After the fire of December 1, I didn’t listen to music, or do much of anything for that matter really, until just recently, almost five months later. I had lost a huge collection of recorded music on CD, LP, 45 rpm, 78 rpm, and audio cassette, all collected over decades and in many genres. Our neighbour, Steve, loaned me one of his guitars, since all my instruments had been too damaged in the fire and smoke to repair, and although my fingers at the moment feel heavy, stiff and clumsy as lead pipe, I do find delight in slowly trying out things I used to do. This will take time.
In the meantime, I am pleased at how much music I am starting to listen to music from all over the creative map, music that awakens me from a numbed-out condition of fatigue and sadness, music that feeds every part of me and, even at its gentlest, thrills me. Often there’s a personal connection of some kind to the music I’m playing, memories begin to take shape, and I smile. So, allow me to talk now and then about just some of this music.
Okay, of course I never met the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler. But once, in Toronto, soprano Emma Kirkby declared after our interview that she would arrange for my interview with her friend David Watkin, the Oscar winning cinematographer, who was currently filming in town. In turn, after our ensuing interview – thank you, Emma – David asked, “What do you think of Furtwangler?” and before I could answer, he said, “You have to hear this.” “This” turned out to be the last movement of Brahms Symphony No. I, recorded in Berlin on January 23, 1945.
I have rarely been consumed as much by a recording, and for almost twenty minutes sat motionless and silent and gradually emptied out of anything that was not this performance. So I came to understand why some call Furtwangler the greatest conductor who ever lived. He was a master of musical development, proportion and timing in a work, aware like a theatrical director of all its architectural nuances, able with uncanny insight to build suspense in what always seemed an organically-realized metaphysical narrative.
One experiences, deeply, in a Furtwangler performance, an almost ineffable sense of meaning being born in one’s consciousness, as if music and metaphysics speak their minds as one. I’ve been listening to Furtwangler’s Beethoven and Brahms symphonies of late and, each time, hold my breath at what this master’s dedication achieves.
With Anton Kuerti’s Beethoven Sonatas arrived in the mail, it was first, of course, opus 31, especially No. 2. Again, as with Furtwangler, I felt an artist completely present to all the dimensions and implications of a musical work at hand. And what an unyielding pianistic presence, one with a confident percussive quality that still shows both delicacy of emotion and nuance in concept in each meticulously realized lyrical passage! What a blend of passion and mind, when Beethoven would have it so!
How many years ago was it that, Anton, performing in Hamilton that night, called up and suggested we go have a vegan lunch, which turned out to be bagel sandwiches as we sat outdoors on Locke Street. I was humbled by the range in his conversation as we later drove through the city. His recitals are always thrilling, much as his conversation is challenging.
Now here are some of my favorite recordings of songs: ‘The Banks of the Nile,’ ‘Famous Flower of Serving Men,’ The Bold Poachers,’ ‘Jim Jones on Botany Bay,’ ‘Prince Heathen,’ ‘Rigs of the Time,’ ‘The Death of Young Andrew,’ ‘The Bonnie Lass of Anglesey.’ Yes, they’re all by Martin Carthy, called by many the most influential of folk singers, an artist from whom Bob Dylan and Paul Simon borrowed or stole, your pick, an OBE, and a master of imagination in how he puts songs together with his instrument. I love the way Martin holds the beat back on the guitar, as if resisting the tempo, even as he provides a solid foundation for a tune.
I first met Martin when long ago, by happy chance, he sang for a class of my college students. Another time, over an Indian supper in London, he explained how he came to write most of ‘Famous Flower.’ Once, I gave a depth psychology workshop in Ottawa, flew to Pearson, drove to Toronto, parked on Spadina, ran to U of T’s Con Hall, and just as I entered the auditorium, Martin and the Watersons, his in-laws, began singing another fave, ‘The Good Old Way.’ Thank you again, fate, for that one. Norma Waterson, his wife, is celebrated for an exquisite earth-rooted voice in traditional music. She has smiled the times I called her my favorite jazz singer.
The music of sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, whom Yehudi Menuhin called the greatest musician in the world, is also essential to me. It’s music that inspires, yes, an immediate connection, but more than that, an actual state of being, one of rhythmic spirit, one that takes over the listener’s body. I first heard him at -memory time, folks – the Eaton Auditorium in Toronto in the late sixties. It was love at first Alap.
Several decades later I found myself interviewing Ali Akbar Khan in someone’s bedroom in suburban Mississauga. All the while, during talk of music’s potent effect on one’s spirit and the possibility that, if he hadn’t finished what he was here to do, he might be reincarnated to continue, we smoked cigarettes and his were – appropriately- king size. I guess all important music feels like home, in a way, to the listener, and the ragas of Ali Akbar Khan always do that for me. The man found peace in his music and he gave it too. I have gone to his music often.
In Hymns of Heaven and Earth, composer Peter Togni proves himself most expert in creating and sequencing musical effects. Each one takes form through his instinctive, it seems, sense of balance and proportion in composition. Each one makes great emotional impact through his restraint and understatement. Here simplicity, in the use of one’s many creative resources for creation, gives birth to a work full of implication, tension, ambiguous resolution, and a challenge to the listener to fill in where the composer has shown restraint.
That much said about Togni also describes his ideal collaborator in Stacie Dunlop, a soprano with a voice that is at once crystalline and gutsy, ethereal and sensual, vulnerable and defiant, very theatrical and very musical at once. Where Togni’s writing demands technical versatility, Dunlop delivers also a spot-on emotional precision. Where Togni sets up a musical framework, Dunlop inhabits, with graceful passion and ease, the endless subtle shifts of the composer’s musical language. Hers is a very engaging performance of Pablo Neruda’s esteemed verse.
Backstage at a St Patrick’s Day concert one time, fiddler Martin Fay walked up to me and, as he declared, “You should have this!” slapped a shamrock with adhesive onto my left shoulder. Alas, I had only the week before broken that same collar bone while somersaulting unintentionally down a hill in Pennsylvania -don’t ask. But what the hell, these were The Chieftains who, any time they perform, on stage or on disc, they and we are made of lyrical yearning and undeniable toe-tapping that shows us to be alive in music.
Mind you, a recorded interview you’ve have with band leader Paddy Moloney, a man thick of accent, is not easy at all to decipher for weeks afterwards, but the man burns with enthusiasm for his music and the warmth is infectious. So, it means a lot to have found again copies of Irish Heartbeat: Van Morrison & The Chieftains and The Chieftains Live from 1988. On the latter you hear Martin Fay, a most lyrically soulful fiddler, and harpist Derek Bell who, backstage elsewhere, told me a delicious tale that he later repeated for me in a letter. It was written as it should be, in a bold and impish hand, one that took on the whole tight-assed world and mocked it as it should be mocked. I miss Martin and Derek.