Wednesday, March 30, 2011

'Aesthetic' Cleansing, How the Marketplace Coddles, and a Speech by Philip Pullman.

Philip Pullman, author of the brilliant His Dark Materials trilogy, amongst other novels, gave this speech defending deep cuts to  (or more properly, a total change to the funding structure of)  libraries in Oxfordshire.

I'm excerpting it here [I've cut out most of the beginning, describing the particulars of the Oxfordshire situation--the full speech is here] because, in addition to being an inspiring discussion of libraries, I think he makes many points worth considering in the ongoing discussion of the funding (or lack of funding) of literary magazines which started with Michael Lista's column in the National Post. Laurie Fuhr, over at wrote a detailed, intelligent, impassioned, and spot-on rebuttal. It's here.

Pullman's discussion of 'market fundamentalism' is most à propos.

The notion that we could have a 'better' and more vital literary culture via the 'aesthetic cleansing' of the diversity of magazines is deeply flawed. I believe in biodiversity, and the development of a human culture beyond the most base instincts of natural market-driven selection. Some have argued that reducing the number of magazines might result in less redundancy.  Given that there are many systemic forces (the market, the nature of funding committees, university and other funding, the aesthetically stabilizing effects of the status quo, etc.), I don't know that that is necessarily the case at all. I don't think that it would be borne out by evolutionary or biological models, at least, not when one gets a broad view of biological systems. (Didn't we switch the terminology from 'food chains' to 'food webs' in order to account for a greater understanding of the complexity and interdependency of lifeforms?)

While I'm all in favour of encouraging magazines and publishers to always continue to strive, a radical cull based on numbers alone misses the point. Culture isn't based on quantity, but on quality. Each page isn't equally important to the culture. Take one page of  Kafka vs. one page of John Grisham. It's not the same, though John Grisham's numbers dwarf Kafka's. The Group of Seven vs. those poker playing dogs?

And, outside of the pressure of numbers, dominance, and the market, its likely that some new development, some significant refinement, some worthwhile insight will come from the smaller,  protected, and safe-to-explore world of the small magazine. ('Safe-to-explore' doesn't mean coddled -- the market can do that to its economically dominant members.

OK, so let's get to Pullman's speech: I'm beginning my excerpt after he's been discussing the system whereby communities and their services have to 'bid' for funding:

........And it always results in victory for one side and defeat for the other. It’s set up to do that. It’s imported the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one arena that used to be safe from them, the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die, which is the very essence of the religion of the market. Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life. I think that little by little we’re waking up to the truth about the market fanatics and their creed. We’re coming to see that old Karl Marx had his finger on the heart of the matter when he pointed out that the market in the end will destroy everything we know, everything we thought was safe and solid. It is the most powerful solvent known to history. “Everything solid melts into air,” he said. “All that is holy is profaned.”

Market fundamentalism, this madness that’s infected the human race, is like a greedy ghost that haunts the boardrooms and council chambers and committee rooms from which the world is run these days.

In the world I know about, the world of books and publishing and bookselling, it used to be the case that a publisher would read a book and like it and publish it. They’d back their judgement on the quality of the book and their feeling about whether the author had more books in him or in her, and sometimes the book would sell lots of copies and sometimes it wouldn’t, but that didn’t much matter because they knew it took three or four books before an author really found his or her voice and got the attention of the public. And there were several successful publishers who knew that some of their authors would never sell a lot of copies, but they kept publishing them because they liked their work. It was a human occupation run by human beings. It was about books, and people were in publishing or bookselling because they believed that books were the expression of the human spirit, vessels of delight or of consolation or enlightenment.

Not any more, because the greedy ghost of market madness has got into the controlling heights of publishing. Publishers are run by money people now, not book people. The greedy ghost whispers into their ears: Why are you publishing that man? He doesn’t sell enough. Stop publishing him. Look at this list of last year’s books: over half of them weren’t bestsellers. This year you must only publish bestsellers. Why are you publishing this woman? She’ll only appeal to a small minority. Minorities are no good to us. We want to double the return we get on each book we publish.

So decisions are made for the wrong reasons. The human joy and pleasure goes out of it; books are published not because they’re good books but because they’re just like the books that are in the bestseller lists now, because the only measure is profit.

The greedy ghost is everywhere. That office block isn’t making enough money: tear it down and put up a block of flats. The flats aren’t making enough money: rip them apart and put up a hotel. The hotel isn’t making enough money: smash it to the ground and put up a multiplex cinema. The cinema isn’t making enough money: demolish it and put up a shopping mall.

“The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands... He doesn’t understand libraries at all. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards?”

The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs.

That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for.

Now of course I’m not blaming Oxfordshire County Council for the entire collapse of social decency throughout the western world. Its powers are large, its authority is awe-inspiring, but not that awe-inspiring. The blame for our current situation goes further back and higher up even than the majestic office currently held by Mr Keith Mitchell. It even goes higher up and further back than the substantial, not to say monumental, figure of Eric Pickles. To find the true origin you’d have to go on a long journey back in time, and you might do worse than to make your first stop in Chicago, the home of the famous Chicago School of Economics, which argued for the unfettered freedom of the market and as little government as possible.

And you could go a little further back to the end of the nineteenth century and look at the ideas of “scientific management”, as it was called, the idea of Frederick Taylor that you could get more work out of an employee by splitting up his job into tiny parts and timing how long it took to do each one, and so on – the transformation of human craftsmanship into mechanical mass production.

And you could go on, further back in time, way back before recorded history. The ultimate source is probably the tendency in some of us, part of our psychological inheritance from our far-distant ancestors, the tendency to look for extreme solutions, absolute truths, abstract answers. All fanatics and fundamentalists share this tendency, which is so alien and unpleasing to the rest of us. The theory says they must do such-and-such, so they do it, never mind the human consequences, never mind the social cost, never mind the terrible damage to the fabric of everything decent and humane.

I’m afraid these fundamentalists of one sort or another will always be with us. We just have to keep them as far away as possible from the levers of power.

[Pullman finishes by speaking again about libraries. Though it doesn't directly apply to the magazine funding situation, it's worth quoting, also. It's to do with the nature of public discourse, public culture, and the belief in societal forces beyond the marketplace.]

...But I’ll finish by coming back to libraries. I want to say something  about my own relationship with libraries. Apparently Mr Mitchell thinks that we authors who defend libraries are only doing it because we have a vested interest – because we’re in it for the money. I thought the general custom of public discourse was to go through the substantial arguments before descending to personal abuse. If he’s doing it so early in the discussion, it’s a sure sign he hasn’t got much faith in the rest of his case.

No, Mr Mitchell, it isn’t for the money. I’m doing it for love.

I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination.

And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?

Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or in Bampton, to name only the communities beginning with B whose libraries are going to be abolished, somewhere in each of them there is a child right now, there are children, just like me at that age in Battersea, children who only need to make that discovery to learn that they too are citizens of the republic of reading. Only the public library can give them that gift.

A little later, when we were living in north Wales, there was a mobile library that used to travel around the villages and came to us once a fortnight. I suppose I would have been about sixteen. One day I saw a novel whose cover intrigued me, so I took it out, knowing nothing of the author. It was called Balthazar, by Lawrence Durrell. The Alexandria Quartet – we’re back to Alexandria again – was very big at that time; highly praised, made much fuss of. It’s less highly regarded now, but I’m not in the habit of dissing what I once loved, and I fell for this book and the others, Justine, Mountolive, Clea, which I hastened to read after it. I adored these stories of wealthy cosmopolitan bohemian people having affairs and talking about life and art and things in that beautiful city. Another great gift from the public library.

“Then I came to Oxford as an undergraduate, and all the riches of the Bodleian Library were open to me. I didn’t dare go in. The library I used as a student was the old public library, round the back of this very building.”

Then I came to Oxford as an undergraduate, and all the riches of the Bodleian Library, one of the greatest libraries in the world, were open to me – theoretically. In practice I didn’t dare go in. I was intimidated by all that grandeur. I didn’t learn the ropes of the Bodleian till much later, when I was grown up. The library I used as a student was the old public library, round the back of this very building. If there’s anyone as old as I am here, you might remember it. One day I saw a book by someone I’d never heard of, Frances Yates, called Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. I read it enthralled and amazed.It changed my life, or at least the intellectual direction in which I was going. It certainly changed the novel, my first, that I was tinkering with instead of studying for my final exams. Again, a life-changing discover, only possible because there was a big room with a lot of books and I was allowed to range wherever I liked and borrow any of them.

One final memory, this time from just a couple of years ago: I was trying to find out where all the rivers and streams ran in Oxford, for a book I’m writing called The Book of Dust. I went to the Central Library and there, with the help of a clever member of staff, I managed to find some old maps that showed me exactly what I wanted to know, and I photocopied them, and now they are pinned to my wall where I can see exactly what I want to know.

The public library, again. Yes, I’m writing a book, Mr Mitchell, and yes, I hope it’ll make some money. But I’m not praising the public library service for money. I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence in a town or a city reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.

I love it for that, and so do the citizens of Summertown, Headington, Littlemore, Old Marston, Blackbird Leys, Neithrop, Adderbury, Bampton, Benson, Berinsfield, Botley, Charlbury, Chinnor, Deddington, Grove, Kennington, North Leigh, Sonning Common, Stonesfield, Woodcote.

And Battersea.

And Alexandria.

Leave the libraries alone. You don’t know the value of what you’re looking after. It is too precious to destroy.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Radio interview on ArtWaves, GritLit, & Country Swing by Ryan Barwin

Bernadette Rule runs a great arts radio show out of Mohawk College in Hamilton. She archives all the shows at so that they are more widely accessible in both time and space. Last Sunday, she interviewed me and Jennifer Gillies (one of the organizers of the GritLit festival) in advance of the festival. I'm reading on April 7th, the festival's opening night, at the Art Gallery of Hamilton with Karen Solie and Evelyn Lau. Both Jennifer and I read some of our work on the radio show.

This year's festival looks fantastic. There are many fantastic writers and some excellent workshop/presentations. All the details are here.

We were invited to bring some music to play, so of course, I chose something by my musician son, Ryan Barwin. The piece (it's about halfway through the interview, just before Bernadette begins interviewing me) is a great little country swing tune that Ryan wrote and multi-tracked the  pedal steel, guitar, lap steel, and dobro. (Other than the digital drums, I think that that's all the instruments on the track. There may be an electric raccoon in there. Those humbucking varmints get in everywhere.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Teaching of Creative Writing in an Age of String Theory and Shouting

I’ve been thinking about the teaching of creative writing and creative writing programs.

I think we could inject an incredible energy into writing programs (and writing) if creative writing routinely included courses about performance, about recording and using words in recordings, using words in movement, in video, in visual and sculptural media, and in digital forms. The four- (and five-) dimensional page. Pages where we see the fourth wall. Where we are the fourth wall and we're sitting in a bucket of twenty-two dimensional spacetime. Pages which have disappeared in the night, leaving the words to fend for themselves in new worlds of their own invention.  

I’d like to see courses which include approaches to collaboration, to a theatre- and dance-like understanding of group process and development of projects.

Of course, many writers create and teach multimedia and expand the frame of the traditional workshop format, but I’d like to see such courses part of a mainstream creative writing curricula.  

Susan Howe/James Welling: Frolic Architecture
Even if the end result is to write for the page (which it wouldn’t have to be), the page, then would be more vibrant, it would be an energized section cut across a living, moving, multi-dimensional creative creation space.

Also: if school is for how to drive cars only, there will be little riding of horses. Or trees. If school if for how to ride horses, there will be little contemplation of the thin wing of the hatch-back, the darkening fin of the storm wind. The double-digit dimensions of the toasted slice and the community mouth, the borderless field of the fingerless crowd.


Erin Moure quotes Anna Becciu:
Anna Becciu: “Love happens when we stroke a textured surface, when something is told with the hands or with the mouth. The mouth uses stories to stroke, causes scattered textures to appear, textures that can be read out loud. But almost no one knows how to read.” tr. Alberto Manguel.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mary Ruefle: "Civil, undomesticable, and heartening"

Mary Ruefle is the winner of this year's William Carlos Williams Award for 2011 for her Selected Poems (Wave Books). The Poetry Society of America posted her poem "Glory" and Rodney Jones’ articulate summary of her work ("What a civil, undomesticable, and heartening poet is Mary Ruefle.") I've reposted the poem here. It's a fantastic and deceptive as a naked mole rat seen against a flesh-coloured sky. After the poem, I've written a little discussion of it.


The autumn aster, those lavender ones,
and the dark-blooming sedum
are beginning to bloom in the rainy earth
with the remote intensity of a dream.  These things
take over.  I am a glorifier, not very high up
on the vocational chart, and I glorify everything I see,
everything I can think of.  I want ordinary men and women,
brushing their teeth, to feel the ocean in their mouth.
I am going to glorify the sink with toothpaste spat in it.
I am going to say it's a stretch of beach where the foam
rolls back and leaves little shells.  Ordinary people
with a fear of worldly things, illness, pain, accidents,
poverty, of dark, of being alone, of misfortune.
The fears of everyday life.  People who quietly and secretly
bear their dread, who do not speak freely of it to others.
People who have difficulty separating themselves
from the world around them, like a spider hanging
off the spike of a spider mum, in an inland autumn,
away from the sea, away from that most unfortunate nation
where people are butterballs dying of meat and drink.
I want to glorify the even tinier spiders in the belly of the spider
and in the closed knot of the mum's corolla, so this is likely
to go on into winter.  Didn't  I say we were speaking of autumn
with the remote intensity of a dream?  The deckle edge of a cloud:
blood seeping through a bandage.  Three bleached beech leaves
hanging on a twig.  A pair of ruined mushrooms.  The incumbent
snow.  The very air.  The imported light.  All autumn struggling
to be gay, as people do in the midst of their woe.
I met a psychic who told me my position in the universe
but could not find the candy she hid from her grandkids.
The ordinary fear of losing one's mind.  You rinse the sink,
walk out into the October sunshine, and look for it
by beginning to think.  That's when I saw the autumn aster,
the sedum blooming in a purple field.  The psychic said
I must see the word glory emblazoned on my chest.  Secretly
I was hoping for a better word.  I would have chosen for myself
an ordinary one like orchid or paw.
Something that would have no meaning in the astral realm.
One doesn't want to glorify everything.  What might I actually say
when confronted with the view from K2?  I'm not sure
I would say anything?  What's your opinion?
You're a man with a corona in your mouth,
a woman with a cottonball in her purse,
what's your conception of the world?

This is a great poem, gently turning one’s expectations of what it is doing – and of one’s perceptions – as it proceeds. It begins with details, and a sly wit (“I am a glorifier, not very high up/on the vocational chart.”) The narrator begins to glorify. OK. The world of nature. The comically but plainly human (glorifying a sink with toothpaste.) Then it turns to larger things, things often the domain of ‘poetry’ (poverty, pain, misfortune, “people who quiet and secretly/bear their dread.”) So far, so good. All very well said, thoughtful. But, the reader notes, we’re in a poem, so is this turning self-reflexive? But then, it begins to get more interesting.

People who have difficulty separating themselves
…away from that most unfortunate nation
where people are butterballs dying of meat and drink.

Now we have an edge. This isn’t the usual ‘glorifying.’ That’s quite sharp: “butterballs dying of meat and drink.” This isn’t what we thought we were getting into, up there with the autumn aster and the dark blooming sedum. And:  “The deckle edge of a cloud:/blood seeping through a bandage.” That’s nice, deckle, but also continues the seepage of increasing darkness.

Then we have the psychic, and the narrator secretly hopes to have been given “a better word,” a better role to play than simply, mono-dimensionally glorifying. Yes, let's recognize the wonder of the world, but let's also view things with perspective, complexity, and insight. We’d all like that. And does she mean in this poem?

And then she goes on to examine what it means to glorify, to poemize, to speak the world and one’s experience, to revel and numinize. She asks the reader questions. This isn’t the romantic poet with a special relation to the numinous and the glorious. This is a person with words, noticing things, saying a few things, and interacting with culture, the environment, and others.
One doesn't want to glorify everything.  What might I actually say
when confronted with the view from K2?  I'm not sure
I would say anything?  What's your opinion?
You're a man with a corona in your mouth,
a woman with a cottonball in her purse,
what's your conception of the world?

But wait. The author has beautifully, gloriously, artfully, and brilliantly played with our expectations of what is happening in this poem, what can happen in a poem. She’s employing a virtuoso, seemingly guileless, delicate, and inspiring gloriously deft art. Is she? What do you think? What's your conception of the world?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Creativity, invention, surprise: The Political Process and the Arts? The Upstart Project

Creativity, invention, surprise, engagement. These aren't what comes to mind when we think of politics and the political process. We’re going to be facing a Federal election here in Canada very soon -- thank goodness -- and this reminded me of a fantastic public art / political action project in Dublin in  which I was invited to participate for last month’s Irish election.

The project known as Upstart wanted to engage the public in a discussion of the importance/role of the arts in public and to “highlight the importance of creativity and ingenuity when society is in need of direction and solutions.”

One of the things that they did was to place election-sized posters featuring creative work all around Dublin.

Here’s how they describe themselves:
UpStart is a non-profit arts collective which aims to put creativity at the centre of public consciousness during the Irish General Election Campaign in 2011. We plan to do this by reinterpreting the spaces commonly used for displaying election campaign posters in Dublin City….We believe that the futuredevelopment of the country requires a healthy cultivation of the Arts.

This is their video call, a great little video. There are other videos on their site of the actual work.

They created an interactive Google map detailing all of the work and where it was posted around Dublin:

They posted two copies of my poem Brick (from my recent The Porcupinity of the Stars.) What a thrill to discover that my poem was posted on a poster near Argillan Castle. They also posted one of Calgarian poet derek beaulieu's visual poems. Here's my poster and one of its locations on a map of Dublin:

This is a brilliant way to “highlight the importance of creativity and ingenuity when society is in need of direction and solutions, and to emphasize the value of the arts to public life.” As we in Canada enter an election, I am inspired by how this project found a way to re-energize the political discourse, to inject something other than a sense of the inevitable & predictable slow moving train of the political process. As I said: Creativity, invention, surprise, engagement. These should (could?) be what we think of when we think of politics and the political process.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A vacation in Los Angeles: The Pleasurable Treachery of Images

My family (well, except for our eldest son) travelled to LA this week. We had a fantastic time. The kids were a great pleasure to spend time with and we had a lot of fun exploring, discovering things from the very kitschy to the charming and the sublime.

We quickly learned that LA was all about the simulacrum. Words or images standing in for some other thing. Two of the big tourist destinations are the Hollywood Walk of Stars and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The first of these features the names of the stars in a star in the sidewalk. So: one travels across the continent to look at the name of a star. It’s not like it is a name on a significant site like a grave. Likewise, in the Chinese Theatre (which isn’t really Chinese) one looks at names in the cement. (There is a bit of a greater reality in that the names are written in the handwriting of the star, and there are also footprints or handprints – or in the case of George Burns, the cigarprint – of the actual person.) And there was something physical about comparing one’s foot or hand with the impression of a famous person. My foot was bigger than Judy Garlands, but smaller than George Clooney’s.

Another popular touristy thing is to look at the homes of the stars. Or the former homes. (Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt lived here before they split up…) Or the homes of a late star (Elvis, Lucille Ball, etc.) It is a strange thing to be titillated by the architectural signifier of a celebrity. While there were some beautiful homes, often of extraordinary magnitude, I mostly saw them as a clear manifestation of the statistics detailing how 2% of the people in the US have 98% of the wealth (or whatever the exact statistic was.) Some of the homes were big as shopping malls. A constant stream of BMWs, Mercedes, Porsches, etc. drove along the streets. There were also much more modest cars as well as pedestrians – the people who were working for the homeowners. My son wanted to have his picture taken outside the gates of the Playboy Mansion, that signifier of an always Sisyphean fantasy. We did drive through some non-wealthy LA. Downtown, the bustling workaday streets of the fashion and the toy district were our favourite.

The enormous HOLLYWOOD sign is certainly an iconic presence over the city.  It was first created as part of a real estate development marketing plan. Its fifty foot tall letters used to spell ‘HOLLYWOODLAND” until the sign fell into disrepair and the ‘land’ part fell down. A perfect symbol for the blend of capitalism, erasure, mythmaking, and historical revisionism of the Hollywood film industry.

An aspiring actress jumped to her death off the H at one point.  She must have dropped like an H.
Later, the sign was refurbished and made of steel. A number of the Hollywood gliterati sponsored a letter. $28,000 from Hugh Hefner for an H, Alice Cooper bought an O. A high stakes Wheel of Fortune.
At various times, ‘vandals’ changed the sign. Hollyweed, it once read to mark the liberalization of the pot laws.

It was a wonder to behold Magritte’s iconic The Treachery of Images (“Ceci n’est pas un pipe”) at the LACMA – the LA County Museum of Art. There was something perfectly a propos about seeing this in “LALA Land.” And to see the original of this original deflection: this is not ‘this is not a pipe”; this is “This is not a pipe.”

The original inspires many other sentences: “And my photograph? It is a photograph of a painting of an image of a pipe.  Not ‘all sizzle but no steak,’ but ‘all pipe and no smoke.’

Because, as this great piece from the amazing Contemporary building says, “Language is not transparent.” The Contemporary Art building made excellent use of its three floors. One enters by taking a huge escalator up three flights. An elevator which was about forty by ten feet and mostly made of glass moved between the floors. The entire building was distinctly marked by bright red iron girders.

At the astoundingly beautiful Getty Museum, we saw an exhibit concerning narrative in Medieval books. Among the revelations were the use of scrolls (the Medieval  equivalent of a speech balloon.) In the representations of speech, the scrolls were deliberately left blank so that the reader could imagine what the speakers were saying. It was, literally, a fill-in-the-blanks. When speaking, the people were shown with their mouths closed, for modesty.

In one series of illustrations (each bounded by a cartoon-like box) depicting St. John, St. John is shown looking in on the scenes from little portholes / flaps in the side of the boxes. I love this idea of a character looking in on a narration.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect was representation of temporality. In one image, a woman was devoured by a dragon. She was depicted, having made the sign of the cross on the belly of the dragon, bursting out of the dragon’s belly. Also represented is a previous event: the woman’s dress in the mouth of the dragon. She’s just been eaten. This is a conflation of two different time events onto one image. On the two-dimensional plane of the image, we have four dimensions . Other Medieval images show various events on one landscape: the same couple in three different places in the village at three different points in time. So, the courtship, marriage, and old age of a couple, all depicted in one image.

Yes, we did some of the usual LA things: We gawked at the opulence of celebs’ homes--from immense Michael Jackson’s former palace-like home to Aaron Spelling’s vast mansion. We watched the pageant of oddity at Venice Beach: a guy standing with a sign stating that for $1, he would provide you the opportunity to “Kick [him] in the ass.” We went on a fascinating tour of Paramount Studios. Some in my family were happy to see Britney from Glee driving by in a golf cart.

But we also drove out to Joshua Tree National Park which was strikingly beautiful and in many ways the opposite of LA (though I couldn’t help scripting scenes from Westerns in my mind). This desert was filled with the Dr Seuss-like Joshua trees, huge boulders and mountainous rockpiles. We climbed up mountains, feeling like the escapees in the YA novel, Holes, and saw some remarkable views from over cliffs, and across the flat lands. There were petroglyphs, an old dam, and lizards. My wife and I got a bit lost as dusk approached and we wandered through the short scrub and over boulders as the sun made long shadows and turned everything pink. Our kids weren’t there when we returned and we started to worry and then to shout into the dark. They appeared soon after, relaxed and happy, having watched the sunset from on top of a mountain.

It was fantastic to explore LA with two of our kids – intelligent, fun, enthusiastic, inquisitive young people that they are— though we missed our eldest toiling away in the salt mines of first year university. We felt that LA was to North American popular culture like an espresso is to a regular coffee. Or maybe a latte. Or a Café Americano. Or a Big Gulp. Or, as that pretend drunk on Venice Beach sang, “I don’t need a cappuccino, I just need some vino. Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, I just want to get drunk.”

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday, March 13, 2011

An explanation of my recent composition, Local Colour.

I recently wrote and performed my musical composition Local Colour: for saxophone and computer. It is an adaptation/translation of derek beaulieu's novel Local Colour

This conceptual novel, Local Colour (see a discussion here) is derived from Paul Auster's novel Ghosts. beaulieu's erased the text of the original novel, leaving only the nouns of colour. He replaced each noun (maintaining its size and position on the page) by a rectangular block of colour. The resulting novel comprises 72 pages of coloured piano-roll-like pages.

In order to derived a score, I superimposed a grid on top of each page. (I only scored the first half of the novel, so far.) The vertical position of each rectangle represents time: 14 beats per page. Pitch is represented by left to right. The semitones in the octave are labelled from 0-12. The above image is of a single page with the grid superimposed.

Timbre is represented by colour. For example, blue is the saxophone, black, the electric bass.

In writing the piece, I wanted to keep close to the represention of the novel, while at the same time, giving some musical direction as it progresses. In many instances, the original represents the temporal point of each note and its length. However, some instruments include processing such as echo and reverb. Further, rhythm variety was created by interpreting rectangles that overlap the grid by multiple pitches (sixteenth notes or simultaneities.) Likewise, when there exists two rectangles in the same temporal position.

Finally, in order to create some shape as the piece progresses -- balancing conceptual purity with musical development-- the score increasingly assigns the various pitches to greater and great pitch intervals. So, instead of a semitone between C and C#, adjacent pitches might be interpreted as a low C and a C# in the next octave (i.e. a minor ninth.)

I've created (and posted online on YouTube) a recording of the piece using a synthesized saxophone. I recently performed Local Colour with live tenor saxophone at the "Bird is the Word" performance in St CAtharines on March 11, 2011.

I wrote a poetic introduction / explanation before the performance. Here it is:

This then, an introduction, a translation: the first 33 pages of derek beaulieu’s Local Colour as he ghost writes Paul Auster writing Ghosts after.

There is no colour. There are no notes. There is no story. Here then only local ghosts of colour, notes, story.

Blue watches Black. Mr. Blue watches Mr. Black. White asked him to. Someone is watching someone else in the auditory cortex.

Pitch is from left to right. Rhythm is vertical. The saxophone is Blue and is watching Black. The page is the glass of an open window.

A ghost.  Think global, colour local.

Once there was Ghosts. It is a mute spirit, a colour-pocked spectre. An absent palimpsest. One erasure erasing another’s erasure.

Silence cannot be erased except through time.

The illegible is a song with words, reading a dance, a gumshoe tango.

There is no there there. There is what is not here.

Here then, Local Colour.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Local Colour: a musical realization of derek beaulieu's Local Colour

This then, a translation: the first 33 pages of derek beaulieu’s Local Colour as he ghost writes Paul Auster as he writes Ghosts after.

There is no colour. There are no notes. There is no story. Here then only local ghosts of colour, notes, story.

Blue watches Black. Mr. Blue watches Mr. Black. White asked him to. Someone is watching someone else in the auditory cortex.

Pitch is from left to right. Rhythm is vertical. The saxophone is Blue and is watching Black. The page is the glass of an open window.

A ghost.  Think global, colour local.

Once there was Ghosts. It is a mute spirit, a colour-pocked spectre. An absent palimpsest. One erasure erasing another’s erasure.

Silence cannot be erased except through time.

The illegible is a song with words, reading a dance, a gumshoe tango.

There is no there there. There is what is not here.

Here then, Local Colour.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

"If they try hard enough, men can do anything they want to": International Women's Day.

My sons when they were little, pretending to give birth
When my two sons were little, I divided my time between grad school, spending time with them, and working as my wife's assistant in her law office.

One morning I needed to meet my wife outside a courtroom to bring her some files. I had my two boys in tow. They'd never been in a criminal court, though they knew many lawyers.

While we were waiting for their mother to come out of court, we saw a neighbour who was a lawyer, dressed in his classic blue suit, white shirt, and tie, walking down the hall.

"What's he doing here?" my sons asked.

To me,  it seemed obvious. He looked the stereotype of a lawyer: middle aged, white, & male.

"He's a lawyer," I said.

"But, we thought lawyers could only be women?" my sons said. And indeed, when I thought about it, most of the lawyers that they knew were women.

"But, boys," I replied. "Men can do anything that they want to. If they try hard enough."

I thought I was being pretty clever, but the ironic inversion was entirely lost to them, as indeed it should have been.


Football Coach to my ten-year old daughter on an all-boys tackle football league: "Hit 'em harder, sweetie."


Monday, March 07, 2011

Sunday, March 06, 2011

"My Name is Stephen Harper, King of Kings": The Harpering of the Government of Canada

Well, Stephen, I find Gary Barwin's The Porcupinity of the Stars helps me sleep at night.

I'm not certain what books Prime Minister Stephen Harper has read -- for that one could consult Yann Martel's brilliant "What is Stephen Harper Reading?" project website -- but it seems clear that he's been consulting his copy of 1984, or at least has received a briefing from the Ministry of Truth.

It seems that the current governing party of Canada has issued a directive that reference to the "Government of Canada" should be replaced by the "Harper Government" in federal communications.

Wait a second? I thought this was a representative democracy and that they were representing Canadians? They were elected to be the Government of Canada. Even Elizabeth II, doesn't call herself The Elizabeth of England.

The government is part of a parliamentary democracy, a dialogic process. And Harper -- unlike the President of the US -- is just the head of the party with the most seats in parliament, not a separately elected executive branch. And in any case, Obama still communicates as the office "The President of the United States of America.

I guess all this exciting change fomenting across the Arab world has spread to Canada. Except Harper's got his signals mixed and has been listening, not to the people in the streets, but to the Gadhafis.

There's an online petition that you can sign if you disagree with yet another potshot at democracy by "The Harper Government." It's here.

And with apologies to Shelley:


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the tundra. Near them on a strand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And helmet hair and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that eral-fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Stephen Harper, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level snows stretch far away.