blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Variation on the theme

(See my previous two blogposts.) Click here for a review of another film about the redemptive power of music: Vier Minuten (Germany, 2006). It's being shown as part of the European Film Festival at Ottawa's National Library & Archives on Saturday evening and I plan to go and watch it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Feeding people's souls, forgetting their vices

I don't have as much time as I wanted to describe Tocar Y Luchar; a French-speaking group is meeting at our house this evening so I have to tidy up and prepare "une petite collation." Vivien has set each of us the challenge of finding some Wonders of the World other than the ones on the official list, and I've decided that my choice will be a toss up between Wells Cathedral (which I have visited) and the Library of Alexandria (which I haven't, but would like to).

However I promised to add something about the film to this blog, so here's a selection of quotations from musicians interviewed during the documentary, expressing their opinions about the young Venezuelans' musical education—El Sistema, as it's called.

The voice-over to a sequence showing an 11-year old child playing her violin out of doors along the narrow back-streets of the slums of La Vega, Caracas, goes something like this:

We think of social programmes providing food, shelter or medical assistance, but feeding people's souls [gives them the means to] find a way to feed themselves, house themselves ... and they'll grow into people of significance and [make a] contribution... When you establish the inner life of somebody ... then the possibility ... to enhance, to uplift society is endless.

Another interviewee said:

Art implies a sense of perfection ...therefore a road to excellence. What has the orchestra planted in their souls? A sense of harmony, of order, of rhythm ... of the aesthetic, of the beautiful, of the universal ... and the language of the invisible, transmitted unseen through music.

The little girl herself commented that she had discovered another world and that when she's playing her violin she forgets everything else. (In Spanish she said, "I forget about all the vices!").

Sir Simon Rattle, who recently recruited one of Venezuela's young double-bass players (Edicson Ruiz) into the Berlin Philharmonic, went so far as to say that the national musical education documented in this film was

not only enriching lives, but saving lives! ... Music is always about something, not just about itself ... Clearly, music is the most important thing in the world to these kids, and that comes over, loud and clear.

There was also footage of Placido Domingo being moved to tears by the high quality of the Venezuelan youth choirs and orchestras when he first heard them and another touching episode was where they showed mentally and physically handicapped children becoming involved in the music-making. One of the best trumpeters shown in the film is a blind 12-year old.

The man who started this, José Antonio Abreu, wants no less than to change the world so that classical music in our times (or "for eternity," as he put it!) becomes no longer something created by a minority for a minority, or even by a minority for a majority, but by a majority for a majority. He has been doing his best to realise this dream in Latin America for the last thirty years.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Respighi and Schumann for the OrKidstra

I mentioned this subject once or twice before in my blog this year.

Chris and I were at a private concert last night where money was raised to fund the OrKidstra for children of low-income families in Ottawa, in the presence of one of its initiators, Margaret Munro Tobolowska. She spoke to us in passionate tones about how she believed classical music should be accessible to every child, not just the gifted and privileged ones—preaching to the converted as far as I'm concerned—but wasn't the soloist at John's house; that was another 'cellist, Paul Merlyn, who like her had once progressed through the old and trusty "system" that's taken such a knock from recent governments blinkered by short-term financial exigencies who slash the funding for such things and make some of us very angry indeed. Mr Merlyn, having played in a local youth orchestra, got into the (British) National Youth Orchestra, then the European Youth Orchestra and now teaches 'cello here, in Ottawa.

He was accompanied by Fred Lacroix at the piano, playing the Adagio con Variazione by Respighi and Schumann's Cello Concerto with the orchestra part arranged for piano. Paul Merlyn talked about the Schumann concerto, written towards the end of his creative life when he was fighting the onset of madness. Does the music give an inkling of Schumann's loss of mental control or was it an effective antidote that kept it at bay for a while? Mr Merlyn was inclined to think the latter. He played the whole thing from memory, very well indeed.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the concert and keen to support the children, we bought a DVD of the film that inspires these people, Tocar y Luchar, which I'm intending to watch all the way through this evening. Watch this space for a rave review by tomorrow evening because, from what I've heard about it so far, I expect to be impressed!

Incidentally in John's kitchen after the concert I got talking to a lady whose winter occupation is house-sitting in Dawson City in the Yukon. She usually stays there till June and told me that although the city is small, it's a real centre of culture. Now there's some interesting food for thought ...

Here we go again!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

An Indian Dream

As in musicals from Bollywood, the conclusion of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a lavish wedding party, and when Shakespeare's comedy is produced in an Indian setting, with an all-Indian / Sri Lankan cast in Indian costumes, with Indian props and musicians permanently on stage to accompany the action on Indian instruments, well, it's not how you might remember that play from your school days.

The Dash Arts company, directed by Tim Supple, were in Ottawa earlier this month and my friend Tanya, who had seen their production in its first week here, insisted I get a ticket for myself, "even if you have to steal it!" By the way, by turning up at the NAC box office after 4p.m. on the day of a performance, I was allowed to book any remaining seat at half-price, a point worth noting in these financially difficult times.

You can get an inkling of the vivacity by visiting the website where you'll find clips showing the actors (some of them professional acrobats) swinging like monkeys upside down on ropes and drapes hung across the stage. Once the play moves into fairyland (i.e. the Indian jungle), the trappings and inhibitions of civilized society are left far behind and the bamboo frame at the back of the stage becomes a maze of trees or tree-houses for fairies and mortals to climb upon. The silken mats have been removed from the floor, revealing a sand-pit where the various lovers become trapped in a literal web of Puck's mischievous designing (rubber bands!) In other parts of the play, Puck becomes a lethargic fakir, observing high and low caste society with detachment from his reclining position behind the ornamental pond at the front of the stage.

The two who made the biggest impression on our audience were the dancer / actress Archana Ramaswamy who plays both Queen Hippolyta of the Court of Athens and Tatania, Queen of the Fairies (with a strong implication that underneath their clothes they are one and the same!) and the comedian who plays the part of Nick Bottom, Aporup Acharya, in such a hilarious way that he has the audience in stitches even when he's saying his lines in one of the seven languages other than English (Hindi, Bengali, Kannada, Malayam, Sanskrit, Tamil, Marathi) that are used in this production, apparently in a faithful translation of the original script. The actresses all say their lines in English; the men switch from one tongue to another constantly.

The musicians are prestigious instrumentalists and composers in their own right; here they were responsible for setting the atmosphere of the play and keeping its momentum going. The opening scene began with the soft hum of a singing bowl; the last scene had the whole audience on its feet including me, clapping, arms raised, to the wild beat of their drums as the company on stage danced barefoot with fiery torches in celebration of married love.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Amazons and other denizens of the Kitchissippi

The Anishinabe—their stone axes can be seen in the Bytown Museum—were many-tribed, one of their peoples known as the Odawa, or "Traders." The first explorers from pre-revolutionary France misunderstood, assuming that their "Great River" (Kitchissippi) was the Odawa; hence its French name, Outaouais.

It was my idea to invite the diplomats' wives for a tour of the Bytown Museum, and this took place on November 7th, ladies from twenty-seven different countries turning up to be shown round by an excellent guide called Steve, disguised as an officer of the Royal Engineers of the 1820s. He spoke in a refined British accent, specially put on for the occasion, and wore a hat like the one in the museum which once belonged to Colonel By [picture by Barbara Miles]. Steve told us about the Odawa, about British Canadians burning down the White House in Washington in retaliation for an American attack on York, later known as Toronto, and of course about the Rideau Canal that now has World Heritage status.

Once the canal was complete, despite a tragic series of fatal accidents, the Irish navvies who'd done most of the dirty work on the canal were at a loss and a loose end. Some of them eventually helped to construct the Notre Dame Basilica on Sussex Drive; others, among whom were the dreaded "Shiner" gangs of the 1830s, ran amok in Bytown, where a Reign of Terror pitted them against itinerant French-speaking raftsmen, "draveurs," with their caulk boots studded with long, sharp nails to keep them steady on the log-rafts rolling down the rivers. In the brothels of Clarence Street, the "Amazons" catered to men who'd been lumbering in the bush for months on end without any female company. One of those lumberjacks was the legendary giant and strongman, Joseph Montferrand, reputed to have thrown several pesky Irishmen single-handed into the river during one riot, remembered as The Battle Of The Chaudière Falls.

But it was the entrepreneurs, the lumber barons Booth, Preston, Bronson and Eddy, with their timber mills on the Lebreton Flats, who were the real bosses. Booth when he died at the age of 99 was worth $35 million.

Ottawa's first police force was established, under considerable protest from the local taxpayers, in 1855. ("People never want to pay for what's required," commented Steve. "It's the same today.") Another project that helped to civilize the locals was the founding of Bytown College by Father Tabaret (he after whom Tabaret Hall is named). The college later developed into the University of Ottawa. Another such idealist was "Canada's first multi-culturalist," as Diane Rummery of the CFUW put it), D'Arcy McGee, but he was assassinated for his pains. Here's Diane telling the diplomats about "Sir John A," Canada's first Prime Minister, after she had told them about McGee under his statue on Parliament Hill, a tour of the statues being the other part of our outing.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Three concerts

On October 25th, Shoko Inoue, born in Tokyo, played the piano at the National Gallery of Canada, this concert sponsored by the Embassy of Japan. Elva and I were there to hear her perform Bach's French Suite in G major, Chopin's Ballade in G minor, Op 23, and Schubert's Sonata in B-flat major, D 960, written right at the end of his life, the one with the wonderful Andante Sostenuto slow movement, that my mother loves so much. (You can find Alfred Brendel's famous interpretation of it on YouTube). Ms Inoue played her instrument in bare feet, as does the more extravert Evelyn Glennie.

On November 7th, "in honour of the 90th Anniversary of the Republic of Estonia", a concert (organised by my friend Ülle) was put on at the First Baptist Church: operatic arias sung by Heli Veskus (soprano) and Oliver Kuusik (tenor) of the Estonian National Opera. On tour in Canada, the two soloists were met at the station by Ülle, who also presented each of them with bouquets of flowers to vigorous applause from the assembled diplomats and friends at the end of their performance. Richard Todd (music critic for the Ottawa Citizen) gave them a glowing report. There was only one operatic duet on the programme, an extract from La Bohème, at the end of which the two performers wandered off suggestively into the "wings" (of the church) together, still singing. Ms Veskus' finale was Giuditta's song, by Lehár, you know the one: Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss..., but then the tenor came back to join her so that they could finish the concert by singing an Estonian "prayer" in unison. Apparently there's a great film about how "singing has always brought Estonians together," as the Ambassador told us, called The Singing Revolution.

The following day, I went to the third concert, this one a Strings of St John's performance at St John's church, a couple of blocks and across the road from the other one. I had a friend involved in that concert, too, who plays in the 2nd Violins (scroll down the page for Regina's photo and biography). This ensemble, with the young soprano Alexa Wing as soloist (obviously battling a cough and sore throat, more's the pity) gave an unusual programme of music: Corelli's Concerto Grosso in C, a secular cantata by Bach, then Britten's setting of Les Illuminations (poems by Rimbaud, of which Peter Pears probably gave the most understanding rendition, although it was originally composed for a soprano, not a tenor) which work has a good deal more depth to it than the last item on the programme, a Psalm and Jubilation for strings and harp by an American composer, Tracey Rush. Easy listening, but too bland. I much preferred the Britten.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Part of the Answer

During a long wait for our winter tyres / "tires" a couple of weeks ago, I wandered into a small park I hadn't seen before, the recently opened Cancer Survivors' Park not far from the hospital where local cancer patients often go for treatment. It was full of information or inducements to positive thinking carved onto plaques (in two languages) attached to unfortunately tomblike stones around the park's perimeter. Apparently the inspiration and funding for such parks, of which there are several in North America, came from a Mr Bloch, who with the help of his wife once made a dramatic, unexpected recovery from "terminal" lung cancer.

A sculpted group of eight human figures appears in a maze of doors or hurdles, their faces showing fear, determination, hope, joy ... depending on whereabouts they are on the symbolic journey. The sculptor's name is Victor Salmones and he called his creation a labour of love. It is entitled: Cancer, there is hope!

It is the most feared disease in North America, but according to what I read in the park it is also the most curable. Apparently, cells in our bodies divide "wildly" around six times a day, but as a rule our immune system recognises and kills off these potential cancers, unless for some reason our defences have become compromised.

Here are the encouragements I read (in no particular order; I have paraphrased some and strung some separate statements together):

  1. Promise yourself to defend yourself as hard as you can. "Sans exceptions," adds the French translation. The commitment you make is the most important part of your treatment.
  2. You can be part of the Answer.
  3. Knowledge heals. Seek and accept support. Find a physician who believes you can be successfully treated, get second opinions, get prompt and proper treatment.
  4. You are the boss. This is your life.
  5. Eat well-balanced meals and don't go on any fad diets. Exercise, but don't overdo it. Be selfish. Stress accelerates cancer; try to relax.
  6. Visual imagery can help you; so can a religious faith.
  7. Gather all your resources and concentrate on getting rid of the cancer: "now you have a chance!"
  8. Make plans and set yourself goals.
  9. Don't forget that many people have conquered this and that the majority of cancer sufferers are cured.
  10. Make up your mind that once your cancer is gone, you are through with it.

A week later I was driving past the same park where a couple of cars had pulled over to the side of the road with their emergency lights flashing. A couple of friends of mine were in the car in front which had been damaged by the car behind, driven, so I heard afterwards, by a woman in tears, rushing to the hospital because her husband was dying.

I can't help feeling that, spirited though they are, anyone who has just lost or is about to lose someone precious through this disease might see irony in those messages in the park and find them insensitive, but maybe I'm wrong, maybe that's just my European wariness of American optimism (or of sentimentality?) kicking in.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Black against white

This is nothing to do with people in American politics but was the title of the other art exhibition I explored (upstairs) at the Carleton University Art Gallery, back in October. (My penultimate blogpost described the exhibition downstairs.)

John J. A. Murphy, who lived from 1888 to 1967, specialised in wood engravings, though his career began as a designer of camouflage uniforms for the U.S. infantry in the First World War. When he went on to do his black and white cubist pieces in the 1920s, of Wrestlers, for example, and Sprinters, the effect was still of camouflage, so that you have to concentrate quite hard to decipher which parts of the picture are which when looking at these engravings. I was reminded of M C Escher's art from the same period. In Murphy's engraving Shadow-boxing, the figures' muscles are done by hatching, so as to keep things linear; he was influenced by his contemporary, Eric Gill, apparently, and like him did obsessive series of religious prints, a row of miniscule Stations of the Cross for instance, in 1921. Three years later, when Murphy's son was born, he took it upon himself to produce a hundred Nativity prints, but only managed to complete 28 of them. A thought apposite to his work had been written down by the poet John Gould Fletcher that same year:

Something is subtracted from darkness by every beam of light; yet darkness remains.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Resurrection of the American Dream

The outcome of the presidential election in the USA has been so exciting I haven't been able to concentrate on much else, these last few days. It feels the same as nineteen Novembers ago, when the Berlin Wall was breached. Today my German-speaking friends talked about a commentary from Der Spiegel which I'd printed out for the group to read, entitled Obamas historischer Wahlsieg. Die Wiederauferstehung des amerikanischen Traums. describing the tone of the man's voice:

versöhnlich [...] erhaben [...] wohltempiert [...] Der Obama-Ton schliesst Menschen ein und grenzt sie nicht aus. Es ist der Ton der politischen Romantik.

Conciliatory, exalted, well-tempered, the way in which he speaks includes people, doesn't exclude them. Rather a good description, that.

Another appposite quotation I found was in one of the pictures featured on the half-hour photo-documentary about Obama's life so far, that I found on website, a photo of the motto of the Senator Obama Secondary School in Kogelo, Kenya, saying:


Did you know that Barack Obama has a Canadian brother-in-law whose name is Konrad Ng? This is a multi-racial family and no mistake. At last, someone in the White House who should be capable of imagining the Rest Of The World as family. But the best thing he's done so far is to put pride and joy into his compatriots' faces. They needed that.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Here's a great quotation from Litany for the Homeland, a story by the Australian writer, Janette Turner Hospital):

No little man from Customs and Immigration stands at the doors of memory or imagination demanding to see your passport.

Last week I went to an exhibition at the Carleton University Art Gallery that seemed to explore that theme, entitled ImagiNation: New Cultural Topographies. There were six exhibits, each one making some comment on the lack of belonging or, paradoxically, the togetherness felt by people who have in one way or another been displaced from their homeland. I'll take them in the order I found them; it's an attractive gallery that I entered on the upper level and from above, the first installation that caught my eye was Gerard Choy's One Ton of Won Ton Bowls (2003) laid out on the floor. The title quite literally meant what it said. 279 identical won ton bowls had been set in concrete and painted blue; together they weighed 1 imperial ton. To appreciate the symbolism of this you have to know that this kind of bowl was first produced in the 19th century for Chinese people who had moved overseas. The colour is significant too, chroma-key blue being used in the film industry for screens onto which anything can be projected. Blue bowls are also a reminder of traditional Chinese porcelain.

At the bottom of the stairs from the upper gallery was a video installation, again dated 2003, featuring four flat screens, two of which were showing scenes from Orange County, California, the other two showing Orange County, Beijing, its deliberate, fashionable imitation. The same Asian man walked along the residential street past the same houses. There was no clue as to which country was which.

A video by Jin-Me Yoon was more disturbing, showing a Korean woman (the artist herself, 46 years old) lying face-down on a low, wheeled plank like a skateboard, propelling herself painfully along the streets of Seoul by means of her hands (in bandages) and feet, from the U.S. Embassy to the Japanese Embassy. Other people including several in uniform appear in the video, all of them ostentatiously ignoring her.

Against the wall was a huge 3-dimensional exhibit by Lucie Chang—and there's a multi-cultural name if ever there was one, even more striking when you read that she was born in Guyana—she calls the artwork entre-deux larmes, and it's a response to the immigrants whom she interviewed, one by one, in preparation for this work. The predominant colour is grey although some aquamarine colours are interspersed and a few bright bubbles (?) of video here and there. From a distance it looks like an underwater pool with hanging weeds, ripples, fish perhaps. When you come closer you see that each of the shapes is an eye in tears or a tear drop. As a friend of mine said, impossible to describe. You have to see it.

In the next room is The Hive Dress(2003) constructed by a collective from Montreal's garment-making district which has a predominantly immigrant population. Ribbons of various shades of pink / red are woven into a giant beehive structure, with some discarded on the floor, and on the back of the used ribbons quotations from the immigrant women are incorporated, each statement saying something about their "dreams and disappointments". I explored inside the rather claustrophobic beehive to decipher a few thoughts about missing family members.

Also included in the exhibtion was Frank Shebageget's Small Village. This artist is strictly speaking not an immigrant at all, but an Ojibway artist born and brought up in Thunder Bay, but his message about "cultural intersections ... alienation ... memory ... shifting communities ... history's silences and counter-narratives"—the subject of this exhibition—fits right in. The "village" is 39 identical model houses neatly placed on three shelves like rows of boxes. Each plywood house has one small window in the side wall, one window and a basic door in the front wall, modelled on the ugly, government issue, "Indian House" that native people were obliged to construct on their reservations.