One Week In the National Post=Five Puff Pieces (two good, two meh, one terrible)

January 25th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

In June, 2008 I was invited by the National Post to write a week’s worth of diary entries for the Arts&Life section. In my defense, it came at the busiest time of the year (right during soundaXis 2008).  Here’s what happened:

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Dear CBC…I’ve been thinking about you again.

March 9th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

Dear CBC

Harsh words have been spoken since you announced plans to radically alter your programming strategy, including a significant reduction in classical music play. The requisite facegroup is already thriving, and people are talking smack about you. I wanted to let you know that I don’t think that cutting classical music is necessarily a bad thing, and that it’s not all your fault. Baby, we can still make this work.

Since even before the Chretien years, your budget has been hacked and slashed to bits. As taxpayers and voters, my friends and I are partly culpable here. More recently, we let Bev Oda and Josee Vernier (are they puppet cabinet ministers or are they just grossly incompetent?) bitch about your lack of accountability and relevance without coming to your defense. Bill C-10 is symptomatic of the Harper government’s unwillingness to engage the arts in good faith. I know you would be less inclined to throw around words like “ratings” if you didn’t have an unsympathetic government holding a gun to your head.

As others have pointed out, classical music is not the only provocative and sophisticated music thriving in Canada, and your programming should reflect this. In the Globe and Mail you argued that “only a tiny fraction – 0.8 per cent – of new Canadian songs get commercial radio play and that the Radio 2 changes will allow for much more Canadian music to be heard.” It really hurt me when you went on to name Joni Mitchell, Feist and Diana Krall as your new interests.

I think you are finding solutions to the wrong questions. You asked “How can we increase market share in the 31-49 group?”, and now are trying to fight the soft rock battle of the 401, which at best is a war of attrition. What you should have asked was, “What can we do better than anyone else that an iPod can’t?” That’s the biggest problem with the programming changes – I know you want me to listen, but Joni will always be better on my Touch.

Oh CBC – I just wish that instead of Feist, you would have said (Christine)Fellows. You’re the smart geeky kid, and you’re trying to be a cool preppy. You’ll never be hip as long as you need consultants to define the concept; by the time they write their report, it’s already so six months ago.

While acknowledging that change always meets opposition, Jennifer McGuire, executive director of radio, said that overall ratings haven’t dropped as significantly as anticipated, as some listeners tune out and new ones tune in.

My sneaking suspicion is that you’re not being completely honest with me. If you had something good going on, you’d be throwing it in my face. By the way, change doesn’t always meet opposition, and change isn’t always good. Nevertheless, I can read the writing – we’ll see each other now and then, but the thrill is gone. I should have seen it coming months ago – you don’t bring me flowers anymore…

BTW – don’t bother playing it for me – it’s already on my iPod.

(Link to a previous letter to the CBC in September 2007)

Toronto’s NOW Magazine, critical letters and the editorial process

February 14th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

I recently attended a performance of Canada Steel, and was horrified to read the following review in Toronto’s NOW Magazine:

Theatre Reviews
Labour bored

DEBBIE FEIN-GOLDBACH

CANADA STEEL By J. Karol Korczynski, directed by Graham Cozzubbo (Canada House Artistic Co-op).
At Tarragon Extra Space (30 Bridgman). To Feb 17. Pwyc-$25. 416-531-1827.

Rating: NN

Ever notice the industry-induced haze that hangs over Hamilton Harbour? Well, this same condition pervades Canada Steel, J. Karol Korczynski’s long-winded new play about a laid-off Hamilton factory worker and his family.

This second instalment of Korczynski’s sociopolitical Canada House trilogy opens with unionized steelworker Gus (a twitchy Daniel Kash) on sick leave due to mental illness. The plant closes down while he’s off, and Gus finds himself unemployed, destitute and distraught. When the union cancels his health benefits and withholds his pension, Gus snaps.

The play introduces many implausible subplots having to do with politics, sex, sports and art to explore the evils of industry and union bureaucracy.

Among them, the Leafs make the Stanley Cup playoffs, Gus’s wife, Rose (Alison Woolridge), finds a Pablo Serrano canvas and sells it to sleazy union official Les (Brian Marler), and Gus cultivates a telephone relationship with Bhopal (Pragna Desai), a poorly treated customer service phone rep based in Mumbai. Desai’s storyline and performance provide the show’s few dramatic highlights.

Many of these characters go on about using “synergy” to solve problems. However, there’s little evidence of that synergy in the play’s production values. Director Graham Cozzubbo’s staging looks cramped when more than two characters are onstage, and Brent Krysa’s cumbersome scenery leads to clunky set changes. With the trilogy’s final play yet to come, now might be the time to file a grievance.

So – I decided to write a letter to NOW, to try to teach that reviewer a lesson!

Re: “Labour bored”, the review of Canada Steel by Debbie Fein Goldbach.

Debbie Fein-Goldbach’s review of J. Karol Korczynski’s play “Canada Steel” was a thoroughly unflattering assessment of a play that I thought was wonderful, but that is not grounds to get me off my happily sedentary butt and write a letter. Her clever sniping and witty one-liners do little to mask the fact that she has written a lousy piece of journalism.

She spends over one third of her column disdaining the “implausible subplots” introduced by the play, but she neglects to do her homework. The first one she mentions, the Leafs making the Stanley Cup playoffs, must be her way of assuring us that her cleverness is still in full force? She then questions the likelihood of the character Rose finding a “Pablo Serrano canvas” and selling it to a sleazy union official. This isn’t just implausible, it’s impossible, since Pablo Serrano is a fictitious character who may be meant to suggest Diego Rivera. As far as Rose selling the painting to a union official, well, that’s just false. The sale of the painting was discussed, but anyone who has seen the play would know that she never sold it, since she was physically unable to. The final scene of the play explicitly discusses the sale of the painting by another party, and not to said sleazy union official. This is not a small slip, this is a mangling of the plot.

A competent reviewer is not just a bon-mot vendor, and is most decidedly not someone who cannot remember basic details. An additional caveat to any aspiring theatre reviewers – fantastic things happen on stage, even more implausible than the Leafs making the playoffs or someone finding a painting and selling it. A good review should offer insight and, yes, opinion from someone who is able to see more clearly and truly than the norm. I’m not convinced that Ms. Fein-Goldbach is this person, but regardless, I would encourage her take her own advice, and “cut the cutesiness to find the heart.”

What they ended up printing was this:

2008/02/13

Wonderful Steel


Debbie Fein-Goldbach’s review of J. Karol Korczynski’s Canada Steel (NOW, February 7-13) was a thoroughly unflattering assessment of a play that I thought was wonderful.
But that’s not enough to get me off my happily sedentary butt to write a letter. Her clever sniping and witty one-liners do little to mask the fact her review is lousy journalism.

The Leafs making the Stanley Cup playoffs must be her way of assuring us that her cleverness is still in full force?

I encourage Fein-Goldbach to take her own advice and “cut the cutesiness to find the heart.”

I know they have to edit letters, and in retrospect I realize my letter should have been ruthlessly self-edited. Still, I feel like they tailored the editing in such a way that my main points were not made, and I sound like an incoherent and inarticulate theatre booster. My first thought was, “Geez – I wanted to teach NOW a lesson, but boy did they end up learnin’ me good!” My second thought was, “I should probably stop writing negative letters into NOW lest everyone consider me a blithering idiot.”


Conclusion: In a war of rhetoric, it is folly to attack the one who ultimately decides what you will say.

The Slow Death of the CBC

September 22nd, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

The Powers That Be
250 Front Street West
P.O. Box 500, Station A
Toronto, Ontario M5W 1E6

An Open Letter to The Powers That Be

As a faithful CBC listener of some twenty-three years (full disclosure – I am thirty-three), I wish to write you and explain to you why my radio has been somewhat silent as of late.

I have tried to listen to the new programming. I really have. In the spirit of embracing change, I felt it only fair to go along for the ride, and open myself up to new ways of thinking. Please take me at my word when I tell you that I did not reject the changes out of hand.

Sadly, for me, I cannot derive any enjoyment or commensurate value from listening to The Signal in its current format. I miss the Arts Report and Two New Hours, and I worry about the direction the CBC is taking. And I cringe when words like ratings and demographics and relevance get thrown around.

Don’t get me wrong – I love listening to mainstream music. I do play in a number of “pop” bands and I do own a fair-sized “pop” CD collection. The problem is that I’ve always had the ability to access this music on the airwaves, and I still do. I will never turn to the CBC to fulfill this need because, quite frankly, you don’t do it very well. Your efforts at being “current” bend more towards “tired” or “cliché”, and most obviously come across as being “efforts” instead of being “it”.

What you used to do so well, so much better than anyone else, is intelligent programming – programming that grips and stimulates and challenges, as opposed to “soothes” or “helps to pass the time stuck in a traffic jam” or “eases the wounds that she left when she tore out her talons with pieces of my heart still stuck underneath her nails and went off with that jet-setting executive from 102.1 The Edge”.

That’s the CBC I listened to for over two decades, and that’s the CBC that I can’t find anymore.

Please, reconsider your actions, and find a way to once again feed and nurture my brain. My radio has not been turned on, literally, in over a month.

Sincerely

Gregory Oh

This letter was sent to The Powers that Be at the CBC:

Robert Rabinovitch
Jane Chalmers
Jennifer McGuire
Mark Steinmetz
Timothy Casgrain

Essay: In Praise of Newer Music

March 11th, 2007 § 1 comment § permalink

(I wrote this as a program note for a concert I did at the UT Faculty of Music in Jan 2007. It was subsequently published in CMC Notations.)

In Praise of Newer Music

I don’t remember exactly when I started playing contemporary music, but I do remember many of the pieces that I worked on as a young pianist, by composers like Violet Archer, Barbara Pentland, Jean Coulthard, Gerald Bales, and “King of List E” Boris Berlin, and I know that by the time I reached high school, playing contemporary music was already important to me. I think that I was partly rebelling from the “rules” that policed the standard repertoire, which were unimpeachable and objective right up to the moment when they became unfashionable. I also railed against the marble-busted pantheon of “great composers”, whose history often reads more like Homeric epic than critical review. My first serious teacher was a nun who championed learning by metronomic rote and balanced pennies on my hands to encourage good technique. Although from the old school, she also made a conscious effort to give me contemporary work to play, above and beyond what was required by the conservatories and local music festivals, and I’m sure that had an influence on me as well.

I wanted to face music on my own terms. For anyone studying right now, take some Ferneyhough into your lesson and see if you don’t get a bit more latitude. I also discovered a moment that I now crave, when struggling with an unintelligible new work. It’s a bit like having to find someone’s house without a map or an address (and more often than not, being late), but euphoria eventually arrives in the moment of coming-to-know, of understanding what I want to do with a work, and the strange array of notes becomes a little less foreign. It doesn’t get easier; it just becomes hard for a reason.

My favourite thing about playing contemporary music, though, is being an integral part of a living creation. As performing artists, we do not create in the sense that composers, or painters or poets do, and our creations are ephemeral moments that cannot truly be preserved. We can offer our unique interpretations, and are quite capable of captivating an audience, but we’re more akin to waiters than chefs. Still, I believe that through collaborations with living composers, we can choose to be a part of a greater purpose, one that goes beyond (but does not exclude) pleasing the public or ourselves.

I recently shared a train ride home with the composer Brian Current, and we discussed the act of composition. As he put it, “Composers are trying to tell you what it’s like to be alive at this time in history.” Contemporary art provokes us and challenges our ways of thinking, but it also reflects us as a society and it is through our art that we can piece together a sense of identity. This was nicely summed up when Juror Mary di Michele recently described the shortlisted poets for the G-G Awards as being “engaged in a sense of what it means to be alive in a certain time in a certain place, which is Canada but also the global village.” As I see it, music of our time can be written at us, to us, against us or about us, but in all cases we, the performers and listeners of today, are woven into the manuscript. New music gives us the precious opportunity to be involved with our history, and to be a part of a larger community.

And this community has space for so many different ways of thinking. Western art music has never had such a diversity of aesthetics as it does today. It is an unprecedented wealth of styles and sounds and hopes, and I consider myself lucky to have so many completely different voices to listen to. Think about the contrasts between Jo Kondo and Unsuk Chin, Steve Reich and Georges Aperghis, Linda Catlin Smith and Ana Sokolovic, even John Rutter, John Oswald and John Zorn, and then, try to figure out where to put Frank Zappa and Laurie Anderson.

There are still people smarting from the tempest that the second Viennese school unleashed upon the world almost a century ago. They question what value there could be in music that seems to lack a place for beauty. As the stage director Graham Cozzubbo once pointed out to me, they are in danger of confusing beauty with nostalgia. The melodies of the bel canto arias and the themes of the great 19th century orchestral works are all deeply ingrained in our minds and our movie soundtracks. The myth of Shostakovich is appealing in our post-cold war culture, and the keyboard music of Bach made the jump to pop culture along with the irresistible phenomenon of Glenn Gould. When I’m feeling blue, I’ll often put on the Goldberg Variations (1955 of course!), and with the help of its soothing polyphony find myself in a happier, less troubled place. It’s pleasurable to connect with what is familiar, and I am as given to sentimental indulgence as the next sentimental fool, but I wonder if treating music as a legal opiate doesn’t miss the point. Besides, as “Moms” Mabley once said, “The good old days. I was there. Where was they?”

A colleague of mine once used the argument that new music has never touched him emotionally, whereas there are works in the standard repertoire that can move him to tears. This argument never made sense to me personally, because I’ve cried watching Grey’s Anatomy and reruns of Friends, and a whole lot of manipulative Hollywood movies. I don’t think I’m alone (at least about the latter), and I don’t think there are many who consider these the zenith of our generation’s artistic yield. Tears are overrated, and aren’t half as interesting as riots or blood feuds.

If you took someone to a concert, someone unfamiliar with classical music, and she was to hear a performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, she might say something like “Well, it was interesting to see all those instruments, but it didn’t really do anything for me, and I think that Avril Lavigne has a lot more to say.” You could reasonably respond, “Give it a chance. The problem may be that you lack the tools with which to appreciate this music. If you were to keep listening, and learn more about the music and what Beethoven is saying, you might come to understand and appreciate it much more, and you would be the richer for it.” I think this can apply to many forms of music, but especially new music, because the many different languages that composers are using today are not the same languages that composers used even twenty years ago. Modern art can be elusive, but it does reveal itself to those who actively try to access it.

Recently, a Group of Seven painting was featured on the front page of the feel-good Globe and Mail Christmas edition, but in 1920, according to the critics, the Group of Seven’s first exhibition was “garish…loud, affected, freakish.” It was largely unsuccessful, and with only three paintings sold and a net loss taken, the group’s founder, J. E. H. MacDonald commented that, “It seems probable that we shall have to pay, as usual, for the privilege of giving the Toronto public an art education”. I’d like to include a small passage from the foreword to their catalogue.

A word as you view the pictures. The artists invite adverse criticism. Indifference is the greatest evil they have to contend with. But they would ask you – do you read books that contain only what you already know? If not, they argue, that you should hardly want to see pictures that show you what you can already see for yourselves.

There has always been a need for performers willing to advocate for a living art, and the list of those who have taken up this cause includes not only the likes of Pierre Boulez, Ursula Oppens and le Nouvelle Ensemble Moderne, but also romanticized icons of the past like Serge Koussevitzky, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, Josef Szigeti and Franz Liszt, who all took the risk of playing new music for fresh, often unreceptive ears. It’s hard for most of us, myself included, to imagine their performances as they would have seemed to their audiences, to viscerally hear Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata as revolutionary instead of lovely, or feel violent rage listening to Ravel and Debussy. Because of this, it’s easy to forget the contribution that these advocates made to the music of their time, and ultimately our time. So I’d like to suggest a different approach. Instead of trying to put ourselves in their shoes, why don’t we instead take a few walks in our own, and see if we don’t discover something new – something perhaps outrageous, or vulgar or sublime, but alive and of our time.

Sources:

Adams, James, “Poets aplenty, but who’s reading the verse?”. Globe and Mail. November 20,, 2006.

E. Kaye Fulton, “Group of Seven Show”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Foundation, 1995. October 30, 1995. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com

Foreword from Art Museum of Toronto, The Group of Seven, catalogue #22, May 7 – 27, 1920