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

January 25th, 2010 § 0 comments

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:

Jun 2, 2008

This week’s diarist is Gregory Oh, artistic director of the highly acclaimed new music group Toca Loca, with Simon Docking and Aiyun Huang. He is the newest member of the musical staff of the Canadian Opera Company, and teaches at the University of Toronto. He kept his diary earlier this month.

“It must be so great making a living doing what you love!”

My friend Simon Docking (a fellow pianist) and I discussed our growing aversion to this cliched phrase over lunch today.

I am often tempted to respond with the truth– that what I really love doing is sleeping with beautiful women, which rarely proves profitable.

Simon and I are currently awash in the whirlwind of soundaXis, a three-week festival of art, music, architecture and ideas in Toronto. These days, a typical day consists of rehearsals from 9 a. m. to 9 p. m., with breaks for meals. Sometimes one needs to arrive at least one hour in advance to unload and set up gear, and more often than not, one uses most of the break time furiously practising, stealing mouthfuls of fast food and slugs of caffeine in between page turns. After one such day, I headed straight to my studio to learn the material for the next day’s work, got home around 3 a. m. and set my alarm for 7:30. After three weeks with “what I love,” I may be in the market for an affair.

Practising is part of a musicians’ life, and always a source of guilt. It is something easy to get out of and hard to see through, but it is the crucial link to keeping music a vocation, not just a job. It is where we experiment, discover and grow, and it is how we protect our artistic integrity. Recently, a much-anticipated date ended quite disastrously: “Maybe you should leave before you wear out your welcome.” Wounded and glum, I found myself in my studio, where I picked pieces at random and played for hours. It felt great, so I guess practising can also be a source of comfort.

In the end, I think it is just a misunderstanding. When people dress up in their Savile Row suits and head off to Bay Street, they are heading off to work. It is not surprising that they would cast an envious eye upon those lucky enough to spend their days “playing.”

Jun 3, 2008

This week’s diarist is Gregory Oh, artistic director of the highly acclaimed new music group Toca Loca. Oh is perfoming in the soundaXis ’08 New Music festival, which runs to June 15. He kept his diary earlier this month.

It is widely accepted in the worlds of politics, big business and marriage that you should never utter those three damning words: I don’t know.

What is your position on buying polycarbonate from orphans in Tajikistan?

Where is the marketing report that was due last Friday?

When is our anniversary?

SoundaXis’s Music for 6008 Spokes is a “cyclist as musician” show that took place on Saturday afternoon. It included a bicycle ballet written by Julia Aplin and John Gzowski and danced/cycled by students from Etobicoke School of the Arts. Also on the bill was Eine Brise (by Mauricio Kagel) for mass formation of cyclists.

The “piece” consisted of a diagrammed formation of up to 111 “musicians” on bicycles who rode past the audience and at specified points carried out five actions, including ringing their bells, singing, whistling or making “wind noises.” Whenever I’ve shown the score to someone, they’ve invariably asked the same questions:

What does it sound like? Is it a good piece?

What is the artistic message being communicated?

This time, instead of unleashing the standard academic mumbo jumbo, I just told the truth: “I don’t know.” I followed with an “I have no idea” and finished with a vicious “Your guess is as good as mine!”

“I don’t know.” You should try it. It’s very liberating.

Jun 4, 2008

This week’s diarist is Gregory Oh, artistic director of the highly acclaimed new music group Toca Loca. Oh is perfoming in the soundaXis ’08 New Music festival, which runs to June 15. He kept his diary earlier this month.

My inbox is currently packed with emails about upcoming CBC protests.

By the age of 10, I was already a faithful CBC listener. It was there on long rides in the family Volvo and I have fond memories of falling asleep to radio dramas or Brave New Waves. I lived in the U. S. for three years, and man did I miss the CBC.

There are things that sadden me about the changes and the rhetoric-laced debate. To those who protest — when was the last time stable funding to the CBC was made into an election issue? Supplementary: How often has this pledge been honoured?

I applaud the PR master-mind who framed the debate as classical vs. pop, because it should be about advocating for intelligent and original programming. I don’t think we need more Karajan or more Krall. Instead of asking “How can we capture the 30-to-49s?” the CBC should have asked, “What can we do that an iPod can’t?”

I love Joni Mitchell, but when I want to hear her, I lovingly finger my shiny touchscreen, not my yellowed radio dial. The CBC is the smart geeky kid trying to be a cool preppy, but it’ll never be hip as long as it needs consultants to define the concept; by the time they get the report, it’s already so six months ago.

The buzz is that they’re willing to lose 40% of their core audience to tap the “younger” demographic. It’s time to upgrade to the 32GB model.

Jun 5, 2008

This week’s diarist is Gregory Oh, artistic director of the highly acclaimed new music group Toca Loca. Oh is perfoming in the soundaXis ’08 New Music festival, which runs to June 15. He kept his diary earlier this month.

“What should I be thinking about while performing?”

One of my cast members asked me this question today; I found it easy to answer, but difficult to answer well.

I’ve read interviews with high-performance athletes where they detail their exact mental process, from gun to finish line. I marvel at the precise mental choreography that is required for a performance where 0.01 seconds can spell the difference between fame and failure.

Personally, I’ve given some of my best performances while brain-dead and jet-lagged, or daydreaming about my next meal, or one time in Austria, winking at the cute blond in the upper balcony.

“Concentrate, focus, think about the music.” This kind of advice sounds like a homecoming cheer, and is equally useful. It’s the equivalent of answering “How will I know if it’s love?” with “You’ll just know.” Gee, thanks.

The pianist Anton Kuerti once advised me to “try to play one perfect phrase. If the first phrase isn’t perfect, move on to the next, and so on. It takes the pressure off.” And if you manage one perfect phrase? “Try for two.”

According to the pianist Gyorgy Sebok, learning is a constructive, meticulous process, but when performing, the challenge is forgetting everything you’ve learned. Violinist David Takeno offered this similar step-by-step approach:

1. Instinct

2. Intellect

3. Instinct.

I suppose what separates a musician from, say, a figure skater is that the latter would probably be thrilled to perfectly reproduce what they had done in practice, whereas I would just be bored. So — what should you be thinking about when performing? Trust your instincts and figure it out yourself…or play on an empty stomach. – Tomorrow: Life isn’t simple, so why should music be?

Jun 6, 2008

This week’s diarist is Gregory Oh, artistic director of the new music group Toca Loca. Oh is perfoming in the soundaXis ’08 New Music festival, which runs to June 15. He kept his diary earlier this month.

I’ve been reading Phoebe Tsang’s latest chapbook, To Kiss the Ground, and today I shared it with one of my “new music” colleagues, who responded, “I don’t always like poetry, but I really liked reading her work!”

Phoebe was flattered, wryly describing the collection as accessible– “It doesn’t have to be a bad thing– to me it means that I didn’t arbitrarily cut words into tiny pieces, didn’t restrict myself to seven-syllable adjectives and every once in a while, I used a normal sentence structure.”

I’ve been thinking about accessibility and new music, especially amidst soundaXis. While I scoff at those who consider Messiaen’s work to be “contemporary” and find my-self railing against traditional harmony and the “neo-romantics” (the scarlet letter!), the last time my parents heard one of my concerts their response was, “Well… we can’t understand it, but we’re proud of you anyway!”

When I try to enter the world of the poetic avant-garde, I struggle to find meaning and often come away empty-handed, or at least empty-headed. As I guiltily reach for Tennyson and Dickinson, the irony is not lost on me.

To paraphrase (and mash up) two eminent composers, John Beckwith and Henry Brant, appreciating some music requires you to be an active and engaged listener, which is hard work. Life isn’t simple, so why should music be?

I suppose in the end it’s all about finding your own balance. Next weekend I plan to throw something lyrical on the MP3 player and curl up with some Christian Bok.

Credit: Gregory Oh; National Post

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