Category: inspiration Page 1 of 2

Writing, Evolution, And The Pleasure Of Discovery

thoth tjaj scribe god ancient egypt

The scribe Tjaj in front of the god Thoth, patron of scribes, in the shape of a baboon. (New Kingdom, late 18th Dynasty, Amenophis III (?), 1388-1351 BC; collection of Neues Museum Berlin)

As some of my readers may know, the past year has seen a gradual shift away from formal journalism and toward more creative, personally fulfilling arenas. The precise nature of such a destination has yet to manifest or clarify itself, but, trusting the path, as they say, often brings the most important discoveries, whether we like them or not. Liking, much less being comfortable, isn’t so much the point, but evolving is.

One stage in that evolution has been taking a conscious step away from writing reviews. In Daniel Mendelsohn’s brilliant 2012 New Yorker essay about critics, he notes that “(t)he role of the critic […] is to mediate intelligently and stylishly between a work and its audience; to educate and edify in an engaging and, preferably, entertaining way.” Mendelsohn, Editor at Large of the New York Review of Books, writes with engaging specificity about how the work of certain critics from his youth inspired his curiosity: “I thought of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example that they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments. ” We all find our own in-roads when it comes to culture: the influence of people we are raised by; the big and small events we experience as children; the sounds and sights and smells and surfaces we absorb intellectually, emotionally, spiritually through the various facets that carry us into and through adulthood. Social influence, of course, has taken on a life of its own within the digital age, with the culture of “like” and “favorite” occasionally (Mendelsohn might argue too often) taking the place meaningful criticism might have occupied in the past. There’s also the pervasive (and now normalized) trinity of programming, pageviews, and promotion that have become sticky symbols of, among other things, the contemporary force of clickbait. A music historian friend of mine refuses to hit “like” on most things he sees on Facebook, whether he truly enjoys such posts or not, his reasoning that inspiration, and personal taste for that matter (something Mendelsohn mentions frequently), shouldn’t be reduced to algorithmic slavery. He has a point.

All of which is to say, criticism still matters, but instead of writing reviews myself, I’m going to help others do it. As of January 2020, I’ll be part of the Emerging Arts Critics panel, a Canada-based program that aims to mentor the next generation of culture writers in partnership with a variety of  Toronto-based media and arts institutions including Opera Canada magazine (to which I am a frequent contributor) and the Canadian Opera Company. I may no longer review opera, but I am happy to be teaching the next generation. I’m equally happy to point out interesting figures whose work, while uncritical, inspires that all-important cultural curiosity, while providing fun bursts of inspiration and education; classical music writer and enthusiast Jari Kallio is one of those people. Known to the online classical community for his deep knowledge and refreshing lack of pretension, the well-travelled Finn documents what he sees, listens to, and studies at regular intervals. His posts aren’t intended to provoke reactivity (namely those 21st century digital diseases like hate-likes or juvenile jealousies) but are meant to inspire and educate, and sometimes entertain too.

salonen score

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s score for Pelléas et Mélisande. Photo: Jari Kallio

It would be easy to dismiss Jari as a cheerleader. When he likes something (or someone), it is obvious. He does not make a secret of his favorites, but in an age where the fandom of Anna Netrebko is loud and boisterous, it’s nice to see that spirit being so vigorously applied to artists like Harrison Birtwistle, Oliver Knussen and Jörg Widmann. Having worked as a teacher of psychology and philosophy for over two decades in pre-university studies for students sixteen to nineteen in Finland, Jari has a natural ability to be as direct with his language as he is clear in his contextualizing. Well-versed in music new and old, he considers score-reading to be a natural extension of his ever-unfolding education as well as an expression of his intense creative curiosity. Those qualities lend him an authority which can often be seen in his online exchanges with fellow music lovers, ones which are wonderfully free of patronizing and condescension, and offer in-roads for those new to classical music. Clearly aware of the culture of the internet, his Twitter and Instagram feeds regularly feature playful comments and humorous shots of both himself and his cat, Nono (yes, named after the Italian composer). If one wants to apply the term “blogger,” I suppose one could, but the term feels somehow too small for his wide-ranging curiosities, and too limiting for his talents. He’s not a singular figure for his cultural pursuits, but he is one of the most earthy in their expression.

Our conversation here marks the first of what I hope will become regular exchanges with digitally-savvy classical music writers. There’s value, and some manner of delight, in conversing with such ambassadors and educators in a rapidly-changing art form.  And so, to my original point, that making a conscious choice to change one’s path without knowing the final destination isn’t meant to always be a comfortable process. Indeed. Jari’s posts sometimes provoke sharp stabs of shrieking panic (mainly of not knowing nearly enough about our shared passion) but it’s a reaction softened by a calm, more sustained voice whispering that it’s never too late to learn; the willingness is all. Back in June, Jari and I enjoyed a lovely, wide-ranging chat – about score reading, contemporary composers, the joys of attending rehearsals, and the connection between Star Wars and Sibelius. Enjoy.

Photo courtesy Jari Kallio.

Do you find your music passion seeps into your teaching life? I’ve introduced things like leitmotifs within a project-specific context, so students can then apply that concept. 

Yes, I do that too! For example, in psychology there are so many things you can work out through pieces of art and music, so basically that’s an endless source for cases and examples and allegories…

… and concepts, and inspiring people to understand things and experience things in a new way… 

Exactly.

Speaking of new ways, you found your own path into music, yes? 

I didn’t go to a conservatory but I took piano lessons for three or four years, and when I studied psychology as a major, I did some musicology and history of music as a second subject. From my teens is when it all got started. I’m from a working-class family, and there’s musicality in my family, but it comes from my father’s side. My grandfather was quite a good amateur player – he had a good ear. He could pick out tunes from the radio and play them; he was really good at it. My father had some of that too, but he played very little, and so in their world, there wasn’t a thing like music education; yes, it would’ve been available, but it was something rather unknown to them. 

Jari Kallio, scores, Bärenreiter, publishing, music, coffee, perusal

Photo: Jari Kallio

That sounds a lot like my mother; she came from a working-class background as well and only seemed to know the Conservatory as it related to my yearly piano exams. 

Exactly! I had very few early influences though, apart from school. In my first year at school in Finland – we start school at the age of seven – I remember our city orchestra, which was a small, 25-piece orchestra, paid a visit to our school. That was the first time I’d heard an orchestra live. They played some orchestral music, and the only piece I remember from that is Sibelius, his Karelia music, the intermezzo. It was such a huge thing to hear, and that’s the early thing which got me curious. And then, being of my generation, which is the Star Wars generation, I of course picked up John Williams’s music for the film, which was actually the first thing I had on a physical record. In my teens I suddenly started discovering more, and at some point I just felt I had to try to play something, so I did a couple of years of piano lessons and soon realized that I’m not much of a player. That never bothered me because I learned to read music and got kind of an understanding of how music works, performance-wise, which I think was very important. I picked up my first scores when I was about eighteen or nineteen.

What inspired you to delve into scores as a non-musician?

I was really curious to see how the music works, what happens on the page, how does it look? It was the fascination of seeing scores at the conductor’s podium and being really interested in seeing what they see, what do they look at, what is the source? So at first it was simply curiosity, and kind of like, can I read through it? Can I follow a performance from it? It was a challenge.

At the Tate Modern Turbine Hall with the score for Stockhausen’s Gruppen, June 2018. Photo: Jo Johnson, Senior Marketing Manager, Digital Communications, London Symphony Orchestra

What was the first score you bought?

I bought cheap editions of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and Debussy’s “La Mer.” In Helsinki, there’s a music shop that sells records and scores and they had these score on sale, and I went there with what little student money I had back then and I found these two, and I thought they were brilliant.

How many do you have now?

I haven’t really counted them, but I’d say something like 200 to 250 or so.

You take a particular interest in new music.

Finland has a great scene for contemporary music and not just special ensembles but for large orchestras. They all do it – they’ve been doing it for a very long time. It’s something really organic, it’s not just (orchestras) commissioning short pieces and force-feeding the audience; it’s an essential part of the programming. And interestingly, in Helsinki for example, many of the concerts that feature new music sell really well and really fast. They are very often the first concert that are sold out, which is really interesting. 

Why do you think that is? 

I think in a sense, it originally comes from the fact that the first Finnish orchestras were established in the late 19th century; from early on they played music like Sibelius and all the Finnish composers. (Orchestras and composers) were part of the Finnish independence movement at the time, so it became a natural part of our culture. Also, because we are here at the border of Europe, we don’t have such a long (classical) tradition; the first Finnish orchestra of music comes from the latter half of the 19th century. We weren’t burdened by tradition, so to speak, and that liberated the programming, which is a great thing. Many (living Finnish composers) are definitely well known outside Finland – Salonen and Saariaho and Sebastian Fagerlund, for example. There are really so many great new composers

What sorts of things do you think new music provides the listener? 

It might sound clichéd, but the first thing that pops into my mind is that it gives purpose, in the sense of discovery. It’s really hard to express in words, but especially with new music, I think it’s the pleasure of discovery. When you listen to a lot of music, you start to get the idea that there are sort of these black areas on the map – between styles, between pieces, these undiscovered territories – and then you hear something somebody has written, and it goes to that undiscovered territory. You hear something which is totally new, which totally opens a new view. That, in a sense, is one of the most rewarding things. And also with the older repertoire, I mean, the pleasure of music is that you can perform the same piece of music a thousand times differently and it can be fresh and new every time. This season I heard St. John Passion in Berlin, dramatized by Peter Sellars and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, and it showed totally different aspects to a classic piece. I think, if you get the impression that, “this is the most important thing at this precise moment, the thing I want to focus on…” then that’s a good concert. 

Esa-Pekka Salonen during rehearsals for Pelléas et Mélisande at the Finnish National Opera, spring 2019. Photo: Jari Kallio

Yet you also delve into rehearsal work as well; your behind-the-scenes report on Pelléas et Mélisande at the Finnish National Opera with Salonen, for example, were fascinating. 

That was a lot of fun to do, to spend two weeks there. I’ll be covering the time when Salonen starts his first Ring Cycle at the Finnish National Opera – they’re doing Das Rheingold in August – and I have a couple of other projects in mind. For instance, Rattle is doing Idomeneo at the Staatsoper Berlin, so I might try to cover that. Obviously, it’s an important thing to review concerts, but it’s been done for ages. I know this might sound a bit pompous, but in a sense, I think that a critic (preserves) a memory – he or she documents something in the past…

… and evaluates it within various contexts for the present.

Usually yes! But I think it’s very important that the wider public understands how a performance is put together. What does it take? What is all the hard work done before the performance? This is so people can truly appreciate and understand how the thing is built. And of course, on a personal level, the best way to learn is to go to rehearsals and follow them and really try to get a hold of the thing.

From the very few I’ve attended, I find I re-discover, re-evaluate – and explore entirely new things as well. I’d love to attend more rehearsals.

With more experience you gain more levels of listening. What you hear in rehearsals – the process of creating music – is really the most rewarding part. Sometimes I have the feeling after attending a series of rehearsals I could easily skip the concert itself! I think one of highest fascinating and rewarding things was last year in January, when I attended a series of rehearsals by the LSO and Simon Rattle; they were doing the Berg Violin Concerto with Isabelle Faust as soloist. Within the three days I heard that piece, they played it something like four or five times through, and worked on it and worked on it. I had known the piece for roughly twenty years or something, but hearing it that way was really amazing. 

Nono the cat. Photo: Jari Kallio

It often feels as if you provide a way into sometimes challenging pieces and composers through your updates on these processes, demystifying what is, for many, a rather daunting thing.

I hope so – that’s the point, really! When I started my writing career nineteen years ago, I worked as a full-time, jack-of-all-trades journalist for a year, and of course initially you are really excited to see your work in print, like “WOW!” But as time goes by, that feeling wears off and you really start to think about the most important thing: readers, the public. You are writing for someone, not just to please yourself. You have to think: what’s the point of doing this? What do I want to say and emphasize? If somebody reads my stuff, and if they are in some way inspired or informed, I’m really happy and pleased. 

Eternity’s Sunrise

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The opportunity to sit with a piece of art, undistracted, has become a luxury, especially for those of us with stressful lives. Amidst the hospitalization of a parent, my own health woes, and a skunk-sprayed pet, having the time (mental, emotional, spiritual) and space to just sit with something artistic (and not fall asleep) has been a rare and much-longed for thing, a wish that vanishes with too much wind and implodes with too much noise. Time, place, and condition, of house, of hearth, of heart, have to be just so. It felt like a blessing to have a recent evening where all the phone calls had been made, all the dishes had been washed, and the skunk stench has dissipated enough to allow for clear thinking and open listening.

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I was a huge admirer of U2’s work in the 1990s; a sense of adventure, in the sonic, lyrical, and especially visual senses, pervaded every creative choice they made at that time, and I suppose it reflected a more open and adventurous approach in my own life. I also loved the bald, raw honesty of Bono’s words, the way they swirled and stomped about with a ferocious kind of poetry, and the deep, dark places he and bandmates Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr. and The Edge boldly stepped into, with nary a look back. The combination of innate playfulness, balls-out experimentation, and unapologetic intelligence was intoxicating, and even now, listening to Achtung Baby or Zooropa or Pop (or even some moments on the Passengers project with Brian Eno) sends chills down my spine. It’s hard to describe the incredible nature of cultural discovery that U2 (and their inspirations) provided the soundtrack for in my younger days; I delved into the work of Genet, Duchamp, Basquiat, Antonioni, and innumerable others, with Joy Division, Patti Smith, David Bowie, and The Ramones on in the background. New worlds opened up to me — new ideas inside me were enthusiastically birthed and raised — and, at the time, it felt like so much of it had sprung from randomly seeing a guy writhing around in a pink shirt, and thinking, “hey, that’s a good song… I can dance to that…”

Alas, people change, circumstances change, the only constant thing in life is change, and so, my interest in 2000s U2 output plummeted. I can’t explain it, except to say that I didn’t feel the same kind of connection or fire-lighting inspiration. That changed, however, with the release of No Line on the Horizon; a sense of adventure was palpable in many of the songs from the 2009 album, and I loved the fact that, despite the quick hit / MP3 / downloadable / disposable nature of music in the 21st century, the work still felt like a complete thought, as an album, rather than a series of singles. There were flashes of rawness, realness, and plain old… mischief. It had stuff to dance to as well. And the cover art, by Hiroshi Sugimoto, was (is) poetic and beautiful. There was something daring about the entire venture, and it engendered a kind of new/old respect that pushed my artsy buttons.

I didn’t see the mammoth 360 tour, however; it was out of reach financially, and I just didn’t have the back strength to stand for any length of time. Something in me snorts at the possibility of having any kind of profound creative experience in the super-corporatized tour world of the 21st century as well (this could be cynical old age creeping in), but one moment (glimpsed via YouTube) that did impress was when you couldn’t see the band at all, during the performance of “Zooropa.” Done behind a huge metal sheath with the glorious sound blasting out, it was as it the band were begging its worshipful audience, “Please, forget the screens, forget the effects; just use your own imaginations, pretend you don’t know us, and just listen.” Absence created presence. It was, for me, truly a profound statement, one made all the more powerful for being made in such an immense space by an immensely influential group, and it’s one that still resonates.

That dance, between absence and presence, powers Songs of Innocence, released last year. I put off listening to it because I wanted the space, the time, the energy to simply be with it, uninterrupted. Just sitting and spending time with an album is, ridiculously, a kind of a luxury now, so great are the demands on our attention. But, turning off social media, TV, radio, and phone, and simply letting the music wash over me, the way I did in the 80s and 90s when I’d get a new album, felt like the most cleansing kind of ritual. Amidst the tidal wave of frustrations, setbacks, and challenges of late, it was the right time to step into the world the album offered, eyes, hands, and heart wide open.

Its title, referencing the work of William Blake, is a bit misleading; this is a very adult album that looks back to find strength and wisdom in the wide-eyed, pillow-lipped, deep-breath state of youth, and uses that energy to find meaning in the present. Many of the songs have a certain wistful quality lyrically, while there are also some searingly honest moments that feel confessional through not only words but sound; “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” defies its peaceful title by having a creepy, Throbbing-Gristle-esque electro undertow that provides just the right note of discomforting menace that paints a nightmare portrait of abuse, while “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” has a pulsating pseudo-dance beat that fits its anti-hero ethos and nicely salutes the sounds on Sandinista by The Clash, a fitting tribute to its Joe Strummer dedication. There’s also the continuance of charming geography here. In the 1980s, there was “Red Hill Mining Town” and “Heartland”; in the ’90s, “Zoo Station”, “Miss Sarajevo”, and “Miami”; in the 2000s, “New York”, “City of Blinding Lights”, and “Fez/Being Born.” Now there’s “California (There Is No End To Love)” and “Cedarwood Road.” It’s interesting to consider the contrasts between the latter two, one so rooted in the present, the other so firmly ensconced in the past; this push-pull of contrasts gives the album much of its power, with love and aggression, loss and abundance, acceptance and anger, and of course, presence and absence, providing a kind of dialectic undertow that reveals and conceals at once in a maddening, if eminently listenable dance of modernity.

Right in line with this dance are the album’s words. Bono has always had a special knack of making the epic, intimate, and of making the personal, universal in his lyrics. Here he’s co-credited with The Edge in lyrics writing duties, but one can still discern the heart, the art, and the electric shock of a life lived so full so as to be bursting with profane (and profound) contradictions. I felt a special, and deeply personal twinge in hearing his plaintive tenor deliver the line, “I’ve got your life inside of me” in “Iris (Hold Me Close)”, a song about his too-soon-departed mother. It’s one thing to hear a favorite artist belt out something personal; it’s quite another to hear them shout out the pain you happen to have felt over the course of a week filled with hospital visits, phone calls, and meetings. The absence of a mother figure, while always powering work creatively, holds a special sheen here, because it’s that absence that works as a kind of guiding presence that allows forward momentum along creative avenues — ones fraught with dangers, darkness, and dreariness, true enough, but also filled with “cherry blossoms,” with seashores, with light. Those things can’t exist without the other. Innocence can’t exist without experience, and vice-versa. Inspiration can’t exist without ennui. Absence can’t exist without presence.

And so, this is an album about balance, regeneration, and contemplation, and one that, perhaps, couldn’t have been enjoyed and experienced at a better moment, amidst the phone calls, the hospital visits, the surgeries, the skunk smell, and the dirty dishes. Am I a fan? No, I’ve never, ever felt comfortable in that camp. Am I grateful? Yes. Thank you for putting that in my iTunes, U2. My world’s a little richer,  and a little brighter. Innocence is both more wide-eyed and astute, and experience has never tasted more bitter or sweet, at once. Contradiction truly is balance, and that’s probably how it should be. Now I’m ready to dance.

The Real Cosmopolitan

Photo via CBC Music

It was with a heavy heart that I heard about the passing of CBC Radio host Jurgen Gothe last month.

I’d been thinking a lot about him lately, what with starting my own radio show this past January, and a recent stock-taking of old cookbooks, where I found DiscCookery amongst my culinary collection. Gothe had penned the work on the 20th anniversary of his popular afternoon radio program, DiscDrive, in 2005.

The program, aired on CBC Radio 2, was a regular part of my young life; it was always on in the house or the car after school, and even when I started going to university, I found myself turning it on during my long commutes, between blaring the Pearl Jam CD and the Tom Waits cassette tape. The program’s avuncular host had a broadcasting style both elegant and casual at once, like a warm designer cardigan found in a Kensington Market stall; it was something very fine and special, though it was equally familiar, casual, and approachable.

After years of listening, it only feels right to call Jurgen by his first name, despite never working with him, and only meeting him briefly. Part of what I loved (and still love) about Jurgen is how much he defied the stereotypical “Canadian” cliche. He wasn’t a maple-syrup-and-hockey-with-Tim-Horton’s-tell-me-aboatit-eh kind of guy (even though he named the Canucks as his favorite sports team). He was smart, well-spoken, curious, deeply interested in viniculture, cuisine, and the world of arts and culture as embodied in his weekday program — but that didn’t make him distant; it made him cool.

The quote on the back of DiscCookery (from the Globe and Mail) called DiscDrive “(t)he most intelligent radio in the country.”The program was a charming compendium of facts, stories, passions, and pursuits; he’d play Mozart and Bach alongside Grappelli and Ellington. I was introduced to Billie Holiday’s magical, horn-like voice on DiscDrive, along with the sad sighs of Marin Marais’ viola da gamba pieces; I ventured into jazz clubs in New York because of the curiosity Jurgen fostered. I gained a whole new appreciation in my Toronto Symphony Symphony concerts, recalling a funny anecdote Jurgen shared about Mozart as I listened to “Eine Kleine Nachtsmusik“, or a food-wine pairing as one of Beethoven’s rich, meaty overtures washed over me.

Radio can change the way a person experiences the world; some programs will only confirm a worldview, while others help to expand, widen, and celebrate it. DiscDrive did all that, and more, helping me say, out loud, “yes, I love these things” while simultaneously making me question the whole idea of “Canadiana” and its relationship with a rapidly changing culture.

Jurgen himself defied the “hoser” cliche by embracing a cosmopolitan curiosity that he then transmitted over the airwaves; his wasn’t an attitude of superiority or snobbery. Quite the opposite. It was his warmth and joy and genuinely curious approach — all the things I try to emulate in my own broadcasting life. I miss Jurgen, and I miss Disc Drive — but the things they stood for and provided continue to inspire. My favorite sweater is so warm, and I am forever grateful.

Photo via CBC Music

Head & Heart & Movies & Me

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Movies were one of my first great loves. I would sit in the grand silence of many an old cinema, with scratchy red seats, the velvet sheen long since worn off, and spider webs wrapped like lace around the dusty, grey crystals of faded, wheezing-gold wall sconces, floors sticky with a thousand screaming-kiddie afternoons and breathless teenaged nights. It was magic. Star Wars, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rocky, Jaws, Clash of the Titans and Flash Gordon, and later, Thelma and Louise, Aliens, JFK, and Tim Burton’s Batman were a part of my culture diet, alongside nights at the opera and afternoons at the museum. Along the way, I developed a desire to direct movies, write movies, produce movies, be in movies. 

When I was old enough to attend the then-named Festival of Festivals (which later grew into the behemoth that is the Toronto International Film Festival), I purposely sought out the strange, the unusual, the odd — stuff that I might never see again. That’s what a film festival’s really for, isn’t it? The blockbusters could wait. Along with the big, ballsy blockbuster stuff, I had developed a love of smaller fare: the intimate wordplay of Woody Allen’s work, the poetry of Federico Fellini, the deliberate thoughtfulness of Ingmar Bergman. The work of Wim Wenders, whose visual poetry and keen integration of timing, color, sound, and performance feel quietly operatic, yet grandly passionate, fired my imagination with tales that deviated from the orderly narratives I’d seen in so many Hollywood movies. The smaller works introduced me to new ways of looking at old myths, and the courage to dream up new ones. 

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Even as I wrote, I continued to watch, waiting in interminable lines (and frequently terrible weather) to be let in to the dusty, dark palace of my dreams. I clearly remember the many magical elements of De vliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman, seen at the film festival): long silences punctuated only by breath and wind, brown-and-gold tinged cinematography, the mud around an actor’s face. Terence Mallick’s The Thin Red Line utterly awed, silenced, stunned, into a very intense head and heart-space. Walking home later, the rain drops that sat, jewel-like, on the grey, lined cobblestone streets of Dublin looked different, filled with a magic I knew nothing of, but could only marvel at.
This wonder extended itself to all types of movies, provoking equally powerful reactions and throwing open doors of creativity and dreaming, inspiring stories and screenplays that meshed the human, the historic, the fantastical, and the frightening. Going to the movie was a ritual, usually exercised opening night; there was something about the occasion that seemed exciting, and important to be a part of culturally. Sure, the actors were hot/interesting/cool, but what friends and I really wound up talking about over drinks in a smoky bar later was the way things were filmed, the way they sounded, the shadows, the light, the performances – the way everything came together and made us feel. And that’s ultimately what it was about: feeling. Big or small, indie or studio, if we felt something, if we were moved, if we came out of there and found everything looked different, the source hardly mattered. Being moved and being entertained were not mutually exclusive experiences. Back in the 1980s and 90s, I happily hopped between the small, medium, large, and super-gulp worlds of movies with ease, untroubled by questions around budgets, marketing, demographics, brand, or even hype. I simply went because I loved movies, and I loved the experience of going to see them.

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I don’t know when the divide came, or how. It’s strange that so many of the filmmakers I admire aren’t around anymore (“dead” doesn’t necessarily translate literally in Hollywood), that so many of the actors whose worked I followed are either now a part of blockbuster franchises or relegated into old fart-style roles, that films like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, or Only Lovers Left Alive should be anomalies. And yet, in the landscape of contemporary movies, they are, and they’re treated more as lovable/weirdo/cool/hipster-y outsiders than full, firm, equal – and necessary – parts of the film industry. The sharp rise of delineations between blockbuster and indie rile, depress, infuriate, but hardly surprise; it feels as if hype is somehow more important than heart – real heart, not the cliched, easily-digestible kind manufactured by the bucketful and ladled out by studios keen on a quick ROI. Why should head and heart be so separate? Small sparks might provide temporary heat and light in the film world now, but nothing like the roaring fire I once felt. 

Style plays as much of a role as content here. I greatly miss the grand experience of movie-going in an old cinema. The contemporary glass-and-metal popcorn palaces just don’t cut it; movie-going is a seduction, what with the raising of a curtain, the teasing of trailers, the shared silence, the delicious anticipation, the film itself a penetrating, all-encompassing, extended main course, with little side plates of things to dip in and out of for fun or rumination (or both). Multiplexes are, to my mind, the opposite of sexy; attending one is akin to going to a peep show featuring a plastic performer. I don’t feel seduced, I don’t feel beguiled, I don’t want more. Everything’s too loud and everything’s very ugly. Watching movies on a laptop is strange and uncomfortable, ease and convenience replacing the slow brew and simmer of a movie-going experience that feels long ago and far away. 
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Getting the movies out of one’s blood completely is, however, an impossible task. Very often find myself thinking in cinematic terms, directing scenes in my head, framing visuals I see or imagine, coming across various faces and casting them in the many unpublished narratives that sit, Leviathan-like, on my hard drive. My faith is partially restored by digital culture too, and by my work as an arts journalist; interviewing various filmmakers whose work I admire, connecting with other film lovers on social media, and the ease with which digital culture now allows one to access movies new and old, has lead to a kind of cinematic renaissance of sorts. I’m looking at old works with new eyes, and new works with far more critical readings and realizations, armed as I am with a knowledge of an industry in flux and the tyranny of what is perhaps best termed “kinder-mind.” 
When I like something, it’s good to be able to proclaim that love loudly, with a modicum of possible influence (maybe?) and to find a community with which to share that love; expressing dislike (and cynicism) is a much harder task, especially when something (or someone) is extremely popular, and it’s something I grapple with. I hope I’m getting better, and I hope there are more movies on the horizon to inspire, entertain, move, and beguile – and more places to be seduced in. There’s still few things better than having your breath taken away in the darkness.

Are You Not Entertained?

Inspiration has been hard to come by in these late November days. The greyness is thick, endless, unrelenting and unmoving, smug in its stifling tofu blandness. New tires spin aimlessly on a car that’s been flipped upside down and left to rot. Nothing goes forwards fast enough, if at all. To borrow from Beckett, “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes… it’s awful.” No kidding.

The bright spot -and it’s a weird bright spot -has been politics, specifically American politics. The race to the 2012 Presidential elections has been spectacularly theatrical, the personalities and behaviors ribald and riveting. Meltdowns! Mistresses! Racist rocks! Rocking racists! Bumps! Stumps! Ooops! Loop-de-loops! Since living in the United States, I just can’t get enough of its mad, bad, dangerous-to-know, good/bad/ugly aesthetic. An American-born, Canadian-living friend told me she thinks of America as bacon: it’s greasy, delicious, bad for you and good for your tastebuds. It’s addictive, unhealthy, and even the smell of it is enough to convince you that you need it. Without it, so many other things would just be boring, grey… depressingly bland. November forever. Ugh.
Yet it’s anything but bland in the world of Twitter. At every GOP debate, the microblogging site has resembled a hummingbird on meth: observations, opinions, fact checks, exchanges and retweets come at breakneck speed, with nary a moment to think twice. I’ve partaken and tried to keep up, @ing one person, RTing another, the new linguistics of a modern communication long and comfortably entrenched into my 21st century vernacular. More than an education, my enthusiasm for the spectacle of American politics has opened a door to connecting with some smart, witty, talented people, using a technology I couldn’t have guessed at ten years ago. Perhaps that’s the magic.
The sense of event-with-a-capital-E combined with all the elements of theater implies a shared love of real-life drama that in no way diminishes the seriousness of what’s being discussed. Online users are like critics’ unions, decimating, disassembling, disabusing and discarding, while offering credit where it’s due. But unlike theater-theater, political theater is a forum where the off-stage antics of its players are every bit as vital -in a theatrical sense -as their onstage performance. While some larger networks utilize the commentary of silly tweeters in far to serious a manner, it’s worth remembering that there are many credible, smart tweeters whose 140-character commentary blasts open new neural pathways, not to mention super-bright highways, along the freeway of 21st century American political life.
As if to match the velocity on that road, I find myself zooming by old interests. Trips to the art gallery replace the theater; the lecture hall goes before the symphony hall; the arena sits in lieu the club. Much as a reflection of my age, it’s a reflection of shifting routes in those neural pathways (though I should add, I still love the theater and the symphony).
But the combination of politics and tweeting has brought out a childlike sense of play, something long missing amidst the grey November days.
During a recent GOP debate that I began exchanging theatrical-esque theories on roles for candidates, especially within a (not altogether unsuitable) high school setting. My talented companion and I decided Rick Perry would be the boisterous gym coach who urges you to run faster even though your lungs are ready to explode, Jon Hunstman, the possibly-swoon-worthy English teacher who, by tossing off an insulting comment about your favorite poet, turns you off for life. Herman Cain would be the ever-frustrated business teacher who puts his hands on his head when the class gets too loud, while Newt Gingrich is the perpetually sour-faced math teacher who gives you a yelling-at whenever you ask too many seemingly-dumb questions. Michelle Bachmann would be the history teacher who’d assign you an essay and write you another one back if she didn’t like what you wrote. Rick Santorum would be the science teacher who’d argue with his own students, Ron Paul the classics teacher who’d go off on hour-long tangents and entertain student ideas about smoking in the caf.
Theater. Imagination. Possibility. Politics.
More, please. I love my bacon, and I’m not prepared to live without it.
Not now, or ever.

Bravo, Olar!

Art Battle is many things: dramatic, thought-provoking, theatrical, joyous, challenging, surreal. It’s also a great place to see the work of emerging artists.

My eye was recently caught at the last Art Battle by Iulia Olar, a Romanian-born, Toronto-based artist who was participating. Her gorgeous, vibrant cityscapes were joyously retina-ripping, and I felt honored to be witnessing the creation of not one but two beautiful renderings of Toronto’s skyline.

The way Iulia paints – a mix of focus, intuition, feeling and detail -reflects a deeply poetic sense of both her environment and the people in it. Her dance between brushes and palette knives, wielding one, then the other, with a seamless integration of head and heart, smuding here, dabbing there, was a magical thing, akin to the spinning tango dancers I’d see Sundays in Union Square. As with so many arts, either a person has a gift to develop, or they don’t. Learning the steps, mixing the colors -they take practise, of course -but it’s up to the individual to properly use those energies, with a mix of pinpoint precision and passionate abandon. Iulia does both.

So it was an honor to have this Q&A with her, and to learn more about someone whose talent is bursting with the living of life, moment by moment, stroke by stroke.

How did you first get interested in painting?

I came to Canada as a poet, with three books in my luggage. After three years I realized that I wouldn’t be able to write anymore, so I decided to express myself through painting.I started to paint on September 19th, 2009: I went to the store, bought canvases, paints, brushes, and took books from the library… and here I am! I have to admit, I took one year of drawing lessons -that was a long time ago -but never, ever did I paint. I want to remain for as long as possible a self-taught artist. It’s so natural and much less stressful.

I also have a wonderful husband, a wonderful son and a wonderful friend. They encouraged me from the first moment. Terry Mardini (my friend) bought over forty paintings -and she exhibited them in her apartment. What a friend! I am very lucky.

Believe me or not, every time I sell a painting I say :”Forgive me, Vincent!” (Vincent Van Gogh). That’s my story with painting . You know, I see myself doing this for the rest of my life.

How does being involved in Art Battle help your artistic development?

I consider participation at Art Battle a unique experience that every painter should have. You can test yourself and the public’s reaction towards your art, right on the spot. There, you have to give your best in twenty minutes. Leonardo Da Vinci spent seven years giving us the Mona Lisa -and only a few rich people benefit from that type of art. It’s not possible (to work that way) anymore. The modern artist has to be there for the people, right away -there is no time to wait.

Who are some of your favorite painters and why?

I adore Vincent Van Gogh. He felt that is nothing more truly artistic than to love people. Because he risked his health and his life for his work: “I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.” Because he sold one (one!) painting in his entire life but, this, couldn’t stop him from painting. What an artist!

Why acrylic paint? Would you consider other media?

I like acrylic because it’s an extremely liberating medium. Its versatility is actually its best quality; use it like oil paint, watercolour or gouache. Acrylics gained my favour because they offer many advantages: great colour, a fastness that doesn’t fade or yellow or harden with age (or crack), it dries much faster then oil paint too, so it’s great for studio work. I use more acrylic paint because I don’t feel like considering other media… but who knows? Maybe in the future.

You seem to do a lot of cityscapes; what’s the attraction, creatively?

As an artist, you must learn to trust your own feelings, judgment and analysis about what you like and why. Ambivalence in your approach will lead to an ambivalence response from the viewer. You don’t have to please all the people by somehow finding the average line.

Yes, I can say, Toronto’s skyline attracts me because of that insolent CN tower that lances my sky. Sky bleeds, suffers. People stay at home. Nobody to be seen on the streets. The water: second reality, refuses to capture the mirror image, makes another one more subtle.

This theme reveals my love and my hate, my choleric side. A solitary seagull flies -the guardian of the city. The strong colors I use add life and dynamic they are projections of the people not of the town itself. I also paint flowers, landscapes, family members when I am in the “quiet mood”

What’s next in terms of your work and where can we see it?

I have plans to create a website where I’ll post all my work and keep in touch with friends, and try to participate as much as I can in public events, art galleries, etc. This is a never-ending story for me and I feel very engaged with every single detail. I start to count my life in days that I paint well. Who knows one day I’ll have my own studio, students and I will make my art my entire occupation.

“What Do You Want?”

It was beautiful in New York today.

The sun was shining, the sky was a lustrous blue, it was mild. The rain that had been threatened all weekend didn’t materialize. People were happy to welcome the spring weather, walking around in loose t-shirts and perhaps-too-soon rubber sandals. I got off work and decided I’d make a trip back to Strand Books. Poetry was calling, along with a general desire to walk around Manhattan on a gorgeous Monday afternoon and observe, reflect, walk, and breathe. The rhythm of street life -of peddlers, poets, con artists, lovers, dreamers, stragglers, strugglers, tired parents, scared tourists, oblivious locals, obnoxious students – all co-mingle here with a natural harmony that is both breathtaking and choking. Get out of the way!, I wanted to shout every few steps, if you want to yap with your boyfriend, don’t try to walk at the same time! Surely it’s a sign of becoming a local, though I still get shocked looks whenever I say “thank you” in a store. Habits from home die hard.

I entered Strand Books and immediately knew what I wanted. I’d seen Patti Smith: Complete when it was first released in 2006, but I couldn’t afford it. Now, five years later, in a place where Patti figuratively welcomed me to the city my first night, I couldn’t afford not to. Did they have a used copy? Yes, just one -but where? I looked, high and low. Nothing. Was the computer lying? I checked again, and there it was, snugly tucked in on a high shelf; even standing spider-like on the edge of a cart, it was just out of my grasp.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that short people hate asking for help from a tall person. But… I swallowed my vertical-challenge pride. I didn’t look at it until I got it home, to my bedside, my bathtub, reading in barefoot with a glass of wine and a sharpie.
Poetry, music, prose, drawing -these things are keeping me sane, even as they drive me to more and more questions. Art isn’t and should never be a baggy La-Z-Boy of comfy, feet-up vanity and smug self-congratulations. I keep wondering in what order I should place all the things I’ve seen and heard these last two weeks: the faces, the floors, the pieces of gum on the sidewalks, the squeaky rails of the subway, the boomboomboom of a hip-hop boy’s earbuds -and if I’ll ever do all of them justice. My iPod has been a vital tool in attempting to make sense of these moments, giving them themes, names, direction, and momentum. Recent playlists have reflected this tornado of anxious confusion, with a selection of tunes, both new and old, urban and urbane, soft and abrasive, uber-cool and super-gauche.
Bizarrely, this tune has become a mainstay on my iPod since -and even as -I moved. What I love about the above performance (from Brazil this past Sunday night) is that you can’t actually see the band; you can only hear them. Maybe it was the rain. Or maybe it was on-purpose. either way, there was a forced listening at work, an experience of the quiet-but-awesome marriage between sound, ideas, and art in a way many bands of that caliber wouldn’t attempt in such a mondo-stadium context. The slick glammy sheen of the original has been stripped away for a world-weariness and a nose-to-the-grindstone grittiness, even with those gorgeously swooping, theatrical guitars. The audience is clearly confused: where are they? what is this? I don’t get it! But… who cares? Should mass art always be digestible? Should life always be full of answers and no questions? Should we be spoon-fed everything our entire lives -even (or especially) the meaningful stuff?
To quote a favorite poet whose posthumous work I recently picked up in Strand Books, “poetry is what happens when nothing else can.” That “nothing else” can be so many things -for me, it’s the striving to understand everything, all the time, it’s the “what ifs” that don’t get (and won’t be) answered, ever. And so the possibilities -of the streets, the subway, the stains, the sleepless nights and somnambulant days -is louder, softer, harder and more real than any slick glamorous picture people have of the Big Apple, and more beautiful to anyone with two eyes and a beating heart. It is those questions, singing loud, a little more weary but every bit wiser, confusing the masses, and maybe, just maybe, inspiring a few of us along the way, that is the real poetry. Viva love, viva life, viva… New York.

Noise And Motion

Trying to write about a litany of amazing experiences is like trying to file spaghetti bolognese by ingredient -after it’s cooked and on your plate.

Friday night I attended Monodramas at the New York City Opera. Then I had a great meal, met some great people, and walked through a curiously-quiet Times Square. Saturday I went to the legendary Strand Books, and later explored the Lower East Side with a local friend. Today I heard another friend sing at a favorite spot on the Upper West Side, and on the way there, chatted about the wonders of Bukowski with a fellow commuter.

Together these things seem unremarkable, but… trying to put them into some kind of order, and sense, parsing out their colors, textures, sounds, meanings, the small spaces of light between the blocks of firm monolithical EVENTS… is hard. Such efforts demand a certain commitment of time and energy and availability of mind and spirit and fingers, to sit, think, contemplate, and type. Time isn’t always on my side.

New York is swallowing me up, and I’m enjoying being in the throes of its guts, thrown this way and that, against hardship, wellship, friendship and relationship. I want to sit down and try to make sense of all this, slowly, carefully, and against the grain of everything New York demands. I love the fast rhythm, but I like the slow numbers too, and I have to mind the splinters and dirt while I’m at it. Never mind the glam, here’s bare feet, dry hands, red eyes and low voice. Add a glass of red, Sinatra on the stereo, and a room with a view -or at least access to a great, busy street – and I’ll truly feel I have arrived. Until then, I’m on input mode.

We Write (and Draw) The Future

There are few things as good as starting the week calm, focused, and full of inspiration. I happened upon the creative video, above, via Facebook, that seeming- springboard for inspiration and revolution lately.
What I love about this is that the visionary is rendered into actual vision; it isn’t spoon-feeding with cutesy drawings so much as rendering ideas into something understandable -and comfortingly familiar (and all done with a trusty sharpie, I suspect). The other thing I love about this video is that it stands for something, not against it. Ireland, facing serious economic problems, is holding an election soon; with all its woes, it’d be easy for candidates to attack others, claiming fault, pointing blame, and engaging in nasty attacks against fellow candidates.
There’s an ad on Canadian television right now, in fact, that doesn’t mention the ruling party (who clearly paid for it) but attacks the leader of the opposition for, in their view, being out of the country for too long to be a credible leader (a charge that has an ironic ring to it right now). It’s this kind of advertising -and the altogether-yucky instincts beneath it (petty, mean, small-minded) -that, I think, turn people off, whatever their political persuasions. And yet it’s so easy to be seduced by the “no” side of the equation.

The weekend filled my head with images of contradiction: is it revolution or chaos in Egypt? good change or bad change? It’s been encouraging to hear a number of voices who are coming out with their own vision for the country’s future. “No Mubarek” and “yes democracy” has been a theme, which well and good, but… who then? Who are people looking to? Answers aren’t easy, but I hope they become clearer this week.
Egyptians are writing their future, right now. We are watching them. The scenes being drawn for us -on TV and the internet -are indeed a puzzling collage of violence, thuggery, community and hope. I’m betting on those last two to provide a vision for a solid future -one that extends past Egypt’s borders, to Ireland, to Canada, and beyond. And Dylan Haskins? Great ad. Thank you for the inspiration.

Dear Lord

Lord George Gordon Byron was born on this day in 1788.

Like a lot of adolescent girls, I had romantic visions and tendencies, and Byron’s work was the perfect reflection of that gooey, goggley-eyed disposition. He was the first celebrity as we understand it, and fled his home country to escape the ruinous gossip that surrounded the dissolution of his marriage and his questionable relationship with half-sister Augusta. Through all his trials and tribulations (and there were a lot, his club foot being the least of them), there was -is -something undeniably intoxicating about the way he blended the heady and the common, and his love of both the high life and his robust embrace of the gutteral, in both his work and his life.
I have a huge collection of biographies of Byron, as well as several volumes of his poetry, including a three-volume set of his collected works published just after his death in 1824. When I lived in London, I would go by where he lived at the Albany, and at one point, was even given a tour by a kind doorman; he gently motioned toward the ground-level door that lead to the apartment where Byron lived, adding that “an Hungarian doctor lives there now. He has trouble walking.” I was a regular visitor to John Murray’s offices (once located in Albemarle Street), where Gini Murray -married to the then-current publisher (and directly descended from Byron’s Murray) -would kindly welcome me with tea and allow me to wander the famous upper floor, taking pictures and looking at the immense volumes of books lining the walls, as well as the cabinet containing a few of Byron’s personal effects (including one white shirt I longed to bury my nose in). I wandered down Piccadilly Terrace, where he and wife Annabella shared their unhappy moments (and where the brilliant Ada was born), and gazed up at windows, imagining Byron popping the tops off soda bottles as his wife was in labour. I’ve been to the church where he is buried, and recalled the stories I’d read about the creepy 1938 opening of his coffin many moons ago by a group of curious investigators. The entrance to the crypt was closed, but is small and narrow, the church dark and grey and cold. It felt like an incongruous ending for such a dramatic, colorful life.

This visit to Hucknall Parish coincided with my poetic visit to Byron’s ancestral home at Newstead Abbey (near Nottingham) one fresh spring day. I wandered around the seemingly-ancient quarters in a daze, touching the stones, door frames, stairs, shrubery, and avoiding the squawking peacocks (little wonder Byron wrote about their noisesome fierceness -eeek). I’ve painted and drawn countless works of art based around the photos I took there, and even now, ten years later, I’d love to return, if only to wander the gardens. Though the house is much different than it was in Byron’s day (ancestral misdeeds meant the Abbey had fallen into terrible disrepair when the poet lived there), I felt a palpable presence of … something… during my visit (a feeling akin to the ghosts in New York recently.) I left utterly appreciating just how difficult and painful it must’ve been for him to part with such a beautiful, magical place.
Still, I hate admitting that don’t read as much Byron as I once did; I’d like it to be far more often, but he asks so much energy, attention, and care. Finding the time to provide those things -in full, without scrimping or cheating -is challenging, and yet I feel it might be worth it. Every time I return to his work, I’m taken back to a specific time in my life -one I’m proud of, thrilled by, and continually in awe of -and I’m re-awakened and energized by the power of human imagination and our capacity for creation in the midst of incredible, painful circumstances. It’s no understatement when I type that Byron’s work emboldened me, opened my eyes, ripped my heart out of my chest, & put it back again whole. I’ve developed a deep appreciation of his poetry, as well as his life, and becoming so familiar with each has immeasurably enriched my own artistic output and worldview. Out of all the poems I know and love, this one has become my personal favorite; it takes me back to a specific time and place, day and face:

I speak not, I trace not, I breathe not thy name;
There is grief in the sound, there is guilt in the fame;
But the tear that now burns on my cheek may impart
The deep thoughts that dwell in that silence of heart.


Too brief for our passion, too long for our peace,
Were those hours – can their joy or their bitterness cease?
We repent, we abjure, we will break from our chain, –
We will part, we will fly to – unite it again!

Oh! thine be the gladness, and mine be the guilt!
Forgive me, adored one! – forsake if thou wilt;
But the heart which is thine shall expire undebased,
And man shall not break it – whatever thou may’st.

And stern to the haughty, but humble to thee,
This soul in its bitterest blackness shall be;
And our days seem as swift, and our moments more sweet,
With thee at my side, than with worlds at our feet.

One sigh of thy sorrow, one look of thy love,
Shall turn me or fix, shall reward or reprove.
And the heartless may wonder at all I resign –
Thy lips shall reply, not to them, but to mine.

May, 1814.

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