Saturday, December 26, 2009

Classical Music Picks on Youtube

The Classics on Youtube

There are about a zillion and a half music videos on youtube, sooo much to sample, but here are some of my favourites, the ones I listen to and watch over and over.

Modest Mussorgsky/orch. Ravel - Pictures at an Exhibition
Most of the time I'd not say that I'd chosen these videos for their visuals - it's the music, the performance that's really paramount - but here, it's also filmed in a way that's much more interesting than the usual fare:

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra at the BBC Proms in August 2006

Part 1 of 4
Part 2 of 4
Part 3 of 4
Part 4 of 4

The painting of Mussorgsky is by Ilya Repin.

An excerpt from Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B minor, the "Unfinished" - the best parts! - Fabio Bernoni conducting the Praga Sinfonietta in France, 2004.

Wagner vs Wagner - and even though I grew up in a classical music loving household, I still learned more of it from Warner Bros. than my parents.

Herbert von Karajan - 1966 - Beethoven's 5th - need I say more? This 2 parter comes from a film that's no longer in print.

Part I (1st & 2nd movements)
Part II (3rd & 4th movements)

Funny how almost 10X as many people watch the first half as the second.. One of the things about youtube is the often amusing/senseless/ridiculous/competitive/et cetera commentary that comes up - everyone being an expert on the internet, natch. Somewhere in the comments, I forget whether it's Part I or Part II, someone mentions in a disapproving tone that all the musicians are white and male. It's 1966, it's Europe - someone's been watching too many history-revisionist movies! (you know, the kind where women and non-whites had that new-fangled "equal rights" stuff going on in times past..) Image is of Karajan in rehearsal with the EC Youth Orchestra in Salzburg, 1980.

Henry Purcell's Rondeau from the Abdelazer Suite, an exquisitely beautiful piece of music that makes you think the Baroque period must have been somehow just better than what we have going on now.

Dutch organist Ton Koopman doing justice to Bach's Toccata & Fugue in G Minor BMW 578. Portrait of J.S. by E.G. Haussmann, 1748.

My favourite Mozart, the Symphony in G Minor No.25, First Movement, by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields under Neville Marriner.

Maurice Ravel's Bolero, given a fantastic live rendition by Dutch violinist/conductor André Rieu.

Horowitz plays Schubert in Vienna - not much to add there - simply sublime. He's pictured at the piano in an undated image, about 1910-1920.

Les belles fleurs qui chantent - Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca sing Lakme's Flower Duet

And now for something completely different... Philip Glass' Einstein On The Beach.

Happy listening, and happy exploring on youtube - once you start, you'll never stop.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

After Waking - A Literary Night Out

After Waking Literary Event
Sunday, December 27 6pm*

The Social Bar
1100 Queen Street West, Toronto
(downstairs from the Spin Gallery)

*Please note the time change - I'd originally put 7pm, but it starts at 6pm!

If you're in the Toronto area and looking for something to do during that weekend between Christmas and New Year's, I'll be Emceeing and reading at a literary event with a difference. If you've ever been ever so slightly bored (or perhaps more) at a literary reading by an author's earnest but dull delivery, fear not. The readers at this event have been hired as actors to bring life to the work in a way that the author really can't. I can speak to this as a writer myself. I know when I'm reading my own pieces, it becomes at least partly about ego, you're concerned with how you're coming off as a writer as well as how the piece itself is received. In this case, as an actor/reader only, I know I'm concentrating solely on breathing life into the words on the page, and it's a really interesting experience. I think I am doing the words more justice than if I were reading my own. And of course, a martini or two will help the ambiance.

After the readings, there will be author Q&A's, a bit of a talk show if you will, where you can ask away and see reclusive writer types dish on their work. Here are the three featured writers:

Anar Ali

Born in Tanzania, she grew up in Alberta and now lives in Toronto. Her short story collection Baby Khaki's Wings was a finalist for the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize, Trillum Book Award, and the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Ali's stories are typically dark in tone but infused with humour, magic and a light touch despite the serious subject matter, dealing with the lives of East African Islamilis. This Muslim community has its origins in India, and a long history of upheaval and dislocation that's reflected in various ways in the lives of her characters.

Anthony De Sa

A 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize Finalist and 2009 Toronto Book Award Finalist, Anthony De Sa's Barnacle Love is a series of linked stories that examine the immigrant experience from Portugal to the sleepy Toronto of the 1970's. His next book, Carnival of Desire slated for release in 2011, takes place in Toronto's Little Portugal in 1977, as the city reeled from the brutal rape and murder of Emmanuel Jacques, a 12 year old shoeshine boy.

Sheila Heti

Sheila Heti's writing hits home in an off centre kind of way - a loopy style that sounds fresh, yet has a timeless, non-trendy quality that's completely original. Her work, including 2002's The Middle Stories has been translated into German, Spanish, French, Dutch and Serbian. Often a collaborator with other artists, she's currently in the midst of completing several books, including the novel How Should a Person Be? (an excerpt of which will be read at After Waking,) and a self-help book called Choose Your Own Past.

See you at the Social!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tommy Wiseau's The Room is a Blast

The Room
Written & directed by Tommy Wiseau (2003)
Producer & Executive Producer: Tommy Wiseau
Starring Tommy Wiseau, Juliette Daniel, Greg Sestero, Phillip Haldiman

Monthly screenings now at The Royal Toronto

People throw plastic spoons and have impromptu games of football - and that's the audience! They yell at Lisa's unfaithful ways, and shout corrections when the characters in the film claim to be together for seven years at the end after mentioning five years at the beginning, or remind Claudette of her breast cancer diagnosis... Screenings of The Room, a film by one Tommy Wiseau, are definitely an audience participation event.

"Can you ever really trust anyone?" So asks The Room, the indie film to end all indie films, during the course of its tortured 90 minute plot. Wiseau plays Johnny, a "successful banker" who lives with Lisa (Daniel). He thinks they're about to get married, but Lisa's bored, and starts sleeping with his best friend Mark (Sestero). Things go from bad to worse for Johnny, who ends up alone and despondent, deciding to end it all... What will become of Denny (Haldiman), the young boy he's befriended, and Claudette, (Carolyn Minnott,) Lisa's Mom, who keeps giving her advice like "you have to think about your financial future..." ?

Armed with a pitch and convinced his melodrama, which he'd already written as a play and a novel, was cinematic gold, Wiseau tried to shop his idea around to Hollywood studios in 2001. It was uniformly rejected, but he was determined, and spent about five years getting together the approximately $6 million he eventually spent filming and promoting his masterpiece as "A film with the passion of Tennessee Williams." After all his efforts, the film debuted in 2003 at two theatres in Los Angeles. The only problem is... the film that Variety noted was "a self-distributed directorial debut so hopelessly amateurish that auds reportedly walked out during its two-week run in July 2003".

How bad is it? Judge for yourself with the trailer.

Seemingly undaunted, Wiseau kept showing the film once a month in LA, and it began to get a cult following for its seemingly unintentional humour. He started to add "Experience this quirky new black comedy, it's a riot!" to his promos, and in interviews now claims that the films many plot holes and general ineptness was all part of the plan. I will say that it's hard, though, if you actually know what you're doing, to make a film that's inept on so many levels. There are plot holes, like Claudette's announcement early on that she's been diagnosed with breast cancer. "But it'll be all right.." she assures her daughter - and the fact is never mentioned again. Denny, a young man Johnny's befriended, gets roughed up by a "thug" supposedly for owing drug money.. a fact that is also never mentioned again.

The male characters have a bizarre predilection for tossing around the football.. when they're about 3 feet apart - and somehow, someone always ends up getting hurt. People keep having impromptu pillow fights. The script clearly changed over time, and dialogue is poorly and obviously over dubbed. Some scenes aren't entirely in focus. Characters come and go without reason, and change costumes in poorly edited mid-shot. There are many hilarious soft core porn sex scenes - complete with candles and roses, Lisa's boobs and Johnny's butt. Sestero, as Mark, ostensibly more modest, apparently has sex with a blanket wrapped around his groin. That's only scratching the surface of all film's the noticeable gaffes. Believable characters with motivation and such? Nowhere to be found. Pointless scenes and inane dialogue? They abound. It is, in short, so bad that it's effing hilarious.

As for Wiseau's current claim to have manufactured a faux-inept movie, cast members have disputed that in interviews. Even Greg Sestero, who apparently really is a friend of Wiseau's (although he doesn't say "best friend"... he he - it's an inside joke you'll get once you see the movie!) says in an online article "You watch the flower-shop scene and ask yourself, “What were they thinking?” It pulls you in. And at the end of the day, it’s just entertainment. So, “so bad its good” definitely pertains to this movie."

Here's a montage of Wiseau's acting range for your consideration, and here's Wiseau's classic line - typically pronounced to the audience's wild applause.

Monthly screenings began in LA, New York City, and have steadily spread across the US, Canada and into the UK, with audience members' raucous participation part of the whole experience. There are odd framed pictures of cutlery in Johnny and Lisa's apartment - hence the throwing of the plastic spoons (although, as mentioned by management at the Royal, please don't throw them at the screen!) Those who clearly have seen the flick before add their own pithy insights. In one scene, Johnny talks about his problems with Lisa with Peter, a friend who's a psychologist. Peter's response is something along the lines of "..life's complicated.. you just have to keep going.." Someone yelled out "You're a terrible psychologist!" much to the crowd's delight.

And I have one enduring question. What room??? What the hell is the title all about? Check the movie's website or your local listings for a screen near you. If you're in Toronto, join The Royal's Facebook page and you'll get an invitation to the next screening in January.

Monday, December 14, 2009

TrueAfricanArt.com

TrueAfricanArt.com

Gathinja Yamokoski came to the United States seven years ago. A painter since childhood in her native Kenya, she knew the long tradition of African painting and its evolution into an active contemporary art scene. It was a world she found largely ignored in her new home, to her surprise. She began TrueAfricanArt.com as a business minded way of beginning to redress that balance.

Based in Westchester County, TrueAfricanArt.com isn't a gallery in the conventional sense, (although, if you are in the NYC area, they will gladly arrange a viewing). It's an online portal to the work of artists who live and work in Africa. In Kenya, artists network to find opportunities, (the off-line version,) and word soon spread that she was looking for pieces to sell. While sales initially began with the work of artists culled from art galleries, in March of 2009, her husband returned to Africa on a buying trip. They now sell the work of over 40 artists, and maintain a small staff that work on site on the continent.

The pieces you'll find range from traditional subject matter like figures in traditional dress or animals, painted with contemporary techniques, to less representational and more abstract treatments like Stephen Njenga's or Willie Wamuti's work. And, what begins as a marketing venture becomes an ongoing narrative. The website includes stories and videos of the artists where they work. Many are self taught, and would otherwise have difficulty via the usual route of gallery representation.

The high cost and scarcity of painting materials is a problem faced by many African artists. "I had to give most of the artists featured on True African Art.com a deposit so they could afford new materials in order to paint their best," Gathinja says. Sales are often not consistent enough to sustain the artists and their families year round. Gathinja says, "When there was political violence in my country following the 2007 elections, tourists stopped visiting for a while and every aspect of Kenya was affected, including the art economy." It's getting a broader access to the art marketplace on a sustained basis that is her goal.

The paintings are sold unframed to keep costs down and logistics more feasible. If you're in the Westchester area, there will be a show of their artists at the Katonah Library in February 2010, including abstract and realistic pantings, Tinga Tinga paintings from Tanzania, photo collages, and children's paintings.

Gathinja calls her own work "a raw talent", even though she's been painting since the age of nine. Trained first in fashion design as a more practical alternative, she nonetheless found herself going back to painting. Her pieces are rhythmic in their composition, inspired by her African culture and background and coloured with a tropical palette. Many of her pieces feature the figures of women as subject matter. "I tend to do African women," she says, noting the women in her family who initially inspired her. "When I first came to America, I was surprised at the images of African women I saw (in the media) - they weren't the images of strong women that I knew, women who were happy to take care of their families, to work."

There's a large selection of work to check out if you're interested, or if you need a little African warmth to adorn your own living or working space.

The images are all by Gathinja - top "Working Together", middle "She Played Coro" and bottom "Lost In Music".

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Nicholas Roerich - Man and Museum

Nicholas Roerich Museum
319 West 107th Street (at Riverside)

I stumbled across the Nicholas Roerich Museum on my very first visit to NYC. It's tucked into a lovely three storey townhouse in the Upper West Side on what looks like a mostly residential street - you don't know it's there until you actually walk by it. Full of paintings (he was prolific, producing about 7,000!) and antiques, it's definitely worth a visit, and they run a series of poetry readings and classical music concerts on Sundays too. Above and beyond his work and collections, however, you'll be amazed at the incredible life led by a man who was actually a key figure in the arts and beyond in the first half of the 20th century, someone who's been virtually forgotten on this side of the Atlantic. And - just a note before I get into his story and work, you might wonder about the plethora of images I'm using with this post. Much of his work falls under the copyright laws of India and Russia, and as a result, they now fall into the public domain, (at least, I read that somewhere on the Net, lol - image Guests from Overseas, 1901).

Nicholas Roerich (the man) or Николай Константинович Рерих in Russian, was born on October 9, 1874 into a prominent military and political family. He studied law and art simultaneously - a key to his future pursuits and certainly a sign of his nimble mind. It was during his artistic studies in the studio of Arkhip Kuindgi, a well known Russian landscape painter, that he came into contact with some of the people who would become luminaries of the artistic world - Rimsky-Korsakov, Serge Diaghilev and more. At the same time, he was devoted to the study of archeology, and was actually instrumental in recovering several Neolithic sites.

His graduation painting from the Petersburg Academy of Arts was bought by a famous collector, and highly praised by a well known critic of the time. His very early paintings, before 1900 (he graduated in 1895,) are quite representational and fairly conventional, and often based on historic fact and detail. He became the arts editor for a magazine, and secretary of the Emperor's Art Encouragement Society, and went on to paint church frescoes as well as work in theatre, including a set designs for Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Stravinsky. (image here of a design for Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, 1913.)

At the time, the Russian intelligentsia was enamoured of Eastern philosophy and spirituality, (there were thought to be common roots to Slavic and Indian cultures,) and it's clear that Roerich was greatly impressed by Indian culture. From the early 1900's, though still representational and highly detailed, his paintings come to exhibit a luminous and weightless kind of quality that has a dreamy, ethereal sort of effect. He became a teacher as well as now Director of the School of Emperor’s Art Encouragement Society, and his paintings were shown all over Europe in major exhibitions. From 1906 on, he experimented with paint composition in an effort to get different colour effects, which were noted by critics for their originality. (Image Volok, 1915)

Roerich lived in a volatile era, and was very much affected by both the onset and the events leading up to First World War. Both his paintings and his writings reflect those concerns. As early as 1915, he called on Emperor Nikolai II to take measures for the protection of cultural treasures, an endeavour he would pursue for decades. In 1917, about a month after the February Revolution, Roerich attended a meeting of artists, writers and actors who developed a committee to look at the issue. (Image: Song of the Waterfall, fine art print 1920.)

Having moved to Finland for health reasons, after the Communist Revolution, the borders were closed and Roerich was cut off from his homeland, but he had many contacts who helped further his career, and he went on to design Mussorgsky and Borodin operas in London. In 1920, he was invited to tour 30 cities in the United States with 115 of his paintings, and found fertile ground for both his art and his philosophies. The Nicholas Roerich Museum was founded in November 1923 in New York.

In December of 1923, he followed his interests to India, which fascinated the artist, philosopher, and archeologist in him. His tour took him and his family to China, Siberia and Tibet, among others from 1924 to 1928. After his expedition was over, he founded the Institute of Himalayan Studies in the Kullu Valley, and lived there for the rest of his life, barring his travels. In 1934-35, he toured Mongolia and China, in a trip organized by the US Department of Agriculture to collect seeds of plants that protect the soil - long before the notion of environmental degradation became part of mainstream thought. His paintings from this time are lyrical and obviously influenced by his travels. (Image: Buddha the Conqueror, 1925.)

Roerich revered culture as the gateway to our understanding of beauty and ethics itself, and so he very strongly believed not only in the creation of beauty and art, but in its protection and preservation. In 1929, he prepared a draft agreement dedicated to the protection of cultural values, which, though he was in collaboration with others, became known as Roerich's Pact. He also proposed a system of identification for protected objects, a "Banner of Peace", being a white cloth with a red ring and three red circles symbolizing the eternity of past, present and future, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Here's an excerpt from the Pact, which was signed in the White House on April 15, 1935 by President Roosevelt, and eventually ratified by 36 countries:

The historic Monuments, educational, artistic and scientific Institutions, artistic and scientific Missions, the personnel, the property and collections of such Institutions and Missions above mentioned shall be deemed neutral and, as such, shall be protected and respected by belligerents. … The Monuments, Institutions, Collections and Missions thus registered may display a distinctive nag (red circle with a triple red sphere in the circle on a white background) which will entitle them to the special protection and respect on the part of the belligerents, of Governments and Peoples of all the High Contracting Parties. (Image is of President Roosevelt signing the Pact, April 15, 1935.)

Roerich spent WWII in India, sending what money he could to the Soviet Red Cross fund and the Red Army, and spoke out both in print and on the radio in support of Soviet Russia. Much of his work from this period goes back to his Russian roots and often takes up military themes in a historic context. His late paintings are much more expressionistic than earlier work.

He came to know both Gandhi and Nehru, (in the photograph with Roerich,) and dreamed of the end of Fascism, along with a return to his homeland. He died on December 13, 1947, not knowing his request for a visa had been denied. On his memorial in the Kullu Valley is inscribed "Here, on December 15, 1947, the body of Maharishi Nicholas Roerich – a great Russian friend of India – was committed to fire. Let there be peace." Our modern day sensibilities - including what we now know of Soviet Russia and Stalin in particular - can wonder about how this peace loving artist/activist could have been so uncritical of his native country, but there's no doubt his feelings were sincere. (And I'll just say this: the Wiki version of his life story was clearly written by Russian!) He had a mountain top and a minor planet named after him, and in a letter to the Roerich Museum of 1931, Albert Einstein wrote "I admire sincerely by Your art so much that I can say without exaggeration that never have landscapes made such a great impression on me." (Image: Guerillas, 1943, and last one Kangchenjunga, 1944)

Today, he's often seen as a mystic of sorts, and if you Google his name you'll come up with many links to Rosicrucians, theosophy and the like. Some even claim he designed the U.S. $1 bill, with its supposedly occult symbolism. As an odd and peripheral coda to his story, two of his paintings were stolen from the museum last August (2009). One was returned mysteriously in the mail shortly after, but luckily the thieves were dumb and loose lipped, and apparently had the piece, Himalayas, hanging in their living room where they would brag to people about how they'd gotten it. One of the people they bragged to went to the police, who initiated an undercover sting. The thieves, a man and woman, apparently even told the "prospective buyer" that it was "hot" and that he shouldn't hang it in his gallery! Needless to say, both paintings are now back where they belong. In his museum, you'll find three floors of his luminous paintings, along with a collection of antiques and Indian art, some of his writings, costume and set designs - just a small part of the legacy of this fascinating figure.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Choclo y la Orgía Cósmica - Africa Meets Ecuador

Africa Meets First Nations
Concert December 6, 2009 at Lula Lounge

After interviewing a few people about the concert for my post earlier this week, I was intrigued enough to check out the music myself, and I'm so glad I did. Choclo y la Orgía Cósmica under band leader Dave West mix Ecuador and various parts of Africa (I believe three members of the six member band hail from the continent) to come up with a compelling style I'd have to call experimental. (Sorry about my lousy pics - they look so much better in the little view finder! - West is on the left in the first one.)

But to back up a bit, the evening started with the poem Four In One, about the four elements, written and performed by poet/playwright Kwame Stephens. He's a thoughtful writer and the piece, commissioned for the event, was well received. I'll have to look out for more of his work and performances.

Then out came West, first by himself, to start a dance with his guitar(s) - at times he played two at once. Play seems too ordinary a word for what he did up there on stage. He's obviously a master of the instrument, and enamoured of it. He coaxed a variety of sounds and rhythms from it from melodic to percussive, slow to lightning fast. He strummed it, caressed it and hit it, and at one point later in the evening, he used a bow on it for a rhythmic rasp. Once the other musicians came on stage, the sounds began to layer themselves over, hypnotic African beats, infectious South American rhythms. There were drums, congas, marimbas, recorders, guitar, voice, and other instruments I don't even know the name of (much of the variety provided by multi-talented Waleed Abdulhamid, aka Waleed Kush).

It was a tight group of very talented players, and the music ranged from modern dance flavoured tunes to experimental jazz, with ska, Motown, and Andean influences thrown all together, and all the musicians got their chance to shine in the spotlight. People stood up to get a closer look at the playing, it was that good. Movement was provided by dancer Saba Alemayehu, who was joined by members of the audience by the end of their long set.

The concert, part of a series organized by Batuki Music Society, was a one time event, but I'll be keeping the band and all its musicians on my "must see" list from now on in hopes of checking this vibe out again sometime soon.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Edward Burtynsky , Canadian photographer

Edward Burtynsky
Photographer

Loving many arts means I sometimes get so busy I do inexplicable things like completely missing the new Edward Burtynsky show, not just in Toronto at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery, (where it showed in October,) but also at Hasted Hunt Kraeutler in New York, (where it was also on view till November 21). If you've never seen or heard of his work, Ed Burtynsky is an internationally known and respected Canadian photographic artist, who's made it his life's project to document in photographs the ways in which human processes change the landscape. (Image by Jon Lebkowsky 2005.)

That's just the nutshell version. Oil, his brand new show, is the result of a decade spent traveling the world photographing the ways in which we extract and process oil from the earth. If you've never checked him out before, you'll be drawn by the haunting imagery that he captures. His prints are large scale, and rendered in meticulous detail, and a gallery full of them is quite something to view. He has an incredible eye for composition, and his work has an arresting quality. He brings to the table the view of things most of us would prefer to ignore in a way that's not at all expected.

Oil is a three year touring exhibition that's currently at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., till December 13. You'll also be able to see the show at:
The show looks at a subject matter he's been exploring for decades. Manufactured Landscapes is Canadian director Jennifer Baichwal's 2006 documentary about Burtynsky's work, shot as he traveled to China and Bangladesh in search of the ways human activity alters the land. Many of the images have a sense of awe-inspiring grandeur, often massive in proportion, human activity seen as at ant level. They're.. beautiful, with an alien yet entirely compelling kind of beauty. I'm oddly attracted to the snake like flow of red stuff through blackened ground in "Nickel Tailings #34," taken in Sudbury, Ontario, even as I wouldn't necessarily want to be standing beside it.

Some would argue he makes it all look a little too beautiful, that in focusing on creating compelling photography, he's missed giving the images context. A 2007 review of the documentary in the New York Times by Manohla Dargis also notes the fact that human beings are most often peripheral to the landscape, tiny insects in the giant factories or cavernous mines. Their lives in the shadow of those manufactured landscapes is never explored.

I can add a little relevant insight and context here myself, as it happens. Ed Burtynsky grew up in St. Catharines, Ontario (Canada) where his father worked at a GM Plant, just about a half hour away from Hamilton, Ontario, the industrial city where I did most of my growing up. The thing about Hamilton is, (and always will be,) its industrialized harbourfront, built up into steel factories since the 1800's. It's the dominant view as you go by on the most traveled highway in the area, the one that goes from Niagara Falls (and St. Catharines) from the U.S. border to Toronto. Anyone who lives in this area has seen that industrial skyline - in 2004's Clean (an award winning film with Nick Nolte,) that view doubled as a metaphor for hell.

The thing of it is, you can't live around all that industrial imagery and be shocked by it forever. You don't have the luxury of tut-tutting about steel factories as you drive by in your car made of steel, on your way back to a greener suburb. And in the absence of shock value and that initial horror, you can begin to have a fascination for the manufactured aesthetic. It's not that you like it exactly, but still... I met Burtynsky at a show he had in Hamilton probably more than a decade ago, introduced by a colleague at the time, and I mentioned my own visual fascination with the industrial landscape to him. There is a street you can drive on in town that goes right through the factories and the whole industrial area, (pictured in the image, which is not by Burtynsky btw,) and he told me he felt that same pull towards the view. In fact, I saw work of his on another occasion at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the images that really stayed with me were taken in Hamilton in 1997. They come from the recycling yards that sit along that same industrial thoroughfare we talked about, piles of iron scraps with an abstracted textural quality and lyrical tendrils of rust that form on them. (I know it sounds like an awful lot of clicking, but it's well worth the effort - check it out at on his website - click on "Works" - "urban mines" - "metal recycling" - and you'll see the exact images I'm talking about in the "Ferrous Bushling" series.)

To me, Burtynsky's images have an almost metaphysical dimension, as if he's captured the ghost in the machine, but it's not a friendly ghost, or one hospitable to the very people who created all of it. We are actually secondary to its alien aesthetic - we're usurped by the monster we've created. In a concrete way, it's what happens when you put function over form, and it raises inevitable questions. How is it that what we alone create can have such un-human qualities?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Africa Meets First Nations - in Toronto..

Africa Meets First Nations
Concert December 6, 2009 at Lula Lounge
Presented by Batuki Music Society

It didn't surprise me to find out that Nadine McNulty, Artistic Director of Batuki Music Society, was a musicologist. "The concept was created by our organization to establish the link between African and Aboriginal music," she enthuses. "There are similarities of chants, drumming, and other forms that are found in both cultures." Africa Meets First Nations is actually a series of events. The first one was in May, and featured Canadian First Nations musician like Marc Nadjiwan and Jani Lauzon, playing with Malagasy musician Donné Roberts and his group.

The next concert, coming up December 6 at Lula Lounge, features Ecuadorian and African musicians under the name Choclo y la Orgía Cósmica. While the concert series is Nadine's brainchild, the idea of mixing cultures was nothing new to band leader Dave West. "I've been doing this fusing of music for years," he says. From his first recording from 1996, his music has combined African elements from jazz and blues to Congolese soukous with Andes music from Ecuador and Peru. His most recent CD, 2007's eponymous Choclo y la Orgía Cósmica was recorded in Ecuador.

"I play some traditional music," he explains, "but traditional music needs to be lived." Even back home in Ecuador, before his move to Toronto, he noticed that many local musicians ended up playing their careers in other countries, and absorbing the musical styles of their new environment. "I wanted to create a music that reflects that state," he says. His style, and the band, were a perfect fit for Africa Meets First Nations.

You can check out one of his songs here.

One of the musicians in West's band is Waleed Abdulhamid, aka Waleed Kush, a talented and sought after multi-instrumentalist and music educator who originally hails from the Sudan. His career, too, has often involved exploring cross cultural possibilities - including a Sudanese interpretation of Bach's Goldberg Variations inspired by Glenn Gould. (Now that's Canadian! The link is Part 1 - Parts 2 through 7 are also on youtube.)

"It reflects the diversity of the city of Toronto," he says, "I feel it's a really brilliant idea, to bridge the cultures." He's enthusiastic about the way cultures mix together in the city. "I wish there was more of it. This is the real culture, not what the politicians talk about, it's the way people really live. There's a great mix of beautiful people in this city." (Waleed is also part of the Let's Find A Way initiative to help Aboriginal children affected by AIDS worldwide - check out the link for more info.)

Along with the music, the event will include a performance by Ethiopian dancer Saba Alemayehu, (photo here with Donné Roberts at the May concert by John Leeson, www.to-music.ca,) and a poem written for the occasion by poet/playwright and Ghanian native Kwame Stephens. "This is the second time I've done this," he says, referring to performance at May's concert. "The challenge each time is, how do you write something that's relevant to both cultures?" What he came up with has a universal appeal. "Four-as-one - it's a tribute to the four elements of earth, fire, water and air. My challenge is to find a unique way to say it, connecting with both cultures."

I'll be checking it out this Sunday, here's all the details:

Sunday December 6, 2009.
Doors open at 7:00 pm., show starts at 8:00 pm.
Lula Lounge, 1585 Dundas Street West, dinner reservations guarantee seating (416 588 0307).
Tickets: $15, available at Soundscapes (572 College Street), African Art & Drum Crafts (618 Dundas Street West), and New Bilan Restaurant (183 Dundas Street East).

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sunny Choi - Brush With Beauty

Sunny Choi
Sunny Choi Gallery, Toronto
to December 24

About two years ago, well known fashion designer Sunny Choi decided to give up the world of commercial fashion and devote herself to fine art, opening her own venue on Toronto's artsy-chic Queen Street West right in the gallery district. "Brush With Beauty", her current show, doesn't stray far from those fashion-steeped roots, however. Each of the large canvasses depicts slim fashion-y models in elegant poses, most gazing directly at the camera, (and they were painted from photographs). They wear make-up and stylish dresses.

Choi began her multi-faceted career as a fashion illustrator, actually, and having worked myself with a great many illustrators and illustration students (as a model,) I recognize her deft technique. Most striking is the delicate and nuanced treatment of the model's flesh tones, from translucent washes to opaque shadows. They have fine features and moulded limbs, not completely smoothed over, (except in a couple of canvasses downstairs in the gallery, away from the main show,) but worked in marked contrast to the often rough treatment of the other surfaces, particularly their clothes. Here the brush strokes are more obvious, still nuanced and shaded, but they stand out almost stiffly from the flesh, an abstracted effect that's not really duplicated in the photographed images of the paintings - as if the model herself was the only thing that was "real". All feature a stark white background, and abstracted elements, given a similarly "rougher" painted treatment as the cloth. The colours of the fabrics and abstract shapes glow in saturated colours against the black/white.

Between the canvasses are calligraphy hangings by Choi's father General Chong Hong Hi, a key figure in the development of modern Tae Kwon-Do. His calligraphy are beautifully presented, and their black, flowing strokes do complement his daughter's pieces quite nicely.

As a fashion designer, Choi's lady-like designs were worn by Hollywood celebs like Susan Sarandon, Darryl Hannah, Carmen Electra, and roots singer Alison Krauss (pictured here going to the 2004 Oscars in a Sunny Choi dress). If lovely ladies in stylish compositions are your thing, you'll definitely enjoy the show.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Valu David CD Release Party

Valu David CD Release Party
November 27 at Lula Lounge Toronto
Presented by Batuki Music Society

They were dancing from the very first song played by Valu David in the early show at Lula Lounge Friday night, and by the end of the set both the house and dance floor were full. Backed up by a really solid five piece band consisting of bass, drums, keyboards, congas and trumpet (with Valu himself on guitar,) and lit by David's warm vocals and stage presence, it was nearly impossible not to move to the music.

Born in Angola, David came to Canada in 2000. A self taught musician, his unique style combines jazzy R&B, soul and reggae influences with the music of his homeland, music that has a distinctly Latin flavour from its Portuguese component, anchored by solid, swaying rhythms or faster beats that also echo in the music of Brazil. He sings in Portuguese, English, Spanish, French and Kimbundu, and his lyrics have an overwhelmingly positive message - words that had the ring of sincerity no matter which language they came in. The songs run from soulful, swingy ballads to shake it till you break it beats, and he included a cover or two, including a great version of Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing.

He's definitely worth keeping an eye on, and hopefully his CD will be available for sale online soon. Judging from the response last night, it won't matter whether you can understand the language or the influences - your body will move you.

Check out one of his softer songs here

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Zac Efron stars in Me and Orson Welles

Me and Orson Welles
Directed by Richard Linklater
Screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo after the novel by Robert Kaplow
Starring Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin, Eddie Marsan

Zac Efron stars as aspiring young actor Richard in this entertaining film set in 1937, inserted into the real life story of Orson Welles' landmark staging of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. In the space of a mere week before opening night, Richard talks himself into a role in the play, has a budding affair with an older woman (Claire Danes as the production manager,) has his heart bruised and his pride likewise against the sharp edges of unabashed ambition and over sized ego.

Efron's solid as the centre of the film and our way into this story about the fragile magic of theatre and some of the realities behind what transpires on stage. He turns in an entirely convincing performance with just the right range from the kind of bravado that gets him the opportunity - as in this scene in front of the Mercury Theatre - to the naive vulnerability that sees him blindsided by backstage politics and the calculated maneuvering of his new colleagues.

If Efron's our window into the story, its heart has to be the brilliant performance of newcomer Christian McKay as a young Welles. We get a real sense of the man's sparkling genius, along with his impossibly capricious, self indulgent persona, the director with a penchant for keeping the entire company waiting while he chases the latest winsome young lady to cross his path. He tells Richard he's a "God created actor", and it sounds like a compliment until he explains the hollowness inside it, the empty space from which the desire to become someone else springs.

Welles' historic production edited the Bard's play and set it in modern times in Fascist Italy. I dabble in a little acting myself, not much, but enough to know that the film handily captures the rollercoaster chemistry of putting on a show, the sense of being at the mercy of a director's whims (sigh!) and of the whole production forever teetering on the brink of disaster. With its peppy pace and a raft of amusing peripheral characters from John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) to George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) you won't need any special appreciation of things theatrical to enjoy what really amounts to an accelerated coming of age story. Richard emerges a little older and much wiser, and as history tells the tale, Welles innovative production won him raves from audiences and critics alike, and cemented his early reputation.

Opens November 25 in limited release in the U.S.
Opens December 4 in Toronto, Montreal & Vancouver and currently playing in the U.K.
Check out the trailer
here

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Six Messiahs - different flavours of the holiday favourite in Toronto

Six Messiahs

There may be even more flavours of Handel's ubiquitous (and deservedly so) holiday favourite playing in Toronto this year, but here's a good list to start with. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, if you're a fan of chorale music, why stop at just one - or even just two?

The Elmer Isler Singers, the Amadeus Choir and more team up for an extravagant Messiah early in the season, complete with a big old church organ to add to the mix.
Features: Lydia Adams, conductor, Meredith Hall, soprano, Allyson McHardy, mezzo soprano, Michael Colvin, tenor, Peter McGillivray, bass, Robert Venables & Robert DiVito, trumpets, Patricia Wright, organ, Orchestra
December 4 - Metropolitan United Church (56 Queen St. East at Bond)

If you're north of the city, the George Weston Recital Hall is featuring a one time performance of the oratorio.
Featuring: Kerry Stratton, Conductor, Vocal Horizons, Canada's Gold Medal Choir, Festival Orchestra, Caroline Davidson, Soprano, Deborah Overes, Alto, Stephen Harlands, Tenor, Michael Uloth, Bass.
December 4 - George Weston Recital Hall
(Check the Vocal Horizons website for other dates they'll be performing in Markham & Richmond Hill)

For something completely different, Ballet Creole brings you The Soulful Messiah - a contemporary dance interpretation of the oratorio infused with R&B and drawing from African and Caribbean traditions to add the warmth of the tropics to Handel's perennial holiday fave.
December 11-13 - Harbourfront Centre

The Aradia Ensemble's Dublin Messiah
The Aradia Ensemble not only plays baroque instruments, they look to recreate the Messiah as it originally premiered in Dublin in 1742 at the Christchurch Cathedral (pictured). "It is requested the Favour of the Ladies not to come with Hoops this Day to the Musick-Hall in Fishamlbe Street. The Gentlemen are desired to come without their swords." When one of the passages was sung sublimely by one Mrs. Cibber, a woman of "questionable morals", a member of the audience is said to have cried out, "Woman, for this, thy sins be forgiven thee!"
Featuring: Laura Albino, Soprano, Marion Newman, Mezzo Soprano, Nils Brow, Tenor, Sean Watson, Bass
December 12 - Glenn Gould Studio

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra Messiah
This top drawer performance features: Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor, Shannon Mercer, soprano. Matthew White, countertenor. Colin Balzer, tenor, Tyler Duncan, baritone & The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
December 16, 18, 19, 20 & 21 in the posh surroundings of Roy Thomson Hall

Tafelmusik's Messiah X2
Tafelmusik gives you Handel played on period instruments for an authentic period sound, and their Messiah offerings come in two different versions.
  • December 16-19 at the gorgeous Trinity-St. Pauls' centre
    Featuring: Ivars Taurins, conductor; Ann Monoyios, soprano; Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano, Benjamin Hulett, tenor; Sumner Thompson, baritone
  • December 20 at Massey Hall - the Sing-Along Messiah
    Get your tickets early to this annual Toronto institution - it sells out every year - conducted by "Maestro Handel" and giving you your opportunity to sing your heart out. Bring your own score, or buy one at Massey Hall, and seating is general admission by voice part.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

New York, I Love You - a film review

New York, I Love You
Directed by Fatih Akin, Yvan Attal, Allen Hughes, Shunji Iwai, Wen Jiang, Shekhar Kapur, Joshua Marston, Mira Nair, Natalie Portman, Brett Ratner, Randall Balsmeyer
Starring Bradley Cooper, Justin Bartha, Andy Garcia, Hayden Christensen, Rachel Bilson, Natalie Portman, Irrfan Khan, Emilie Ohana, Eva Ammuri, Orlando Bloom, Christina Ricci, Maggie Q, Ethan Hawke, Anton Yelchin, James Caan, Olivia Thirlby, Blake Lively, Drea de Matteo, Julie Christie, John Hurt, Shia LaBeouf, Ugur Yucel, Taylor Geare, Carlos Acosta, Jacinda Barrett, Shu Qi, Burt Young, Chris Cooper, Robin Wright Penn, Eli Wallach, and Cloris Leachman

New York, I Love You is the second in a series of "collective films" conceived by producer Emmanuel Benbihy, coming on the heels of Paris je t'aime (2006). “My idea was always to make a collection of movies that would illustrate the universal idea of love around the world,” says Benbihy. “I started with Paris because that is where I am from, but I always intended to do something similar for all the mythic cities, of which New York of course had to be a part. New York is a city that has the potential to make anybody who sees it start to dream." It's an ambitious concept, and works here - or not - depending on your expectations. If you're a reader, this is an anthology of short, short stories with a loose theme, not a novel that explores anything in depth, vignettes that really skim the surface of both the city and the romantic premise. It's entertaining, but I'm not sure the city itself even comes off as "mythic".

Directed by a string of emerging directors from around the world, the filming itself had to obey a series of rules:
  • Each story had to be visually identified with one or more New York neighborhoods;
  • Each story had to involve some kind of love encounter, broadly defined;
  • There would be no fades to black at end or beginning of any segment.

Once the stories were chosen, there were another set of rules, including a strict schedule of shooting each segment for only 2 days, and editing for only 7.

It's all quite interesting, but the result is a film that meanders around Manhattan following the momentary interactions that happen largely on the sidewalks, or the classic NYC bar/resto, (of which there are surely a zillion lining the city's streets,) which appears in several of the scenes. The vignettes are uneven in approach, quality and effect, a few rather beautiful and poetic, like Julie Christie as a faded opera star who takes a bit of a trip with bellhop Shia LaBeouf in an Upper East Side hotel, (directed by Shekhar Kapur from a script by Anthony Minghella,) to Ethan Hawke as a fast talker trying to pick up Maggie Q, which comes off as an extended joke with a predictable punchline, (if you know who Maggie Q is, in particular). I much preferred Natalie Portman's subtle directorial piece about a single father, (which she also wrote,) to her starring turn as an Orthodox Jewish diamond trader, in a story that seemed a little like it had been forced into its small format with a quick laugh or two and an inevitable moment of connection that slipped by without making much of an impact.

If you know the city, you'll recognize the little details with a smile - the French speaking cab drivers from Haiti or West Africa, the beat up doors and grimy stairways that lead to the myriad and odd spaces where people live, the way so many people are struggling actors, dancers, artists, musicians. Perhaps oddly for its international directorial roster, race only rears its ugly head once, (in Natalie Portman's story, where the Puerto Rican daddy is mistaken for a "manny" at a playground,) and that cab driver seems to be the only African American in town. From the grimy streets of Chinatown to Central Park, the city stars as itself, but often only as a backdrop to the various couplings and uncouplings. James Caan is a quirky pharmacist whose daughter has an "interesting" prom night in Central Park, Cloris Leachman and Eli Wallach are an elderly couple who go to Coney Island on their anniversary, Orlando Bloom is a struggling composer in a cramped apartment - you get the idea.

It's got an appealing cast, a few laughs and a few things to say, but doesn't delve beyond the surface. Call it New York Lite or New York I Like You A Lot.

Currently playing in limited release in the U.S. & some areas of Europe, scheduled for release in Toronto, Vancouver & Montreal on November 27 & in the rest of Europe through January 2010.

Check out the trailer here