Rear-view-mirrorAs we enter into this extraordinary exercise in willed sensory deprivation that is our new reality (and how bizarre it is), I have found myself surprised by almost all of my reactions to the coronavirus. Not the least of which are my reactions to music. If I wanted to be rational about it, I would have to admit that while yes, I enjoy going to concerts, a good 90 per cent of the music I actually listen to – on the radio, online, from CDs, and files and even, heaven help me, on records – is still available to me. My listening habits really shouldn’t haven’t changed that much at all.

And yet, they have. The musical impact on me of the coronavirus has been profound. Unexpectedly so. 

For one thing, I can hardly bear to listen to music at all these days. Not a note. I assume I’m in a tiny minority because COVID-19 playlists are popping up everywhere. I’ve tried listening to a few – I never get very far. I’m just not moved. Even some of my favourite composers are unbearable to me these days. Beethoven I find appalling. All that power and desperate projection of will strike me as completely wrong-headed these suffering days. Bach’s crystalline mathematical perfection likewise comes across, to me, as an utterly tone-deaf response to a world seemingly without ballast or divine balance. Who is left? Mozart, of course, to my mind the perfect coronavirus composer in his deeply ambiguous, but fundamentally loving relationship to the world. I just listened to the last act of Figaro the other day, which begins with that amazing G-minor Cavatina of Barbarina (my nominee for Mozart’s most underrated aria, right up there for the expression of pure grief with Pamina’s Ach, ich fühl’s, although Barbarina is lamenting the loss of a pin, not a lover) and ends with that extraordinary heaven-sent hymn to forgiveness (more religious than anything in the Requiem) that perfectly sums up Mozart’s fundamentally confused relationship to the world. That confusion, the combination of comedy and depth, farce and love, the unexpected breaking out of the purest feeling in the middle of nonsense is such a perfect reflection of our present state, except ours is one of horror, not farce, that I found myself, much to my surprise, awash in tears at opera’s end, weeping not just for the Countess – surely the most perfect, angelic creature in opera – but for us all.

Read more: Listening habits blighted by COVID’s curse | No pleasure in solitary listening when it’s no longer...

Rear-view-mirrorAt the end of February, Tony Burman, former head of CBC News, in his column in The Toronto Star, more or less approvingly quoted the conclusions of two Canadian media professors, Chris Waddell and David Taras, from their recent book, The End of the CBC?.

Waddell and Taras, surveying the devastating wreckage of mainstream Canadian journalism, and noting the CBC’s inability to be all things to all people, added the two together and declared that “The CBC needs to shed much of its old skin and become solely a news and current affairs organization, dedicated to producing high-quality, dependable, and fair news and analysis.” So in their view, more Peter Mansbridge and Ian Hanomansing, less or no drama, comedy, music, arts, or any other cultural programming.

It’s a provocative thesis, but far from a new one.

Read more: The End of the CBC... Again? The case for culture in plague-saturated times

Bonnell’s bug: Inviting Criticism

"There is an aspect to cultural work – or in our case, artistic ceremony – which does not align with current colonial reviewing practices. In order to encourage a deeper discussion of the work, we are inviting critiques or thoughts from IBPOC folks only. There is a specific lens that white settlers view cultural work through and at this time, we’re just not interested in bolstering that view, but rather the thoughts and views of fellow marginalized voices and in particular Indigenous women.” 

Yolanda Bonnell

Actor and playwright Yolanda Bonnell created quite a stir in Toronto arts circles in mid-February when she made the above statement, widely interpreted as a request that only Indigenous, black or other persons of colour be sent to review her show at Theatre Passe Muraille, bug. The play is a searing look at indigeneity and addiction, among other things, and Bonnell suggested that she felt, based on some previous experience, that critics from the dominant cultural group in society would be more likely to misrepresent her work in their reviews. She is not alone in this idea – many other Indigenous artists have been thinking along the same lines for some time. Bonnell also noted what she called the ceremonial aspects of bug, its role as a unifying rite for people who have suffered similar traumas to her own, a production style she did not feel jibed with the traditional expectations of a conventional review.

I’ve cycled through a surprising range of personal responses to Bonnell’s request – surprising to me, that is. And I’d like to share my thought processes about it, as a sort of confession of confusion around the deeply problematic issue of art and politics in our present age. 

Read more: Bonnell’s bug: Inviting Criticism

BeethovenThe immovable reputation of Beethoven is the kind of continuity that either confirms the unchanging greatness of classical music, or makes us despair of the depth of its conventionality and inertness. I am old enough to remember the last time the world celebrated a major Beethoven anniversary, his 200th, in 1970. Fifty years later, just about everything in the world has changed, but Beethoven, it seems, has not.

He still more or less bestrides our Western musical world like a colossus. People with no interest in or knowledge of classical music are still familiar with the da-da-da-dum of the Fifth Symphony or the transcendent Ode to Joy of the Ninth. They might even recognize the obsessive melancholy of Für Elise. For more serious music lovers, Beethoven remains the ne plus ultra.

How is it, though, that Beethoven can continue to perform the same ritualistic ceremonies for the Western mind as he has for a century, when the values Beethoven represents (of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution), are precisely the ones that have been reconsidered, put in play and found wanting in our contemporary world? Or so it seems. Just ask Stephen Miller, or Dominic Cummings, or Victor Orban, or even, if you can find him, Maxime Bernier. Not to mention, of course, He Who Shall Not Be Named. The decay of the Enlightenment values that Beethoven so completely represents is the central political reality of our times. Beethoven should be in disarray in this milieu. But he isn’t. Why not?

Read more: Reeking Gloriously of the Street: Beethoven at 250

Photo by Luca PerlmanAnimation by Luca PerlmanIt’s getting to be that time of the year again.

When once more I have to bear witness to my follies.

Here goes.

I’m Jewish.

And I love Christmas carols.

There, now I’ve said it.

I’ve loved carols ever since I piled into the yellow school buses waiting for us kids outside Hillcrest Public School at Bathurst and St. Clair to ferry us down to Simpson’s basement at Yonge and Queen in early December to sing our little hearts out for harried shoppers. (As you can see, I’m also old.) And, while there, little Robert would thrill to the music in ways I only later learned why. We Grade Fours loved to end the first stanza of Good King Wenceslas with an exaggerated “gath - ring winter few – oooo – el.” Only later did I realize we were singing a plagal cadence, which had basically disappeared from Western music 600 years previously. And there was something remarkably brilliant and beautiful in Angels We Have Heard on High, because, I now know, the Gloria in excelsis Deo which I was belting out in my innocence had been sung in the West since the 13th century, due to an injunction from Pope Leo IV, more or less exactly as I was singing it beside the men’s sock department in Toronto in 1958.

Read more: Merry, Um, Holiday!
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