History of the record business 1/2 – The pioneers

I finally managed to finish the entire Twilight of the Gods, Robert Harris’ excellent five-part series on the rise and fall of the recording industry. Each episode is 53 minutes long, so highlights are in order for those who can’t sit through the entire series but would still like to sample the bits that interest them. Parts 1-3 here, parts 4-5 (Late Afternoon and Twilight) coming soon.

Part One–Dawn

Harris starts at the Edison museum in West Orange, NJ by checking out one of original talking machines, the 1908 phonograph. It is still able to record: you yell into the horn and there’s a pin at the end of the horn that vibrates in tune to the voice and cuts the record of the vibrations into the wax cylinder, where they’re preserved forever. People would take the recorder off, put the reproducer back on, to hear what was recorded.

“Before the record, we always listened to the music in company of others. From then on, we could chose the music on our own and listen to it on our own. Such a sense of personal power over music never existed before.”

Recorded music gains an aura of its own, rather than diminishing the ‘aura’ of the work of art behind it. “They belong to us intimately; that’s their aura.”

If there hadn’t been a business to go with the recording technology, the recordings wouldn’t become so important in our lives, remain more of a possibility. Edison was trying to figure out the economics behind it, but got it wrong. He thought of it as a dictation device, for businesses–wax cylinder to replace the written letter. Also put a phonograph into a doll to try to sell the “talking doll”, and that flopped. A decade later after the invention, nobody still made profit from the phonograph.

Then an entrepreneur had an idea to place the phonographs in public spaces like hotels, and charge the public a nickel to hear them play music. “Coin-slot phonographs”. This became really successful.

They redesigned the machine to be just for playback, to be a simpler, much less expensive machine. Originally the idea was for people to make their own recordings, but now what becomes profitable is producing records. And that’s the beginning of the recording industry.

The society told Edison that what they want to hear on the phonograph is music.

Suddenly, there was this enormous market to serve and it became important in 1890s to find a technology to mass produce recordings. Amiel Berliner created a brand new machine altogether, the gramophone that played not cylinders but flat records. Berliner disks were the beginning of the end of Edison. Although at the end Edison did find a way to mass-produce cylinders, they lost out to recordings.

The less known younger inventors like Berliner and Eldridge Johnson who founded the RCA and patented the Victor Talking Machine, realized they had to learn how to cater to the mass public, or rather how to actually create a mass public. Where Johnson put the money in is the artist, the star names. And at that time, the great singing stars were opera singers, like Enrico Caruso. Records made him an even bigger star.

Discs were created as status symbols, overpriced them initially and found out that the market can take this abuse for years and years and years. Redesigned the machines that played them. Johnson realized that for a new class of upwardly mobile consumer, something different was needed than the Edison industrial design. The lady of the house turned out to be the purchaser of the disc, so they made gramophone a piece of furniture. “E. Johsnon was Steve Jobs of his time.”

The record companies provided a public good; they helped create our contemporary culture, which becomes a very American culture, it turns out. Record business also changed the music it recorded.

Part Two–The 20s: Morning

Records weren’t really records, but entirely new art objects: the orchestra sound changed in order to be able to be recorded. “Violins would have modifications, orchestras would have tubas instead of double-basses, double-bases would be out because the recording horns (only mikes available then) were not able to pick them up.”

As the recording technology improved, the records gained in power.

Library of Congress in Culpeper,  Virginia has everything that was ever recorded in the US.

Recordings changed the world of music from top to bottom. New ways to classify music were introduced, then they divided everything into 3 min limit. By the 1920s, most of what North Americans heard was from the records; gradually but surely American musical universe became completely what was on record.

Records set the musical styles into being, including the African-American music. If it weren’t for the record companies, there would have been no jazz or blues. Recording industry discovered, promoted, and shaped it to their own ends. “Probably the first music to be shaped by recording was jazz.”

But the record companies were not in the business of recording American musical heritage, but in it for profits. “Blues was just a term they used to sell the product.” As a tagline, covered a lot of different things.  Country and western also invented by the record companies. The dividing wall between country and blues, invented by the recording companies, in fact was really thin.

Part Three–The 60s: Zenith

[This is the point of the series focused solely on popular music, and where a classical music aside would have been useful]

In the audience development news, there was the Advent of the Teenager.

On the industry side, it was a bit of a Wild West happening with many artists not being compensated justly. They did not know the laws, and record companies did: the basic framework for recording industry was made back in 1909 by the US Congress.

From 1909, record companies had to pay 2c per record sold to songwriters. Before, if you wanted to make a record, you go buy the sheet music for a nickel, make your recording, make a million dollar off it and keep all the money. Songwriters thought that was unfair, Congress agreed in 1909. The 2C record payment called ‘mechanical royalties’ still exists. In the 50s and 60s many of the companies did not pay – still lawsuits from back then in the courts now. They also kept ‘performance royalties’ from the artists. (Every time a song is performed in public and on the radio, the songwriters should get paid. Last year alone the proceeds totalled almost 1b dollars. In 50-60s it was tens of millions of dollars worth a year, that record companies could trick away from their recording artists)

Harris uses as an example Chuck Berry’s ‘Maybellene’ published in 1955 by Chess records. Original sheet music says it was written by Chuck Berry, but also two other guys. One of them was a top DJ of his time who could make or break a record. Unbeknownst to Chuck Berry, his company gave the DJ the co-writing credits so that each time he played the record on the radio, he would be filling his own pockets too. The other name in the credits was the Chess Label’s landlord: instead of paying rent, they gave him bogus writing credits. So Chuck Berry was given one third of the royalties for his own writing credits.

As  the 50s turned into 60s, teens turned into 20-year-olds.

Record companies decided to take over the RnR market, which eroded their share of the market up to that point (smaller companies recorded rnr and up-and-coming stuff)

Folk started dealing with social issues; there was morphing of folk music with rock. Selling the counter-culture. For a brief few years in mid-60s, record business “worked”. Became force for change—the needs of the business, the artists and of the fans all aligned in near-perfect harmony. At best of times, the partnership b/w entrepreneurs and artists serves both sides. Find artists, developed them to full potential, then presented them with all the marketing skills to the audience. For a while in the 60s, this did take place.

Soon enough the industry realized the lucrative potential of rock music and decided it’s in it for the profits more than anything else, which led to the era of  the monster profits of the 80s and 90s. The record business became the business of the attorneys and the accountants.

Arvo Pärt: Creator Spiritus (CD)

Creator Spiritus by Arvo Pärt. Performed by Theatre of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen, NYYD Quartet and Christopher Bowers-Broadbent at the organ. Musical director Paul Hillier. harmonia mundi, April 2012

As you’ll inevitably get Bach-ed out this weekend, this is perfect music in which to take refuge. Creator Spiritus is a selection of Arvo Pärt’s pieces that could be called twenty-first-century sacred. The texts used are the religious poetry by medieval monks, standard liturgical chants and Stabat Mater, but the music is of our time, questioning, uneasy. It is expressive only according to its own logic, even when it quotes di Lasso, Palestrina and Joaquin Desprez. It can get atmospheric as well as ascetic, exuberant as well as full of dread, but it is not exactly easily amenable to straightforward institutional worship.

It took me some time to make up my mind if some of the pieces – jubilant, beautiful “Veni, creator”, for example – could belong in a religious ceremony, and decided against. The music is too darn interesting, makes you take note of it and contemplate it outside of the context of it being a suitable channel to the divinity. It doesn’t go straight for your emotions – it more kind of clears the mind clouds.

There are pieces in which the vocal line – usually solo, sometimes divided between two voices — moves in a very limited way, only within a triad or anchoring on a single note, and it’s up to the instruments to speak more elaborately. For example, “My heart is in the highlands” (2000) with the female voice against the organ behaving peculiarly; or “Der Wallfahrtslied” (A Pilgrim’s Song, 1984, rev. 1996) with a male monotone against a proper modernist string quartet piece.

In “Most Holy Mother of God, Save Us” (2003), there is no other text, and in the Orthodox tradition, no instruments either. The chorus weaves its intricate lines of the same liturgical chant a cappella. In “The Deer’s Cry” (2007), again no instruments to the full choir, but what colours, what symphonic riches are achieved with seemingly looping, self-hypnotic text! Written by St. Patrick in 344, it goes:

Christ with me
Christ before me
Christ behind me
Christ in me
Christ beneath me
Christ above me
Christ on my right
Christ on my left

It’s one of the most straightforwardly moving pieces in the collection, with vocal sections dividing and reuniting and breaking against one another.

Then there’s “Peace upon you, Jerusalem” (2002) for the female choir, with its almost-movements spelled out by the composer in unusual detail (rigorosamente, con anima, tranquillo etc). Paul Hillier points out in the notes that it’s “one of the more fanciful of Pärt’s compositions in the sense that the setting is through-composed and responds vividly to the meaning and rhetoric of the words”. In other words, it’s unusual of Pärt to make music that illustrates the words and whatever emotions they’re supposedly conveying. But every now and again he changes tack.

The final and longest piece is Stabat Mater (1985), which Pärt set for three voices and trio of strings, and many combinations thereof (solos, duets instrument-voice, duets voice-voice, trio instrument-instrument-voice, and so on). In their generally chant-like musical format, the voices are somewhat more constrained than the instruments, which are also given their own independent segments, each a very bold statement and so much more than interlude.

A fascinating re-think of the sound of the sacred.

Samples and more info here

Two or three things about my novel: the Hungary connection

Two or three things about my novel: the Hungary connection

As most of you will know by now, my first novel is coming out this fall with Inanna.

It is made out of narrative standpoints of the three central characters: a woman in her thirties, a woman in her fifties and an old woman. Their lives intersect. Things happen. Their lives part ways.

With it, I wanted to look at the questions that have been bugging me over the last few years and still do, nell mezzo del cammin della mia vita: Can one try to live a good life and still pay one’s bills. Why do the gainful and meaningful employment so often diverge these days around these parts. How does one find one’s art and purpose. And does love, and the ways we love now, help things along the way or mystify and distract.

The oldest woman of the trio is a septuagenarian retired soprano who grew up in Hungary and started her singing career at the Hungarian State Opera but left Budapest after the 1956 revolution. She now lives on Delisle Avenue, in mid-town Toronto, but in effect she lives more in her operatic roles than any particular geography. She is trying to deal with the unsettling memories of an old, pre-1956 affair with another singer and the reasons for leaving the country but her excursions to the past end up in operatic scenes. It’s her way of forgetting: what she represses comes back as an aria or a scene.

I’ve been interested in this period of the East European Communist history, the lively first half of the 50s inHungary, so it’s been great spending some time researching it. I’ve stuck with non-fiction works, Tony Judt’s Postwar, for example, which helped me develop a basic grid of the years and what happened when. There are some amazing photographic collections of the 1955-6 Budapest, Erich Lessing’s for instance.

The old woman was part of an (invented) art workers group Sektor 7, populated by emerging artists with eager participatory-democratic instincts, who attend the meetings, go to demos, distribute publications, and I did not want them commenting on an event that could not have happened at the time of their café klatsch. I was pedantic about these things, although fiction absolutely doesn’t have to be, and in many other instances in the book I absolutely wasn’t.

It’s only after I was done with my version that I dared to look at the literary and cinematic accounts of the period. Possibly for fear of being influenced? Now I am in a happy period when I can finally see what I have written by looking at what other people have written about the same period.

Not enough is translated and subtitled into English, and the film that I really loved — what I could understand of it — Egy pikoló világos (1955) I only managed to find in Hungarian.

I’ve read and liked György Konrád’s  Caseworker but more to the point is his Stonedial which I have yet to read, a 2000 novel looking back on 1955. I’ve recently also read Magda Szabó’s exquisite Door which is however only indirectly important – as a fearless look at the divide between intellectual and physical labour at a most intimate level.

Then the other week I strike gold: Lucy Mallows of the Disappearing Budapest recommended in a Twitter exchange that I see Another Way, the 1982 Hungarian film set in the post-1956 Hungary, about two women having an affair. Just as I thought that there weren’t any substantive cinematic or literary accounts of lesbians or bisexual women in any literary traditions from behind the Iron Curtain, I find this unexpectedly sophisticated film. (The Palme d’or went to one of the actreses; both were btw Polish and dubbed, as no Hungarian actress would take either of the roles).

Furthermore, the film is based on a novel called Another Love, by the late Hungarian novelist Erzsebet Galgoczi. Which has luckily been translated and which I immediately bought and read. It’s a fascinating find, and very different from the film. It has strong elements of genre lit – it’s a variant of whodunit, the who-was-it, a crime story where the reader knows how and why the main character was killed, but the narrator is on a quest to unveil the victim’s life and what led to such an ending. There are also noir moments: the narrator-investigator is a disenchanted member of the military intelligentsia who discovers the rottenness of the system that is supposed to protect and serve.

In other ways, the novel will ring unfamiliar to the Western reader. Many of the conversations that we witness in pubs between the characters are socially conscious. The melodrama is always connected to the larger political and social developments. Disagreements and betrayals are both personal and – often very literally – of political import. And the lesbian character at its centre is a complex, plausible and at the same time completely outside of the parameters of our current queer discourses in English-speaking countries.

The book is a joy, despite its predictable denouement.

My search for traces and clues of unexpected affiliations continues.

2011 in other cultural consumption

2011 in other cultural consumption

As this blog documented in great detail my operatic pets and peeves of the last year, I thought I’d sift through other kind of arts & culture stuff for the end-of-year review post.

Back in February, I decided to start keeping record of my readings. I never have any clear idea how much I manage to get read—and I don’t mean internet reading, journal articles and reference book sampling, and the multiple types of skimming which we are all becoming experts in. No: I mean the sit-down-and-get-lost, cover-to-cover consumption of the analogue product called Book.

I started writing down the titles read per month so I can stop  the anorexic-bulimic cycle of reading which I had begun developing. If I didn’t finish a book within two days at the expense of any other type of art consumption, the said book would move from the table to the chair seat to the couch until the passage of time would kill any connection between me and it. So I thought, let’s just start writing down what I had, not so I could police myself, but just fmi, to see whether I can keep on track of the barest minimum of four books per month.

Thanks to this record-keeping, I now at the end of the year have a clear idea of the authors who had a profound impact, and those who I will never pick up again.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint. I read Fuir, Camera and Faire l’amour.
Harold Pinter. Read Complete Works Vol 1, 1954-1960, which includes The Birthday Party, The Room, The Dumb Waiter, A Slight Ache, A Night Out.
Margaret Drabble’s Jerusalem the Golden and the short story collection A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. Not everything by Drabble gets me (I gave up on the Millstone some years ago), but these two are fantastic. I will keep exploring Drabble.
CarsonMcCullers’s The Member of the Wedding. I don’t know her other stuff; I may not care for her other stuff. But this novel is unbelievable.

Deborah Eisenberg (The Twilight of the Superheroes)
Alan Bennett (Talking Heads, plus The Lady in the Van)
Mavis Gallant (Going Ashore collection)
Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities)
Annabel Lyon (The Golden Mean)
Dany Lafferière (I am a Japanese Writer)

Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
Mary Gaitskill, Veronica
Paul Auster, Brooklyn Follies
Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters
Haruki Murakami, After Dark

Ali Smith (with heavy heart. I read First Person collection last year, and Here but for the this year, and I just can’t. There’s no chemistry.)
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story
Joan Didion. I read The Year of Magical Thinking, and saw her being interviewed in Toronto recently, a conversation which Didion made much more difficult than it should have been. The Year is an exercise in North-American upper-middle-class mindset (Cars! Planes! More cars! Real estate! Wedding! Cocktails! Best connections anybody can have! Upper West Side and Beverly Hills! More car drives! Expensive medical care! Cars!). I love the idea of Where I Was From, but I have yet to read it. I won’t be rushing to it.

Paola Capriolo’s The Watching Woman (La spettatrice). Lovely to read a non-realist novel, as always, but there’s something disjunct and not working at the core of this book. Which doesn’t make it any less exciting.

Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child

The Iris Murdoch novels I read this year are The Bell and A Word Child. Both glorious and now in the top five of my IM favourites.

Virgine Despentes, The King Kong Theory. Powerful, riotous, messy, and the best use of Camille Paglia found anywhere.

Et cetera. Not enough theory or social sciences or musicology read this year. (about 1-2 of each) Too much light gossipiness (David Gilmour’s essais à clef). Too many memoirs! I need to lay off the memoirs. I will, after I’ve seen Cinderella and Company out.

2011 in Theatre

For this I haven’t kept records, so must go by the printed programmes which have survived the recycling purges. Writing this in a cloud of dust.

– The Life and Times of Mackenzie King (Michael Hollingsworth, Video Cabaret) stands out immediately. I am a convert and can’t miss any of their future ‘episodes’.
– Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen (via National Theatre Live). Brilliant. Brilliant brilliant.
– Compagnia Pippo Delbono visited early this year with Questo Buio Feroce. It was nice to have them in town, even though this is probably not one of their best productions.
– The Misanthrope by Molière, translation and adaptation by Martin Crimp at Tarragon Theatre.
– Bernard Shaw on DVD: The Millionairess, The Heartbreak House, Devil’s Disciple, again Mrs Warren’s Profession. To a lesser degree, Pygmalion and Arms and the Man.
(I missed the Summerworks entirely. It was a particularly broke summer. I did see recently Ride the Cyclone, the indie musical that people can’t stop talking about. I say, Get a life, people.)

Visual arts

– Rabih Mroué, The Inhabitants of Images at Prefix Institute. The man can do no wrong.
– The post-Communist countries exhibit at the Power Plant, Rearview Mirror curated by Christopher Eamon. A hodge-podge of hits and misses, but the hits make the exhibit good: Katarina Zdjelar, David Maljkovic and more.
– Contact Photography Festival for the Suzy Lake retrospective (she did Cindy Sherman performative femininity stuff before Cindy Sherman did) and Abbas Kiarostami’s series of photographs The Wall.
– Emmanuelle Léonard photo exhibit Une sale affaire at Gallery 44.
– Renzo Martens‘s film Enjoy Poverty at Cinecycle/Gallery TPW. Infuriating. Yet what it says needs to be heard.
– Otto Dix in Montreal (that was end of year 2010, but still)
– Angela Grauerholz at UoT Arts Centre, for its ambition, philosophical scope, love of text.

Most exciting symphonic performance:

John Adams conducting Toronto Symphony Orchestra in his own City Noir and Mason Bates’s Liquid Interface; tied with another TSO performance two days earlier, Peter Oundjian conducting Evelyn Glennie in Vincent Ho’s Shaman and Adams’s Harmonielehre. Both at New Creations Festival 2011.


Criminally neglected, but there was some Toronto Dance Theatre to soothe the soul.

Happy New Year, lovelies!

Revealing Anne Lister: a BBC doc with Sue Perkins

Glorious find: comedienne/conductor Sue Perkins explores the life of Anne Lister, a Regency landowner who left a coded diary recording her sexual encounters and love affairs with “the fairer sex.” She also managed to get married to a woman. In a church. A fantastic documentary with not a trace of Regency-stalgia, with interviews with Amanda Vickery (of Behind Closed Doors fame), Helena Whitbread (who was the first historian ever to manage to publish the notorious diaries in the eighties), Margaret Reynolds, and more.

Run, don’t walk to see this (also because when the Beeb notices, it will act). Part one:

Part two:

Part three:

Part four:

Discovering George Aperghis

Discovering George Aperghis

This documentary Storm Beneath a Skull is my first encounter with the music of George Aperghis. There are a number of short excerpts from various performances, and things done with the music and text… I have no idea what hit me. It’s unsettling and scary, and also devastatingly moving and hilarious. I see here in the office of the house I’m house-sitting there are three Aperghis CDs in the library; maybe I’ll dare touch them. Meanwhile, here are the words from the man himself, which follow the performance of Zig-Bang (2004) in the documentary.

I don’t try to graft  images of the real onto what I do. What I aim for is to concentrate a number of–there it was phonemes, but it could be sounds–to concentrate them so that I obtain a texture which, when said or acted out, there comes a moment when it creates–apart from music, I hope–it gives rise to a behaviour… One cannot do it if there is not certain energy, a kind of state, bodily even, via which to do it. And from that point on, more everyday ideas, everyday images and sounds appear. And  then the problem is, if it becomes overly precise, if people think “Ah yes,  now they are arguing,” once we reach a conclusion, we no longer listen. We’re no longer listening to each individual sound. The mind must be constantly asking itself what is going on. Then we are all ears–and listening.

Lots of live goodies on YT. Here’s one of the Récitations:

How to Write About Music: The RILM Manual of Style

How to Write About Music: The RILM Manual of Style (Second Edition), James R. Cowdery, ed. Répertoire Internationale de Littérature Musicale (RILM). New York City, 2005, 2006

A few months ago I was sent some publicity materials translated into English to proof. Not unusually, documents that consisted of pieces submitted from multiple sources – participants’ biographies, for example – varied widely in stylistic choices. Ninth Symphony, “Fifth symphony”, “Der Rosenkavalier”, Der Rosenkavalier, Bach’s Mass in B-minor and Mass in B minor, Verdi’s Requiem, piano concerto in X key, Sonata no. y and The “Moonlight” Sonata are some of the variations I noticed, and these are only the titles. In many cases I relied on the general editorial rules you learn by having your stuff edited from the days of university on, and a lot of North American editors use the Chicago Manual of Style. But although you’ll quickly italicize the titles of the operas, what to do with sonatas, concertos and the nine Beethoven symphonies which are so well-known, everybody is certain they deserve their own capitalization and italics? What about the spacing between the initials? CPE Bach or C. P. E. Bach or C.P.E. Bach?

Additional complication is that there more than one general English style manual that people consider sacrosanct. If you open the Cambridge Music Guide, which I did as I was finishing that edit, you’ll discover all the rules reverted. Opera titles put within quotation marks and in roman lettering, and many other decisions I thought idiosyncratic. I’m sure they will swear by their favourite style manual, if asked.

Besides, every publication or publishing house will have its own “house manual” which may differ in some details from the one you’re usually working with.

But the important thing is to be consistent. This is where the RILM Manual comes in handy.

It was created specifically for music writers, from scholarly to journalistic to bloggersome and everyone in between. The manual immediately grabs you with the chapter on Punctuation which will surprise, irk and delight. I spent a lot of time with the hyphen, the en-dash and the em-dash (I had no idea there were two dashes, each with its specific reasons for employment).

Hyphen: 19th-century music

En-dash: post–19th-century music

Em-dash (which I use with abandon): He was—though it bothered him little—universally hated.

Not only do I use them with abandon, but with the spaces too, which is a no-no, according to the Manual. So – although I really don’t want to – I may reconsider my spacing habits.

The chapter on Abbreviations follows, in which I learn that there are no spacings after periods in acronyms.

Not U. N., but U.N.

C.P.E. Bach, E.U., U.S., no space after b. and d. (b.1300, d.1367). However much I want to, I shouldn’t pluralize mezzos as mezzi, librettos as libretti, altos as alti, concertos as concerti — or at least be aware that I am playing with the spelling.

The Numbers chapter (should be act 1, scene 2, and chapter 1, page 2, rather than anything else), Italics vs. roman chapter and the Capitalization chapter (southern or Southern, baroque or Baroque, classic vs. Classic) follow. The chapter Names is particularly interesting because the RILM follows the International Office of Standardization (ISO) transliteration, not the U.S. equivalent (or any other country’s). Therefore: Čajkovskij, not Tchaikovsky. Also,  they insist, Händel. There’s also an extensive discussion on the transliteration of Mandarin and the non-Han languages of China.

Some interesting things from the Titles chapter:

The larger unit italicized, the smaller unit within it should be in quotation marks. E.g.: “Der Leiermann” from Die Winterreise. “Son nata a lagrimar” from Giulio Cesare.

Generic titles should not be treated as names and therefore not capitalized, but some Western religious music forms are capitalized:




symphony no. 4

sonata no. 32, op. 111


Goldberg variations

Beethoven’s third symphony (“Eroica”) [because a nickname, not a title]

There are exceptions, as always! Some sacred Renaissance cycles always get italics, but also some later works like Schumann’s Requiem für Mignon and Stravinsky’s Symphony in C.

Equally fascinating, the chapter on how to mark the pitch. Three prevailing systems currently: the Helmholtz (which marks the middle C as c`), the organists’ system (c ) and the Acoustical Society of America standard (C4). RILM recommends the latter, although I’ve only ever seen the Helmholtz used in the blogosphere and journalism. I’ll keep an eye on this, I wonder how widely people use C1, C2, C3 etc.

There’s lots more: best ways to cite references, credit illustrations, make a good abstract, even how to do your own Indexing.

Truly, a fantastic little volume.

(If you’ve made it this far, you are a confirmed word nerd.)

Sunday in the park with Karina

Sunday in the park with Karina

I can’t stop listening to Karina Gauvin’s 2002 recording of Josephe Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne. Summer on a CD is what this is.

Canteloube studied folk songs of Auvergne and reworked them into the multi-volume Chants d’Auvergne published 1923-1955. The texts are simple songs of shepherdesses, rivers, cuckoos, outsmarting a male passer-by, unrequited love and stolen kisses, but what matters more is the musicality and strangeness of the language they’re written in.  Auvergnat or Auvernhat is one of the many languages that had to die in order for the one national French language to emerge, a dialect of the former Occitan states which were gradually conquered, Catholicized (adieu, Cathars) and Frenchified. So after reading the translation of the lyrics, I took them into account, but couldn’t stop thinking about these countless cracks and the falseness of nationhood. The language, with its Spanish, Portuguese and French ingredients, confuses you at every turn.

There is nothing simple — or even particularly folk, if you ask this anti-folk grump — about the music. It is utterly gorgeous, bursting the way the nature does on a summer afternoon, with cicadas, the buzz of the flies, wind swept crowns of trees, birds in all kinds of arrangements choral and solo, sounds of water ranging from the sparse drops to the force of the spring river, the entire sublime symphony.

And this with a chamber ensemble, in this case The Canadian Chamber Ensemble formed in 2002 by the 16 principals of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. There are amazing instrumental solos and leads all over the score. The woodwinds are often the absolute stars: there are the solos which you can easily imagine in Tristan und Isolde.

Take a listen to Baïlèro

In some other songs, percussion is the king. The ancient dance bourrée inspired several songs.

Many a soprano and mezzo has performed and recorded the Chants, with varying degrees of grasp: Kiri Te Kanawa, Arlene Auger, Victoria de los Angeles, Dawn Upshaw, Veronique Gens, Frederica von Stade. Anne Sofie von Otter sang a selection with Marc Minkowaki & Les Musiciens de Louvre at the Verbier festival last summer; this may still be available on MediciTV website, where I watched and rewatched it in September. You can sample many of these on YT and check for the excess of melodrama (no Verdi should be present in the Chants, Victoria de los A), pronunciation and mastery of the text (Kiri at moments loses her way), Fach and colour (Dawn Upshaw’s Bailero in particular make me think that a soubrette soprano can never sing this properly).

You’re safe with this CD. Karina Gauvin’s Auvergne is golden.

Les fiançailles chez les Hutcheons

Les fiançailles chez les Hutcheons

Almost 20 years after first seeing her name on a book, I got to meet the literary theorist Linda Hutcheon last Thursday. Together with her husband Michael Hutcheon, she hosted a party in their home in honour of the forthcoming premiere of the new opera by Ana Sokolović, Svadba (Wedding). Queen of Puddings Music Theatre commissioned the piece which will open on June 24 at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs. Three of the six singers in the cast performed a segment from the opera stationed on the large staircase landing, with audience filling the lobby and all the rooms on the ground floor.

Sokolović was originally inspired by Stravinsky’s Les Noces, but turned to the Balkan ethnographic materials and most of all the rough musicality of the Balkan languages, Serbian and its archaisms in particular. The music to this textual base is however entirely new and composed. I heard the first semi-public performance of the work-in-progress opera back in June, and the word that comes to mind is chilling. I look forward to the premiere.

The one opera by Ana Sokolović that I did see is The Midnight Court (above), back in 2005, also under the auspices of the Queen of Puddings and under the baton of Dáirine Ní Mheadhra who (memorably for this writer) conducted on that early summer night barefoot. On Thursday, she conducted the three singers from the lobby.

The Queen of Puddings is the kind of heroic company whose mandate is to commission and produce contemporary opera. They’re also known for discovering singing talent that later gets scooped for international stardom. Jane Archibald got her first major role at QoP, and so did Measha Brueggergosman. (Yes, Measha actually used to sing rather than brand well, is all I’m sayin’.)

What I kept thinking on my way there was — of all things — what does Linda Hutcheon’s library look like? It must be occupying half of  their High Park house, since Linda Hutcheon’s own bibliography is one considerable list. The last book I read by her (co-authored with Michael) was this one:

I gawked at the first editions of the Waves and The Three Guineas, one of the earliest Shakespeare & Co editions of the Ulysses, a print of the 1904 photo of Richard Strauss, the Joyce sculpture and other gems, all of which are located on the ground floor, but the library (I found out just as I was getting ready to leave) takes up the entire basement of the house.

Next time I’m heading there first. (Just don’t tell the Hutcheons.)

Queer Archeology: Who Was Sarah Fischer?

Queer Archeology: Who Was Sarah Fischer?

Due to some work on a small but sweet project with an Ontario summer music festival, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the late Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester (pictured above). There is plenty of good MF music on YT (sample some Mahler, Purcell, Bach and Handel), and her discography spans several Amazon pages. But it’s the memoir Out of Character (with Marci McDonald, McClelland & Stewart, 1986) that grabbed me — brave and frank, usually not the case with the diva memoir genre. Also, of course, well stocked with gossip, slant and unreliability.

Let’s take page 59. On it, we may or may not be witnessing Mighty Mo meeting her very first lesbian. We can’t be sure. We’re given the commentary, not the evidence. It’s a minor episode in this memoir consistently devoid of queer people. By the end of this remarkable tome, you realize that that was it — the only encounter with the queer. And was it really? We can’t be sure.

Have a listen.

I had noticed in reading reviews that whenever the critics mentioned somebody as up-and-coming, she had invariably won a Sarah Fischer Scholarship. Sarah Fischer, a one-time soprano who had enjoyed a brief fling on the world stage, was an incredibly theatrical woman. She looked like Helena Rubinstein with her flowing capes and her hair swept back severely into a bun. By the time I heard of her she was retired and liked to give young talent a break with competitions which she held in the Ritz Carlton ballroom. The programs featured her profile printed on cover.

I entered one of them […] and to my shock I won. […] Preparing for [the two concerts] presented me with a problem I had never anticipated. Sarah Fischer started phoning me all the time, always late at night, on some pretext about the performance. I began to get a little nervous about her. I didn’t know anything about females liking females at the time, but my instincts told me she was interested in more than my voice. Finally I had my father answer the phone one night. “My daughter is a very young and we have rules in this house,” he told her. “Nobody gets calls this late unless it’s an emergency… You can call at a decent hour or not at all.” After that, the weeks left leading up to my prizewinner’s concert, Sarah Fischer was good as gold.”

Now. Isn’t this story good as gold? Could have been written by the authors of The Killing of Sister George. A predatory old lesbo after an innocent young thing. Luckily the father puts everything right.

So of course I immediately send a search party after Sarah Fischer.

I was happy to discover that the Canadian heritage institutions aren’t as flippant about Sarah Fischer as our beloved contralto. A couple of recordings survive! There is a six-page online biography at the Library and Archives Canada, the SF page in the Canadian Encyclopedia, and this treasure collection of photographs on the Jewish Montreal Public Library Archives. Not surprisingly, not a word about the ‘female-liking-female’ business — she was married to a man, natch — but mentions of very special friendships and mentors, yes. A ‘lifelong friendship’ with another singer Emma Albani (p2, LAC bio), and a particularly ardent fan, the wealthy “Mrs. Bracket Bishop of Chicago” (p3) are fine but meagre findings. “She left her personal papers to the National Archives of Canada,” says the Canadian Encyclopedia. I see where my next trip is going to be; the capital, in search of letters or diaries that may turn out to be the earliest record of a glorious opera dyke ancestress.

Sarah (Eugénie, ‘Nini’) Fischer. Born Paris 23 Feb 1896, naturalized Canadian 1912, died Montreal 3 May 1975.