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Modern Life, Mephisto, & The Boys: The Faust Myth Endures

There are occasions when a work of art can have such an immense effect that one sees it everywhere, in everything – if not as a whole, then in pieces, like tiny pinpricks at consciousness. One starts to rethink habits, mundanities, high art and fun diversions, all at once; I can’t say if that conceptual stickiness is a measure of some “greatness” or not. What might have an impact at one point in time may not hit the same at another, and as I’ve written before, the c-word is context. As I glance at my almond chocolate bar, take a sip of tea, and look out the window at the rain, recalling so very many carefree July holidays of past times, thoughts turn back and forth (and back) to temptation, choice, bargaining, compromise, consequence… how very close they feel, in news and politics, as much as in art and culture, as much as in love and life and the living of it. Some months ago I watched the Oscar-winning 1981 film Mephisto about a German actor in Nazi-era Germany who makes a morally reprehensible bargain in order to climb to the top of the arts ladder. It may be a testament to director István Szabó’s cinematic mastery (he won an Oscar for it, after all), or simply the reality of heavy outside factors (war, recession, pandemic), or just spooky timing (I watched it on Walpurgisnacht, quite by accident) – whatever the reason, Mephisto has stayed, sitting on the brain, a fuzzy cat on a warm stove, refusing to budge and making its presence known through every hair and whisker.

The story’s roots have had a pervasive influence across various cultural forms, underpinned by the relentless human drive for success (validation, applause, acclaim, some form of assurance) which exists in forever atonal tension with more humble pursuits. Functional equilibrium is often a fast dance of negotiation performed in a mostly (or more precisely, presumed) moral vacuum. This “dance” has resonance in an age when so much of what we see, hear, taste, experience, order, and use has such a huge and mostly silent labour force behind it. There is a measure of Faustian bargaining behind the anodyne gestures of modern life – tapping the app, subscribing to the service, letting the thermostat decide, asking Siri or Alexa. The cha-cha dance of negotiation is easy if we don’t see who’s playing in the band, or have to stop and consider the details – footing becomes less steady once we do have that knowledge and awareness (maybe), but momentum continues apace, empathy being, of course, the most expensive thing to be careful not to lose footing over; the fall would be too expensive, too distracting, we’d lose our timing and a place on the dancefloor. In 1965-66 Hannah Arendt examined the ideas of morality, conscience, judgement, and the role of divinity in “Some Questions Of Moral Philosophy” (subsequently published as part of Responsibility and Judgement, Schocken Books, 2003), noting that “ours is the first generation since the rise of Christianity in the West in which the masses, and not only a small elite, no longer believe in “future states”  […] and who therefore are committed (it would seem) to think of conscience as an organ that will react without hope for reward and without fear of punishment. Whether people still believe that this conscience is informed by some divine voice is, to say the very least, open to doubt.” (p. 89; Schocken Books/Random House Canada edition) The gaping void created by such doubt points at a yearning for meaning, or even simple connection – for attention to be directed purposefully.

The story of Faust speaks to this longing. The doctor who longed for youth and riches, who sold his soul to the demon Mephistopheles in exchange for earthly pleasure, has a deep resonance with the vagaries of culture (socio-economic as much as artistic), and with the ways culture (in all its  forms) is accessed, experienced, understood, and accepted – or not. The present is empty, says the Faust myth; the future is murky; history is forgotten – what matters is how well one plays the game. History, however, is uncomfortably near, more visceral than at any other point in history, unfolding live on our television screens and computer monitors and TikToks and Twitter feeds. How much we choose to engage, or ignore, is individual, a negotiation as near as filling the online cart, tapping an App for a ride, hitting “subscribe” on a TV screen. It’s all so easy, which makes forgetting the deals we made for such conveniences and comforts even easier. Examining the history of Faust is useful for not only appreciating the myth’s sticky qualities in many artists’ minds (it isn’t just me) but for seeing the ways in which its profound and profane elements interact with the spiritual, even nihilistic void which characterizes much of modern life.

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Emil Jannings as Mephisto in a famous scene from Murnau’s 1926 film “Faust”.

Pre-Faust figures are contained within Judeo-Christian storytelling (Simon Magus (d. 65 AD), who tried to buy the power to relay the Holy Spirit from the Christian Apostles John and Peter; St. Cyprian (d. 258 AD) and his dealings with demons) as well as in morality plays popular through the 14th through 16th centuries, the latter exactly paralleling the time of German magician, astrologer, and alchemist Johann Georg Faust himself, a suspicious figure who apparently had the ability to conjure dark forces – and to stir social unrest in the process. The myth around Faust’s life and work began in 1587 with the publication of The Historia von D. Johann Fausten by German printer Johann Spies, which in turn led to English playwright Christopher Marlowe penning The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus in 1592. Spies’ original version was edited and ultimately re-published, and read by a great many across Europe. Printing, as I like to remind my first-year media students, was a very big deal, firing up imaginations, emotions, mental investment, and spiritual fervour. Amongst those keen readers was a young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) whose influential reworking of the story went on to be published in two parts, its second posthumously, in 1808 and 1832, respectively, and the rest, as they say, is history – except that it isn’t. Generations of writers have since been thusly inspired, perhaps most famously Thomas Mann (1875-1955) whose Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde (“Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend”), published in 1947, is a hauntingly brilliant integration of mythology, culture, politics, and personal response to the horrors of the Second World War. Other writers including Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890), C.S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters, 1942), Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita, 1967) and John Banville (Mefisto, 1986), to name just a few, have taken the original tale (be it Spies’, Marlowe’s, Goethe’s, or some combination) as a basis from which to explores themes relating to spiritual void, to compromise and cost, to cultivation of the soul amidst ever-unfolding developments in technology, science, medicine, and mechanics. Such developments have served to intensify the myth’s durability, even as they continue to power creative imaginations.

Thus have classical composers also been duly inspired: Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust (1846); Schumann’s Szenen Aus Goethes Faust (1844-53); Liszt’s Faust Symphony (1854); Gounod’s Faust (1859); Boito’s Mefistofele (1867) – these are all arguably the most famous opera/classical versions. Many more exist (Spohr, 1813; Radziwill, 1835; Hervé, 1869; Boulanger, 1913; Busoni, 1924; Prokofiev, 1941-42; Schnittke -cantata 1984-5, opera 1993; Fénelon, 2003-2004; Dusapin, 2006 – a partial list) and are explored in Music In Goethe’s Faust, edited by Lorraine Byrne Bodley (Boydell and Brewer, 2017). An captivating (and certainly, covid-era useful) blend of music and theatre is L’Histoire du soldat (“A Soldier’s Tale”), Stravinsky’s 1918 work which takes the Faustian elements of a Russian folk story and brings them alive in a zesty chamber format. The work has enjoy a diverse recording and performance history (including a 2018 release narrated by Roger Waters), with the tale of the soldier making a deal with, and then outwitting (maybe) the devil at his own game. On film, 1971’s The Mephisto Waltz (based on the 1969 novel of the same name by Fred Mustard Stewart) is arguably the best example of the fusion of Faustian mythology, classical music, and schlocky occult horror, with various forms of bargaining and the temptation of great artistry used as central plotting devices. Unsurprisingly, Faustian mythology has also made its way into the world of comics (Marvel specifically), with Mephisto taking his demonic place in 1968 among a varied cast of characters, and positioned by Stan Lee and (writer) and John Buscema (artist), rather suitably, as one of Spider-Man’s chief adversaries. Marvel-Mephisto went on to get the Hollywood treatment, first in 2007’s Ghost Rider (played by Peter Fonda) and its 2011 sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (played by Ciaran Hinds), taking one of many pleasing guises as befits his devilish roots. The story has predictably influenced the world of popular music too, and in the early 1990s, became a theatrical element in U2’s mammoth ZOO-TV tour. Bono took Szabó’s film as inspiration for an onstage persona in the band’s European stadium dates, with the white-faced, platform-heeled character of “MacPhisto” cleverly milking and mocking the celebrity-worship that comes with rock and roll superstardom. The uneasy relationship with fame, creativity, and success (and the associated compromises and costs) bubbled up in Bono’s later lyrics, including 2004’s “Vertigo”, which references the biblical story of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert: “All of this can be yours,” he whispers, “just give me what I want, and no one gets hurt.”

Such variance across cultural formats and media testify to the myth’s durability, as the lines between art, faith, entertainment, and politics grow ever more blurred in the 21st century. The Faust Legend: From Marlowe and Goethe to Contemporary Drama and Film, by Sara Munson Deats (Cambridge University Press, 2019) examines various Fausts through the ages. Deats writes in the Prologue that “the Faust legend has served throughout the years as a kind of Rorschach test, in which the narrative assumes different shapes depending on the perspective of the author who adapts it and the customs and values of the period in which it is written, with the meaning of the legend shifting to reflect the zeitgeist of a given era or place. Thus the Faust avatar’s desideratum – the goal for which the hero sells his soul – often reflects the values of a specific society, even as the character of the Devil evolves to represent a particular culture’s concept of evil.” Munson Deats includes analyses of various cinematic adaptations, notably F.W. Murnau’s visually sumptuous 1926 version, in which the characters and their respective worlds are depicted as simultaneously alluring and terrifying. That contradiction hits precisely where it matters, because it connects  directly with the dark heart of Szabó’s vision of Mephisto. Based on the 1936 novel of the same name by Klaus Mann (1906-1949) which was itself ​​inspired by Mann’s brother-in-law, actor and purported Nazi collaborator Gustaf Gründgens, the film explores the path of provincial actor Hendrik Höfgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer), who becomes celebrated through performing the role of Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust in Berlin of the 1930s, to the acclaim of ever-growing Nazi audiences; ultimately he becomes General Manager of the Prussian State Theatre. It is a haunting, brilliant work that speaks directly to our age in seductive whispers – until the final scene, that is, where Hendrik caught in a ‘crossfire’ of spotlights in a stadium, the eerie centre of attention, as shrieks of “Schauspieler!” are hurled at him – a horrendous twisting of Goethe’s conclusion which portrays a vital form of divine grace. Whither grace? Who cares? It’s too late. As film critic Roger Ebert noted in a 2008 review, “there are many insults, but the most wounding is simply the word “actor”” – it is withering, terrifying, aimed with chilling precision. Evil, as the design, cinematography and Szabó’s careful directorial approach imply, is not a cliched, easily identified thing, but, as Arendt might say, banal– if entertaining, charming, well-spoken, well-dressed, a point made repeatedly throughout its 2.5-hour running time. Hendrik’s narcissism has, in the world Szabó paints, been been costumed in the lofty robes of a celebrated artistry, one which thrives in a self-contained vacuum of continual approval and unquestioning worship. There is no right or wrong in this comfortable vacuum – there can’t be – there is only the next performance, only the next work, on and off the stage – whether for the general public; the art-loving General (Rolf Hoppe); Hendrik’s wife (Krystyna Janda); his lover (Karin Boyd), whose outsider status as a mixed-race woman allows for a biting perspective on his world, one he doesn’t see the need to take seriously until he is faced with the reality that his love of such a vacuum has robbed him of his authentic self, his artististry, and ultimately his true exercise of free will.  “The uniforms are deliberately fetishistic,” Ebert continues, “to wear them is to subjugate yourself to the system that designed them.”

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Höfgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer, right) speaks with The General (Rolf Hoppe) as supporter Lotte von Lindenthal (Christine Harbort) looks on. From István Szabó’s “Mephisto”, 1981. Photo: imago images/Mary Evans

This observation has come to mind every time I see a promotion for Prime Video series The Boys, a show filled with every assortment of colourful costume, almost all uniformly (I write this ironically and not) indicating subjugation to a very specific system (inner and outer), ultimately playing to a company culture in which the imaginary and the real inevitably blur. Based on the aughties comic of the same name by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, the Emmy-nominated program takes the vividly binary world of the saviour trope and presents it in a million shades of grey, with some tremendously sticky, messy splashes of red splattered across the glass of innumerable shiny buildings (including Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra). Broadcast via Amazon’s streaming platform since 2019, the third season of The Boys recently concluded and further explored the intersections of ethics, self, success, curation, image, popularity, celebrity, community, and stealth corporate culture. Playing with the superhero idiom and its immense influence across popular culture opens the door to clever, sometimes brutal portrayals of said elements, with many bizarre gags Dali himself might have applauded. (i.e. the infamous Season 3 Episode 1 penis scene). No character in the ensemble emerges as noble – not the supposed heroes (who are damaged), not the supposed good guys (who are even more damaged), not well-meaning parents (who are almost wholly abusive), not even (yikes) the children. There is a quiet question as to whether any of them are truly redeemable, and the answer, rather wisely on the part of the writers and showrunner Eric Kripke, is left to viewers. But in true Faustian fashion, the show presents those big and small pacts in the most seductive manner possible in modern life: with ease and the promise of minimum effort. If you want this, of course you can have it, but it will cost you, and you will leave your soul at the door – and what’s more, everyone will cheer (as the season finale clearly showed – the banality of evil indeed). Vividly muscular superhero costumes; perfect hair; shiny white teeth – terrible loss; exploding/melting body parts (heads, genitalia); outlandish scenarios (boat speeds into nasty whale) – every element paints an unremittingly bleak world populated with single-minded entities operating within their own bubbles; Hendrik Höfgen would surely recognize all of it.

But again: where is the grace? Whither the price of those bargains? Who cares? The largely nihilistic world of The Boys is a natural extension of Faustian mythology and clearly embodied within the series’ chief characters, Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) and Homelander (Antony Starr). Writing about Mephisto at The Calvert Journal in 2018, Carmen Gray noted the film shows how self-deception is an integral part of fascism’s incremental seductiveness” – an observation applicable to these characters and their wildly different window dressings, if strikingly similar yearnings to fill respective inner voids. The eponymous boys are presented as variants of an archetypal Everyman, which echoes the series’ initial presentation as a sort of modern-day morality play, albeit one with heaping mounds of swear words, sticky bodily fluids, flying fists, and smirking bravado; they’re us, but they are, but they’re not… but. Every man (being) here is “supe” (superhuman, that is) as lines over the most recent season continue to blur allegiances and sympathies. In press interviews leading up to the season launch in June, Urban remarked on the journey of his character: “Are you willing to become the monster to defeat the monster? And if you are, what is the cost of that?” Such inner debate is fraught with mythological connection and underlined via the dualistic qualities which manifest in a cancer diagnosis being the ultimate price for a Faustian knowledge/ability Butcher was never meant to possess. Such duality carries over as much in the scenes with the quasi-hero Homelander, as to those with Super-Everyman good guy(ish) Hughie (Jack Quaid), and also to the scenes involving the show’s vigilante crew, which includes Frenchie (Tomer Capone), Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), and Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso). Even if the blanket of moral absolutism is made soggy with running torrents of grey muck (with those sticky red splashes – surely a real-life Mephistophelian deal for the cast, that), there remains a kernel of truth once the superhero storms settle: these are damaged people desperately seeking some form of meaningful connection (divine/earthy; superhuman/normal human). Though the world of The Boys strongly hints that such a connection may never manifest, there is a tiny hope, glimmering like blood on shards of glass. As the Angels say at the close of Goethe’s Faust, “He who strives on and lives to strive / Can earn redemption still.”

Deats writes in the Epilogue for The Faust Legend that “(h)ow we resolve the temptation to make our own personal pact with the Devil will define our identity” – something she suggests is the real significance of the myth. I would go one step further: how one lives with the consequences of that pact, and how much awareness one brings to the ways in which such pacts affect others, is what really matters, and what might possibly lead to some form of grace. As to what “defines” identity, those definitions change, and have to; what was unthinkable to someone in peacetime suddenly becomes normal, even ordinary, in war. But how much can (should) one choose to live in a complete vacuum, and for how long? How many pacts must be made – to live comfortably, creatively, productively, with dignity and purpose and clarity, with compassion and contemplation, cultivating some form of meaningful connection, extending some form of tenuous trust? How many apps to tap? How many subscriptions to buy? How many more times will I lose my footing in this dance? Hannah Arendt wrote in the aforementioned 1965-66 essay (published as part of Responsibility and Judgement) that “If you are at odds with your self it is as though you were forced to live and have daily intercourse with your own enemy. No one can want that.” (p. 91) As I type on my Mac, sipping semi-warm tea, nibbling at chocolate from far away, an overhead fan whirring on full power, gazing at the robins pecking at the delicate green patches of a boxy lawn… who am I to disagree? Accepting the terms of pacts required for daily living is difficult, but I persevere, trying to ignore the nattily-dressed figure in the corner who is ordering, subscribing, filling the cart, dimming the lights, sipping wine, and smirking. It looks like me, and maybe, just maybe, it is.

Top image: Mephisto (Emil Jannings) with young Faust (Gosta Ekman) in F.W. Murnau’s 1926 cinematic adaptation.
Dmitri Jurowski, conductor, Dresden, podium, classical, music, performance

Dmitri Jurowski: “My Life And Profession Are The Same Thing”

One of the most moving episodes in the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) occurred in 1960 upon his first visit to the health resort of Gohrisch, a mountainside town located forty kilometres south-east of Dresden, where he had gone to write the music for Lev Armshtam’s film “Five Days, Five Nights”. The String Quartet No. 8 was famously composed instead, the sole piece he wrote outside the Soviet Union, done over three days in mid-July in the green, scenic spot near the River Elbe. Tortured by questions of identity, integrity, history, creativity and the tenuous links therein, having been heavily coerced into joining the Communist Party just prior, Shostakovich dedicated the work to victims of fascism and war, offering a mourning of the past, a dirge for the present, a worried sigh at the future. The composer returned to Gohrisch in summer 1972 following the premiere of his Symphony No. 15, where he visited with conductor Kurt Sanderling. Little could he have known that the site would host a celebrated festival bearing his name, featuring a range of his own works as well as those by his colleagues and contemporaries.

The International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch, founded in 2010 with the help of the Staatskapelle Dresden, has been a fount of musical exploration in the decades since its titular composer paid his visits. This year’s edition, which opened on Thursday (30 June), features the music of Shostakovich, of course, as well as that of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), Yuri Povolotsky (b. 1962), and Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937), who is this year’s recipient of the International Shostakovich Prize. It’s fair to say that there are several spectres hanging over this year’s edition of the festival, but they are encapsulated in the figure of one person who is no longer present, but whose history, with both Shostakovich and Gohrisch, remains vital. Conductor Michail Jurowski, who passed away in March of this year, helped in the formation of the Festival and indeed led the Sächsische Staatskapelle in the concert barn (or the concert marquee) in Gohrisch from 2010 to 2013, and was awarded the third International Shostakovich Prize by the Shostakovich Gohrisch Foundation in 2012. An award-winning album of live festival recordings, released in 2017 (Berlin Classics), features the music of Arvo Pärt (1935), Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), and Shostakovich, including the 1948 song cycle, From Jewish Folk Poetry, op. 79, which was composed following Shostakovich’s denunciation of the Zhdanov Decree; it had to wait until 1955 to receive its premiere performance. Jurowski championed such repressed works, making it something of his life’s mission to uncover and present the pieces which an insidious combination of politics, history, nationalistic fervour, and ideological intransigence forced longtime silence, ignorance, misperception upon. Born in Moscow in 1945 but with Ukrainian roots, the conductor was a champion of bringing rarely heard (and even more rarely recorded) works to the fore, as much out of a sense of civic duty as artistic curiosity, something that stayed with him and was inherited by his children, pianist/vocal coach Maria; conductors Vladimir, and Dmitri. It is a family rich in artistic lineage as much as intellectual probing, as concerned with present exploration as much embracing the past, and looking to the future not with a worried sigh, but a defiant, direct stare.

This year’s festival is dedicated to the memory of Michail Jurowski, whose memory will be most poignantly marked on Sunday (3 July), when youngest son Dmitri Jurowski leads the Saxon State Orchestra Dresden in a programme of works by Silvestrov and Shostakovich, including the world premieres of Michail Jurowski’s arrangement of the latter composer’s The Human Comedy op.37 (1934) for concert orchestra, and Dmitri Jurowski’s arrangement of Six Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva opera.143a (1973) with soprano Evelina Dobračeva and chamber orchestra. The transposition of voice feels somehow very right for an artist like Dmitri Jurowski, a cellist with an innate feeling for vocal expression, both human and instrumental. Over the past two decades, he has led over one hundred different opera productions for a range of celebrated houses, including Bayerische Staatsoper, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opéra de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Teatro La Fenice, Grand Théâtre Geneva, Lyric Opera Chicago, Israeli Opera Tel Aviv, and the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre. From 2011 to 2016 he was was General Music Director of the Flemish Opera Antwerp / Ghent. Jurowski’s history with opera does not obscure his deep sensitivity to (and with) orchestral scores –  he has worked with the BBC Philharmonic Manchester, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, Tonkünstler Orchestra in Vienna, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra Stockholm, the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, the Dresden Philharmonic, the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Shanghai Philharmonic, to name a few. One of my own favourite recordings features the works of Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnányi (1877–1960) with Jurowski leading the Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal (Cybele, 2018). With iron-hand-in-velvet-glove confidence, the conductor coaxes a luscious lyricism from the string section in Symphonic Minutes for orchestra op.36 (1933), a lyricism that is carried through into conversational woodwind exchange so lovingly conveyed in the piece’s second movement Rapsodia: Andante, and manifest in an energetic final Rondo: Presto, which is resplendent with busy strings and Jurowski’s repeated emphasis on cross-sectional conversation, allowing the drama which arises naturally from and within it to direct, turn a corner, then another; balance is thoughtfully maintained, but not at the expense of spirit; seriousness is equally present, but not without an equal dose of play.

Theatre, like music, would seem to be a part of the Jurowski family’s creative legacy, which, given the actual as well as artistic ties, only makes sense, given their long connection with many celebrated theatre artists, as well as Dmitri Shostakovich himself. The Human Comedy, composed for a 1934 stage adaptation of Balzac’s immense 19th century work by Russian writer Pavel Sukhotin (1884-1935), the mix of lightness and uncertainty of Balzac’s Paris, its surface charm hiding an anxious underbelly. The Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva possess their own form of drama, its power imparted via the fulsomeness of the poet’s vowels and consonants and the ways Shostakovich writes in, through, and around them. In listening to recordings, one is constantly confronted with the question of inner and outer ‘voices’, both vocal and instrumental, by experiences as much spoken as not; the third poem in the cycle (“Hamlet’s Dialogue With His Conscience”) with its ponderings on guilt, responsibility, notions of love and romance, and micro/macro ideas of place, speaks directly to the fourth (“The Poet And The Tsar”) and fifth (“No, The Drum Beat”) with its meditations on private-public faces and paradigms of power within various spheres of influence. The composer’s ever-present internal debates are reflected in this cycle, as much through the words of Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) as through its chewy score, which was recorded by contralto Ortrun Wenkel under the baton of Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouworkest, released by Decca in 1993. Placing the Six Poems cycle on the same bill as The Human Comedy, written four decades earlier, feels ballsy and somehow, important, particularly in light of ongoing debates related to the various uses and teachings of music, the role of canon, the expectations of audiences, whether music ought to have an “identity” (and if so, what it should be), as well as perceptions of Music As Entertainment (“Unterhaltsmusik”) and (or, more tiresomely, versus) Music As Serious Art (“ernste Musik”). Can Balzac and Tsvetaeva (and Silvestrov, and Shostakovich) share a creative universe? Well, why shouldn’t they? Moreover, how could they not?

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The concert barn at the International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch, 2016. Photo: Oliver Killig

The lives and feelings these artists explored in their respective works, the words and sounds they choose for describing those lives and sharing inner thoughts, ask for the very quality Shostakovich himself seemed quite interested in (consciously or not), the thing which is in short supply as much in life as in art, especially at the moment: empathy. I am not a believer in music magically melting barriers; specific contexts (socio-economic, racial, religious) must be taken into account whenever one experiences new sounds – contexts as much as atmospheres, inner and outer, controllable and not. These things exist. Sounds don’t magically ping them away. The ways in which one experiences the work of Silvestrov and Shostakovich (and/or writers and poets) are as relevant as one possessing a background in either’s work, or both, or none. These things are as much related to context as the environment in which one experiences such works, environments filled with all manner of human comedy, tragedy, mediocrity, diversion, novelty, affliction, agenda, and (one hopes) opportunities for contemplation. Ugly circumstances, harsh realities, human life in all its variance, must be recognized. Lived realities, and the inevitable lines they (mostly unconsciously) create do not magically melt; they simply are. It’s up to you to acknowledge them. Thus is art’s role as a vehicle of empathy vital; If we are unwilling to do the actual, real work of feeling another’s experience (much less acknowledging it as real), particularly those who have not had the privilege we have enjoyed (and perhaps do not even recognize), if we do not conscientiously direct imagination toward those foreign experiences which are beyond our direct experience and knowledge (and thus may be unpleasant, unfamiliar, dull, wearying), then what use is theatre, art, music, culture? Leo Tolstoy grappled with this very question in What Is Art? (1897):

The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. To take the simplest example; one man laughs, and another who hears becomes merry; or a man weeps, and another who hears feels sorrow. A man is excited or irritated, and another man seeing him comes to a similar state of mind. By his movements or by the sounds of his voice, a man expresses courage and determination or sadness and calmness, and this state of mind passes on to others. A man suffers, expressing his sufferings by groans and spasms, and this suffering transmits itself to other people; a man expresses his feeling of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to certain objects, persons, or phenomena, and others are infected by the same feelings of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to the same objects, persons, and phenomena. (trans. Aylmer Maude, 1899)

Painter Mark Rothko would later say that “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” While such strength and visibility of reaction is personal, and may or may not be warranted (in the age of social media reaction can be more performative than authentic), that doesn’t cancel its validity within a real, lived framework. Empathy is needed in times of strife – in times of war, in times of pandemic, in times of division, separation, hostility, horror, anger, intransigence; it is work, indeed. Empathy is the energetic opposite of whataboutism that so heavily (alas) dominates contemporary discourse, and it is the hardest thing to keep alive, let alone cultivate, when algorithms inspire (and profit from) strong reaction, not slow thought. Consider slow thought, the festival in Gohrisch seems to whisper; slow thought is, very possibly, the very thing that best cultivates empathy. Somehow I can hear Silvestrov, Shostakovich, Balzac, Tsvetaeva, and Michail Jurowski whispering such a suggestion a bit more loudly right now.

And so, amidst such consideration, and one hopes, a related cultivation of empathy within creative realms, is a conversation in which family, culture, creation, grief, poetry, and that sticky, marvellous word “transposition” are all carefully, slowly considered. It was a true privilege and pleasure to speak with Dmitri Jurowski, and to hear, over the course of nearly an hour, his observations and ideas on music, writing, sound, performance, and his father’s influence. I remain grateful for his time and energy.

Why did you choose the Tsvetaeva song cycle – why arrange it it for chamber orchestra?

This work of Dmitri Shostakovich was one of my father’s favourite compositions. The whole concert is dedicated to him – actually the concert, and the whole festival, which he had planned one year ago, was one he was supposed to conduct. So when everything happened of course we decided not to make any changes in the programme – the only thing we did was put in the Tsvetaeva cycle. That was not foreseen; originally it was a Shostakovich violin concerto with the bigger orchestra, but since the pandemic is still going on, the orchestra actually asked to have a work in the programme which is for chamber, not a big group. That was the first thing they asked, and the (the song cycle) was one of his favourite pieces. During his funeral his recording of it was played many times during the day – so we decided to do this. Also there was one little change (to the work itself). It was written for mezzo soprano, but we wanted to do this together with (soprano) Evelina Dobračeva; I know her, we studied together, she was working more with my father than with me, and during all these years they made many projects together. He was like a teacher for her, and it was very important to have her on board for this project, so the only thing we had to do was change the tonalities for the cycle, because for a soprano it’s really too low. That was the only thing we did. The programme’s second half, The Human Comedy, will be a very special thing; it’s a world premiere. The work has been performed in the past of course, but it’ll be the first time the whole music, music for theatre, is done, the way it was played in Moscow in the theatre of Vakhtangov in 1934. That was the only year it was performed in the theatre, so that’s why we had to go and find it all; it was a real adventure to find that material. I spent a lot of time in different archives in Moscow, in the Vakhtangov Theatre, searching for it – I have good friend who is an actor who helped me, and it was a real thrill to find all the notes of the director from that time, his writing on when exactly which part of music was supposed to be played. Luckily they were very bureaucratic in the 1930s, so I could find everything I needed, but it’s still interesting. I’m really thrilled – again, yes, it will be the first time it’s performed.

The Human Comedy has been dismissed in the past as something Shostakovich simply did for the money, but having it in a chamber arrangement also means it forces a reconsideration…

You’re right, it’s becomes very transparent because of that. As to my opinion on its inception, the same thing you can say about Mozart: a lot of music and composers wrote for money. It was normal, they did it for a living, but even what Shostakovich did for the money was great. I think he had a lot of humour, sometimes very black humour, cynical humour, so even with the music he was writing for entertainment, it still becomes, somehow, very biting. And it’s interesting that the problems in the society they were facing in the 1920s and 1930s, I have the feeling many of these things we are facing again. Shostakovich was saying the music, there is actually a great quote of his, that music is the only thing which should survive any wars and any illnesses. I have the feeling now in the beginning of the 21st century we are back in the same situation somehow. We have to somehow prove that art, that music, has the power and the possibility to survive and bring, a little bit, people back together, that’s actually the only thing you can do in this really difficult situation.

Michail Jurowski, conductor, cellist, Isang Enders, classical, performance, music, live, stage, hands, sound

Conductor Michail Jurowski leads the Staatskapelle Dresden and cellist Isang Enders at the inaugural International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch in 2010. Photo: Matthias Creutziger

The context in which it is presented is important, your father’s history with the festival being very much part of that context. I’m curious what you think attracted him to this work. I recall him telling me years ago that conducting in America was like a dream for him – something that really wouldn’t be expressed now – and I can only theorize that such an experience, and the related feelings of curiosity and wonder, play into Balzac’s explorations about the variance of human experience, and Shostakovich’s also.

Yes, I’m thinking a lot in the last few months about his relationship to Shostakovich as well. It’s a strange thing, my father had such a close relationship to (the composer) in a human sense, as well as professionally. It was such that I always had the feeling I knew Shostakovich myself, even though it’s not possible. We spoke a lot about Shostakovich from my childhood and now since my father is no longer here I think about this energy he was creating, because you are right, I feel strongly his presence is still here. Even though I’m not able to ask him in real life for advice, I feel it, and it has been like that before when I was in touch with the music of Shostakovich – I was doing a lot of his music throughout my life and always feel an energetic support from him myself, although I didn’t know him. My father would speak about a genetic memory, and I think it’s valuable; he himself had strong genetic memory because of his father and grandfather. The period of The Human Comedy, or when we speak about Balzac and the 19th century, or the first thirty years of 20th century when this piece was written for theatre, those are all periods my father couldn’t know himself, but still a very strong connection existed. And I have the feeling it’s not an accident that history sometimes makes these repetitions – that is also a little bit related to this Human Comedy, to this exchange of tragedy and comedy, this continuance; it never stops.

So the idea of Shostakovich, as with other artists, is that there is no end of the story – there might be the end of somebody’s life, but the whole story will continue with other characters, like a play. So when you feel part of the huge theatrical play, that’s also what people like Shakespeare imagined, then you… have to also create a distance to everything, which is not bad, especially in our days, because it is very difficult to continue and to go on when you are facing really very strong negative things, like war, like illness –so you need a distance to all that.

But you also need immediacy, a sense of relationship to what you watch, what you listen to, the people you spend time with, the food you eat, whatever you consume in whatever forms, and I feel Shostakovich really understood that – your father understood that also. That sense of connection is powerfully manifest in chamber arrangements. How, to your mind, does changing the tonality for voice, and within a chamber configuration, affect understandings of Tsvetaeva’s poetry, and Shostakovich’s music?

The word “transposition” is a great word; it has so much inside of it! I am always curious why we call it, in musical language, a transposition from one tonality or modulation to another one – of course it will be another piece, so I am very curious how this particular piece will sound. Every tonality has a colour; every tonality has a character, so when you change tonalities you change a lot of things – that’s clear. But we have to take into account that every piece of music we hear, from Baroque times or from Classical times, that all the tonalities – all the G Minors and whatnot – from that period are not the same as now because of the tuning, so when you start to play this music in the way it was done at the time it was written, then you understand it’s really another feeling. But it doesn’t mean you have to do that – you can play it also in the modern tonalities, with modern instruments. The times are changing and the acoustics are changing. What I can say about the Tsvetaeva work is, I have a feeling for now anyway, that the music itself remains dark, the cycles of Shostakovich remain dark, even if we put everything one tone higher, but the transference of the text now means it might be even stronger because of that. When you take the very high voices with the very high notes you can barely understand them.

For example, I’m talking now a little bit lower, because there is also microphone so I don’t have to raise my voice so much, but if I’m talking to somebody, the minute I speak a little bit higher, the attention, the whole energy, changes – it’s like a string pulled tighter, the whole connection is stronger, right at this moment. It’s not better or worse, it’s just a different kind of energy, so I’m really curious how (the song cycle) will be, but it’s my feeling that the darkness becomes more transparent there. Also the number of musicians onstage is really not big, you can do it with a bigger group, but for me, I’m not a pianist, I’m a cellist – I was doing a lot of chamber music and a lot of soloistic music, especially, so it’s a different feeling. My best memories were the cycles of Shostakovich with the Blok poetry which is written for piano trio and voice, and there were movements where you had just cello and voice together, and this type of intimacy where you have this one voice and one instrument, for me is something I always try to aim for even when I have a big symphony to perform. I’m always searching for these intimate moments when you can really produce this kind of tension. It’s like when you have a crowd of people and everyone is talking and then suddenly everyone is silent and you have two people looking at each and talking to each other – that’s powerful. This silence is extremely strong. And for somebody like Tsvetaeva, her work really asks for silence, even if she’s screaming or crying, it’s not for mainstream television, let’s say.

Some translations capture that relationship between silence and music better than others; the repetitions in her writing are staccato in some ways – so deliberate, so rhythmic, so musical.

They really are…

I wonder if people miss that musicality because of the drama, but she’s asking as much for a subconscious understanding through that musicality as a conscious one through the words themselves, and I think Shostakovich captures both in this song cycle… 

Yes that’s true!

.. now I wanted to ask you, these chamber sounds, vocal sounds, ensemble sounds – the ways you perceive sound, and write, conduct, and transpose, are they informed by the cello?

Yes, you’re right; they are. I have to say, my biggest learning, one of my best schooling in working with singers was by playing cello, because it is the instrument which has the biggest connection to the human voice. It includes the whole range of all possible sounds, from bass to soprano, in one instrument. I remember I had an ensemble, a chamber group, we performed with a baritone, me as a cellist, and a pianist, we were doing many arrangements, not only opera arias but we were also playing, lots of duets for example, of Schumann and Schubert, where one voice was played by cello and one was singing, and there was always a moment where you consciously lost this – like “where is the voice and where is the cello?” This is also what Shostakovich really did great, his understanding of sounds, of the voice as an instrument, was really central. So when vocalists deal with Shostakovich, they have to really think like an instrument, especially for performing his music, it’s a great need. Of course it helps when you have, generally, great poetry. In Italian opera you sometimes have a kind of text which is, I don’t want to say it’s useless, but of course you have it sometimes where the words are really not important but the vocal line is, and that’s something else – but when you deal with Russian or German or also sometimes Italian, but another type of style, like something from Petrarch or Dante, something where the text is leading, it’s obvious how the music has to be.

That’s why it’s so great with Shostakovich: the music has to be leading and carrying at the same time. And especially when you see the amazing last movement of the cycle, when it’s about Akhmatova, so Tsvetaeva is writing about Akhmatova, through Shostakovich’s musical line, it’s just… you have so many incredible people in one little musical bar… it’s immense. For a conductor, a musician, a listener, it doesn’t matter – you have to show it to others, you don’t have to show yourself, you don’t have to pretend your art is higher or mightier than anything those people were creating. It’s not about you. That’s why it’s so important to be a little bit aside, and to be a little bit under this, let’s say, sound, still controlling everything, still producing your language, and with your capacities, but! This is too fragile, all this music and chamber music generally is very fragile, and in combination with poetry of Tsvetaeva and music of Shostakovich, you can’t just throw it somewhere; you have to touch it as if it’s crystal. That’s the best possibility, for everyone … to hear, to listen, to inhale it. That’s why I am always looking forward, so much, to all these sorts of concerts, but energetically they take… it’s a much bigger challenge than a huge symphony or opera. It’s sometimes much more difficult to produce something like that.

Your use of the word “fragility” brings Silvestrov’s work to mind. He is on the programme with Shostakovich on Sunday. How do you see the connection?

The interesting thing is I performed Silvestrov in my time as a cellist many years ago. His work is always very much related to beauty, and it’s very honest music; he was never trying to pretend that he was the big modernist of the 20th century. Somebody like Arvo Pärt is also not a modernist but is very much about the spirit of music. I know Pärt very well, we spoke a lot about music, and you can feel how important the spiritual energy has always been for him in his life, and not only in his music – but with Silvestrov, it’s different; it’s so simple with him. Of course now the situation has changed. He’s not the only existing Ukrainian composer but he’s the big one being performed. He’s the oldest, for sure – luckily it’s still alive, and he will be present on Sunday. For musicians performing his music now, you can imagine it’s even more a responsibility now than it was twenty years ago, and still, I am absolutely sure it is so important for him as a composer, and for us as interpreters, to play music, to make music, to show the artistic side of Silvestrov. Shostakovich was much more political than Silvestrov, of course, they were much different times in which Shostakovich lived. But he was somebody who was a fighter; he was always fighting crises. Somehow, luckily for him, he didn’t need to invent anything; it was already present in reality. Shostakovich generally works very well in combination with other composers of the Soviet Union of the 20th century, but with a little bit different way of energy.

It’s interesting that Silvestrov is being honoured at the festival this year, and that his work is on this programme with the Shostakovich chamber arrangements.

Especially the Tsvetaeva work, which comes directly after the Silvestrov piece. His work is chamber music, and it’s about feeling, about atmosphere. With Shostakovich there is a script, always, there is a clear storyline, even if it’s not… even if you play Shostakovich’s chamber music without words, still, yes, he is the narrator of the story. Silvestrov, it was always my feeling, he’s a witness of atmosphere, and he’s sharing that atmosphere. So that’s why I think there is a good link between them.

He’s an observer of atmosphere and putting it out there has its own kind of interpretation of script…

Yes.

… it’s one that is being written as it’s being played, and it changes all the time. That’s what I hear in Silvestrov, not a narrative but a sort of Beckett play where there’s a very pervasive mood that is inherent to overall understanding. I wonder if that’s another connection with the work of Shostakovich, that development of feeling with inner and outer worlds.

That’s about performing, though. Performing must include a script – whatever you are doing, it must have a certain sense. Sometimes you have a kind of clear help from the composer who is writing everything already, so you have just to comment; in other cases you have to create a script for yourself, and with the music of Silvestrov it’s not difficult. Especially in the 21st century – and the 20th they had it as well – you have movies, when you know how a movie can work, and you know what the perfect music is for it. That’s essentially what Shostakovich said about Silvestrov – they knew each other of course. Silvestrov is 84 years old now, he knew Shostakovich, who was always very polite to his colleagues, and had a lot of respect for people like Schnittke and Kancheli. I remember hearing from the widow of Shostakovich, from Irina, I spoke to her two weeks ago about this concert, and she said, “Yes, he always respected Silvestrov, he said (Silvestrov’s) music is amazing especially when somebody knows how to paint.” So somehow it’s an interesting way to describe his music.

So if Shostakovich is Kandinsky, Silvestrov is Mark Rothko?

Good point, yes.

Experiencing all these “paintings” in a live setting on Sunday, one which is so historically loaded, and especially with you doing it, feels profound, though it must be a little daunting for you?

What do you mean?

Parental figures who give their children deep connections to art can cast large shadows, as my own mother did; after she passed and I had to go do things in public with some kind of connection to her, it was like walking into a room naked; I learned that one has to draw a line between what one gives the public and saves for one’s self.

Well, you know Catherine, when I chose this profession and started to conduct, having my father and my brother, these important and successful conductors already, I knew I would be kind of naked my entire life. So that’s nothing new to me. I’ve done this job for seventeen years now. The only thing which is kind of changing for myself, not for other people, is that I feel my… responsibility, first of all, for this profession since he passed away, is now bigger than it was before. Because now I have not only to be just to be on a certain professional level, we all have to achieve this for all our lives, but I have also to respect and show respect to his memory, you know? And respect to memory, responsibility for somebody who is not there anymore, physically at least, for me it’s now an experience to say that somehow it’s even bigger, but it gives you more energy.

I remember the day he passed away, on the 19th of March, this day I was in my theatre in Novosibirsk and the next day I had Traviata to conduct, not the easiest opera to do, especially… but the thing is… whatever piece I would conduct, whatever I would take, my father had such a huge repertoire and had done so many things in his life, so there is always a kind of link to him. And I have to be honest, I didn’t have so much energy to go onstage of course at that time, but I did it, because I knew he would really appreciate it at this precise moment. And I mean I always have, it’s one of the main reasons I do this profession, is that I have very special feelings for singers – that’s the most fragile and most sensitive thing because you have an instrument here, inside. I always trying to treat the singers with a necessary sensitivity, but now I have the feeling it’s even more, because I know they have to produce out their emotions they have inside, you know? So this experience is something, and it’s the thing that will stay with me forever. I know of course there is always a period of grief you have to go through and some of your parents or the people close to you die, and somehow it’s over, you’re over this hill, and you still have the memories but there’s a distance…

… I can tell you the grief comes back, but in a different form.

Yes, I have the feeling when we talk about him, it will never be completely distant to me. We are doing the same profession and my life and profession are the same thing. There will be, always, a strong connection, and probably through the years, it will become even stronger.

Top: Dmitri Jurowski leads a rehearsal with the Staatskapelle at the Semper Opera. Photo: Matthias Creutziger
Boris Dralyuk, translator, Odesa, writera, poet, Ukraine, Russia, literary, LARB, LA Review Of Books, My Hollywood, editor

Boris Dralyuk: “You Have To Respond Emotionally To A Text, Not Just Intellectually”

Every day comes the email reminder: It’s time for your German lesson! Daily practice is key to learning a new language! During the worst of the pandemic lockdown I took formal lessons with a real, live teacher via Zoom; the experience was a useful and stimulating way to integrate education and interaction. Those months were indeed fruitful but pricey, and proved ultimately too dear for my limited budget, and so I am now left with basic, self-directed gadgets and services, and to my own analogue study, pursuits which demand other forms of payment (namely energy and attention) that I am not always able to give. It pangs me to consider the extent to which my language skills have slipped away, what with memories falling like raindrops lately – of winning fancy language prizes during elementary school days; of the praise garnered by my mother for pronunciation and swiftness of comprehension; of casually shrugging it away the way teenagers so often do when other interests enter and academic responsibilities loom. Playing linguistic catch-up (otherwise known as jumping in the deep end) as a middle-aged freelancer is daunting, exhausting, often disheartening, but passion for culture renders it necessary, and if I am being honest, uniquely rewarding.

And while knowledge of languages isn’t obligatory to opera appreciation, especially with the introduction of surtitles in 1983, such knowledge deepens the experience considerably. I always felt I was being left out of something, anything, everything, in not knowing opera’s prime languages (Italian-French-German) as well as I ought. That knowledge is slowly expanding, but so too, is my appreciation of the art of translation itself. Companies dedicated to presenting works in their geographically-specific local language (like the English National Opera, and once, if less so now, Komische Oper Berlin) would (do) rely on translations that aim to capture  the nuances of both text and its relationship to and with orchestration and scoring, and (in some cases) to the contexts in which the work was first created and presented (and/or contemporaneously produced). Many composers have actively participated in translations of their works and/or collaborated with their respective text-based counterparts; among opera’s most famous librettists/translators are Alfred Kalisch (1863-1933), Edward J. Dent (1876-1957), Andrew Porter (1928-2015), Amanda Holden (1948-2021; her work will be the subject of a future feature here), and the famous team of W.H. Auden (1907-1973) and Chester Kallman (1921-1975). Auden-Kallman wrote, along with collaborative translation on works by Mozart, Weill, and Dittersdorf, original libretti for living composers, including Stravinsky (The Rake’s Progress, 1951) and Henze (Elegy for Young Lovers, 1961; The Bassarids, 1966). More recently, to take just one of many examples, English National Opera’s production of Die Walkure – or The Valkyrie – in autumn 2021 was presented in a singing translation by musician/scholar John Deathridge, whose own meant-for-reading translation of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle was published by Penguin Classics in 2019. The book points up a vital aspect of the industry that has faced new challenges in the digital era, most particularly with the rise of streaming services amidst pandemic.

Any opera lover will know, probably too well, that hitting “translate” on a video lacking formal subtitling invites a world of frustration; the result is mostly comical, and stems from a longstanding caption problem on Youtube. Even with the insertion of formal subtitled translations,the nuances of expression are often lost, drowned out in weird mishmash mixes of intended accuracy and grammatical gibberish. One can’t help but notice the many inadequacies in watching various introductions, talks, interviews, and previews released by opera houses, orchestras, and other classical-related organizations, when it comes to translation options; the varied socio-cultural / political / historical contexts are often binned in the name of (one supposes) expediency, digestibility, an ever-present pressure to get a post up quickly with the least amount of fuss and satisfying ever-shrinking arts budgets while hoping to garner the ever-desired sexy clicks. Is the arts world really so ready to throw something as important as translation to the side? Isn’t it a foundational part of attracting new audiences (and keeping old ones) to cultivate meaningful comprehension (and thus engagement)? At such moments the digital world seems woefully ill-equipped for the demands of translation, yet the internet would seem to be the very spot to offer more fulsome possibilities for the sort of nuanced appreciation that best serves the repertoire – thus arguably increasing its overall appeal. Someone, surely, must be able to build something(s) better, a system organizations at any level can access that goes beyond Google translate (or deepl.com) limitations – but then, someone, something, surely, must fund all of it, and aye, there’s the rub. But how much meaning is being lost in the meantime? How many potential audiences? How many potential ears, minds, hearts?

Of course there is no substitute for direct sensory experience when it comes to the marriage of music and words, but the key, as ever, is finding the time. One of my favourite if too-rarely enjoyed activities is spending a day (a week, a month) studying an opera libretto and related score, large pot of fresh tea at hand. Noting the rhythm of language, the shifting colours of sounds, the ways in which the dynamism of vowels and consonants shapes and informs musical lines and orchestration; pondering interactions, phrasings, silences; these are gifts to be enjoyed and explored, over and over. The act of reading a libretto (especially aloud) gives one a simultaneously broader and more intimate relationship with words, with sounds, with flow, intonations, and emphases, the way they all feel in the mouth, carry-float-sink-shoot in  or through the air – such a reading allows a greater comprehension of the world of words, of the work’s creators, and all those who’ve presented it since. Thus does the world become larger and more detailed, all at once. Deathridge did the world a great service indeed with his Ring book, but his efforts rile my writer’s heart for giving a sharp reminder of the fact that so few other opera-text ventures exist in the 21st century. There is clearly a long history of writer-composer relations – Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Stefan Zweig worked with Richard Strauss, for example, and the texts of Friedrich Rückert and Clemens Brentano (among many others) were used by Gustav Mahler. English translations of these writers and others do indeed exist, though the output when it comes to their musical manifestations is spotty; those which are extant in scores, such as those which appear in the Dover editions of Mahler lieder, are far less than ideal (and don’t list translator names for the most part, pity). Indeed they may be intended for phonetic starting points, and as the bases of introductory study for musicians, but they are decidedly not a comprehensive whole. The ever-expanding Lieder.net is a good resource for song translations (and recognizes the translators, natch) even if it makes one long for a more comprehensive whole within the classical industry. Good English translations exist, but to reiterate, are spotty, not always easy to find, and are sometimes couched within more comprehensive volumes.

The Whole Difference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Princeton University Press, 2008), edited by poet/librettist J.D. McClatchy, contains a highly readable, immensely poetic translation of the first act of Die Rosenkavalier by dramatist Christopher Holme, done in 1963. Years before, in 1912, Strauss’s popular opera was its first full English translation by English critic and librettist Alfred Kalisch, who championed the composer’s work and translated other operas into English as well, Salome and Elektra among them. Kalisch himself noted in “The Tribulations of a Translator”, a 1915 presentation for the Royal Musical Association (published by Taylor & Francis; Source: Proceedings of the Musical Association, 1914-1915, 41st Sess. 1914-1915), pp. 145-161) the varied difficulties of translating opera, pinpointing the issue of whether it is the translator’s duty “to produce a readable translation or singable words.” This gets to the heart of the matter for current purposes, for while the latter is a topic for another day, the former – having something readable – is worth investigating, particularly in light of evolving technologies, audience engagement, cultural discussion, and to further perceptions around various forms of identity. Smart translations matter, and readable, easily accessible ones are a net good, in the world of literature as much as in the world of music and specifically classical culture. Most creators would, one assumes, like for their works to be understood in their full range of expression, for audiences of all locales and backgrounds to be given access to those intrinsic cultural nuances which are not always part of the concomitant scoring alone.

Thus it can be said that the act of translation demands respect for place, process, history, and humanism, qualities classical (as much the art form as its artists and ambassadors) aims to embrace and promulgate. In November 1959 writer Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) presented a lecture at the University of Texas in which he outlined, with fascinating precision, the ways in which the act of translation (as applied here to poetry) changes according to various contexts and received understandings. Using Sappho’s “Orchard” as his first example, Rexroth offers up eight different translations (including his own) to illustrate the vagaries and subtle ways in which language, and the societies from which understandings and experiences of the world springs, informs translation choices. He goes on to observe that translation “can provide us with poetic exercise on the highest level.” Translation can do much more, as he notes:

It is an exercise of sympathy on the highest level. The writer who can project himself into the exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry. It is not just his prosody he keeps alert, it is his heart. The imagination must evoke, not just a vanished detail of experience, but the fullness of another human life outside of one’s own. Making that leap requires imagination, but also compassion.

Thus I would posit that translation is (as I have written in the past) more than sympathy, but a true act of empathy, for translation engages the imagination just as empathy requires, and both require active, directed integrations of intellect and creativity to achieve meaningful effect. Someone who understands this integration thoroughly is poet and translator Boris Dralyuk. Born in Odesa and later relocating to America, Dralyuk is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the LA Review of Books, and is married to acclaimed fellow translator Jenny Croft. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature, though he also taught at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Awarded first prize in the 2011 Compass Translation Award competition, he went on, together with Russian-American poet/essayist Irina Mashinski, to win first prize in the 2012 Joseph Brodsky / Stephen Spender Translation Prize competition. In 2020 Dralyuk received the inaugural Kukula Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Book Reviewing from the Washington Monthly. His work has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Granta, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New York Review Of Books. His book Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze 1907-1934 (Brill) was published in 2012; three years later, he co-edited, together with Mashinski and British poet/translator Robert Chandler, the immense Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015), containing a wide swath of poets and writers from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Dralyuk also served as editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016). His translation of Sentimental Tales (Columbia University Press) by Russian writer Mikhail Zoshchenko was published in 2018. Dralyuk has also translated the works of Ukrainian writer Isaac Babel (1894-1940), with Red Cavalry (Pushkin Press, 2015) and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2016). The writings of Babel, a fellow Odesa native, were described by The Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard in 2016 as “(f)ractured, jarring, beautiful, alive to humour […] they have the ring of contemporaneity, and probably always will.” With bold strokes and wild energy, Babel vividly explores the lives of an assortment of colourful sorts drawn from real life, and Dralyuk’s own poetic attention to tone, colour, and pacing shine through the words, not to mention the meticulous, carefully considered rests between those words; rhythm, as it turns out, is just as important as exactitude. In addition to translating the work of Babel, Dralyuk has a close association with noted Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov (b. 1961), whose equally timely and often harrowing books The Bickford Fuse (Maclehose Press, 2016), and Grey Bees (Maclehose Press, 2020) have been translated to much acclaim, with Kurkov’s own recent fame in the West fuelling a rising awareness of the centrality of good translation and all the moving parts therein.

After much planning and re-planning, Dralyuk and I finally were able to chat – about translation as it applies to various corners of culture, about so-called identity politics, the choices he’s made as editor of the LA Review Of Books, his debut collection of poetry, My Hollywood (Paul Dry Books, 2022), and about the role technology can (should) play in advancing the awareness and appreciation of languages. We also discussed current notions around expression of cultural identity; related moral panics; the value (if any) of retaining romanticized notions in art and music and the related role of context in breaking apart habitual webs of intransigence. Just what does Dralyuk think of the current (and perhaps lasting) labelling of identities? Certainly such labels matter in translation? In an essay from March, The New Yorker music writer Alex Ross noted that “(a)cknowledging the polyglot entanglements of the musical canon can, in fact, serve as a check on the oppressive allure of nationalist mythologies.” At a time when privilege, didacticism, and binary conclusions dominate large swaths of cultural discourse, examining the complex connections between familial (and social, economic, cultural) origins and creative output is vital, translators play a crucial role in helping to facilitate (and in some cases, promote) awareness and expansion of those connections, and of fostering curiosity, comprehension, and compassion to those identities.

And, a quick if vital note: I don’t speak or read the languages Dralyuk translates (yet), but I do strongly feel that his work, especially at this point in time, is of tremendous importance. Dralyuk possesses a musician’s approach to the elements, skillfully balancing, conjuring, and highlighting tone, colour, dynamism, texture, tempo, rhythm, silence, as pace and structure dictate. He understands the complexities of technique, the labyrinthe of contexts, the connections between head and heart, and he wants to let us, the reader, into that world. Emotion is, as you’ll read, a key part of what he does. Dralyuk is a maestro of translation, but he is also (and this was confirmed in our chat), humble, funny, kind, and involved. I remain grateful for his time and energy.

Note: The following interview was edited by Boris Dralyuk on 30 May 2022, following its original posting on 29 May 2022. 

Boris Dralyuk, translator, Odesa, writera, poet, Ukraine, Russia, literary, LARB, LA Review Of Books, My Hollywood, editorYou’ve translated authors whose works are now more widely known, and you’ve taken part in panels on Ukraine; do you think the attention on the country and its authors will lead to an overall greater curiosity and knowledge?

I think the attention is a good thing if it’s a lasting awareness.None of this is certain yet, whether this period of newfound fascination will outlive the conflict or whether it will even, frankly, be sustained throughout this war, which shows no sign of ending. I can only rely on my personal impressions and on the things I hear from my friends, but I think the worry is that social media and the news cycle bring up new scandals and new conflict and new conflagrations every day, and they have a lifespan of their own, and it would be wonderful if the people who are advocating for and spreading awareness of Ukrainian culture, if they’re able to leverage this attention that’s been drawn to the country – for the wrong reasons – for good.

Leverage the attention in a meaningful way that technology allows for?

That’s my hope.

Very often, I see – and I’m sure you do too – these updates and opinions go by, and I always wonder how it is that we don’t have a better technological framework that would accommodate the translations you and Jenny do.

I think Jenny is more of an optimist than I’ve tended to be. I’m pretty pessimistic myself, nowadays, but let’s put it this way: let’s say you have some degree of earned respect in the world, you’ve done a few things people like, and therefore you speak with some degree of authority. If that’s the case, what you put out there, regardless of the technological channels, will reach people. Social media is powerful in that regard; these things, even poems, if well-timed – and I don’t make a study of when to post or that kind of thing, though I know some do – but if well-timed in the general sense, if they hit on something people are thinking about, and you are one of the people to whom others tend to listen on these very subjects, the thing you’re putting out there will reach someone, a good number of people. Even if you reach two or three people when you could’ve reached five, you’ve still reached two to three people. I’m not really complaining about the channels available to us, I know there are people like yourself who actively work and think about new platforms and new ways to present the cultural items we care about most in a way that might gain traction.

These new ways of presenting culture tend to bump up against the perceived legitimacy of legacy brands, but the tools at hand, which everyone uses, make changing perceptions a challenge. Being independent means you gain certain things but lose others. 

I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I don’t intervene too heavily in the things we publish at the LA Review of Books. I edit what we accept, if not myself, then others do, but it’s a broadly-based organization and always has been. The editing is not a reflection of my personal vision – I’m not Draconian, I don’t rule like a tyrant – but where I do rule like a tyrant is at my own blog or on my social media platforms, and I regard those as a rather pure form of expression. I have a very different sense of what a successful post on my own blog means to what a successful post on LARB means. Not infrequently a poem or translation published on my blog will reach more people than it might have at the LARB website itself – and that’s because people who believe that I do something well enough to listen to me go to the place where I do it; they’re not the readers of the LA Review of Books, necessarily – they’re the readers of my translations. And over time that number of people has grown, largely thanks to my use of WordPress and Twitter.

You are your own brand in that sense.

Yes, that’s right – because I’m not thinking of how to elevate my position there. I don’t get paid for my blog posts or the translations I post there. lf I really wanted prestige I’d try to get them into the major journals and would submit widely every 6 months, and face rejection letters and do it again and again – but that’s not what matters to me. I want those translations and those poems to reach the largest possible number of readers. And so they go on my blog.

And that’s to me a crucial point about the act of translation: you want to reach people. Reaching isn’t the same as engagement...

That’s very true…

… but through reaching people you can engage with what you translate in a new and important way. When I spoke with Elena Dubinets she said she found it hard to fathom how soldiers who’d read Dostoyevsky could engage in such horrendous acts of violence – which made me ponder the ways in which culture is received and perceived according to various factors.

I think if there is a net-positive outcome here, it is a change in how we perceive Russian culture. Some people do have a starry-eyed view of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I myself do not – but I don’t think it’s a crime to think that way. I do think it can become pernicious when we associate Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, and their art, with a kind of purity of soul, and a purity of vision, and then assume that anyone speaking Russian must surely possess those innate qualities. That’s not a good thing. We have to be realistic, difficult though it may be. We can’t always hold ourselves to this, but we have to be realistic when we make judgments about cultures and the bearers of those cultures, whatever the culture we come from. We may love the US but hate our neighbour because our neighbour has this to say, and our mother has that to say, and the guy down the street says something else – we’re all very different, yet there are things that tie us together. The same goes for people living in Russia and living in Ukraine. At some moments those common features become the most important things in our lives – as in moments of crisis, moments like these – but in general we are all different people and all have different capacities for insight and capacities for love and capacities for hatred. Russian culture, being such a powerful force in the world, has convinced many people, too many people, that Russians are a bunch of soulful Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys and Pushkins, when Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin were themselves complicated figures, not pure of soul at all times. I think this war can make us more realistic, bring greater nuance to our understanding of the people we read and admire, of the cultures in which we’re interested.

The “nuance” aspect largely goes against the algorithms that power the platforms we use…

Yes!

… but now especially, do you feel a particular weight or responsibility to not just present new things but old things with that same nuance? And how much do you see others carrying it forwards?

I think anyone working in Ukrainian and Russian right now feels a heightened sense of responsibility. I know I certainly was much more likely to do things before this war because I was interested in them without thinking about their effect in the world. I was kind of an “art for art’s sake” purist… I mean, I have ethics, but I’ve always been interested in presenting the most … challenging, the most delightful, the most complicated, the most unusual work, in translation, regardless of the life of the man or woman who wrote it, regardless of their political affinities. It’s basically been my sense that if the work is well made, it deserves to be read, and people can make up their own minds about how terrible the person was or how terrible the things expressed in it are. I still think that’s largely where I land, but I feel I now have to be more selective, not because anyone asked me. The people I translated tend to be people who are, I think, generally, somewhat responsible – not always. But I do think that it behooves us to be careful, now, in how we present work that may be interesting but perhaps can be too easily misread or misused at the same time.

books, Boris Dralyuk, prose, writing, poetry, Russia, Ukraine, literature, reading, library

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

I’m curious how you think this relates to the music world. It’s difficult to find good translations, even with companies dedicated to performing in English; there is this sense of “well just learn” whatever language – “just” carrying a number of unfair assumptions, not least access to resources.  So how to most effectively move past these attitudes? And how do we approach translating things like libretti, which, by their very nature, resist any form of translation?

I think the technology is very much the answer. Google has taught people that translation is no easy thing, and Google Translate, yes, people knock it, but there are two things about it worth considering: one, it’s getting better every day, because of the input – every time someone asks it to translate something, it learns – and the other thing is that it reminds people every day of the need for a human touch. I think ultimately it’s a great educational tool, not only for getting the bare thing across, so some people can move about their business day, but also, if you plug in Tolstoy whole, you’ll get rubbish that’s useless unless a human being gets involved. The technology leads people to realize how important translation is. Over the last ten years or so there’s been a greater appreciation of the work of translators and that appreciation has inspired many young people – I see this every day, more and more people are asking me about my career and how I got into this. So there’s more interest in learning and mastering and communicating across languages, and the number of younger translators is growing by leaps and bounds, and that speaks to a broader interest in foreign languages.

That said, I don’t think this necessarily means the quality of translation will improve, because what you need in order to be a great translator is the ability to read very closely and very carefully, and with a lot of emotion. You have to respond emotionally to a text, and not just intellectually. You also have to have deep intellectual understanding, but you need a real love for expression – a real love for the target language. You have to revel in it and relish it. You have to find the task of writing immensely rewarding, find a lot of joy in it. People who translate simply because they love the original and are just going through the motions of putting it into English will probably not come out with as pungent or flavourful a product as those who both love the original and love the target language.

That brings to mind a common line of thinking on English: “oh it’s so limited…”

I hate that…

Really?

I really do, I hate it when people say, “Oh, well, English is a poorer language, because it doesn’t have a-b-c” – no, every language lacks something, an a, b, or c, but it makes up for that in other ways, by what it brings to the table. So you have to be in awe of the possibilities of English when you embark upon a translation – that’s how you get the best text. You don’t get it by saying, “Oh no, I’m going to lose this and that because English can’t possibly do it” – yes it can! English can do anything you want it to! That’s the attitude you’ve got to take.

By the same way of thinking, how would one translate the works of writers like Joyce or E.E. Cummings into Russian?

People have – you do it by writing Ulysses, by being a genius at your work. Those translators did a good job. That’s how Alice In Wonderland was translated into Russian – you have to have the same level of imagination and sense of possibility as Lewis Carroll had.

I love the Irish sense of playing with the language of their British colonizers – it’s a big reason I fell in love with Irish literature years ago, and underlines what Rexroth says when he explores Sappho, and gives examples of how each culture translated the same poem differently…

The Irish thing is a good example of what Ukrainians have attempted to do with the Russian language, from Gogol on – a good parallel –Isaac Babel would count, by dint of two circumstances, as a colonial subject –he’s Jewish and he’s from Ukraine. He’s a good analogy for Joyce, for speakers of Irish extraction. That’s one of the things I love most about translating the Russian language of Ukrainian speakers, which is a kind of endangered species now: they approach it from the side, as insider-outsiders, and it makes for very rich texts. I’ve spent a good deal of time on that aspect.

The insider/outsider thing is especially interesting – how much do you identify with that, as someone not born in America but raised there?

I think of myself largely as an American. So many of us weren’t born in America, and it’s a unique culture in that regard; nativism is present but isn’t the defining feature of the culture. Most of the people who have contributed mightily to the formation of American letters and culture, from the colonial period on,, were immigrants to the United States…

… which provides an interesting subtext to your “Hollywood” title of poems; it feels like a hat-tip to the many others artists who settled in that precise area.

Yes, exactly! I feel I’m a pretty good run-of-the-mill American – but yes, of course, you are also right that there is an outsider component to it. This happens to be a nation of immigrants, but that doesn’t make me anything other than an immigrant: I am still an immigrant to the United States. The story of immigration is central to the story of America, writ large.

That inclusivity stands in stark contrast to a world that quickly ostracizes those who don’t speak the language…

It happens, but I think that’s wrong – and to my mind, very dated.

It brings to mind what Rexroth noted, that translation is an act of sympathy, or to my mind, empathy.

Yes, and it’s amazing to me that that observation had to wait until 1959 to be made – I mean, it probably didn’t, I’m sure others said something similar – but it seems so natural to me that those who enjoy translation the most, the people who are the most successful at creating readable and moving texts based on texts in other languages, are using their capacity for empathy. They really do feel deeply connected to the texts they’re reading and to the people behind them. And if you don’t feel that connection, if you just sit there mechanically translating, then you may produce a more accurate version than Google Translate, but it won’t necessarily be a fuller version – or a more appealing one.

Your work has made me ask ‘who’s the translator?” through many book purchases the last little while.

That’s so lovely – that’s as it should be! I think Jenny probably did more to accomplish that than I did, but it’s important to pay attention to the translators. There are certain translators, long dead, whose work may not be perfect, but who I feel have as much of an oeuvre as that of any author, so I will read everything they’ve done, simply because I love their artistry.

That’s similar to following the work of soloists or conductors: one may not like a particular piece or opera, but one might really love the artistry of the person doing it.

That’s a perfect analogy! The soloist or conductor is an interpreter, just like the translator.

Speaking of translations and artistry: do you have a favourite translation of Bulgakov’s famous The Master and Margarita?

That’s a tough question. I think the Michael Glenny translation of 1967 is overall the more flexible and colourful, but there are glaring errors that have yet to be corrected. If somebody were to sit down, somebody who really understands the text, and use it as the start, building it out, then we’d have a masterpiece on our hands.

Because you haven’t done it yet… 

I would love to edit that Glenny text, but process-wise, one way I check – it isn’t a perfect thermometer, but it works – how good a translation is, is by the impact it has on the target culture. For instance, it was the Glenny translation that gave us “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones. Personally, I don’t think the later translations would’ve had that influence – they’re not quite as readable as the Glenny.

I keep being told that there has yet to appear a translation which captures the humour, the rhythm…

I think that’s generally true. We’ve made a start, but we need someone to go in there and finish. Frequently I’m drawn to older translations not because they’re the most accurate in every sense, not because they capture all the tones of the original, but because the world in which those earlier translators lived is more or less the world in which the authors lived – they were contemporaries, so when the authors described something they could see with their own eyes, those translators of long ago saw those things with their own eyes too. When they were translating a description, they knew exactly what was being described. That creates a sharper image in English, a clearer sense of what it is Tolstoy is talking about, or Dostoyevsky is talking about. I would urge people not to toss out the old versions completely; you can continue to translate and refine the texts but I think those old versions have something to offer us too.

Like literary Ur-Text?

That’s right!

There is the urge now to make plain cultural labels – ie, “this is Ukrainian; that is Russian” and to draw pat conclusions based on them.

I don’t think people will hold on to that; I think it’ll go away. Right now there’s controversy about renaming streets in Ukraine. But renaming a street from Tolstoy Street has nothing to do with saying that “Tolstoy is a bad writer.” What it’s about – and this is spelled out clearly in a LARB piece – is saying: look, there’s every reason to keep reading Tolstoy; go ahead and read Tolstoy, no one’s stopping you. But there’s a reason this street was named after Tolstoy in the first place: this country was subjugated by Russia. The reason that we have so many streets named after Russian writers and none at all named after Portuguese writers is that we were not subjects of Portuguese colonization – we were subjects of Russian colonization. So by renaming these streets in honour of Ukrainian authors and cultural figures, all we’re saying is: these are our streets. If you want to sit on the street and read Tolstoy, that’s fine. It may not be a comfortable thing for those who love Tolstoy to witness, but it’s the choice of the people who live on that street. I really don’t think this hysteria about Russian culture being cancelled will be proven to have been justified. There are a lot of reasons why we should worry about all the things happening now; the fact Russian literature will lose a few more readers in the short term is not one of them.

A couple people have written to me to say, “It’s not the time for Russian voices,” and I myself have shown preferential treatment for those writing from Ukraine – it’s more important right now. People will make that kind of editorial judgment call. Yet I can’t imagine any person, no matter how patriotic they are who will say, “I will never again read anything from a Russian, ever” –even those who are militant say, “It may take five years, or ten years; it may take twenty years,” – but at some point, I think Ukrainians will be reading Russian literature, and Russians will be reading Ukrainian literature. Right now, it makes all the sense in the world to listen to Ukrainians who are under active attack rather than to most Russians. That said, I still translate Russian authors myself; I just did a translation of a piece by Maxim Osipov (“Cold, Ashamed, Relieved: On Leaving Russia“, The Atlantic, May 16, 2022). But, to be blunt, I don’t think Russians are paying that big a price, comparatively – that’s my sense of things.

Elena Dubinets also noted in our chat how the language around how we discuss these cultures must be decolonized – a word that’s been used more and more often in this context.

Yes, and decolonization is not necessarily cancellation. Again, all we’re talking about is adding nuance to our understanding of how Russian culture functions, and has functioned, and been allowed to function, in the world. Tolstoy himself is one thing; a monument to Tolstoy is another. A monument to Tolstoy on his estate is one thing; a monument to Tolstoy in a place he never visited, simply because Russia owned it, is another.

But this questioning has led to a big moral panic in some circles – certain corners of the classical world have made quite a lot of noise about how identity politics is detracting from art and music. For instance, Prokofiev was born in Eastern Ukraine; Tchaikovsky’s paternal family were Ukrainian. What do you make of the current debate around identity politics as it relates to Russian and Ukrainian artists? 

I don’t think this is identity politics – I think this is the acknowledgement of the complicated histories of this region and of the people who called and still call it home. To say that Gogol is strictly a Russian writer or strictly a Ukrainian writer would be silly – he’s obviously a Russian writer and a Ukrainian writer, and that’s a consequence of the complicated relationship between Russia and Ukraine. I think we as lovers of culture can arrive there – many of us are already there. Right now tempers are heated, and for good reason: cultural monuments are being destroyed by bombs. The head of Shevchenko has a bullet in it.Those things are not acceptable; those things are not going to bring about truth and reconciliation. But I do feel we’ll get through this. Both of these cultures are too strong to be eradicated, and no matter how powerful the Russian military is, it will not squash Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture. which was banned over several centuries yet lives on, and is one of the most productive literary cultures in Europe right now. I don’t think anyone who aims to kill the culture as part of this conflict will succeed, and once they’ve failed decisively, we can go about creating a better, more representative picture of this region’s history, and its art.

Note: This interview was edited by Boris Dralyuk on 30 May 2022, following its original posting on 29 May 2022. 
branches, tree, sky, nature

Essay: The C-Word Is Context (Part 2)

On a recent afternoon, I looked out at the pond outside my office window and noted a pair of geese staring at the sky in confusion. It was 12°C yesterday, their tiny flapping wings suggested, now it’s snowing! This isn’t  normal! The idea – the experience – of “normal” is gone. Whether it was real or a veneer hiding far uglier things, “normal” or our idea of it, has been blown apart. What we did in some version of then, and who we are in an ever-evolving sense of now, don’t mix or even intermingle, despite the ephemeral details  indicating otherwise. Thus does the practice of letting go – of the old, the familiar, the “normal” – ascend in conversation yet be ignored in practice; old markers of an old life, like jangling charms on a bracelet, make the right sounds, but play the melody roughly, too slow, out of tune. Nothing can be as it was, but still, we long for the return of that which we knew, or thought we knew, and thought we wanted to continue forever, and so we wait, like Puccini’s Butterfly, all night, all day, and then all night again, time blurring into self, waiting, hoping, looking for signs to materialize, in some sentimental, macaroon-coloured reverie of hope, lowering masks and taking a deep breath, eyes darting around in the darkness. It was like this and now it’s like this – not normal!

My writing focuses on the intersection of culture, media, and history, with a firm eye on current affairs, which is related to the influence of my other life, as a Professor of Media Studies. As journalists know, what is “current” one day is old the next, or more likely within hours. Constantly trying to keep up with the “new” in news renders one’s concentrated efforts rapidly obsolete, one’s words tired and old, “like too little butter scraped over too much bread,” to quote Tolkien’s world-weary Bilbo. Meaningful conversation is in short supply in such a world, and is now mediated and distributed through digital means. Cues are lost, viscerality is lost; far more valued is short, hot reaction, stoked to keep the engines of commerce turning. Horror is churned out into mere content; images of suffering are rendered war porn pleasing hungry advertisers. There is little I feel qualified to say about this, other than to continue reading, thinking, conversing, in as respectful and curious a manner as possible. This series aims to examine the ways in which individuals and organizations move, or try to move, past the hot reaction and loaded language that turns the wheels of social media and related ad technology; I have no idea if it will have any effect, and have given up hope of such impact, but I write it anyway, mainly because I don’t see this kind of analysis happening elsewhere. There’s a reason for that lack: money. Finance, or its lack, is also the root cause of misunderstandings, snap judgements, and shallow readings of events which deserve more thoughtful analyses within the classical sphere.

In analyzing the varied and deeply-rooted causes of recent Russian artist/artwork cancellation, there has been a growing awareness of the role of flexibility: who can bend, when, how much, to what cost, literal and otherwise. The ideas of “normal” held by audiences and administrations, and the ways in which the classical industry has continued to cling to those notions, veneering themselves in some semblance of it, are revealing, and mostly unflattering. Anxieties over cost, in Dollars and Euros and Pounds, is very real in the post-pandemic (or whatever phase we are currently in) landscape of the performing arts; ignoring it or pretending it is not a motivating factor in current cultural decisions is to ignore perhaps the single most vital element of the industry. The North American performing arts landscape has been immensely altered by the experience of pandemic; an LA Times report (March 24, 2022) lists ten artists who have permanently left the theatre scene in the United States, but judging from social media activity and reactions, one may safely assume there are far more departures from the industry across the continent, with individuals leaving an industry en masse, simply because they cannot energetically (financially, socially, mentally) justify staying. Organizations have, simply put, not been flexible in accommodating needed changes, particularly when it comes to freelancers (a point made with repeated brutal clarity by Welsh opera singer Paul Carey Jones at his blog). The single biggest factors asking for this flexibility (money and education, and how the two relate) don’t seem to be given any meaningful degree of public scrutiny in any media outlet – the need for healthcare; the need for paid ensembles; the need for early arts education across all sectors; the need for active and consistent outreach; the (great) need for far larger arts budgets; the centrality of culture to community (especially to healing the broken sense of community so exacerbated by corona isolation); the inherent comprehension that culture can and should be a cornerstone of such community and of asking vital questions within those communities – apparently the examination of such elements doesn’t drive clicks, so (I know this from experience) those stories are not being assigned in newsrooms. Editors have to justify their chases and thus their budgets; public institutions in particular (and this applies as much to arts organizations as news outlets) have been pressured, through years of heinous budget cuts, to feel they must compete with commercial interests and outlets. The two should be able to co-exist, with understandings of the roles and functions each fulfills, and yet the worst impulses and influences of one (namely ROI) have largely co-opted the base mandates of the other; thus the chance for real change, and thus real flexibility, dies. The whole tenor of contemporary conversation – around current events as much as arts and culture – been largely (if not wholly) reduced to clicks, likes, reaction, firing flames for a guarded, angry intransigence that doesn’t like looking beyond headlines, let alone making time for such examination.

Yet the old “normal” no longer exists, and it seems clear many in the classical industry are aware of this. To paraphrase Hamlet, organizations would rather bear those ills they have, than “to fly to others we know not of.” No one knows what the “new” will bring, but there are small signs that point to those who may have the bravery, and the will, to offer another path. People don’t want to race back to auditoriums; the risks are still real. What was once “normal” within the sphere of live performance experience (especially certain behaviours) is no longer acceptable; what was once taken for granted can no longer be treated as such. That sense of needing to create a new normal is lately reflected, at least sometimes, in programming choices and the will which has clearly been exercised to make them; it has been encouraging to see various organizations acknowledging this need and manifesting it, without worrying too much about sexy clicks. At the very start of the war in late February, the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin made a quick if important change to their weekend programme. Contrary to reports in Russia media, Chief Conductor and Music Director Vladimir Jurowski did not (as he had been accused of) “cancel” Tchaikovsky from the entire existing program; he replaced Marche slave (written in 1876 as a paean to Russia’s intercession in the Serbian-Ottoman war) with two works by Ukrainian composer Mykhailo Verbytsky (1815-1870), the Ukrainian anthem (1863), and Symphonic Overture No. 1 in D major. The latter work, with its folk-like lines, created an immensely thoughtful frisson alongside the world premiere of Dmitri Smirnov’s “Concerto piccolo” for cello and orchestra, “History of Russia in 4 anthems” (2001), a sarcastic and brilliant deconstruction of Russian machismo within the paradigm of shifting musical-political identities. Anton Rubinstein’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No. 2 in D minor (1874) followed, its nods to Ukrainian folk melody so apparent in its final movement, with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 (1888) to close; its militaristic lines sounded a snide bravado most poignantly in a final movement that spoke as equally to specific tragedy as to the broader circumstances which birthed it. None of this was on any social media channels – such thoughtfulness does not play well within the strictures dictated by such platforms, nor publishers – though it was thankfully broadcast (and accessible for a month thereafter) on the public radio channel Deutschlandfunk Kultur.

Other orchestras have followed suit. The Berlin Philharmonic was featured on both their own dedicated platform (its Digital Concert Hall) and that of German national broadcaster RBB for a benefit concert held recently at Schloss Bellevue. The concert was one of many recent (and rapidly-organized) charity initiatives done in partnership with ARD, an integrated organizations comprised of Germany’s public-service broadcasters. The Berlin Phil’s programme featured two works by Valentyn Sllvestrov (b. 1937), who fled his native Kyiv earlier this month, thanks to the help of Ukrainian conductor Vitaly Alekseenok and Russian pianist Yuri Lyubimov. Silvestrov’s music is also featured in a beautiful new release by violinist Daniel Hope with Ukrainian pianist Alexey Botvinov, Music For Ukraine (Deutsche Grammophon) which, along with works by Silvestrov, includes music by Myroslav Skoryk (1938-2020) and Jan Freidlin (b. 1944). All proceeds from the album’s sales will go to Aktion Deutschland Hilft, a non-profit organization working to deliver emergency aid to those affected by the war. If Silvestrov’s music known only to those with specialized knowledge of the contemporary compositional scene in Europe prior to February 24th, it is now being hoisted into something approaching mainstream awareness. Lithuanian Opera and The Metropolitan Opera both performed Silvestrov works as part of hastily-organized charity initiatives, though his Symphony No. 4 was presented by the London Philharmonic Orchestra last month as part of a regular season concert, albeit in an altered programme that impressively demonstrated the needed flexibility in accordance with the times. Some might posit that the work of the so-called “most famous living Ukrainian composer” has become something of a go-to for organizations looking to telegraph concern for current events; perhaps one ought not to question sincerity in such cases, these are worthy causes after all, and attract wide audiences and much-needed funds. But the composer himself expressed frustration at the race to embrace his work at this particular juncture, telling Professor of Musicology Peter Schmerz “that this misfortune needed to happen for them to begin playing my music. […] Does music not have any value in and of itself without any kind of war?” (New York Times, March 30, 2022)

It is a question worth pondering, especially as questions around flexibility and, related to that, responsibility swirl in the classical community. Will audiences get the opportunity to hear the works of Silvestrov, Skoryk, and Verbytsky as part of regular programming? And will organizations place them beside Russian works, or have them be played by Russian artists? Should they? Will some kind of statement be required? Conductor Ariane Matiakh, who has described herself as “a Frenchwoman with Ukrainian roots which are bleeding at the moment”, told Radio France earlier this month that she “condemn(s) the artists who have always seemed close to power” in Russia but, like others in her profession, made a distinction between the artists cozy with power, and those others who are “not able to take a stand.” Similarly, The Association of British Orchestras (ABO) released a statement in early March in which they stated that “no Russian artist should be compelled to make such a public statement, when the consequence of doing so would be that the lives, liberty and livelihoods of themselves and members of their family in Russia are endangered. We will also look after those of our staff and musicians who are personally impacted by the invasion of Ukraine.” Here the question is one of perception, of proportional concern, of turning away from the urge toward simplistic false equivalency, the problematic nature of which I outlined in Part 1 of this series). To put it plainly: there is no equivalency between artists suffering in Russia and those (artists or not) suffering in Ukraine. It’s upsetting to see such moral trafficking made quotidian, within such insulting and reductive equivalencies, when the context exists for a far deeper and more compassionate response; concern-trolling and moral policing plug up what should be open if extremely difficult discussions that must be had, in the classical world and elsewhere. It is equally vital to understand the ways in which the classical industry has, or is, or could be responding, most specifically within the context of post-pandemic recovery, with a firm awareness of the economics, inside the industry, and outside of it, via the media who cover it with less and less depth of detail and comprehension. Controversy, or the mere whiff of it, plays well to the machinery of algorithms and ad technology; a headline that uses triggering keywords or phrases (“cancel culture”, “boycott”, “ban”, “freedom”) is likely to please publishers (and advertisers) far more than one that might better represent its true content (or indeed, the actual, far more complex story). Context is often the thing left behind under duress of analytical realities (time on page, clicks, other forms of engagement metrics) but such contemporary publishing realities leave a gaping hole in precisely the spot where most cultural workers (artists, writers, composers, academics) like to think they live: the world of thinking. For every cancellation, there is another story (or more); for every decision veneered by brand management, there is another one deserving of attention. In a searingly honest op-ed (published 1 April 2022), Opera Wire Managing Editor Polina Lyapustina wrestles with her own background, the notion of supposed “cancellation” and the ways in which the recent flexibility shown by artists (Jurowski included) has proven important: “The Great Russian culture was supposed to educate (its own people in particular). Stop using it to mask problems, and excuse crimes. Stop.”

If one approaches the study of a score and only looks at its most superficial elements – sans history, sans connection to other works, sans past recordings or artists’ performances – one misses a great deal; perhaps a similarly careful and contextualized media literacy needs to be at play, particularly within the classical music realm. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve suggested that a basic education in the realities of contemporary publishing (especially within the digital realm) is required for those in the classical world – just as writers in this realm need to be aware of the particulars of music, the awareness and knowledge should be reciprocal – but this may be my most direct appeal. Never has context been more important to so many, and so many with or needing money especially. Making a snap judgement, and creating a confirmation bias around that judgement, of there existing an overarching “cancellation” of Russian culture based on cherry-picked headlines (ones which are algorithmically pushed up to prominence in Google searches) ignore immense and very important contextual roots: limited repertoire because of funding; management timidity; administrative ignorance of repertoire; audience skittishness; audience ignorance (remember, they are as culpable to those hot-reaction headlines as anyone); shifting infection numbers; optics to please a moneyed and influential donor base; ever-widening educational gaps; marketing to attract a longed-for young audience (who are largely victims of that educational gap, natch). To not acknowledge these factors and investigate them further, but instead choose a reductive understanding that plays into a mythologized (and highly politicized) clash of civilizations seems reductive when placed against the thoughtful approach which the classical industry tends to pride itself on cultivating. One cannot look at such incidents in isolation but as part of a much wider, and rapidly shifting ecosystem with innate ties to money, or lack thereof. The fashionable “reimagining” terminology has only been applied in some cases, and with utter timidity, and not seen or experienced at this moment with any level of reliable consistency that would indicate long-term commitment to change.

Yet, as with the RSB decision in February, motions toward meaningful dialogues exist, however minutely. Those motions are dependent on leadership demonstrating the kind of mature resolve which the situation requires – a resolve to open dialogues (however uncomfortable), to dare returned tickets (certainly a great risk, given the times), to court angry social media reaction (which perhaps means taking a step or two back from it – yes really; no, I’m not naive). The flexibility with which certain programming changes have been (and continue to be made) in incremental ways suggests an innate awareness of the importance of this flexibility in leading an embrace of a new normal, and the willpower to implement it. The ABO released a link to a spreadsheet listing six pieces by Ukrainian composers, their respective orchestrations, and their respective publishers, as well as a far more comprehensive link to Lviv National Opera featuring a far larger range of Ukrainian composers, and related works, performances, and useful information. Facebook groups, similarly, have been active in providing links and downloads to Ukrainian works. Some organizations are actualizing their intentions beyond charity initiatives. Writing at American Orchestras’ website recently, London Philharmonic Orchestra Artistic Director Elena Dubinets referenced the need for programmatic flexibility and active engagement with new and/or unfamiliar repertoire. In acknowledging her personal history (Dubinets’ husband is Ukrainian, she is a self-described “Jew from Moscow”), Dubinets reflected on how cultural connections (in both macro and micro senses) can (or should) play out within artistic realms. The complicated, all-umbrella term “Russian” music was given particular attention, with Dubinets repeatedly recognizing the contributions of Ukrainian artists to past and present classical life, and observing that the LPO’s inclusion of Silvestrov’s Symphony No. 4 in its programme last month was a symbol that “sooner rather than later, Ukrainian music will become an essential part of the symphonic repertoire.” Let’s hope these are not hollow words and empty gestures; as she notes, “Ukrainian music is less known than it ought to be”, due in part to intransigence, nervousness, and pushback by organizations who are, more than ever, risk-averse to programming new and unknown works.

This is where the Instagrammification of classical music niggles; “fun” content is favoured over meaningful items that might dare less engagement. I have sat through numerous “day in the life of” Instagram Stories released by various houses and orchestras over the course of the past four weeks; there’s nothing inherently wrong with such things, but the timing, and the content (that hideous word) is wretched. Oh, I kept thinking looking out the window at the confused geese, for an ounce of something intelligent and good, something that does not so obviously play to shallow algorithms. It’s not that I believe the classical industry is somehow “better” than entertainment outlets that utilize such strategies, but I do believe it is different, and thus it has an entirely different set of demands and realities. The willingness to embrace meaningful change might, particularly at this moment, convey a real form of real commitment to dialogue and respect (the very words Bayerische Staatsoper loftily hashtagged in their own posts at the start of the war in late February), yet the lack of commitment to such realization renders these motions as little more than optically-pleasing marketing, of lulling audiences into some perceived form of “safe” that does naught but museumify what should be a living, breathing, vital entity, with shiny, Instastory wrapping.  Arts organisations need to ask who they are serving , and more pointedly, to what end. The 2022-2023 seasons of many orchestras and opera houses have been announced, and so far, there is little if any embrace of risk, or display of meaningful change. If we are to ‘carry on’ in whatever fashion we can now, two years into Covid and amidst war, then let’s not “carry on” as per usual; it behoves every leader at every level to make a concerted effort which entails not merely the replication of an old normal but the embrace (and active cultivation) of new ones. This won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, because there can’t be, and yes, it is difficult, and indeed very risky, especially in an era where (as I also wrote) audiences are proving very slow to return, where every ticket return and disgruntled subscriber is magnified one-hundred-fold. Better not to risk even one angry letter or one pair of returned tickets, all these season brochures whisper (or sometimes shout), better to stick to the tried and the true. Carefully telegraphing We Really Care™ to audiences has priority; real change, or committing to it, is much further down the list.

I am willing to court accusations of cynicism – that would hardly be new – but I am not willing to let context and its inherent need at this juncture evaporate, not when arts and media, together, and the people who work in both, can do more. Alas, if only they were allowed to. Organizations who believe they are doing precisely what they think audiences want by doing the safe thing are only proving how little they actually know about those audiences, and how little they care about the tenor of the times; they are also unwittingly telling me how adverse they are not only to risk but, ultimately, to any form of meaningful change which the practice of their art might inspire. Those who bat around ugly phrases and espouse the beliefs inherent to them (i.e. “cancel culture”) reveal how little commitment exists to needed change, how little commitment exists toward the cultivation of context, how much attachment there is to an old idea of “normal.” That “normal”, and our perceptions of it – our attachment to it,  as audiences, as artists, as administrators, as writers, as thinkers, as lovers of culture – must be set alight. At their final stop on a recent European tour, the RSB performed a piece by Valentyn Silvestrov, “Abschiedsserenade” (2003), a hymn to endings, a prayer for beginnings. The two-movement work, written just after the passing of Ukrainian composer Ivan Karabits (1945-2002), was not part of the orchestra’s formal Budapest programme but was added on and performed with gentle grace and delicacy. With its long lines and lingering tones, the work reminds one of the cyclical nature we so often take for granted. Music in 2022 can, must, be more, for everyone; to quote poet E. E. Cummings, “where everything’s nothing —arise,my soul;and sing”.

Michail Jurowski conductor Russian music classical live performance

Remembering Michail Jurowski (1945-2022)

I learned of conductor Michail Jurowski’s passing yesterday morning, March 19th, 2022. What a blessing, to have met him and later spent time in conversation. Initially meeting at a concert (where else), we subsequently arranged to speak, with him in Berlin, and me in Bucharest. Kind, patient, generous, and full of stories, he was very involved in sharing his thoughts and experiences, and offered extraordinary insight extrapolating on how things like compromise and authenticity affect the work of being a conductor and artist, pondering responses, breaking out big grins now and again, asking me to repeat things (“the sound on my computer is so bad!”). I confess to feeling like a fraud at a few points, battling through the anxiety I could feel rising in waves now and again: who was I, after all, this yokel Canadian asking these questions, even daring to approach him, music-degree-free me?

How long have I been incubating this, after all, this perceived lack which is burnished into shame: I don’t fit in because I can’t! It is a shrieking demon. Some days I wonder how much I should keep listening. In learning of Jurowski’s passing I was reminded of a moment when that demon was, if not silenced, content to sit in a corner, only making the occasional ruckus. Some days are better than others in facing down such a creature. Sometimes it shrieks, tells me I ought best quit writing about music, that I cannot possibly have any value: I am unworthy! Everyone is laughing at me! What a fraud! No one in the industry takes me seriously or values my work! Why am I doing this? No one cares because I’m an idiot!  Imposter syndrome for writers is real; equally real is the rejection one feels from lacking what all the other members of the club seem to so easily possess, and the benefits they enjoy as a result (community, acceptance, applause, access, encouragement). I am learning to negotiate such details, to see a much broader picture; there are things happening in the world. I am slowly learning to kick the demon’s tail out of the way as best I can, with a reminder (in my mother’s voice) that I’ve always been an outsider anyway; why should now be any different? Maestro didn’t care about my perceived deficiencies, or if he did, he didn’t let on. Get the lead out, as my mother would say. Ah, but broody rumination pops its soggy head up just as the demon’s bright tail disappears.

The last thirty hours or so has been spent, in large part, ruminating on that 2019 conversation with the conductor, between looking at a litany of news items, one more horrible than the next. That he should pass now, of all times, seems especially tragic. Moscow-born and with Ukrainian-Jewish roots, Jurowski belonging to a certain generation that looked to the West as a source of hope and even inspiration. He didn’t buy the reductive Them vs. Us narrative made so popular (so widely if unconsciously carried) promulgated through Putin-era politics. His focus was European and Slavic repertoire (his father’s included), but he was well aware of administration stesses and funding realities and what they all meant, having held official positions in various organizations (Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden). He was highly aware of postwar perceptions of Russian-ness versus its lived reality, aware of what it was to be an outsider. He knew about audiences; as he told me in our chat, the one in Cleveland was among the most receptive he’d experienced. He didn’t carry heavily  sentimentalized notions of his home country, or if he did, he didn’t let on publicly. (Through such a lens the final image of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia begins to make an awful sense, but more on that in a future post.) “My family has been through a lot,” he said, speaking about his father toward the end of our chat. I remember he shook his head, letting out a little sigh.

Whatever memories he did carry were firmly in the past, and not meant to be guides of the present, creatively or otherwise. It is painful to think he only enjoyed his American debut in 2019, at the age of 73, a few months before we spoke. Jurowski cared about a great many things, but what he didn’t care about where I happened to be from, what that might imply, or what that could mean in European classical music circles. (The recent cries from the continent, along the lines of, “Mon Dieu, don’t import your North American culture wars here!” seem especially absurd, but again, more on that in a future post.) Maestro didn’t seem to care about my perceived lack, as someone born in North America: of the “right” background; of the “right” degrees; of the “right” books / movies / theatre / albums having been consumed in childhood / youth; of the “right” linguistic skills; of the “right” cultural knowledge. All of these things seem to hold a certain weight to some in the current cultural milieu, ironically, in an era that is (the marketing tells us) meant to be more inclusive. He was curious, and in today’s climate, a symbol of what Russian culture can, should be, and maybe still is: curious, yes, but also open, inclusive, generous. He asked me again in that conversation, just as he’d done when we met: how did I know his work? (Moses, by way of soprano Chen Reiss, who appears on the recording); how did I know about Kancheli? (Youtube makes sometimes-magical suggestions); he was flattered at my enthusiasm, my admitting to exploring things I didn’t grow up with, what I want to call my Canadian moxie. He was happy to exchange ideas, happy to listen to what I heard in those albums and others, keen to know the paths I’d taken thereafter. He offered suggestions and encouragement, and I remember leaving that conversation smiling.

It wasn’t because there was some kind of bridge that had been magically built over the course of our 70-minute exchange, more a sense of open reception, faith, good energy. Music is not, to my mind, a universal language, nor does it build bridges; there are too many varied perceptions, too many differing lives, too much inequality, too many varied streams of thought, too much intransigence, too much sadness, and none of that is magically erased with romantic artsy lenses (nor should it be in some instances) – but the thing music asks us to do, in its best form, matters: to use your imagination, and sometimes, do that in the exercise of empathy, to make the leap across a chasm, sans bridge. Some (composers, conductors, singers, ensembles) are more skilled at highlighting this act than others. As listeners, we are often asked to imagine – other people, other worlds, the composer composing, the musicians playing, the maestro on the podium, the faces and hands of engineers and producers and audiences – and yes, of course, one imagines one’s self sometimes too, as one or another (that’s the navel-gazing instinct social media encourages, after all), but the music I love best is the sort that gently requests a look outside, away from self, to another world, another time, another life, without attempting to understand. Some things don’t make sense, because they can’t. This has been something I think the last two years has constantly reminded us of; loss doesn’t ask to be understood. We cannot understand, we cannot control. We can only mitigate effect, minimize transmission, think, consider, act – stare at the chasm, wonder if we have the right boots. Sometimes the right sounds, at the right time, blow the fuse on the ouroboros of suffering. It isn’t the music doing that, it’s what what we’re bringing to it. Perhaps we’ll light some tiny spark, somewhere. Perhaps the chasm will fill in, however slightly and temporarily.

Alas, we also have the choice not to move at all. A quietly-yawning compassion deficit, prevalent throughout modern life and made noticeable amidst pandemic, is now writ horribly, painfully large through war. I’ve been writing about this lately and how it relates to the classical industry (including as part of an essay series; Part 1 is already up), contemplating its implications and origins a great deal – reading, watching, trying to understand various worlds, minds, lives, and ways of thinking and being, all of them largely powered on this horrendous deficit of compassion (Andrey Kurkov, Hannah Arendt, and Ingeborg Bachmann provide a few clues, along with the films of Yuri Bykov and Andrey Zvyagintsev). I have been avoiding and simultaneously diving straight into news, furiously hoovering, barely eating, avoiding mirrors, slowly completing student marking, booking a trip, cancelling a trip, pecking at writing (and tossing around giving it up altogether), eyeballing graduate school, smirking at cat photos, and looking out the window at the pond across the street. The signs of life are there, though the colors are still muted; the geese have yet to return, but the robins are already out, bobbing along the edges of low bushes. I want to flick the parked cars away like dirty crumbs. Perhaps a little bit of faith is required (hard and expensive it may be); perhaps a bit of patience. Loss is so difficult to understand, so huge to navigate. It is such a large hole, with such rough edges. There is no such thing as the “right” kind of grieving; there is only grief, and it takes as long as it must. In the meantime, one remembers, and keeps remembering.

And so I remember Michail Jurowski – his kindness, his generosity, his curiosity, and the ways in which his work touched so many. Seeing the various tributes of late, I am struck at their shared chords, the ones sounding out those qualities which are so precious, the ones which have become so scarce. He was Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, a musician, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend, a confidant, an inspiration, a mentor, an artist; he only made it to America once, but oh, lucky Cleveland. He affected so many, so much, and I hope his spirit lives on not only through his family but through those who worked with him, spoke with him, and those who listen to his work with renewed curiosity and enthusiasm. His mind, and his spirit, knew the notes as if burned into the heart; as he told me in 2019, he “composes” them in a sense, himself, every time he opens a score. He never used such knowledge as a weapon, but instead, as an umbrella. I imagine myself standing under its shade now, hearing the sounds of Kancheli, Rubinstein, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and those of his father too, and I imagine things blooming, slowly, however briefly, waiting out the storm.

Thank you, maestro. I wish we could have spoken one more time.

Top photo: T. Müller
curtain, stage, culture, performance, opera, operetta, Komische Oper Berlin, red, Berlin

Essay: Music, War, & The Reality Of Cancellation (Part 1)

Chasms in the classical music world are becoming increasingly obvious as a result of the war in Ukraine. The pressures recently placed on artists to make a clear public statement, pressures which are being applied by various cultural organizations, have fomented resentments and created a whirlwind of controversy around the exercise of private and public opinions in relation to art and culture. There has been a heated reignition of the long-standing debate of how far one might (or should) separate the art from the artist. Things are not quite so clear-cut as some involved in the debate would believe, however;  the institutional motivations behind applying that pressure, and the decision to cancel Russian artists and music in some instances, are enmeshed within a tight knot of funding, education, location, history, access, and the effects of two years of pandemic on the arts landscape overall. Audiences are proving slow in their return in many markets; the optics of doing the perceived “right thing” to convince them of the value of return has never been more pronounced.

This essay began life as a series of observations on the current state of music, politics, intercontinental preconceptions, funding models, education cuts, algorithms, public relations, and evolving notions of collective responsibility. Since starting on 3 March, the piece has become longer and broader than what was initially intended, and is now an ever-evolving, super-fussy Hydra. Just when I think one section is complete, along comes… more: another piece of learning; a dire bit of news; the reading of a comment thread; a conversation; the sound of violins playing a folk song. At those times I become curious, and am forced to rethink. In the interests of organization and finitude, I will be publishing this piece in four parts, likely not wholly consecutive but interspersed with artist conversations, this website’s initial raison d’être at its launch in 2017. It has been suggested this current essayistic pursuit is more suited to book form – perhaps? The great paradox of digital publishing is its essential changeability and permanence; everyone remembers when you screw up; everyone knows when you edit. I have no problem standing thusly naked before readers – I just want to make sure I can control the temperature of the water before dropping my robe.

Part 1

It feels reductive to state “war is hell.” It is that, of course, because it makes everything and everyone around it hell, one rife with twisting corridors and uneven floors, crumbling staircases leading to ever more dimly-lit labyrinthine levels. The invasion of Ukraine has uncovered an increasingly rigid cultural exceptionalism across continents, one fast becoming the elephant in the auditorium. It is an element which is proving unhelpful for artists and audiences alike, because its existence is so patently antithetical to the notion that music is a unifying force, this concept which many artists state with urgent sincerity. How can this great oneness have any validity in the real world if a newcomer is constantly made to feel intellectually and creatively small by those holding more formal knowledge and training? The reactionary engineering of social media fosters such hostilities (and related reactivity) whilst simultaneously obscuring the practises of public relations, thus perpetuating a broad ignorance around the roles of finance and education. Such comprehension is not something governments or organizations would wish to be known, but that does not erase the validity of such investigation. One cannot simply shout “They are cancelling Russian artists!” without understanding the true mechanisms which have largely driven such cancellations; I would wager that they are less driven by xenophobia than by economics, and as much related to maintaining public relations as to pleasing donor bases. There is also, importantly, a deep aversion to risk after two years of pandemic; anything that gives off so much as a whiff of risk is duly launched off the boat, with all the expected words and righteous noises – sensitivitycommunitysolidarity. Bravo… ish.

Thus the recent claims of there occurring a giant wave of Russophobia within the classical realm (a victim narrative the Putin regime fosters, incidentally) are not completely accurate; no doubt that does exist, but one must keep context in firm focus. New York’s Metropolitan Opera, for instance, has roughly ten Russian singers, as well as Ukrainian basses Alexander Tsymbalyuk and Dmitri Belosselskiy, on board for this season and next. Such a detail holds significance; to ignore it is to ignore the necessary context which lays the groundwork for meaningful discussion. If we mean what we say, as music lovers and seeming ambassadors, we must be willing to get our hands dirty with various realities, including our own unconsciously-held beliefs and attitudes, as much as negotiating with those held by others. While classical culture prides itself on humanism, growth, and the ever-vital curiosity, I have witnessed few of these qualities in action of late from so many directly and indirectly involved parties; what I have seen is judgement, obfuscation, anger, showboating – reaction. Is there hope for sincerity? The jury is still out. As bass baritone Paul Carey Jones pondered in a recent post, “is the classical music industry all of a sudden truly serious about its desire for politically engaged artists, after a generation of hammering them into monochrome moulds of glossy PR-friendly “Living The Dream” bullshit?” In an attempt to explore pertinent issues within and around the intersections of culture, technology, politics, PR, and presentation, it seems wise to continually turn attention back, and forwards – to read, study, think, repeat, and to keep asking such questions, and expanding on them at every turn.

Such is the privilege of my own situation that I am able to pursue study, in a relatively healthy environment, with food in the refrigerator and heat buzzing on at predictable intervals. It is worth acknowledging this – the thing I ask for more of (education) and the things required to carry that out (time, money, environment) are not necessarily things everyone has access to, or easy access at that. Between hoovering, hay fever, student marking, sighing, cooking and clearing up, my days have filled up with reading, writing, note-taking, chasing people, ideas, and some cogent line of discourse, interspersed with glances at the telly every now and again. Context, as my many media and broadcasting students through the years will attest, is something of an obsession, but it takes continuous amounts of time, energy, money, and a calm atmosphere to grasp and cultivate an appreciation of context – not everyone has those things, or can so easily parcel them out; I acknowledge this (and shake angry fists at the utter failure of education systems, school boards, and arts departments here, but that’s a future essay). Context is often the very quality most often missing in contemporary discourse, and especially in times of war. Its absence, and the overall lack of commitment to its fostering on the part of artists, writers, organizations, educational departments, teachers, writers, publishers (most everyone in or around the system) has created a crater of non-awareness; that crater existed far before the start of war on February 24th but is growing exponentially, caving in on itself – and classical culture is fast becoming its most damaged casualty.

Along with an obsession of context is, as my students well know, a heavy dislike of false equivalency. Its rise not only within media presentation but the seemingly-innocuous realms of quotidian exchange is immensely frustrating for both its intellectual laziness and whataboutism, that debate-stopping, brain-melting tendency with a rather timely history. It is exhausting to wave arms against things which, over the last three weeks, have become so common, and so often go unquestioned. False equivalency hinges on giving equal weight to that which is not at all equal, but it also underscores a galling lack of empathy for which music is (again) meant to (magically, romantically) cure. Over the past week there have been numerous posts from musicians expressing concern at losing opportunities over what seems to be little more than their nationality – but (to be a bit of a broken record here) I’m not convinced that’s the actual reason for the cancellation. We all know perceptions are not reality, but oh, they certainly feel that way, and nowhere more sharply than in times of war. The wording isn’t always the same with these expressions, written in a mix of despair and outrage, but the subtext is shared: fear. Who should speak out? Is it a good idea? How much specificity is expected? As violinist Alexey Igudesman recently posited:

You are a Russian artist who lives in Moscow with a family and a child, or who has family in Russia.
If you give statements against the government, the danger of something happening to you or your family in a regime like Russia is very real.
No-one should be forced to become a martyr and put their family and livelihood in danger. If one does, that has to be the individual’s own choice.

As human rights project OVD Info outlines, such exercise of choice is not done lightly. It begs the question: is it a choice when it isn’t really a choice? Artists living in the West who have spoken out are to be lauded, but such statements are not comparable with those made by others living in the country, or with family living in such an environment. In acknowledging such a reality there is also the need to acknowledge another: “How can one feel bad for Russians when Ukrainians are  being bombed?” – there is no answer to this. There can’t be; there shouldn’t be.

Grappling with suffering means gently if consciously engaging the imagination; even (or especially) if that suffering is not ours. This is which is a key component in making the engine of empathy run. Such exercise sometimes opens the door to understanding – but more often, in this age of quick reactions and retweets, leads to un-feeling, to closing doors, to shutting down engines and kicking them down several sets of stairs. Invariably come the comparisons (of suffering; of victimization), neither side bearing equal weight to the other. (If you don’t think Putin and his gang delight in fomenting such divisions, kindly reconsider; he is arguably the author of the mud-slinging event at contemporary edition of The Suffering Olympics. Such an event merits no winners, and should not attract so many willing recruits, and yet.) Why do people engage in this? False equivalency isn’t related to “seeing all sides” –  such valuation robs us of humanity, and robs us of the ability to exercise the empathy that clearly expresses that humanity.

Alas, such reductions are the currency with which wars are waged and fought; bending too far back is dangerous, but bowing too far forwards is apologism. That doesn’t mean suffering should not be acknowledged, and it doesn’t mean such an acknowledgement negates the need for figures within the classical community to speak with clarity  at a moment when it ought to be least effortful; compassion is either present or it is not. If it is effortful, well, so the person is clearly revealed. Politics, as ever, presents a challenge. The classical community was largely silent over many things, seemingly floating above it all: James Levine, Me Too, BLM, casting couches, COVID19 – the list of issues which classical has faced are lengthy, perceived as inconvenient, viewed as overheated reaction from an over-anxious, social-media fuelled public. It’s a witch hunt! they shout, and alas, the algorithm of social media clicks along; fans obediently seal-clap, defend their heroes, slut-shame accusers, publish breathless articles filled with puffy questions that mysteriously divorce art from life. Such conversations are handy bits of propaganda and certainly make the classical ecosystem (along with non-paying publishers and ad tech) very happy. So what? The fact that war is possibly the classical world’s tipping point for meaningful change is telling; something has to give, but whether something will is a whole other matter. In a recent exchange at Tablet, celebrated refusenik Natan Sharansky offers his thoughts on the war, and remembers his own experiences of being a Jew growing up in Ukraine:

Donetsk was a very international city, it had many nations. It was an industrial center, so for 100 years people had been coming there to look for work from different parts of the Russian empire. There were Ukrainians and Russians in Donetsk, of course, but also Kazakhs and Armenians and Georgians and Tatars. So none of that really mattered. What really mattered was: Are you Jewish or not? […] Jews were the only people who were really discriminated against. There were jokes about every nation, but the real prejudices and the official discrimination were against Jews. Now, I studied in a Russian school where the second language was Ukrainian, and there were many Ukrainian schools where the second language was Russian. As a Jew, I tried to be the best in everything, so I tried to also be the best in Ukrainian literature.

The pressure on a minority group to be the very best has gone from being a shared reality among many young musicians into an uncomfortable requirement. Expectations are high; competition is rampant. Be the best at performing, and now, be the best at performing the mechanics of virtue; such is the pressure now. Any chance for meaningful change is choked in the race to apply the right level of knowledge at the right time, in front of (or with) the right people. Ever has it been thus.

Indeed, growth is uncomfortable (meaningful growth, that is), and authenticity is messy; our heroes won’t be so shiny through some forms of growth, and we may have to end our (over)use of the word “genius.”  The payoff might be more meaningful engagement –with material, audiences, program directors, artists… cultures, experiences, histories, ideas. One can show sensitivity to Ukrainian ticket buyers while simultaneously engaging them in these conversations – one is not (should not be) exclusive of the other. It’s an instinct one would have hoped would have been applied by the Canada Council, the Honens Competition (notably since reversed),Théâtre Orchestre Bienne Soleure, Kartause Ittingen, the Cardiff Philharmonic, and Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and the Vancouver Recital Society.

It’s easy to point at these cancellations and scream witch hunt! (Putin would want you to) but far more difficult to examine the position of each, their board members, their audience demographics, the position of unions in some of them, and the ever-significant role of funding, which matters in providing wider music knowledge and related (needed) rehearsals of new material. Perhaps the work of Serge Bortkiewicz, Yevhen Stankovych, and Myroslav Skoryk will be programmed for more than benefits alone; perhaps these works will become, like so many others, part and parcel of regular season programming. Perhaps audiences will want to hear them, and more.

Serious consideration of such possibilities hint at the acknowledgement of a needed structural change and an overdue embrace of its smart application. The grounds must exist for dialogue which is free from angry exceptionalism but open to uncomfortable realities, including anger and disappointment, sometimes with words, sometimes in the form of returned tickets. That’s the reality; some outlets will be skittish in broaching this. Two years of pandemic has meant a wholly risk-averse landscape (the effects of which can clearly be seen in cancellations now), but such initiatives – such bravery – is required. It is in the exercise of these qualities that classical culture will, perhaps, find the kind of 21st century significance many argue it sorely needs. Alongside angrily returned tickets might come, one hopes, something else: curiosity. It is a quality which lays the seeds for… I won’t call it hope (which sounds precious) but… an opening. There needs to exist curiosity – for discussion, education, expansion, uncomfortable ideas, new avenues. “Just look,” says curiosity, “at least look…”

One might stomp off across the concrete, back to the labyrinthine bunker, ignoring the green shoots pushing through that soil, seeing only craters, mud, debris; one might walk away carefully, observing tiny buds, remembering it is spring, after all; one might be grateful to see such possibility. Setting fire to the field is not the answer. It is time to breathe, and to replant, carefully.

Photo: The curtain of the Komische Oper Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
painting, oil, figures, Yablonska, Ukrainian, art, culture, history, socialist realism, war, Russia, identity, scandal, protest, punishment

Essay: On Ukraine – Moving Beyond Performance

What is there to say?

Artists and organizations – some of them – have said plenty; others, very little. Some have chosen their words carefully, like a doe making her way through a field riddled with landmines – any step provokes angry reaction, any bent blade of grass a torrent of judgement. Some have simply not said anything at all. There are arguments in waterfalls of threads online – sometimes they break a dam, mostly they don’t. Walls remain walls. That doesn’t mean hacking at them in a real way, with real tools, isn’t important. Social media has, since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, been a fascinating way to observe who uses tools, and how, and why, though these platforms (whose influence, for good and bad, ought not to be dismissed) have also provided reminders of the ease with which many organizations and figures alike can hide, obfuscate, and conceal, or alternately, promote, congratulate, posture. Sometimes though, none of those things happen, but something far deeper, better, more authentic. At present that authenticity isn’t merely nice – it’s necessary.

The Kremerata Baltica Chamber Orchestra, currently on tour, recently engaged in a fascinating series of exchanges on their Facebook page after posting a supportive message and an actionable link (which I publicly thanked them for); the transparency of such efforts and exchanges is what the situation now demands. One hopes more organizations will follow suit, but alas, such direct expression in those other arenas is being blunted by political and economic interests, not humane and conscientious ones. The meaningful change inspired by pandemic which so many had hoped for in the classical world hasn’t totally manifest. (Some may argue with me on this, and really, go ahead; sticking to my guns.) There is a feeling, in looking at the mad race back to a crap old normal that didn’t work well for anyone not at the top, that war has magnified the compassion deficit uncovered by the pandemic a hundred-fold. People are already suffering emotional burnout, and now… now. But I’m not so sure performative hashtags are the answer. Certainly, such gestures satisfy marketing departments and board members who wish to convey concern (#concern); whatever is easiest, least risky, most theatrical, requiring lowest effort but eliciting maximum applause and maintaining the comfortable position of coolness (or victimology narratives), with the requisite grab for sexy influencer clicks, well yes, this. (I get it; take a look at my hashtags, done for clarity and indexing on the internet, but still.) I naively want to believe people are still (somehow) good, that they are not all selfish, that they will take initiative, however big or small, and not for their own sake; how I want to feel there is a willingness to risk comfort and familiarity and position, that humanity will make an effort, move beyond, give a damn – not for themselves, not for bank accounts, not for comfort or the continuance of some pretentious, capital-A form of art or some jewellry-rattling form of #fancy #night #out, but because it is simply the right thing to do. Watching numerous huge protests across the world is encouraging; people care, many of them, but I wonder how much is translating into real action, a contemplation given extra force in examining various responses within the classical world.

It is a community which has, this week, been a hodge-podge of activism, protest, confusion, awkwardness,  silence, diplomacy, and carefully-worded outrage. Some, like Opernhaus Zürich, have been straight-forward: “We strongly condemn the unprecedented war of aggression on Ukraine.” The purposeful inclusion of those words (“condemn” “war” “aggression”) are incredible when seen in contrast to the approach of other houses. Clarity matters; language matters. Russian conductors Kirill Petrenko and Semyon Bychkov, have used similar clarity in their respective statements. Released through the Berlin Philharmonic, Petrenko’s note says that Putin’s “insidious attack” does indeed “violate international law.” The head of one of the world’s most famous (and storied) orchestras writing this, publicly, is noteworthy; for Petrenko (who is Jewish), music is certainly not above, nor separate, from politics. How could it be, though, considering the history and creation of so many pieces? Going further yet is Semyon Bychkov, who has written a series of strongly-worded, thoughtful responses over the past week. In one statement, he pinpoints the importance of recognizing the intersection of history, memory, conflict, and narratives, something which has been the subject of heated online discourse since the start of the war this week:

One of many signs and symbols that the country has returned to pre-Perestroika times is the dissolution of the Memorial Society founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov in 1989. Its mission was to research every single victim of repression and keep the memory of the dead alive. Through the dissolution of the Memorial on 29 December 2021 victims of repression were killed once again. This too is a form of genocide. Not in the Russian-occupied Donbas of Ukraine as Putin claims.

The Russian regime wants to obliterate the memory of its victims. If we forget them we will betray them.

Earlier this week, Bychkov announced the cancellation of a planned series of concerts leading the Russian National Youth Orchestra. Rather than sticking head in the sand and stating “culture continues” he makes real the very real idea that choices during war matter; actions result in things people will, or won’t, experience directly – and this is what creates impact in a real way, an impact which morally dominates any ostrich-like, romanticized notion of what culture (specifically classical music) can or should be. Bychkov’s cancellation is not about punishment, as the St. Petersburg-born maestro explains:

I want the spirit of this decision to be unmistakably clear: it is in no way directed at the orchestra or its public. The emotional suffering of ordinary Russian people at this time, the feeling of shame and economic losses they experience are real. So is a sense of helplessness in face of repression inflicted by the regime. Those individuals who dare to oppose this war put their own life in danger. They need us who are free to take a stand and say: ‘The guns must fall silent, so that we can celebrate life over death’.

He writes something incredibly important just before this, that performing “under the present circumstances would be an unconscionable act of acquiescence.

This is not, it is worth nothing, an act meant to sow division; it is an act of solidarity that fully and openly acknowledges the central role of economics within the classical world, one rarely discussed but wholly vital, especially the impact the pandemic has had on culture. The money-meets-government factor is an element which certainly deserves scrutiny, and indeed it’s one many Russian artists have now dared to question. A strongly-worded open letter from Russian arts workers reads, in part, “Everything that has been done culturally over the past 30 years is now at risk: all international ties will be severed, cultural private or state institutions will be mothballed, partnerships with other countries will be suspended. All this will destroy the already fragile economy of Russian culture and significantly reduce its significance both for Russian society and for the international community as a whole.” So far the petition has more than 2100 signatories. I can only guess how many of those who signed are, or have been, on the streets to protest – there have been several across Russia, and thousands of people (including composer/musician Alexander Manotskov) have been detained . Several Russian cultural figures (including, rather notably, Vladimir Urin and Vladimir Spivakov) have signed an anti-war petition in which they recognize that “in each of us lives the genetic memory of war. We do not want a new war, we do not want people to lose their lives.” It may seem milquetoast in its wording, but as Meduza editor Kevin Rothrock pointed out, “many people are risking their livelihoods with this. It’s not your throwaway virtue signalling.” If art is about connection, as some have recently claimed, then the most important points in that line of connection must be financial; to disinclude them is to engage in a privileged form of willful blindness. Who can afford such a luxury now?

Moscow-based art museum Garage has released a public announcement in which they announce they are halting all of their exhibitions “until the human and political tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine has ceased. We cannot support the illusion of normality when such events are taking place.” A group of public figures, including author Vladimir Sorokin and actress Chulpan Khamatova, composer/pianist Anton Batagov, and Nobel-Prize-winning journalist Dmitry Muratov, have added their names to another petition, which reads (in translation):

The war Russia has launched against Ukraine is a disgrace. It is OUR shame, but unfortunately, our children, the generation of very young and unborn Russians, will also have to bear responsibility for it. We do not want our children to live in an aggressor country, to feel ashamed that their army has attacked a neighbouring independent state. We call on all citizens of Russia to say NO to this war. 

We do not believe that an independent Ukraine poses a threat to Russia or any other state. We do not believe Vladimir Putin’s statements that the Ukrainian people are under the rule of the “Nazis” and need to be “liberated”. We demand an end to this war!

The outrage – its reality, its clarity in expression, the risk inherent to its expression – are all very real, and witnessing it across the spectrum, in real time, has been harrowing. To be blunt: I never expected Russian artists to publicly take a stand, to venture, to risk, but when they did, I am struck (mostly) by the humanity, and the specificity of language in conveying that humanity (something I think Bychkov is especially good at capturing). That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been disagreement, defensiveness, an appalling lack of compassion. False equivalency, that pungent symbol of 21st century socio-political exchange, has been expressed by some – it reads as little more than self-interested apologism; the “what aboutisms” that come with such reactions beat on the intellect and the soul equally. Such responses were taken to task by Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who shared specific and personal details of her family history, one which is, like so many of us Eastern Europeans, threaded through with tragedy:

My already very old grand-grand-parents were deported by the Russians to Siberia during the second world war. One grand-grandfather was shot. My grandparents were robbed by Russian soldiers of home and everything. Not even being allowed to keep the shoes of their small children they had to live on the street. These are facts, not opinions.

Equally clear has been the position of music publisher Bärenreiter: “We vehemently oppose violence as well as the unfounded and unjustified aggression of one state against another, for which there is absolutely no place in cultural Europe.” They added the call to “let us all think about how we can actively support the Ukrainian people who are paying the highest price just for expressing their will to live just like us.”

Herewith are two links, ones I shared with Bärenreiter, which I am sharing here – not to seem saintly, not to prove anything, but merely because of a feeling of utter helplessness; I don’t know what else can be done, but to provide something which might have a real impact past numerous other tepid words and performative gestures. Perhaps my history working for Amnesty International many years ago in Dublin is making itself known; those busy days working alongside journalists covering a variety of human rights stories left its own indelible mark. These links (to accredited charities) were shared with me by Ukrainian contacts, who have been pleading with their well-meaning, non-Slavic counterparts to please fucking do something! They contain real, actionable suggestions to real organizations, many of them working at ground level in Ukraine. 

I don’t want to offer any grand philosophical statement about how culture “erases” borders – those borders and identities matter to people. People are fleeing across them right now; the fact they’re from a certain place matters a great deal, to them and to others. People right now are arguing about those identities, warring over them, with words and weapons equally. Culture doesn’t melt anything; music doesn’t mend anything – if anything, music has the power to rip hearts wide open, to inflame passions, to provoke strong feelings and thoughts; sometimes it should. Music isn’t always some mystical prescriptive bandage meant to heal the world – history has repeatedly taught us (or tried to teach us) that such reductive understanding doesn’t exactly work, for performers or audiences. Of course, history is largely labyrinthine; right action and its effects are not. We all experience life, and its sounds, differently – anthems, marches, symphonies, operas – births, deaths, sex, love. We all come from somewhere; sometimes we leave those places, but our hearts stay. How could they not? Sing, proclaim, protest; have a voice. Your voice matters, and will in time, I think, be less a part of the labyrinth of history than a ragged, colorful thread in a vast quilt, a piece of which we take back to our homes, someday, somehow – against our skin, hidden, but close to our hearts.

(Artwork: Tetyana Yablonska, “Life Goes On”. Oil on canvas, 1970. The National Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv.)
Paris, Garnier, foyer, lights, chandelier, opera, opera house, interior, music, culture, history, Europe, Paris, France, architecture

Essay: On Community, Culture, Vanishing, And The Usefulness Of Shells

The bonds formed and broken over the course of the past twenty-two months has led to reevaluations around relationships, and the kinds we want, and don’t want, in our lives. Complex equations relating to time and energy, volume and content, content and quality are being weighted against sheer exhaustion; many are just so tired and often feeling so much older than our years. If age is most accurately measured in moments than time, as Lord Byron implied, there are a good few of us in the arts who have been rendered ancient between March 2020 and now. That sense of aging has played a significant role in why and how relationships have shifted and changed. Sarah Miller’s “On Not Talking To Someone Anymore” (at her website) and Katharine Smyth’s “Why Making Friends In Midlife Is So Hard(The Atlantic) are documents of people reaching a certain pandemic point and realizing things have irrevocably shifted, for good and bad. The corona era has made those positive/negative lines sharper, and blurrier, at once; has what’s been lost, especially in middle age – outside of the physical – may or may not be worth mourning.

That loss seems more pronounced in some spheres than in others; the high-wire act of balancing solitude and community, isolation and relating, very much powers cultural expression. Vanishing and being vanished on, the sorts of people we spend time with or move away from (literally and figuratively), the nature of our relating, alone and otherwise – these notions hold particular relevance in an age where community matters less and more, at once. Such presence is more fraught (again, literally and figuratively) than at any other point in recent memory. In her piece, Miller points out that the reasons behind silences can, at least sometimes (and if you ask), be reduced to the petty, the mundane, the cutting truth (or untruth) of seeing yourself and your behavioural choices through another’s eyes (whether you have vanished, or been vanished on), and of the painful divides when experiences, time, and nostalgia for the passing of both are mismatched to the onerous realities of the present. Smyth explores the strangeness of connecting in a strange place, inwardly and outwardly, in engaging in a practice one less considered than simply enjoyed, and the various nuances of experiential difference that adhere to the digital pursuance of such. The profound loss to which articles both allude has been magnified by the relentless ephemerality of digital platforms carrying the ironic title of “social”, outlets which encourage anything but phones-away, non-posting, simple, human relating. Social media platforms, as many know, play to pandemic times: avoid safely, connect comfortably. Observing endless streams of photos posted by high school/elementary school friends/exes/co-workers/colleagues/casual contacts, one tends to automatically engage in the algorithmically-calculated behavioural compunction toward comparison-making. It is a human urge which technology has become adept at identifying and exploiting. The urge toward comparison becomes all the more pronounced when some places have live performance, and some places don’t – where some places have full houses (and antecedent requirements for that to happen), and some places outright cancel events. Such contrasts have a sometimes acidic effect for those of us in the arts, who have lost work or are still looking, who are looking to bump up CVs and pay bills. Not being a part of regular crowds these last almost-two-years (and thus not working, for the most part) encourages an insularity whereby anything good that happens to someone else, and thusly advertised, is now suspect. Envy, most especially within the cultural realm, has been writ large; those who have are in such sharp contrast with those who have not. What should be unvarnished joys – a new job, a trip, an excursion, a concert, a conversation – are flashpoints for lack, reminders of non-abundance and ultimate separation.

So much of what gets shared now seems mundane, overwrought, calculated, or a strange combination therein. People have largely burrowed into the, to quote Jim Morrison, “woolly cotton brains” of the familiar, following or leading lessons online whilst baking bread, with dusty blinds, gritty floors, and rattling furnaces intact. Ah yes, we say, seeing such familiar elements of the quotidian to which we’ve been reduced, I recognize that, yes. The yeast/flour scarcity in early 2020 has morphed into current supply-chain issues; baking shortages led to furniture shortages, and now, apparently grocery shortages, the very place the money once spent on cultural excursions, now doth flow. The familiar has become a safe bubble to love and resent, a strange new counterpoint of the era. Rising economic uncertainty, coupled with financial realities, mean community, as a lived reality, grows more distant under the weight of such mundanities, only slightly flecked these days by random twinkling lights of diversion, originating from strings of lights, rows of candles, and more often than not, a panoply glowing screens that keep us apart, talking (typing, tapping) about the same mundane things we all watched or saw or tweeted. Opening up to 50% capacity in Bavaria is a big deal – to hell with the screens, hurrah!

snail, garden, mollusk, shell

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

But Mein Gott, who would go? Should I? Will I die going to see a concert or an opera? Or wanting to keep writing about such things? Will I get sick going backstage to interview, to chat, to greet, to hug and handshake? Drinks later? Oder? Was ist noch “normal”? Not being around people, or more importantly, being only around the same tightly-controlled group of people, aggravates such anxieties, leading to a reinforcement of experiential bubbles, and that is, obviously, bad for art, but it is what many are being forced to do, if not through their own choice now, than through guidelines that dictate external conditions. Thus do silence and its hurtful counterpart (vanishing) become as normal as overcrowding and cacophony, as alternating rhythms of zen and anxiety; somehow pandemic has underlined such extremes of living, and creating. I have come to understand, at a deep level, that people with families/partners/networks/busy jobs/illness are juggling heavier balls than I, a family-free freelancer. This isn’t to diminish the sharp and painful realities of solo creative life; lack of regular benefits, precipitous drops in income, whole months of work washed away, to say nothing of continuous days and weeks of isolation, makes those uniquely spiky freelancer balls difficult to keep aloft, and more than once I have dropped them all at once along with the concomitant connections meant to make them feeling lighter and less burdensome than they really are. Having needs isn’t the same as being needy, but often the two have blurred. Things which should connect – common interests, creativity, inspiration – somehow, now, do not. Conversation feels effortful, whether giving or receiving, and when it isn’t, one often feels as if there is a sense of impermanence: so if we have a grand old chat we can be silent for two months, right? We’d all cry out our grief, cry out our disappointment, to paraphrase Rumi, but we’re all too busy trying to survive, and besides who would want to make the effort to listen to such cacophony?

Trying to interact with those with whom we share such commonalities can be (often is, lately) like speaking the same language but with different dialects. Somehow Hugh MacLennan’s ‘two solitudes’ concept takes on a broader and yet more precise meaning; there is no real, shared language but for the words that indicate precise, sometimes intricate division, within the era of pandemic. Talking classical with equally-passionate others isn’t the doddle some may assume; it can rapidly devolve into ferocious spit-balling, name-calling, intransigent foot-stomping, bragging, finger-wagging, or some combination therein. It is not news that people who love the arts (and who work in the arts) hold strong opinions, but that’s where vanishing also (alas) can come in; such relating is exhausting, and everyone is, without question, already so tired, and thus such exchanges become another burdensome ball to keep aloft. The desire to engage in these tribalistic exchanges speaks to a need for (perceived) community, one which is greater than ever, one fostered by a love of culture, and more accurately, its live expression. New avenues can and are created within the heated (if hopefully well-ventilated) atmosphere of shared experience – but such communal engagement can paradoxically encourage a laziness of thought, a dampening of curiosity; there’s a fear of going against the herd indeed, but more than that, sometimes there is precisely no thought given to not fitting in with the herd, to not parrot what everyone says, to apply nuance, to apply context, to ask for clarification and to do so privately. There is an urge to simply agree and to “amplify” (that overused word of the times), an urge applauded and underlined by platforms which, as I’ve written, are ironically meant to encourage the notion of “social.”

Lately I have decided to keep most experiences (cultural and otherwise) to myself, to not share, to not opine, to not publicly offer applause or evaluation unless I feel it is truly warranted. I’d rather discuss these things privately with my small if trusted circle, not of necessarily “like minds” but of what I would call “like spirits.” There is more community found with such contacts, many of whom hail from entirely different cultures and backgrounds – we might have a shared love of x-y-z art, but that isn’t the reason we’re friends, and it isn’t the reason we might forgive (or question) each other’s occasional vanishings and silences – and frankly, we have the balls (I hope) to push back at one another as needed, if not always welcome. Kissing ass isn’t the point – sycophancy doth not a friendship make – because authenticity matters more. We like context; we like nuance. These things take time and attention, and when there’s time to be made, it is wholly taken. Chemistry can be cultivated, but it cannot be created whole.

snail, horns, shell, movement

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Accepting this has had personal ramifications. I have vanished on many; I have been vanished on by a great many more. I have become fussier in my interactions, and in the nature of those chosen interactions. This runs parallel with more selective listening and viewing habits; I am no longer a journalist or critic but my critical faculties now come with decidedly sharp edges, ones I wield carefully, according to that treasured context. In person, I have learned to speak with my eyes – and not. I have mastered obfuscation; I have learned silence; I thus can  vanish, in many ways. Interacting from the literal and figurative safety of a monitor has given harsh if vital lessons. Rare is the moment I will drop any mask now, literally, or figuratively. The willingness to be vulnerable is what fuels meaningful connections, but its direct exercise is far more carefully considered these days. In his book La poétique de l’espace (The Poetics of Space) first published by Presses Universitaires de France in 1957, Gaston Bachelard devotes an entire chapter to shells and their paradoxical nature within the realms of creative human development. He ties artistic life with evolution of living forms, with “these snail-shells from which emerge quadrupeds, birds and human beings. To do away with what lies between is, of course, an ideal of speed… ”. In contemporary terms, that “doing away with” might constitute a great robbery, especially if one considers the heightened speed the digital world of 2022 demands, a pace which conflates perpetuation of connection with meaning, only to encourage its simultaneously illusory nature. Superficial ties are (mostly) easy to break; contacts we haven’t met (or barely met) are easy to vanish on. The people we meet and know are not immune to this virus of speed and ease, either, nor to the subsequent (and often casually done) breaking of those ties, ones which, within the creative realm, can be so inherently valuable. Bachelard continues, and offers a clue as to how to sort the vanishing/vanished-on fraught nature of modern adult relating:

A creature that hides and “withdraws into its shell” is preparing a “way out.” This is true of the entire scale of metaphors, from the resurrection of a man in his grave, to the sudden outburst of one who has long been silent. If we remain at the heart of the image under consideration, we have the impression that, by staying in the motionlessness of its shell, the creature is preparing temporal explosions, not to say whirlwinds, of being. The most dynamic escapes take place in cases of repressed being, and not in the flabby laziness of the lazy creature whose only desire is to go and be lazy elsewhere. If we experience the imaginary paradox of a vigorous mollusk – the engravings in question give us excellent depictions of them – we strain to the most decisive type of aggressiveness, which is postponed aggressiveness, aggressiveness that bides its time. Wolves in shells are crueler than stray ones.

Cruelty, it would seem, has been a hallmark of the pandemic era – cruelty, selfishness, pronounced exclusion and snobbery, bubble-think; they are behaviours that would seem to confirm beings comfortably, lazily ensconced within respective shells. For live culture and those who live by and for it, there should be another way, but we are all human, none of us (not even or especially artists) above any other with regards to the hurt humans are well capable of inflicting, and of feeling. And that capability to feel has not left, and indeed, should not.

But let us be wolves, then, in our shells, considering how best to spend and direct our energies and attentions. Energy goes where attention goes: let us hope we have learned how to direct it wisely. I want to feel such attention can be wielded, if not with great compassion (that seems like a big ask, and not a little precious), then at least with great curiosity, that such an exercise will get us out of our shells now and again, if only to breathe the cold, clean air.

Paris, Palais Garnier, Chagall, opera, opera house, interior, music, culture, history, Europe

Essay: On The “Relatable” – In Opera, And Beyond

Amidst the many classical features published over the past year, the word “relatable” has popped up, an insistent neon sign in a landscape of bucolic rural scenes and insistently grinning portraits. Art, and especially, opera, should be relatable in some way, apparently – relatable as in connecting directly to the viewer’s life, habits, predilections, and peccadillos in obvious and recognizable ways. If Figaro is presented on the stage, we should immediately recognize him, if not as someone else, but precisely as one’s own self: “Hey, that’s me! That’s what I do, that’s how I react, that’s just how I think!” So too for Carmen, the Marschallin, Aida, Papageno, Rigoletto, Lulu, Brünnhilde, Hansel and Gretel, Boris Godounov, the Cunning Little Vixen, the Miserly Knight, Lady Macbeth(s), Eurydice, Rodelinda, Poppea. This desire (more of a demand in some places) to see our immediate and recognizable selves on a stage (on a screen, in a book) is not new. In 2014 American public radio personality Ira Glass dismissed a production of King Lear at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, his tweet stating he found “no stakes, unrelatable”, then subsequently referencing 2013 productions of Shakespeare in New York with another pithy tweet: “(F)antastic acting, surprisingly funny, but Shakespeare is not relatable, unemotional.”

Rebecca Mead’s 2014 piece for The New Yorker, The Scourge Of “Relatability”, contextualizes the history of the word in relation to its rise on early-aughties American daytime television and its subsequent rise across various media sources and literary review websites, along with an indicative listicle from a clickbait-heavy site – surely a bullseye example to contemporary eyes, inundated consciously and not with the mechanics of ad tech, whose role here is not inconsiderable. Mead notes the concept has roots in Freud’s mechanism of identification – that is, cultivation of self through imitation and idealization of a parental and/or authority figures. (“Children are inclined to behave like the significant adult models in their environment, Freud postulated. These identifications give identity and individuality to the maturing child,” as Britannica helpfully notes.) The challenge to cultural expression, as Mead rightly identifies, is that the demand for relatability becomes conflated with expectation, that “the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.” This has immense implications for opera, with its widely-regarded, unconsciously-held expectations of ecstasy, ones which are all the more subsumed within a culture which grapples with outmoded perceptions and clichés around elitism. Why shouldn’t one want to see one’s self, precisely, live before them, especially when one enters the auditorium having paid good money, made the effort to dress up, obtained the now-required documentation for entry? Mead continues:

The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

To appreciate “King Lear”—or even “The Catcher in the Rye” or “The Fault in Our Stars”—only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of “relatable.”

The demand on directors, and by association, singers, to be relatable, to have familiar elements of daily life and the 21st century living of it, grows more and more present. “Reimagined” is the buzzword of the Covid era, with presentations of many works overhauled, rebranded, and largely decontextualized for consumption by a supposedly hungry online audience; offering up new/old works with the intention to relay some form of the relatable (be it in gender, gender fluidity, race, sexuality, social strata) before the truly theatrical, is less a fad than a lived reality in many corners of the cultural landscape. The hearty use of digital technologies, while initially heartening 21 months ago, more than often this year points to confusion between the accessible and the relatable; the assumption that we’re all on our computers because of pandemic isn’t wrong but it’s lazy, and takes the onus off the human urge toward imagination, and the exercise of it. We want to imagine ourselves fully dressed, out and about, in pre-corona land, but that’s not going to happen, and so, we’re presented with endless forms of what is perceived by marketing departments to be entirely relatable, and we, of course, are meant to applaud.

Parma, Teatro Regio di Parma, opera, opera house, Italy, Nuovo Teatro Ducale, music, culture, history, Europe, interior

Inside the Teatro Regio di Parma. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Some figures, like Faust, are already familiar, or should be, by the sheer dint of previous literary/socio-cultural history. Don’t we all make a deal with the devil, whether it’s posting open-moistly-mouthed photos in order to get the notice of powerful casting agents, going maskless backstage, posting over-edited (in modern parlance, “curated”) performance snippets on Tik Tok, or even (especially) getting on an airplane at Xmas/New Year’s amidst pandemic? Ah, but that magic word “choice” is a captivating sirin in modern life, eyes glinting with perceived power and colored talons wrapped around an invisible pen, waving the papers for an imaginary divorce from hard, real circumstance – that messy, multi-layered stuff which makes us. It’s pleasant and convenient, (some will righteously label it “immense”, a handy form of ego-combing empowerment), to feel that everything in life is entirely within one’s control, that everything boils down to the woo of personal responsibility and individual energetic direction. I can choose to be agreeable about this exploitative situation; I can be h-o-t as defined by the narrow parameters I myself entrench; I choose to see myself in Carmen; I choose to see Sarastro as a closet sub in search of a dom. I can choose, lalala! If we do not see our very selves precisely presented on the stage, so the thinking goes, then where? Should we (can we) “choose” otherwise? Shall our complicated and messy 21st century world not be part of (nay, constitute the entirety of) theatrical presentation now, in the midst of pandemic? Is it not awfully elitist to ignore such realities given such a forum? Can we choose something else – really? In an industry so bifurcated by geography, funding models, educational models, and quotidian culture, the concept of “relatable” as connected to stagings differs widely, and takes on various forms, some of which are shared, many of which are not. One can choose to applaud or be angry, but one must always be loud in 2021, and probably 2022 also; awareness, contemplation, nuance, quiet – time-consuming, seemingly effortful, unfashionable. The recent hand-wringing in Berlin over The Nutcracker (given intelligent dissection recently in Süddeutsche Zeitung) makes clear the onerous challenges of a lacking historical awareness, the disinterest in engaging with its sharper corners, and the unsexy nature of nuance, a quality which works against the acrid reactivity which makes the machinery of ad tech turn so merrily, which has hoisted the cult of the relatable to godlike status. Everyone takes sides; everyone is supposed to. We signed the papers, after all.

This is not to dismiss diverse representation, a powerful and wholly overdue thing. Such representation offers an encouragement to young artists (read: non-white, non-straight, non-gendered, non-moneyed) who might otherwise not see themselves, literally, figuratively, or otherwise, as having any role or value in the industry, or indeed, elsewhere in the wider world. I have imagined myself, at various points, a mother, a partner, a socialite, a popular and promiscuous girl; I have imagined myself tall and elegant and reed-thin; I have imagined myself tiny-breasted and long-legged and saucer-eyed; I have imagined myself part of a wide and active social group, with a large and rambling line of loud, boisterous relatives; I have imagined myself a successful writer and artist, living in various places, each with its own beautiful view. Don’t dream it, be it; there’s that invisible pen at work again. I don’t have to imagine myself as a lawyer, a doctor, teacher, accountant, engineer; I’ve never been interested enough in those things to exercise such energies, and I know I have the advantage of class, colour, and nationality to take seeing myself in them entirely for granted; others do not. There is no leap of imagination required for seeing and experiencing people like me in those roles. For those who don’t look and sound like me, that leap is required, constantly, outside the theatre just as often as inside of it. That the best and most effective solution might be at the elementary education level is what many nod at with seriousness and understanding, but is the very thing few seem willing to actually do. It isn’t sexy, tangling with education departments and ministries who aren’t interested in you or your world, and such long-haul commitments are made more difficult (and difficult to justify) amidst the economic ruin of pandemic, to wave arms and shout until hoarse, Spend more on school instruments! Stop cutting music classes in your budgets! The issue isn’t as simple as online arm-waves anyway, but oh, the work involved, the sheer level of energy (to petition, to raise awareness, to do the continual footwork, to educate and re-educate one’s self and others) – fighting against decades of lacklustre government policy is not a job for the weak of heart, it bears no public plaudits or shares or retweets, and more often than not of late, no real fruit either. Such work is not favoured by algorithms, ergo, such work does not, within the digital sphere of the 21st century, exist; most arts educators already know this.

sculpture, Rodin, bronze, man, closeup, art, shoulder, body, bronze

Detail, The Age of Bronze (L’Age d’airain), Auguste Rodin, bronze; 1906. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

One thinks back to innumerable noisy recorder lessons in small, windowless rooms, sitting on scratchy orange carpet, one’s fingers moving along the narrow round body, the tips growing moist from all that joyful, effortful breathing producing squeaky versions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and the recognizable theme from Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I could play both, in far fancier (if still simplified) versions on the piano, but then, I came from an odd household, privileged in the sense that culture, including classical music, was an integrated part of quotidian life. I didn’t relate to most of elementary (or high) school, but for the music and cultural/literary elements. For those who keep and cultivate these things, for those whom music is in fact a central facet of daily life, it becomes all too easy to forget about those outside the bubble of such privilege – and it is that, something we inside of it often conveniently forget. Being an educator at post-secondary institutions these last seven years has served to underline, in some rather bold and striking ways, the parameters of such a bubble, and all the concomitant implications of such a world view. Most of my students through the years have never heard of Peter And The Wolf, let alone Prokofiev; many of them think of opera only as a formal if dull event adhering to the #fancy clichés pushed by the very organizations who wish to court them, and those online only too happy to entrench such cliches for the sake of some high-school-competition win. The music-minded note the growing gaps in arts education, sigh heavily, write tweets with predictable words  (ie Philistines, barbarism) and carry on listening to the latest BBC3 podcast on the work of a composer many (most?) of the students silently nodded at (but never seen) in such exchanges have never heard of, or probably experience live. Them vs. us; us vs. them; make the arts great (again), or something; RT this; pageviews that. Ad (tech) infinitum.

The polarities encouraged by the mechanics of the internet, and which characterise much online discourse now, have had an obvious and unmissable effect on the discourse around opera. Burn it all down on one side; I want camels in Aida dammit! on the other. Cliques exist, foment, gather choristers accordingly. Polarity, as history has shown, is profitable for the few and bad for the many, and any step outside the boundaries cause for ostracising (or worse yet, in the digital realm, being – gasp – ignored), but such a vast and inflamed auditorium has given rise to a frustrating conflation between relatability and revisionism, with no sense of the influence or role of funding according to geography. When marketing has to somehow make up for a lack of proper funding, well, what then? Somehow the appeals to “relatable” art (and antecedent calls for more diverse representation within it) become louder, with nary a contemplation given to the nuanced ecosystems of creation, imagination, context, history, and plain, messy, debt-ridden, ill, heartbroken people. Everything begins, and ends, with money, and as with educational reform, arts funding is an area rife with predictable name-calling (the poor old Philistines) and salty intransigence. People want to see people like them presented onstage, with all their preferences and problems and concerns, and those with deep pockets will pay for that – but only that. As Mead wrote, “In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities.” Such capacities, like nuance, do not translate through the narcissistic lens of the digital realm, and, in the mid-pandemic landscape of opera, are largely not welcome.

Parma, Italy, Teatro Farnese, opera, production, Graham Vick, music, culture, history

Graham Vick’s interactive production of Stiffelio at Teatro Farnese, Parma, 2017. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Thus the desire (demand) to see ourselves presented, just so, on a stage continues  – but so too, I hope, does the desire to see something that demands a leap of faith, and imagination, not unlike church (but with better costumes, unless you are Orthodox). Some of my favorite contemporary directors (Graham Vick, Barrie Kosky, Andrea Breth, Kirill Serebrennikov, Claus Guth, Calixto Bieito, Katharina Thalbach, and Dmitri Tcherniakov among them) take the leap of faith and imagination so integral to theatre, and to the presentation of opera, now more than ever; words bandied about with disdain (modernized, Eurotrash, and my favorite, unrelatable) discount the vital roles of each, and further entrench the polarities which have proven so damaging, and so very profitable. Representation becomes less about literalism and more concerned with staring us opera fans in the face in challenging our culpability for its longtime lack. My favourite operatic presentations tend to ask something I’m not always prepared to give; sometimes there is discomfort, confusion, anger… and hours, weeks, sometimes months later, I am glad for the experience, and grateful. It is with no small awareness that I attend opera not wanting to see me on the stage; I have the luxury of taking for granted the musicians, performers, director, designers, and much of the audience, already does. In no way does such awareness diminish the power of individual imagination within the parameters of creative presentation in that particular auditorium, on that particular day, at that particular hour, in that particular locale, with my own particular knowledge of director / work / singers / conductor / orchestra / house / personnel / history. I attend theatre, and opera, wanting to see another’s life and experiences, wanting another’s thoughts and emotions, hungry for another’s ideas and observations, all of which are conveyed through the lens of just such a chosen group, and thusly judge, evaluate, contemplate, and imagine for myself, whether or not the parts fit, how, and why, or why not. Knowing the history inherent to stage works, like The Nutcracker is vital; I cannot possibly relate to the Sugar Plum Fairy or Drosselmeyer, but I can at least understand, or gain some sense, of the context in which it was created and presented, and engage in an exercise of imagination with relation to Tchaikovsky (and Dumas, and Hoffmann too), to the first (and subsequent) audiences of the work, to evolving senses of lives and world views. Imagination is not the same thing as empathy, and shouldn’t be confused as such; such an conflation is analogous to that of representation and revisionism, and says more about our world now, with its digital cliques and keyboard warriors, its comfortable bubbles and reductive phrases (ie “cancel culture”) borne of the polarities encouraged by algorithms. Anything “guaranteed to offend” yields as many yawns as something “guaranteed to wow”; hype is the ever-bleeding wound collected by the Holy Grail of clicks, one best to exercise conscientious choice in ignoring. Sometimes, that invisible pen comes in rather handy.

The basic elements around which narratives turn are familiar tropes to all, no matter the background or exposure, the education or the privilege, or lack thereof. This past autumn I played my media students Peter And The Wolf (none of them – 61 in all – had ever heard of the work) to encourage a creative cultivation in their perceptions of the building blocks of narrative. For all the bewildered looks I courted at the time (bewildered eyes, that is, times being what they are) the quality of writing thereafter noticeably improved. Whether this is down to Prokofiev, Karloff, my mad live note-taking, or some combination therein, I cannot say, but a thought was reinforced: introduction, enthusiasm, and contextualization matter, and they affect how one thinks of and approaches those other, popular building blocks. None of them could relate to the specific elements; nearly all of them could relate to the work’s themes of growing up and moving away from childhood through frightening, direct experience with a clear and present danger. Romance, with its inherent silliness often presented as Actual Real Love across large swaths of culture, is a common theme carrying its own unique roads to imagination and winding paths to memory; more often than not the two combine in such an element, and produce frequent misunderstandings, if simultaneously checking the box of expected ecstasy. Sentimental swoons at the close of La bohème ignore the basics: there is fighting; there is suffering; there is terrible poverty. There is death, remorse, inevitably harsh growing up. Do we really need  some romanticized version of poverty, loss, death? To use the common parlance, fuck that noise. Fighting with the person you love isn’t romantic; it’s awful. Watching the person you love die isn’t pastel-adorned, beautied sentimentality; it’s cold, steely, horrific. There’s no call for a director to make things “relatable” – such a quality already exists within the work itself, as much as its characters. Romanticized clichés – the ones sometimes expected and often friendly to donors (who wish nothing more than to have at the theatre, a manageable, tidy vision of the world that reflects their own desires and/or worldview) – have a tendency to diminish, not enhance, boxing in that which shouldn’t be (really can’t be) tidily wrapped. The work itself is so painfully real in places, the characters themselves could be depicted on the moon (in fact, they were, in Claus Guth’s staging at Opéra de Paris a few seasons ago) – Puccini’s music, his vocal writing, his orchestration, reveals something deeper, more real, more human. Some things are relatable, and some things are not; where there are elements missing, imagination is charged, and re-charged, with every note, every pause, every breath.

This holds true as much for Mimi and Rodolfo as it does for Tosca, for Don Giovanni, for the Marshalline, for Boris Godounov, the fox, the knight, Carmen, and Lulu too. There are smidges of the sacred, the profane, the hellish, the divine, the undeniably human, conveyed not only with words (of course not), but through music, that thing so often (too often) bizarrely, somehow, forgotten in the Race To Relatability. Motifs, orchestration, phrasing, pauses, individual performance choices as much as scored ones, melodies, harmonies, tones (semitones, quarter tones): these choices, made by creators, together with their backgrounds, the worlds from which they sprung, the people who paid them and the people who booed – all are worth examining, staring in the face, knowing, learning, with or without any sense of familiarity, but with nuance, consideration, curiosity. There is no such thing as attending a cultural event with a blank inner slate; there is, however, a role for curiosity, and intimately related to that, a role for imagination, and they are things capable of, and for, everyone. Live creative expression carries the weight of whatever context is brought by artists who might allow for such trust to be built within a space dedicated to imagination and the conscious and delicious exercise of it. Here the invisible pen vanishes, there is no fairytale, nothing is relatable, and everything is understood, or not; here there is only sound, silence, sighs, and one hopes, magic.

snow, bridge, winter, scene

Personal Essay: December Is The Hardest Month

December is a glum month. The cozy, communal nature of this time, reinforced by a combination of weather, occasion, social ritual, the marking of time and season, plus the digital signifiers that Surely Everyone Is Having A Better Time Than You, means, for those lacking family and/or firm social network, a keen feeling of being forgotten, whether it is true or not.

Oh, but the very many will (and do) say, we’re all so busy. Never has a word been more overused, and December is a good reminder of the ease with which avoidance is casually wielded – for fun, for comfort, and yes, for an understandable want of calm. Sometimes people, even the most popular, actually-busy, super-hyper-social ones, simply want to pull a Garbo. I appreciate that, as someone who often, pre-pandemic, felt the desire to leave hot, crowded rooms, the feeling that I was being smothered made smile-laden socializing difficult and stressful; usually I’d continue smiling and guzzle down a gallon or two of water. Such smothering feels more pronounced now, intro/extrovert labels be damned; one falls between, around, over, and under such easy categorizations, in this, the Age Of Omicron. I want to spend time… but are you boosted? Let’s have dinner… but can we get a negative test first? I’d love for you to kiss me but… ? Having viewed casual contacts with some suspicion over the years, lately I feel a deep gratitude for any miniscule crumb of kindness; amidst pandemic, little things become big things.

I was reminded of this earlier in the week when I received close to one thousand well wishes for my birthday. While I would have loved to have thrown a big party, or travelled (or ideally done both, as I had done in years past), reality dictates otherwise. Living alone as a freelance writer and adjunct Professor means being ever-conscious of illness and its effects, financial and social, as much as physical. Thus does staying in and alone become less a choice than an exercise in logic. Choosing solitude, when one has the absolute privilege of people around them at any given moment (and never let it be forgotten that having people around – partners, family, associates, work colleagues, friendly neighbours, pets – is a very under-recognized form of privilege), is far and away a different thing from solitude as a lived, actual norm. The few in-person conversations I’ve had lately are accompanied by a counterpoint of constant anxiety, wondering and worrying if I’m talking too much, too loudly, too quickly, pontificating and pondering, desperate to be heard, and desperately happy for this one (poor) individual to really be sitting across from me. I am, I fear, turning into the Crazy Old Woman cliche, minus (so far) the cats.

“You’re different, that’s for sure,” my mother used to say, furrowing her eyebrows and judging, for the thousandth time, how it was she, one of those hyper-social, popular, widely-loved, togethery-with-all-sorts, could have possibly birthed… me. The thing she perhaps didn’t see, or more directly refused to admit until the very end, was her culpability: a single, beautiful, cultured woman in a grey, artless, firmly conformist environment could not possibly be anything other than an outsider. The most powerful lessons are those done through osmosis, and her position as a divorced (and again, gorgeous, glamorous, artsy, social) parent in a bleak Canadian suburban had an effect – how could it have been otherwise? Such an upbringing screws in a keen sense of individuality, of the pain of being an outsider, and its strange, strangely-experienced joys. If, her reasoning went, everyone was to settle for being “dowdy” (her word), well… she’d be the precise opposite, and damn them if they hated her for it (they did). To hell with the cost to her daughter. Those costs were indeed great but sometimes there were benefits. I could show up most everyone who’d mocked me/pushed me over in the playground/thrown snowballs at my head with ribbons of intricate piano playing sounds that always impressed adults, namely teachers. It was a talent which sometimes got me out of boring classes and into the cool, quiet environment of a tiny teacher’s lounge that happened to have a piano; it was always a treat to be plucked out of class and be told I could, for an hour or sometimes two, practise to my heart’s content. I can still remember my shop teacher’s face when he heard me one afternoon, the way he stopped and stared, dumbfounded.

“Has your mother talked to anyone about putting you in the gifted program?”

They said no. I already tried.

His eyes widened, but he was silent. Years later I ran into other teachers from that elementary era, and all of them, oddly enough (or not), said: “You really should have been in the gifted program, you know. I mean, we all said that.”

It was at my mother’s insistence that I took some classes with the gifted group and felt that I was being ferociously judged, fiercely rejected, in a more brutal manner than usual. You’re not one of us you plain-spoken, poorly-dressed imbecile. I remember the silent stares, the quiet eyerolls whenever I spoke (which wasn’t often; I was terrified). I wasn’t smart enough for them (or something), I wasn’t unique enough (or something), my work was (apparently) unoriginal; thus it was back to the land of the super-normals (or something) where I clearly didn’t fit in either. I could not possibly be a part of their club, or so their behaviour implied, repeatedly. I recognized that same anxiety in speaking with various academics, authors, managers and musicians over the years, and I can clearly count the times I didn’t feel I was being similarly judged. Not smart enough; not unique enough; stupid, unoriginal. Back to the land of normals; rinse, repeat.

Snippets of overheard conversations my mother had with close friends arrived with the sound of her sighs. She just didn’t know what to do with me. What I loved was considered “too” weird, “too” outside, “too” daring, even for the woman who had, once upon a time, tried so hard to fit in with a world that wasn’t going to accept her either; I think it hurt her to see me making the same sorts of efforts, and with the same sort of results. Her efforts to gain acceptance within the teensy-tiny bubble of small-town Canada were never going to be successful; so too, for her artsy, anti-social, book-and-music-loving daughter who had a predilection for doing things in her very own way, who’d been told by the “special” folk she wasn’t “special” enough, who learned how to hide everything behind masks of makeup, dresses, heels, who became adept at distraction and diversion, who contented herself to be the entertainment, to inspire desire and derision, envy and confusion, and of course, ostracization, exclusion, isolation. To clench jaw and smile at rejection. To give a middle finger with a bat of the eyelashes. It became second-nature; it still is.

There were eyerolls when I’d exit my high school history class early on Fridays; I was off to then-dingy New York. My mother had a subscription to the Met Opera; it wasn’t as fancy as everyone thought – we had seats in the gods – but no one in our little town knew or cared about such details. We were being fancy, snooty, pretentious; I was perceived as uppity, absurd, self-important.

“Have fun at the opera,” they’d sneer.

“Have fun at the mall,” I’d reply, slipping on my faux-fur coat over my ugly grey uniform.

Really, it wasn’t a question of my believing opera was somehow “elite” – I never thought it was; looking around at the Met on any given night, I’d see all sorts, dressed in all ways, and it was nice to feel part of a community where we could all come together and talk about this thing we all loved. How many excited conversations did my mother and I enjoy at intermission and post-performance, with people whose fashions mattered so much less to us than that they could speak about x singer in y performance with z  conductor; that, to us, was every bit as magical as what we had just experienced. How could any of my fellow students, in my crappy little town, possibly understand? I didn’t try to fit in with them; I used their cliched, outmoded perceptions of the art form I loved in a way that protected my own passions, musical ambitions included. Thus my teenage weekends weren’t filled with parties and dancing and snogs with boys I barely knew, but with the sounds of Tebaldi and Domingo and Pavarotti, dinners at little Manhattan restaurants (long since gone), trying on a much-needed new coat at Century 21, cocktails mixed in our hotel room before and after performances (my mother didn’t believe in mystifying alcohol), and oh, the happy expressions during and after every performance – the sighs, the exchanged looks, my mother’s quiet “aaach!” at hearing, or remembering various musical moments, sung or played. I hated coming back after such excursions; Monday morning became tearful. I did not want to face them.

“But we’ll be back in two months!” my mother would shout over her cassette of Maria Callas arias. “Put on some lipstick – you’ll feel better!”

Rejection and defiance are close bedfellows, as recent history attests; the constant feeling of being outside the perceived (usually strict) circles of perceived norms and related social interaction mean that head-tilting haughtiness, protective thought it may be, screws in the nails of an innate, proud different-ness which led, in some cases, to a terrible if perhaps predictable isolation. “If you send out the signals you don’t want to fit in,” pronounces the school principal  in the 1986 John Hughes film Pretty In Pink, “people will make sure you don’t.”

“That’s a beautiful theory,” retorts Andie (Molly Ringwald), maligned for her low socio-economic status as much as the unique fashion sense inspired by it. I loved that movie when it came out, not only for its style (I had wanted to be a fashion designer for years and still find myself sketching ideas for outfits to events I’ll probably never attend) but for its poor-girl-wins-for-being-weird theme. It’s one that is proven more and more within the realm of pure fantasy as a woman moves through life without hitting the predictable marks, rendering her invisible (or close to it), a position which not all of us have quite made peace with. The rise of digital media has created an algorithmically-dictated hierarchy of worth and attractiveness based on a youth that can only be conveyed through the erasure of physical indications of living – of experience, of endurance, possible wisdom. Difference comes with even sharper edges (deeper wrinkles, as it were) when one hits a certain age and is without family or close community; thus is one thrown into the bins of fetishistic sex fantasy or angry frump, with little if any room for (or interest in) nuance and all the fascinations such variance can (or should) afford. I am sure many perceive there to be something quite wrong, that my too-haughty shell  has led me here, that this is “the price” of such attitudes– a simple-minded calculation to smirk at. I didn’t expect my mother to die so young; neither did she. One of the last things she said to me six years ago (when she still had the strength to do so), was, “I’m sorry” – and it wasn’t just about that morning’s snappish behaviour, I knew; it was the same apology (the same words) uttered by my father at our final meeting eight years prior, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing that manifests on the face and in the eyes. I knew precisely what she meant, and she knew I knew.

“It’s okay,” I said, choking back tears. It had to be; she was dead three weeks later.

More than once I have written to close contacts that I don’t miss my mother, and it’s true, I don’t; that feeling changes in December, the most glum month, as I wrote, a month when being an outsider hurts in a way it doesn’t the rest of the year. Geography, and the cultural differences that such geography brings, can (does, in my case) make an immense difference, but of course there are a whole new set of circles and a far more knowable kind of separateness to be navigated, which is easier and more difficult, all at once. The feeling of being different never leaves, no matter the setting; it isn’t something to be celebrated, or indeed, something that should inspire any form of reaction at all. Different-ness, and its unmissable expression in life, can only be accepted, along with all of its itinerant branches, reaching like octopus arms across various facets of living, the one facet, which shows itself every December, is painful, for it is a reminder of lack. But so too is there reason to remember abundance.

The pandemic brought the worst of childish habits to the fore and social media gave such instincts a stage for amplification; recently I looked back on old postings (since deleted) with a mix of horror and fascination. Oh, the ways we continue to seek a validation we felt was always missing since childhood; oh, the means we have at our disposal to receive and encourage it. The performative aspects of social media have led to aspects of our private lives taking on the appearance of a shadow-play, stripped of the blood-and-guts messiness of real, authentic living. But oh, that real living is what is most missed; my mother made a fuss in December, the month of my birth, the month of her father and brother’s birth, the same month of their respective deaths. How to navigate such sadness with the miracle of giving birth (something I am told she never expected to do, which she did late in life, and amidst a hideous separation) – December was a loaded month for her, and it still is for me. Lately I walk around my tiny abode wishing for little more than the aroma of her annual baking: the almond crescents, the raspberry bars, the whipped shortbreads. Her frenzied gift-giving, not just to close contacts but to everyone in quotidian life – postal people, bank tellers, hairdressers, delivery drivers– was perhaps her own way to seek (and find) validation, to fill the perceived hole of her own outsider-ness, feel her presence was somehow, despite everything, valuable.

For every individual who took time to wish me a happy birthday this past Tuesday – to write on my wall, to send a kind note, to offer good wishes: thank you. Small things are big things – now, more than ever.

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