Sunday, September 11, 2016

Being Canadian

In the header to this blog I do give myself some latitude when I say it is about
classical music, popular culture, philosophy and anything else that catches my fancy...
But for the most part the close focus is on classical music with occasionally a look at popular music. Aesthetics, which is a very important part of the approach, is the channel between music and philosophy. Of course, in discussing music in its context a lot of other things creep in, like politics and economics.

Today's post might seem a bit off-topic, but I am going to talk about my perspective on being Canadian almost exclusively in terms of music, specifically my musical identity. I often write things quite critical of Canada and music in Canada and this post (which was inspired by a little discussion of the Tragically Hip in the comment section) might explain why.

I was born in northern Canada and I should explain what that involves. From different sources we find that about 90% of the population of Canada live within 100 miles (160 kilometres) of the US border. I was born in northern Alberta, over a thousand kilometres (655 miles) north of the US border. The music I encountered when young was almost entirely the folk music of the Canadian prairies: jigs, reels, schottisches with the occasional polka. This music derives from the largely English, Scots and Irish settlers (the polka from the Ukrainian immigrants to the Canadian prairies). My mother was a Canadian folk musician, a fiddler who played by ear and did not read music. The first time I saw someone read music (a schoolteacher and pianist) it fascinated me. When I was fourteen we moved to Vancouver Island (Courtenay, still 260 kilometres from the US) which brought me in contact with a lot more music. This included not only the latest pop and rock via Vancouver radio stations, but also classical music due to a local festival. I vaguely recall hearing a performance of the Penderecki Threnody one summer.

When I was fifteen I began playing the electric bass and acoustic six string. Soon after I took up the six-string electric. I owned a lovely old Gibson from 1953. But it wasn't long before I discovered classical in a really serious way. A friend played me a recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and I was hooked. From then I listened intently and passionately to Bach, Beethoven, Dvorak, Debussy, Schubert and others. This set me on my path. I enrolled in the School of Music at the University of Victoria for two years of an undergraduate degree. By this time I was a committed classical guitarist and I realized that this school could not offer me what I needed: a real master to take private lessons with. I was taking lessons privately at this point with the best teacher I could find which meant commuting to Vancouver every week. He told me to study with his teacher in Spain, which I did, Maestro José Tomás in Alicante. I did that for a year and when I came back I was a real, honest to goodness classical guitarist. I'm going to stop the autobiography right here.

So, can you see the problem? What is my musical identity? It says on my passport that I am a Canadian (and a subject of Queen Elizabeth II, but that's a whole 'nother topic), but in what sense am I a Canadian musician?

I rejected, in succession, the folk music of Canada as transmitted to me through my mother, the rock and pop music of Canada, the US and Great Britain, and the avant-garde and contemporary music I encountered composed by professors and students at the University of Victoria and McGill University. What did I seek out instead? The music of the great European masters: Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy. In practical terms I sought out a Spanish guitar master and became a concert guitarist playing largely Bach and the music of Spain and Latin America. Sure, I performed and taught in Canada, but it is hard to see how I am a specifically Canadian musician.

Perhaps as a composer? When I was a young pop musician I wrote a lot of songs. These were not rock songs and the inspiration was probably Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen with a touch of B. B. King. Somewhere there is a reel-to-reel tape of a few of these songs that I multi-tracked around 1970 just as I was about to leave the pop world. Are those Canadian songs? If I can run down a copy, I will listen and see what they tell me.

After I became a classical musician, I would write the occasional piece, usually because of musicians I was working with. There were pieces for solo guitar, two guitars and harpsichord, large guitar ensemble, flute and guitar and so on. Now here we might be getting into some actual Canadian music. The inspiration for a lot of these pieces was Canadian landscapes, mostly Vancouver Island. Some titles include "Unbounded Vision in Blue and Purple" for flute and guitar or "Long Lines of Winter Light" for large guitar ensemble. But wait, the way I saw that Canadian landscape tended to be influenced by ukiyo-e, the Japanese woodcut landscapes that I was very into at the time:

And those pieces I wrote to play with other musicians I was working with? One was for a flute player who was from Long Island, NY and another was for a guitarist from Manchester and a harpsichordist from New Jersey. Another was for a guitarist I played duos with from Santiago, Chile. Living in Canada, of course, but still...

So you see, apart from a few Canadian influences such as Leonard Cohen and Glenn Gould, it is hard to find much Canadian music that I didn't actually reject! What I sought out was the great music of the Western European traditions.

Sure, I'm Canadian. But like many Canadians, I find the musical culture of Canada to be a bit undeveloped and narrow.

I think the best envoi for this post is the first of my own performances I put up on the blog. This is Carora, vals venezolano, a lovely piece by the Venezuelan guitarist Antonio Lauro. I can't embed it as I am not at my home computer, so you have to follow the link:


David said...

Bryan, thanks for this thoughtful post. My biography has me being born in Cold Lake AB, only 800 kilometers from the US border. I have no musical skill that has been discovered to date, although it is a desire of mine to learn to play the piano in retirement. I do share your appreciation for and love of the classical music that emanated from 16th to 19th century Europe.

Your discussion raises the question of whether there is a discernible national character or identity to art music. I think you have talked about this before. What would Canadian music sound like? How do you translate maple syrup, polar bears, endless winters, glorious mountains, deep cold lakes, flat prairies, abandoned rail lines, too much geography and too few people, poutine, tarte aux sucre, Waterloo county summer sausage and hockey into music (tonal or atonal)?

I tend to think of music less in terms of its national connotations and schools and more in nation-less aesthetic terms: good? or bad? (to my ear). Yes, I will concede, there is a pretty easily heard "Russian-ness" to Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, a "Finnish-ness" to Sibelius, a "Spanish-ness" to the composers of Iberia, but isn't it fair to say that this music has survived and has universal appeal because of its quality, not its nationality.

In terms of "classical" art music, I am not sure that Canadian composers are really any worse than American composers (who can just add the sound of the banjo or lopping donkey to call attention to the American-ness of their product). Canadian composers just have the disadvantage of having a home population only 10% of the size of their American cousins.

So, I think there is a problem when Canada boosters try to elevate the local product to the levels of the truly great stuff of the Old World. It just doesn't measure up. Thankfully, with the modern ability to hear great music from around the globe we don't have to settle for hearing only second best.

Bryan Townsend said...

David, you cover a lot of ground in this comment. There are some nations with strong musical traditions, which I take to mean that there is both a distinctive character to the music and a high level of quality. Italy is one of these, of course and we have a very good sense of what characterises Italian music. There is Austrian music as well. And the interesting thing is that nation that lies in between Austria and Italy, Switzerland, has shockingly little musical tradition. In the Western Hemisphere, Brazil, Argentina and Cuba all have strong and distinctive musical traditions while Chile, Bolivia and Mexico do not. In North America, the US has, by dint of considerable effort, created a distinctive musical tradition, but Canada has not. I don't think we can blame the size of the population for this. Take Finland, for example. It is a musical superpower with a population a small fraction of Canada's.

We should look at England for an example. After the brilliant Renaissance composers and one brilliant Baroque one (Purcell), England became the Land Without Music for centuries until, around 1900, they seemed to wake up and became a musical nation again. There is hope for Canada. But we need a couple of really good composers. I think that the tendency in Canada is to lavishly fund mediocrity and brutally ignore anything really unusual and interesting.

Anonymous said...

I think we, in the English-speaking world, are a little too desperate to claim excellence in everything. But the truth of the matter is that native English speakers have been conspicuously incapable of producing great classical music. Glass, Reich, Britten, even Purcell all produced first-rate music, but none of them belongs to any top 20 list of Greatest Composers. In fact, no native English speaker does. Given the size and cultural dominance of the English-speaking world, this is nothing short of astonishing. This cultural gap is most evident in music, but it's also quite visible in painting. Only Turner might make a top-20 list.

What is it about music and painting that seem to lie beyond our grasp? Whereas we've produced some of the finest poets, scientists, engineers, philosophers, etc.

Bryan Townsend said...

England has been called a "nation of shopkeepers" (was that by Napoleon?), but perhaps "business people, tradesmen, economists, scientists and philosophers" might be better. The British created the Industrial Revolution, parliamentary democracy, common law and a host of other practical things. Since the Renaissance they have not excelled at the arts the way the European continent has. I'm sure the reasons for that are complex enough for several volumes!

But let me make one claim: with only a few exceptions (Messiaen? Shostakovich?), the European continent has not produced great new composers recently. But I feel very strongly that Steve Reich, a hundred years from now, will indeed be in that top 20.