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Archive for January, 2010

Comments on Music

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), by Delacroix (detail), 1838

Music sure is a subjective thing. Classical, Rock, Jazz, Country & Western—you name it. Love one and hate the rest. I’ve heard many comments on every kind of music imaginable, but the best I ever heard was from Igor Stravinsky (see Vox Populi below), though I have to say that, to me, Stravinsky sounds worse than my neighbours’ dogs. Generally, musicians do most of their commenting on the keyboard. They’re not often big on talk. Take Chopin for example. Note-wise, his compositions give three-volume novels a lot of competition.

Don’t get me wrong; I like Chopin. But just listen to some of his

Étude Op. 25, No. 11, designed to develop stamina and dexterity. It has been called “an epic study”; the very term, indeed; you could drown beneath the arpeggios. Chopin must have got writer’s cramp from laboriously producing those reams of sheet music. After maybe three or four bars he must have begun to feel the carpal tunnel stress in his arm.

compositions. Twenty-five notes per second. You’d need three hands. His students, who only had two hands, would thus be looking at 2.5 notes per second for every single finger. Even more, actually, because the middle finger would be for Chopin, behind his back.

W. A. Mozart (1756-1791), by D. Stock, 1789

And the compositions go on forever, with some passages and liaisons that are compositions in themselves. His études are recognized as among the most challenging works for concert piano. You’d swear there were a couple of chords buried in there somewhere that required six fingers. After an hour’s instruction the students must have been waiting for him in the alley, their hands aching and barely able to hold the baseball bats and brass knuckles. But for Chopin, of course, the compositions were the easiest thing in the world; he was a genius, with mind-bending manual dexterity.

Mozart was the same exasperating kind of kid. Both he and Chopin were child-prodigies, playing their musical compositions before the

National Theatre, Warsaw. (photo: Sfu)

crowned heads of Europe when they (that is Chopin and Mozart, not the crowned heads) were still in their diapers. Those kids must have been impossible to live with. Imagine telling them to take the garbage out, or shovel snow off the driveway. Mow the lawn? For pete’s sake, the kid had just parked his tricycle, barely got his coat off. He’d just come from a standing ovation at the Metropolitan Opera or the National Theatre in Warsaw, and you’re asking him to take care of the garbage? That would be the only time you’d get a comment from those musicians.


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Canada Goose

The birds have a clearly defined continental presence: Wintering and breeding in the northernmost US and Canada, while summer is spent relaxing, like many Canadians, in the southern US.

In flight, their distinctive form is pronounced: The long neck and head ‘way out front, body bulk far aft, like a flying bowling pin. There’s also the unique flying V, a couple of dozen of them spread out more or less evenly across the better part of an acre of air space.

Sometimes there will be a secondary V at the tail end of the formation. I guess, like humans, some guys can’t stand not being the leader, so they set up a branch office and lord it over a couple of pals.

“...those torn echelons of homing geese, beating out of the blustering dark, wheeling into the harbour’s frigid peace.” —Eric Winter

Their size is more dramatic when they pass overhead, about 15-20 metres above you, great wings moving almost languidly yet taking powerful slices of air. It can’t be too tiring; their lungs still have lots of room left for a commanding honk or two. But their nearness reenforces the appearance of weighty, confident substance. Lot of confidence. These birds, all of them, are take-charge guys. I’ve met one once or twice at ground level. Fella with his girlfriend, mate, whatever. Get a little too close to the girl and the male will give you the message with not a trace of ambiguity. Eyes fix you like a six-inch spike; an unflinching stare that would be the envy of a seasoned sales manager. And he starts pacing toward you, and you know, instinctively, that if you gave this guy best of three falls he wouldn’t need the third one. Complete confidence, much more than mine, and I did my own pacing, backward. The birds illustrate, quite clearly, the old adage that confidence wins more battles than superior weaponry.

I’m not big on photography (for proof, see the accompanying photos), and I haven’t much to say on the subject, but I’m not here to talk about photos, am I? I’m looking at Canada geese. And I do love those birds. Whatever I’m doing I stop to watch them crossing the sky in the distance, and I experience a sense of happiness and contentment. I have what I believe is a privilege to live in a small town where every afternoon, as the light wanes slightly toward dusk, I can see these beautiful birds. A dozen times a day, against the lowering clouds they claim the sky, and I’m glad.

Here fly the geese where they longed to be; home is the goose, home from the sea, and honking home to the hill.

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Beautiful Toronto

These days, I think you have to live in a small town to really appreciate what peace and tranquillity mean, and how valuable they are.

After a day on the streets of downtown Toronto — amid the crowds, the noise, the sheer thrusting, bustling, ill-mannered insensitivity of the place — when you board the train bound for home, the ticket in your hand is like a passport to paradise.

Yet even outside the city, through the suburbs, into the surrounding counties, there is still the trash, all the scrap and rubbish of forgotten projects, pointless plans that failed: Metro’s sad logo stamped on the county’s page.

The train races east, and on every side there are fields that seem to be waiting to become tomorrow’s suburbs.

Indifferent fields there, waiting, dumb, like sheep;

the urban wolf will eat them while they sleep.

I used to live in Toronto, in its long-gone naive years, when there was nothing to do on Sunday except wait for Monday. Birth rates soared; what else was there to do on Sunday? Temperance was strong. In 1969 when I arrived (from Montréal), if you had a beer on your own front porch you could be arrested.

“Toronto the Good” it was called then. Hasn’t been called that for a long time. It’s been called a lot of other names, though. “Toronto, the city you love to hate.” That term is coming back into current usage, and ironically by the Torontonians themselves. When was the last time you heard the mayor’s name when it wasn’t followed by a four-letter word?

Toronto used to be a beautiful city; still is in many areas. But it’s still not in a lot of others. The traffic on the downtown streets is a joke that doesn’t get many laughs. Where else can a pedestrian walk beside a motorist in traffic and carry on a lengthy face-to-face conversation for miles? The pedestrian could read him War and Peace and never miss a comma. Right now traffic is at a standstill. At the moment the only alternative is to move backwards, but in effect that’s a step ahead. At least traffic would be moving.

Looking back, the city’s beauty once was there, but today in the city’s core little of it remains.

I’ll sometimes seek that city once again,

but in its ugly face I’ll seek in vain

the beauty I recall, that used to be.

There, beauty’s dead. Yes, beauty’s fled, like me.

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Small Town

I live in a small town. Cobourg; attractive little place about 100 km east of Toronto, with a population around 18,000. Lovely main street; the only town I know whose main street curves through the downtown area, giving it an almost Mediterranean look, like those narrow twisting streets you see along the Riviera.

We’re right on Lake Ontario. Most of us here figure that gives us an advantage, unlike those poor people who live further inland, lost in a wilderness of fields and highways. Instead, we have a small sea right on our doorstep: The broad waters of the lake which give us cooling breezes in the summer. A blessing, yes, but like most blessings, it’s mixed. Every year those wonderful summer breezes become the harsh knife-like winds of winter. There’s not a single tree or rise of ground to stop them sweeping relentlessly across from New York state. The more bitter among us blame the Yanks. “If they had an ounce, or rather a milligram, of decency they’d do something about it.” But no, mutter these bitter Canadians. “The Yanks are still bent out of shape because we drew that damned 49th parallel and prevented them from taking over the whole continent.”

Small towns have a lot of supporters, and I’m one of them. But when those winter winds turn your fingers white, and there’s no sensation that you have a nose at all, and a double scotch when you get home is the only thing that saves you from death itself, you can’t help but wonder: Maybe it was the Yanks who insisted on the 49th parallel, and maybe we should try to renegotiate it. Down around Florida would be a much better location…

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