Archive for Reviews

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part IV

It’s About Excellence

But Kurtz’s Practicing is quickly becoming an important way-station in journey that has caused me to question my earlier life-choice to bail on music. Discovering the tárogató was another as was the long-awaited acknowledgement from the music establishment in the form of a BC Arts Council grant, but Practicing condensed all these little positive experiences into a sense that I wasn’t the problem, and certainly music wasn’t the problem—in fact, there really is no problem that a little practising can’t solve. What I’d forgotten was just as music is a reward in itself (music has no goal other than to be music), my greatest satisfaction in being a musician was in the pursuit of excellence. Somehow that was skewed into the pursuit of perfection, but they’re utterly dissimilar. Where perfectionism is an unrelenting yet unattainable goal, pursuing excellence itself is the goal.

Continued…

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part III

…Continued from Part II

How do you return?

I was wrestling with the idea of playing music and (just like Kurtz) had the realisation that my playing back in the glory days hadn’t been especially great. The story I’d been telling myself was basically a victim one. I’d done everything I could and was cheated out of what I had deserved (there is a real story of deceit at an audition to prove it too)! But sitting there on the couch wrestling with the problem, I had a sudden dreadful thought. “What if I’m just mediocre?” I asked myself.

But as I listened, my heart sank. Rather than great potential lost to circumstance, I heard a harsh justice. The performance was not as good as I’d remembered. There were mistakes, of course. These were not what bothered me. Recordings accentuate finger slips. Few listners who aren’t also guitarists would hear them during the performance. The mistakes that bothered me now were botched prases, garbled lines that interfered with the music. There performance was full of musical ideas. But no piece was good from start finish.

Naturally, this deeply disturbed me although it was a fresh new thought. The next day, I took a look at that terrible question again and then asked myself “Now, do you still want to play music?” And like a rushing wind the answer “you bet I do” rushed through me. It turned out that the perfection I’d always aspired to was nothing but a chimera—the real goal was simply to play. In fact, to arrive is to die. It turns out that excellence is not a place (like a position in an orchestra), but it’s a feeling, it’s a way of being.

Everyone who gives up a serious childhood dream—lives the rest of their life with a sense of loss, with nagging what ifs. Is that time and effort, that talent and ambition, truly wasted?


Continued…

 

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part II

…Continued from Part I

When music breaks your heart

But now, I’ve read this book and realise that perhaps I’m not done. Or rather, I realise what it was that I was done with—and what it was was not music.

Concealed in all the careful tutelage of the conservatory system is an almost heartless contempt for the many who can never sustain such standards once they’ve graduated. This system is all about super stars and even more toxically, it’s about perfectionism and conformity. What isn’t destroyed by the conservatory system is put to the torch by the marketplace, which in my case was what I like to call the “Orchestral-Industrial Complex”.

In Kurtz’s Practicing, he once again reflects my journey back to music from the well-intentioned but highly destructive schooling that most musicians undergo. Like mine, his return isn’t a return to the audiences and certainly not the “music industry”, but to the soul of music itself. Practicing is about the musician’s journey back to his first love of music—the quasi-erotic sense of connection that is the essence of music.

As I play the theme of ‘Weeping Willow’ one last time, all my fantasies of success and all the flaws in my character rise again to the surface, my ambition and despair, concentrated in my fingertips. Each impulse, each need and doubt, clamours for expression, a little tyrant demanding its own way. And with each note these urgent demands collide with the limitations of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. It is the same thing every day, the same as it always was. Yet everything has changed.

Practicing reminds me of other times when I reconnected with that original love of music. Several years ago, I spent the summer playing only the recorder. The recorder has a primordial charm about it—it was the first instrument I played and the instrument on which I learn to read music. It’s also the instrument on which I first learned about Renaissance and other ancient music, and that’s what I spent the summer playing.

For a time, my road back to the clarinet only consisted of music that made me feel good. Instead of great works from the clarinet repertoire or, God forbid, scales, I play Danny Boy. 


More recently, a fusion has taken place as I have learned Danny Boy in all twelve major keys. Playing music and practising music are intimately connected.

Continued…

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part I

The pursuit of perfection

I have just finished reading Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing—A Musician’s Return to Music, a book I think should be added to the list of required reading for anyone seriously considering a career in music, or any vocation in which you give your ultimate all in the pursuit of perfection.

Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure. I warm up my hands and awaken my ears and imagination, developing skill to equal my experience. I listen and concentrate in an effort to make myself better.

Kurtz describes a process parallel to my own (it even includes the classical musician’s obligatory pilgrimage to Viennawere we there within a year of each other?). He recounts the familiar stories of early promise, that music school optimism, the successes, the failures, and then the final and seemingly inevitable descent into musical oblivion. For Kurtz, a classical guitarist, graduation from music school meant a quick nosedive from the Elysian Fields of pure music into the sordid streets of making a living.

I was one of those orchestral players he mentions in his book (the ones who could look forward to a steady paycheque playing with an orchestra). And his take on it is partially true—I certaily held it that the only viable way to be a successful musician was to land an orchestral job. And I seemed off to a good start as after graduation, I landed a job as Principal Clarinet with the Prince George Symphony (a community orchestra with aspirations enough to hire several principal players). Two years later, I quit to follow five years of free-lancing with the Vancouver Symphony (the real deal except of course that I was but an extra).

I lasted only a little longer than Mr. Kurtz before I too lost heart. In my last truly professional year, I auditioned for the Edmonton Symphony, the Hamilton Philharmonic, the Toronto Symphony, the Victoria Symphony, the Portland (Oregon) Symphony, and the Vancouver Symphony managing to come in as semi-finalist with the Toronto Symphony and runner-up finalist with both the Edmonton Symphony and the Hamilton Philharmonic (in back-to-back auditions no less).

The following years were exceedingly dry for clarinet vacancies across Canada with nothing but a Windsor Symphony audition (it actually paid less than the Prince George Symphony) to keep hope alive. After crashing and burning on that one (spectacularly), I was done.

In fact, I would go on being done for several decades to come.


Continued…

Refuge

It’s hard to retell someone else’s story and remain authentic. There’s always the spectre of cultural misappropriation lurking in the wings.

Tonight, I saw an adaptation of Verdi’s Macbeth by Third World Bunfight, a South African opera troupe known for its grippingly contemporary interpretations of classic operas. The action is moved from Shakespearean-times Scotland to current day Congo and now it centres on a Congolese warlord and his ambitious wife as they murder their way to the top.

To complete the sense of present day verismo, a lot of multi-media give the sense that this live-action opera is happening online. Even the surtitles operate like a Greek chorus (never quite following Verdi’s original Italian words as surtitles ought to, but instead giving modern-day commentary and basically telling us the truth about what’s happening).

While the 12-member pick-up Vancouver Opera orchestra (sharing the stage with the singers but looking pale and out of place (and sometimes sounding it too), the singers themselves were a powerful presence. And why not? All hail as refugees from Congo’s many recent wars. It’s probably no coincidence that the drama follows the overthrow of the ruling clan of Kivu province where many of the singers are from. How they came to be such dynamite opera singers is a mystery.

That brings me to my challenge of mounting an Hungarian concert about refugees. I’m neither Hungarian, nor a refugee, so how can I find a voice that speaks authentically to the subject matter?

The answer is…give it away.

Before Christmas, I had a series of meetings with just the sort of people who can bring their real-life stories to The Tárogató Project. First, I met Gergö Péter Éles, a cultural emissary sent by the Hungarian government to investigate and report back on the cultural needs of the Vancouver Hungarian community. He’s interested in helping to assemble some of the stories from the Sopron Alumni, which are so needed. I’ve heard him play his disarmingly simple Hungarian shepherd’s pipes and he’s agreed to perform on them in the concert.

I also met two recent arrivals to Canada, both refugees.

Zdravko Cimbaljevic left Montenegro one day on business to Brussels and never returned. He was in fear of his life. His friends told him that all the landmark worked he’d done support LGBT causes would not be lost if he worked from afar. I also discovered that he’s been a force for change here in Vancouver, holding the August role as Grand Marshal for the Vancouver Pride Parade in 2013.

Farooq Al-Sajee is twice a refugee, first from Iraq and then from Syria. He studied music and English literature in Damascus and has a passion for both. He’s enthusiastic about The Tárogató Project and concert. I’m tempted to figure out a way to include him on the oude, but that would go against my Hungarian music only. We’ll see how that plays out.

Bard’s Merry Wives a Basketful of Summer Mischief

Bard’s Merry Wives a Basketful of Summer Mischief

Have you ever walked into a bar—say a blue-collar sort of bar—only to hear someone abruptly say something, strangely Shakespearean? “Argh. The bar wench has cut me off. Forsooth, I am undone.” It’s funny just for being so incongruous, but now imagine three hours of this sort of banter and you have set the stage for this year’s Bard on the Beach production of The Merry Wives of WindsorOntario.

Windsor, Ontario? Yes, Ontario although poor drab Windsor is not, has never been, nor will ever likely be quite so electrifying as you’ll find it here. Director Johnna Wright’s Merry Wives effectively transforms Windsor into a wild Wurlitzer of a town, pulling out all the stops of nostalgia to help you remember (or not, if you were there) the Sixties. It’s one part Shakespeare, one part Hairspray, a little of the old Cheers camaraderie mixed in with enough period Canadiana to rival The Beachcombers (although the writing’s much, much better).

The Merry Wives of Windsor follows the misadventures of one Sir John Falstaff, whom Shakespeare reprised from Henry IV by popular demand. This production (also a reprise from the Bard’s sold-out 2012 production) features all the dramatis personæ you’d expect from a 60’s sitcom: desperate housewives, a jealous alpha male husband, flower children, a toffee-nosed British expat dispatched to the Colonies, beatniks, a foppish Frenchman (though sadly not Québécois), the skipper, Mary Ann…no wait. But it’s the music, ah, cue the music.

As the line between actor and musician faded into irrelevance, the players traded soliloquys for guitars, grabbed a fiddle (naturally the Garter Inn had a house band), and even ponied up to the microphone to croon out a Patsy Cline torch song. All the singing and dancing had the audience clapping along too, even with the never-you-no-mind your Shakespearean iambic pentameters delivered occasionally in Fonsie voice. It was all in good fun. The show grabbed us out of our seats, whirled us ‘round the dance floor (in some cases literally) and didn’t let go until its shit-kickin’ epilogue.

Just as the TUTS production of Hairspray was acknowledged as last summer’s hit, you can wonder no further which production has it in the bag (or basket) for this year. Merry Wives is a basketful of mischief. So lace up your farthingale, brush off your 60’s Canadiana, and make haste thither to the Bard’s Merry Wives of Windsor before it sells out. It’s going to be a runaway hit.

Photo courtesy David Blue

Reading Paul Mason’s “Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future”

Postcapitalism

Writers like Seth Godin giddily describe the “new economy” as if still buffeted and buoyed by Mid-Century optimism. Seth credits the Internet for decentralizing work, “Technology has enabled the transition to the new economy, but connections in the new economy are fueled by a focus on two specific aspects of humanity – generosity and art.” But Paul Mason goes deeper. Much deeper.

Paul Mason tears at the heart of the beast—Neoliberalism. Neoliberalism—that system of endless growth, deregulation, high finance—is The Matrix, “It’s everywhere, it is all around us. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” Neoliberalism has been so normalized as how things are run that we constantly have to review our understanding of it to remember what it is.

Reading Mason’s “Postcapitalism” also gives credence to Ralph Nader and Chris Hedges’s refusal to endorse Bernie Sanders on the grounds that he’s thrown his lot in with the Democratic party (although Hedges’s hedges his bets with Sanders based on his stand vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestine question). They know that America’s two leading political parties are no more than two flavours of vanilla—two near identical facets of the same same system.

Mason contrasts the revolts and uprisings following the collapse of 2008 and the Establishment’s attempts to suppress them with a different path opening up, “The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy, between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next.”

Listen to Paul Mason’s talk at Google Recorded in December 2015, London.

Standing Wave’s “Acousmatic” – a Synæsthesiac’s Feast

Synaesthesiac

Adventurous. Uncompromising. Inimitable. Sought-after. How great to hear so many superlatives in Vancouver—that are justified. As violinist Rebecca Whitling welcomed us to their “Acousmatic” concert at the Orpheum Annex last Sunday, she seemed to tear up at the prospect of finding even more superlatives with which to thank her fellow musicians. Standing Wave has been around for a long time—long enough to have either earned those superlatives legitimately or to have them dashed on the rocks of hyperbole—but tonight they were well warranted.

Evanescence

The first work, Gordon Fitzell’s Evanescence, was presented as but an amuse-bouche for the ears (amuse-oreille?). This was perfect as my ears needed time to adjust. I’ve been to enough electro-acoustic concerts to know that the batting average for electro-acoustic music isn’t that good—either it fizzles out due to technical glitches or the two media never quite reconcile leading to a cage match. But thanks to some excellent planning and artistic leadership from Giorgio Magnanensi and others, Evanescence proved how satisfying electro-acoustic can be. Surrounded by waves of intriguing sound and my ears sufficiently amused, I was ready for more.

Red Arc / Blue Veil

Although I missed the promised palindrome in John Luther Adams’s Red Arc / Blue Veil, I revelled in all the visuals implied by the work’s title. For the record, synæsthesia had once been my friend until the day I discovered that I was alone in the assumption that each of the four Brahms symphonies had its inherent colour (Number 1 is blue, 2 is yellow, 3 is a dusty pink, and 4 is avocado-green). So it was gratifying for Adams to permit me to let my ears once again see colour.

John Luther Adams is to music what Edward Burtynsky is to photography. To convey the enormity of the landscapes of his native Alaska and his concerns over the deterioration of our natural world, Adams is now writing music intended for performance out-of-doors. To get a sense of the titanic forces Adams wrestles with, listen to his riveting talk, “Music in the Anthropocene” (given last year at the Banff Centre), in which he described the role of the artist in a world of Climate Change. Against such a canvas, Red Arc / Blue Veil was a comparatively small and intimate meditation on “those inner sounds that are the life of the colours” to quote Kandinsky.

Subject / Object

Foreshadowing the physical comedy that was to come in his music, James O’Callaghan slunk onto the stage nervously for his talk about Subject / Object. Percussionist Vern Griffiths was quick (and classy) to put O’Callaghan at ease allowing us to get in touch with his kinesthetic approach to sound. Not at all a grammar lesson as its title implied, O’Callaghan’s Subject / Object was an attempt to “rationalize the irrational” by turning objects into subjects. It’s as if Standing Wave’s Pierrot-plus instrumentation wasn’t quite enough for O’Callaghan, so he poked and prodded about the stage looking looking for more stuff to play with—usually to great comic effect.

While the players diligently performed their parts, an array of surreal theatrics ensued. Balloons popped inside the piano, a kitchen chair was dragged dramatically across the stage and then subjected to other indignities from the percussionist’s toolkit, and we all squirmed as a bucket of “water” was tipped into the open piano (although electronics came to the rescue just in time with appropriately watery sounds). Nothing overlooked, even the click of flutist Christie Reside’s high-heeled shoes was employed as musical counterpoint (I’m not sure if a composer who’s comfortable referencing Ren & Stimpy would be aware of this, but Reside’s transit across the stage was a perfect homage to Michael Snow’s Walking Women). Bravo to that.

O Superman

The featured work of the evening was an electro-acoustic adaption of Laurie Anderson’s 1981 art rock hit O Superman set for Standing Wave by Vancouver composer Alfredo Santa Ana.

I suspected that some form of calculated risk was involved in casting Veda Hille to sing this role (and I don’t mean a box office calculated risk, although that may have accounted for fifty percent of the audience), but why substitute Anderson’s deadly accurate chops for Hille’s folksy peeping except to avoid, as Santa Ana put it, casting “one of those Art Song singers”?

While her vocal range may comprise the full octave the song demands, vocal quality and diction were moot as she leaned heavily on the FX processor, intended in the original as an expressive device. Veda Hille, O Veda Hille. It’s like walking into the room in time for the laughter but too late for the punch line.  Still, Santa Ana artfully exchanged phrases from violin to flute to bass clarinet and onward giving the art rock original an air of chamber music without sacrificing the sensibility of the source material.

Finale

Even if Standing Wave had lower standards or were perhaps more weird, they would still retain their hold as Vancouver’s premier new music ensemble with their ability to seamlessly integrate solid musicianship with glitchless electronics.

In addition to all the gear and high production values, their kitchen-party warmth—whether the informal extemporizing of Vern Griffiths or pianist Allen Stiles’s comic timing—helped ensure that they could programme pretty much whatever they please and still come across as refreshingly accessible.

Lori Freedman and the beauty of extremes

LoriFreedman-banner

If there were some sort of measuring tool that could compare Classical music with cheeses of the world on a one-to-one basis — where Pachelbel’s Canon would be Cheez Whiz and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps would be some strain of blue that took you twenty years to work up the nerve to try — well, Lori Freedman’s “Virtuosity of Excess” tour would have to be well off that scale out beyond the farthest margins of Epoisse (a curd so odorous, it was banned from public transport in France), or perhaps even further — can one make cheese from platypus milk?

That’s not in any way to suggest that Lori’s music has anything malodorous about it. Pas du tout. It’s more a comment on her audience, which for deeply nuanced individual reasons has come to revel in her extremes.

It’s arguable that what she’s doing isn’t Classical music anyway. But it draws from many of the same roots, and being a fellow clarinet player who once played bass clarinet alongside Lori back in the last century (it was Le Sacre, which is scored for two bass clarinets), I know her roots. Now I’ve come to get to know her routes.

What is virtuosity?

LoriFreedman-side

photo credits: Jan Gates

I had the good fortune to sit with flautist Mark McGregor who’d come out to the Fox Cabaret to hear, above all else, the Brian Ferneyhough work. He explained Complexity music, which I paraphrase here broadly: The composer, without going beyond the instrument’s physical capability, employs myriad layers of complexity (such as assigning individual contrapuntal lines to different fingers) in an attempt to present to the audience a picture of the performer either breaking down or breaking through psychologically. “So, it’s sort of like a snuff film” I asked and Mark snorted with laughter, “I guess you could put it that way.” The title of Lori’s tour “The Virtuosity of Excess” is a quote from the French composer Raphaël Cendo, referring to the exploration (and sometimes exploitation) of the beauty of extremes.

Enter the “Virtuosity of Excess” tour

And then, before anyone could say, “Release the Kraken”, onto the stage strode Lori brandishing her contra-bass clarinet like a kalashnikov.

As we listened to Brian Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study #2 for bass clarinet, I started to get the full measure of Lori’s virtuosity. She puts her entire body, voice, and being into her playing. It’s so immediate and raw because what she’s after is emotional virtuosity.

Paul Steenhuisen’s Library on Fire for bass clarinet followed in what was by now an established pattern of extremes. This multi-movement, multi-music-stand work again showed how Lori transcends the cerebral by laying bare her humanity. Steenhuisen is a deep thinker able to layer complexity with the best of them, so it’s to Lori’s credit how she also brought warmth and humanity to the work — whether mumbling feverishly sotto voce or sucker punching us from the stage.

Steenhuisen’s Library on Fire as performed live in 2015 at The Music Gallery in Toronto

There’s something funny about Lori’s stage presence too—on account of its emotional ferocity. After screaming, squawking, and committing every excess imaginable, she always finished with a perfect little smile and thanked us all for listening. The contrast suggests some sociopathic older sister who’d just strangled her kid brother and now stands before us with one of those can-we-go-for-ice-cream-now smiles. Perhaps that’s why her own composition, Solor for bass clarinet (which she played from memory) lined up best for me. It certainly had its wild and raw moments, but overall I think it came from a more meditative place in her.

What is excess?

Raphaël Cendo’s Décombres for contrabass clarinet and live electronics was the coup de grâce of the evening. It was also the death knell for my ears, but I stood there anyway basking in the sheer monstrosity of it all like I was taking on Niagara Falls full force. To be in the presence of someone so beautifully uncompromising, so committed to her art — what glory!

After the show when people were mobbing her, I went up with the intention of saying something all-encompassing about what it means to be that emotionally revealed in art, but I couldn’t find the words and instead blurted out some nerdy clarinet-player nonsense about how “underneath everything, I could still hear a solid good clarinet sound”. It was entirely true of course — so always tactful — she laughed kindly as if I’d said, “Gee Mr. Pollack, you shure know how to mix them colours good.” It’s probably the most douche-baggey thing I’ve ever said…

Listening to Mark Dresser

MarkDresser-listens

What does it take to let go of the past and embrace pure potential? Billions are shuffling about — fearing. Fearing! Clearing the mind takes courage. It takes fortitude.

Not long ago at the Western Front, I heard a great musician—Mark Dresser. I could tell he knew implicitly that we weren’t there for the notes—so he didn’t play any—he was concerned with following the Muse.

The Muse is real. I saw him once at the Safeway. He stared at me with dark eyes. He was holding a roll of waxed paper and some bananas, looking frankly dazed in the bright neon. I won’t forget those dark imploring eyes though. It was as if they were asking me ‘Why?’ ‘Why do you shop here?’ I don’t know. Maybe the farmers’ market is only opened Saturdays and in any case, it’s overpriced. When I looked up he’d vanished. —JH, 2014

The Muse always seems a little sad when I encounter him. Sometimes I think it’s my influence—on account of his devotion to the present—that causes his sadness. The Muse has difficulty understanding the human obsession with planning and the constant need to gather up our past possessions. To him, we must seem like idiotic squirrels—burying, then searching.

But Mark Dresser’s contrabass would not sadden the Muse as others do. Why? First, Mark listens—he waits until he can hear the whispers—and then he goes. He clearly has years of experience and technique to draw on, but he didn’t drag any of that out on stage like a bag of old chestnuts. When Mark played, I sensed how my mind would work were it freed of its feverish thinking. As I followed Mark, instead of the usual memory-anxiety machine, my mind became a finely tuned astrolabe constantly adjusting for those moments of inspiration.

Mark’s playing is instructional too. It provides a working example of how to think creatively and spontaneously. Mark follows phrases of his own making only so far as they’re fresh and then, whenever their trajectory hints at turning into stock patterns or set clichés, he abandons them in favour of another direction. I learned (again) that this is how creation works. Let go of cleverness. Let planning go. Defer your inevitable fame and trust that the next impulse is the right one.

But how quickly we’re drawn out of that shaft of light and descend into our infernal calculations. For me they go something like, “Will they like it?”, “Will they like me?”, “I must prove I’m not a fraud.”, “I’ll show them!” So you see, the Muse is frequently sad. He sees all that distraction right away and in that, little hope for anything new or authentic.

Lucky for us though, the Muse is ever hopeful of an opening—he’s the ultimate optimist. Even in the most formulaic calculating turgid undertaking, he’s there, waiting to be called upon. Who knows? With our human knack for calamity, something could go wrong forcing a desperate act of improvisation—and that’s his opening.

“Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.”

—Leonard Cohen

We all know our endless planning is little more than a buttressed attempt to avoid that opening. That’s why a sincere artist knows to let go of his craft. First, he knows he doesn’t have anything to prove (something yet to be learned by the unseasoned artist), but more, he learns that the tools (of his craft) are but a means to the end.

I found Mark Dresser a great player because he listens deeper than mere impact. He’s listening to the Muse’s whispers and making visible (or in his case, audible) those whispers for us. With Mark, we can witness the Muse at work and, of course, that’s ultimately why art matters.