Archive for June, 2017

Parallel Lives IV: Glenn Gould

The rise of a prodigy
Glenn Gould was born in Toronto in 1932 and died there shortly after his fiftieth birthday of a heart attack. He was a considerable child prodigy, and had a big native reputation by his middle teens. He began a career as a travelling virtuoso, but abandoned it for a life of reclusiveness and recordings in 1964, when he was only 31. His mannerisms on the stage during his brief international career were notorious. A dedicated lifelong hypochondriac, he wore an overcoat on the stage under most circumstances, and mittens. He sat at an incredibly low stool, so that his head was just about on a level with the keyboard; and he always had a glass of water on the piano, from which he frequently sipped. Most vexingly, for the home listener, he was an incorrigible hummer-cum-singer, so that, despite his recording engineers’ best efforts, nearly all his records are enhanced or disfigured, according to taste, by quite noisy vocalising, bearing no recognisable relation to the music being played.

Why the cult?
He is perhaps the object of a more intense cult than any other post-war musician. Certainly he assiduously exploited all those parts of his personality and talents which were most likely to lead to frenzied discipleship. There is even a novel by the great American writer Thomas Bernhard, The Loser, about a character who commits suicide because he can’t play as well as Glenn, whom he refers to with intimate reverence.

Reputation verdict
Gould had a passion for contrapuntal music, above all that of Bach, and a phenomenal capacity to make each voice sound separately so that his fingers seem wholly independent of one another. His most famous recording is of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, recorded in 1955. He re-recorded it in 1981, and there are several live performances available too. They command fanatical devotion or revulsion; certainly they are highly interesting, whatever else. He loathed Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin and fortunately didn’t play them apart from Mozart, in a way calculated to spread his dislike. He was keen on some difficult modern music, and his Schoenberg and Hindemith are well worth listening to. He often ignored completely directions as to volume and tempo, and there is a famous concert (privately recorded) in which he plays Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, preceded by the conductor, Leonard Bernstein, dissociating himself from the pianist’s chosen speeds. It is hard to know how wilful he was, and how much was genuine eccentricity. Whatever the proportions, I find him, except in Bach and some modern music, too unpredictable and often perverse to listen to.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

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Music Monday: June roundup

1. The Birthday Massacre (152)
2. Lin-Manuel Miranda (138)
3. Patti Smith (121)

Life As We Know It

When our lives are going well, and sometimes even when they aren’t, we may find ourselves feeling very attached to the status quo of our existence–life as we know it. It is a very human tendency to resist change as though it were possible to simply decide not to do it, or have it in our lives. But change will come and the status quo will go, sooner or later, with our consent or without it. We may find at the end of the day that we feel considerably more empowered when we find the courage to ally ourselves with the universal force of change, rather than working against it.

Of course, the answer is not to go about changing things at random, without regard to whether they are working or not. There is a time and place for stability and the preservation of what has been gained over time. In fact, the ability to stabilize and preserve what is serving us is part of what helps us to survive and thrive. The problem comes when we become more attached to preserving the status quo than to honoring the universal givens of growth and change. For example, if we allow a situation we are in to remain stagnant simply because we are comfortable, it may be time for us to summon up the courage to challenge the status quo.

This may be painful at times, or surprisingly liberating, and it will most likely be a little of both. Underneath the discomfort, we will probably find excitement and energy as we take the risk of unblocking the natural flow of energy in our lives. It is like dismantling a dam inside ourselves, because most of the work involves clearing our own inner obstacles so that the river of our life can flow unobstructed. Once we remove the obstacles, we can simply go with the flow, trusting the changes that follow.

DailyOM

Parallel Lives III: Paul Robeson

Who was he?
The great black American bass Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey on 9 April 1898, his father having been a runaway slave who became a senior Quaker. Paul was both a magnificent physical specimen and also highly intelligent and he won a scholarship to Rutgers University. He became the second black all-American player, went on to Columbia Law School, and took up acting.

What did he become?
He discovered he had a fine singing voice, as many others have, by being required to sing in a play, in 1922. Since racial feeling against blacks being lawyers was so strong, he became a professional actor-singer, starring in two famous dramas of Eugene O’Neill’s, All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones. Shortly after, in 1925, he began to make records of spirituals and Negro songs.

Why the cult? The music…
Robeson became a hugely popular interpreter of Negro spirituals and music theatre – his singing of ‘Ol’ Man River’ from Jerome Kern’s Show Boat is firmly engrained in popular culture. His interpretation of that great bass song has become definitive. But perhaps more importantly, it was his political role or symbolism which has made him such a cult.

…and the man
Paul Robeson gradually assumed the role of a major symbol of anti-racism and his whole career was as much a matter of asserting the dignity of a downtrodden people as of being a major artist. It is hard for us to judge to what extent he is that; the only visual documentation we have of him is a series of not very satisfactory films, which he himself came to realise were lending credence to the racial stereotypes which he was intent on undermining. In that inevitable dialectic in which radical protesters get trapped, the harder he attempted to establish the validity of a way of living with the dignity traditionally denied to black people, the more he enabled liberals to patronise his race and reactionaries to continue their policies.

Why is he in the news?
It may seem surprising that in the Russian Revelation series of discs, which began appearing last year, and which document certain performances given during the post-World War 2 period in the Soviet Union, there should be one of a concert given by Paul Robeson. The concert took place in Moscow in 1949, during the period when the Cold War was really gathering momentum, so that Robeson was regarded with the gravest suspicion in the United States for his communist sympathies. In the concert he sings freedom-fighting folk songs and spirituals from America and Asia. He can also be heard introducing each song.

Reputation verdict
His innocence on the political front meant that he was wholly unaware of the racism which also infected the Soviet Union, and which meant that the concert recorded in 1949 was an explosive event. The next year his passport was confiscated by the American authorities for its subversiveness. What we are left with is the reputation of an heroic believer in freedom and equality, and recordings of an extraordinary rich bass voice, which had passed its best by the time this concert was given. Alas, there is now virtually no other available evidence of his vocal prowess.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

Changing the Way We Relate

A relationship, in the truest sense of the word, means relating to another. Usually when we say that we relate to someone, it is because we’ve found common ground. But part of relating is finding ways to make ideas that seem different come together. So often when we choose relationships, we try to fit another person into our predetermined ideal. When they don’t fit perfectly, we may try to make them over, creating our own vision from the raw material they’ve brought. But unless someone asks for guidance and direction, entering into a relationship with someone we want to change is dishonest. Then our relationship becomes with someone we’ve imagined, and anytime our partner steps outside of that imaginary projection, we will be disappointed. An honest relationship is one in which we accept each other as whole individuals, and find a way to share our life experiences together. Then, whenever we want, we can choose as a couple to give the relationship a makeover by renewing the way we interact.

By wanting to give another person a makeover, we are basically saying we don’t accept them for who they are. If we take a moment to imagine the roles reversed, we can get a sense of how it would feel if our beloved only committed to us because they thought we were, or would become, someone else entirely. In such an environment, we are not relating to each other from a real place, and we are keeping ourselves from being able to learn and grow from the different viewpoints that our partners offer.

If we feel that a change is needed in our relationship, the only makeover that we truly have the power to make is on ourselves. By accepting our partners for exactly who they are—the ideal and the not-so-ideal—we will create an energetic shift in our relationships, and we may find ourselves really appreciating our partners for the first time. Working from within, we determine how we relate to the people and the world around us, and when we can accept it and embrace it all, without conditions, we make every act of relating a positive one.

DailyOM


Month at a Glance

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