June 28, 2009

I hadn’t heard of Don Coles till a week and a half ago, but I’m very very happy I did (which is often what happens to me with Canadian poets). His A Dropped Glove in Regent Street: An Autobiography by Other Means came across my desk, and I liked the looks of it. Luckily, having just bought a house, my local library had it, so I don’t have to buy it. Quite yet. I’m sure I’ll want a reread before too long, and then I will.

The word that comes to my mind about the book is “fine”. Finely detailed, finely crafted. And yet warm and rich.

It is an autobiography by other means…it includes memoir, but also includes some of his book reviews, and thoughts on literary biography and translations. Incredibly intelligent without being harshly ‘clever’ (I need earnest-ness in books, especially ones like this), Coles’ voice is conversational and thoughtful.

The book also shows his poet’s attention to the details of the language, both in what he notices in what he writes about, and in his own writing: “having arrived in this unpremeditated country” is just one example that struck me.

And his knowledge is encyclopedic, offering many wonderful literary quotations:

“The written word loses its power if it departs too far…from the ordinary world where two and two make four.”  George Orwell.

“When you are old you have to stay in the shade, however witty you are.” Italo Svevo (a friend of Joyce.)

“The poet is a metaphysician who actively engages with nature, who goes out of himself, who hunts down the otherness of being.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This, from Darwin, on his wife, Emma: “She has been my greatest blessing, and I can declare that in my whole life I have never heard her utter one word which I would rather had been unsaid. I do not believe she has ever missed an opportunity of doing a kind action to anyone near her.” (How wonderful!)

And one I’m particularly drawn to at the moment, having finished reorganizing my library and having bought a house. William Morris, the designer, “once asked himself the rhetorical question, what did he consider the thing most to be longed for. His immediate reply was ‘a beautiful House’, and he continued, ‘and if I were further asked to name the thing next to be longed for, I should answer, a beautiful Book.'”

Here’s what Coles says is his aim:

“What I mean to do…is this: I mean to show how an individual’s growth – whatever we call that myriad of felt, seldom-documented experiences that, beginning in earliest childhood, forms itself in him or her – can, if actively pursued and cultivated, lead to a relatively consistent series of attitudes and judgments, of values ‘aesthetic’ in nature but also operative politically, socially, in one’s public life as well as one’s kept-to-oneself thoughts.

“Well, no, that’s not what I mean to show. Really not. Too diffuse, too unhorizoned. That way lies madness, lies an endless and Byzantine discourse, lies Matthew Arnold. I have a more modest chase in view. Namely or chiefly: myself.”

I hope Coles found himself. He’s certainly there, in this book, for us to find, as well as all the writers and artists he writes of. It does my mind and my soul good to know that there are still people and ideas like this, where experience and language and thought are valued. To quote him, “my heart bends a little when I think of it.”

Stupid Boy Projects

June 14, 2009

If you haven’t yet read about Danny Wallace and his “stupid boy projects”, you should.

His book Yes Man, on which the recent Jim Carrey movie was (very very) loosely based, came across my desk the other day and I started reading little bits. Like this, from “About the Author”:

“Danny Wallace is a writer, producer, and cult leader…Yes Man is currently being adapted for film by Warner Bros., which must be strange for you, because you’ve not even read it yet. Danny is 28, and lives in an old match factory in the East End of London. He says hello.”

or, from the Prologue:

“I should just say thanks to all those people I’ve written about in the next few hundred pages. Their names are real, apart from those few cases where I’ve changed a name or detail to save anyone any obvious embarrassment, or – in one rather central and vital person’s case – just because they thought it would be cool, and so asked.”

So I ordered Yes Man, and the previous book, where Wallace describes how he became a cult leader (yes, it’s actually true, and, it turns out, mostly by accident), Join Me.

They’re laugh-out-loud funny. But they’re also touching. Because these “stupid boy projects” (as a girlfriend of Wallace calls them) are really about a twenty-something trying to find the best way to live his life. About a desire for connection, and making himself and others happy.

Cleverer and deeper than I expected from trade paperbacks I bought on a whim. Let Danny Wallace surprise you, too.

Great album, but…

June 13, 2009

This isn’t my kind of post. I’m not usually all up in arms about woman-y stuff. But a recently rediscovered (for me) album got me thinking.

I don’t think I ever listened to Weezer’s Blue Album, when it came out, all the way through. But it’s a really great record. The music’s catchy, the lyrics are interesting. I especially like “In The Garage”:

“I’ve got a Dungeon Master’s Guide
I’ve got a 12-sided die
I’ve got Kitty Pryde
And Nightcrawler too
Waiting there for me
Yes I do, I do

I’ve got posters on the wall
My favorite rock group KISS
I’ve got Ace Frehley
I’ve got Peter Criss
Waiting there for me
Yes I do, I do

I’ve got an electric guitar
I play my stupid songs
I write these stupid words
And I love every one
Waiting there for me
Yes I do, I do

In the garage
I feel safe
No one cares about my ways
In the garage
Where I belong
No one hears me sing this song
In the garage.”

But listening to the album again for the first time (if there is such a thing…it’s a literary crit. formulation, I guess, like “always already”), I was taken aback by a few of the lyrics, like this from “No One Else”:

“I want a girl who will laugh for no one else
When I’m away she puts her makeup on the shelf
When I’m away she never leaves the house
I want a girl who laughs for no one else.”

Really? I mean, this was starting to sound a little weird, to me.

Then came “Buddy Holly”. I’ve always had a soft spot for that song, ’cause I love Buddy Holly but also because a guy I had a mutual crush with in high school told me once that if we had gotten together, it would have been our song. And I used to think that was kind of cool, because his friends didn’t really get me and it would have been all romantic. Then, this time around, I listened more closely:

“What’s with these homies, dissing my girl?
Why do they gotta front?
What did we ever do to these guys
That made them so violent?
Woo-hoo, but you know I’m yours
Woo-hoo, and I know you’re mine
Woo-hoo, and that’s for all time

Oo-ee-oo I look just like Buddy Holly
Oh-oh, and you’re Mary Tyler Moore
I don’t care what they say about us anyway
I don’t care bout that

Don’t you ever fear, I’m always near
I know that you need help
Your tongue is twisted, your eyes are slit
You need a guardian
Woo-hoo, but you know I’m yours
Woo-hoo, and I know you’re mine
Woo-hoo, and that’s for all time.”

No wonder this guy’s friends pick on her…he thinks she’s weak and weird, himself. Nice. I’ve got a few questions for that guy from high school, now…

And don’t get me wrong…I’m not saying Weezer are misogynist, or anything, and it’s still a great, rockin’ album. I just wonder, a little bit.


June 13, 2009

Recently I took on a project of listening to all of Beethoven’s symphonies. Growing up, I was always more interested in Bach, but a couple things that came up more recently had gotten me into the idea. First, I got a 120G iPod. This gave me the space to load on my dad’s 5 CD set of George Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra recordings of the symphonies.

The real spark was from a couple years ago. My brother was a roadie (if that’s what they’re called, for orchestras) for the Windsor orchestra while he was at school, and he told a story about some musicians discussing the best ever orchestral piece. Basically, they all agreed it was Beethoven. They just couldn’t decide whether it was the 5th or the 9th.

So I decided to figure it out for myself. And it was an amazing project! There’s such a range of themes and emotions, and yet they really provide a very unified listening experience. These particular recordings, too, are wonderful. Everyone’s heard at least some of these pieces over and over, and yet, Szell’s treatment of them is so sensitive and subtle that they’re exciting and brilliant again.

One of the things listening to the symphonies reinforced for me was how much I love…instruments. I mean, the different “voices” that make up the orchestra. Beethoven does a lot using the horn and the oboe, both of which I love. I played the horn, and, a couple times, the timpani, in high school, and so they make me particularly happy. And STRINGS! Most of my musical experiences (Shaw musicals, choral and instrumental concerts) aren’t on a scale that involves strings…but that’s what makes a really fascinating and active piece of music…

1 & 2 were wonderful, but not especially exciting. 3 has broad scope, a lot of variety, and a very good ending.

The 4th is somber…the most somber opening phrases of any…but wonderful modulation from minor to major and back, within phrases and within the movement. I love that in any music, from this to choral to pop music. 4.1 is “quoted” in lots of other pieces. 4.3 sounded like the end of a symphony, not a movement.

Listening to 4 got me thinking: why do we know the ones we know (5, 6, 9), and not know the others? They’re all great, but some of the lesser known ones are better!

5 made me think about how great these particular recordings are…even with the (perhaps) best known symphonic phrases of all time, Szell’s handling of them is so much more subtle that they’re new and interesting again…light strings, quick horns…

And that the opening of 5.2 would make sweet entrance music if you were a megalomaniac. Or 5.3…especially a megalomaniac who loved F Horns…hmmm….

Then I started thinking each one I listened to is the best…But I do think 5 best shows the composer’s and conductor’s understanding of those instrumental voices I was talking about.

6…more complex than it seems…but definitely the most pleasant…pastoral, indeed. Loved the way horns and strings play with each other.  6.3  is especially good.

7.1 could have been my favourite single movement of the whole oeuvre. The contrast between 7.1 and 7.2 is amazing! I had heard both of these movements a lot, but never known they went together. (7.2 is the piece from Mr. Holland’s Opus, where he cries at Beethoven and his son being deaf; but this recording is quicker, and much more effective/less drab). The interplay between the strings and the horns is wonderful.

7’s really, really good.

8. Meh. Comparatively.

9 is the most serious…but still has some lightness, especially in the 2nd movement (woodwinds up against timpani). The 2nd movement has a fantastic horn part, and I found it echoed 6, quite a bit. I love the quick endings, like 9.2. Not drawn-out, but still very effective.

9.4: Chorale! I love how this movement builds! Starting with the low strings, to trumpets and voices. This movement is almost twice as long as the other closing movements, and it’s worth every second. But I’m not sure that the rest of the 9th suits it…

So I think the 7th was my favourite…the others are brilliant pieces of music, but…somehow…less interesting?

Country Day

June 9, 2009

Hip AcousticLast Thursday we spent a beautiful summer night hearing a beautiful summer concert: The Tragically Hip at ArtPark, in Lewiston, NY.

No opening act – just an evening with the Hip. Mostly the new album, We Are the Same, which is excellent, but almost all of the old favourites, too. Just about 3 hours.

Which makes it a shame that, especially in the 1st half, the sound wasn’t very good. The vocals weren’t loud enough to balance with the rest, and so for a lot of it the lyrics couldn’t really be heard…not a problem for most of us who know them by heart, but it could have been lots better.

The second half started with an acoustic set, including an absolutely incredible “Bobcaygeon”. Wow. Then for the rest of the half we gave ourselves kleenex earplugs, which helped a lot with the balance (I’m guessing the sound guys had done some work, too).

Anyway, it was great venue for a great band touring a great new album. My favourites? “Love is a First”, obviously, and also the title track, “Now the Struggle Has a Name”, plus “Queen of the Furrows”, “The Depression Suite”, and “Country Day” (I really am a farm girl at heart).