearts enhanced the film’s black and white palette while Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner” and David Bowie’s “Modern Love” as well as music by the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Harry Nilsson enhanced what was a delightful moviegoing experience.

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Two very fine period pieces, Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa, the story of two 17-year-olds, best girlfriends, set in the London of 1962 when Britain was rife with “Ban the Bomb” fervor and Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air, set in the Paris of 1971, which paints a vivid picture of Parisian youth in the afterglow of May 68, are both set off by telling musical choices.

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You can hear Count Basie, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Thelonius Monk punctuating Ginger and Rosa. Syd Barrett, Booker T, Dr. Strangely Strange, Amazing Blondel, Nick Drake, Captain Beefheart, the Incredible String Band, Tangerine Dream and Soft Machine help to vividly recreate an era of politics and love that opened the horizons of a generation.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman may once again hear Oscar knocking on his door next year after his expansive, wide-ranging portrait of a fun-loving, booze-guzzling huckster, a cult leader with a gigantic appetite for life and a mysterious bond with a rough hewn WWII vet (Joaquin Phoenix) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s enigmatic but spellbinding The Master (now in theatres). Jonny Greenwood’s score rises to the occasion but it’s Jo Stafford singing “No Other Love” and Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” that incisively evoke the early postwar period.

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Ella Fitzgerald (clearly a touchstone) sings the title song in Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, as well as “Sophisticated Lady”, two subtle touches that buoy this inscrutable tale of an elderly Japanese literary translator (Tadashi Okuno) whose surprising encounter with a beautiful, young student/prostitute (Rin Takanashi) takes us into unexpected but profoundly enigmatic directions. Kiarostami, a true master, navigates human relationships like no one else.

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Finally, two movies in which the performance of music is integral to the plot. The Sapphires is based on the true story of an Aboriginal Australian girl group who entertained the American troops in Viet Nam in 1968. Their Irish manager had to teach the three sisters and their cousin the soul music they sang, but for a few months they all rode the exhilarating entertainment highway. There are huge sociological implications to their feel good story but as we discover as the credits roll, it’s the love of singing that has sustained the lead singer for all the years that elapsed since, a gift that she shared with her own extensive family.

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Marc-Henri Wajnberg’s Kinshasa Kids contains many uplifting moments as it chronicles a group of children, abandoned by their parents as witches, who find joy in the performance of music using whatever makeshift instruments they can find to accompany their voices. The euphoria they convey when they chance upon a local performance of Mozart’s Requiem is priceless, as is their excitement over the chance to perform with the legendary Papa Wemba. It’s all about respect for the music, something the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste, who contribute to the soundtrack, definitely has.

photo 2Watching Mark Murphy slowly weave his way through the Old Mill dining room to the stage, leaning on the arm of a helpful young man, is surely a testament to his own comment, “I’m eighty”. As he was seated carefully on his chair centre-stage with his music stand close by, I felt the wistful sadness of seeing this icon, a survivor of the classic era of jazz and one of a select few who can call themselves an innovator, on the decline. Yet Murphy’s first words to the audience were fully disarming and the opening phrase of ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’ completely erased my uneasiness. His is still the voice we know and love.

His characteristic tone – the way he almost cries out his notes, how he dips into his lower register then soars effortlessly into his falsetto – is clear and energetic. Age has not diminished his breath control, his ability to hold a straight note or his time feel. He sings with a seemingly careless ease.

His trio of relatively young players supported him flawlessly, consisting of Alex Minasian on piano, and two Canadians, Morgan Moore on bass and Jim Doxas on drums. Doxas’ sensitive style was particularly impressive, with seamless dynamic phrasing and flowing sounds that seem to simply appear.

Murphy is an expert craftsman who squeezes all there is from every syllable of a lyric. And squeeze the lyric he did on his aching performance of another Cole Porter standard, ‘I've Got You Under My Skin’. He introduced Porter as being "the best" and a "consummate composer" because he "controls all parts of the music", referring of course to Porter composing the chords, melody and lyric of each of his songs. While Murphy sang his unorthodox arrangement the room was silent. It was a spacey, tense version of the standard with an almost skeletal accompaniment by Murphy's trio. This spacious style, reminiscent of Shirley Horn with languid back-phrasing, with supremely relaxed, painfully slow tempos and with a nuanced approach to the lyric, was a recurring theme throughout the night.

Other notable ballads included ‘Turn Out The Stars’ (Lees/Evans), half-sung, half-spoken with strong hints of beat poetry, the devastatingly evocative ‘Again’ (Newman/Cochran) and a flirtatious version of ‘Fotografia’ (Jobim) which Murphy reprised later in the night using a different set of lyrics. Stepping up the tempo ever so slightly in George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘Stairway to Paradise’, Murphy demonstrated his uncanny ability of taking an old fashioned lyric and filling it with meaningful, modern feeling. He finds the delicacy of the idea, expressing it in the lighter and darker shades of a life rich in experience.

Well-known for his improvising, Murphy's scatting is both playful and direct at the same time. His somewhat mumbling syllables are really expressions in time, tone and intonation, and remind me of another jazz icon, Betty Carter. Murphy makes no distinction between interpreting a tune and improvising. He sings a little of the head then suddenly strays into his own melodies, throwing in ad lib lyrics and scatting. While performing ‘Stompin' at the Savoy’ at a quick, eyebrow-raising tempo for anyone familiar with the words, he tripped himself up by back-phrasing too far, and losing the lyric. He caught up by scatting a wee bit, and humorously playing the age card. It was charming when he sang, “What is this – I’ve gone to the other song again, haven’t I?”  He also touched on and improvised around his own famous lyrics in Oliver Nelson’s tune ‘Stolen Moments’ and Horace Silver’s ‘Senor Blues’.

During the break, Murphy sat amongst the audience shaking hands and signing autographs. We were delighted to have a little conversation and a picture with him.

The second set opened with Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage’. An indulgent, elongated ending set the tone for the rest of the show when Murphy interjected “Then suddenly everybody falls out of the boat” and went into an abstract scat. He obviously felt relaxed, with a glass of red and white on the go and sharing stories like the one about Tallulah Bankhead’s papier de toilette.

For his final song Murphy recalled the mood of longing and loss created in the movie Brokeback Mountain, then proceeded to perform a heartbreaking rendition of ‘Too Late Now’ (Lerner/Lane). It became clear that Murphy had masterfully created a mood of his own that evening, indulgent and tantalizing. After the warm welcome of the first set, we were treated to a tiny glimpse into his personality. At any moment he could plunge us into a new emotion, or surprise us with a pleasantly mischievous comment.

Murphy hadn't performed in Toronto in thirty years until this appearance October 1 at the Old Mill as part of the JAZZ.FM 91.1 Sound of Jazz Concert Series. He brought with him an expertise that could only be acquired from his impressive career which, at this point, spans six decades. He is currently working on a new recording with New York City vocalist Amy London, and his next Canadian dates are November 20 & 21, 2012 at the Jack Kerouac Festival in Quebec City.

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?  http://interactive.nfb.ca/#/outmywindow

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 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVmQMNOYGMw; 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 – http://tinyurl.com/leave-the-temple – 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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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 http://www.facebook.com/banjo.banjar)

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 – http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/arts-entertainment/music/glenn-gould-variations-on-an-artist/goulds-fascination-with-petula-clark-excerpt.html

 – 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) http://www.utac.utoronto.ca/future-exhibitions/276-robert-wilson-red-horned-frogs

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.

How to celebrate Glenn Gould’s 80th birthday?
 
glenn gouldHint: it’s not a straightforward homage to Gould’s quirkiness, but rather a quirky, chaotic assemblage of talented cultural voices and ideas, some more pertinent than others – both more pertinent to Gould, and ... more pertinent to any of us that might be interested in progressive, compelling music and culture.
 
It sorta has to be big, since he’s the biggest (Canadian musical celebrity) there ever was, and the budget, most probably, likewise.  And, both because it’s big, and because Gould is so central to our ideas about musical culture and celebrity, the two-day festival at Convocation Hall needed to go beyond the narrowness of simple homage.
 
Gould was a solitary, cranky, over-intellectual, perhaps dysfunctionally neurotic musical performer and genius and ... what else was he, anyway?  Sort of a blank page for people to write their own ideas upon, it would seem.  Certainly he had critical thoughts and wrote them, spoke them at some length.  And he made crucial decisions he thought were forward looking.
 
The Glenn Gould Prize, a Nobel Prize for music, as they styled it from the stage on Saturday, shows the way: if you can include Pierre Boulez, Murray Schafer, Yo-Yo Ma and Leonard Cohen, you’ve got a lock on diversity, of a certain sort.  It’s definitely gonna be interesting when they try for a winner who isn’t male, or essentially European, culturally speaking.  Oscar Peterson, representing the uniquely North-American form of jazz, goes about as far afield as any of the prize winners.  And this festival certainly goes beyond all that.
 
All that?  The throat-clearing I’ve been doing ... that’s just to say: I think it’s a good idea to celebrate Gould, and a really grand idea to do it in a super-broad way.  In Toronto, the most multi-cultural city of all, you should be able to go pretty far.  Let’s see how far we’ve gone, and how well we’ve done it.
 
Saturday (“Saturday, Saturday, Saturday, Saturday, Saturday ...”)
 
When I tie my bike up to a pole, and waltz up to the Convocation Hall, I’m in the bright sunshine of a late Saturday morning, round about noon, with a soccer field full of young people in full play.  Lovely noises there.  And some shiny tin things under the tree that must be their athletic equipment.  Also the engineering students seem to have left a project there, under the portico – it sounds like a circus calliope, and looks like a Holstein cow pattern – or else there’s something different going on than a Glenn Gould conference/festival. 
 
Well, not exactly different, but different from what I’d expected.  The tin cans under the tree are Atom Egoyan’s collaboration with [someone], but you can’t find it out by searching online, nor in the paper programme, nor on Facebook.  We’re heavily name-dropped and widely-advertised, but not excessively documented, on this particular map.  I did hear someone say her name, the artist’s, out loud, didn’t I?  Or maybe I read it someplace?  Or else I’m just out of touch and you’d be better off with someone else as your spirit guide.  (Only the brave should read on.)
 
So ... about that cow sculpture
 
You CAN find out about the cow sculpture, by looking through the Facebook/online/paper documentation, though nothing in the programme was as straightforward as the calm, clear conversation I had with the composer and musical sculptor Garnet Willis, who’s a friend.  He told me the facts about the musical part – it’s got 37 handmade wooden “organ pipes,” mounted on and sprouting from “tree-limbs” made of inflated vinyl, with a cow pattern on them. The blower for the organ can be heard whooshing inside the sculpture, and the computer controller (which is having some cranky moments) connects by wires from inside Con Hall – and I’ve pieced together some stuff about the visual-art sculptor with whom he collaborated, Max Streicher.
 
This piece, including both the visual and aural parts, was certainly the most whimsical, as well as the most traditional homage to the parts of the Goldberg Variations, which are the big “pop tunes” everybody’s trying to avoid the influence of, when they make their presentations and offerings and their Gould-inspired art.  The calliope sound I heard was, apparently, one of the variations in a speeded-up version, still recognizable, though a bit comical, in a good way.  Sure would love to know this sculpture piece’s proper name, so I could be introduced, and so I could introduce y’all to it.  Max’s online bio says it this way: “Presenting: ....the music-making sculpture at the entrance? That’s Max.” http://www.facebook.com/GlennGouldVariations/posts/329230393830129
 
But what’s it like INSIDE of Con Hall?  Tell us that, please.
 
I walked in on Paul Hoffert in the middle of his intro speech, before he played music.  Basically the democratic part of the festival’s polyphony and chaos is that nobody gets more than 20 minutes.  Some people didn’t know when to leave, and ... some people sorta over-explained their pieces.  Hoffert, unless the beginning of his talk was clearer than the middle and the end, did a little over-explaining, and a little under-explaining.  I’d maybe like to know why he quoted the music from Close Encounters in his fancy vibra-marimba piece (played over the Goldberg Aria), as the artistic-cultural connection – was Gould an alien and I just haven’t realized it? – with Spielberg and Williams seems pretty far removed from any of the progressive and intellectual concerns on display elsewhere.
 
You’re kidding: not a Glenn Gould impersonator!  Really?
 
This is pretty much the best decision ever, to have Rick Miller in gloves and a trenchcoat as MC, costumed up and wearing a number of Gould’s tics and vocal habits like an extra skin, walking about in between the main acts.  Of course, Miller is not just a Glenn Gould impersonator, he’s a fountain of other wild pop-cultural references.  The best thing on Saturday was how he discussed who Gould was, using the voices of about a dozen characters from The Simpsons.  Or maybe it was when he posed for a cover shot of the Variations, showing off about 32 vignettes in a minute.  Or ... wait, maybe it was that crazy bit where Leonard Cohen interviewed Glenn Gould.  Kinda like Rick Miller doing Glenn Gould doing Leonard.  You hadda be there, and I count myself lucky that I was. Rick kept things light and forward moving, almost rescuing everyone who had to be rescued from herself, and hardly going off the rails into the Ditch of Disrespect at all.
 
For instance, how many times can you say needs no introduction (without using that horrid catchword “seminal,” especially)
 
Here’s where Rick did really good duty, in his way of getting us ready to receive Robert Wilson, and Norman Jewison.  Each of them had something to say, Jewison, after a really long montage of justifying film clips, and Wilson after a provocative bit of misdirection in Big White Letters on a Big Black Screen: Media + Technology = ART
 
You wouldn’t want to say bad things about such elders.  Jewison offered a folksy memoir, both of his first encounter with Gould – they were boys, when Glenn played “God Save the King” in an astonishing way – and about his foundations as a justice-seeking filmmaker.  (Jewison had at least one big light-bulb moment as a demobilized Navy vet, right after the war, when a bus driver in the American South ordered him to the front of an accidentally-de-segregated bus.)
 
But Robert Wilson was breathtaking.  If I’d known he was gonna begin with a stunt, I’d’ve timed how long it took him, standing there, before he said his first word.  Honestly, his presence was as magnificent as that panther’s in the Rilke poem, just a total animal, with beautiful attentiveness that was almost indistinguishable from unconcern, as his eyes twitched, or blinked, and he stood there, noble and fine, fearsome and deliberate.  (http://picture-poems.com/rilke/panther.html)
 
He must have said a little bit of something about his piece, the one with the frog video portraits in counterpoint to the Gould recording, but it was surely incidental to this fact: he delivered, in stillness, a justification of stillness as the necessary starting component for artistic creativity.  I’m not such a very still person, and most of the presenters today were pretty jittery, too, but I think I could learn a thing or two.  My gratitude for Wilson’s animal presence, for his total bodily intelligence and grace, is just huge.  Way beyond respect.
 
Other highlights: the crutch piece, the humming and the Twins (not to mention the Japanese comic)
 
I won’t bother to enumerate all the things that cropped up as slight annoyances, except to be privately amused by the little argument that broke out over the pronunciation of Disklavier.  You say di-SCLAY-vee-er and I say dis-klɘ-veer, but God forbid that anyone should question the branding of that holy piece of technology which allows for faithful reproductions, yes, geography, time, space and the human body.  Enough already.  And if it’s so very good, could someone please explain to me why we needed a human body, encased in an academic career, to explain and justify it?  Just leave the technology alone.
 
Even the giant screens I would question.  Did they add value to our understanding of what we saw, or confuse us about the size of the humans who spoke and who were making culture for us?  I’d rather see the Lemon Bucket Orkestra in real size, I think, though the screens were fantastic for capturing the fervent, and fertile chaos of their dancing folk-party music.  Working collaboratively, but with a buzzing community intelligence, the LBO serves as a virtual antithesis to Gould’s methods, and thank God for them.  (Yes, I’d sing with them, if they asked me, but no, to those who want to know – and I’m speaking of real friends in the real audience on Saturday, who actually DID ask me the question – they don’t yet use Georgian polyphony.)  So giant video screens for Lemon Buckets?  On balance yes, because I like the visual, especially when all the voices, both vocal and instrumental, were as well captured as they were by the live sound crew at Con Hall.  I wouldn’t have chosen them for all performers, say, not for the 13-year-old piano prodigy.  (And I don’t say protege, when I mean prodigy, if I may quote Ira Gershwin, one last time.)
 
Other Misdirections
 
Or, if you’re John Oswald, you’d use technology for things it was never meant to do, as for new artistic expressions.  He picked apart an old technology artifact from the 80’s, called Pitch Rider, and used it to turn a Gould performance upside down, which was really interesting to listen to, and a worthy annoyance, for its resultant tonal formlessness.  With Christopher Butterfield’s intelligent voice (and body, present, and looking at himself with naked curiosity on the JumboTron), Oswald showed us what Gould’s notorious humming sounded like, when it was given a foreground place, rather than taken for granted, or for a minor annoyance.  That one also had the dancer, Jessica Runge, seated on a piano stool, and brilliantly filmed for the Jumbo screens, on the black mirror-like part of the player piano doing Gould’s Aria, with just a little bit of Bach, in the piano part, orchestrated rather than mapped on piano.  More or less like turning Gould’s recording inside out.
 
And as to what Gould sounds like beyond the borders of Canada?  Well ... we’ve gone way beyond the old days, when Russians made a fetish of Gould, and his odd lecture performance in Moscow.  (Fulford tells it like this: http://www.robertfulford.com/gould.html if you want a Canadian-faithful diversion.)  There was that brilliant prodigy I promised, Anastasia Rizikov, who spoke with something like Gould’s arch intellectual capacity, at least before the thrill of performing so well got her so riled up emotionally.  The A Major Prelude and Fugue I think I heard someone say.  Looks like A Minor on the YouTube, from what I remember hearing: Anastasia Rizikov plays J.S.Bach, Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, WTC I, BWV 865 (audio) – and yes, I’d place her squarely in the Russian tradition, the post-Gould part of it.  I liked her playing, though I’m allergic to prodigies, usually.
 
The Twins, The Twins, yes!  The Lombard Twins, used accordion-Bach, and danced, wearing modern street moves and “street” clothes, and they were charming.  Not quite as impressive as the old-school Japanese culture comic storytelling from Katsura Sunshine; he pretty much brought down the house, with his traditional Rakugo piece about the drunk husband, but his Japanese rendering of Who’s On First was not at all bad.  And even Adrienne Clarkson, as True-Blooded Canadian as she is, gave a feint towards dark humour: she regretted some of the horror of all the interviews she’s had to give (as well as the many she had to DO), she declared herself botox-free from birth (as a Chinese person with a Chinese face), and she did a plausible Clint Eastwood, by interviewing “herself” as Gould might have done it.
 
Marie Chouinard’s justification for her crutch piece – her ballet-with-prosthetics take, which might be called the Goldberg Variations Variations – was as well constructed as the piece was: she came on stage, set a 19-minute timer on her phone, gave a lecture with shockingly awesome video and still photos, cut to the chase, and even accepted questions, before counting herself down and out for the last 12 seconds.  That was a Class Act, to show the architecture of the inflexible time limit as part of the art of respecting it, as well as respecting the audience, and the other performers and presenters.  Left me wanting more.  I could probably be persuaded to run away and join her arts colony, if she’s got one going.
 
Here, the musical credits on Chouinard’s website are what I would expect and wish for in the festival or conference, but cannot find anywhere (in Toronto):
Louis Dufort: Variations on the Variations,
Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations,
Variations 5, 6, 8
Vocal Extracts of Glenn Gould
 
That even gets me to one of her main points, that our humanity is increased when we breathe with another human, especially during an artistic creation. Lotsa breath in the excerpts Chouinard showed, and the thing with the microphone in the mouth, now that was breathtaking, especially in duet – or antiphonally, rather – with the guy who had Goldberg variations a-twitching in his pelvis.  Whew!
 
By the way ...
 
I would bet there were a full two minutes of untimed silence, by the way, before Robert Wilson spoke.  Unprepared silence, and uncomfortable by all the rules, except his.  Now that’s an idiosyncratic artist.
 
Odds and Ends: 
 
I’m really sorry I was late, from a previous engagement, as I’d wanted to hear Tim Page, certainly.  And I hope there was nothing unmissable at the end, as I needed to leave early, even during the performance of someone who outstayed his welcome. Clever, maybe, but ... I couldn’t justify it. 
 
Hell is bad rhymes
 
Certainly, I’m not in favour of more new verses to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” necessarily, but ... I would be ready to consider them at least, were they a little lighter on the cheese, and less emphatically square, as to rhyme, “do you” with Hallelujah.  God bless the Faculty of Music, and in the world to come, let them all learn vernacular singing pronunciations, right alongside the High Culture Choral Way.  You say do you, but I say do ya.  No other way, really, izzair?
 
Sunday Morning?  I’ll be ... Bach.
 
I’ll be attending the church of the one true Gould, at Con Hall.  Maybe I’ll have seen you there.

Sam “The Record Man” Sniderman, 92, died Sunday, September 23, 2012. In many ways his is an all-Toronto story: born in the city, he grew up in Kensington Market and attended Harbord Collegiate. Most notably, he built his downtown Yonge Street record store into a virtual neon icon to the record, with its dual LP-shaped marquee of coloured rotating flashing lights. It defined recorded music retail for several generations of Toronto music lovers.

Let’s be clear, Sniderman was more than a mere retailer. A crucial promoter of Canadian records, his accomplishments garnered him the Order of Canada in 1976. Later he was made an inductee of the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame and in 1999 was presented with the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts.

Sniderman’s death also reminds us of another passing: that of the record store, that physical, tactile medium of music exchange. Upon reflection I learned much about music of all kinds at Sam the Record Man (often reduced to Sam’s by his faithful customers), and I hope he made a tidy profit from my abiding love of recorded sound which teetered on obsession.

I first recall going to Sam’s with my father, a jazz lover. He bought an Ellington LP on that outing, previewing it on the store record player. It was the first time I’d heard Take the A Train. Far for being a shattering musical revelation, to my youthful avant-gardist ears it sounded very unhip, like easy-listening elevator music - remember MUZAK? Now I like to think I know better, and perhaps I do.

Whenever I had a few dollars in my pocket, I’d scratch my record itch by going down to Sams’ (and often to A & A Records, a few doors down). I figure I received an undergrad music education equivalent spending several decades on the recorded repertoire of the human race there, first on 45s and 33 LPs (‘60s to the late ‘80s), then on cassette and finally on CD.

How to describe my typical Sam’s experience? There was the thrill of the hunt, certainly. Flipping expectantly through the racks, getting my fingers dirty, was something like visiting a tactile, gritty Youtube before the internet, but with a much higher likelihood of bumping into not only music both known and unknown but also fellow music geeks. Another bonus: the promise of a much higher sonic and textual fidelity than Youtube heard over my scrappy computer speakers. There was ultimately the sweet satisfaction of possession, of finally putting “my” album into my home stereo and cranking up the volume. That was also an era when liner notes were often as not stylishly written and illustrated, an integral and important part of the album package. I still can’t bear to trash my LP copies of the Bärenreiter UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music of the World, with their large B&W photos and erudite notes.

Later, when my performances and music began to be released on commercial LP (Jon Hassell, Evergreen Club Gamelan) and a little later on CD, I’d make the trek to Sam’s second floor. It seemed important to me that “the product” was racked properly (in the front) and re-ordered if sold out. And yes, I even indulged in the guilty pleasure of the neophyte record artist: monitoring unit sales, like an anxious parent watching his baby’s first tentative steps. In retrospect, it was my way of engaging with fellow local music fans, and also of standing in a long line of recording artists whom I admired. My Sam’s visits, which started as a modest music fan and consumer, had modulated to that of an anxious but equally modest producer, each of which was, I realised, an essential side of the production-consumption coin.

At the time the word on the street was that the approachable Sniderman freely gave his expert advice and even invested in emerging Canadian musicians’ first recordings. Brian Robertson, a close Sniderman family friend and past chairman of the Canadian Recording Industry Association noted, “He was a mentor to literally hundreds of Canadian artists and musicians, and the Yonge St. record store and Sam’s presence there was the centre of the Canadian music industry’s universe for over three decades.”

Music retail went through a sea change in the 1990s, a process apparently as yet unfinished. Sniderman filed for bankruptcy and closed his store in December 2001. While he retired, his sons Bobby and Jason re-opened the store the following year, yet the losses kept accumulating. In 2007 they sold the Toronto Sam the Record Man property to Ryerson University and the building was demolished. Ryerson plans a new student centre in its stead.

End of story? Toronto forgets yet another landmark part of its cultural history? Not quite. There are evidently future plans for the old Sam’s neon sign. As a triple tribute to the physical record, to “Sam the Man” and to the store he built to serve music fans, it will fittingly be rehung, taking pride of place in the new Ryerson building.

David Perlman talks with Josh Grossman, artistic director of the TD Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival.

To hear the full conversation with Daniel Taylor click the play button below. For any of our other podcasts, search for “The WholeNote” in your favourite podcast app, or go to TheWholeNote.com/podcasts for the entire list.

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David Perlman talks with Roman Borys of the Gryphon Trio and Artistic Director of the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival.

To hear the full conversation with Roman Borys click the play button below. For any of our other podcasts, search for “The WholeNote” in your favourite podcast app, or go to TheWholeNote.com/podcasts for the entire list.

Or click here to download the podcast. (Right click and "Save as..." if it's playing directly in your browser.)

Robert Wilson’s and Philip Glass’s seminal opera, Einstein on the Beach, made its triumphant Canadian debut Friday at the Sony Centre in a production that defies convention to this day, 36 years after its first performance. Filled with contemporary 1970s pop culture references from Patty Hearst to Mr. Bojangles to a list of NYC radio station WABC deejays, Einstein is both a timeless piece about time and a spacious piece about space.

Two days before opening night in a fascinating panel that uniquely chronicled the work’s origins by the three principal creators – dancer/choreographer Lucinda Childs is the third -- Wilson said its inspiration was “20th century god Albert Einstein.”  He explained that long duration plays always interested him – the production runs 4 hour and 20 minutes  -- and that he saw opera as an expression of its Latin origin “works” as in “including all the arts.”

Einstein comprises four acts and five brief  “Knee” connective interludes (Wilson calls them “close-ups”) and runs without intermission. The audience is welcome to come and go as it pleases. (Curiously, no one in the row I was in near the back of the Sony Centre’s main floor left their seats during the entire performance – except to stand at its conclusion.) The current production is the fourth since 1976 and the first since 1992. I was fortunate to attend the second at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984, a mesmerizing experience as I recall. Based on that memory and recordings from the 1970s and 1992, this Luminato incarnation is indisputably the most musically proficient of the lot.

Wilson’s conceptual starting point for the opera, he explained at the panel, was a classical structure -- a theme and variations built around three images (a train, a trial and a field that would host a space machine). This solid foundation enables each scene’s individual elasticity to flourish. Wilson advised his audience not to look for meaning but to just get lost in it, quoting Susan Sontag: “To experience something is a way of thinking.”

Yet, Wilson did reveal that “On the Beach” alludes to the atomic bomb (specifically to the impending nuclear holocaust in Nevil Shute’s novel of the same name), that the train image is there because Einstein liked trains and that the lines of light, which slowly move in a myriad of ways throughout the opera, refer to time and space.

Wilson, trained as an architect, kept a notebook filled with drawings which were his ideas for Einstein’s visual content. When Glass came to compose the score at the piano he kept Wilson’s notebook in front of him. “The music came easily,” Glass said, attributing Einstein’s continued freshness after more than three decades to its being unlike any of their other collaborations.  “It’s sui generis,” he said.

Einstein appears in several guises throughout the work, as a young chalk-wielding theoretical physicist and as a sailing afficionado, for example, but most memorably as a violinist wearing what was (apart from the Beatles’ mop tops) arguably the most iconic hairstyle of the mid-20th century. The wig was worn by the prodigious Jennifer Koh (who played Spring and Summer from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the TSO in March as part of a “What Makes It Great” concert).

In an impressive evening filled with time-bending stagecraft, energetic dancing that seemed to embody the “E” in Einstein’s most famous equation and unparallelled musicianship from soloists, chorus and instrumentalists led by Michael Riesman, Ms. Koh’s vibrant playing ranged from her forceful impeccably phrased repetitive cycles of notes -- a touchstone of much of the opera -- to the warmth of the haunting second theme in Knee 4.  

Two days earlier at the panel, Glass explained that the violin becomes a touchstone since the most important thing for a musician was that Einstein played the violin. As to why many of the lyrics consisted of solfege syllables (doh re mi) and numbers, Glass recalled that it started as a teaching device to get the singers used to his idiosyncratic tone palette and complex time signatures. Wilson happened to walk in on a rehearsal and expressed his pleasure with the “lyrics”.  Glass kept them, the result of “my clumsiness and Bob’s naivete.”

Two more standouts in Friday’s performance were Andrew Sterman’s compelling tenor saxophone solo in Act 4, Scene 1 which soared Gato Barbieri-like as twenty-one people moved onto the stage individually or in pairs, stop-frame style and Kate Moran whose rendition of  “Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket” elevated Lucinda Childs’s eight lines of Laurie Anderson-like seemingly trivial consumerist insights into high performance art. That most of it was delivered while lying on a bed in front of a judge in the second trial scene (Act 3, Scene 1) only made it more remarkable. It was my personal show-stopping moment.











 

By Paul Ennis

 

Robert Wilson’s and Philip Glass’s seminal opera, Einstein on the Beach, made its triumphant Canadian debut Friday at the Sony Centre in a production that defies convention to this day, 36 years after its first performance. Filled with contemporary 1970s pop culture references from Patty Hearst to Mr. Bojangles to a list of NYC radio station WABC deejays, Einstein is both a timeless piece about time and a spacious piece about space.

Two days before opening night in a fascinating panel that uniquely chronicled the work’s origins by the three principal creators – dancer/choreographer Lucinda Childs is the third -- Wilson said its inspiration was “20th century god Albert Einstein.”  He explained that long duration plays always interested him – the production runs 4 hour and 20 minutes  -- and that he saw opera as an expression of its Latin origin “works” as in “including all the arts.”

Einstein comprises four acts and five brief  “Knee” connective interludes (Wilson calls them “close-ups”) and runs without intermission. The audience is welcome to come and go as it pleases. (Curiously, no one in the row I was in near the back of the Sony Centre’s main floor left their seats during the entire performance – except to stand at its conclusion.) The current production is the fourth since 1976 and the first since 1992. I was fortunate to attend the second at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984, a mesmerizing experience as I recall. Based on that memory and recordings from the 1970s and 1992, this Luminato incarnation is indisputably the most musically proficient of the lot.

Wilson’s conceptual starting point for the opera, he explained at the panel, was a classical structure -- a theme and variations built around three images (a train, a trial and a field that would host a space machine). This solid foundation enables each scene’s individual elasticity to flourish. Wilson advised his audience not to look for meaning but to just get lost in it, quoting Susan Sontag: “To experience something is a way of thinking.”

Yet, Wilson did reveal that “On the Beach” alludes to the atomic bomb (specifically to the impending nuclear holocaust in Nevil Shute’s novel of the same name), that the train image is there because Einstein liked trains and that the lines of light, which slowly move in a myriad of ways throughout the opera, refer to time and space.

Wilson, trained as an architect, kept a notebook filled with drawings which were his ideas for Einstein’s visual content. When Glass came to compose the score at the piano he kept Wilson’s notebook in front of him. “The music came easily,” Glass said, attributing Einstein’s continued freshness after more than three decades to its being unlike any of their other collaborations.  “It’s sui generis,” he said.

Einstein appears in several guises throughout the work, as a young chalk-wielding theoretical physicist and as a sailing afficionado, for example, but most memorably as a violinist wearing what was (apart from the Beatles’ mop tops) arguably the most iconic hairstyle of the mid-20th century. The wig was worn by the prodigious Jennifer Koh (who played Spring and Summer from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the TSO in March as part of a “What Makes It Great” concert).

In an impressive evening filled with time-bending stagecraft, energetic dancing that seemed to embody the “E” in Einstein’s most famous equation and unparallelled musicianship from soloists, chorus and instrumentalists led by Michael Riesman, Ms. Koh’s vibrant playing ranged from her forceful impeccably phrased repetitive cycles of notes -- a touchstone of much of the opera -- to the warmth of the haunting second theme in Knee 4.

Two days earlier at the panel, Glass explained that the violin becomes a touchstone since the most important thing for a musician was that Einstein played the violin. As to why many of the lyrics consisted of solfege syllables (doh re mi) and numbers, Glass recalled that it started as a teaching device to get the singers used to his idiosyncratic tone palette and complex time signatures. Wilson happened to walk in on a rehearsal and expressed his pleasure with the “lyrics”.  Glass kept them, the result of “my clumsiness and Bob’s naivete.”

Two more standouts in Friday’s performance were Andrew Sterman’s compelling tenor saxophone solo in Act 4, Scene 1 which soared Gato Barbieri-like as twenty-one people moved onto the stage individually or in pairs, stop-frame style and Kate Moran whose rendition of  “Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket” elevated Lucinda Childs’s eight lines of Laurie Anderson-like seemingly trivial consumerist insights into high performance art. That most of it was delivered while lying on a bed in front of a judge in the second trial scene (Act 3, Scene 1) only made it more remarkable. It was my personal show-stopping moment.

 

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