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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Music for the Future

Lately two exquisite pieces of music have come to my attention, harbingers of the future of music, but built on the history of music.

The first I'll mention is Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir performing his work Lux Arumque, a choir recruited, and taught over the Internet, and then recorded by their own webcams and edited into a performance. Stunning to look at, stunning to hear, and doesn't it sound like Allegri's Miserere? (I have provided the link a performance by the King's College Cambridge, who seem to own the bragging rights for their performance. If you look down the comments, someone has provided the [awesome] text in Latin.) Props to the Beethoven Lives Upstairs series. I first heard Allegri's music on my kids' Mozart's Magnificent Voyage disc, and I fell in love with it immediately. I even bought it from itunes to have on my iphone. I often get a chance to recommend this series and I do so by saying any music lover of any age or expertise can learn something they didn't know about the music or the composer by paying attention to these stories.

And then there are Felix's Machines, by a young guy called Felix Thorn, who cannibalizes his family's piano, adds some household objects, and drives the resulting instruments by his computer. He says in Wired UK "I look at the advantages of what machines can do. People must realize you can extract emotion from them, and enjoy the music they produce." The music is delightful. Yes - and emotional.

Meanwhile,  I had a chance to be a guest with some friends at a fundraiser for a project that also mixes past and future: Paola Marino  is a video director using the medium to interpret opera arias in a trilogy of short videos. While the videos are pretty cool, but what is really exciting is standing in a small room while an opera singer sings. The power is enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck, and that is the level of musical thrill that I am always hoping for. I am guessing that Paola's goal roughly fits in what with I am always on about in having opera work in the 21st century: Use what is universal about opera, in this case choosing as a theme for her series "Desire". Integrate it with modern technology, in this case video (manga works too - see my tags). Add a dash of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies: "Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify", and you have cool 21st century opera. (See Fun, Cool, Funny on my sidebar to use an Oblique Strategy to problem-solve for yourself.)

The young opera singer who features in this trilogy can also be seen in another version of Carmen, a performance she did at a benefit to attract young people to the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. Watch Lauren Seagal  exploiting her gifts.

But there's more: digital video and YouTube are providing a brave new world of interesting music experiences.

I heard about this one at the music school I attend. By this I mean listening whenever I can to the CBC Radio 2 program Shift, with my radio-hero, host Tom Allen. He has a twitter feed - the first one on planet earth that almost interests me - and a blog where this clip is also featured, although I can't figure out quite where. He also happens to be a trombonist. This is a little homemade video by a Russian bass-trombonist FEATURING the trombone part of Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto, quite possibly the best-known piece of classical music written in the 20th century, and that's exactly what makes it effective. Music you can hum along to, with just one instrument pulled out. I don't play in an orchestra, and probably neither do you. OK, well I know some of you do, else would I ever get this perspective? And it sounds great! Only in a world where a guy can set up his camera (or phone?) in an orchestra pit, and then post it to YouTube could this ever be possible. I LOVE the future of music.

Then, of course, I had to show my kids the video and tell them my favourite Rachmaninoff story - that although he wrote and performed this music, at a certain point he decided that the new young guys could play it BETTER THAN HIM and he stopped performing it. So, we looked up Rachmaninoff on YouTube, and he is there. Sadly it seems he was too early for there even to be film-to-video performance clips, but there was an audio recording of him performing his 2nd piano concerto from 1929 by RCA Victor with his favorite orchestra: the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting, and what do you know - the part he pulled out of the music sounded very much like the trombone pattern! Unbelievable, and would we have even really noticed that if he we hadn't watched the trombone part first? Incidentally, there are video clips of Van Cliburn playing this concerto, and his is the performance I grew up listening to and loving, plus performances by Kissin and Lugansky, two current Russian pianists filling these big emotional shoes. Love them, too.

Then...glancing at the other suggestions on YouTube, we noticed a video labelled Rachmaninoff had big hands. Just watch it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


This week I saw for myself the principle of Make Way for Ducklings. Remember the old book by Robert Mccloskey? It was a beautiful 2010 moment. One of the major highways into my big city was stopped almost dead in a long patch between two exits. A little late, as usual, I checked my iphone satellite link-up traffic watch app. Yeah...full red on the stretch I was travelling, but luckily, not on the highway I was trying to connect up with, expect a 15 minute delay. Then suddenly, there she was, right beside me on the shoulder, a lovely mother duck with about 10 teeny-tiny ducklings waddling calmly behind her. As I was fumbling for my phone to take a picture, the traffic started speeding up, and I realized that this little family WAS THE REASON FOR THE TRAFFIC JAM!

The joke about this city is that it has two seasons, winter and road construction. It is aggravating IN THE EXTREME to find a new blockage to traffic flow every couple of days, causing a new traffic jam, another reason to be just a little late.

Never in my life has a traffic jam been the best part of my day, until the day of the ducklings.

Now the marigold is wondering nervously if they all made it through the long trek to the next break in the barrier that would allow them to walk back off the highway. I hope so, with all my heart.

LibraryThing Early Review

by Miguel Syjuco

I am always looking for the thrill of reading from a culture I am unfamiliar with, so I jumped at the chance to read a Man-Asian prize-winning novel by a Filipino, albeit one living in Canada, and with advanced degrees from a couple of big-time schools. However, I am unimpressed. The faux-document-pastiche style is not new, and I find that Syjuco has not handled it adroitly nor is the treatment particularly humourous or ironic. Somehow, more interesting than the book itself (to me, at least) is the question that came to mind while I was reading it.

This book got me thinking about colonialism. I have always thought we are still living out the colonial era, and someone suggested to me recently that we will, in a way, never leave the colonial era. It encompasses the past 500 years of world history.  Perhaps it will never "end". Where actual colonies have become obsolete, the feeling is like the son killing the father - everything is done to obliterate the influence of the colonial, in a way that attests to the strength of the influence.

What really got me wondering is that this book is written by an ethnically Spanish Filipino, not an indigenous Filipino. I was disappointed. Canada is one of the countries that has accepted many many Filipinos, a little bit through the back door, as caregivers. They are seeking a middle-class life unavailable to them in the Philippines, and they now form a large and stable community here. The children of these workers are integrating everywhere, but that had not happened in my generation. I thought this book would satisfy my style of thrill-seeking curiosity.

So, the book violated my expectations, and when I realized it I started asking myself why.

I am a Canadian, and I don't consider the only interesting or authentic cultural voice of Canada to belong to the indigenous people. Nor do I expect it from the United States or Mexico or Australia. Or Brazil, for that matter. And, it must be said, there are indigenous writers to be read in all these countries, but they stand alongside a multiplicity of immigrant voices, albeit many with hundreds of years of history. Yet there are certain places where writers of European background feel colonial, even when they have been established for many hundreds of years.

For me, I found out, the Philippines is one of those places. Shall we say, so is all of Africa, with the exception of South Africa, which was colonized differently? The middle east and far east have never really been colonized, although there are some small spots - Israel comes to mind - where an immigrant voice is natural. The Caribbean is different again - the actual natives wiped out, the colonialists sort of chucked out, leaving behind only a flavour, and the dominant population descended from immigrant slaves seems to own the native voice.

So, what is the difference? It isn't really the class difference between the colonialists and the natives - historically all the indigenous groups were treated with disdain - although it is somehow more marked in this second group. I was stumped for weeks. I finally thought up an answer. Maybe it is a numbers thing: where the colonial population overwhelmed the indigenous, the colonial voice feels native. Where a minority (or slim minority) of colonialists maintains a separate superiority over a majority (or vast majority) of the indigenous, it feels wrong. The numbers idea also explains the Caribbean situation.

The marigold's nervous questions are these: Is that enough of an explanation? And I feel I have to ask myself should it feel wrong? Is it perhaps not just a kind of honesty? We are here, we colonized, we did not integrate, but we neither did we obliterate.

And maybe it feels wrong to me because another of my ideas is that Canadians are deeply and truly egalitarian. More so than all but the most northern of Europeans, more than Americans, and South Americans. Maybe my view is a minority one, not even common to other westerners.

I think Syjuco means to discuss the ambivalence of his cultural identity, but it was that identity itself, not his art, that piqued my interest. I can't recommend the book, but I welcome any comments on this idea.