Twenty Fingers & No Thumbs & UBC's Barnett Hall
Saturday, September 30, 2017
|Corey Hamm & Lucas Wong|
This week has been a Claude Debussy kind of week. It all started
a few weeks before when I heard CBC’s Paul Kennedy in Ideas discuss how Debussy
ushered in the 20th
century with his Prelude to the Afternoon of theFaun.
On Wednesday I heard a modified Debussy work Des pieds
sur la neige
arranged by Jordan Nobles and played by Vancouver’s stellar
Wong played 9 shortish works that included four Etudes.
Of those Etudes Debussy said that these works composed in 1915, are a warning
to pianists not to take up music professionally unless they have remarkable
hands. That, at least, is what Debussy thought of his 12 extremely difficult
|Claude Debussy & Igor Stravinsky - Photograph Erik Satie - 1910|
Wong himself told us that the Etude Pour les accords was virtually almost impossible to play. And
he played it! Wong played all from memory with a precision that almost made it seem like for him it was all easy. We would know differently.
Having been raised by my mother (she played the piano
very well) to listen to the romantics and Bach she did play Debussy’s Claire de lune so my knowledge of the
composer is spotty.
After the concert I spoke with Wong and Corey Hamm (who
with Wong played Igor Stravinsky’s Danse Sacrale from the Right of Spring for
one piano, four hands). I told them that as I listened to Wong I imagined the
works of Monet and Manet in my memory. They told me that Debussy rejected the
idea that he was an Impressionist. In fact I found out that Debussy called
those who labeled his music as Impressionistic as “imbeciles”.I checked my very good copy of Ross King's book, The Judgment of Paris - The Revolutionary Decade That Gave Us Impressionism and found no citation of Debussy in the index.
I must be frank in saying that listening to Debussy’s
piano works is much more difficult than to listening to my fave Thelonious
Monk. Since last night’s concert I have been thinking about that.
In 1987 I watched Yehudi Menuhin’s TV series The Music of
. Memorable to me was the episode when he tried to explain punk music with
The Dead Kennedy’s playing behind him. The expression on his face did not hide
|Claude Debussy - Photograph Igor Stravinsky 1910|
In the late 70s I was attracted to Vancouver’s punk
scene. I liked the loudness and energy which to me seemed primal. One of my
faves were The Subhumans’ Slave to my Dick. I must have listened to it
innumerable times. Now when I happen to listen to it seems tame and I can
almost hum along.
In the last few years I have attended Vancouver’s
Microcosmos String Quartet
and I have
heard all 6 of Bartok’s string quartets many times. I still cannot identify
Perhaps this is what I need to do with Debussy. I must
hear it over and over until my memory will fill in the blanks and perhaps this 20th century man will
also be ushered into that century, if, alas, a century too late.
Thanks to Lucas Wong (I would lose my shirt if I played
poker with him) whose only emotion (that I could discern) here and there was a small smile, I have
found out a lot about Debussy. I have learned that his piano works feature the
relationship with a piano’s white keys and black keys. Wong told us that
playing only with the black keys makes the sound seem Oriental.
Wong's notes on his program did inject his brand (and Debussy's) humour:
Find out how Debussy played “Tai Chi” with the black and white keys in
imaginative ways. The journey opens with black keys evoking bells from Pagodes.
Gradually, the black and white keys go head to head on a collision
course, creating interesting shapes such as Mists and Fireworks. The
keys arrive at the finish line encountering Stravinsky’s infamous Sacrificial Dance for piano four hands with Corey Hamm piano.
But more than anything Wong taught me that what I thought
was a fairly remote kind of music was not and not only that, Debussy’s music
has humour in it. The proof of that was Pour les huit doigts from Etudes. I
watched (I was on the front row) and the whole piece was played without once
using either of Wong’s thumbs!
The Oxford of the thumb being a finger or not says:
It's therefore more
accurate to describe a thumb as one of five digits that we have on each hand,
rather than as a finger. 'Digit' is the technical term which covers fingers,
thumbs, and toes in humans, and similar appendages in some animals. The thumb
is the short, thick first digit of the human hand.
The splendid evening finished with Hamm and Wong sitting
at that one Steinway (expertly tuned by Scott Harker who was present at the
concert) and pounding that Danse sacrale.
If Debussy ushered in the 20th century it
would seem that Stravinsky blasted it. I love going to listen to the Vancouver
Symphony play the Right of Spring. There is a moment in the work where there is
a sudden blast of musical noise that makes me jump from my seat. Stravinsky
reminds me of American composer Charles Ives who once said, “Stand
up and take your dissonance like a man.”
Photographic Inspiration in Unpredictable Places
Thursday, September 28, 2017
|Presentation House Gallery - 2014|
Only in the beginning of my interest in photography (in
the late 50s) would I have been a street photographer even though I was
ignorant of the term. What made it interesting was to go on photo safaris in my
neighbourhood which happened to be Mexico City. I had a German friend who would
call me up and armed with our cameras we would go to churches, markets and cemeteries.
I abandoned street photography in 1975 (and before) with
my interest in portraits and my new job by 1977 in Vancouver Magazine and other
Cartier-Bresson’s “the decisive moment”
I turned on its definition
by making my own
decisive moments when figuring out how to illustrate (with
photographs) a manuscript for a magazine or newspaper article.
But I have to admit that sometimes inspiration can be out
there without even having an assignment. Or, when the assignment can simply be
to take photographs for a personal blog.
That was the case in 2014 when I went to the Presentation
House Gallery in North Vancouver for an art opening. By then I had a brand new
digital camera, a Fuji X-E1 that had the capability of taking panoramics like these
|La Recoleta, Buenos Aires - 2016|
While I do not believe my photographs of that show are
all that remarkable they did break a little ground for me with the idea that an
art gallery (with the more permissive rules for taking photographs in them
these days) can be a place ripe for inspiration.
That idea was reinforced today in my Friday NY Times
my eye immediately noticed the photograph taken by Philip Greenberg at this show
. At first I thought it was a hyper realistic painting (newsprint can do
that!). But it isn’t!
|Photograph by Philip Greenberg for the NY Times|
Standing Wave & Safeway Cardboard Bread
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
Making waves in my brain with Standing Wave
|Cameron Wilson & Allen Stiles - two fine fellows|
In physics, a
standing wave – also known as a stationary wave – is a wave which at each point
in its medium has a constant amplitude. The amplitude of the wave's
oscillations may vary at different points in space, but are constant in time.
The locations at which the amplitude is minimum are called nodes, and the
locations where the amplitude is maximum are called antinodes.
Standing waves were
first noticed by Michael Faraday in 1831. Faraday observed standing waves on
the surface of a liquid in a vibrating container. Franz Melde coined the term
"standing wave" (German: stehende Welle or Stehwelle) around 1860 and
demonstrated the phenomenon in his classic experiment with vibrating strings.
This phenomenon can
occur because the medium is moving in the opposite direction to the wave, or it
can arise in a stationary medium as a result of interference between two waves
traveling in opposite directions. The most common cause of standing waves is
the phenomenon of resonance, in which standing waves occur inside a resonator
due to interference between waves reflected back and forth at the resonator's
For waves of equal
amplitude traveling in opposing directions, there is on average no net
propagation of energy.
|A standing wave|
In many respects I may be out to lunch in any topic about
music and culture.I am not a critic. When I arrived with my wife Rosemary and two daughters from
Mexico City in Vancouver in 1975 I noticed two salient differences to our
former abode. One was that all bread at Safeway tasted like cardboard and with
the exception of the Vancouver Symphony, Vancouver was a provincial city in all
the negative connotations of the word.
As a former high school teacher who wanted to be a “portraitist”
(I applied at London Drugs and the managert told me that he had gone to Ryerson and
he did not dareccall himself by that term. He told me to get lost). So I rented
cars at Tilden-Rent-A-Car on Alberni. My Sunday cultural activity was to drink
beer with my manager at the Ritz Hotel.
It was on a slow winter Sunday that I observed two cars
across the street that had their four-way lights going. I noticed that every
once in a while both cars coincided but then there would be periods when the
lights would not. I knew enough of mathematics that there was a formula
involving sine ways that could have predicted when those lights would coincide.
I thought that the phenomenon in a way was a visual explanation on two people
falling in love and how rare that can be.
Today, September 27, 2017 my
friend Ian Bateson and I attended a Wednesday Noon Hours Concert at the UBC
School of Music at Barnett Hall which featured Standing Wave. The group is made
up of Christy Reside, flute, Ak Coope, clarinets, Rebecca Whitling, violin,
Olivia Blander, cello (subbing for the usual member Peggy Lee), Allen Stiles,
Piano and Vern Griffiths on percussion.
I wondered about the origin of
The local group Standing Wave was founded in 1992 and at
last our city with the help of Expo 86 was no longer a culturally deprived
wasteland. By 2002 I was assigned to photograph this stellar group that
specializes in music of the 20th and (now) 21st century.
I never did ask the members of the group why they were
called Standing Wave.
I should have suspected that somehow the two cars with
simultaneous four-way flashers may at the very least explain the concept.
During the height of cassette tapes, around 1986, I
bought Steve Reich Sextet – 6 Marimbas and I was soon attracted to the idea
of instruments playing in unison and little by little going out of phase. I was
In today’s concert there were two works (there were six
in all) that featured this out of phase idea. The first was Guilty Pleasures (based
on China Gates by John Adams adapted (arranged) by Jared Miller (born in 1988)
and John Korsrud’s (born 1963) Two Tastes of the Hague which was inspired by the
music of his mentor Louis Adriessen. Guilty Pleasures featured some soft and alluring vibraphone playing by Griffiths.
The latter work was most satisfying in that its very long and
winding ending reminded me of the Terminator who would not die! It was full of
almost fake endings with lots of wonderful noise that followed the beginning in
phase and out phase period that lulls one into a peaceful state of flotation (that state
of flotation began for me with Reich). For a good noise there is nothing like Vern Griffiths on percussion and AK Coope on that fab bass clarinet.
I asked Jeremy Berkman, present at the concert, the co-artistic director of
Turning Point Ensemble
and trombonist if one of the instruments for Kosrud’s
piece was the Balinese tronbong.
He wasn’t sure. I asked Griffiths who told me
it was a Thai gong.
The second piece on the program, Des pied sur la neige
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) arranged by Jordan Nobles (born in 1969), a very
beautiful and soft piece came to me at a very special time as it was only a few
weeks ago that I listened to CBC Ideas with Paul Kennedy in a program called
Nine Minutes that Changed the World
which was all about Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon at the Faun
and how those first few notes ushered in Modernism
and the 20th
But the best (because it was the funniest) was Louie
– Richard Berry (1935-1997) as arranged by violinist/composer
Cameron Wilson who is the funniest musician in Vancouver. I can now
state here that my favourite version of Louie Louie, this one
by Johnny Thunders
now shares a space with the Wilson version.
|Cameron Wilson - funny man|
While Olivia Blander on cello was very good I missed the presence of Peggy Lee for one special reason. I did not above mention Le Merle Noir
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) arranged by Jennifer Butler (born in
1976). With AK Coop's clarinet and Christie Reside's flute the piece
began with those birdsounds that Messiaen liked so much (and so did I ).
In 1962 I attended a concert at the University of Mexico. One of the
featured works involved a soprano singing some Messiean. I hated it! But
it was Peggy Lee, with Janet Hayes, Marc Destrubé and Franç
ois Houle who with Messiaen's Quartet For the End of Time
brought me into the fold to appreciate one of the most wonderful works of the 20th century.
The last work, Half Wolf Dances Mad in the Moonlight
by Terry Riley (born in 1935) and arranged by Marcus Goddard (born 1973) was just right for the last ten minutes of that short hour. It was a nice contrast in listening to Griffiths play the marimba after hearing him in the similar (but electric) vibraphone he played in the first work. Because we were sitting on the front row, in front of violinist Whitling we were able to listen to those almost inaudible quiet moments that many of the works featured for her violin.
All in all the concert was an hour of sheer delight, with
music that challenged me to action and to glory of the fact that not only is
bread at Safeway wonderful but also thanks to Standing Wave and the UBC School
of Music it is never boring to live in this city that is and no longer is the
city that was.
Trombonist Jeremy Berkman looking at the very large and young crowd wondered if any of them knew the significance of Louie Louie.