Music and Arts

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December 3: “Can You Celebrate”, Namie Amuro

Posted by on 03 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

“It could get to be addictive, he believed, not understanding what people were saying. Time spent in another country would probably always be spent misunderstanding a great deal, which might in the end turn out to be a blessing and the only way you could ever feel normal.”
– Richard Ford, “The Occidentals”
The helpless calm of not being able to understand what is going on around you. Advertising doesn’t work; thoughts turn inward. Brains remap, creating back stories for all the signs and symbols surrounded by circles of unreadable characters. No pressure to recognize cultural references — you’re an alien.

Sounds, in the foreign, unfamiliar language, become less distinct. The annoying chat on a cell phone next to you is more white noise. Learn a word or two and that edge of the pattern on the wallpaper of sound starts to show through. It looked prettier before.

Always at a distance from your surroundings, you’re also not at home. For the first time in your life, you can’t fit in; no point trying. This is freeing, in a way, but you’re also a circus animal, at the end of the pointed finger, frozen in place with an ambassadorial smile. You’re outside their society, yet your role is clearly ascribed: foreigner. There is gasping amazement anytime you do anything outside the parameters of the role. She can eat competently with chopsticks! She can drink sake! She can sing Namie Amuro karaoke! (And now so can you.)

December 2: “The Wagon”, Dinosaur Jr.

Posted by on 02 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts


What makes a college radio show great? A host thrilled to share his or her eclectic collection and knowledge of music with others, adept at cueing up multiple turntables and CD players and lowering the volume just so so there’s a nice fade between the end of that and the beginning of the next.  Low-key but entertaining stories, a couple of friends sharing banter on the air, a hesitant but earnest stream of little-known facts. Themes: a whole show featuring female drummers or power pop trios or bands that broke up after one perfect album.  Variety: the unexpected record-store find! The cassette tape from the gig!  The weird jazz and the foreign language cover song! The live performance at an unusual hour by the local singer-songwriter! You tune in from week to week because you stumbled across the show once while cooking and were taken in by the charming host and the steady stream of fresh, never-heard music.

What makes a college radio show not so great? A host who has a slightly obsessive personality that means he or she is fixated on one, two, or three albums at any point and cannot make it through a show without returning to those favourites.  Lack of variety: a focus on music of a certain style released in the last 30 days or, perhaps, six months. A host who can never remember the interesting little tidbits about this record label or that guitarist, whose banter sometimes involves rehashing the plot of “Beverley Hills 90210” with a passing station mate, who has ideas for show themes (Prague Spring!) but is then unable to think of how to manifest this in an actual show (but really: if the station doesn’t have any Plastic People of the Universe recordings, what then?).

But even that show will have its fans, and maybe a person who will call in to say, without irony, “I just wanted to say thanks for playing Dinosaur Jr. again at 10:00 in the morning. You are making my day.”

December 1 – “Don’t Stop Believin'” (Journey) – George Lamond

Posted by on 01 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

A dance remake of Journey’s 1981 classic? However did this end up on my iPod shuffle? Well, cast your mind back to 2008…


It seems like a long time ago now, doesn’t it? Five years, a financial crisis, a messy Arab Spring, a drone program, a dysfunctional Congress, and…

OK, let’s forget all that and just go back to 2008 for a moment — specifically, November 4th, 2008, Election Night in the U.S.A.. “Our long international nightmare is ending,” texted one friend to me, and then another. Meanwhile, across the U.S., they were dancing in the streets:

And in Seattle, what were they were dancing in the streets to? “Don’t Stop Believin'” – George Lamond dance version, courtesy of some speakers from a local gay club. Listen to the celebration of urban life in the chorus: “Streetlights, people, oh-oh-OH!”. This video from election night is an astounding expression of pure collective joy — dance beat kicks in at about :37:

Here’s the original, in case you can’t remember what it sounds like without a dance beat:

In those few hours of optimism in 2008, I’m not sure anyone knew that the chorus was a prescient plea to Democrat voters.


November 30 – “Just Like Honey,” The Jesus and Mary Chain

Posted by on 30 Nov 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

I have long had in my head a movie opening set to “Just Like Honey” by the Jesus and Mary Chain. The beginning drum beats – ba, ba-ba, then the stairs at Spadina subway station, then the next drum beats – ba, ba-ba, then a girl (me?) coming down the stairs onto a mostly empty platform, then a long shot showing the platform while the guitar kicks in, holding as the second crashing guitar wave comes in, and then the vocals begin: “Listen to the girl, as she takes on half the world…” I still maintain this would be an amazing opening to a movie of some sort, but since I’ve never figured out what the girl does after this scene, or when the music should fade out (when the subway comes? Should the scene just end when the subway comes?), it hasn’t come to life in any way. The movie would likely have to be set in the 80s or early 90s, when there were empty midday moments at Spadina station – long gone – and I have a feeling that the JAMC have since been featured in a car commercial., so someone has already figured out that this music could be great accompaniment to some images, albeit not the ones I would have imagined.

This is the first — early bird — post for a song of the day writing project planned for December — a good way to end another year!


At the AGO

Posted by on 02 Aug 2010 | Tagged as: Music and Arts, Toronto

We renewed our membership at the AGO this year. I’m not sure J. was entirely convinced, but I kind of like the idea of supporting at least one local museum and you never know what interesting thing may show up to justify a visit to McCaul and Dundas. We paid a visit to the AGO one Sunday afternoon last year after it re-opened, but we didn’t see much aside from Frank (the new restaurant), the European art and artifacts in Thompson collection (most memorably, Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents), and the new Frank Gehry contemporary art space on the 3rd-5th floors. (We weren’t there for very long and I think we paid more attention to the space than the art therein.)

So I decided to use my Civic Holiday today to get a sense of what the new AGO is really like. I didn’t go back to the new Frank Gehry space, preferring to concentrate my efforts on the first two floors.

In general, the new space is clean, well-organized, and visitor-and-art-friendly. There’s a small but functional and reasonably welcoming cafeteria in the basement where I had a quick lunch (grilled club sandwich and coffee). If all you are looking for is a decent bite to eat, this is a much better bet than Frank — which is high-concept and expensive but not really memorable as a food experience. I later discovered the Members’ Lounge in Grange House which serves (I suspect) essentially the same food as the cafeteria in a more attractive setting.

As far the collections go, the AGO is in a rather strange situation. They are the lucky recipients of the Ken Thompson collection, which has incredible quality and depth in the kinds of art and artifacts that Thompson was interested in. There are rooms full of works by well known Canadian painters (from Krieghoff to Lauren Harris to David Milne), an enormous collection of of model ships, and a large display of Chinese snuff boxes. And much more. Not everything is to my taste but it is clearly the work of a serious collector applying intelligence and taste to the investment of a very considerable personal fortune. Apparently Thompson did not collect a lot of European painting, but what he did collect was and is memorable — notably, of course, that Rubens but also some early Flemish paintings. In the Canadian paintings rooms the curators have given up on finding wall space for labels, opting instead for a read-and-return Gallery catalogue for each room.

By contrast, the Gallery’s own main collection is a much more hodgepodge affair. Essentially, they have a few really good pieces from here there and everywhere, and a lot else that is not as memorable. They have dealt with this situation in a fashion that is interesting though only partially successful. Sensibly, they have eschewed a chronological approach, beginning their European Gallery with a room full of some of their best stuff — Dutch paintings by Rembrandt, Hals, Cuyp, etc. In other galleries they have adopted a more thematic approach, mixing old and new, European and decidedly non-European. Some of these galleries work better than others. There is an room full of paintings of women, which makes for an interesting reflection on how women have been portrayed in the arts through the ages. (There is also the suggestion, worded so cautiously as to say almost nothing, that men have portrayed women differently from women — a theme perhaps worth exploring further.) Not quite as successful but still worth considering is an attempt to group together a number of European paintings (and a contemporary shadow-puppet film) as exploring themes of multiculturalism and cultural conflict.

Some other attempts to make use of this approach are not nearly as compelling. Perhaps the most striking failure of curatorial imagination is the presentation of the older pieces in the Museum’s Canadian collection. The paintings are thrown hodgepodge (Pitti-Palace-style, as it were) on to a wall, without any kind of labelling or identification (to be fair, I think a number of them were also presented this way under the old regime). The one piece of curatorial text that is supposed to assist the viewer is the suggestion that we should look for the power relations expressed in these paintings. I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean. The best I can come up with is that the curators don’t think they’re very good paintings (some of them clearly are not), but they’ve been on the wall so long that people will complain if they take them down, so why not leave them up as an exercise in deconstruction for the viewer?

The curators have unfortunately done something similar, minus the hamfisted political overtones, for the gallery with their Impressionist and pre-Impressionist European paintings. The Impressionists (some nice Pissaros, but nothing spectacular) get their own space and actual labels; the unidentified (largely but not entirely?) pre-impressionist works on the other wall get the Pitti Palace treatment. I suppose it’s a statement of sorts (they point out that these methods of presentation are faithful to the respective approaches taken in the salons where these paintings would have been first shown), but frankly some of the paintings on the non-Impressionist wall are more interesting than those on the Impressionist wall and it would be nice to know more about them.

This kind of thing is really a failure of curatorial intelligence, and this is the most disappointing thing about the new AGO. We all know the AGO is not the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and they need to work with what they have. As some of the new galleries demonstrate, the thematic approach can be an effective way of presenting art that is arguably not of the the first rank but nevertheless not lacking in value and interest. Perhaps it’s just that this approach needs to be handled in a less hamfistedly political way.

Along the same lines, I started my day at the Gallery with the Drama and Desire special exhibition. There are a few really impressive pieces here, as well as some stuff that is at least worth seeing. (I suspect the unstated theme of the exhibit is to some extent “it’s what we could get our hands on”.) It’s mixed in with a lot of fairly ordinary French and English painting, especially in the earlier galleries of the exhibition. Like the other galleries, it’s a mix of really good, decent, and indifferent, which could be redeemed by some kind of context/history/whatever for the viewer. And there’s clearly a story here, but we’re not getting much of it from the curatorial notes on the wall.

The Feedback Tour, Europe edition

Posted by on 25 Apr 2010 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

At first I thought someone was pranking the press when I saw this item:

Lou Reed is back with experimental music of 1970s

LONDON (Reuters) – It was dismissed as “career suicide” and a joke, and some fans returned the record thinking it was faulty, but rocker Lou Reed is re-releasing a digitally remastered version of his 1975 album “Metal Machine Music.”

And, despite the absence of melody and vocals and the unending presence of feedback, the 68-year-old rocker best known for his work with the influential band The Velvet Underground is touring Europe playing music inspired by the record with the Metal Machine Trio.

For the uninitiated, Metal Machine Music is quite possibly the biggest eff-you ever issued to a label by one of its artists. The whole thing is — apparently, I’ve never heard more than five minutes of it and I very much doubt anyone on the planet has subjected themselves to its entirety — atonal, lyric-free metallic/industrial noise. And feedback, oh yes, lots and lots of feedback. I feel sorry for the poor sound engineer stuck with digitally remastering the thing.

An “improvisational” show based on such cacophony would, I’m sure, be good for beer sales in the venues. I’m picturing an entire audience of European 60somethings watching Lou et al screech away randomly onstage…. all hearing aids firmly in the Off position.

Ah, art: the one unassailable reason for a Europe tour. Go, Lou.


Posted by on 29 Jun 2009 | Tagged as: Music and Arts, Travel

The obvious solution to a garbage strike is to leave town.

Well, actually we had our trip to Boston planned for at least two months. J. read in the NYT about a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition coming to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), and we realized we had a bit of time in late June, and, besides, J. had never been to Boston and I hadn’t been since 1999 or thereabouts.

We flew Air Canada, which was uneventful on the way down, and slightly more eventful on the way back since they cancelled our flight. We were fortunate to get seats on the next flight out which was also the last flight of the day. In town, we stayed at the Copley Square Hotel in the Back Bay, which was apparently the first hotel in the back bay, having been in business since 1891. It was just renovated last year and re-opened with a modern hip international-style look — a bit hipper than we really needed or would ordinarily be willing to pay for, but they had a very good promotion for their “interior view” rooms. Since these rooms remain a nonnegotiable part of the hotel’s structure, I wouldn’t be too surprised if there were more such promotions in the future. It’s very conveniently located just off Copley Square, near a number of other hotels, shops, and restaurants, within reasonable walking distance of many attractions and convenient to the subway which will get you pretty much anywhere you’re likely to want to go. The 39 bus also stops right at the hotel’s doorstep which is actually probably the fastest way of getting to the MFA.

We spent our first day wandering around Boston, up to the old North End — an slightly odd combination of Revolution Era landmarks and Boston’s Little Italy — where we visited Old North Church and drank iced coffee and double espresso (J. and I. respectively) in an Italian cafe. We wandered back through Quincy Market (now unfortunately transformed into a food court) and downtown with lots of photo ops, finally getting back to our hotel via Boston Common, the Public Gardens, and Newbury Street.

Our second day was devoted to the MFA. The special exhibition — on till mid-August — is a comparative exhibition of Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, three leading Venetian sixteenth-century Venetian painters. All are obviously first-rate artists, but our favourite by a long measure was Titian — J. putting it in terms of Titian being a “once-in-a-century” painter and the other two “once-in-a-decade” painters. Tintoretto is interesting, with canvasses characterized by great energy and outward drama, but Titian is often capable of capturing the same dramatic intensity with greater complexity and richness. Their later works sometimes made us think of El Greco and Rembrandt respectively. I’m not sure what to make of Veronese based on what was on offer — I think numerically he had slightly fewer paintings on display than the other two — and a certain amount of what I saw struck me more as not-Titian or not-Tintoretto than as something distinctively Veronese. Apparently Titian himself — a generation older than the other two — preferred Veronese to Tintoretto, though that may have had as much to do with personal and professional reasons as with any view of their respective artistic merits. In the evening after dinner we walked through the Back Bay and parts of Beacon Hill.

We went back to the same neighborhood on our third day to see the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a palazzo-style building built to order to accommodate the collections of its founder, Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924). Gardner was a woman of considerable means and strength of personality who acquired a very distinctive collection of art, mainly European pre-1900, which in its day was more significant than the collection next door at the MFA. It’s still a very impressive collection, a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, with a number of significant old masters (including another famous Titian). It is also the scene of one of the most (in)famous art thefts of the last century, dating from the early 1990s, where about a dozen works were stolen including a Rembrandt and a Vermeer.

We had some time left in the afternoon and took the subway over the Cambridge to see Harvard University, unfortunately a bit underwhelming as far as we were concerned. I think perhaps we have just spent too much time hanging around universities.

We spent our last day in the Back Bay, taking in views at the Public Gardens, walking along the Charles, and finally popping into Trinity Church, a remarkable Romanesque-style Episcopal church designed by the American architect H.H. Richardson and dating from the 1870s. It is interesting partly for its engineering, sitting like other buildings of days on multiple wooden poles that carry the weight of the building through the Back Bay infill to solid clay.

Posted by on 06 Jun 2009 | Tagged as: Current Events, Music and Arts, Toronto


I’m probably showing my age, but I’m relieved that the grownups have intervened and cancelled a planned rave in the old Don Jail. The new owner’s site had the wrong tone, and something like this was probably inevitable. More here and here.

The old jail could be used as a performance art venue, but in all decency it has to be in a context that works with themes around suffering and despair, both experienced by the inmates and by their victims, and by the people who worked in the building before it was a Doors Open curiosity.

The place has a dark history – not playfully Gothic dark, but really seriously dark, and I don’t think that’s registered with the people offering ‘ghost tours’. More below the fold.

Continue Reading »

A is for Aisle

Posted by on 23 Sep 2008 | Tagged as: Humour, Music and Arts, Small people

A good new kids’ album for those interested who haven’t run across it – Snacktime by Barenaked Ladies.  Tested on a recent long car trip with success.  Worth getting just for the alphabet song, which starts with “A is for Aisle” and goes downhill from there.  The kids may not get it but they’ll want to know why you’re laughing.

COC Lures Hot Shot from Paris!

Posted by on 05 Jul 2008 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

This was two weeks ago, but I am still very excited that COC has appointed a new General Director, Alexander Neef. He is currently the Director of Casting at the Opera National de Paris.

Sondra Radvanovsky, Adrienne Pieczonka, and now Neef. Toronto is becoming world class!

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